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By Alex Hochman
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When I called the new North Beach Mexican restaurant Impala to inquire if I needed a dinner reservation that night at 9, the quick response was, "No, no problem," followed by an odd, slightly plaintive plea, uttered just as I was about to hang up: "Could you possibly come in by 8:30?"
San Francisco, CA 94133
Region: North Beach/ Chinatown
Tortilla soup $5
Brisket barbacoa $12
Flank steak $15
Grilled corn $6
Open Sunday and Monday from 5 to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday until 11; the bar is open until 2 a.m.
Muni: 12, 15
Noise level: moderate to excruciating
"No," I said, "I've already arranged to pick up my friend at 8:30." (After her kickboxing class, as a matter of fact, a regime my friend Maya was enjoying so much that I knew she wouldn't want to forgo it.) "Your Web site says you're open until 2 a.m.," I added. "Well, we close the kitchen early some nights," the guy responded, "but don't worry, we'll stay open for you."
That felt like a big responsibility, especially when we showed up and found the place nearly deserted: Only one other couple was dining, and a few people were spread out along the long, V-shaped bar. We were led to a wooden table across from the bar, and as I slid onto the banquette I told our server that we'd order quickly. "No hurry," she said, "the kitchen is open until 10."
So we relaxed and took our time with the menu. It seemed to exist in a health-oriented middle ground between Mission taquerias and such upscale Mexican establishments as Maya and Doña Tomás: Various ingredients were sourced (Fulton Farm organic chicken, Black Pig pork, American-raised "Kobe-style" beef), the albondigas soup offered chicken meatballs rather than the usual beef, the tortilla soup was vegan. I was willing to bet that there was no can of lard lurking in the kitchen. There were 10 appetizers, including the inevitable guacamole and quesadilla, but also a lobster and grapefruit cocktail (at $15) and, rather than fried jalapeño poppers, sautéed jalapeño rellenos (served with a chipotle aioli); four salads, with a different dressing on each (tequila, creamy cilantro, and a jalapeño and a citrus vinaigrette); and 11 main courses, which seemed gently priced (between $9 and $16) until I realized that vegetables were a la carte, and adding just rice and beans, even in portions calculated to serve several people, would add $12 to the bill.
We started with cocktails -- a margarita for Maya, and an excellent Mojito for me -- and the Impala layers, the restaurant's version of seven-layer dip, a chilly bowl filled with black and refried pinto beans, Oaxaca cheese, queso fresco, chipotle, sour cream, and pico de gallo, topped with snipped scallions. We scooped the claylike mixture up with the decent chips, which had earlier arrived at the table in a chic steel bucket (along with a cup of mild salsa). The mashed beans dominated, and the other ingredients were a little lost; Trader Joe's makes a version that I find tastier.
There was plenty of time to take in the diverse décor in the big, dimly lit, empty room: lots of wrought iron, including an especially striking long latticed shelf, laden with dozens of fat pillar candles, suspended over a big communal table (I assumed the candles were dripless); an unusual mosaiclike wall behind the bar; and a huge framed mirror above our banquette. A deep-bosomed, otherwise wraithlike creature, attired in a vintage evening outfit consisting of a long nightgowny dress topped with a short bedroomy jacket, wandered in and, mesmerized by her reflection, danced to the retro-rock soundtrack in front of the mirror, her eyes glued to it. (The elderly, suited gent who accompanied her occasionally essayed a few steps, but, ignored, mostly watched her reflection and himself, and told the bemused staff, "We love your mirror.")
We were not overly distracted from her performance by our main courses. Maya had chosen tequila-and-chipotle-marinated shrimp after a brief flirtation with the idea of grilled ahi tuna topped with green salsa, roasted poblano peppers, and pumpkin seeds. The half-dozen skewered shrimp were quite sturdy and hadn't picked up much flavor from the advertised marinade, though there was a mild smoky tinge from the grill. The slawlike jicama salad that came with it was pleasantly crisp. I was happier with my beef brisket barbacoa, a pot roast made with that aforementioned fancy beef, though once again the ingredients mentioned in its preparation (red chilies and garlic) were not very forward. (And the menu line "served with carrots, onions, and potatoes" turned out to mean a scattering of tiny dice atop the meat, not big chunks alongside.) We'd ordered refried pinto beans with roasted garlic, but the alluring roasted garlic seemed to have gone missing. And the kitchen also appeared to have misplaced its salt: Everything -- the jicama salad, the beef, the beans -- needed a generous sprinkle to bring the dish to life. The best thing on the table was the grilled corn, cut off the cob, with chili and lime: We loved it.
The private dancer had disappeared, only to reappear with a more conventionally dressed girlfriend (she wore an off-the-shoulder, black-and-white striped sweater) for a second, shorter bump-and-grind in front of the irresistible mirror. After they departed, we requested that the music be turned down a little, and the staff agreed: Now we were the only people in the dining room.
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