Mission: Possible

Panchita's #2
3091 16th St. (at Valencia), 431-4232 (other branches at 3216 17th St. at South Van Ness, 431-8852; 3115 22nd St. at South Van Ness, 821-6660). Open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. No reservations taken or needed, no credit cards accepted. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Parking: OK weeknights, tight on weekend evenings; city garage at 16th & Hoff. Muni via the 22 Fillmore and 26 Valencia, plus all Mission Street buses stop a block away.

We weren't thinking of Panchita's when we arrived at a more fashionable Valencia Street restaurant on a Saturday night. But our reservations had vanished -- as I had struggled vainly to hear and be heard over throbbing belly dance music, my call must have landed us under a wrong name, night, or week. We backed out, bewildered, past the line of waiting patrons, wondering what to do. Then one of my compatriots remembered some satisfying Salvadoran meals he'd eaten just a block away. En route we took in the yuppie throngs awaiting entry to the Slanted Door, and the even hungrier squatters at the unslanted doors from there to the corner. As we crossed the street, an impatient new Lexus seized its God-given right-on-red, crawling forward to nearly nudge my hip; I paused in place to mouth, "Go ahead, I need the money." On 16th Street we trailed a couple of tow-haired scarecrows, their unshod feet swathed in multiple socks, limping toward the Decaux stalls to shoot more abscesses into their soles. A knockout platinum blonde (she's a he) strode briskly toward Esta Noche, while two shiny-tressed suburban girls strolled with a man, taking a walk on the wild side.

Though the scene was strange, we feared no evil, for S.F.'s finest were highly visible among us, whereas we seemed invisible -- especially since our car's too funky to draw thieves or revolutionary vandals. Still, at Panchita's we were glad to step out of Night-town and into the old, familiar, un-"scene" Mission District -- a plain, bright, spacious, cheaply carpeted room with a gentle white and pastel color scheme, the walls hung with travel posters and folk art paintings of Salvadoran village scenes. A large jukebox played bouncy tropical novelty songs to several Latino families finishing their dinners; my shoulder muscles relaxed. As the crowd gradually shifted to male pairs and trios coming in for beers, snacks, and conversation, the music switched to Norteno, rollicking Tex-Mex border music with tight male harmonies over intricate accordion riffs.

Salvadorans and Nicaraguans traditionally outnumber Mexican-born residents in the neighborhood, and many of the Mission's "Mexican" restaurants are actually owned and/or staffed by Central Americans. If we'd been in doubt, one taste of the table salsa -- soupy, dark red, with just a whisper of hot pepper -- indicated that the kitchen staff is indeed Salvadoran. Traveling south through Mexico, the food gets spicier and spicier; once, eating an incendiary chicken stew in Chiapas, I had wondered whether the chile-quotient wasn't approaching some limit, like the speed of light, that humankind could not exceed.

The limit turns out to be cultural rather than physical: The zone of serious hot pepper ends abruptly at Guatemala City, where mestizos replace Mayans as a majority. Along the Pan Am Highway from there to northern Peru, the food's mainly mild, with a little bottle or bowl on every table furnishing fire to those who want it. The fare is usually simpler, as well: In the spheres of the fabulous Amerindian empires that fatally attracted Spain's greed, the aristocracy (whether Aztec, Toltec, Maya, Inca, or Spanish) demanded intricately seasoned treats for their tables. But in the agricultural hinterlands to which Spain sent only its second-rate hidalgos, the people mainly ate what they'd raised or caught for themselves.

Required to regularly endure the products of chic local chefs devising strange uses for exotic condiments, I've come to find the straightforward comforts of Central American cocina tipica newly appealing. Panchita's lengthy menu offers dishes from both El Salvador and Mexico, including nine Salvadoran appetizers (not counting six varieties of pupusas), 13 Salvadoran entree platters, and an equal array of the standard Mexican entrees. National origin aside, your options include seven variations on beefsteak, nine seafood platters, and seven substantial soups. If you come to Panchita's with a hangover (or you just love tripe) you can choose between menudo (hominy soup with tripe) and mondongo (tripe soup without hominy). We ordered mainly from the Salvadoran menu sections -- if we'd wanted Mexican taqueria fare we'd have gone to El Toro, La Cumbre, or Pancho Villa, all within a block.

The kitchen was busy and our food came slowly at first: After 10 minutes, we received a bowl of atol de elote ($3), a thick, smooth soup based on strained corn and milk with a spark of cinnamon. Nothing could be more soothing or warming on a dank night. Then everything else arrived, dish after dish in rapid succession. Cornmeal remains a staple as far south as Costa Rica (where, presto-changeo, it turns into a mere ingredient) and pupusas are El Salvador's national dish, plump pan-fried pillows of tortilla dough enclosing various fillings. Pupusas revueltas ($1.25, minimum of two) were stuffed with a classic, though dryish, mixture of pork, cheese, and beans.

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