South of the (Mexican) Border

San Miguel Restaurant
3520 20th St. (at Mission), 826-0173. Open Thursday through Tuesday 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., or until all signed-in waiting customers have eaten. (The restaurant will be closed for vacation June 8-12.) No wheelchair access to restrooms. No credit cards, no reservations; expect to wait for a table on a Friday or Saturday night. Parking: street parking fairly easy weeknights, impossible weekends; city garage on 21st and Bartlett. Muni: all Mission Street lines, 26 Valencia. Sound level: lively but painless even when busy.

In the high country of Guatemala, the pastures glow fluorescent green from their nearness to the sun. So glows San Miguel, a small family-run restaurant named for the owner's home village near Lake Atitlan, cultural hub of the descendants of the Mayas. Chosen by a colleague as SF Weekly's 1998 Best Central American Restaurant, San Miguel is located on a funky Mission side street opposite a lowlife doughnut shop -- but as soon as you step inside past a pillar of tropical greenery, you feel you've entered a warmer, brighter world.

Gourds and straw ornaments dangle from a corrugated tin ceiling, hand-loomed cottons cover the chairs, and a riot of posters, photos, masks, figurines, maps, and fabrics adorns the natural-wood walls and the room's several philodendron jungles. From the herbage nearest our table, a scruffy stuffed squirrel eyed our food; the aromas coming from the kitchen are savory enough to nearly bring even taxidermied creatures back to life. Cheerful music of several Latin genres plays continuously but comfortably, and the waitresses speak in the soft high voices of Chapina mountain women.

The food is as exuberantly authentic as the atmosphere, with specialties from all parts of Guatemala. (If your hometown favorite isn't on the menu, the restaurant will cook it by request.) We first visited on a Sunday so we could sample two special main course mountain soups available nowhere else in town, served weekends only. The more exotic of these is caldo de pata ($8), a cows' foot soup available Saturday through Monday nights. Whole scallions, green beans, carrot sticks, and chunks of chayote float around several large, meaty bones; the gelatin from the hoof gives the broth weight and lushness, but a good sharp shot of lemon juice lightens the soup, while a strong dose of cilantro flavors it. It's as perfect a potion for a foggy San Francisco evening as for a cold night in Quetzaltenango.

"K-Ai-K" ($8), pronounced Cack-ik, a specialty of the hill town of Coban, and available Saturdays and Sundays only, is a rich, clear turkey stock, brick-hued from a dusting of chile pasilla, surrounding a huge hunk of turkey. Boasting a nip of lemon juice, along with a spinachlike forest of whole cilantro stalks, it left us radiant with warmth and pleasure. Following the custom, K-Ai-K comes with golden rice, the palm-sized soft corn tortillas favored from Yucatan on south, and a small, interesting tamale ($4 a la carte) made of firm masa (cornmeal dough) seasoned with the rare herb chipilin. (Growing only in Chiapas and northwestern Guatemala and sold frozen locally, it's a mild-flavored cousin of the ornamental shrub known as crotalaria.)

While we waited for the soups, the hospitable owner, who goes by his surname, Gomez, and looks a little like Ruben Blades, interrupted his family dinner at a table near the kitchen to bring us complimentary palate-cleansers of watermelon and cantaloupe slices and a ramekin of tangy salsa permeated by the blasting power of the habanero chile, hottest of the hot. For a genuine Mayan adventure, try lightly dipping a melon slice into this salsita. In typical south-of-Mexico style, Guatemalan food is rarely cooked very spicy -- you just stir in the table sauce to taste.

Tamales have been a dietary mainstay for the Mayas since the days of their empire, and San Miguel offers several distinctive styles of the dish. I was thoroughly taken with tamales de carne de pollo ($3), first on the a la carte list. Wrapped in a banana leaf, a thick layer of jiggly, tender masa surrounds a flavorful filling of chopped olives, prunes, red peppers, and flaked chicken. The tamale comes with a soft white-flour roll shaped like a torpedo, which you can use to turn the works into a luscious sandwich. Chuchitos ($4), more conventional tamales from the San Pedro area, have smooth, firm masa cooked in a corn husk that's peeled off before serving, and are filled with pork or flaky chicken and daubed with an assertive red sauce. All tamales come with mild Mexican-style sour cream and suave pureed black beans flavored with a whisper of onion.

When we returned the next week, Gomez greeted us like old friends. That night we sampled appetizers from the list of boquitas (little mouthfuls). A uniquely creamy guacamole ($3) comes with the small, freshly fried tortillas. Chilitos rellenos ($4) are small green bell peppers stuffed with a robust mixture of diced beef and potatoes and glazed with tomato sauce. Ensalada Chapina ($4) features large slices of avocado and cucumber over mixed greens with a light, well-balanced lemon dressing. A couple of refreshing appetizer tostadas ($5 each) let you sample miniportions of main courses: Tostadas de ceviche are a quartet of fried minitortillas topped with chopped salad and very citric small shrimp "cooked" by long immersion in lemon juice. Tostadas de salpicon mingle salad with diced beef that's enjoyed a very Mayan marinade of sour orange, lemon, onion, and fresh mint.

San Miguel offers several seafood entrees, including two featuring tenderly treated giant prawns ($10 each), but mojarra frita ($9.45) is the only fish, a deep-fried whole tilapia. (It's known worldwide as "U.N.-fish," because wherever U.N. aides go, they introduce tilapia, and no matter how muddy or polluted the local waters, the fish thrive.) Here, a reasonably sized farm-raised fish is slashed so it will cook evenly, emerging crisp-crusted and moist. It's served with lemon slices coated with minced cilantro -- a squeeze brings the taste alive.

Pollo en mole ($7.45) features tender chicken blanketed in an unconventional mole sauce, smooth and subtle with forward notes of cinnamon and sesame seeds and just a hint of hot pepper. Hilachas ($8) is a home-cookin' kind of stew with shredded beef and vegetables, including chayote, in a "special red sauce" -- a smooth gravy of meat broth and tomato. Apparently thickened purely by reduction, not with flour or cornstarch, it's rich and comforting but not heavy. Like all regular entrees, these dishes come with yellow rice, black bean puree, a piece of decent corn on the cob, and a side dish of beets and sweet onion in yet another creamy sauce. "You don't even like beets!" my companion protested as both our forks hovered over the last of them.

"I like these," I answered, beating him to the last bite. From the a la carte menu, we enjoyed a carne adobado ($9), pork marinated for at least a day in a savory, spicy, citric rub, then fast-grilled. The explosive flavor isn't "spicy," but deeply spiced.

Don't bother with the nameless wines -- this food calls for beer or fruit drinks. There's a choice of three Guatemalan beers of near-identical flavor (Monte Carlo, Cabro, and Famosa, all tasting like Amstel Lite). A wonderful house-made horchata ($1.75), spiked with cinnamon and not too thick, is similar to iced chai. "Tropical" ($3) is a tall smoothie of banana, melons, and strawberries. You can also opt for tropical fruit milkshakes ($2). If the beverages don't satisfy your sweet tooth, an interesting dessert list ($2-3.25) mirrors those of countries farther south, with brunchlike hearty delicacies including bananas with mole, two versions of bananas and black beans, cornstarch pudding, a corn quesadilla, and a sweet corn soup.

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