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Fresh Eats: Shawerma at Zaytoon and panino at Arlequin 

Wednesday, Jul 28 2010

Esperpento Is Still the Happy Place

By Jonathan Kauffman

In 1992, Carlos Muela opened Esperpento, part of the great wave of tapas restaurants that ended up changing San Francisco dining forever. So-called authentic Spanish tapas begat global-fusion tapas begat "small plates," which some think have killed all that is sophisticated about fine dining in this city. If Esperpento has seen a slow night in its 18-year history, we're not aware of it. A friend who used to live in a nearby co-op always called the restaurant — with a tinge of far-left disapproval — "the happy place," because everyone inside was always smiling.

Eighteen years on, the customers still look happy, perhaps because so many of them seem to be celebrating birthdays. Also unchanged: the decor, painted in colors Betsey Johnson would approve; the swirl-topped tables; and the photo of Salvador Dalí, waxed mustache finally fashionable again. Esperpento's menu hasn't changed much since the days when we used to go there for the cheap sangria, rabbit stew, and patatas bravas. Come to think of it, the prices haven't changed much, either. Most of the tapas are in the $4 to $7 range, and they're not two thimblefuls' worth of meat served on a sand dollar–sized plate.

Given the number of San Francisco restaurants that haven't aged as well as we'd hoped, we started the meal wary. But then we tasted a bite of the alcachofas a la plancha ($5.50), artichokes sliced thin and griddle-cooked until they picked up the Spanish equivalent of wok char. We swigged sweet, fruity sangria and rolled wedges of fried potato through the salsa brava, a mayonnaise reddened with chiles and peppers.

No matter how long the cooks have been using the same recipes, the menu is still too big to control. There was a bland creamed spinach ($4.50) and a mayonnaise-soaked fried cauliflower ($5.25), and the jamon serrano Esperpento imports tastes as cheap as its price ($6). But whole anchovies, lightly breaded, were good; so was the escalivada, a tangle of heavily caramelized onions, eggplant, and peppers. We mistakenly ordered a dish that had obsessed us in Spain — pinchos marranos ($5), or pork skewers rubbed in cumin and other Moorish spices; once we'd reminded ourselves that no dish should ever be compared to the version eaten on vacation in another country, we were able to appreciate Esperpento's pink-centered, wine-marinated pork for its own charms.

And then, after all that food, we looked at the check — $22 a person, including wine. We do believe we walked out happy.

Esperpento: 3295 22nd St. (at Valencia), 282-8867.

Eat This: Zaytoon's Lamb Shawerma

By John Birdsall

The owner of the month-old Valencia wrap shop is the scion of the sprawling clan that claims Mission munchy merchants Phat Philly and Urban Burger. Zaytoon works from the same playbook, sourcing meat that can hold its head high (see: Niman lamb), and serving it up in a fast-casual format friendly to drunks and guys seeking to lay down a protein base before turning into drunks.

The narrow slip of a room is tiled in gorgeous olive-oil greens (well, "zaytoon" does mean "olive" in Arabic and its cognates), with bottles of Palestinian oil for sale on shelves near the register.

Two basic food choices here: falafel and shawerma, with elements of both laid out, minus lavash wrap, as a platter. Once you come to terms with the rather resistant lavash, the falafel ($6.95) is just fine, the lamb shawerma ($7.95) better. Chewy shreds of meat shaved from the rotisserie are tasty — plenty of sweaty, petting-zoo richness — but it's the mint-flecked yogurt sauce that makes it frolic. Opt for an add-on handful of feta, we imagine, and the thing would be damn near impossible to harness.

Zaytoon: 1136 Valencia (at 22nd St.),824-1787.

Eat This: Cuban Panino at Arlequin

By Jonathan Kauffman

Let us no longer speak of authenticity when discussing the Cuban sandwich. By now the cubano has become a meme, heavily riffed on all over town. The core elements seem to be the sandwich temperature (warm), the pork (roast, plus ham if you're lucky), and the cheese (melted). Were your average San Franciscan to fly to Miami with the express goal of tasting the Cuban sandwich at its source, he or she might end up with a suitcase full of anticlimax.

With that disclaimer finally off our chest, we'd say that the appeal of Arlequin Cafe's Cuban sandwich ($11) is that it's actually a pork panino with pickles — or rather, a two-pork croque, listed on the menu between the cafe's regular and portobello croques messieurs. Further departing from traditional notions of Cubanity, the sandwich is made with heavily buttered sandwich bread, left between the irons of a press grill for long enough to make you antsy and the sandwich evenly browned and crisp-shelled. The pork confit at the center, both physically and spiritually, is redolent with rosemary. A melted, barely noticeable slice of Swiss glues the pork up against a few ham slices, and house-cured pickles alternate with dollops of whole-grain mustard to send out intermittent flashes of vinegar. Is it a great Cuban sandwich? There are more cubanos to taste before we can make that judgment. SFoodie will tell you this: We finished every bite.

Arlequin Cafe: 384 Hayes (at Gough), 626-1211.

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