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Moon Over the Mission 

Luna Park

Wednesday, Aug 16 2000
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If I wanted to think about something totally mind-blowing -- because, you know, brains need exercise, too -- the utterly incredible chain of events that led to my decision to think about something mind-blowing would probably do the trick. I mean, is it possible that, once upon a time, the entire universe was an infinitely dense ball, and then -- bang! -- that ball exploded, and the energy went everywhere, forming the molecules that later became galaxies and stars and, still later, our own Mother Earth, and then, just as randomly, life evolved, and now, here I am, trying to think about something mind-blowing?

Or, if I wanted to think about something more relevant to this section of the newspaper, I'd contemplate how many freaking restaurants a person can eat at in the Mission. You have older places like El Zarape, El Valenciano, La Traviata, and Bruno's (sort of), and then newcomers like 3 Ring, Pintxos, Foreign Cinema, Bruno's (also sort of), Tokyo Go Go, Neo, the Liberties, Watergate, Blowfish, Cha Cha Cha at Original McCarthy's (which just isn't the same as the original Cha Cha Cha), not to mention Flying Saucer, Herbivore, the Rooster, Boogaloos, and Mangiafuoco, the Salvadoran places, the Chinese places, at least a billion taquerias, the pizza places, the tapas places, the Indian places, the Mexican places, the Middle Eastern places, the places that don't get much press, like Jim's Restaurant, Pete's BarB-Q, and the original Fina Estampa, and the places I frequent, such as Ti Couz, Ristorante Mereb, Timo's, Firecracker, Saigon Saigon, the Slanted Door, and Taqueria Can-Cun, and then, finally, the place that, under the right conditions (Sunday, 3 p.m., either a sunny day or a rainy one), offers the finest dining of all -- La Rondalla -- because the albondigas there are as big as planets and at least 10 times as juicy, and the strawberry margaritas are as sweet and deadly and get-the-job-done as anything anyone else who comes along could dream up.

Or, if I wanted to contemplate something truly amazing, I'd wonder how no one, until recently, thought to open a Luna Park. I mean, it's just so obvious: If you build a sort of mini-Dine in the shell of an old market on the restaurant-poor (apologies to Taqueria El Buen Sabor) stretch of Valencia between 17th and 18th, a warm little box of a place with concrete floors, exposed piping, lots of dark, rich wood, and a throbbing, glowing, welcoming kind of vibe, then throw in chandeliers that look they were found while thrift shopping in the Haight and a painting of a droopy-looking fellow with a marvelously kinked nose who points out the front window with practiced nonchalance, then name the place after an old Coney Island amusement park, hire a young, friendly, courteous waitstaff, keep the prices affordable, and offer plenty of liquor -- well, just like that the people will come, and keep coming, and bring their friends until the place is packed night after night.

It's been done, and they're coming in droves, which, to me, means two things: 1) the Mission still has room for new restaurants, especially when the concept is right; and 2) when you arrive at 8:30 p.m. on a Sunday, as my friend Rebecca and I did, you may end up trying all five specialty cocktails while you wait at the bar for a table. The Mai Tai proved decent at first sip, slightly better by the third, while the "favorite" margarita with fresh lime juice and Hornitos never lived up to its potential. Neither did Rebecca's somewhat puzzling Mojito, which contained nearly a bushel of mint, but tasted watery, the result, we surmised, of insufficient muddling. A sweet, burning cucumber-infused vodka hit the spot more precisely, as did a perfect Maker's Mark Manhattan served straight up with a small decanter of extra Manhattan on the side -- in other words, a whole lot of smooth, oaky, fully matured 90-proof straight bourbon whiskey for the money, a sure-fire recipe for success.

As for the food, a combination of French, Italian, and American dishes, none of which costs over $13.50: I think my hairstylist, who's quite fond of Luna Park, summed it up perfectly when she said this isn't the place you take someone to impress her, but the place you take her the night after you impressed her and you just want something good at a reasonable price. A number of dishes proved memorable, such as the tuna poke -- a cool, tangy blend of cubed tuna, sweet red onions, tomato, black sesame, and chives served over warm, crisp wonton chips -- and the rich, creamy goat cheese fondue with grilled bread and sliced apples, while the mussels and frites would gladly be forgotten. Though we received an abundance of mussels in a generously sized bowl, they were some of the smallest members of their species I've ever seen, and the frites (served on the side) seemed an awkward addition, since the only way to dip them into the watery parsley broth at the bottom of the bowl was to eat all the mussels first.

Salad and pasta lovers will definitely feel taken care of. From the list of five small green salads -- arugula and fennel with lemon dressing; watercress, endive, and blue cheese with sherry vinaigrette; spinach, currents, walnuts, and feta with a lemon-shallot vinaigrette; bibb lettuce and radicchio with botarga dressing; and a traditional Caesar -- we chose the last, which proved to be crisp, adequate, lightly dressed, and topped with fresh-grated Parmesan. More impressive was the classic niçoise salad with warm grilled tuna, chilled potatoes, green beans, hard-boiled egg, and olives, a superb interplay of texture, temperature, color, and flavor which was nearly large enough to satisfy two light eaters. In fact, throw in the most expensive of the three pasta dishes -- cocktail-napkin-sized spinach ravioli oozing with creamy ricotta, topped with grilled eggplant and a lively tomato sauce -- and you've definitely got an affordable meal for two, leaving money for dessert, a generous tip, cocktails at Dalva, or, if you're in one of those whiskey-drinking moods, a velvety Maker's Mark Manhattan at Luna Park.

Entrees are a bit less polished. The grilled king salmon would go for about $18 at higher-end places, but it was a tad bland, and seemed to be missing something the charred tomato vinaigrette and side of sweet corn and potatoes just didn't deliver. A juicy grilled pork chop with applesauce, mashed potatoes, and sauerkraut hit all the right notes as far as what was on the plate was concerned, but again, we wanted something ... more, something crisp, perhaps, or something green, or both, such as a side of crisp green beans sautéed with lemon and shallots that we didn't want to pay an extra $3 for.

The roasted halibut cheeks offered a more complete experience -- three chewy, chubby little cheeks in a rich white wine sauce, served with scalloped potatoes, capers, and olives -- as did the ""Tasty' burger with french fries and cheese?" (so spelled on the menu). Me, I get nervous when I see that kind of punctuation, though my fears were allayed when our waiter explained that "tasty" describes the hoped-for result of the burger-cooking process, not a new type of artificial meat, and "cheese?" is meant to be a question, as in, "Cheddar or Gruyère?" I chose the Gruyère, and got a pretty big burger on a big, hearty, flour-dusted bun, a savory, juicy, slightly tangy burger that maybe wasn't quite as tasty as the burgers at Burger Joint up on 19th, but then again, Burger Joint doesn't serve Maker's Mark Manhattans, which add a lot to the burger experience, if you ask me.

When dessert time rolled around we simply had to try the make-your-own s'mores: a small pot of melted marshmallow, another of chocolate sauce, accompanied by crisp, homemade graham crackers. Though I'd gladly eat a whole (well, not a box, since they're homemade, so how about a basket?) of the crackers, the chocolate sauce and marshmallow were far too sweet, and became cloying after only a few bites. Instead, I'd recommend the vanilla crème brûlée, which was cool and creamy on the bottom, warm, crisp, and perfectly caramelized on the top. And, best of all, the crème brûlée came with a handful of good, buttery Danish cookies imported from -- where else? -- Anna's Danish Cookies up on 18th, right around the corner.

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Greg Hugunin

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