In a Sweat for Green Chile

While Leticia's pulls in a margarita-swigging crowd, it's Pozole that fills the bill for regional Mexican specialties

Nobody can deny that San Francisco has lots of great taquer’as: funky Mission-style (Taquer’a San Jose is my all-time favorite) or more upscale (Andale on Chestnut or Pepito's Parrilla in South Park). But when it comes to regular old non-taquer’a Mexican restaurants, the city is pretty lame -- astonishing considering the number of people of Mexican descent here.

So when my friend David told me about Leticia's, I got all excited. "How's the green chile?" I asked, drifting into a reverie of my years in Denver, where I had six or seven excellent choices for my weekly fix. As I revved up to grill him about the tamales and chile rellenos, he interrupted: "I didn't say the food was great. We go there for margaritas."

Oh. Actually, a margarita with some chips and salsa sounded pretty fine in the middle of one of the summer's heat waves. And it would be a good excuse for checking out Pozole, a place a couple of doors up Market that I'd never gotten around to visiting but I'd heard had decent Mexican food.

We walk into Leticia's early one Sunday evening to find a rollicking full bar and almost every table occupied by smooching boys, the majority of them drinking margaritas, a strawberry daiquiri or two breaking up the uniformity. A cavernous place with Roman-looking columns (Guadalagreco?), Leticia's is owned by the same folks who have the Line-up in SOMA and La Posada on Fillmore.

We dig immediately into the chips and salsa sitting on the table. Chips: OK. Salsa (green and promising-looking): lowest common denominator, the chile tame enough for (non-Mexican) Grandma. Even though we're not here to eat, we can't resist an order of fried jalape–os, mostly because the menu description says "stuffed, battered, and fried" -- our daily requirement of no-nos, all in one dish.

The margaritas ($5.50) arrive in frosty goblets. Refreshing, but light on the tequila. The fried jalape–os ooze cheddar where jack should be. The batter is undistinguished. The accompanying red salsa is worse than the green, watery and weak. We're not sorry to move on for dinner.

oRULEo
Pozole is wildly kitschy, filled with folk art, and anything but subtle: Day of the Dead skeletons; poetic tombstones; Jesus prayer candles; shocking-pink, purple, and cobalt-blue accents everywhere. One taste of the smoky chipotle/mango salsa (which, unfortunately, is served in a tiny paper cup) and we know we're not in your standard Mexican joint. It's different, but I'm longing for some chunky, fiery salsa cruda, full of chopped tomatoes and onions and cilantro and chiles. (If you don't want to make it at home, Salsa DeLuna, carried by many local markets, satisfies this craving.)

A whole side of the menu features low-fat dishes (a burrito Californiano with cactus, pasilla peppers, tomatoes, and roasted garlic in a green sauce, $5.95; or pollo sin grasa, boneless chicken simmered in a beef broth with tomatoes, red onions, and Mexican herbs, $6.95); I'm sorry to say we're not interested. Grams of fat aren't foremost in my mind when I'm out for Mexican.

But the burrito Maya ($5.95) is a dish I'd happily order again: pork loin sauteed with a sauce of smoked sweet chile, cinnamon, roasted tomato, orange, and tequila, wrapped with Mayan rice in a flour tortilla. The citrus flavor and cinnamon add an unusual zest to the tender cubes of pork.

Tamal de Salvador ($5.95) is another winner, the lightest tamale I've ever stuck a fork into, with chicken and olives in a light tomato-garlic lime sauce. Pollo con mole ($6.95) -- boneless chicken cooked in a citrusy smoked-chile/dried-apricot sauce with chocolate and cinnamon -- is fruity, dusky, and also a come-back-and-eat-it-again dish.

A quesadilla Baja ($5.95) -- Mexican cheeses, roasted red peppers, and mushrooms grilled in a flour tortilla -- is simple and satisfying.

The servers at Pozole all wear skimpy white undershirts, which show off their fabulous bodies. (If they eat this food, it must be healthy.) Service is lightning fast. Be advised that Pozole does not accept credit cards.

While it's not the Mexican food of my past, Pozole's fare has both style and substance. The combination of flavors draws on regional Mexican specialties and expands the familiar Mexican restaurant menu. That said, I'm still looking for a great bowl of green chile and some rellenos. Any ideas?

Leticia's, 2247 Market, S.F., 621-0441. Sun-Thurs, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Fri & Sat 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

Pozole, 2337 Market, S.F., 626-2666. Mon-Thurs, 4-11 p.m.; Fri-Sun, noon-midnight.

 
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