I lived in the Castro for four years. I don’t live there anymore. There are things about it that I miss (Kite Hill, the ginkgos on my old street, riding the F-Market all the way to work) and things I don’t (a pet store with rude owners, Beaux). And as glad as I am that I don’t have to look at those spectacularly hideous gramophone art thingies while biking to and from my house, the single worst thing about the Castro as a liveable neighborhood is its insane proliferation of empty storefronts.
The situatino is most blatant around Church and Market streets, but almost every commercial block has a long-term vacancy — much of it due to one notoriously quirky landlord and a cafe boom that fizzled. There are bright spots, of course: The Spaghetti Factory isn’t closing, Espressamente Illy tentatively reopened, and maybe that proposed boutique hotel on 18th Street will be worthwhile. But for the whole time I lived there — for the whole time I’ve lived in San Francisco, really — it’s seemed as though the Castro has operated well below capacity. And because it’s a nightlife destination with a unique LGBTQ culture, that state of affairs perversely allows mediocrity to thrive.
My instinct to cheerlead kicked in when I stepped into Botellón for the first time. A triangular space next to Brewcade at the ground floor of a four-year-old condo building at Market, 16th, and Sanchez streets, it’s something of a cursed space. A Mexican restaurant called Hecho — originally Bandidos, until an outcry forced the owners to rethink that racially offensive name — later morphed into the more bar-like Hecho Cantina, which lasted only a few months. Along the way, there was a fire that also scorched Brewcade.
I’m certain the taint of that initial insensitivity lingered among a non-negligible part of the dining public, but it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong with Hecho. It wasn’t too large, too expensive, too weird, or too anything. (Pivoting to “Hecho Cantina” was probably a mistake, though. The food menu shrunk so dramatically that retaining such a similar name likely confused and annoyed people.)
I’m dwelling on this point at such length because I want to get to the bottom of why the Castro’s restaurant scene is so fragile. It might be that the dilemma is actually very simple: If a restaurant is too derivative, the foodies may simply go elsewhere, but if you’re too out-there, you’ll repel the basic gays.
I think Botellón, which is a project by the team behind Polk Street’s excellent Mezcalito, is positioned to do well. It’s a little slick — that row of restroom stalls in back is very club-like — but it’s probably as food-driven as a non-romantic restaurant in an entertainment corridor can get away with. There are boozy slushies, happy hour on Saturdays, and a satisfying rye cocktail called The Stranger that tastes like a mint julep made with sweet tea. Being in Botellón reminds me a little of Andalu, the tapas bar at the corner of 16th and Guerrero that became Chino and, shortly afterward, Bar San Pancho.
There’s no overreach here, and plenty of bullseyes. While there isn’t much of an overall concept besides the increasingly flabby “New American,” lots of individual dishes are wonderful. The potato bomba ($6) is gooey on the inside, arancini-like on the outside. An ahi carpaccio ($13) looked as though it might be drowning in chile oil, but that was merely visual (something that disappointed me at first, although by letting the tuna stand out, I had to admit its unexpected subtlety paid off).
A pork sugo pappardelle (also $13) had a wet wallpaper-strip mouthfeel and it was weirdly cheese-less besides, but a $19 pork chop was very nice. Crossed, stacked chunks of pork, one of them bone-in like a proper chop came with a mustard-y demiglace and potatoes. The three legs of this pork tripod were then thatched with a roof of arugula plus some pickled vegetables and Asian pears. That’s a lot of action for less than $20. Three lamb pops with tzatziki, mint, and feta were competent but a little ordinary for $14, although for the same price, a leopard-spotted funghi pizza with an eminently satisfying array of toppings (including ricotta and plenty of garlic) is what I think will draw people in. You want the chew? It’s got the chew.
Cocktails are good-to-great. That julep-y Stranger was approachable and refreshing, although the tension between scotch and sugar in the $12 Rice-a-Roni Negroni was a more adult plan of attack. The gin-and-pineapple A Bitter Batch was very good, although it didn’t mesh well with any particular dish.
What I don’t get are some of the names. Why is it called Botellón — Spanish for “big bottle” — when virtually nothing on the menu hails from any Spanish-speaking country? What does a Negroni made with scotch, dry vermouth, and Campari — technically an Old Pal — have to do with Rice-a-Roni? I would rather some of this glib inanity rein itself in, but Botellón accomplishes the atmosphere that the neighborhood needs right now. It’s grown-up enough to eat at after a movie at the Castro Theater and lively enough for to visit before going out. But if it doesn’t pan out, just don’t turn into Botellón Cantina.
Botellón, 2200 Market St. 415-800-7559 or botellonsf.com