Several friends had recommended the food at El Patio Espanol, housed in the Spanish Cultural Center in the unexplored wilds west of Geneva-Mission. Dave, one of the Patio's enthusiasts, managed to drive us there with only a few minor detours. "See, the sign on the front says 'Open to the Public,' " Dave teased as we approached the handsome white hacienda bordered with fragrant flowers.
"Look here," he said in the spacious entry hall, gesturing toward a wall-plaque. "His Majesty Juan Carlos personally dedicated the building. And that large room on the left -- I'm surprised it's empty. Usually it's rented to an anniversary celebration or a quinceanos -- a 'Sweet Fifteen' party," he continued.
The parties, that evening, were in the dining room -- informal birthday celebrations for an Anglo daddy, a Latina abuela, and an African-American great-grandmother. "I get it now," I said. "It's not just a Spanish center, it's a community center for the whole surrounding area." Real flamenco (not Gipsy Kings) played softly over the sound system, and although the birthday groups were as large as 20 (with significant kiddie components), the ambient noise level was lively but gentle. I saw nothing to muffle sound -- certainly not a charming wooden awning crowned with red clay roof-tiles, nor the cooking implements and pottery hanging on the white walls, nor the shoulder-high border of blue and white Spanish tiles. "It's remarkably quiet, considering all the hard surfaces," I mused. TJ pointed to the vaulted ceiling above the open-beam rafters. "The ceiling is lined with acoustical tiles," he noted.
"This is real Spanish bread," Dave observed, hefting a piece as he poured on some of the fruity, rosemary-infused olive oil from the table carafe. Our 50-ish waiter, repeating our menu choices in lispless Central American Spanish, was gracious, professional, faintly droll. We began with the cold tapas combination ($9), resembling an Italian antipasto platter with smoked meats (Serrano ham, salamilike "sausage" slices), Manchego cheese (similar to Reggiano), assorted olives, and a palate-cleansing bland potato salad. The highlight consisted of juicy, house-pickled white anchovies: "They taste just like my grandma's pickled herring," TJ said. "They're not like the puckery bottled herrings in the supermarket -- they've got a sweet undertone."
When we ordered callos Madrileno ($5.25), Madrid-style tripe, the waiter asked if we'd like it a little spicy. We nodded emphatically. The delicate red sauce included a nip of cayenne, along with slivers of Serrano ham; the tripe was tripe -- a chewy beige flavor-absorber like tofu skin. "I always used to hate tripe," Dave said, "but in Madrid a waiter talked me into it, and I loved it. It was in a heavy herb-infused oil. Then I tracked the local variations all through Spain. They always had sausage or ham in the broth. In Seville, I had a spicy version like this. Tripe -- you've gotta do something to it, otherwise it's an ugly, tasteless piece of ... tripe."
If the tripe was for Dave, the albondigas ($4.50) were TJ's choice. "The meatballs are very good; they're light, and the onion in the sauce is still crisp," he said. The chunky, chutneylike sauce mingled chicken broth, tomatoes, and diced bell pepper. My pick was morcilla ($5.25), Spanish blood sausage, with grilled red peppers and onions. The meat was flavorful, but so salty that after a few bites we glugged down all our water.
Mejillones y almejas marinera (mussels and clams, $5.25) are a test of the kitchen's timing, and the kitchen passed with honors. A heap of small black mussels and clams the size of 50-cent pieces was tender in a light tomato sauce. Gambas al ajillo ($6.95), the best-known tapa of all, had shrimps in a coral-colored, tomato-touched sauce with a lemony undertone that was stronger than the subtle garlic note. Although this was the fourth tomatoey sauce among the tapas, each sauce started from a different base, and had a distinct identity. (Still, the range of tapa sauces didn't compare to the array at Zarzuela.)
After these appetizers, the huge Paella Valenciana ($17) was ample for three. While I haven't tried every paella in San Francisco, this was the best version I've had here, and a tremendous bargain given typical paella prices. The creamy-tender, saffron-perfumed rice was mixed with succulent green peas, in sufficient quantity to make significant taste and texture contributions. The shrimps were a bit overcooked but the calamari rings and mussels were perfect. Firm, mild chunks of Spanish chorizo and chicken limbs completed the grand array.
TJ and I returned a few weeks later on a Friday night, when a slightly dressier crowd included more dating couples and smaller families. Espying us, the waiter's eyes screened an instant replay, and he greeted us with "Good to see you again." We began with two knockout tapas. Aceitunas rellenas ($4.25) had boldly pickled green olives with the little fishy nip of the house-cured white anchovies inside. Vieras al Patio ($5.95) had silky bay scallops in a light, basil-flecked cream sauce with sweet-edged, chewy Serrano ham slices (reminiscent of wonton soup ham shreds), minced onions, and mild strips of red pepper, which we diagnosed as Spanish-canned whole pimentos. Given the third degree, the waiter freely spilled the outlines of the recipe for us.
Entrees come with soup or salad. The evening's pottage was a pleasantly earthy garbanzo soup; the salad was subordinary. I ordered costillas de cordero (rack of lamb, $18) "rare," but the rack's interior arrived pinky-brown, albeit tender. "Maybe it's like hamburgers, they're afraid to cook it rare," TJ suggested. "No, it's just that they're Spanish," I answered. "Instead of 'rare' I probably should have said 'azul' -- castellano for 'blue,' meaning near-raw. In Spanish-speaking countries that sometimes gets you medium-rare." The neatly trimmed seven-chop rack (big enough to serve two) came with vibrant asparagus and reheated roast potatoes.
TJ fared magnificently with fritura malaguena ($16), a fabuloso "captain's choice" array. Every species was given a custom treatment. Still-trembling scallops were coated in gently seasoned bread crumbs. Calamari rings were crisp in a hard flour batter, while shrimps were blistered nude but for their battered tails. Fish pieces were shockingly good, given their exalted company -- tender fillets of some small fragile whitefish (perhaps Dover sole) were barely tossed in seasoned flour, letting the intense sweetness of their flesh shine through. The accompanying ailolli (Spanish aioli) was exceptional, tart with lemon juice and mysteriously light, so it never grew cloying. I wished I hadn't already pumped the waiter for the scallop recipe; I wanted this one more. Alongside were more asparagus, and some saffron rice.
Desserts include the expected flan and crema catalana, along with our order of el brazo de gitano ($4.25). "The Gypsy's arm" is a sweet we'd adored at Vinga as a memorable chocolate spongecake wrapped around chocolate mousse. At the Patio, the Gypsy's dry, white-cake arm was streaked tersely with chocolate syrup, surrounding a rich hazelnut mousse that needed a moister cake to converse with it.
But if the food is only occasionally superb (albeit mainly very good), the surroundings are lovely, the service excellent, the ambience relaxed and delightful. Little wonder that the discriminating palates among my friends have been so thoroughly seduced. If I ever confess to a birthday again, I'll strongly consider holding the party at the Patio.