When the woman on the telephone told me that the new Mambo Cafe is in Ghirardelli Square — “We're right under the 'G'!” she added helpfully — my heart sank. Isn't that area the local tourism equivalent of Vatican City, a separate jurisdiction with its own rules and standards? The city people I know don't go there unless they're entertaining out-of-town guests who've never been. As we stood forlornly on the street, looking up at the big 'G' (is it visible from orbit?) and wondering what to do next, my dinner companion said: “I haven't been here since …”

There was a long pause while he tried to finish the sentence, but he couldn't remember. At the time, neither could I. Probably I was last here when I was in college, I thought, and I'm repressing the memory. (Later, I remembered having dinner in December 1990 at Paprikas Fono, whose space Mambo Cafe now occupies.)

A cold, damp wind rose from the nearby bay, and we trooped upstairs, where the restaurant was right where it was supposed to be. It's a huge loft overlaid with Southwestern and Caribbean pastels. There's a private dining room beyond a far door and, facing the square's courtyard, a narrow solarium with tables and a bay view.

These were all occupied, so we took a booth in a remote corner of the main dining room. There was a decorative pineapple atop our table that resolutely refused to stand up straight. The merest glance seemed to make it topple over, like a scaly dreidel. Our uncommonly polite waiter apologized and offered to bring us another pineapple, but we said no and finally left it on its side.

An omen?
Mambo Cafe offers an exuberant mishmash of Latin and Caribbean dishes, and the menu includes tapas and pizzas. We started with the Mambo gumbo ($5.25, split for two). This turned out to be a thick soup the color of root beer, in the midst of which rose a flattened cone of orange rice. The gumbo had a pleasant flavor not unlike barbecue sauce; the only recognizable ingredient in the broth was the andouille sausage, which added a stringy texture and a certain smokiness.

The gumbo could have used a little of the salt that went into the crab cakes ($7.95). These were supposed to have been scented with fennel, but if there was even a hint of that licorice essence, we didn't detect it. The cakes themselves were mushy and mealy: a sign either of overworking or of not the best crab. It is rare that I find a dish too salty, but this one was. The sauce on the side was a little runny, but delivered a sharp kick of lemon, which helped. On the whole, the cakes reminded me of ones I once had at Lyons — discs of disturbingly perfect roundness and sterility.

The roasted tomato salad ($6.25) included slices of portobello mushroom and sections of orange — the whole thing dressed with a citrus vinaigrette. The tomatoes were sensually mushy, but even though their skins were lightly charred, the roasting didn't seem to add much flavor. On the other hand, both the mushrooms and the orange slices benefited from the cooking. The salad had its moments, but it didn't seem to add up to a complete dish: The vinaigrette wasn't enough to give the salad an identity; it was just bites of different things that could easily have been served on separate plates.

I had high hopes for the jerk-chicken pizza ($8.25), and it was pretty good — a thin, crisp crust and plenty of tangy chicken mingled with blobs of melted white cheese and slices of red onion. The jerk sauce looked and tasted curiously like the gumbo — or, as my waggish friend suggested, “One sauce fits all!” The sauce also seeped through the crust, so that slices sagged away limply toward the center. But that was a small price to pay for a tasty pizza.

We'd ordered the pizza as a first course (a giant tapa), and it arrived after we'd finished the earlier first courses, which had arrived at well-timed intervals. But only moments after the pizza reached the table, so did two main courses, the swordfish brochettes ($14.25) and the tiger prawns in a spicy black-bean sauce ($14.50). Our pineapple nearly rolled off the table in search of more space.

The handful of prawns were arrayed around a cone of orange rice we'd seen earlier in the gumbo. And the sauce, too, seemed strangely familiar — gumbo? Jerk-chicken pizza? Deja vu, anyone?

At least the prawns were tasty. The swordfish brochettes were simply awful, skewers of cubed fish that seemed not to have been seasoned — let alone marinated — before going on some kind of grill that gave them not a whisper of smokiness. If the pizza had not been so satisfying, we would have been seriously cross.

By now the wheels were rapidly coming off. We wanted dessert. The waiter said there was none. Then, after checking with the kitchen, he returned to announce that there was a lemon tart and a selection of sorbets. We chose the sorbets. He went off, returning not with sorbets but with the news that there was, after all, only saffron ice cream.

We failed to heed this warning and agreed to the saffron ice cream. It arrived in two large triangles the color of old newsprint. We sampled it cautiously.

“What does it taste like?” my friend asked me.
“Paella,” I said.
If only. It didn't taste like much of anything. Worse, it had crystallized, and biting into it was like eating a snowball. At some point it must have melted a bit, then been refrozen. Some weird cryogenics experiment? Inedible. Our waiter, to his credit, offered to bring us something else, but we weren't hungry anymore.

Given the bewildered mobs of Ghirardelli Square and the savage parking enforcement in its environs, it's hard to think that the people who live and eat in this city will find much reason to go to Mambo. Certainly not for the all-purpose spicy sauce, which seems like something that will soon be packaged in fancy jars and sold from supermarket shelves — if not the boutiques in the square.

Mambo Cafe, 900 North Point, Second Floor, S.F., 441-4477. Open Sun-Thurs 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri & Sat 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.

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