Last July, when a fire closed Chava's, a home-style Mexican restaurant at 18th Street and Shotwell, its clientele of Latino families and in-the-know gringo bohos all but went into mourning. The place was community. Weekends had become a scene of sorts: Kids, grandmas, and everyone in between dined en masse at long, tile-topped tables, rubbing elbows with clusters of artsy Latinophiles who, the night before, were probably at the same party as the Salvadoran poet euthanizing his hangover with a dose of menudo. Where to go now for huge portions, low prices, and real-deal traditional fare — not to mention the welcoming vibe that seemed to radiate from the owners, the staff, and the very walls?
A few weeks ago, when I saw the sign announcing that Chava's would reopen in a new venue just steps from the 24th Street BART stop, I activated the phone tree immediately. The plato parlor's new home, if also in the heart of the Mission, is worlds away from the quiet, noncommercial neighborhood it used to occupy. From now on, when you go to Chava's you're entering a microcosm of the Mission in all its grime and glory.
The block boasts 11 eating establishments, including two fast-food purveyors, a pizza place with a Frida Kahlo theme, perennial “Best Burrito” winner La Taqueria, a diner-style eatery once known as the Chat 'n' Chew, and wild card La Traviata, an upscale Italian restaurant with valet parking. During the day, laborers and handyfolk stop in at Workingman's Headquarters, a classic musty hardware store in the 1950s mold; soon-to-be-15-year-old girls pick out theme colors in ribbon-and-balloon shops devoted to the extravagant quinceañera fiestas that mark their coming of age; and their big sisters and funny uncles get their hair done at a salon staffed by casual Latino cross-dressers. The occasional tourist couple stands dumbfounded before a wall of soft-porn Carnaval pics in the photo shop window. Around the corner at the far end of the block, jittery Honduran kids working on their first peach-fuzz mustaches patrol the sidewalk, selling crack.
In the spirit of the old Chava's, we made our first visit as a crowd. Those with appetites pre-whetted by familiarity with the former establishment were not disappointed, except by the décor. The new digs can't match the old warm, dark, barnlike room for patina; colorful festoons of hand-cut tissue paper are an endearing attempt. The tables are characterless and standard in size, so you'll be sitting with your party alone. I can advise that the plates are still enormous, the food still wonderful, and the service, as before, a treat in itself. But there's one inexplicable thing that every visitor should know about: Chava's now has an odd unadvertised policy I've never run into in a Mexican restaurant before — you have to ask that your food be spicy.
This practice means that when you order huevos a la mexicana, wherein jalapeños cooked into the eggs are a key catalyst or even the main flavor event, the dish could arrive with no hot peppers at all. Oh, the server may put a little bowl of whole, seared peppers on the table for you to add in, but the concoction comes out to less than the sum of its parts. Therefore, if you eat Mexican because heat gets you hot, request your food picante. Our chilaquiles — torn, pan-fried tortillas jumbled with eggs, onions, tomatoes, sweet peppers, and the lightest bit of cheese — were divinos, thanks to this essential directive. The vegetables were cut into large, sensuous chunks, their personalities intact within the unifying taste buzz. Carlos, who has fond memories of his mom's version of the dish from his boyhood in Texas, gave this platter the thumbs-up.
Meat eaters, you are in luck. On every dish we ordered, Chava's touch was infallible. In the machaca con huevos, much like chilaquiles but with shredded beef instead of tortilla, the meat was magically tender, strutting with flavor, and not overwhelmed by the eggs. It was all we could do to let Ted, a passionate habitué of the old Chava's, finish his order without stealing it away taste by taste. The famous caldo de pollo arrived in a bowl big enough to hold the oil drained from a Toyota, and there seemed to be three-quarters of a chicken amid the hunks of vegetables. The bird was succulent and flavorful, the broth dreamy once we added in the side of cilantro and lemon.
Kathy's mole de pollo was equally well cooked, but the silky sauce was distressingly bland. Jake, who grew up in the Mission, went straight for the chicken enchilada. It was another hit, the ingredients coming together with the same sort of indefinable chemistry that makes a great party. Go on weekends for birria, a mutton soup whose main element can come out tough or stringy in the hands of lesser chefs; here it was so gorgeous in texture that it was almost spoonable.
The top-price item is the camarones, which, ordered a la diabla, has a pungency worthy of its name (“she-devil” style). Cooked with mushrooms and incendiary chilis de árbol, it leaves you wishing the taste in your mouth would never go away. On our visit, though, the shrimp was a fumble, stringy and undercooked.
Aguas frescas were perfect for washing it all down — the horchata full-bodied and tangy with cinnamon, the melón sweetened with the requisite restraint. A chief attraction is Chava's handmade, just-like-mamacita's tortillas. They're as wonderful as ever, but on repeat visits were erratically served, sometimes early (a waste of their ephemeral warmth), sometimes late (unforgivable). The salsa's so-so.
One thing you won't find at Chava's (or in Mexico, for that matter) is a burrito. Fortunately, we've got that covered — pretty much everywhere else in the Mission. By coincidence, another burritoless Mexican place opened up almost at the same time as Chava's, on the same block. Specializing in food typical of Mexico City, it's called D Place — not as in “Da Mayor,” but in reference to D.F., or Distrito Federal, the more common local term for the Mexican capital.
The new restaurant is still getting its sea legs, but after a rocky first few weeks shows some promise as a late-night spot (open till 1 a.m.) serving D.F. signature foods that the average burrito hound will find unusual. For example, quesadillas often have no cheese; Mexico City transplant Lucía was pleased with the quesadilla de tinga, which has a filling of almost-puréed spiced chicken. Sopes are not soups, but taco-size affairs with a half-inch-thick tortillalike base and savory spreads such as flor de calabaza (pumpkin flower). Not for the squeamish is sope de huitlacoche, a paste of corn fungus with a pleasing, faintly vinegary tang.
D Place is drawing a contented Latino crowd, partly due to its jukebox and two TVs (bring earplugs if soccer's on), as well as its low prices. If the trend continues, this block could set the pace for a Mission revolution: going burritoless in Baghdad by the Bay.