Imagine a fugitive liaison between Boston Market and World Wrapps: Roast chicken (with two side dishes) meets a world of cuisines folded in brightly colored tortillas. Their love child might easily be Fresca, a sleek new cafe in West Portal that neatly joins two of the bigger trends in the local universe of quality fast food.
While the wraps run the usual transglobal route and are given cleverly colorful names such as El Griego (lamb, feta cheese, and olives) and Mardi Gras (blackened catfish), the chicken takes an unusual, un-Bostonian twist. The birds are seasoned with Peruvian spices and served with distinctly Latin American sides — various kinds of rice (Spanish, ginger, cilantro), beans (red, black, pinto), and guacamole.
Of course, roast chicken doesn't need a lot of dressing up: some salt and pepper, a squeeze of lemon, maybe a garlic clove or two, and a good hot oven. It's simple, easy, and stylish.
“Really, nothing is simpler,” Barbara Kafka says in her recent book Roasting. “A roast chicken suits both children in the family [and] can be elevated to … delight more serious gastronomes in its simplest form.”
It's also perfect food for people who don't have time to cook and don't want to come home from work and sit down to something microwaved out of freezer hibernation. This was the sort of crowd the Boss and I found at Fresca on a recent Friday evening: people debouching from Muni Metro (the mouth of whose Twin Peaks tunnel is just steps away) and picking up dinner on the last leg of their trek home from work. The restaurant has ample seating but not full table service: You order and pick up your food at the counter, then sit or carry away.
I wanted a quarter-chicken of white meat ($4.25) but was told there were no more breast-wing combinations. How about a half-chicken ($5.75) then? I saw a couple of whole birds turning slowly in the tall stainless-steel rotisserie, but these, said the young woman behind the counter, were already spoken for. Finally I settled for a leg and thigh ($3.75), along with corn on the cob and black beans. These side dishes were disappointing — the corn soggy sweet, the beans bland (though revivified by a dash of salsa fresca) — but the chicken itself was tender and moist. The skin could have been crisper, but that just makes it more tempting to eat. Since most of poultry's fat is attached to the skin, discarding it wasn't a real tragedy.
The Boss and I split a skewer of grilled beef ($3.75) — several fat chunks of tender marinated meat on a slender wooden spear. The beef itself was buttery and flavorful; the accompanying Spanish rice, on the other hand, was a gummy (if tasty) mess that had plainly been kept too long in a warmer.
The sad state of the rice scarcely affected the Boss, who was engaged in hand-to-hand combat with his wrap, the Double Trouble Ducky ($6.25), a loglike projectile filled with smoked duck, tomato, mushrooms, and ginger rice and slathered with (faint of heart, beware) andouille sausage cream sauce. Despite the considerable amount of filler, and the danger of muddle that so often accompanies too ambitious a list of ingredients, the wrap had a good meaty taste. But, unlike its brethren, it didn't seem to occupy a definite place on the map of culinary destinations.
At lunch, the crowd was lighter, and the kitchen did not appear to be strained by demand. Counter service was courteous and swift, although I was annoyed by a glitch in the credit-card processing system that apparently required an amount to be entered for a “tip” before the computer would accept the transaction. The manager insisted on charging me an extra dollar. It's bad enough that tip culture is metastasizing out of control these days, but it's even worse when it becomes folded into a larger tyranny of computers, and you no longer even have a choice. (At a place that doesn't even offer tippable service, yet.)
The quesadilla ($2.75) was generously layered with white cheese, but the enveloping tortilla was scarcely browned and depressingly limp, as if it had been steamed or microwaved instead of grilled. But the accompanying salsas alleviated much of the disappointment: a bright, tart tomatillo sauce, and the ubiquitous salsa fresca, a pico de gallo-like mix of tomato, chili, onion, and cilantro in coarse dice. (We were also given a basket of corn chips, roughly shaped and a bit too thick for my taste, but rich with the flavor of corn, and adequately salted.)
My friend didn't seem too enthusiastic about her Southern Thai wrap ($4.75), but I thought it was sensationally tingly with basil, lemongrass, and a subtle suggestion of curry. (Thai curries are more musically delicate than their harsh Indian cousins.) The wrap also included a healthy portion of diced roast chicken, along with chopped scallions and ginger rice.
I ordered my traditional wrap ($4.75) with marinated grilled flank steak and “the works” ($1.50), which was mainly a pile-on of fat in the form of guacamole and sour cream. As burritos go, it was well above average, lacking only that nimbus of secret magic that makes La Cumbre's burritos unforgettable. (How do they do it?) But I thought the seasoned rice dishes on the side needed work: The ginger ($.75) could have used more pep from that glowing root, while the cilantro ($.75) didn't seem to capture much of the herb's unmistakable pungency (which doesn't stand up well to the heat of cooking, or sitting there in the warmer).
For a small and inexpensive place, Fresca serves a number of dining constituencies: the roast-chicken crowd; the gourmet-wraps folks; or those on their way home from work, heading to a movie at the theater across the street, or just window-shopping along West Portal (which, especially with its endless parade of cars, is looking more and more like Chestnut Street these days). But if you advertise roast chicken as one of your main offerings, you would be well advised always to have it on hand. Especially if it's as good as Fresca's.
Fresca Wraps & Pollos, at 24 West Portal, serves its menu weekdays from 10:30 a.m. until 9:30 p.m., weekends 10 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. Call 759-8087.