If prominent restaurant failures characterized much of the 2016 dining scene, it feels as though 2017 might turn out to be more about hairline cracks. A sense of dread that the entire restaurant model might be built on borrowed time is becoming increasingly palpable. So it’s relieving and refreshing to see that one of S.F.’s more promiscuous restaurant openers, Adriano Paganini, is undaunted by the math or whatever else it is that has begun to winnow out the playing field — or at least that’s the sense I get after a few meals at Flores, on Union Street in the Marina.
In the former Betelnut and next to another excellent Back of the House endeavor, Belga, Flores is not a Mexican restaurant in the mold of Uno Dos Tacos or any of Paganini’s other fast-casual projects like The Bird or Super Duper. It’s a sit-down spot — and rather a large one, full of mezcal and where all the tortillas are hand-made daily.
Chef Alejandro Morgan, it should be noted, hails from Costa Rica and comes to Flores after a successful stint at Lolinda, the Argentine steakhouse. Paganini once described Lolinda to me as his most ambitious project — and most dangerous investment — so it’s hard not to read that as a high level of trust in Morgan. Flores is by no means pan-Latin American, but there is a heavy Mayan influence here, evident in dishes like sikil p’ak ($6), a deliriously creamy dip made from pumpkin seeds with just a touch of habanero and lime. Flores presents it humbly in a bowl with nothing but fresh lettuce to spread it on, pushing the idea of the quiet delivery mechanism to the limit. Then again, the intent might be to carve out some carb-free space away from guac and chips, the better to lure people to start the meal with both.
But this is all getting a little ahead of the true beginning, which comes in the form of a paper bag of “chicharras,” a clever spin on chicharrones that involves only dough, and no pork. They look like wagon wheels or big fried lotus roots, and they’re just as salty and delicious as you’d expect. (Has any food gotten more elevated than chicharrones? When I was a kid, they were forbidden on pain of immediate death by atherosclerosis, and last fall, they were served at the James Beard dinner.)
Don’t overlook the $7 mango, either, even though it’s arguably the quintessential yes-you-can-replicate-this-at-home dish. High in acid, and dusted with the same spicy salts that line the rim of a michelada, it’s a maximally refreshing combination of jicama and cucumber. You could probably make an outstanding white sangria out of them.
Other things err on the side of ordinary. Albeit tasty, a brunch-time bowl of ceviche de pescado ($14) was unexciting — and also too heavy on lime, too light on fish. A revuelto (or vegetarian scramble, de-vegefied with chorizo, $15) was a satisfying plate of food fit for lining your belly with brunch cocktails. But while the potatoes were soft and lightly browned, the eggs were leaden. A huarache, or spinach-and-cheese tortilla with carnitas and a fried egg, had a lighter, spongier texture, but the layer of chopped lettuce felt uninspired, even amateurish. And while you can’t in good conscience knock a heap of Dungeness crab on the tostadas de cangrejo ($14), but the chipotle-and-avocado substrate beneath it cried out for a little imagination.
But a quesadilla huitlacoche ($11) with corn smut and what might be called “extreme kale” redeemed matters, its limey sauce arm-wrestling the huitlacoche to a draw. A genuinely outstanding res con chile colorado ($19), or chile-braised short ribs, was almost surprisingly good, as tender and layered as it was defiantly un-photogenic.
Among the mains — which can be ordered to serve one to two people, or three to four — the carne asada ($21/$38) was good, the pok chuc (cilantro-marinated grilled pork, $17/$30) far better. Between the onions and the sauces and the escabeche, there’s enough to fill eight tortillas — and enough color on the plate to give the walls a run for their money. And although they’re commonplace now, it’s basically obligatory to wrap things up with a bowl of fresh churros and a chocolate dipping sauce ($9).
Cocktails are generally excellent, with the pink-and-green party-in-a-glass Tostiloco (rum, tamarind, cucumber, lemon, chili, soda, and corn chips, $12) being optimal for day-drinking. For a study in contrasts, alternate between the Excelsior ($12), an Amaro Montenegro-centric Negroni variant, and the Ghost Ride, a quieter, smoother experience that, in spite of the Averna and the mole bitters, avoids much bitterness or smoke.
The overall vibe is like a spiritual successor to the mysteriously shuttered La Urbana on Divisadero. The murals are professionally executed, but there’s an artfully silly side throughout, with tin can candle-holders punched with holes to cast a pattern of light, and a “fan” made of broad-leaf blades that flap in unison like a ceiling-mounted vaudeville prop. Both my brunch date and I took pics of the skull wallpaper in the restroom, another sexy touch, and that Chiclets come in the check presenter is just charming.
It felt as if the music, on every visit, without any variation, was 100 percent reggaeton.
In the final analysis, though, the base level is respectably high. When Flores reaches higher, it usually makes its mark, simultaneously rewarding the adventurous with novelties and reassuring more conservative patrons. Above all else, I don’t get a sense that Flores is in any way watering things down or, worse, producing Mexican food for an Anglo palate. But it’s still 2017, and reality is getting a little more chastening all the time. It’s fair to say that the biggest thing missing from Flores is swagger.
Flores, 2030 Union St., 415-796-2926 or floressf.com