What surprised me was that the nonmeat items proved to be my favorite dishes on the table, rendering El Raigón my new first choice among steakhouses fit for the meat-averse.
We drove into North Beach on a perfect late-summer evening, parking at the North Beach Garage (735 Vallejo at Stockton), which generally proves cheaper than restaurant valet charges, in my experience. It was a Saturday night, and the place was packed; we drove up and up and up, eventually finding a space on the top level. There we received a little treat: a glorious, sweeping view of San Francisco, which transfixed us for a long moment. Coit Tower gleamed ivory, and the Bay Bridge was a dazzling silver in the blue dusk. I'd written about this garage for our Best of San Francisco® issue, not just because of its convenient location, but also for the witty fortune cookie-style sayings stenciled in each space. I was sorry I had never been forced to park so high here before; I would have included the stunning sight as an added attraction. But the lure of food drew us away from our shared reverie, toward the street.
A walk of a few blocks, the sidewalk thronged with strollers and those restaurant barkers peculiar to North Beach, brought us to El Raigón, whose facade, marked by a discreet metal plaque, is so subdued that I missed it from the opposite corner. We liked the neat, compact room, lined in warm, earthy exposed brick, and our big wooden table directly in front of the large arched windows, slid open to let in the evening breeze. The chic and understated though well-thought-out décor was trumped by the enticing view of the impressive grill, which dominated the far end of the room.
I ordered several starters for us all to share, passing over a few that would send Anna and Louis screaming from the room (blood sausage, for example, featuring two of Anna's least favorite words, in combination) for safer choices: a couple of salads; provoleta al Raigón, or baked cheese; gambas al ajillo, sautéed prawns in garlic, for the more daring among us; and mollejas, grilled sweetbreads, which I couldn't resist even though I suspected I would be the dish's only taker.
The generous salads were carefully plated, with central pyramids of greens surrounded by a ring of their most alluring ingredients. Although I enjoyed its thatch of assorted lettuces, the palmitos seemed misnamed. Identifying it as "hearts of palm with Louie dressing" wasn't quite truth in advertising: The hearts of palm were little discs circling the huge salad full of lots of slivered fennel, separated by dabs of the mildly spicy chili-sauce-and-mayonnaise-based dressing. I preferred the ensalada con peras, with slices of grilled pear surrounding well-dressed frisée and other greens liberally dotted with bits of blue cheese. The big, crispy brown circle of baked cheese, which oozed warm liquid provolone when we cut into it, made for a happy textural contrast and proved very popular. The half-dozen shrimp in the shell -- whose heads had been removed from their bodies but then replaced, in a curious, labor-intensive decorative touch -- came served in a pool of garlicky sauce that was fun to sop up with thin slices of French bread (the kids also loaded slices up with chimichurri). A bowl of the same oily sauce, full of chopped garlic, parsley, and oregano, rested on the table. (It took several requests for Jeff, a traditionalist, to receive some pats of fresh butter.) The grill-marked sweetbreads tasted mildly smoky and a little bland, and were no more difficult to eat than pork tenderloin, but even after agreeing that they looked like chicken, no other carnivore at the table was willing to try the dish, despite the obvious pleasure I took in it.
Jeff wanted the biggest steak on the menu, and the server steered him toward the bife de chorizo, described as a classic Argentine cut of meat similar to New York strip and several dollars less than the bife del lomo, or tenderloin. (All the meat served at El Raigón is Montana-raised, all-natural, free-range beef.) I was a little disappointed in the size of the steak and in its appearance: If I'm paying 24 bucks for a charcoal-grilled steak that comes naked on the plate (well, it was adorned with a small heap of fresh-chopped pepper-and-onion salsa, but in classic steakhouse style, vegetable sides were additional), I want it to be big and beautiful and well colored. This one looked pale and anemic. My entraña, a long thin skirt steak served sliced, arrived properly rare as ordered, and was more flavorful than Jeff's steak, but it still just missed entrance into Steak Nirvana. I wondered if the mild flavor was because the beef was grass-fed. I also suspected that the grill wasn't quite hot enough that night; none of our meats had the distinctive charred exterior you can get only on a sizzling charcoal grill. Daniel's cordero patagonica (lamb loin) was a generous serving of sliced pink meat -- not from Patagonia, but New Zealand -- again just missing the slightly gamy (and increasingly elusive) flavor of great lamb. Surprisingly, my favorite entree on the table was Anna's grilled breast of chicken, which had been partially boned; it was a singularly juicy and tasty bit of bird. Louis' fettuccini mediterraneo -- chosen over fettuccini marinara or steamed vegetables with quinoa, the other main-course vegetarian options -- was the only real loser: The freshly made, tender pasta deserved a better fate than its overpowering, muddy tomato sauce, which contained peppers, onions, and olives to little effect.
What did thrill me were the vegetable sides: We ordered one each of the five on offer, and they were all impeccable. I loved the esparragas a la parilla, a lot of thin spears of lightly grilled asparagus, and the snappy, lightly garlicked espinaca saltada, whole leaves of barely sautéed spinach. The fluffy pure de papa (mashed potatoes) tasted purely of potato, and went so well with the meat juices that we ordered a second plate. The papas rostisadas (little roasted potatoes) were beautifully browned and soft and floury within. But the surprise hit was the calabaza pisada, mashed squash, sweet and buttery; it disappeared so quickly that we probably could have dispatched a second plate of it, also. It's the vegetables that are making my mouth water as I remember our meal.
We tried almost all the desserts available, too, save the ice cream: Chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, and dulce de leche seemed an unimaginative assortment. There was a good molded flan served with whipped cream and a dab of thick caramel; crepelike panqueques filled with another type of thick caramel, dulce de leche; and a shiny, dome-shaped chocolate bombe stuffed with a dense, satisfying chocolate mousse and ringed with three different fruit sauces. Until I learned that the name of my sweet, el Postre de Vigilante, a chunk of quince paste with a fan of thin, salty triangles of Sonoma County cheese, could be translated as "the dessert of the watchman" (perhaps because of its portability), I thought it was "the dessert of the thief." I loved the classic combination of membrillo and cheese, but $7 seemed a little high, compared with the same price for the much more labor-intensive confections.
Our little band left with affection for El Raigón: We'd assembled a varied and enticing feast from its compact (a dozen starters, 10 main courses) menu, with more highs than lows. And the place provided a welcome respite from the all-Italian, all-the-time focus of most of North Beach. As we walked to our car, we looked uncomprehendingly at the hordes standing in line at the Stinking Rose, placidly waiting for a mediocre, overpriced meal. We wished we could drag them around the corner for a whiff of El Raigón's garlicky chimichurri: the real deal.