As a viral tweetstorm reminded us this week, the price of real estate in San Francisco is completely bonkers. In the most abundantly apparent sense, this affects housing — but it’s also exerting pressure on restaurants, much like Mr. Wizard’s Invisible Giant could crush a metal can. Steve Paoli and Kristina Skoro’s Joint Venture Kitchen in SoMa wants to act as a corrective.
Just as incubator spaces like Oakland’s Forage Kitchen help fledgeling food businesses establish themselves in the big, cruel world out there, JVK provides a temporary space and use of equipment so that new concepts can work out the kinks before paying tens of thousands of dollars a month in rent. As the Chronicle reported in February, Paoli is an industry vet who opened more than a dozen restaurants and whose family owned Paoli’s for decades downtown. After all, nobody wants to pour 80 hours a week and all their savings into a project with low margins only to have it generate just slightly too little revenue to survive a competitive world of punishing costs.
It’s a great idea, and the first temporary occupant is Salpicon, a project from CDMX native and 25-year S.F. restaurant veteran Francisco Tamayo Cazares that debuted in January with an intended lifespan equal to that of a monarch butterfly. It’s since been extended through the end of April, so you have about five more weeks to eat food like what Cazares’ grandmother used to cook — apparently with little rest. “Looking back, I was certainly blessed, but I’m lucky I’m not 500 lbs!” the chef says on the site.
Salpicon — Spanish for “medley,” and referring specifically to a heavily seasoned steak salad — has a slim but well-rounded menu that’s oriented toward breakfast and lunch. The pop-up runs weekdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., at which point special events take over the space, so breakfast-all-day isn’t just a lure. Breakfast burritos start at $5, and you can add things like hickory bacon or carnitas to it for an extra $2 (Carnitas breakfast burritos are surprisingly rare, are they not?) Whatever the filling, the sweet guajillo salsa is the star. You might almost be persuaded not to add guac and sour cream, because less could be more.
Wrapped in foil just as expertly, the regular burros ($8 to $12) combine Spanish rice, bean stew, guajillo salsa, jack cheese, smoked and grilled onions, plus pico on a flour tortilla. No punches pulled. I didn’t quite eat my way through all eight fillings, which include a few rarities, like garlic-roasted chicken, tri-tip asada with prawns, and picadillo (a mixture of chorizo and ground beef). That was the best one, a solid platform for a cup of smoky salsa without being a true afternoon-destroyer, as carnitas can be. (Salpicon’s slow-cooked pork is not excessively oily, though.)
I could eat street tacos ($4) indefinitely, but there are four specialty tacos in the $5 to $7 range, too. La Tiffany contains Gulf shrimp and bacon with salsa verde swapped in for the guajillo, but it’s the Pancho’s Pastrami that won my heart. A salty mix of grilled meat, smoked onion slaw, stone-ground mustard-agave aioli, and jack, it’s what I wish corned beef had been on St. Patrick’s Day as a kid. Forcing myself to take micro-nibbles to appreciate the aioli fully, I have to commend the ratio of meat to condiment. It’s just satisfying at a cellular level, and since it’s salty, you might as well get an agua fresca for $3. Unsurprisingly, mango was the best.
Pastrami emerges again in the Cisco’s Cubano ($8), along with carnitas, queso fundido, and another heap of grilled onions. Intriguingly, it’s the only item on which jalapeños may be found, and unlike almost most other cubanos, there is no mayo — it comes on a buttered roll instead. It’s great. Even better is Kristina’s Dorito-melt ($6), which turned out to be my favorite use of tri-tip asada because of the way its chew contrasts with the vestigial crunch of Doritos that have been pressed under the plancha. It’s not unlike a zapato at El Garaje.
The only genuine disappointment was a continuing one: the mojo ahi tuna might be line-caught, but it’s lacking in heat. It shows up as an option for almost everything, too. Atop the Szechuan Señorita Salad — the lone ensalada, “but it’s a good one” — the tuna can’t pull the nest of shredded cabbage peanuts, scallions, and other vegetables high enough into orbit. You might need a booster rocket in the form of extra habanero salsa, Salpicon’s one table condiment. And even if it were store-bought wedding cookies, it would be nice to offer at least a token dessert or something sweet.
Even if the thought of a $7 taco makes you blanch, the prices are otherwise spot-on. What is a little frustrating is Joint Venture’s seating, benches that feel like pews without a back and which are bolted to the floor at the precise distance from the table to ensure discomfort. Salpicon will wave goodbye to them soon enough. Hopefully it doesn’t venture too far.
Salpicon, through April at Joint Venture Kitchen, 167 11th St., salpiconsf.com