A handsome interior, Moroccan-influenced menu -- and hearty favorites like beef stew
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If you squint hard, on a night of driving rain, and you earlier washed your contact lenses down the sink by accident, leaving yourself legally blind you might just catch a hint of a glimpse of a shadow of the Castro Street that figures so prominently in the movie Milk. Today's Castro Street, like its 1970s antecedent, is dominated by the Castro Theater's gigantic sign (a colorful spectacle even to the grievously nearsighted), and it's still just a few blocks long, a brief run from Market Street to 19th Street. In college, driven by stomach-churning curiosity, we navigated this little stretch one night and wondered what all the fuss was about. This was it? Yes, it was and still is.
Oscar Wilde is said to have said that anyone who disappeared would sooner or later be seen in San Francisco. He might have had a vision of Elvis, or perhaps a premonition about Castro Street, which remains a semi-mythical and yet quite real Main Street for gay America and maybe the world. Sitting in a window seat at Café Mystique recently (on an evening of no rain and with contact lenses securely in place), I noticed several familiar faces from epochs past, not seen by me for years but still quite recognizable, like a parade of Fezziwigs from my own private version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. In between these sightings, with the huge "Castro" sign glowing like a beacon across the street, we discussed Milk, a movie full of saintly intentions and virtually barren of actual characters except the tortured Dan White and the gently droll Scott Smith (Harvey Milk's onetime lover), as played by James Franco.
Franco is tasty, with mystique: if he were a café, would he be Café Mystique? The food is tasty at Cafe Mystique, which until recently was a joint called Welcome Home. If Harvey Milk might have felt vaguely at home at Welcome Home, he would almost certainly be astonished by Café Mystique, which on the one hand is still a recognizably gay restaurant from the old school and on the other is dramatically good-looking and serves a Moroccan-inflected menu that would have seemed noteworthy anywhere in the city as recently as a decade ago.
First, the good looks: they're neither North African nor Castro-homey but faintly central European, like a Vienna hotel or a Bavarian hunting lodge. The long north wall is clad in impressive wood wainscoting, punctuated by pillars topped with sconce lamps, for a street-light effect, while the paint scheme, of butter washed with caramel, enhances the sense of woodsy warmth.
As for the Moroccan touches, they're all over the dinner menu (there are breakfast and lunch menus too), from the flatbread triangles accompanying a warm fava bean dip ($6) like a slightly soupy hummus to the mint in a cup of excellent, if under-seasoned, split green pea soup ($2). (Just add salt and voilà!) There are hints of influence from elsewhere around the Mediterranean as well; a bowl of cucumber sticks bathed in yogurt and boldly charged with lemon and garlic ($4) could easily pass for the Greek condiment tzatziki (itself an obvious relative of the Indian condiment raita).
None of these flourishes seems at all pretentious, since the cooking on the whole remains earthy and friendly. You can get a grilled cheese sandwich ($9), for instance, and it comes with really good fries, and if the cheese happens to be halumi wrapped in lavash, well ... that just adds to the mystique. Halumi is a not-soft white cheese typically made from a blend of goat and sheep's milk and is most closely associated with Cyprus; its firmness means that it resists melting under heat, retaining its shape and solid texture even while taking on a smokiness.
Grilling cubes of meat on skewers is common practice around the Mediterranean and elsewhere and at Café Mystique the mixed grill ($15) includes chicken and beef. Beef takes easily to the simplest preparations, such as grilling, while chicken typically needs some TLC to show at its best, so if I'd been asked to bet beforehand on which of these two contestants would command the plate, I would have chosen the beef. But the beef turned out to be rather tough, gray, and flavorless, while the chicken (boneless breast meat) was perfectly cooked, tender and juicy, with a nice dusting of spice. This uneven confederacy of flesh rested on a bed of couscous (which in its white coarseness resembled corn snow), and its chunks were interspersed with examples of grilled vegetables, among them onions, plum tomatoes, zucchini coins, and strips of red and green bell pepper. The bits of green and red on a carpet of white reminded me of Christmas trees and mistletoe wreaths left at snowy curbs in the Januaries of my youth.
Wilde might or might not have anticipated Elvis, but could he possibly have anticipated the Elvis crepe ($8), a gigantic dessert of bananas, vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, nuts, and melted Nutella sauce, all piled, ladled, and scattered atop an actual crepe? Plowing through this mass of sugary calories was a little like eating a banana split that had been neglected for an hour or so on the hottest day of summer. And a cautionary note on Nutella, the wondrous Italian spread of chocolate and hazelnut that appeared from the ashen privations of World War II: it used to consist largely of hydrogenated vegetable oil, i.e. trans fat, which, as we now know, is a no-no. I stopped buying it even when it was on sale. Have they changed the formula? Reading ingredient labels now involves considerable squinting.
Daily, 8 a.m.11 p.m.
464 Castro, SF
Beer and wine