It was the day after the summer solstice, the beginning of year 5510 by the Andean calendar, and a splendid North Beach evening to boot, the perfect time to visit Peña PachaMama, a Bolivian restaurant-nightspot where music and merriment are served up in the best Andean tradition. Peña PachaMama debuted three years ago, when the members of the Sukay folk ensemble decided to settle down after 24 years on the road and opened it as their home base. Before that it was the fabled Amelio's, a restaurant so lush and romantic that it hosted the wedding party of Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio as well as occasional canoodlings by Gable and Lombard. Today it's a handsome, colorful place with intricate symbols and icons etched along the ceiling; gilded, masked effigies guarding the entrance and the adjacent bar; two intimate upstairs rooms with fireplaces and views of Coit Tower; and a small stage beneath an arched proscenium where a variety of world music is performed throughout the week.
There's food to be had as well, but it's not central to the Peña PachaMama experience. The cooking of the Andes has hardly changed since the conquistadores came along five centuries ago and added their dairy products and cooking fat to an already complex cuisine rich with local fauna, seafood toted up from the Pacific by teams of runners, strange condiments like chili peppers and peanut butter (an Inca invention), and, most important, the potato in several delicious varieties. The cookery that resulted from this meeting of the hemispheres is arguably the finest in South America, but the Peña PachaMama kitchens barely hint at its glories. There's nothing particularly wrong with the food on the menu; it just isn't as vibrant and exciting as the traditions it represents or the venue in which it is served.
The pacha pollo, for instance, isn't much more than a bland, overcooked chicken breast with some barely dressed salad greens and a pile of (admittedly robust and tasty) mashed potatoes on the side. Silpancho, the Bolivian national dish, is only a slight improvement: prime rib breaded and fried within an inch of beef jerky-hood, nearly redeemed by those mashed potatoes, a pile of field greens, some pleasantly garlicky rice, a few freshly fried potato rounds, and a fried egg strewn across the top. An appetizer of yuca frita, or fried yuca, is as starchy and flavorless as you might expect, a sorry (if authentic) substitute for french fries.
Other dishes have more to recommend them. Another chicken dish, picante de pollo, has a subtly sweet, warmly spicy flavor that nicely complements its moist, tender texture and its bed of nutty, fluffy rice. And salteñas, the Bolivian take on piroshki, ravioli, samosas, and wontons, are rich, buttery pastries stuffed with savory ingredients. The mushroom/potato/raisin version is a bit too sweet, but the diced beef and onion makes a wonderfully earthy snack.
Potatoes are central to two other commendable dishes, which is only appropriate: The marvelous tuber is an Andean native, developed some 3,000 years ago because corn wouldn't grow at such an altitude. As the locals' staple, its variations are exponential. Primary among them is papas a la Huancaino, named for the Peruvian city on the other side of Lake Titicaca from Bolivia. Steamy potatoes come dressed with a rich cream sauce spiked with ground nuts and chilies and accompanied by field greens, tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, and queso fresco, a fresh, unripened cheese with the texture of mozzarella and the flavor of a lightly salted ricotta. Another potato dish, papas relleno, is a bit more perfunctory but not at all unsatisfying: a big, fried ball of mashed potatoes stuffed with sautéed vegetables and queso fresco, with more field greens on the side.
Besides a dozen wines by the glass (five of them by the bottle) there's Paceña, a Bolivian beer that's been brewed 12,000 feet above sea level since 1886, and (better yet) a deliciously crisp, light house sangria fragrant with tropical fruit and a hint of spice. It's excellent with alfajores, the best item on the menu, two crisp, buttery shortbread cookies sandwiched with dulce de leche, a thick, caramellike paste made from milk, sugar, and vanilla.
Although the food at Peña PachaMama isn't all that it could be, the venue makes up for it with its warmth and ebullience. This has to be the friendliest, most inviting nightspot in the city. Another translation of pachamama is "Earth Mother," and as soon as you walk into the place you feel like you're part of some extended global family. (Peña means "a circle of people coming together.") On the little stage there may be jazz, flamenco, or salsa to spice up your meal, depending on the day of the week, and Saturday nights belong to Sukay. The band has played venues around the world (its CDs and cassettes are available in the bar), and its musicmaking and showmanship inspire a glow of pleasure. One of the charms of the place is that the restaurant's staff is also part of the entertainment, so the guy playing the charango is actually Eddie the bartender, the maitre d' is the Yma Sumac-esque vocalist and panpipe virtuoso, and the pastry chef emerges from the kitchen long enough to demonstrate a particularly athletic indigenous dance step. At one point another dancer moves among the tables in dazzling native garb topped off with feather-lined, parasollike headgear; for a multicultural change of pace the band might serve up the occasional bluegrass number. It's a great spot to celebrate a birthday (there were three going on the night we visited), especially when the cocktail waitress leads an impromptu salsa lesson and everyone gets up to dance the night away.