By Mollie McWilliams
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1 Holland (at Howard, between Fourth and Fifth streets), 543-8226. Open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, with drinks and snacks served until 2 a.m. Credit cards accepted. Pay parking. Served by the 12, 14, 30, and 45 buses and (two blocks away) the Powell Muni and BART station. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible from the 325 Minna Street back entrance.
The eve of Cinco de Mayo, we perched on butt-numbing wooden stools in the Cadillac Bar, observing the rites of young Americans at play. TJ nursed a Corona, I sipped a great mutant Margarita called "The Prickly Pear," so vibrant with its dash of pink cactus fruit that all other Margaritas are now demoted to mere Maggies and Peggys. Dipping perfectly fried, near-flavorless calamari into Heinz cocktail sauce, and flavorless corn chips into gorgeous guacamole, we tried to eavesdrop through the din on the Hispanic working men to TJ's right and the makeup-caked, scar-faced trio of gringa Working Girls to my left, who were chug-a-lugging Megs and Pegs during a breather from their labors.
The Cadillac's walls are plastered with bumper stickers from Hussong's, the Baja cantina that's served as the south-of-the-border Party Headquarters to generations of equally plastered college boys: Down in Ensenada you don't need no stinking papers to blot up the beer. Up in San Francisco, you and your car and the Cadillac Bar do need various papers, but the Cadillac is a deliberate, street-legal imitation Hussong's, only with fresher paint and more gringas. The decor is loud, the music louder, until all the tunes blend into one. Two hours of the sonic booming convinced me that the notion of "nations" must be crumbling since, from Cozumel to Caracas, the Caribbean shakes its booty to a single carnival beat. Only when you catch a snatch of Spanish lyrics can you identify the music as Mexican rock rather than, say, Trini road-march.
Adding to the racket are the seismic slams of tequila poppers and the spasmodic eruptions of perpetual birthday parties. Thursdays through Saturdays a mariachi band salutes these natal events with "Happy Birthday to You" every five minutes, which is why we chose a Sunday. Many patrons arrive in groups (often of a single gender) and leave with the ones they came in with. Judging by appearances, ages run the gamut from 22 to 29. The ethnic spread, however, covers the waterfront. A slight preponderance of Latinos reassured me that if I've got a liking for the Cadillac's kitchen, maybe I'm not really crazy with the heat.
When the Cadillac first opened (in the '70s) and hadn't yet found its current formula, most local Mexican restaurants had cloned menus centered on six species of stuffed tortillas. I'd been knocking around Mexico a lot and welcomed an eatery with a wider range, even at a higher price. Then as now, the kitchen tended toward upscale, low-spiced Mexi-gourmet cuisine, food you'd find in the Zona Rosa or Acapulco rather than Guadalajara or Guaymas, but the flavors were basically authentic. Better yet, it offered a reasonable facsimile of the downscale, irresistible cabrito al pastor (mesquite-grilled kid) of Sonora and the Tex-Mex border country. All too soon, though, the Cadillac consecrated itself as a cathedral of cacophony. I was the right age but the wrong temperament, and I gave up the goat.
I'd stayed away for more than a decade and TJ's last visit was six years ago, but in April we both caught a horrible flu. After 12 days of eggdrop soup and Jell-O, when hunger finally struck again, we craved flavor even more than quantity. Still too stupefied to cook and too weak to eat out, we grabbed the Waiters on Wheels catalog, and, upon spotting the Cadillac's menu, realized we could recheck its cooking while avoiding its clamor.
This first meal reminded me of why I missed the place, but also revealed the Cadillac has taken a wrong turn. On a slow Tuesday, its kitchen wasn't overtaxed so the meal was carefully prepared. We received the house's cooked salsa in two "heats" (mild and medium) as well as fresh pico de gallo, a bright, mildish "salsita" with juicy, ripe diced tomatoes and ample cilantro. The latter, and a side of chunky guacamole ($2.25 small, $6.25 large) were perfect, classic renditions. The tortilla chips, though, were nasty nouvelle nonsense, colored red, white, and blue, and undersalted drab.
The appetizer menu mixes Mexican standards with an anthology of obsolete gringo food-fads. The combination plate ($9.50) included coconut-battered shrimp with a fruity dipping sauce, a passe craze that's still passing fun. Despite a good spicy dip, sesame chicken strips were forgettable, but a trio of incendiary stuffed jalapenos certainly weren't -- their alluring creamy filling kept us nibbling and suffering, nibbling and suffering. An excellent empanada with a thin, crisp pastry case enclosed a zesty filling ("the chef's choice of the day") based on hand-chopped beef. The chile con queso (with semihot roasted chiles and honest Mexican white cheese) was luscious enough to make the pathetic corn chips taste good. A "Mexican salad" ($5.25) had spring greens, avocado, pico de gallo, and "roasted habanero creamy dressing." The addictive ranch-style dressing tasted habanero-free -- but never mind, we didn't really want a spicy salad.
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