There is a strong tendency among many non-Latinx Californians to assume that every Spanish speaker must be Mexican and that all the cuisines of Latin America and the Caribbean are automatically spicy and full of avocados. It’s nowhere near true, of course. While the strip of Mission Street south of Cesar Chavez has some of San Francisco’s best non-Mexican restaurants — Oye Managua and Mi Lindo Peru in Bernal Heights, or Honduras Restaurant in the Excelsior — over in the Instagram-obsessed precincts of the Inner Mission, there isn’t much from the islands apart from Radio Habana Social Club.
Within spitting distance of heavy-hitters Lazy Bear and Hog & Rocks, and into what was until last summer the bottomless-mimosa-filled brunch spot Radish, comes Media Noche. Unlike the delightful Radio Habana and psycho-circus decor full of doll heads (and Van Gogh collage complete with a bloodied ear), this is the proverbial clean, well-lighted place. And the art posters are framed.
Media Noche’s menu is not extensive. There are four sandwiches, four bowls, two salads, and some snacks, and you’re asked not to make substitutions. So clearly, we’re once again in fast-casual territory. Nor are things especially cheap: All three non-vegetarian bowls are $16 or $16.50.
But with hits-to-misses ratio that’s north of three-to-one, I liked it a lot. You can always dip your toe off the Malecón and into the water with a standard El Cubano (roasted pork shoulder, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard, $12.50). But I would strongly prefer the variation for which the joint is named, because it comes on brioche (and it’s a dollar cheaper, you frugal gourmand, you!). The media noche, billed as a “Miami party sandwich,” has that magical pillowy quality that no other bread can match, and its sweetness unlocks the pork’s smokiness and the mustard’s tang like a catalytic enzyme.
I wasn’t wild about the Celia (another sandwich of fried chicken, coconut slaw, avocado, and “famous green sauce,” $12.50) on grounds of blandness. It’s very much a milanesa de pollo, and after eating my way through most of Media Noche’s menu, I realized the slaw is the culprit. It’s plenty vivacious-looking, but it’s terminally mild, under-pickled and under-limed. Even your aunt from Indiana would say so. The Gloria is a vegetarian Celia, made with eggplant in lieu of chicken, and the verdict is very much the same.
About that allegedly famous, yet not-very-well-described green sauce, there are actually two. The famous one bursts with orange juice and lime, while the other is full of habanero. Have some fun and order picadillo empanadas ($9 for two), trying the two sauces back and forth. The former arrives in a little metal cup, while the latter sits in bottles on the tables. As for the picadillo, it carries that rich, tomato-and-onion quality, and as with the brioche on the Media Noche, the kitchen sweetens things up, this time with raisins. Again, it’s a great strategy, opening things up for the sauces to do their work. If you just want a little snack, the mariquitas (plantain chips, $5.50) are more than fulfilling.
As far as the bowls go, I have to applaud the ropa vieja (or “old clothes,” made with slow-braised brisket, peppers, and onions, plus black beans, rice, and slaw; $16.50) for its exact ratio of meat to starch to veggies. The very concept of a “bowl” has been seriously degraded by Moon Juicers and other denizens of Venice Beach who hate the fact that they have a corporeal body that requires eating, but this one is made by and for people who savor brisket’s fibrous richness. The lechón asado ($16.50), made with the same roasted mojo pork shoulder as the Media Noche sandwich, is about as flavorful as the ropa vieja, although not as balanced. With comparatively more sauce, it needs a dash more acid to even things out.
I wrongly assumed that the sangria would be on the saccharine side. It is definitely more herbal than anything else, almost like a low-ABV cocktail with a dry vermouth base, and a $22 carafe is well worth it. But the best surprises were the $5 “moon bars,” ice-cream-on-a-stick desserts that come in two flavors. Cafe con leche is pretty obvious: coffee ice cream with cocoa nibs and dark chocolate. “Mi Abuela Favorita” is even better, a combo of guava cheesecake ice cream and dark chocolate, with an asteroid field of crushed Maria cookies stuck all over it. Damn, was that delicious. I’m sure you were always Grandma’s favorite, too.
While eating our sandwiches on one visit, my boyfriend and I went back and forth on the pale-turquoise color scheme. I loved it; he hated it. I mention that only because it might be polarizing, but I think it was chosen to mimic the Delano Hotel in South Beach — and it makes the neon flamingo pop behind the counter. The restroom is painted in a reflective green with bananas all over, which made me laugh because I used to have a pair of undies like that. And unless you’re a joyless scold who hates being alive, you pretty much have to love all the tile work, of which there are at least five distinct styles. From one vantage point, you can see four: a green-and-orange flower design alternating on the floor with M.C. Escher-esque cubes, a counter with raised circles, and plain old white squares on one wall. In other words, Media Noche earns four “100” emoji for evoking South Florida without going full Miami Vice pastel.
Tile has a downside, though. In spite of eight sound dampeners on the ceiling, it can get very loud in there during the evening rush. I would strongly recommend eating there at a time of day other than dinner, and it’s only not because of the volume. Adorable though it is, Media Noche doesn’t have enough space for seating. One of fast-casual’s choke points tends to be that, when combined with alcohol and people’s natural inclination to linger at the table in parties larger than two, you might find yourself in suspended animation, holding food but without anywhere to eat it and trying hard not to hover passive-aggressively.
That’s a tough sell. So grab some lunch, go for happy hour — when the empanadas and wine are a bit cheaper — or head here for a late-night bite. That’s what the media noche sandwich is all about, anyway. Midnight is suddenly much brighter.
Media Noche, 3465 19th St., 415-655-3904 or medianochesf.com