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Up in the towering reaches of the Andes, in present-day Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru, the descendants of the Incas still indulge in an age-old celebration known as a pachamama. A great pit is dug into the earth, lined with stones, and packed with burning kindling. Once the fire burns down and the stones are glowing with heat, the ashes are removed, the stones are draped with greens, grasses, and aromatic herbs, and the pit is filled with casseroles, tamales, freshly slaughtered game, potatoes, corn in the husk, and perhaps even a chicken or pig. A layer of greenery across the top, another of hot stones, and a final covering of earth, and the food is left to its own devices for several hours while the ancient hypnotic music of the Andes encourages dancing, drinking, and gustatory anticipation. At the proper moment the pit is opened, a great cloud of aromatic steam arises from the earth oven -- the pachamama -- and the feasting and the music continue into the night.
San Francisco, CA 94133
Region: North Beach/ Chinatown
Papas a la Huancaino $6.50
Picante de pollo $11
Papas relleno $10
Sangria $5/glass, $18/liter
Dinner served Wednesday through Sunday from 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Sunday brunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Parking: implausible; garage across the street
Muni: 15, 30, 45
Noise level: gregarious
It was the day after the summer solstice, the beginning of year 5510 by the Andean calendar, and a splendid North Beach evening to boot, the perfect time to visit Peña PachaMama, a Bolivian restaurant-nightspot where music and merriment are served up in the best Andean tradition. Peña PachaMama debuted three years ago, when the members of the Sukay folk ensemble decided to settle down after 24 years on the road and opened it as their home base. Before that it was the fabled Amelio's, a restaurant so lush and romantic that it hosted the wedding party of Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio as well as occasional canoodlings by Gable and Lombard. Today it's a handsome, colorful place with intricate symbols and icons etched along the ceiling; gilded, masked effigies guarding the entrance and the adjacent bar; two intimate upstairs rooms with fireplaces and views of Coit Tower; and a small stage beneath an arched proscenium where a variety of world music is performed throughout the week.
There's food to be had as well, but it's not central to the Peña PachaMama experience. The cooking of the Andes has hardly changed since the conquistadorescame along five centuries ago and added their dairy products and cooking fat to an already complex cuisine rich with local fauna, seafood toted up from the Pacific by teams of runners, strange condiments like chili peppers and peanut butter (an Inca invention), and, most important, the potato in several delicious varieties. The cookery that resulted from this meeting of the hemispheres is arguably the finest in South America, but the Peña PachaMama kitchens barely hint at its glories. There's nothing particularly wrong with the food on the menu; it just isn't as vibrant and exciting as the traditions it represents or the venue in which it is served.
The pacha pollo, for instance, isn't much more than a bland, overcooked chicken breast with some barely dressed salad greens and a pile of (admittedly robust and tasty) mashed potatoes on the side. Silpancho, the Bolivian national dish, is only a slight improvement: prime rib breaded and fried within an inch of beef jerky-hood, nearly redeemed by those mashed potatoes, a pile of field greens, some pleasantly garlicky rice, a few freshly fried potato rounds, and a fried egg strewn across the top. An appetizer of yuca frita, or fried yuca, is as starchy and flavorless as you might expect, a sorry (if authentic) substitute for french fries.
Other dishes have more to recommend them. Another chicken dish, picante de pollo, has a subtly sweet, warmly spicy flavor that nicely complements its moist, tender texture and its bed of nutty, fluffy rice. And salteñas, the Bolivian take on piroshki, ravioli, samosas, and wontons, are rich, buttery pastries stuffed with savory ingredients. The mushroom/potato/raisin version is a bit too sweet, but the diced beef and onion makes a wonderfully earthy snack.
Potatoes are central to two other commendable dishes, which is only appropriate: The marvelous tuber is an Andean native, developed some 3,000 years ago because corn wouldn't grow at such an altitude. As the locals' staple, its variations are exponential. Primary among them is papas a la Huancaino, named for the Peruvian city on the other side of Lake Titicaca from Bolivia. Steamy potatoes come dressed with a rich cream sauce spiked with ground nuts and chilies and accompanied by field greens, tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, and queso fresco, a fresh, unripened cheese with the texture of mozzarella and the flavor of a lightly salted ricotta. Another potato dish, papas relleno, is a bit more perfunctory but not at all unsatisfying: a big, fried ball of mashed potatoes stuffed with sautéed vegetables and queso fresco, with more field greens on the side.
Besides a dozen wines by the glass (five of them by the bottle) there's Paceña, a Bolivian beer that's been brewed 12,000 feet above sea level since 1886, and (better yet) a deliciously crisp, light house sangria fragrant with tropical fruit and a hint of spice. It's excellent with alfajores, the best item on the menu, two crisp, buttery shortbread cookies sandwiched with dulce de leche, a thick, caramellike paste made from milk, sugar, and vanilla.
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