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The day I had lunch at Limón Rotisserie, I'd read a piece in The New York Times about the effects of economic downturn, titled "Anxiety Grips Restaurants, New Ones in Particular." I'd been mildly anxious myself when we walked up to the place just after noon, because it seemed completely empty — I was afraid it had unexpectedly closed. But no, there were indeed a couple of tables occupied. We took one little wooden table along the comfy banquette that lined one bright lime-painted wall in the cheerful, modern room.
1001 S. Van Ness Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94110
Region: Mission/ Bernal Heights
The Times piece pointed out that January was the cruelest month, when customers are few after spending on the holiday binge. But Limón Rotisserie's one-page printed menu looked to be recession-proof. Nothing on it cost more than $10, except the whole rotisserie chicken for $15.95, which was also available in half ($9.50) and quarter ($7.25) portions. Those prices are even gentler when you discover that the chicken comes with a choice of two side dishes from a list of half a dozen: salad, steamed rice, fried yuca, fried potatoes, stir-fried vegetables, and tacu-tacu, a fried patty of rice and beans.
But the rest of the menu is a bit of a minefield for newcomers, since it turns out that the chicken, listed at the top, is really the restaurant's only main course. The rest of the menu is divided into two sections labeled "Small Cold Plates" and "Small Hot Plates," each containing seven or eight choices.
Although they're called small plates, you may be surprised at the difference in food quantity. I sat across from a friend who looked like Charles Laughton as Henry VIII, who famously tore a chicken apart with his bare hands in the movie. Before him was a banquet, with a square white plate displaying a large half-chicken and two square bowls brimming with rice and thin, crisp french fries — all for $9.50.
But in front of me rested a much less impressive plate bearing three skewers of anticuchos de res, one thin fried yuca baton, and a dollhouse sliver of corn on the cob ($8). Both vegetables were delicious, but they were served in portions meant for garnish rather than satiating hunger, unlike the side dishes served with the chicken. I didn't have enough to eat. We could have sprung $2.50 for a side order of the tender, sweet yuca fries, but instead we called for a return of the menu and asked for another small plate, chifa de camarones (sautéed tiger shrimp, $7.75). The five big shrimp had been quickly cooked with ginger, garlic, rocoto (a South American chile), and oyster sauce, giving the stir-fry a bit of an Asian flavor. It was a pleasant dish, and with a $2.50 order of rice would have almost filled up a light eater. But it was nowhere near as exciting as the beautifully cooked anticuchos, chunky slices of beef heart that were meltingly soft and full of smoky flavor. They were so flavorful that they didn't need dipping in the smear of garlicky chimichurri adorning the plate. This would be the dish to convert someone who thought they didn't like innards.
But it's the rotisserie chicken that the place is named for, and is its big draw. You won't see a table without at least one order; across from us was a party of six whose biggest decision after choosing their sides was whether to get the quarter chicken or the half.
Alas, the chicken isn't as good as I wish it were. It's called pollo a la brasa, which means "rotisserie." For me, Limón Rotisserie's chicken, though moist and falling-off-the-bone tender, hadn't picked up enough flavor from its marinade of lemon and garlic, and its skin was flabby rather than crisp. (These problems are exacerbated if you get food to go, as I did on my first visit.) You'll get two small cups of thin sauces to jazz up the bird: a creamy green pepper sauce, and a hotter pale-orange one containing aji amarillo (a yellow chile) and huacatay (a minty herb). My friend was pleased with her meal, although she thought the potatoes were overfried.
There are other good dishes on the menu, many of them also available at chef Martin Castillo's much fancier and pricier Limón restaurant on Valencia, which itself had humbler beginnings in a tiny space on 17th Street. The ceviche de pescado ($9.25) is a bright-tasting tumble of halibut chunks in lime juice, garlic, and minced chiles. Ahi tuna tartare ($7.25) picks up an unusual nutty flavor from a combination of crunchy pine nuts and sesame oil. Lomito saltado ($9.25) is a quick stir-fry of strips of top sirloin, onions, tomato, and soy sauce, served atop thin, crisp fries. I thought the vegetables (potatoes, beets, carrots, and green beans) in the ensalada rusa ($6.50) were undercooked, and that the mustardy aioli dressing on the Russian salad wasn't as creamy as the classic mayonnaise one I expected from the name. Limón also does a fabulous fruity sangria for $5 a glass, or $25 a pitcher.
By the time we finished our shared brandido (a standard flourless chocolate cake, $6.75), the place was nearly full (at night the wait for a table can be quite long). And lots of people would be getting out of there after paying checks lower than $10 or $15. That's a modern definition of comfort food.
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