Last Tango on Haight

Cha Cha Cha welcomes one and all with spicy tapas and kitschy decor

I thought I detected a hint of panic in our waitress' eye. And no wonder. From my own less-than-illustrious career waiting tables, I knew we were every waitperson's worst nightmare: two women, a teenager and a two-year-old.

I wasn't sure this was a great idea. But I wanted my best and oldest friend from New York and her daughter to see (and taste) something that wasn't on the North Beach-Chinatown-Fisherman's Wharf circuit, and I figured the Haight's Cha Cha Cha was a reasonable choice. The combination of small plates of food that practically fly out of the kitchen and the kaleidoscope of kitschy religious art might keep my son, Harry, relatively occupied for a half-hour or so. To hedge my bet, we arrived just after 6 pm, when I figured even a disaster would have a fairly small audience.

Let me state clearly that I am not the type of mother who brings her child to fancy expensive places to ruin everybody's evening. Nor do I allow him to run around in restaurants creating a dangerous and obnoxious situation. Generally we go out together for Chinese (Taiwan on Clement is our all-time favorite) or pizza. But every so often we try something else, either due to necessity (no babysitter) or insanely idealistic thinking on my part.

“Look mommy, horsie,” Harry shouted as we settled into our booth, pointing up to a corner where a small black-and-white caballo did indeed perch on the edge of an elaborate altar. “We're off to a good start,” I thought, wedging him between my friend and myself and gratefully eyeing the basket of chips already on the table. Every mother reading this knows that booths and chips happy babies make.

And so we ordered away, choosing a variety of tapas, working around our teenager's “no red meat” proclamation. I made a mental note to return at my first opportunity and order up all the pork items on the menu, which appeared more enticing than ever because I couldn't have them.

As Harry busily dipped chips into his cup and sucked the water out of them, we debated over fried calamari with lemon-garlic aioli ($6.25) or barbecued chicken quesadilla ($6.25), mushrooms sautŽed with sherry, garlic and olive oil ($5.75) or mussels steamed in saffron broth with garlic, tomatoes and green onions ($6.75).

Service is incredibly fast. Before the chip-dipping got stale, we were marveling at a tableful of food. The aforementioned mussels, plump and juicy, were distinctively flavored with saffron. Fried new potatoes with a large puddle of pasilla chile aioli were sizzling hot and crispy; they paired perfectly with the garlicky sauce. A plate of rice and beans ($4.50) was flawlessly prepared, a generous helping of toothsome black beans astride paella-style rice. But the chicken quesadilla was the true hit of the evening, the flour tortilla brimming with moist, spicy chicken and dotted with guacamole, sour cream and salsa.

The only real disappointment was a special that evening, sesame-seared tombo tuna with chile negro mocha butter and flying-fish roe, pepper escabeche and masa mora (corn cooked with coconut milk), served on a banana leaf. Whoa! About 49 things too many happening on that plate. Worse still, it came dry as sawdust, forcing us to send it back. The second go-round was better, but I'd relegate this to that old file of culinary ideas best left unexecuted.

A variety of Mexican beers and excellent sangria help wash down the spicy food. And toddlers can always count on the busboys, who obligingly fill their bottles with milk.

Cha Cha Cha also offers what it calls comidas, or larger portions, including marinated roast leg of pork ($10.50), Pacific red snapper grilled in banana leaves ($11), Cuban-style steak ($12.50) and arroz con pollo ($10.50), all served with rice and black beans. Tasty as they sound, big plates of food at a place like this seem to miss the point.

We ate at warp speed (as parents of two-year-olds learn to do) and passed on dessert (flan, cheesecake and chocolate mousse torte), deciding not to push our luck.

It was then that I came up with the brilliant idea of strolling Haight Street. Why? Did I think my visitors would find getting spare-changed 20 times a testimonial to the enormous tolerance and social responsibility of the Bay Area? Would the two screaming drunksCR> who almost careened into our car as I strapped Harry into his seat offer some perspective on substance abuse?

But you have to put these things into perspective. If there's a great tamale to be found, for example, I'll venture into a place that makes the Haight look like Mill Valley. And Cha Cha Cha's tapas are really good. Maybe you just leave the wide-eyed tourists and babies at home.

Cha Cha Cha, 1805 Haight, S.F., 386-5758. Open daily 11:30 am-3 pm and 5-11 pm. No reservations; cash only.

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