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Haltun Mayan Cuisine May Make Yucatecan Food a New S.F. Staple 

Wednesday, Dec 8 2010

Monday night has become pastry night at Haltun Mayan Cuisine, a 7-month-old Yucatecan restaurant in the Mission. Haltun recently began making Yucatecan pastries for special orders, then selling the extras to walk-in customers. When we arrived one Monday evening, there were two pans on the bar filled with sugar-coated puffs called tuti and pulveron, or shortbread rings. The ham-and-cheese pastries known as hojaldre were already sold out that day, the waitress told us. Halfway through our meal, a pair of older women came in and spent half an hour at the bar chatting with the owners in a mix of Mayan and Spanish. They left with much of the remaining stock, and left my table the only diners in the room.

The baker and chef of Haltun, Jesus "Chino" Peralta, used to be second-in-command at Mi Lindo Yucatan, the restaurant that introduced many of us to brazos de reina (corn dumplings stuffed with eggs and pumpkin seeds) and cochinita pibil (pork slow-cooked in banana leaves) when it opened in 2004. Within a few years, the Mission restaurant had half a dozen competitors.

Now, Haltun's Peralta is making the broadest, most refined menu of Yucatecan antojitos (corn-based snacks) and entrées the city has yet seen, and stocking craft beers and Spanish wines to boot. But the new custom-baking business, as well as the taqueria window that operates out of the side of the restaurant during the day, are both meant to bolster the restaurant's sluggish trade with cheaper fare.

In fact, with its high mustard-colored walls and vivid paintings, solid tables, and fresh-scrubbed welcome, Haltun reminds me of Burma Superstar before business took off there a decade ago — an explosion that finally propelled Burmese cuisine into the mainstream here. Haltun puts out food of the same quality and prices as Burma Superstar (and, these days, its numerous imitators), in equally comfortable digs.

And like Burmese food, Yucatecan food has become a subspecialty of this city; only Los Angeles can rival our concentration of restaurants specializing in the cuisine. It's because the Bay Area has been a magnet for Mayan-speaking Yucatecans since the mid-1990s. (A 2002 Chronicle story suggests that one of the draws has been Tomás Bermejo, founder of Tommy's Restaurant in the Richmond; a native of Oxtkutzcab, Bermejo opened Tommy's in 1965, and rumors of its success served as a beacon in his hometown.) Almost anyone who has spent time in the restaurant industry has cooked or waited tables alongside people born in southeastern Mexico, and many Mayan restaurateurs here enter the business with industry experience. Yet the rapid turnover (both Mi Lindo branches closed this year, and I've seen numerous places come and go since 2004) suggest that Yucatecan restaurants are still struggling to convince the broader dining public of their appeal.

Which is, especially in Haltun's case, considerable. In 2004, my predecessor at this paper named Mi Lindo's cochinita pibil "best pig," and Peralta's version is even better. It's slathered in a brick-red paste of achiote seeds and aromatics, wrapped in banana leaves and slow-roasted — the Health Department–approved replacement for the traditional pit oven. We plucked steaming handmade tortillas out of a plastic case, flipped them between our hands until they cooled, then used them to tug shreds of meat off the hunk of pork. The marinade was more fragrant than spicy, and underneath its siren song thrummed the bass note of long-roasted meat.

Many of Haltun's antojitos are just as fresh and vivid as the cochinita pibil. The salbut' ($2) and panucho ($2) are variations on a theme, crisp rounds piled high with pastel toppings — shredded chicken, avocado, pale-pink pickled onions, and shredded cabbage. The salbut' is built up onto a puffy fried flour tortilla, the panucho on a corn round speckled with black beans. Both are delicate constructions until you apply a few drops of Haltun's charred-habanero salsa, the puréed chiles just mild enough to identify their fruity, waxy flavors rather than the searing pain they induce.

The steamed antojitos bespeak an older heritage. The brazo de reina ($2.95), a rectangular dumpling of masa studded with pumpkin seeds and chopped eggs, is barely modernized; even more savory is the dzoto-bi-chay ($3) rolls of steamed masa wrapped in chard leaves, steamed, and smothered in tomato sauce. And while Haltun serves a decent chicken tamal ($2.50), the tamal colado ($3) is more appealing: It is the product of a labor-intensive process, the waiter explained to us, which involves slowly cooking cornmeal into a porridge, then placing a dollop onto a banana leaf along with marinated chicken and steaming the packet. The twice-cooked dumpling, which spills out over the plate, is as soothing as polenta.

Apart from the cochinita pibil, Haltun's entrées take some navigating. The waiter warned us numerous times that the relleno negro ($10.50) — a mole made with chiles de arbol that have been burned to ashes — might not be to our tastes, and it wasn't. But that was because the watery, ink-black sauce didn't have much character to it; same with the relleno blanco ($10.50), braised turkey meat and beef-turkey sausage in a flour-thickened turkey stock. And the poc chuc de res ($14.50), a beautifully seared ribeye surrounded by anemic onions and a pale tomato salsa, wasn't nearly as charismatic as the pork version at Poc-Chuc on 16th Street.

But Peralta also served a delicate tikin-xik' ($13.50), a fat filet of fresh tilapia rubbed in an achiote-reddened marinade and baked with peppers and onions, and hearty — and vegetarian — papadzules ($10.50), handmade tortillas rolled around hard-boiled eggs and coated in complementary sauces. One was a toasted pumpkin-seed sauce, the other a mild tomato-onion purée, and as we ate, they melded together, the bright and the dark, into a comforting whole. The dish is so old that the Mayan nobility reportedly served it to the Spanish at their first meeting. The Peraltas hope to make papadzules a San Francisco staple, too. They might become one of mine.

About The Author

Jonathan Kauffman

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