Ruddy cheer, massive beers: drinking or not, Los Yaquis has solid, home-cooked Salvadoran food
DINE Los Yaquis is easy to find: It's just steps from los Audis, those gleaming iron horses sitting in their well-lighted lots at the corner of 14th and South Van Ness streets, waiting for people with sacksful of cash to come along and buy them. Window-shopping for cars that cost $40,000 used — and up, plus tax — does make one hungry and slightly value sensitive. In this sense, Los Yaquis couldn't be better-situated. The restaurant serves quite a few Salvadoran dishes (it was a Salvadoran spot before changing hands two years ago), but its name refers (paradoxically, I thought) to an ancient Indian tribe of the Sonora desert in northern Mexico. The owners, the brothers Sammy and Chava Aguirre, are from Jalisco, in southwest Mexico, and the restaurant's name turns out to be a family reference to their father.
As a reminder that this part of the city has not always been absolutely fabulous, the windows are lined with iron bars, which give a certain jailhouse cast if you happen to glance toward the street. I haven't seen fortifications of this sort since I was last at Pauline's Pizza, a few blocks west on 14th. But that was years ago, along a Valencia Street that has ceased to exist several times over. These days Valencia seems increasingly done over with plate glass. I wonder if this trend will migrate east.
Inside, the ruddy good cheer of a beer hall obtains. And speaking of that: the restaurant offers Corona beer brewed in and imported from Mexico, which is different from the brewed-under-license stuff you typically find around here. The bottle is of brown glass, opaque and etched, and is available in a near-liter size ($12) that looks like a piece of ordnance ready to be loaded into the magazine of a warship. Beer is not usually presented in shareable form, but in this case, sharing should be given careful consideration — if you actually reached bottom, you would want to hand off the Audi keys to someone else.
In homey little spots, one looks for the unusual amid a raft of familiar faces. I had never before come across loroco, for instance, an edible flower that figures in Salvadoran cooking. When I think of edible flowers, I think first of nasturtiums, which are really more edible colors than flavors, or of perfumy lavender. Loroco resembles neither of these; even worked into an expansive pupusa ($2) with cheese, it revealed a peppery, slightly acidic bite. It also wasn't much to look at — a muddy green, like okra. The spinach-filled pupusa ($2) also had a theme of green, but it was a more luxurious, creamy, liquid sort. And for no green at all, how about good old beans and cheese ($2)? The pupusas are made from white masa and are about as big around as a hamburger bun. Two or three would make a real meal.
The kitchen is also proud of its fried tacos ($7), which come bundled in groups of five, like a litter of puppies. They're filled with shredded beef, topped with shredded green cabbage, sour cream, and your choice of delicacies, among them head cheese, pig skin, pig's ears, cactus, and carrot. Quail's eggs were an elegant thumbnail size, and a kind of ivory white stippled with blue; they looked like bits that had dropped from an example of gorgonzola statuary. To me they tasted like hard-boiled eggs, with the advantage that, because they were bite-sized, they were gone quickly. It was like doing egg shots. A couple of the other finishers, white cheese and avocado, were testament to the limits of adventurousness, but there is a reason these foods are perennially popular.
One of the most striking dishes on the menu is the fish soup ($12.95). Fish definitely means fish in this instance; we turned up a dorsal fin and a tail, each still sheathed in glossy black skin, along with several steaks — i.e. pieces of the creature cut crosswise. There was, thankfully, no head. The flesh had the look and texture of halibut, but the skin was wrong. According to our voluble server, it was catfish, which in my experience tends to turn up as filets, like its farmed river-fish relation, tilapia.
The broth was intense (and housemade), and floating in it, amid the dramatic piscine debris, were bits of tomato and carrot and, for extra color, shreds of spinach. The soup was presented with fresh-made tortillas, still warm in their little plastic flying saucer. Of course they were sublime, but also useless with respect to soup. We dunked, with unimpressive results. A bowl of rice — Spanish rice, plain rice — would have had a better sop factor. As for the tortillas: they would have been better with butter. What isn't?
Mon.–Thurs., 9 a.m.–8 p.m.; Fri., 8 a.m.–9 p.m.;
Sat.–Sun., 7 a.m.–9 p.m.
324 South Van Ness, SF
Beer and wine