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Brilliant Bites 

Tacos by the sea and bocadillos downtown -- the new toys of upscale restaurateurs

Wednesday, Sep 29 2004
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My favorite thing to do in the entire world is travel. And one of my favorite things to do during trips is (big surprise) sample the local cuisine. I put in my time doing research, seeking out the big-reputation, big-ticket restaurants in advance. But often the most memorable meals are not the highly anticipated, reserved-in-advance, multicourse, sit-down repasts, but the little bites grabbed on the run, the sandwiches or snacks bought on the street or consumed standing up at bars or sitting at cafe tables.

Two recent casual, snacky meals reminded me of a couple of my favorite places from past travels. I may have first tried La Super-Rica Taqueria in Santa Barbara because I read somewhere that it was one of Julia Child's favorite places, or I may have been taken there by a friend who told me that while we waited in line. And there is always a line at La Super-Rica, a shack-y place where you order your antojitos at one window and pick them up at another, around the corner, which looks out onto a tented patio with plastic chairs around wooden tables. Its food is the stuff of dreams. I don't know why, but somehow I always have the illusion that I'm in the South of France (even though I'm scooping up guacamole, melted cheese, and chorizo with handmade corn tortillas) as I sit at one of those tables, enjoying a gentle breeze from the not-too-distant sea.

La Super-Rica is close enough to L.A. -- 90 miles or so -- that I could occasionally entice a pal to run up there impetuously for an impromptu lunch. But the other place that I became nostalgic for recently is thousands of miles away, and though I have sent people there for years, I have no idea if it even exists anymore. It was an entrancing cafe and wine bar whose name I can't recall in San Sebastián, on the coast of Spain, more notable for its shabby but still carefully preserved, creamy art nouveau interior with silvery, cloudy mirrors than its cuisine. It was nicely located, not far from the movie theaters that I was racing between for screenings of the San Sebastián Film Festival. In addition to decent local wines and the essential strong espresso, it always featured a few trays of casually stacked small sandwiches, called bocadillos, on the bar. They were simple, indeed: crusty rolls stuffed with pink curls of ham or thick slices of sausage or cold fried fish, each swiped with a bit of pungent, thick, garlicky aioli. That was all. I think you could ask for a saucer of olives, and there were bowls of nuts on the bar (and shells underfoot). But like the character in Citizen Kane who hasn't let a week go by without thinking of the girl dressed in white and holding a parasol whom he glimpsed once as her ferry pulled away from the pier, I frequently wish that I could magically be transported to my little cafe (or that it could show up in my neighborhood, in an equally dreamlike fashion).

La Super-Rica and the San Sebastián bar haven't opened branches in San Francisco, but two famed local restaurateurs have opened small, casual spots that remind me of my old favorites. Traci Des Jardins' (Jardinière, Acme Chophouse) delightful new taqueria in the Ferry Building is called Mijita Cocina Mexicana, inspired by her (heretofore unknown to me) Latina roots. (Mijita means "my little daughter," for those who are wondering.) The airy room is on the pier side of the building, with an open grill at one end and two rows of wide, long wooden tables surrounded by benches topped with woven cowhide strips. Artfully artless displays of brightly colored Mexican sodas and Valentina hot sauce reside on long shelves, but there's not much else in the way of décor (except, of course, the million-dollar view of the bay and the Bay Bridge).

Robert was meeting me at Mijita after work for an early dinner (it closes at 7 during the week). He had already dropped by the place for a weekend brunch with his wife, Gail (when it had been open such a short time, he said, "They didn't have chilaquiles because they didn't yet have stale tacos to make them with!"). I'd been scared that the restaurant might run out of stuff near the end of the day, but we ordered most of the menu without being denied. (As we were finishing up, however, I heard a guy saying, "You're out of carne asada?" in a crushed and amazed tone, so I wasn't entirely nuts.)

We were feasting on small soft tacos served with two handmade corn tortillas per order, so it was easy to divide up the fish, carnitas, carne asada, and vegetariano filling (cheese, beans, guacamole, cilantro, onions, and salsa) between us. The carnitas, described as crisp braised pork, were more soft and shreddy than crisp, though they were quite succulent and served with a dab of red tomatillo salsa. (I told Robert, an aficionado like me of the crisp cubed carnitas, that the best I ever had were at Carnitas Urupan, across from the racetrack in Tijuana. Another dream spot.) The carne asada taco was even better; its chewy, marinated meat tasted faintly fruity, like tamarind, and came with smoky grilled onion. But the surprise hit was the fish taco: The deep-fried, blocky cut of mahi-mahi looked unexciting, but the flesh was moist and sweet and complemented by shreds of cabbage (I'd have liked more) and avocado-cilantro cream (more of that, too, please).

We tried a hefty, crunchy quesadilla mijita (wrapped in fresh masa) that had a touch too much bitter epazote (an herb) for Robert, and a refreshing salad of jicama, grapefruit, and avocado topped with pepotas, toasted pumpkin seeds seasoned with cumin, coriander, and jalapeño. The queso fundido (melted cheese topped with chorizo) was served with agreeably ragged hand-stretched flour tortillas. But the best thing we ate -- and something of a rebuke to people who don't want to pay $4.75 for a taco, even if it is made with sustainably ranched meat and put together by workers who make far above the minimum wage and served in a room with a million-dollar view -- was the albondigas soup. Many small, fluffy beef and pork meatballs floated in a tomato-y broth full of carrots, zucchini, onions, greens, and fresh corn, topped with crisp strips of flour tortilla. It was without a doubt the best albondigas soup I've ever had, enough for a light repast on its own, and only $4.

My lunch, later, at Gerald (Fringale, Pastis, Piperade) Hirigoyen's newest, smallest, and cutest place, Bocadillos, gave me only a taste of what's on offer there. Midday, in addition to a dozen or so varieties of the small sandwiches that give the place its name, the menu includes a few salads, a soup of the day, and a tapa of the day, plus plates of cold cuts and Spanish cheeses. At night, the kitchen turns out dozens of tapas (including the intriguingly named "innards circle," featuring tripe, pig trotters, and foie gras) but only three bocadillos. At all times you can choose from a long and witty list of hard cider, beer, ports, Madeiras, and sherries, along with interestingly chosen wines, each well-described and categorized as dry or fruity and light, medium, or bold.

Joyce and I were there for the sandwiches (you choose two to a plate), eking out our meal with gazpacho (a little thin and overprocessed, for my taste), a seriously underdressed garbanzo and corn salad with diced red onion and torn cilantro (some salt and pepper -- not found on the big, shared, pale-wood table as a matter of course -- perked it up considerably), and a plate of the day's tapa (grilled shrimp, tails on, their neatly severed heads decorating the dish). (It was a hot afternoon, so we tried three sodas: clementine, pear, and blackberry, our favorite.) The fat little bocadillos were mostly stellar. Their floury rolls were rubbed with tomato and filled with 18-month-aged serrano ham, and a thick cut of soft Catalan sausage with arugula and sharp shavings of manchego cheese. The roast beef in another was gray, overcooked, sad, and not appreciably improved by its onion marmalade or too-stingy smear of goat cheese. But the grilled lamb burger tucked into a glossy brioche bun was a lovely, juicy mouthful (the couple across from us shared a pair of lamb burgers, a plate of salad, and the shrimp, and they were perfectly happy).

We'd had plenty to eat -- in fact, we packed up two barely tasted bocadillos to go home with us -- but wisely did not resist a sandwich of pistachio ice cream (full of whole pistachios) packed between two almond macaroons, nor a good, warm, bitter chocolate cake buried under big, melting chunks of sautéed bananas.

We lingered there with our coffee until lunch service ended and the staff put trays of bocadillos on the bar, to feed any arrivals until the tapas menu kicked in at 5. If I squinted a bit, the chic columns of stacked black wood disappeared, and creamy art nouveau walls hung with old mirrors seemed to swim into view in their place.

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Meredith Brody

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