Though its name recalls a region of Spain, the commanding corner restaurant's menu of small plates is surprisingly and delightfully global
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Before small plates go the way of the brontosaurus and the leisure suit, I thought I should look in on Andalu, which has held down the corner of 16th and Guerrero streets now for the better part of a decade and was one of the progenitors of our much-discussed "global tapas" trend. The restaurant replaced a slightly dodgy taqueria called Maya back in the halcyon dot-com days this would be two busts ago and, with its neighbor, Tokyo Go Go, helped bring a luster of money and youth to a neighborhood that was a little lacking in luster of any kind. (Tokyo Go Go's older sibling, Ace Wasabi's Rock'n' Roll Sushi, né Flying Kamikazes, is in the Marina District, to give you some idea of the social flavoring. I wouldn't say the immediate area is Marina South, but I wouldn't say it isn't, either.)
From the beginning, Andalu has enjoyed at least one large basic asset a surprisingly brick-and-mortar one, considering the restaurant's birth in the age of Internet pixie dust: it isn't just located at the corner of 16th and Guerrero, it's right at the corner. It commands the corner, and it's a busy corner. You can't miss the place, with its distinctive green sign a big green A with a swoosh, like something from The Jetsons aglow in the twilight. The restaurant is, in effect, its own billboard.
The name, meanwhile, reminds us of Andalucia, that sunny province in the south of Spain, and the reminder subtly helps set us up for small plates. These will turn out to be wildly variegated, borrowing influences from around the world, but the menu does open in distinctively Iberian style, with several sherries and ports, along with a plate of seriously spicy Andalucian-style green and black olives ($3.25). The olives are marinated with fennel, lemon, chili peppers, and garlic and it's the last two you notice, since they appear whole, as pod and (peeled) clove.
But after this brief bow to the old country, the world is suddenly our oyster. Unlike nearby Ramblas, which does hew to a certain Spanish authenticity, Andalu's kitchen turns out versions of items as diverse as miso-glazed sea bass and spare ribs braised in Coke. (The menu doesn't offer oysters, incidentally; those inclined to shellfish will have to make do with mussels.)
Since I am perpetually curious about macaroni and cheese ($7.50), I was interested to see what freshening could be given to this most American of dishes. Typical restaurant fancifications involve the use of chic cheese Gruyère is a frequent choice but Andalu's menu card described the mac and cheese as "crispy." What could this mean? A particularly heavy fall of buttered bread crumbs over the top a kind of super-gratin? Whatever I was expecting, I wasn't expecting what came: wedges of what must have been a kind of mac-and-cheese pie, breaded and flash-fried. The wedges themselves reminded me of slices of Brie or a runny triple-cream cheese within an edible rind. The wedges' rigidity made them suitable for dipping in a stainless-steel ramekin like a giant's thimble of herbed tomato vinaigrette.
Fish tacos ($10 for four small ones) a SoCal favorite were dolled up here with grilled ahi, but mostly they tasted of the mango salsa ladled over their tops. In other words, sweet. Better balanced was a hailbut paillard ($9.50), a thin disk of tissue dressed with a tasty mix of cilantro, ginger, soy, and hot grapeseed oil. The fish was like cooked carpaccio, with the flaw being that it had been cooked right onto the plate, so that eating it was like tearing up a sub-floor.
Who can resist Moroccan lamb cigars ($7.25)? Not me. Flutes of pastry filled with seasoned minced lamb and deep-fried to golden crispiness should have been spectacular worthy members of the egg roll-flauta family instead of just very good. The lamb seemed under-seasoned (rather odd, since Morocco is one of the lands of spice), and the accompanying yogurt-mint sauce offered only partial restitution. I had a similar reaction to the sliders ($9.50), a trio of miniature hamburgers on buns slathered with basil aioli and presented with a bird's nest of battered, deep-fried shallot rings.
The rings were a lovely, more delicate version of onion rings, but the little burgers were overcooked and served on disappointingly thick, not-warm buns. They might have been better, ironically, if they'd been made with the lamb that went into the cigars.
One of the best dishes on the menu is bread salad ($9.25) what the Italians call panzanella, cubes of stale (or, in this case, grilled) bread tossed with cut tomatoes and basil. Here the herb was arugula a sly innovation with the traditional basil being supplied through a vinaigrette. Toasted pine nuts probably aren't unheard of in Italian bread salads, but I've never seen a recipe that called for blobs of burrata, a mozzarella-like cow's-milk cheese produced in southern Italy. The cheese brought visual interest it looked like patches of snow receding from a late-winter landscape dotted with hints of spring and a suggestion of softening creaminess to the plate's various sharpnesses.
Dessert at the end of a repast consisting of macaroni and cheese and hamburgers with onion rings would have to be something like brownies. Andalu's version ($5) is pretty satisfying: a plateful of moist, cake-like squares, ankle-deep in warm chocolate sauce, dusted with confectioner's sugar and each topped with a raspberry, like a ruby in a voluptuous display at a jeweler's. Or, perhaps, a rose clutched in the hand of an unfortunate fellow clad in a chocolate-brown leisure suit with a red carnation, circa 1975: a Paleolithic era in the annals of style, and Andalu still ages off.
Dinner: Sun.Tues., 5:309:30 p.m.; Wed.Thurs., 5:3010:30 p.m.; Fri.Sat., 5:3011:30 p.m.
Brunch: Sat.Sun., 10:30 a.m.2:30 p.m.
3198 16th St., SF
Can be noisy