There's nothing about Orale Orale (which the menu translates as "Alright! Alright!") to clue in passers-by that it serves the best Mexican food in the neighborhood, but word got around, so at lunchtime there's often a wait. At dinnertime the place is rarely more than half-full, and there are usually families with kids. Service is efficient, and the kitchen gets orders out in a jiffy, usually on scalding plates so that the food stays hot.
As soon as you sit down, you get a basket of tortilla chips and a bowl of highly addictive pico de gallo salsa with a serious chili bite, surprising for a place patronized mostly by gringos. Huevos con chorizo (eggs scrambled with lots of crumbled Mexican sausage) also proved seriously spicy. With the bland, cheese-topped refried beans, savory yellow rice, and steamed tortillas that accompanied all the dishes, it's as filling as a full English breakfast. The chile relleno, a tough test for any kitchen, was just about perfect: the chili thick and meaty, evenly cooked with no raw or mushy spots, the cheese filling melted but not so hot as to run out onto the plate, and the fried batter coating still crispy despite the sauce. A chile verde burrito, flagged as a house specialty, was disappointing: The pork was good, but the green chili sauce didn't have much of the usual tomatillo flavor. Orale Orale has a full liquor license, so you can accompany your meal with a margarita (from mix, not fresh lime juice), or finish with a digestivo of Herradura.
Walk through the beer-stein-handled swinging doors of Schroeder's and you pass through a time warp. Though the building dates back only 50 years, much of the decor was brought over from its previous location a block away. The recently restored Herman Richter murals depicting humorous scenes in pre-World War I Germany were painted in 1932, and the rosewood bar, oak tables, gaudy enameled beer steins, and stuffed deer heads are even older. Only a few flat-screen TVs break the spell (though at least they keep the sound off).
The food's also on the retro side, which can be great or grim depending on whether you're in the mood for hearty, old-school German. Most entrees feature massive portions of thoroughly cooked meat half a roast duck, a two-pound pig's knuckle with the skin still on, thick slices of sauerbraten (beef braised with vinegar) with three or four traditional side dishes such as spatzle, sauerkraut, red cabbage, cole slaw, or potato salad. The potato pancakes are quite good when they're crisp; if yours come soggy, send 'em back. The best entrees are the sausages, including a tasty kielbasa (the current owners are Polish).
On Thursdays and Fridays from 5 to 7, Schroeder's offers free appetizers and special happy-hour prices on featured beers. Don't miss the free meatballs, served in a tomatoey sauce with bacon, mushrooms, vinegar, and hot pepper arguably the house's tastiest dish. They usually alternate with french fries tossed with a thirst-inducing mix of lots of salt, garlic, and hot pepper. Absent the free eats, the large-party sausage platter is a good choice for a group: It includes a selection of sausages, smoked pork chops, excellent headcheese, herring in sour cream, and several of the side dishes. The housemade goose liver pâte is worth trying, though the smoky bacon it's wrapped in tends to overwhelm the delicate foie flavor.
The bar has a fine selection of German beer on draft, served by the glass, half-liter, or, as in Germany, full liter. There's also a small selection of excellent German wines, including a delicious, delicate, aromatic Affentaler pinot noir that pairs very well with the food.
Schroeder's has polka parties with live music at least one Friday a month, and on those nights the place is packed. Check its Web site for a schedule.
Former habitues of the late Hayes & Vine wine bar may experience a strong sense of dejà vu on visiting WINE Bar & Shop: The glowing, translucent stone bar is one and the same. Owner Mark Dirsa closed up shop on Hayes Street in July 2004, put the furnishings in storage, and reopened last November in a larger space in Embarcadero Center. The new space includes a retail wine shop, which in the evenings is often used for special wine tastings or private parties (not very private there's no wall). Otherwise, the style hasn't changed much.
The weekly changing by-the-glass list is the longest in the city. It always includes two four-wine flights, one white and one red, devoted to a particular varietal or country; another two or three dozen whites and reds from all over the world, usually including representatives from Germany, Austria, and South Africa; several sparkling wines; a rose or three; and a selection of sherries, ports, Madeiras, and dessert wines. Prices range from around $6 to $15 for a six-ounce glass, half that for a three-ounce taste. Whole bottles to drink at the bar are the retail price (usually twice the glass price) plus $12. For those who don't want wine, there's a small but good selection of bottled beers, a choice of hot teas, and fancy soft drinks.
There's no kitchen, not even a microwave: All the food is cold. Much of the menu comes from local artisans: bread from Pan-O-Rama, tapenade from Jimtown Store, smoked fish from Cap'n Mike's Holy Smoke (don't miss the sable if it's available). The best values are a charcuterie plate including three kinds of pâte or mousse, salami, coppa, and a spectacular smoked duck breast, and an antipasto platter including cold cuts, olives, marinated mushrooms, artichoke hearts, red and yellow roasted bell peppers, dried tomatoes, and mozzarella. There's also a changing selection of great cheeses.
WINE validates for the Embarcadero Center garage, and after 5 p.m. parking is free for four hours. That can be handy if you're driving downtown to pick up somebody who works there and need a place to meet.