By Anna Roth
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It's no great secret that these are tough times in the restaurant business. I personally find it all a bit disheartening, since I never like to see any restaurant close (unless, of course, it's bad). On a brighter note, the soul of the city's dining scene -- neighborhood restaurants -- should weather the storm. Certainly, La Santaneca is doing well. I've walked in and found this homey Salvadoran joint nearly empty, only to look up from my plate a few minutes later and see couples, groups of friends, and families of 10, a lone waiter delivering food with the frantic urgency of a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.
In this case, the key to success may be the singular purposefulness of the operation. The food is heavy in every sense of the word -- calories, texture, and sheer weight. (The first time I hoisted a to-go box after dining at La Santaneca, I thought, "Man, I'll be eating well this week.") It was the perfect place to take my friends Laura, Rona, Stefanie, and Marie when they came to visit one weekend. Due to the high cost of cab fare, cover charges, and supplying me, their host, with a variety of fine spirits, they were faced with a terrible decision come Saturday -- eat dinner or spend another night on the town. No worries, I told them: We could explore the wonders of Salvadoran cuisine, my treat.
La Santaneca is a fun place to dine. Travel posters depict various Salvadoran scenes, images of birds and sweeping cliffs emblazon the walls, and a jukebox belts out tunes ranging from salsa and cumbia to the occasional late '70s disco classic. Heads turned as we strolled through the door: Either the largely Spanish-speaking clientele doesn't see a lot of gringos or they don't see a lot of gringos decked out in purple Pumas, sleeveless shirts, low-cut jeans, and belly chains (and if you think that's racy, you should have seen what my companions were wearing). The only bummer was that the strands of Christmas lights dangling from the ceiling have been turned off due to the power crisis. At our request, the waiter flipped them on for a moment, and the sight could make an environmentalist endorse nuclear power. The entire restaurant was bathed in a bright, angelic glow.
3781 Mission St.
San Francisco, CA 94110
Region: Mission/ Bernal Heights
Open daily from 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. (3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday)
Parking: moderately difficult
Muni: 14, 23, 49, 67
Noise level: moderate to loud
Beer is an ideal companion to Salvadoran food, but La Santaneca doesn't serve it. Instead try an alcohol-free beverage such as a tart, agua fresca-like tamarindo, or a piquant soursop-based guanabana. Horchata, a dark, earthy concoction with a strong cinnamon kick, wasn't bad, but we preferred the tiste, a milkshake of roasted corn and cacao beans that tastes remarkably like a mocha Frappuccino. Just as many Peruvian places serve Spanish dishes, La Santaneca offers an array of Mexican fare -- tacos, burritos, and enchiladas -- as well as a classic hamburger y papas. We tried one Mexican dish, the flautas, crisp, deep-fried corn tortillas filled with chicken, topped with sour cream, and served with rice and refried beans.
The flautas were fine, but we'd come for pupusas, the national dish of El Salvador. Pupusas are high-calorie pancakes -- thick, soft discs of griddle-cooked masa (corn dough) stuffed with a variety of fillings. They're un-apologetically greasy, righteously tasty little creatures that should be eaten the second they hit the table. (Once a pupusa cools, the fat coagulates, and it's but a shadow of its former self.) At La Santaneca, some pupusas ooze savory white cheese, like a quesadilla but 10 times more luscious and inviting. Others contain refried beans, which results in a somewhat dry cake, or delicious, tangy, shredded pork. My favorite is the combination with pork and cheese, which leaves a puddle of grease on your plate and makes you want to return the next night for more. The pupusas come with a thin, mild hot sauce and curtido (spicy pickled cabbage), which add up to a marvelous complexity. Cool greens play off warm masa and molten fillings, the whole underscored with rays of heat, acidity, and an intense, animal fat savor that the people of El Salvador would seem to know and love.
Beyond pupusas, La Santaneca offers a variety of choices, some better than others. Tamales steamed in a plastic wrap (as opposed to the traditional corn husk) are wretchedly soggy and should be avoided. The plato mixto -- dryish carne asada, butterflied prawns, french fries, and rice -- isn't bad, but should also be skipped. You'd do better to start with a side order (in name only) of plátanos y frijoles, a trio of sweet, foot-long plantains served with an ocean of refried beans and a scoop of sour cream. I never liked yuca until I tried La Santaneca's version, which is fried to a golden crispness and has an interior twice as fluffy and smooth as potato. The yuca comes with a side of chicharrón -- fried pork rinds, fat and all. They're intense little nuggets that taste like original-recipe KFC with the flavor knob cranked to 11.
Dinner plates are enormous. Mounds of yellow rice and refried beans occupy one side; an iceberg lettuce salad and a slab of beefsteak tomato anchor the other; and thick, cakey, pupusalike corn tortillas accompany every dish. The latter make a fabulous snack if you take them home and toss them in the microwave with a topping of cheese and pickled jalapeños. (On a side note, La Santaneca does a brisk to-go business, and those tortillas cost $2.50 for 10.)
In addition to your rice, beans, salad, tomato, and corn tortillas, you'll receive good, hearty fare like Salvadoran-style steak -- lean, flavorful beef topped with a delectable mélange of green bell peppers, onions, and tomatoes. Carne deshilachada -- shredded beef sautéed with egg, onions, and green peppers -- has a wonderful, springy texture. Pollo en crema is one of the most decadent dishes on Earth -- a half bird smothered with bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, and about a cup of tangy sour cream. The masterpiece is the chile relleno de carne, in which a moist, eggy batter gives way to a juicy filling of shredded pork. I'd had the chile relleno before and have had it since, but on that night I received little more than a bite after Laura tried it, got that glint in her eye, and attacked it with the ferocity of a lion pouncing on Bambi.
Unfortunately, we never did get in the groove with dessert. Moist, grainy, sugar-dusted empanadas come stuffed with refried beans -- by then we'd had enough beans -- or a creamy, slightly better plantain/milk purée. Chilate arrived as a bowl of plantains and airy dough puffs bathed in a sweet, horchata-tasting syrup, accompanied by a mug of warm, nutmeg-spiked rice drink whose predominant flavor, bitterness, seemed ill-suited to the end of a meal. Perhaps these dishes are acquired tastes, or maybe we'd already eaten too much. In any case, my next meal at La Santaneca will end with entrees. Or rather, it will end the following day, when I pull a to-go box out of the fridge, feel the gravity, and realize that La Santaneca keeps on giving.