We weren't thinking of Panchita's when we arrived at a more fashionable Valencia Street restaurant on a Saturday night. But our reservations had vanished -- as I had struggled vainly to hear and be heard over throbbing belly dance music, my call must have landed us under a wrong name, night, or week. We backed out, bewildered, past the line of waiting patrons, wondering what to do. Then one of my compatriots remembered some satisfying Salvadoran meals he'd eaten just a block away. En route we took in the yuppie throngs awaiting entry to the Slanted Door, and the even hungrier squatters at the unslanted doors from there to the corner. As we crossed the street, an impatient new Lexus seized its God-given right-on-red, crawling forward to nearly nudge my hip; I paused in place to mouth, "Go ahead, I need the money." On 16th Street we trailed a couple of tow-haired scarecrows, their unshod feet swathed in multiple socks, limping toward the Decaux stalls to shoot more abscesses into their soles. A knockout platinum blonde (she's a he) strode briskly toward Esta Noche, while two shiny-tressed suburban girls strolled with a man, taking a walk on the wild side.
Though the scene was strange, we feared no evil, for S.F.'s finest were highly visible among us, whereas we seemed invisible -- especially since our car's too funky to draw thieves or revolutionary vandals. Still, at Panchita's we were glad to step out of Night-town and into the old, familiar, un-"scene" Mission District -- a plain, bright, spacious, cheaply carpeted room with a gentle white and pastel color scheme, the walls hung with travel posters and folk art paintings of Salvadoran village scenes. A large jukebox played bouncy tropical novelty songs to several Latino families finishing their dinners; my shoulder muscles relaxed. As the crowd gradually shifted to male pairs and trios coming in for beers, snacks, and conversation, the music switched to Norteno, rollicking Tex-Mex border music with tight male harmonies over intricate accordion riffs.
Salvadorans and Nicaraguans traditionally outnumber Mexican-born residents in the neighborhood, and many of the Mission's "Mexican" restaurants are actually owned and/or staffed by Central Americans. If we'd been in doubt, one taste of the table salsa -- soupy, dark red, with just a whisper of hot pepper -- indicated that the kitchen staff is indeed Salvadoran. Traveling south through Mexico, the food gets spicier and spicier; once, eating an incendiary chicken stew in Chiapas, I had wondered whether the chile-quotient wasn't approaching some limit, like the speed of light, that humankind could not exceed.
The limit turns out to be cultural rather than physical: The zone of serious hot pepper ends abruptly at Guatemala City, where mestizos replace Mayans as a majority. Along the Pan Am Highway from there to northern Peru, the food's mainly mild, with a little bottle or bowl on every table furnishing fire to those who want it. The fare is usually simpler, as well: In the spheres of the fabulous Amerindian empires that fatally attracted Spain's greed, the aristocracy (whether Aztec, Toltec, Maya, Inca, or Spanish) demanded intricately seasoned treats for their tables. But in the agricultural hinterlands to which Spain sent only its second-rate hidalgos, the people mainly ate what they'd raised or caught for themselves.
Required to regularly endure the products of chic local chefs devising strange uses for exotic condiments, I've come to find the straightforward comforts of Central American cocina tipica newly appealing. Panchita's lengthy menu offers dishes from both El Salvador and Mexico, including nine Salvadoran appetizers (not counting six varieties of pupusas), 13 Salvadoran entree platters, and an equal array of the standard Mexican entrees. National origin aside, your options include seven variations on beefsteak, nine seafood platters, and seven substantial soups. If you come to Panchita's with a hangover (or you just love tripe) you can choose between menudo (hominy soup with tripe) and mondongo (tripe soup without hominy). We ordered mainly from the Salvadoran menu sections -- if we'd wanted Mexican taqueria fare we'd have gone to El Toro, La Cumbre, or Pancho Villa, all within a block.
The kitchen was busy and our food came slowly at first: After 10 minutes, we received a bowl of atol de elote ($3), a thick, smooth soup based on strained corn and milk with a spark of cinnamon. Nothing could be more soothing or warming on a dank night. Then everything else arrived, dish after dish in rapid succession. Cornmeal remains a staple as far south as Costa Rica (where, presto-changeo, it turns into a mere ingredient) and pupusas are El Salvador's national dish, plump pan-fried pillows of tortilla dough enclosing various fillings. Pupusas revueltas ($1.25, minimum of two) were stuffed with a classic, though dryish, mixture of pork, cheese, and beans.
Our favorite appetizer was empanada de platano ($1.50), a sweet little fried turnover filled with pureed bananas, with a center of creamy white vanilla-custard. But if you order yuca con chicharrón ($5.50), you'd better like salt and fat: The chicharrón is an exaggerated version of carnitas -- crisp-crusted deep-fried pork hunks with a flavor of fresh lard. The accompanying slices of yuca (aka cassava root or manioc) had a taste and texture like big, puffy french fries. Lending contrast to these heaps of coronary dynamite was a cabbage slaw cleanly dressed with lime juice. Tamal de elote ($1.50) brought us back to nutritional sanity: The tamale filled with sweet minced corn was doughy and homey, accompanied by a sizable dollop of Mexican crema, which resembles thick sour cream without the added gelatin.
Among the platillos Salvadorenos, we chose lengua en salsa ($5.75), tender tongue slices dressed with a lovely salsa of cooked fresh tomatoes and onions. Good rice and ordinary refried beans came on the side. Checking out the Mexican entrees, we opted for enchiladas de cangrejo ($6.75), crab enchiladas, with the same rice and beans. The tortillas spilled over with firm little curls of crab, which wasn't fresh (it was probably frozen and defrosted), but we could scarcely gripe about that, given the luxurious accouterments of fine melted Mexican cheese, crema, and a light, savory red sauce. From the mariscos (seafood) list, we zoomed in on camarones al ajillo ($9), prawns "with a little garlic." Instead of the Spanishy preparation we'd expected, we were surprised to receive a small bowl filled with very tender prawns, mushrooms, and scallions, stir-fried in a light, stock-based sauce only faintly touched with garlic. It came with a lettuce and avocado salad with regrettable store-bought dressing.
None of us was about to mess with two-buck glasses of nameless vino -- not with house-made tropical fruit drinks (refrescos) for a buck and imported brews for $2.50. They were all out of Salvadoran Monte Carlo beer, so one of my friends settled for a Corona. I tried a pino, a gorgeously sweet and pulpy pineapple drink. My other companion gambled on the mysterious "chan" -- the waitress didn't know the fruit's name in English. It was lovely, ruby-colored, and just slightly sweet, with thin pulp and seeds settling at the bottom of the glass. Passion fruit? Sapodilla? I've since looked in a dozen Latin American cookbooks and a bilingual dictionary, but in all of them "chan" is missing.
Dessert? They have flan; we didn't, just couldn't. Out on the street of yuppies and freaks, the privileged were trolling for danger, and sometimes finding it. Warm and happy inside Panchita's, we dabbed our lips and sat back in our kitchenette-style chairs, enjoying a walk on the mild side.
E-mail Naomi Wise at Wisenaomi@aol.com.