The eve of Cinco de Mayo, we perched on butt-numbing wooden stools in the Cadillac Bar, observing the rites of young Americans at play. TJ nursed a Corona, I sipped a great mutant Margarita called "The Prickly Pear," so vibrant with its dash of pink cactus fruit that all other Margaritas are now demoted to mere Maggies and Peggys. Dipping perfectly fried, near-flavorless calamari into Heinz cocktail sauce, and flavorless corn chips into gorgeous guacamole, we tried to eavesdrop through the din on the Hispanic working men to TJ's right and the makeup-caked, scar-faced trio of gringa Working Girls to my left, who were chug-a-lugging Megs and Pegs during a breather from their labors.
The Cadillac's walls are plastered with bumper stickers from Hussong's, the Baja cantina that's served as the south-of-the-border Party Headquarters to generations of equally plastered college boys: Down in Ensenada you don't need no stinking papers to blot up the beer. Up in San Francisco, you and your car and the Cadillac Bar do need various papers, but the Cadillac is a deliberate, street-legal imitation Hussong's, only with fresher paint and more gringas. The decor is loud, the music louder, until all the tunes blend into one. Two hours of the sonic booming convinced me that the notion of "nations" must be crumbling since, from Cozumel to Caracas, the Caribbean shakes its booty to a single carnival beat. Only when you catch a snatch of Spanish lyrics can you identify the music as Mexican rock rather than, say, Trini road-march.
Adding to the racket are the seismic slams of tequila poppers and the spasmodic eruptions of perpetual birthday parties. Thursdays through Saturdays a mariachi band salutes these natal events with "Happy Birthday to You" every five minutes, which is why we chose a Sunday. Many patrons arrive in groups (often of a single gender) and leave with the ones they came in with. Judging by appearances, ages run the gamut from 22 to 29. The ethnic spread, however, covers the waterfront. A slight preponderance of Latinos reassured me that if I've got a liking for the Cadillac's kitchen, maybe I'm not really crazy with the heat.
When the Cadillac first opened (in the '70s) and hadn't yet found its current formula, most local Mexican restaurants had cloned menus centered on six species of stuffed tortillas. I'd been knocking around Mexico a lot and welcomed an eatery with a wider range, even at a higher price. Then as now, the kitchen tended toward upscale, low-spiced Mexi-gourmet cuisine, food you'd find in the Zona Rosa or Acapulco rather than Guadalajara or Guaymas, but the flavors were basically authentic. Better yet, it offered a reasonable facsimile of the downscale, irresistible cabrito al pastor (mesquite-grilled kid) of Sonora and the Tex-Mex border country. All too soon, though, the Cadillac consecrated itself as a cathedral of cacophony. I was the right age but the wrong temperament, and I gave up the goat.
I'd stayed away for more than a decade and TJ's last visit was six years ago, but in April we both caught a horrible flu. After 12 days of eggdrop soup and Jell-O, when hunger finally struck again, we craved flavor even more than quantity. Still too stupefied to cook and too weak to eat out, we grabbed the Waiters on Wheels catalog, and, upon spotting the Cadillac's menu, realized we could recheck its cooking while avoiding its clamor.
This first meal reminded me of why I missed the place, but also revealed the Cadillac has taken a wrong turn. On a slow Tuesday, its kitchen wasn't overtaxed so the meal was carefully prepared. We received the house's cooked salsa in two "heats" (mild and medium) as well as fresh pico de gallo, a bright, mildish "salsita" with juicy, ripe diced tomatoes and ample cilantro. The latter, and a side of chunky guacamole ($2.25 small, $6.25 large) were perfect, classic renditions. The tortilla chips, though, were nasty nouvelle nonsense, colored red, white, and blue, and undersalted drab.
The appetizer menu mixes Mexican standards with an anthology of obsolete gringo food-fads. The combination plate ($9.50) included coconut-battered shrimp with a fruity dipping sauce, a passe craze that's still passing fun. Despite a good spicy dip, sesame chicken strips were forgettable, but a trio of incendiary stuffed jalapenos certainly weren't -- their alluring creamy filling kept us nibbling and suffering, nibbling and suffering. An excellent empanada with a thin, crisp pastry case enclosed a zesty filling ("the chef's choice of the day") based on hand-chopped beef. The chile con queso (with semihot roasted chiles and honest Mexican white cheese) was luscious enough to make the pathetic corn chips taste good. A "Mexican salad" ($5.25) had spring greens, avocado, pico de gallo, and "roasted habanero creamy dressing." The addictive ranch-style dressing tasted habanero-free -- but never mind, we didn't really want a spicy salad.
Both our entrees came from the mesquite grill, another past fad that unfairly fell from favor once Safeway brought mesquite to the masses. The splendid camarones tocino ($13.50) had tender jumbo prawns wrapped in bacon, with a touch of sweet-spicy glaze and a wonderful smoky overtone. The dish included good rice pilaf and a hearty steamed medley of red cabbage, zucchini, and carrots. The cabrito ($18.50), however, was bony, slightly greasy, and none too smoky, apparently because the cooking method has gone astray. In Mexico, kid is typically grilled long and slowly, with periodic bastings of savory cilantro-spiked sopping sauce, on either a homemade sawhorse rotisserie, or (in restaurants) a vertical grill. Whether or not the Cadillac ever had a vertical grill, now they have a flat, circular one that's monopolized by fast-cooked dishes like fajitas. The unsopped kid lands there just briefly before it's kidnapped to a saute pan to simmer in a bland brown sauce. I guess I'll just have to hike around the Mission searching for vertical grills now. The dish came with tomato-tinged red rice and the same vegetables as the prawns. Absent was the classic black bean accompaniment to cabrito. In fact, beans are nearly absent from the dinner menu, although present at lunch. Maybe it's a Northern California thing, like saltless corn chips, or perhaps the dating-age dinner crowd has a flatulence phobia.
A few evenings later, on a frenzied Friday, we revisited the culinary trendorama, starting with a cup of "Southwest Soup" ($2.95), a weighty, slightly spicy chowder of canned corn kernels in a grease-slicked red pepper puree, finished off with a little -- far too little -- cream. The Tijuana Caesar salad ($4.50 and $6.25), named for the salad's birthplace, omits the anchovies that the Caesar has gathered since its 1924 debut, along with raw egg (which no restaurant will risk now). What remains is romaine tossed with the fine house ranch dressing and topped with salty, chile-dusted crisp bread croutons and Parmesan shreds. A fashionable grilled-chicken Caesar can be had for $2.75 more. The crab cake appetizer ($8.95), another recent rage, brought paired patties of dense, Cuisinarted crustacean. Their flavor was sparked a bit by spicy diced pickled carrots (a clever way to add piquancy without blowing softer palates away) but was deadened again by a leaden red sauce.
The same crab mince was slightly better in the baroque "Chicken Relleno" ($11.50), where it filled fresh roasted anaheims wrapped in thin-pounded sheets of chicken breast; the packets were grilled and lightly coated with cream sauce. The slightly tough chicken functioned primarily as the vehicle for a strong mesquite flavor, which transformed a trite entree into one that's lean and fresh. We both loved it but would prefer plain old queso blanco to the sad seafood stuffing. We also had an order of beef fajitas, mesquite-grilled strips of cleanly marinated skirt-steak carne asada, with grilled onions and peppers, guacamole, sour cream, pico de gallo, flour tortillas, and a "bed" of sauteed potatoes. The meat was toughish, and again there were no beans -- but otherwise I found the dish perfect. TJ, accustomed to Southern California's weird skillet-cooked gabacho fajitas with their outlandish soy-sauce marinades, was slightly shocked at this puro mexicano rendition, but admitted that, back before anybody had heard of fajitas, he'd enjoyed this dish from barbecue carts at fiestas in L.A. It was called "tacos," then, and you could opt for a flour tortilla. As for the unpeeled fried russet slices that supplanted the missing frijoles, my first reaction was, "Mmm, good and greasy," and seconds later, "Ick, greasy!" "Oh, lordy, that's lardy!" said TJ. We also got a half-order of "Southwest Baby Back Ribs" ($9.25 and $13.95). TJ assured me that the Mexican-American families in his childhood neighborhood boiled their ribs long and grilled them briefly, so the Cadillac's version is authentic. That may be, but I found them hateful. The finishing touch of obnoxity was the bland, sweet barbecue sauce they'd been basted with before their moment on the mesquite. We concluded with a coconut flan ($2.25) that was technically correct, very sweet, and barely tasted of coconut.
A few nights later, ambulatory again at last, we bearded the Cadillac live to check out the ambience. After arguing for two blocks about its location, we stumbled across the sign illuminating its Minna Street back door. A bartender said, "Go straight through to the front and you'll be seated." Assailed by noise, we made it only halfway to the front. We chose seats at the bar, and ordered drinks and snack food. The Cadillac is rolling downhill, but it's not yet crashed at the bottom -- the guacamole, chile con queso, and bacon-wrapped prawns are as good as any food you'll find in this city. But a few fabulous dishes couldn't make us trap ourselves at a table and swallow the party line.