"The cuisine of the Americas" served with style on Valencia Street
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It's hard to imagine a restaurant actually failing on Valencia Street, but from time to time one does notice a casualty. The west side of the block between 22nd and 23rd streets, in particular, has turned out to be something of a killing field lately. The long-running Saigon Saigon folded two years ago, leaving a memorial I hope not permanent of boarded-up windows. Next door is a sliver of a space, once home to the amazing Gravity Spot, that has had multiple occupants since the mid-1990s. At the moment it appears to be a nascent wraps shop.
Then there is the larger, and quite handsome, setting at 1152 Valencia. Around the turn of the millennium it opened as Watergate and featured a façade of tall casement windows and enough woodwork inside to do justice to a London gentlemen's club. Later occupants included Watercress and Senses, each coming and going with a bit more alacrity than its predecessor, in the manner of some of the later Roman emperors.
Now we have Janitzi, which opened Labor Day weekend, serving "the cuisine of the Americas." The space remains as appealing (to me, at least) as ever, although the woodwork inside has given way to a paint job of vibrant lime green (along with ochre-colored floors that combine concrete and wood planks), while the unmissable facade, with its pilasters, has been painted sky blue with canary-yellow trim, just to make sure no one can possibly miss it.
Serving a pan-American cuisine is such a self-evidently good idea it's a wonder we don't have many such places but at least we have this one. Janitzi's direct culinary ancestor would probably be Yunza, which offered a similar menu along lower Fillmore but did not long survive an obscure and slightly seedy midblock setting. Janitzi has a large advantage here, despite the spotty history of the address.
And what is the nature of the menu? Janitzi's Americas of "cuisine of the Americas" begins at the Rio Grande, apparently, and reaches south to Cape Horn. It includes favorites from Mexico (queso fundido), Peru (ceviche), Brazil (yucca fries), Venezuela (arepas), and Argentina (milanesa). And after being cooked up in the large exhibition kitchen at the rear of the dining room, it's served in various portion sizes, at reasonable prices, on stylish modern tableware, spare white but with sexy undulations.
An unexpected theme of unification is french bread, the first rounds of which arrive at your table, accompanied by a marvelous salsa of avocado pureed with garlic, cilantro, and lime juice, soon after you've been seated. Another cycle turns up with the queso fundido ($9), which is less about queso than a heart-stopping wealth of Mexican-style chorizo. Usually you scoop queso fundido with tortilla chips or ladle it into warm tortillas; the bread rounds were adequate here, though not ideal.
Also in a Mexican vein were a pair of pasilla peppers ($9), charred, peeled, stuffed with shredded chicken and queso blanco, then bathed in a mild, creamy tomato sauce. The peppers had just enough bite to assert themselves through the sauce, and yet more bread rounds were on hand for mop-up duty.
A salad of shrimp and avocado ($14) left us underwhelmed, particularly considering the price. True, there were six or eight shrimp of decent size, peeled and tasty, and the avocado was artfully arranged in thin slices around the edge of the dish, like markers on a sundial. But most of the salad consisted of chopped romaine lettuce, which was about as interesting to look at as it was to eat, and that was not very, despite a heavy shower of toasted squash seeds added for texture and flavor and a potent-sounding vinaigrette of cilantro and jalapeño.
If the shrimp salad was overpriced, the rack of lamb ($20) made up for it. The ribs had been expertly frenched and arranged in the middle of the plate, like the frame of a wigwam. Elsewhere were pats of thyme butter and miniature logs of (mysteriously raw) baby carrot. Our only complaint was that the meat was slightly overcooked; there was just the faintest hint of pink inside. Juice flowed liberally, however, and the flavors were rich and full.
It was hard to tell if the Tarasco cakes ($12) patties of seasoned, shredded beef leavened with oatmeal (or, the hamburger as experienced by the Tarasco Indians of Mexico's central plateau) were juicy or not. They didn't need to be, since they were bathed in the same creamy tomato requesón sauce that coated the pasilla peppers. But even without that sauce, they would have been flavorful.
So-called protein dishes (the various meats, the seafood) include your choice of two sides, and these are among the most satisfying items on the menu. Corn, of course, which is native to the Yucatán peninsula, figures prominently in them. It doesn't get much simpler than corn grilled on the cob, and if the corn is height-of-the-season white corn, it doesn't need much tweaking beyond a hint of sweet butter.
Arepas, corn pancakes common in Venezuela and Colombia, were unadorned but creamy inside a nicely blistered crust. Yucca fries could have been crisper but still offered their distinctive sweet savoriness. Braised cabbage turned out to be a close relation of coleslaw, with shreds of red and green cabbage brightened with lime juice.
And, for dessert, a hint of the north: the vanilla dome ($6), vanilla ice cream encased in a shell of dark chocolate, with a heart of caramel. It's like a big Dilly bar that slipped off its stick the Dilly bar being, for some of us, one of childhood's most memorable bits of (norte) Americana.
Daily, 10 a.m.10 p.m.
1152 Valencia, SF
Beer and wine pending