There was a kerfuffle last week when it was announced that the former Farina space on 18th Street just west of Valencia was going to become a social club for LGBT people — or possibly just gay, bi, and trans men — called Yass. Funded by the venture-capital firm headed by billionaire and possible humanoid Peter Thiel, it came under a wee bit of fire because almost everything about it feels like a chloroform-drenched rag pressed over the community’s mouth and nostrils.
Farina was a naughty, naughty business, owing thousands in back taxes and wages, but a few blocks elsewhere in the Mission, another eatery has been reborn as something wholly new — if also something way less gross. The McDonald’s on Mission Street just south of 16th Street that closed in 2015 is now Kitava, the successor to food-delivery startup Mealmade. Advertising itself as “100 percent free of gluten, dairy, corn, soy, peanuts, refined sugar & seed oils,” it’s also very much non-vegetarian. It’s pretty straight-up Paleo, in fact. And it might be the most Los Angeles-ish restaurant in San Francisco.
It forced me to confront a few biases. I have to confess I bristle a little at a world where long life expectancies go hand-in-hand with boutique allergies and an ever-growing percentage of dogs — but by no means all, or most — are fake emotional-support animals. It makes me edgy when people talk about food in terms that make ordinary things seem extremely dangerous, or when people with no medical training resort to pseudoscience and woo to sell us expensive things that duplicate what our livers and kidneys have already evolved to do. Your body isn’t a temple; it’s a big sack of guts covered in bacteria, inside and out.
To its infinite credit, Kitava doesn’t cultivate a fear of food. It isn’t so militant that there aren’t white rice or sweet potatoes, and it isn’t up-selling exotic unguents with the promise of radiant near-immortality, either. Most of all, it doesn’t propagandize in the language of toxins, something you find on the affluent cultural left (Goop, Amanda Chantal Bacon’s Moon Juice) and the paranoiac right (InfoWars, Pat Robertson’s “age-defying protein pancakes”). Rather than a gooey cult of wellness, Kitava seems motivated by the desire to cook real food for people with legitimate health issues. Just as gender-nonconforming people may experience terror when they use a public restroom, some people have to weigh the pros and cons of eating from a kitchen that isn’t their own. And if you happen to be avoiding nightshades, there’s a separate menu with even greater restrictions.
With that said, virtually everything on Kitava’s main menu is accessible, and the trends it chases — cauliflower rice, say — are neutral to positive. My main issue was frequent blandness, although there is pink Himalayan salt and a not-especially-spicy habanero-pineapple salsa on every table. The Baja Bowl ($15) was probably the best offering, with a rich adobo on the pasture-raised chicken and a lot of cumin cooked into the beans. The poblanos could have been smokier and the overall ratios were a little askew — less kale slaw and more salsa verde, please — but everything was fresh and identifiable, warm and cool alike.
The Cuban Bowl ($15) was largely the same construction, except with pork in lieu of chicken and plantains and cilantro-garlic sauce. The two questions it raises are whether or not a restriction-free omnivore would eat it again and whether that person would pay a burrito-and-a-half to do so. General Tso’s Chicken ($14), marked with a star to denote its popularity, came out of left field, with cassava flour breading, sweet-and-savory coconut aminos hoisin sauce, and roasted broccoli on the chicken. The chicken was fine, although the broccoli felt steamed and lifeless, but I could taste the buttery softness in the sauce brightening the cassava, something that’s often unappealingly starchy. Still, the whole thing looked just like Chinese takeout.
I was definitely not a fan of the Zoodles and Meatballs ($14) but that’s because zucchini noodles have a horrible texture and I can’t see a way out of that except not to order them — although in their defense, the absence of al dente pasta made the meatballs seem lighter and spongier, and king trumpet mushrooms felt like a seasonal, organic-in-both-senses choice to round it all out.
I was a little thrown off by the use of avocado. Granted, avocado is delicious and we should all eat some while the biosphere is still capable of producing it, but among the small plates, there is an avocado salad ($6) and an avocado mash ($7). Which one of those do you think is going to be guacamole by another name? It’s the mash, which comes with sturdy yucca-root chips for scooping. The salad is — pardon the expression — deconstructed guac, with its avocado sliced and plopped on top. Oh well, avocados are this generation’s equivalent of hope for the future, and at least nobody was contaminating anything with English peas. And the butternut squash hummus ($7), which could probably achieve escape velocity and become widespread far beyond Kitava, has a lot of merit. I’m less sure about the “street tacos,” which are a bit steep. To charge $19 for three wild-caught salmon tacos is to sacrifice street cred, in my book.
Having simmered for a full day, the cup of chicken bone broth ($5) is warming, although if you order it with the “turmeric and ginger immunity boost,” you’re going to get a palate full of turmeric. But again, that was a rare upsell. And however small, the sweet and salty date bites (two for $5) are rich and delicious, chewy from the natural texture plus the almond butter and the dark chocolate they’re stuffed with. People with autoimmune disorders deserve good, thoughtful desserts that don’t merely sidestep a checklist of nos.
Kitava is named for an island in Papua New Guinea — although in the video game Path of Exile, it’s also the name of the god of corruption, who’s also an insatiable cannibal. It doesn’t have that latter-day colonialist feel of deforesting the tropics to satiate the neuroses of the Global North. It’s calm and soothing without being massage-parlor-y. Dried mosses hang on the walls, and there’s nary a Buddha in sight. Walk to the restrooms and you’ll immediately sense the McDonald’s that this used to be — the kitchen has those tell-tale fry baskets, too — although a table near the rear is set up for healthful cooking demos. And on every visit, out of intense curiosity, I kept track of the patrons. Sure, there were yoga pants and man buns and expensive bags and all the usual comic fodder, but every time, there were people reading pre-digital media devices and other printed matter. Tech-savvy millennials reading books! Can I get a namaste?
Kitava, 2011 Mission St., 415-780-1661 or kitava.com