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The chicken hearts turn up right after our first offering, flavorful beef tenderloin. (So flavorful, in fact, that it is Robert's favorite of the evening; that is, until the lamb arrives, heavily flavored with needles of rosemary.) (When I inquire later if the place ever serves any other organ meats -- "Sweetbreads? Liver? Kidneys?" -- I'm told, "No. Sometimes we have shrimp," something of a non sequitur.) Then come neatly trimmed chicken thighs with good, crusty skin; after that, top sirloin. (All the beef is cooked with pleasantly pink insides; well-done-ophiles get edges.) Next up, a surprising arrival: whole roasted pineapples, a splendid, sweet, and acidic counterpart to the meat. I love it. (No pineapple for Robert.) Another nice acidic counterpart is the liquid, spicy, chopped-peppers-and-vinegar relish.
Before I leave for my second assault on the salad bar, I do a Seven Dwarfs kind of memory test, scribbling down all I can recall from my first trip (to be fair, I am somewhat assisted by a few remnants on my plate): coleslaw (rather tangy and original), artichoke hearts, hearts of palm, hard-boiled eggs (cut in half and slicked with a bit of Russian dressing), potato salad (creamy, house-made, and good), rosy pickled baby turnips, pickled beets, corn salad, green salad, eggplant salad, sliced red and yellow tomatoes with mozzarella (rubbery mozzarella, surprisingly ripe tomatoes), quinoa salad. When I get to the bar, I find that the new platter of tomatoes is mozzarella-free and that the only items I forgot were the broccoli florets, cucumbers, chickpeas, tabbouleh salad, and a delightful fruit salad in sour cream, like ambrosia without the coconut.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Region: Hayes Valley/ Tenderloin
Open for lunch Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., for dinner Monday through Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday
Muni: 6, 7, 66, 71, F
Noise level: moderate to high
Complete dinner, 12 meats $34.95/weekends
Tres Leches Cake $3.95
Crème de papaya $6.50
I return to find that a plate with three crunchy, perfectly fried bananas, warm and creamy inside, has mysteriously appeared. Again, I love it. Gail and I conscientiously divide Robert's portion. I fully intend to request another plate, but I forget in the onslaught of chunks of pork loin dusted with Parmesan (overcooked), sirloin steak (with edges of translucent, yummy fat), chunks of top sirloin impregnated with lots of minced fresh garlic, lamb with rosemary, fat pork sausages ("Made right here!" our server beams), and pork loin (more knowingly cooked than the Parmesan version). Toward the end of the meat deluge we're offered skewered grilled vegetables: zucchini, onion, peppers. By this time I am full up to my eyeballs and wish they'd shown up earlier.
Even extra-portions Robert is slowing down. We turn the dial from green to red until the beef tenderloin comes around again, for a final hurrah. Then we order dessert, more out of curiosity than desire: a crema Catalana that's much less rich than others we've had, more like an anemic crème brûlée; and a dauntingly big square of Tres Leches Cake, a vanilla-scented yellow cake soaked in the three milks (evaporated, sweetened condensed, and whole) of its name, and covered with a white frosting pleasantly crunchy with undissolved sugar crystals (which Gail, a great baker, thinks is the result of a carelessly made seven-minute frosting, but I don't care; I like it). And the hit -- a huge goblet full of papaya cream, an airy, light pudding, with a ball of tart cassis sorbet plopped in its middle and a touch of cassis liqueur sprinkled about.
I would happily tuck into that pudding again, but I'm unsure of the repetitive attractions of Espetus, despite the Atkins appeal. (And there was quite a lot that Robert had to decline, poor thing.) Once you've had the meat experience, there are no surprises. It reminds me of the fate of another South American spot in San Francisco that specialized in Argentine parillada (a brazier piled high with grilled meats) and nothing but (unlike my favorite, Villa del Sol in South San Francisco, whose vast menu includes excellent pastas). "Everyone wanted to go there," my father told me, "once."
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