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If San Francisco were Europe, Divisadero Street would be the Rhine: the heavily traveled commercial artery that crosses a jigsaw puzzle of (sometimes) quarrelsome fiefs, duchies, and principalities on its way north or south. In this paradigm I make the stretch of Divis from California to Geary, more or less, to be our Alsace-Lorraine, the six-of-one, half-dozen-of-the-other province long the subject of a tug-of-war between greater powers. The contenders across the pond were (and maybe are) Germany and France; over here they are Pacific Heights, land of the rich blond hets, and a confederation of the Lower Haight, NoPa, and parts of the Western Addition — in other words, hipster lands.
Naturally I am not suggesting that Pacific Heights is our Germany; not at all. For some years, the most conspicuous outpost of Marina culture on the nether side of Pacific Heights has been Frankie's Bohemian Café, a lively simulacrum of some Prague haunt filled with riotous American frat boys who take their Pilsner Urquell by the pitcher. But in recent months there has been southward creep and the establishment of a new outpost: Tortilla Heights, a Mexican restaurant for gringos that opened earlier this spring in the strange space that used to belong to Minerva.
The space is strange — to me — because I can't quite decide if it more nearly resembles a sound stage or a gymnasium in a public school. If the latter, then the decor is now in the prom-night vein, with some kind of cantina theme: brightly colored lights hanging from the ceiling, booths along the wall sheltered by thatched faux-roofs, and salsa music. The design touches are enough to let you know you are in some kind of Mexican restaurant, but they also have an improvised, portable quality that doesn't suggest permanence.
And yet ... on a recent Saturday night, we found the place pretty well jammed, and it was early. And while the crowd had its share of blonds and fratty types, it also included an elderly couple with their walkers, along with several sets of young mothers whose small children clung to the legs of mommy's jeans or were stowed under mommy's arms; it was like a social version of Noah's ark. There is a chance that this eclectic group was drawn by the restaurant's witty name — which reminds us, simultaneously, of Tortilla Flats and Pacific Heights — but it is more likely they came for the food, which is surprisingly good. While the menu is very much in the American comfort zone, it includes a variety of regional Mexican dishes, and the kitchen's preparations are careful and emphasize freshness.
The Yucatecan-style citrus marinade in the grilled citrus chicken burrito ($6.50), for example, is noticeable as both a hint of sweet-sourness in and a tenderizing influence on the poultry flesh. It's a small detail, but good cooking is nothing but small details. Another such detail is the roasted garlic cream that adds a grace note of luxurious richness to the otherwise virtuous plate of Cabo-style fish tacos ($11), a troika of warm white-corn tortillas stuffed with grilled white fish and shredded cabbage.
A larger detail is that the bigger plates do not come larded with huge scoops of rice and beans — starch that most of us really don't need, especially if we have stuffed ourselves with complimentary chips and salsa while waiting for the show to begin. (Tortilla Heights, not surprisingly, is swift and generous in replenishing the chips bowl; the salsa was pleasantly fiery on one visit, undersalted on another.) Big blobs of beans and rice do have a way of furnishing a platter, but when they aren't there, it's easier to see the dish you actually ordered: an Oaxacan tostada ($11), say, with a heap of wonderfully tender carnitas (along with cilantro-lime cabbage and shavings of parmesan cheese) atop a pair of crisped corn tortillas. Or the blue-corn enchiladas ($12) filled with grilled chicken and topped with melted white cheese and a tart tomatillo salsa.
My friend the cheddarhead, a reliable lover of all things cheesy, did not like the queso chorizo ($5), a small tub of melted mixed cheeses laced with chunks of chili sausage and strips of green chile. The cheese did have a certain Velveeta quality, but it was just the right consistency for dipping surplus chips into. The guacamole ($5), meanwhile, was mainstream but beautifully made, with fresh avocados still chunky from not being overmashed and a good jolt of lime juice for mood lighting. The cheddarhead lodged no complaints.
The contemplation of desserts in Mexican restaurants is usually a perfunctory business. You have flan, and maybe something else. At Tortilla Heights, the dessert menu is characteristically brief, but it does contain one extraordinary item: the churros ($4), a half dozen or so ridged torpedoes of cinnamon-dusted, deep-fried pastry, about the size of medium zucchini, with a ramekin of caramel sauce for dipping them in. The sauce is good, but if it weren't there you probably wouldn't miss it, because the churros are sufficient unto themselves: a divine combination of crunchy and tender, sweet but not too sweet, an exotic whisper of cinnamon, and — yes — the fattiness that makes pastry, pastry, particularly if deep-fried. You might well feel uneasy, maybe even guilty, about enjoying them so much, but don't worry — you had the fish tacos and didn't like the queso, so you'll be OK. SFBG
Continuous service: Tues.–Sun., 11–2 a.m.
1750 Divisadero, SF