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Taking the Cure 

Los Jarritos

Wednesday, Jan 3 2001
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"I was looking at life through the mists of a hangover," Raymond Chandler's private eye Philip Marlowe says midway through The Long Goodbye. "It was the kind of morning that seems to go on forever. I was flat and tired and dull and the passing minutes seemed to fall into a void, with a soft whirring sound, like spent rockets. Birds chirped in the shrubbery outside and the cars went up and down Laurel Canyon Boulevard endlessly. Usually I don't even hear them. But I was brooding and irritable and mean and oversensitive."

Many of us have been in Marlowe's pajamas at one time or another, particularly on New Year's Day, when the revels of greeting a brand-new year are a dim and nauseating memory. Although hangover-as-lifestyle is best avoided, there are those occasional mornings when even the best of us pay for the sin of imbibing too fervently the night before. The reason we pay, medically speaking, is that the consumption of alcohol causes dehydration, resulting in turn in a myriad of physical unpleasantries.

According to the experts and (ahem) researchers in the field, dehydration-fighting fluids are the No. 1 hangover curative, especially if you're cognizant enough to consume them as a preventive measure before bedtime. But water alone won't save you from the ravages of a hangover. For eons humankind has searched for that magical combination of elements that will end the headache and other symptoms in one tidy package. Folk remedies abound. In Chinatown several herb shops advertise "Curing Pills" for hangovers; I am told they are foolproof by friends better able than I to navigate both herb shops and mornings after. I seldom conclude a night of San Francisco barhopping without visiting the fabled Sam Wo at Grant and Washington, thoughtfully open until 3 in the morning, where you can order several varieties of rice gruel, the classic pre-slumber hangover remedy. But perhaps the widest (and tastiest) array of counteractives is proffered by our tequila-savvy compadres to the south. Los Jarritos, an all-day Mission District restaurant at 20th and South Van Ness, serves up several such curatives.

Mexican food has all the attributes of a morning-after cure-all. There are all those masa-based carbs to absorb rampant inner toxins. There are tomatoes and avocados and peppers aplenty, important edibles after a night of boisterous malnutrition. Corn and beans offer lots of protein- rich, rib-sticking comfort. And if you're a hair-of-the-dog aficionado, don't forget that margaritas offer salubrious lime juice as well as that water-loving rim of kosher salt.

One hallowed gustatory remedy that exemplifies the Mexican approach to the hangover is chilaquiles, a dish of day-old tortillas fried with eggs, onions, cheese, and salsa. Ignore your better instincts and dig into a platter. Chilaquiles are available day and night at Los Jarritos, a cheerful place with a sympathetic attitude toward post-inebriant suffering. It's a warm and welcoming setting in vivid shades of turquoise, lavender, and lemon, the colors obliquely reminding you that another day has dawned with all of its spectral brilliance intact. Peppers both real and ceramic hang from the walls and ceiling alongside heads of garlic, colorful piñatas, serapes, sombreros, and folded-paper globes in red, white, and green. A candlelit altar is surrounded by beautiful earthen pottery of every size and shape, while Frida Kahlo and other Hispanic luminaries peer from a gallery of framed photographs nearby. Huge windows look out on the passing parade of 20th Street. The jukebox offers up Enrique Iglesias, Selena, and Los Tiranos del Norte -- for those times when a mariachi band isn't serenading the customers. The little clay cups that give the restaurant its name hang everywhere, in strings above the seven-stool bar and the poppy-red Formica tables.

But aside from the chilaquiles and other revivifiers like menudo, posole, and huevos rancheros, much of the food is run-of-the-mill. Lard is a signature constant, and though it's an authentic treat for the taste buds, it's lethargy-inducing nonetheless. Lard's good side is represented in the tortilla chips that arrive at your table when you sit down -- they're crisp, irresistible, and richly flavored in a way that store-bought chips never are, and they complement a tart and pungent salsa with plenty of deep-down character. You can also order a bowl of fresh, verdant guacamole as an accompaniment, though it could stand a squirt of lime juice or two.

One stellar menu item is the trout soup, a tasty kettle of fish with the attributes of a good cioppino. A whole trout, cut up, is cooked to the moist and flaky stage, then served in a tomato broth fragrant with carrots, onions, and celery, with the head, tail, and bones adding plenty of rich flavor (although the eyeballs can be a bit disconcerting). Another good seafood dish is the camarones al mojo de ajo, a dozen plump, juicy prawns served in a bowl of garlicky melted butter: It's not exactly health food, but it's damnably good. Chicharrones are decadent and dreamy -- fatty chunks of pork skin sautéed until hot and creamy and served in an equally rich, pepper-enhanced red salsa. But the Nena's Salad has little verdancy or flavor despite the presence of cactus and avocado chunks; both ingredients are fairly tasteless, and the deep-fried tortilla on which the salad is served seems burdensome rather than crisp. (The freshly made corn tortillas that come with it are unequivocally delightful, however.) The Quesadilla Arturo is another culinary nonentity: In fact, the cactus, jalapeños, onions, and melted Jack that fill it just seem to lie there. Finally, the house mole bears few of the rich complexities of Mexico's national dish. It's too sweet, too watery, and barely redolent of any of the half-dozen varieties of pepper that make this dish so estimable.

Los Jarritos offers no desserts, but it does serve mugs of wonderful Mexican hot chocolate that remind me of my first forays into the Mission when I was a kid enamored of pan dulce and its ideal accompaniment -- this piping-hot creamy brew of milk, cinnamon, and frothy melted chocolate. Another tasty drink option is the tamarind peñafiel; a bit too sweet at first encounter, its distinctive tropical flavor eventually seduces you into polishing off a tall, frosty glass of the stuff. The menu offers 18 beers in bottles, nine of them Mexican. With those and the tortillas and a nice big bowl of trout soup, you just might make it through the New Year.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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