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Friday, August 27, 2010

Cha Cha Cha: 25 Years Later, It's Still Packed

Posted By on Fri, Aug 27, 2010 at 11:12 AM

Cha Cha Cha: Bring on da noise, bring on da funk. - ETHAN BLOCH/FLICKR
  • Ethan Bloch/Flickr
  • Cha Cha Cha: Bring on da noise, bring on da funk.
The latest in a series about restaurants that have been around so long they've slipped into a media black hole.

A quarter-century ago, Philip Bellber, a Puerto Rican New Yorker, and Leon Pak, who's Chinese-Cuban, opened Cha Cha Cha on the corner of Haight and Schrader. A quarter-century! That's older than most of the customers who still coalesce around the entrance in a ravenous cloud.

Back in the early 1990s, when Cha Cha Cha's Caribbean-Spanish small plates were still novel, the wait was never less than two hours long ― my friends and I would put our names on the list, go drink beers at the nearest apartment until the time came, then return for dinner pre-buzzed ― a pitcher or two of the famous house sangria would deliver the knockout blow. These days, the wait time is down to 45 minutes, and if you don't want to spend your time sitting in the musty, fermented-smelling bar, the Alembic is just a few doors down.

I hadn't been inside Cha Cha Cha for at least 15 years, and found little

changed. Dusty Santaria altars still ring the brick-walled space, and

there's a copse of ficus trees in the middle of the dining room. The

servers are still sweet and quick, though occasionally overburdened by a

rush, and the crowd seems to be the same as it ever was: young or

tourists or both.

The menu ― with dishes like mushrooms cooked

in sherry, fried potatoes with spicy aïoli, and jerk chicken ― has

changed very little in 25 years. I don't know whether the quality of the

cooking or my tastes have undergone the bigger shift, but most of the

dishes I tried earlier this week had one and only one note. The sangria:

fruity. The ceviche with squid, shrimp, and tender fish: acidic. A

green salad was halfheartedly dressed, and a mahi mahi fillet rubbed with

mustard, chiles, and herbs and steamed in a banana leaf turned out

faintly fragrant and mostly overcooked. The two stars of the meal were

the black beans and golden rice accompanying the fish, the only thing my

tablemate and I finished.

Everything tasted bored. But when

you've been doing the same food, for the same crowd, for a quarter-century, boredom is inevitable. This year, Philip Bellber and Alex

Jackson opened Parada 22 next door to

Cha Cha Cha, and their excitement for Puerto Rican home cooking is

still evident. If I was in the mood for plantains, roast pork, and

habichuelas rojas, that's where I'd head. If the sight of the crowd

waiting on the corner strikes you with a nostalgia for your early 20s,

Parada 22 serves Cha Cha Cha's house sangria. 

Cha Cha Cha: 1801 Haight (at Stanyan), 386-7670.

Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie. Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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