Didn't the Bay Area's Southwestern food fad blow away a long time ago, like a lone desert tumbleweed in the wind? In 1986, Alice Waters protégé Mark Miller left his Santa Fe Bar and Grill and bolted for the real Santa Fe, N.M. A year later, Zuni Cafe gave up its cactus motif when Judy Rodgers came on board and started plating her famed roast chicken instead. And even SOMA's legendary Cadillac Bar and Grill, so trendy that it was suggested in a New York Times article as a place to visit during the 1984 Democratic convention, was bulldozed 13 years ago to make way for Moscone West. Really, it's not like locals have been clamoring for fajitas and crocks of melted cheese lately.
So it was with plenty of skepticism that I entered West of Pecos, the new Southwestern spot from brothers Dylan, Rowan and Tyler MacNiven of Woodhouse Fish Co. notoriety. The décor only heightened my doubt. Hanging bushels of red chile peppers? Check. Adobe fireplaces in the entrance? Of course. Bull horns so obnoxiously enormous that they may have been lifted from Boss Hogg's de Ville convertible? Yes. And staring straight at me from the menu? Fajitas and a crock of melted cheese.
Yet it was those very fish fajitas, moist and spiked with cilantro and lime, ($22) that reopened my mind to Southwestern cuisine. Points awarded for a flamboyant presentation of a head-to-tail dorado (mahi-mahi) stuffed with curtido, a slaw of pickled cabbage, onions, and dazzling pink watermelon radishes. Thank the Tex-Mex gods that the fish wasn't brought to the table on a sizzling iron platter. The familiar paper bag of tortillas rode shotgun, but these specimens were fresh and tasted of sweet corn. Loaded up with a few hunks of meat and tart slaw then dabbed with a bit of the accompanying chipotle aioli, the tortillas were the perfect skins for the fajitas. Slowly, all Chevy's nightmares began to fade.
The reverse brainwashing continued with an appropriately titled plate of messy Texas ribs ($14), a half-dozen glistening bones of slightly charred pork steeped in a tingly, fragrant ancho chile and dried apricot barbecue sauce. Eat these and you may want a post-meal bath, as napkins alone won't suffice. Equally intense and untidy was fluffy, kernel-flecked cornbread ($5), served in a warm skillet alongside a tiny pitcher of sticky molasses for dipping, proof that breakfast for dinner is an all-too-rare indulgence.
Chef Leo Zaros has spent the bulk of his career cooking in Santa Fe, in both Southwestern and French kitchens. You can taste this diversity in his lavender and chipotle duck breast ($17). Crisp-skinned, rosy slices of juicy meat topped a bed of warm arugula, candied pecans, and a few shavings of queso fresco, resulting in an addictive spicy-sweet rotation on the tongue. Similarly, a salad also featuring arugula and candied pecans ($9), but paired with a griddled goat cheese and caramelized onion cake, produced a kind of New Mexican umami.
Start with a stellar, bubbling hot macaroni and cheese ($8) revved up by a smattering of roasted green chiles. Zaros wisely uses a blend of mild cheeses to let the chiles shine. However, that same strategy backfired on a dull order of melted queso (yes, served in a crock) and fresh fried tortilla chips ($8). I could barely make out a few specks of green chile floating in the queso, and there were maybe three or four nubs of the promised chorizo. A plastic container of nachos at a Giants game was more interesting.
Surprisingly, the hearth-roasted carnitas ($14) were also a clunker, almost too clean and tender, and without any of the crunchy bits and fatty specks found in the dish at many of the neighborhood's taquerias. The red chile sauce surrounding the carnitas needed far more heat. Improvising, we skipped the swine, instead spreading a garnish of citrusy guacamole on the same excellent tortillas.
Though West of Pecos has been open for six weeks, its servers and kitchen crew still aren't in sync. On one visit, I waited 20 minutes for my appetizer to arrive only to receive my entrée 30 seconds later. During another meal, food runners hovered over our table carrying main plates even though none of our starters had been cleared. They then didn't know who had ordered what. Fresh silverware wasn't offered, and this all during the early evening with a half-full dining room.
But it's hard to remain perturbed when everyone is so laid-back and affable. Tyler MacNiven, recognizable from his winning stint on season nine of The Amazing Race, is omnipresent, high-fiving and hugging guests, enthusiastically working the host station, and tending to details in the kitchen and behind the bar. That zeal translates to his staff, who genuinely seem as if they want you to have a good time.
Perched at the bar during a final visit, I found myself doing just that; having a good time. Sipping a deliciously dangerous sidewinder ($9), its hints of vanilla masking any bitterness of the reposada tequila, I observed fellow diners: the young families, the post-work drink-hoarders, and even the anxious first-daters, all with big smiles on their faces. And I said to no one, "Welcome back, tumbleweed."