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At another table, they were enjoying huge plates of wonderful-looking pasta, which, we were told, is house-made and very light because it contains egg whites only, rather than whole eggs. The waiter said that people often follow their pasta with a meat course, but that looked almost impossible to me, and, in fact, our neighbors didn't do so.
After we thought we could eat no more -- even the voracious carnivores that we are (I took about a pound of meat home) -- we tried several desserts: an unremarkable flan, crepes rolled around goat milk dulce de leche (very sweet and easy to eat), and terrific alfajores, fragile cookies glued together with more of that caramel and dusted with sugar.
After dinner we strolled up and down Grand Avenue, which looked more picturesque from our car but still had its pleasures. I couldn't wait to return to Villa del Sol: It's one of my favorite kinds of restaurants, unpretentious and devoted only to serving really good food at really good prices.
South San Francisco, CA 94080
Region: South San Francisco
Corn and Alfredo sauce empanada $2
Spinach tortilla $6.50
Milanesa de pollo "a caballo" $9.95
Churrasco argentino $15.95
Alfajores $1 each
Open Wednesday from noon to 7 p.m., Thursday from noon to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday from noon to 10 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 8 p.m. Closed Monday and Tuesday
Noise level: moderate
So, a couple of weeks later, I pick up my parents in the East Bay on a Saturday night and we brave the bridge. It's a nightmare. My mother remembers that Bruce Springsteen is playing a sold-out show at Pac Bell. I feel guilty about our friends David and Heftsi, who are driving in to meet us from Richmond.
It takes a full hour and a quarter of serious driving door-to-door (about the same time it took Heftsi and David, he tells me). But when I sit down and look at the menu, I'm happy to be here. And I don't feel guilty; this food is worth the drive. There's a soccer game on the big screen, but the sound is off. With five of us, I go a little nuts. In addition to a rerun of the tongue, to please my father (and he is pleased -- he loves the texture), we try three different empanadas (I enjoy the beef one, punched up with green olives, and another with corn kernels in a creamy, faintly nutmegged Alfredo sauce, but am unseduced by the dryish tuna), and a beautifully cooked, soft tortilla, a Spanish frittatalike omelet made with fresh spinach. (I would drive to South San Francisco for this dish alone -- Villa del Sol also does a version with potatoes and onions, another with zucchini, and a third with mushrooms, garlic, and onions. And then I would order some other stuff, too!)
We have to have the parrillada, of course, but I also order the churrasco argentino, a thick, well-flavored rib-eye that comes rare as ordered, and, what the hell, we try a couple of pastas: fat house-made cannelloni, stuffed with fresh spinach, mozzarella, and mild ham, napped with a rich béchamel; and thin, airy (as promised!) fettuccini in a good, strong pesto sauce. I throw in an order of polenta, and am glad I did: It's the thinnish, creamy kind, just a little grainy to the tooth, very corny, and it comes with a light house-made tomato sauce. (Even my noncarnivorous friends could be happy here.)
Everybody is getting enough to eat. It's fun to share, it's fun to taste everything, and we're enjoying the food and each other. David and Heftsi have just returned the day before from a week in New Orleans, and I'm sure that the groaning table seems like a continuation of the over-the-top feasting that's an essential part of life there. We linger over coffee and more of those superb alfajores. (I want to order half a dozen to take home but, looking at the several containers we have stacked up already, filled with the contents of several future meals, decide against it. In the morning, when I make coffee, I'm sad.)
Earlier, when I was searching for the source of the patriotism quote, I ran across another that seemed appropriate. The great Curnonsky, a revered French gastronome, once said, "Cuisine is where things taste like themselves." Everything tastes exactly as it should at Villa del Sol.