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Masterful Masa 

La Quinta

Wednesday, May 29 2002
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The first time I had lunch at La Quinta, I ended up in the worst seat in the house -- a stool at the counter that left me staring at the cashier over the ATM keypad and a pile of hand checks. Still, I considered myself lucky, because on a previous visit I'd left hungry after finding no free seats. When I glanced into the kitchen, I felt even more fortunate: A woman was making tortillas. She'd place a ball of masa dough into a tortilla press and -- ¡Olé! -- a neat, saucer-sized disc would hit the griddle, where it would puff up like a balloon before making the brief journey to someone's table. The woman was as thick as a boulder and perhaps just as heavy, and when she stepped out of the kitchen, sweat streamed down her face. Even so, I could have kissed her when I sampled my first La Quinta tortilla. It was a splendid example of one of the world's most ancient foods, with a hint of toasty crispness giving way to a light, caky interior. Such pure corn flavor has been enjoyed by human beings for unknown centuries, since long before Columbus set foot on American shores.

I've been back to La Quinta seven times. The food quality is about what you'd expect from a top-notch roadside cafe in Baja -- in fact, within its price range, this homey breakfast, lunch, and early-dinner joint is currently my favorite restaurant in San Francisco. I'm not the only fan: Drop by at the heart of lunchtime and you'll find a diner-style space packed mostly with Latinos. Waitresses bear tremendous bowls and platters as the jukebox pumps out oompah tunes and soulful ballads. Dudes in gold chains spoon caldo de res (beef soup), grandmothers contemplate birria (goat stew), and everyone wraps his meal of choice in strips of warm, fresh, wonderful corn tortilla.

Because I'd be perfectly happy folding nothing but the fluffy red rice and rich, soupy refried beans that come with most entrees into those tortillas, I consider the rest of the menu to be icing on the cake. Appetizers -- that is, thick, crunchy chips and a dark, smoldering smoked-chile salsa -- are free. Drinks run from beer served in an icy mug with a wedge of lime to sugary Jarritos sodas, from a hot, creamy chocolate mexicana to sodas and juices. The rotating daily specials are generally the best bet, since the regular menu includes some humdrum stuff. Among the everyday items, I've had enchiladas suizas stuffed with ground beef, then topped with a thin green sauce; crispy-shelled tacos dorados with shredded chicken; and a good, eggy, cheese-oozing chile relleno. All make for acceptable nourishment, but none is better than what you'd find elsewhere. The super torta (there is no regular torta) is a beast, and not particularly worthwhile; its soft, dense, monstrous white roll contains a sloppy mélange of lettuce, beans, avocado, sour cream, and your choice of meat.

If you must order from the regular menu, try the camarones (prawns), which come in a variety of styles, two of them worth your time. Ask for camarones à la diabla and you get crustaceans in a fiery, brilliant-red sauce; camarones al mojo de ajo means the same prawns sautéed in their shells with enough butter and garlic to make your eyes roll back in your head. Another regular offering, pescado a la veracruzana translates as a tender fillet of snapper blanketed with a savory, caper-spiked orange sauce, onions, bell peppers, and tomatoes. Seven seas soup is served in an absurdly large bowl, its depths teeming with prawns, black mussels, green mussels, crab claws, fish, squid, diced zucchini, and strips of a mysterious seafood product that isn't half bad. The chile colorado is simply awesome, the exact fodder for a fresh tortilla: Hunks of flavorful pork come in a delectable, spicy-sweet red sauce. (Thanks to an abundant use of smoked chiles, many dishes at La Quinta are red; the shades, however, vary considerably.)

Still, I'd ignore most of those dishes (chile colorado excepted) in favor of the specials. On weekends, folks come for the menudo (tripe soup), but having downed my share of offal at Vietnamese pho houses last year, I'm taking 2002 off. Customers also seek out the pozole, melting chunks of pork and tender hominy served in a superb, delicate stock with sides of diced onion, lime, lettuce, and radish that add depth and flavor. A bowl of pozole is a fine way to celebrate Sunday afternoon, but if given a choice I'd opt for birria -- shreds of gamy, luscious marinated goat meat served in a thicker broth than the pozole. Order the birria grande and you may spend well over half an hour nibbling goat, spooning broth, filling tortillas, dipping tortillas into the broth, and if you're truly hungry, crumbling tortilla chips into the remnants of that decadent gravy.

Colita de res (oxtail), available on Monday, is a fine way to start the workweek. Two fist-size knobs of meat and bone are braised in a tangy red sauce until the beef takes on an almost buttery texture. The flavor is immense -- imagine the best pot roast you've ever had, times three. If you're looking to add calories to your diet, know that La Quinta leaves the fat on its oxtails; the fat is so rich it may send shudders down your spine. Show up on a Wednesday, and you'll learn the value of an early lunch: During one visit, the kitchen had run out of the daily special, pollo à la mexicana, by 2 p.m. Fortunately, there was a second special -- chicharrón en salsa, thick strips of pork served in a piquant tomatillo sauce that played beautifully off the salty, sweet meat.

Desserts at La Quinta consist of whatever pan dulce-style breakfast pastries happen to be on display, and those are usually gone by the time I show up for lunch. Instead, I like to finish my week with the sweetest treat of all -- pollo en mole -- which is available only on Friday, but would be served every day if I had any say. If you've ever looked at a mole recipe, you know that the national dish of Mexico isn't something you whip up on a whim; its two dozen-plus ingredients often include nuts, spices, tortillas, chiles, garlic, avocado pit, and chocolate. La Quinta's red mole has no dominant flavor, instead offering a cascade of sensations -- nuttiness, smokiness, savor, glimmers of heat, and a sublime, velvety feel. The mole comes slathered over chicken so tender you could slice it with a spoon; all told, it's irresistible. When I took my friend Frank to La Quinta, he couldn't stop eating the pollo en mole, despite the four other entrees we'd ordered.

"It's fucking good," he explained.

No words have ever rung so true.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin

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