Parada 22 is green. Crayola seafoam green, electric mint green, the green of the nuclear sludge that kept sneaking home in Homer Simpson's pockets. It is a green that makes reference to none of the subcultures that have embraced and abandoned the Upper Haight over the past five decades. It's a Caribbean green that promises rum, polyrhythmic soundtracks, plantains. Whether or not this two-month-old Puerto Rican restaurant passes anyone's authenticity test, it's a bright new spot on the graying commercial strip.
Co-owner and presiding force Alex Jackson is already the chef of the Corner. (And before that, London's St. John and New York's Gramercy Tavern. And before that, he worked at Goldman Sachs — a man who got out in time, it seems.) Jackson has been in town only a few years, but he's building a little empire for himself, working modestly and, one suspects, continuously. A third restaurant, Black Sheep, is on the way in the Mission, and the restaurant's manager makes reference to a fourth place as well.
For Parada 22, Jackson paired up with one of the guys from Cha Cha Cha next door, then flew in a Puerto Rican consultant, Gloria, to help him source the yuca and culantro and perfect the sofritos, the blends of aromatics and spices that begin Puerto Rico's most deeply flavored stews.
The menu is short, interlocking, and priced for casual weekday visits. It lists six entrées, a few sandwiches and salads repeating many of the same elements, and one dessert: a light but rummy bizcocho de ron ($3), halfway between tiramisú and tres leches, composed of layers of yellow cake, soused in rum flavoring and custard, hovering on tufts of whipped cream. There are bottles of Mexican Cucapá and Corona in the cooler, as well as cans of 21st Amendment beers and Anderson Valley's Summer Solstice Cerveza.
Where is the arroz con gandules? you'll hear anyone with a grandmother from Guaynabo ask. Where are the pasteles? And where in the hell is the mofongo? For a more thorough taste-through of Puerto Rican standards, you'll have to head to Sol Food in San Rafael or the Mission's longstanding Frutilandia. And some will raise eyebrows at the sight of mixed baby greens alongside the white rice and deep-fried maduros (ripe plantains) on Parada 22's plates. The restaurant seems to embody a nostalgia once removed, two New Yorkers' love for East Coast restaurants serving emigré food, but not dedication to tradition at all costs. Like most once-removed restaurateurs, Jackson edits his menu heavily, with an eye for what will sell quickly and steadily. He has also hired line cooks who prepare everything carefully and who know what to do with a hot pan and a piece of meat, which makes quite a difference.
On my first visit, I went straight for the pernil ($9.50) with habichuelas coloradas (red beans), which turned out to be the best thing on the menu: Pork leg, slathered in a spice paste heavy on the garlic and oregano, was slow-roasted and cut into oven-browned chunks that could be teased into strands with the twist of a disposable fork. The meat wasn't fatty so much as seasoned with the memory of the fat that had once coated its surface. And the kidney beans alongside had been sautéed with pork and a sofrito that had begun as chopped onions, peppers, and garlic and ended as a gust of flavor.
With the exception of the biftec encebollado ($10.50), slices of beef so thin and lean that they seized up the moment they neared the flames from the stove, the meats were cooked beautifully. Chicken thighs ($9), darkened in spice and covered in browned onions, were juicy (the cooks need to watch the salt, though), and camarones a la criolla ($11.50) had been tossed in the pan with onions, peppers, and tomatoes just until the prawns turned pink, retaining that sweet pop, and the flavor of the peppers and onions melded together with a splash of herb-flecked cream.
All the entrées come with a few slices of maduros — which soften in the hot oil that crystallizes their exteriors into a brittle, brown shell — and a choice of the pork-laden habichuelas coloradas or the vegetarian habichuelas blancas, which the cooks haven't yet figured out how to simmer without making the beans disappear into mush. Another side dish, the yuca (cassava, $3.50), flirted dangerously with the bland side — one night the starchy tuber lost, while another night it turned creamy, its flavor bolstered by the caramelized onions and green olives it was cooked with.
The sandwiches come on baguettes whose crackle is sharpened up in the oven. You can get the chicken ($8) or the beef ($9) on bread, or the excellent Mediterranean-Caribbean fusion berenjena ($8), grilled eggplant and peppers slathered in garlic-cilantro mayonnaise. While Parada 22's Cubano (ham, cheese, pickles, and slices of pernil, $9) pays homage to the pressed Cuban sandwich cult that has ensnared every torteria and high-end sandwich shop in San Francisco, devotees will find the restaurant's version too clean, too dry, too nice.
The market for inexpensive, well-done sandwiches and meat-and-beans fare never goes bearish, and every time I've visited, more of Parada 22's stools are filled with people from the neighborhood. As I've seen over the years with so many once-removed "ethnic" restaurants, whether the food at Parada 22 is still good in a few years will depend on how closely the empire-building Jackson (and his recipe consultant) stay involved with the cooks. The room itself promises to age well. With its rough wood tables and benches, its exposed brick stretching up to high ceilings, its white cabinet displaying spice boxes and cans of Bustelo coffee, black-and-white family photos of other people's clans, and that incandescent green, the place will benefit from a little scuffing.