Tequila sunset: Cava22 is the Mission's answer to Tres Agaves
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If, like me, you occasionally succumb to the temptation to judge a restaurant by its name, you might suppose that Cava22 is some kind of champagne bar ... all right, a cava bar, cava being the word the Spanish came up with to describe their méthode champenoisestyle sparkling wines. And you wouldn't be completely wrong; the place, opened last winter by the Valle brothers (Ramón and Samuel) and Roger Magaña in a cavernous Mission District setting that had previously been the home of Bahia Restaurant, does offer a token selection of sparkling wines, including a rather wonderful espumosa de muscatel from Reymos ($7 a glass): a bit on the fruity-sweet side, but not cloying.
But despite the name, the big deal at Cava22, booze-wise, isn't the selection of cavas and other sparkling wines. The big deal is tequila, of which several dozen varieties from the different age groups (blanco, reposado, añejo) are offered to purists and aficionados by the (shot) glass, mostly for less than $10 each. At least in this sense, then, Cava22 is the Mission's answer to Tres Agaves in ballpark yuppieland. And since non-aficionados can be found all over town even writing pieces like this one the drinks menu also includes an array of margaritas and infused tequilas, along with a smattering of concoctions made with other liquors. Or you can simply turn the sheet over to find a nice selection of beer and wine. Many of the wines are from Spain and Argentina, several are available by the glass, and all are reasonably priced.
If I'm making Cava22 sound like a gigantic bar, this is because in many respects it is. Certainly it's gigantic, a box with a high ceiling supported by a line of wooden pillars marching down the middle of the room. And certainly there's a bar, lit by a line of bordello-red ceiling lanterns and complete with a television mounted over the door so bar patrons can watch fútbol matches on Telemundo. But there's also chef Roman Beltran's food; it's good food, a sort of Spanish-Mexican amalgam, and fairly priced. That, plus the drink, plus the large number of tables, means that Cava22 is a good place to know about if you're flying out the door by the seat of your pants, hoping to indulge one of the great pleasures available to the urban diner: that of just drifting along with friends until a suitable place presents itself, complete with an available table.
The guacamole ($5.50) disappointed me, I must say, notwithstanding the generous allotment of deeply crisped tortilla chips. It was too oniony. (I have been making guacamole often in recent weeks, and my version includes, in addition to avocados, just some minced garlic, a pinch of cayenne, a squeeze of lime juice, a pinch of salt, and some chopped cilantro. No party-crashing by onions!) On the other hand, we loved and devoured a plate of roasted garlic cloves and fig compote ($6.50) a clever variation on the classic Spanish quince paste known as membrillo suitable for spreading over grilled bread spears with some cambozola cheese. The cloves themselves looked a little drab, like old rubber fittings the plumber might be replacing, but roasting gave them a mellow sweetness and an almost buttery spreadability. Cambozola cheese, incidentally, isn't as fancy as it sounds; it's an industrial German product, with a manufactured name meant to make us think of two of its more storied relations, camembert and gorgonzola. Still, it's tasty enough and a good value. It's also vegetarian-friendly, as are the empanadas ($6), a pair of corn-dough canapés filled with squash and peppers and napped with a sharp-edged tomato sauce.
But this is not a vegetarian restaurant. Meat is the motif among the main courses, although there is a paella on offer along with a sizable list of seafood dishes. Typical of the meat possibilities is the Argentine milanesa ($11): thin slices of beefsteak that are breaded, fried, and served with beans and rice. The name refers to Milan, of course, Argentina having substantial Italian ancestry. In a small irony, the Italians themselves call breaded, fried filets (usually of fish or veal) "all'inglese" "in the English fashion." So, fingers pointing in every direction here. Cava22's milanesa steaks are profoundly breaded and fried indeed; by the time they reach the table, they're nearly geological in their earthy crispness and twisted shapes.
Camarones à la diabla ($12), also known as prawns in spicy sauce, is one of those preparations you see on menus all over the place. Here the shrimp are peeled, which is certainly a blessing for the person eating them, and the tomatoey-looking "devil" sauce packs a real wallop. I can't recall having a more boldly chilefied sauce in any restaurant, and I liked it. Seafood dishes include a choice of sides beans, rice, roasted potatoes, a few others and these are on the good side of ordinary.
Service is knowledgeable and efficient, although the dining room is so big that sitting at one of the window tables is like being near the end of a bus line: it takes some chugging to move things from kitchen to table and back again, and you can see your server coming from quite a distance. Luckily the table linens are well-starched and the street spectacle is unending: a human parade dressed every which way and heading in every direction, with many posses making stops at Papa Toby's Revolution Café across the street, possibly to make inquiry as to the whereabouts of an interesting new tequila bar and restaurant they'd heard about.
Dinner: Sun.Thurs., 510 p.m.; Fri.Sat., 511 p.m.
3239 22nd St., SF