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The popular imagination supposes that restaurant writers are Olympians, dispatching thunderbolt justice to places that scorch their garlic (a sin smellable from several blocks away) or fail to refill the water glasses, or whose restrooms are in a state of untidiness that would make the White Glove Lady shriek. But the real powers of restaurant writing, at least as I have understood it, are more subtle and have to do with bringing attention to worthy spots that might otherwise languish unnoticed. A kind word or two might help a small place breathe — or not. One hopes, but at the same time one develops a certain aversion to glancing in the rear-view mirror, there to see a restaurant one had liked and written about, sometimes just a few months earlier, with windows now newspapered over and one of those change-of-ownership placards taped to the door. It is a little bit like seeing balls of sagebrush tumble through a ghost town.
A slightly less chilling variant of this transformation is the restaurant that, in the wake of a favorable notice or two, changes its name but not much else. This is a mystery to me. If you got a good review and you change the name, people who come to you because of the review may well be confused and a little suspicious. If you acquire a well-reviewed restaurant, what do you gain by changing the name but not the essence of the place? Food writers might be likely to review anew if a barbecue spot becomes a temple of raw cuisine, but they will be considerably less inclined to do that if a Chinese-Vietnamese place becomes a straight Vietnamese restaurant or a pan-Mexican place a Yucatecan one.
My examples are neither random nor hypothetical: The Chinese-Vietnamese restaurant called Lucky Time that I wrote about just over a year ago (on March 9, 2005) did indeed become, in recent weeks, a Vietnamese restaurant called either Will's or Will's House, depending on whether you consult the menu card, the awning over the door, or the records of the county clerk; while the Noe Valley restaurant favorably reviewed in these pages as Mexico City (on Dec. 24, 2003) became a branch of Mi Lindo Yucatán the following July, after some ownership juggles. (I wrote about the original Mi Lindo Yucatán, on Valencia near 15th Street, in March 2004.)
Last things first. I have eaten at Mexico City/Mi Lindo Yucatán a number of times before and after the change of name and slant and am not sure I notice much difference other than that a hand-lettered sign proclaiming "the art of Mayan cuisine" now dangles over the sidewalk. Inside, the look is still Daliesque, with bright blues and reds, rectangular panels slanting away from the walls near the ceiling, and paintings (presumably in the style of the Maya) on the walls. The salsa is still smoky and excellent; the chips crisp, well salted, and reliably replenished. I was surprised to find less turkey on the menu than at the Valencia Street location, for the turkey (despite its associations in American consciousness with the Pilgrims and all-American Thanksgiving bloatoramas) is native to the Yucatán and has long been central to Mayan cooking. (There is an excellent discussion of all this in Jared Diamond's recent book Collapse.)
The nightly specials menu did offer a pair of turkey tamales ($11.95), served like an open-faced sandwich on a square mat of corn husk and dressed with a slightly sweet tomato salsa. The turkey itself was a little tough, like the Thanksgiving leftovers that get made into sandwiches, but our expectations for turkey are fairly modest in this country, so it didn't matter much. Otherwise, the food was what we think of as Mexican: a wonderfully smoky tortilla soup ($3.25), a fish taco made with grilled (rather than batter-fried) catfish ($5.50) — healthier, no doubt, but lacking the sinful rush of crunchiness — and a quesadilla mar y tierra ($10.95), with shrimp and strips of grilled steak whose tenderness amounted to a polite rebuke of the turkey.
A neighbor recommended Will's House to me.
"It's right on 14th at Market," she said.
So it is. So was Lucky Time, which served an agreeable hodgepodge of Chinese and Vietnamese dishes in the very same space from the fall of 2004 until late this winter. One of Lucky Time's owners was Billy Deng; the proprietor of Will's House is named Will ... something. I called, wondering if Billy had become Will. At first I was told by an employee that Will's surname was Lee, then someone else got on the line to say the surname was uncertain. So, a mystery wrapped in a muddle.
The food, on the other hand, is a simpler matter. It is now "authentic Vietnamese," according to the menu card, with pho, lemongrass, Saigon salads, lotus root, and vegetarian options well represented. There is one of the better Vietnamese sandwiches in town ($5), with a choice of lemongrass chicken, grilled beef, or pork on a first-rate baguette and rounds of fresh jalapeño pepper for some real flaminess. Grilled five-spice chicken over rice ($8) has the butter-tender quality of confit, while grilled barbecue lemongrass pork rolls ($6.50) sound more heart-unfriendly than they turn out to be, with lean meat wrapped with fine noodles in uncooked rice paper.
Design-wise, not much has changed. The restaurant's interior is still cool and softly lit, and the ribbon of mirror still encircles the dining room. Plus ça morph ... SFBG
MI LINDO YUCAT