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Din With Dinner 

Visiting the same place two nights in a row finds two different restaurants: one deserted and calm, the other crowded and riotous

Wednesday, Jul 6 2005
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When I called the new North Beach Mexican restaurant Impala to inquire if I needed a dinner reservation that night at 9, the quick response was, "No, no problem," followed by an odd, slightly plaintive plea, uttered just as I was about to hang up: "Could you possibly come in by 8:30?"

"No," I said, "I've already arranged to pick up my friend at 8:30." (After her kickboxing class, as a matter of fact, a regime my friend Maya was enjoying so much that I knew she wouldn't want to forgo it.) "Your Web site says you're open until 2 a.m.," I added. "Well, we close the kitchen early some nights," the guy responded, "but don't worry, we'll stay open for you."

That felt like a big responsibility, especially when we showed up and found the place nearly deserted: Only one other couple was dining, and a few people were spread out along the long, V-shaped bar. We were led to a wooden table across from the bar, and as I slid onto the banquette I told our server that we'd order quickly. "No hurry," she said, "the kitchen is open until 10."

So we relaxed and took our time with the menu. It seemed to exist in a health-oriented middle ground between Mission taquerias and such upscale Mexican establishments as Maya and Doña Tomás: Various ingredients were sourced (Fulton Farm organic chicken, Black Pig pork, American-raised "Kobe-style" beef), the albondigas soup offered chicken meatballs rather than the usual beef, the tortilla soup was vegan. I was willing to bet that there was no can of lard lurking in the kitchen. There were 10 appetizers, including the inevitable guacamole and quesadilla, but also a lobster and grapefruit cocktail (at $15) and, rather than fried jalapeño poppers, sautéed jalapeño rellenos (served with a chipotle aioli); four salads, with a different dressing on each (tequila, creamy cilantro, and a jalapeño and a citrus vinaigrette); and 11 main courses, which seemed gently priced (between $9 and $16) until I realized that vegetables were a la carte, and adding just rice and beans, even in portions calculated to serve several people, would add $12 to the bill.

We started with cocktails -- a margarita for Maya, and an excellent Mojito for me -- and the Impala layers, the restaurant's version of seven-layer dip, a chilly bowl filled with black and refried pinto beans, Oaxaca cheese, queso fresco, chipotle, sour cream, and pico de gallo, topped with snipped scallions. We scooped the claylike mixture up with the decent chips, which had earlier arrived at the table in a chic steel bucket (along with a cup of mild salsa). The mashed beans dominated, and the other ingredients were a little lost; Trader Joe's makes a version that I find tastier.

There was plenty of time to take in the diverse décor in the big, dimly lit, empty room: lots of wrought iron, including an especially striking long latticed shelf, laden with dozens of fat pillar candles, suspended over a big communal table (I assumed the candles were dripless); an unusual mosaiclike wall behind the bar; and a huge framed mirror above our banquette. A deep-bosomed, otherwise wraithlike creature, attired in a vintage evening outfit consisting of a long nightgowny dress topped with a short bedroomy jacket, wandered in and, mesmerized by her reflection, danced to the retro-rock soundtrack in front of the mirror, her eyes glued to it. (The elderly, suited gent who accompanied her occasionally essayed a few steps, but, ignored, mostly watched her reflection and himself, and told the bemused staff, "We love your mirror.")

We were not overly distracted from her performance by our main courses. Maya had chosen tequila-and-chipotle-marinated shrimp after a brief flirtation with the idea of grilled ahi tuna topped with green salsa, roasted poblano peppers, and pumpkin seeds. The half-dozen skewered shrimp were quite sturdy and hadn't picked up much flavor from the advertised marinade, though there was a mild smoky tinge from the grill. The slawlike jicama salad that came with it was pleasantly crisp. I was happier with my beef brisket barbacoa, a pot roast made with that aforementioned fancy beef, though once again the ingredients mentioned in its preparation (red chilies and garlic) were not very forward. (And the menu line "served with carrots, onions, and potatoes" turned out to mean a scattering of tiny dice atop the meat, not big chunks alongside.) We'd ordered refried pinto beans with roasted garlic, but the alluring roasted garlic seemed to have gone missing. And the kitchen also appeared to have misplaced its salt: Everything -- the jicama salad, the beef, the beans -- needed a generous sprinkle to bring the dish to life. The best thing on the table was the grilled corn, cut off the cob, with chili and lime: We loved it.

The private dancer had disappeared, only to reappear with a more conventionally dressed girlfriend (she wore an off-the-shoulder, black-and-white striped sweater) for a second, shorter bump-and-grind in front of the irresistible mirror. After they departed, we requested that the music be turned down a little, and the staff agreed: Now we were the only people in the dining room.

My Kahlúa flan betrayed nothing at all of its marquee ingredient, continuing an Impala tradition, but it was otherwise a lovely flan, unlike Maya's rock-hard and refrigerator-cold pineapple coconut cake, which had also picked up off-putting flavors from its cool surroundings. "We can send it back," I said, but Maya dreaded doing so, preferring to pick at the chopped pineapple and mango sorbet that came with it. "Maybe the server will ask us if there was anything wrong with it," I said, hopefully, but she removed the nearly untouched, massive triangle with no comment.

We could hear the sound of a jazz singer wafting across the street from Enrico's, so Maya bummed a cigarette from a guy at the bar and we sat for a while at one of Impala's small tables on a heated, fenced-in patio space carved out from the sidewalk. "That's Lavay Smith," Maya said of the bluesy-voiced singer, "and I think that's her husband, Chris Siebert, on the piano. We should go hear them sometime." I was happy to be hearing them then.

The next night I was going to see Batman Begins with Tommy and Matt, an excursion that had been canceled the previous week when it proved to be scheduled against the seventh and deciding game of the NBA finals. Afterward, I drove us over to Impala, figuring that, you know, guys like Mexican food. It was around the same time that I had dined there the previous evening, but we walked into an entirely different scene. The place was packed: Nearly every table was full, including the big communal one, and there were people two deep at the bar. The music was cranked up, way louder than before. Mystically we were led to the same cozy four-top that Maya and I had occupied the night before; I could see only one other table that was empty in the entire place. Our hostess dropped a card down -- alongside the regular menus, wine list, and separate page listing about 75 different tequilas -- that helped to explain the crowd. "Tonight's Taco Rock Tuesdays," she said, brightly. "Tacos, Coronas, and margaritas are $2 each."

Matt and I quickly ordered a couple of margaritas, but Tommy opted for a $5 draft Blue Moon over the bargain beer. And that wasn't the only draft that was on his mind. He explained his attraction to the big-screen TV over the bar by telling me he'd almost canceled the movie tonight, too: "It's the NBA draft." "They televise that?" I said. "I could have TiVoed it for you, along with the episode of Empire I had to do in order to get Matt to come along."

Also to keep Matt happy, I traded him my firm shrimp and whitefish seviche, with diced tomato and chunks of avocado, marinated with lime juice and jalapeños, for his vegan tortilla soup, which he found underflavored. I liked it as a fresh-tasting vegetable soup, full of diced zucchini, yellow squash, bell peppers, and onions, and garnished with a few crisp strips of tortilla: not at all the classic tortilla soup. A sprinkle of salt improved it. Tommy was happy with his grande quesadilla, a big, floury tortilla filled with lots of melted cheese -- a blend of pepper jack, Oaxaca, and queso fresco -- and unexpected cubes of potato as well as the expected jalapeño and salsa, with more queso fresco crumbled on top, and a side dish of sour cream.

I couldn't get over how different the place was from the night before. "I was worried about its survival," I said. We could barely make ourselves heard over the din of conversation and the mash-ups issuing from the arch cut over the bar, framing a hardworking DJ. Matt opted for grilled flank steak over Dungeness crab and shrimp Vera Cruz, and we both liked the smoky flavor of the compact, resilient, tasty piece of beef, propped on a silky tangle of caramelized onions and sided with a couple of grilled scallions. I was first brought an unordered plate of chicken mole, the small half-bird coated with a dark sauce made, the menu said, from Mexican chocolate, chilies, and nuts. After it was exchanged for the dish I had requested, the al pastor -- chunks of Black Pig pork shoulder marinated in pineapple juice and chilies and slow roasted -- I thought I might have done better to have kept the chicken. The slow cooking is supposed to render the meat moist and tender; the pork was tender enough, but so dry that it became unappealingly mushy as you chewed. Tommy had gone for the bargain tacos, trying chicken, beef, and pork; the meats came heaped up on a short stack of two baby corn tortillas each, much like the classic Mission tacos, and they went down easy. (On nights other than Tuesday, you can get a plate of three tacos -- chicken, flank steak, fried whitefish, ahi, or vegetables -- for $8.) We had a rerun of the corn, which tonight was much spicier. The private dancer didn't reappear, but I found myself equally distracted by the low-cut, tightly laced corsets that members of the waitstaff were wearing.

The menu was devised by Executive Chef Kerry Simon, whose sobriquet as the "Rock 'n' Roll" chef seemed more apropos, tonight, than his tutelage at the Culinary Institute of the Arts and under Frenchmen Andre Soltner and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. His current gig opening "Simon at the Hard Rock" in Las Vegas probably precludes any time spent in Impala's kitchen (though he might want to fly in for a little recalibrating).

I can't comment further on dessert. When we tried to order it, we were told the kitchen had closed at 11, a few minutes earlier, and I guess there was nobody around qualified to cut a piece of tres leche cake or scoop out a sorbet. They would have to sell nine $2 beers to make up for us, but the evening was still young.

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Meredith Brody

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