Hair of the Dogpatch

Glena's chicken torta might be the best sandwich in San Francisco these days, but don't overlook the rest of the delights on the menu.

Fried chicken torta (Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane)

Almost without fail, when I bring somebody along to a restaurant in the Dogpatch, they say, “Oh, I haven’t been over here in forever” or “I love this neighborhood, but I never have a reason to go.”

Meanwhile, the number of truly excellent restaurants (and breweries) there only continues to expand. In just the last year, I’ve had great experiences at Smokestack at Magnolia Brewing, Harmonic Brewing, a revamped Serpentine, and — most of all — at the upscale Hawaiian spot ’aina. That’s in addition to neighborhood staples like Piccino, Long Bridge Pizza, Hard Knox Cafe, and the Sea Star.

Add Glena’s to the list of reasons to get on the T. Want a specific reason? The chicken torta ($14), which I’ve eaten three of in the last few weeks and which is without question my favorite sandwich in San Francisco right now. This was an instant verdict, too: On each occasion, I had one bite and immediately experienced an oh-shit moment of rapturous transport, in an Emily Dickinson kind of way. This torta contains lightly fried chicken on a toasted French roll (like a fat baguette), with lettuce, avocado, cotija, onions, and black beans. The Cal-Mex flavor is strong, the crunch is satisfying without being overwhelming, and even though this is the species of sandwich for which dryness is a genuine risk, the entire shebang manages to be moist — and without tipping into gloppiness. Its vertical structure stays intact to the last bite, and everything is in the right proportion. Simply put, it’s a perfectly constructed sandwich.

But Glena’s isn’t just a sandwich spot; it’s a full Mexican restaurant with frozen margaritas and a really good habanero-garlic sauce. It’s also very small, with two south-facing outdoor tables, and not much space inside. You order right as you walk in, as opposed to from a server, but apart from the metal order-number caddies, the overlap with fast-casual effectively stops there. Between them, husband-and-wife owners Michael and Stephanie Gaines have worked at Kin Khao, Manresa, Flour + Water, Delfine, and others, and Glena’s overall vibe feels like highbrow food made approachable, rather than ordinary fare that’s been puffed up.

Let’s talk tacos, of which Glena’s has five. Ranked in ascending order of awesomeness, it’s huevo, tofu, pescado, carne aside, and al pastor. Although a lunch buddy vociferously argued with my putting the egg taco in fifth place, it’s more of a loser by default. (It was a bit dry, and the cotija seemed to disappear into it even though there’s plenty on there.) As much as I love $2.50 tacos al vapor at Taqueria Cancun, these $5 babies are a completely different animal. They’re big and they’re messy and they’re completely unlike those prissy, two-bite Korean tacos that I never understood the appeal of.

The Hodo Soy tofu is the surprise. It feels like a sop to non-meat-eaters — and honestly, it would probably be better as tempeh — but the sponginess meshes nicely with the salsa roja and with the avocado and the grilled onions, each of which is nearly strong enough on its own to be the focal point. The fish taco is better because of the dosages of lime and jalapeño. Something about it feels like every component is measured out. And the al pastor and carne asada — the only two on flour tortillas, it should be noted — don’t need to be larded up with as many extras because the meats are so seasoned. But the pineapple on the pork shoulder does not pass unnoticed, either.

As sanguine as any bowl of it out there, Stephy’s Pozole ($15) is a rich, oily pork-shoulder soup simmering with heat and hominy. Round it out with salty, limey deep-fried plantains ($6) and order your churro ($6) 15 minutes ahead of time to get the fried stick of dough at maximum freshness (and because you have to).

Under the all-$12 drinks column, there’s a slightly cheeky Federale made with rum, vermouth, Ancho Reyes, and bitters. Although it’s a great drink, it’s one of the rare areas where Glena’s gets too refined for its own good. These drinks are better when they’re boisterous, as in the Baja Ha Ha (vodka, passion fruit, and lime with Suze, the French gentian-root liqueur). It’s fun and easygoing, and the Suze gives it backbone and mixological heft. There’s a Sí, Señor, a lemony gin spritzer of sorts, plus a classic Paloma, but it’s very hard to say no to a blended margarita. Even though it’s still early in the summer, I keep falling into the arms of frosé (i.e., frozen rosé) so this margarita makes me feel real classy. The how-can-you-not quality is too strong to resist even before you learn that it’s made with agave and pink Himalayan sea salt.

Calling something a “hangover cure” can be a backhanded compliment. It presupposes quantity over quality plus — for food — a certain greasiness. (And who do you think you are claiming to be the judge of taste if you’re still getting hangovers?). But they do happen, and for every time you try to remedy one with a burrito, you’re likelier to exchange a headache for a food coma. Glena’s is maybe too fancy to sit with your sunglasses on inside, massaging your temples amid your newfound regrets. But the tacos, pozole, and frozen margarita are a more elegant way to make the afternoon pleasant and productive if the night before bled into the morning. And no matter what, the chicken torta is a sandwich for all seasons.

Glena’s
632 20th St.,
415-915-8226

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