Outsized taco cart by day, high-energy urban cantina in the evening: Tropisueno is a Mexican dream
Tropisueño's resonant name hints at dreams, but you won't be doing any dreaming there. In the evenings the restaurant it's a kind of urban cantina catches fire like a piece of newsprint and blazes up into a fabulous, if noisy, party. (For purposes of this piece, I assume the existence of a world in which there is still such a thing as newsprint.) If the need to lose consciousness somehow overtakes you, getting blitzed isn't a problem, since, in line with the current trend, the bar is seemingly omnipresent, and the restaurant offers various deals on cocktails. But even if you end up having to pay for your food or libations or both, you won't hear the sound of the bank breaking; Tropisueño stresses value and offers it, especially considering the posh location.
That location is on Yerba Buena Lane, a brief pedestrian promenade that runs between Market and Mission streets and grazes the new Jewish Museum, just north of Fourth Street. In the past few years, this area has become as chockablock with shoppers as Union Square. They dart from Nordstrom to Bloomingdale's to Hickey Freeman to St. John, and while no one's buying much of anything these days, darters and window-shoppers do work up appetites. Add the museum-goers and the Yerba Buena Center-goers, and you have quite a stew. Stir briefly and serve.
On the spectrum of urban cantina styles, Tropisueño falls somewhere in the neighborhood of Chevy's and Tres Agaves. It isn't as vast as the latter, but it does claim a regional Mexican identity (as a Jaliscan beachside seafood joint, hence the "tropi-"). It's also replete with rustic wood finishings, including those wonderful chairs that are Mexico's answer to the Mediterranean's ubiquitous taverna chairs. When you are inside, a certain illusion of Mexicanness does pleasantly flicker, like a tabletop candle. But if you look outside, through plate-glass windows framed with brushed stainless steel, you are back in the cold, hard city. A similar jarringness haunts Roy's, just a few blocks up Mission: If you hold your gaze inside, you sense a faintly but agreeably Hawaiian aura, but if you look out, you see Muni trolleys plowing through seas of windswept trash.
Tropisueño also borrows from the grander Maya by functioning as a kind of giant street cart during lunchtime. On the menu: tacos, burritos, et cetera. Of course, some of these foodstuffs are of enduring appeal and do carry over into the dinner hour, when the restaurant assumes its restauranty guise, but the offerings broaden considerably beyond what even the most ambitious street-cart cook might attempt.
First, though, you have to take care not to stuff yourself with the bottomless basket of fresh, warm tortilla chips that reach your table soon after you do. Whatever quibbles one might have about Chevy's, there's no denying the excellence of their chips, and Tropisueño's are every bit as good. You can dunk them in either of two salsas, one of avocado and tomatillo, the other tomato-based with plenty of smoke and spice.
Given the wealth of fried corn meal in our basket, I was secretly dismayed by the pair of tortilla disks that accompanied the ceviche de pescado ($7). The intention, apparently, is that you will break off chunks of the disks and spoon the ceviche onto them a kind of DIY Mexican crostini. But we ended up dispensing with the disks (which were less delicate than their chip cousins in the basket) and eating the ceviche with spoons. The ceviche itself was wonderful: tiny boulders of plump, white fish (I would have guessed cod, but it was tilapia), puckered by plenty of lime juice and intricately punctuated with cucumber and onion dice, minced cilantro, and dabs of avocado.
We could have performed the same sort of triage, or diage, on the empanadas ($8), a merry little band of pastry turnovers stuffed with mushrooms and cheese, but this would have involved actual deconstruction a kind of meatless butchery rather than simply a refusal to construct. Plus, the pastry was outstanding and addictive.
The main courses range widely, from a vegetarian pozole the traditional hominy stew, not traditionally vegetarian to albóndigas, a.k.a. meatballs. But the house favorites are all from the sea and include the spirited camarones tropisueños ($16), good-sized, chubby, wild-caught shrimp sautéed and sauced with a purée of chile de arbol (a fairly mild red variety), lime juice, cilantro, and a little Mexican crema for softening. Throw in a sizable berm of Spanish rice, a pot of black beans, and a little steamer of fresh flour tortillas and you're looking at .... well, fullness.
People who love to gorge themselves on chips and salsa while retaining a sense that dinner itself remains to be eaten will be relieved to learn that the menu also offers "old-school" combo plates of trusty favorites, such as chicken tacos ($9.95 for two), stuffed with shredded green cabbage, queso blanco, and cubes of boneless grilled breast. The tacos are quite tasty, with or without an extra dollop of salsa smuggled in from the chips basket. They're double-wrapped in corn tortillas, which are soft though not as soft as their flour cousins, and this doubling up makes them both starchier and more rubbery. The ideal tortilla is soft enough to form a pliant pouch around its contents. These are not that soft, so ten cuidado or you will be the author of a mess.
Dinner: nightly, 5:3010:30 p.m.
Lunch: daily, 11 a.m.4 p.m.
75 Yerba Buena Lane, SF