Note: Today, one day after this article went to press for SF Weekly‘s April 13 issue, Hecho Cantina announced that it would close in the next week or so. Pobody’s nerfect! But you still have time for another Mezgroni.
The development of half a dozen pie-shaped parcels in the Castro during the 2010s yielded enough bland condos to change the fabric of the neighborhood. Victorians and Edwardians are forever, but it’s entirely possible that in 30 years, Upper Market Street’s four- and five-story buildings will look as dated as Fox Plaza, the Brutalist slab that produces a reliable wind tunnel on Market Street between Larkin and Polk.
In the meantime, the Castro has challenges with vacant storefronts, and it has challenges with restaurant longevity. Notwithstanding a few long-running, high-end success stories (Frances, Anchor Oyster Bar) and the bumper crop of promising newcomers (Finn Town, Nomica), the secret sauce required to keep a good mid-range restaurant in operation remains rather an elusive recipe in what’s otherwise a party neighborhood. So when the brunch-centric Hecho closed at the end of 2016, we’re very glad the ownership opted for a rebrand in lieu of walking away and leaving yet another void.
Hecho came back quickly, and now it’s called Hecho Cantina. Although the cold-cathode eagle head in profile still presides over everything, the brunch menu and many of the tables are gone. In their stead, you’ll find plenty of space, a multicolored, Southwestern-looking chalk drawing, and a black-felt pool table. Overall, the focus has basically gone from a “restaurant with cocktails” to a “bar with food,” fast-casual-style. It’s run by the same team that owns Hi Tops, the gay sports bar across the street that happens to have excellent food, like house-made corn dogs and a blackened ahi tuna burger.
Hecho Cantina may have switched it up, but it still suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. On a recent visit, the food was simply a bit off. With slow-braised pork, salsa verde, and rice, a fat $13 chimichanga wanted to be a deep-fried burrito, but it had been overcooked to the point where the individual components fell away and a generic fried flavor took over. It was also quite burnt on one side: A dining companion compared ripping off a chunk to cracking open a sternum during open-heart surgery. While it came with a sad tuft of undressed slaw, at $13, you’re paying more for less than at just about any burrito joint in San Francisco — and there isn’t even hot sauce on the table.
As a point of personal preference, I like nachos to be cheesy as hell — dripping with goo, even. Queso fundido is a classier approach than drowning the chips in electric-yellow sauce, and it’s hard to fault anyone for going in that direction, but the result was an oil slick beneath the lowest stratum of chips. Pick away at that pile without paying close attention and you get a mouthful of grease. The chorizo and the pico de gallo were generous, but the jalapeños and avocado were not — and at $12 plus an extra $5 for the meat, it’s considerably more than what you’ll pay at Velvet Cantina. In fairness, it’s also much cheaper than Hi Tops’ comparable platter of carnitas nachos, which will run you a steep $25. But those are some of the best in the city.
Besides the decor, which feels like it could belong in Mexico City’s Condesa or Roma Norte neighborhoods, cocktails remain Hecho’s strength. Go for one or all of the following three, each of which goes for $13: the Mezgroni, Juans Paloma, or the Sour Bandido. The Mezgroni deftly combines three excellent specimens from the digestif-amaro genus — Barolo Chinato, Cynar, and Gran Classico — with mezcal and mole bitters. In a world awash with copycat variations of the same basic template, this is a well-constructed drink, rich and balanced with a puff of smoke coiled around the commingled bitter notes.
Juans Paloma couldn’t be more different: It’s a pale pink summertime blend, made for getting accidentally wasted because you downed three or four in rapid succession while swinging in a porch chair idly complaining about the heat. With blanco tequila, ruby red grapefruit, lime, Pamplemousse Rose liqueur, and vanilla cordial, it’s fuller and less sugary than any margarita (Hecho Cantina’s closest approximation of which, simply named the “Classico,” has orange bitters and agave). And the autumnal Sour Bandido (whiskey, lemon, honey, Ancho Reyes, tamarind, and Angostura bitters) builds from a hot toddy foundation, pushing the tamarind until it generates a cinnamon-apple note.
In Italy at least, a cantina is typically underground — and more of a wine-storage area than a tavern — but this one has the floor-to-ceiling glass windows typical of contemporary vernacular architecture. If anything, it looks like Zuni, especially with the bar facing away from Market Street. And one enduring strength Hecho Cantina possesses is outdoor seating, making it a good spot to ogle the passersby and generally flaunt the good time you’re having. Inside or out, it’s a fine use of the real estate it occupies — especially given the odds that this would probably turn into an Umpqua Bank, or worse, follow the women-owned art gallery Femina Potens and become a Verizon store. [Updated: Well, we’ll just see.]
Hecho Cantina, 2200 Market St., 415-926-5630 or hechocantina.com