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Spanish food may have struggled for recognition in this country and will almost certainly never be as well loved as its near relation, Italian cooking, but in the last decade or so the Iberian peninsula has given us at least one big present: the tapa. Tapas, the little plates that could, are so big now that they're often not even remotely Spanish: we find Cuban and nuevo Latino and even American versions, while small plates from other cultures end up being called "tapas" for convenience's sake. People might not know about, and might be chary of ordering, a meze platter, but if you call it Turkish or Greek tapas, they're in.
At Esperpento, which turns 15 this year (the name means "absurdity"), the tapas are still tapas, still Spanish the kinds of things you'd have with a beer or a glass of verdujo or rioja in the middle evening at some restaurant near the Plaza Mayor in Madrid. The venue itself, with its forest of support columns and cheerful, well-scuffed yellowness, looks like such a place and offers us a reminder that restaurant interiors evolve or accrete meaning through use and are not necessarily complete when created, no matter how elaborately and expensively they are designed. But what most amazes about Esperpento is the paella, which is actually better than good quite near excellent, in fact. While I cling to my view that the best paella is likely to be made by a home cook, I can no longer say that restaurants can't pull it off. Esperpento can and does, though, as with soufflés, you are given notice that there will be a 30-minute wait.
If you have to wait a spell for your main dish, what better way to pass the time than by noshing on tapas in a house of tapas? Esperpento's selection is huge, turn-around time is short, and a surprising number of the small plates are vegetarian friendly. You could easily order up a meatless feast here without disappointing meat eaters in the slightest. Especially fabulous are the alcachofas a la plancha ($5.50), disks of thinly sliced artichokes grilled with a simple combination of garlic and parsley. And not far behind are the patatas ali-oli ($4.50), crispy-tender new-potato quarters generously spattered with garlic mayonnaise. If you like your potatoes a little less free-form, you might prefer the tortilla de patata ($6), which the menu describes as an "omelet" of potatoes and onion but is really more like a cross between a quiche and a tart and is far tastier (and substantial: the pie yields six decent-size slices) than its modest list of ingredients might imply.
As in Italian cooking, simple preparations yield potent results. Mushrooms sautéed with garlic ($5.25) were as meaty and fragrant as chunks of kebab. A salad of roasted julienne red pepper ($5.50) dressed with a house vinaigrette was gorgeous, even though the peppers were just the ordinary kind rather than the fancier (and slightly hotter) sort from Navarre. Boquerones ($5), Spain's famous white anchovies, were dipped in batter and flash-fried, so they resembled french fries, while calamares a la plancha ($6.50) took a turn on the grill quick enough to keep them tender. One plancha-style dish did disappoint: clams ($6.25), which were not bad, just pallid despite garlic, parsley, and olive oil. And a salad of white beans ($4.75) could have used a boost of something.
A common booster in Spanish cooking is pimentón ahumado, or smoked paprika. This is the spice that gives Spanish chorizo its distinctive flavor, and it turned up big in the sauce of the rabbit stew ($6.75), a quasi-signature dish. The meat itself, still on the bone, was fine if not remarkable, but we carefully sopped up all of the sauce with rounds of white bread from the continually replenished basket.
The paella de carnes y mariscos ($26 for two, but plenty for four if sufficiently preceded by tapas) arrived in due course and was inspected. We noted the traditional two-handled pan, the wealth of meat, mussels, prawns, and green peas, and the bright yellowness of the rice an indication that there has been no stinting on the saffron. The grains of rice were plump and glistening, a sign that they had just been cooked straight through rather than parboiled, left to wait, then finished in haste.
Best of all was the caramelized crust that had developed at the bottom of the rice layer. One of the big differences between risotto and paella is that the former is stirred more or less constantly, with a creamy result, while the latter is stirred hardly at all. The result of this stasis is the crust, which is something of a delicacy, though scraping it off and folding it into the rest of the dish can be an indelicate operation.
Paella is one of life's more festive dishes, and Esperpento, despite its advanced age, has to be one of the more festive restaurants in the not-exactly-somnolent Mission: large parties wait at the door, tables are pushed together, cheerful voices are raised, plates laden with tapas fly from the kitchen (to return a few minutes later, stripped clean), service staff move nimbly among the tables like performers in some high-wire circus act. It is chaos, yes, but functional chaos, absurd as that might sound. *
Lunch: Mon.Fri., 11 a.m.3 p.m. Dinner: Mon.Fri., 510 p.m. Continuous service: Sat.Sun., noon10 p.m.
3295 22nd St., SF
Beer and wine