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A Little Grilled Gift 

Fresh Mexican fare is just the thing to lure you out of the house and toward the Mission

Wednesday, Mar 21 2007
Even three weeks earlier than usual, daylight-saving time arrived not a moment too soon as far as I was concerned. The combination of an extra hour of light and blessedly sweet, springlike (even summery) weather was what I needed to pry me out of the house, where I was practicing, unbeknownst to myself, the popular Japanese practice of hikkomori. Which is, according to the New York Times, a subset of young men who "isolate themselves in their rooms for months or even years at a time, relying on the Internet, videogames, and comic books." In my case, substitute TiVo and DVDs for videogames, and books and magazines for comic books, but the end result is the same.

I live in a neighborhood where I've yet to discover good sources for delivered pizza or Chinese food — not for want of trying — so I have to leave the cave to obtain sustenance. And to shop, especially for non-Internet impulse items. I watched the renovation of a building a couple of houses up 18th Street from my favorite antique store, The Apartment, with interest. Eventually, it became an adorable little restaurant called Regalito Rosticeria.

The façade is alluringly painted in two chic shades of green, accenting two arched windows on either side of new double glass doors framed in light-colored wood with a stainless-steel sculptural handle. The place's name is painted in yellow, and an additional wordless sign features an orange logo, a circle with eight smaller circles around it. The menu posted in the window is short but tempting: five antojitos (appetizers), and nine entradas (entrees), heavy on rotisserie chicken and pork. There's a similarly short list of a few beers, wines, and refrescos (aguas, juices, and sodas).

When I called Joyce to schedule a dinner there, I could tell she was experiencing her own hikkomori moment. I could hear the TV in the background, and "What are you watching?" she asked, as if I could be doing anything else.

Regalito Rosticeria doesn't take reservations, which is sort of liberating — arrive anytime! — but in practice it means that arriving on the early side means that scoring a table is easier, and at 6:30 we have our choice of several wood tables. The inside is as fresh and appealing as the façade: The entirely open, spotless kitchen takes up about half of the place, with a long light-wood counter alongside, at which you can perch on high aluminum-colored chairs and dine on the food you've just watched being prepared. Walls are painted in cucumber and lime-green, and more color is provided by sleek tangerine plastic chairs and a huge bright painting hung on the back wall that Joyce loved but reminded me of a psychedelic garden in hell.

We begin by sharing three starters. The quesadillas fritas look like small empanadas or turnovers, and are perched on a sea of medium-hot red sauce made with chili de arbol; when you bite into one, melted pale cheese flecked with herbs oozes out, delightfully. The guacamole is described as "mashed avocado and salsa Mexicana," but it features big chunks of avocado scented with garlic and cilantro and lightly mixed with chopped tomato, jalapeño, and onion, all in a perfect, tiny dice that makes Joyce sigh in admiration at the kitchen's skill. I think it's more like a wonderful avocado salad than the classic dip. It comes with two big corn tortillas described as "crisp"; they're like huge thin crackers. We also try the refreshing ensalada de nopalitos, long thin dark-green strips of grilled cactus, nicely charred, blended with more of the salsa Mexicana.

When the entrees arrive hot from the grill and the rotisserie, they smell amazing. Phil exclaims with pleasure over his carne asada y hongos, a grilled steak that's been marinated with lime, onion, carrots, and bay leaves, and served with grilled mushrooms. Joyce is similarly taken with her chuletas de puerco, described as grilled pork chops (but I see only one, a big one!) with onions and roasted poblano chili strips; it's Niman Ranch pork, again boasting a simple but flavorful marinade of lime and pepper. I'm, however, struggling with my disappointment with my pollo Regalito, a quarter of a rotisserie-roasted free-range chicken: Its golden-brown skin looks perfect, but it's as hard as a rock, beyond overcooked. They named the dish after themselves — regalito means little gift — and they also offer the chicken cloaked in Oaxacan mole negro, or served with enchiladas roja, potatoes, and carrots, or on puffy Mexican bread as a chicken torta. It's their signature dish, for God's sake!

After one dreadful dry bite, I tell our server it's overcooked, and he brings it back to the kitchen, where I catch a concerned look sent our way, which perplexes me: One touch and anybody would know that the chicken was destroyed. But he returns, quickly, with the moist, juicy chicken I expected, under lovely crisp skin. All our main courses come with toothy rice and whole pinto beans, even the massive chili relleno, a roasted poblano chili stuffed with cheese and mushrooms we get to share, served swimming in another lake of the red chili arbol sauce, which I find a trifle watery. The sides feel a little repetitive; I wish we'd asked if we could substitute their papas con rajas (roasted potatoes with peppers) or refritos (refried pinto beans) on one of the entrees. But both the steak and the pork are faultless; I especially like the good charred flavor of the sweet grass-fed beef.

We finish with one each of the three desserts on offer: firm flan, pineapple ice cream (chosen from a trio of flavors available), and not-quite-hot-or-sweet-enough capirotada, a bread pudding made with apples, raisins, chopped nuts, and a bit of grated jack cheese. We've had a swell meal, especially noting that nothing on the menu is more than $14.95. Chef-owner Thomas Peña was inspired by a simple meal he had in a Mexico City market stall to create his Rosticeria (an eatery specializing in rotisserie and roasted meats). He envisioned a community gathering place, where he would serve food from an open kitchen, not just from his mother's and grandmother's family recipes, but also influenced by Peña's gastronomic explorations over all of Mexico.

When I return to Regalito Rosticeria, I give in to hikkomori and get my food to go. (And a good thing, too; at 8 p.m., the community has gathered, and every seat is filled.) It's an even better meal than the first one: lomo de cerdo, several thick tender slices of garlicky Niman Ranch pork, slow-cooked for three hours on the rotisserie, served with the inevitable rice and beans — but this time I ask them if they can switch out the whole beans for the mashed refritos, and I'm glad I did: Their suave texture is luscious against the succulent pork. It's my favorite dish so far. I also try the ejotes, big fresh crunchy green beans, lightly sautéed with a bit of white onion and lime juice. I'm a tiny bit sad when I learn I've missed out on the night's special, Regalito's unusual version of carnitas, which I'm told they serve as several little pork steaks rather than the usual shredded version. But I'm happy to have another reason to leave the house. I must try those carnitas.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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