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When you're in the mood for eating — rather than fine dining — we've got three new neighborhood ethnic spots for you

Wednesday, Jul 12 2006
On a recent special edition of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations devoted to the baroque cuisine of Chef Ferran Adria at his El Bulli restaurant in Spain, Adria asked Bourdain if he was a diner or an eater.

The question tormented Bourdain, because he was afraid that the wrong answer wouldn't permit him access to Adria's workshop/laboratory in Barcelona, or let him sample the fabled 32-course meal at the restaurant on the Costa Brava.

He finally allowed as how he was an eater (aw, shucks). But in reality, there are times when we are diners, deciding between oysters and foie gras and free-range chicken or diver scallops, or choosing wines to complement our several-course restaurant meals, and times when we are eaters, ducking into our local favorite, grabbing a hot dog from a cart, even spooning peanut butter out of the jar while standing in the kitchen. (And No Reservations is ostensibly a reality show, however frequently it feels surreal, whether Bourdain is stripping raw flesh off a just-killed sea lion in Iceland or spooning up carrot foam and apple "caviar" in Adria's kitchen.)

In the summer, especially, with its long light evenings conducive to outdoor after-work activities such as tennis and running (with even the unsportive among us tempted into strolls and window-shopping) impossible in the early dark of winter, we enjoy impromptu meals at little local ethnic restaurants. Reservations possible, but not at all necessary. Except maybe on weekends.

On Polk, there's the new La Parrilla Grill (which means The Grill Grill, born out by the menu section "De la Parrilla," from the grill). It's the much fancier sibling of a couple of La Parrillas devoted to takeout charbroiled chicken; the menu here is touted as Nuevo Latino, but it reads and tastes mostly as superior Mexican to us. The large room is fresh, chic, open, and airy, with a long bar and wooden tables. There's pleasant sidewalk seating, too. The kitchen does a splendid guacamole; a superb queso fundido (available with chorizo, roasted poblano chili, or wild mushrooms); wonderful little huaraches, which are fresh masa shells filled with potatoes, black beans, crema, and queso fresco; excellent breaded fish tacos with chipotle aioli, and carne asada tacos made with grilled Niman Ranch skirt steak. Breakfast (served until 3 p.m.) offers, in addition to American-style "two eggs any style," huevos rancheros, chilaquiles, and the more uncommon huevos moltulenos (featuring ham, peas, and refried beans) and borrachos (fried eggs, salsa, and roasted poblanos finished with a touch of beer). Speaking of borrachos, there's a full bar in addition to a wine and beer list, complementing a dinner menu featuring birria (made with lamb) and a daily braised-seafood stew as well as the signature grilled beef, chicken, prawns, or wild mushrooms served over a bed of roasted cactus and bell peppers. With a bar menu on tap between lunch and dinner, it's a useful and appealing spot morning, noon, and night.

The location of the casual-feeling Cafe Grillades, which overlooks the charming new Hayes Green, benefits from both Hayes Valley shopping and the cultural attractions of Civic Center a couple of blocks away. Its 150 seats make strolling in without reservations easy, it's open all day long, and its broad menu — everything from breakfast any time, soups, salads, and panini, burgers, grilled entrees, couscous, and crepes — has something for everyone, including vegans and vegetarians. (The kitchen is halal, so there's no pork. Or, alas, alcohol.) You can create your own crepe or omelette fillings, but we enjoyed Grillades' own paysanne crepe, with roasted red bell peppers, zucchini, eggplant, caramelized onions, sundried tomatoes, and basil pesto, enfolded in a big, sturdy buckwheat crepe (chosen over the unbleached flour crepe for extra texture and flavor). Grilled breast of chicken alternated with pepper and onion skewers, with mashed potatoes seemingly unadulterated with butter or dairy, were unremarkable, but the grilled steak, though on the small side, was juicy and full of flavor, sided with decent, big, and floury frites. "Authentic" Algerian lamb couscous featured a heap of the fluffy grain, topped with two large chunks of the lamb, plenty of chickpeas and some carrots, moistened with its mild cooking broth — we would have liked more depth of flavor (and more broth served on the side). We finished with two sweet crepes, a pomme noix, filled with slightly too-crisp apples sauteed in brown sugar and a ton of walnut halves, and a fun, gloppy item called Zaki's Delight: sauteed pears, chocolate sauce, toasted almonds, with French vanilla gelato on the side. Since Cafe Grillades is open until 11 three nights a week and until midnight Friday and Saturday, it's a convenient and inexpensive option for post-symphony, -ballet, or -opera dining.

More than one person has told us that Will's House, the new occupant of 708 14th Street (where Church and Market converge) is the best thing to happen to the neighborhood in a long time. The generic name gives no indication that it offers superior Vietnamese fare in a rather glitzy mirror-lined setting. At lunch you can enjoy an excellent banh mi, the French-inspired sandwich, with your choice of lemongrass chicken, grilled beef, or pork, served on a baguette with slivered vegetables crisped in rice vinegar, or pho, noodle soup with sliced brisket, flank steak, meatballs, and raw beef in a fragrant broth — there's a chicken version, too. Dinner impresses with fresh spring rolls as sophisticated as the famous ones served at the Slanted Door; a shredded papaya salad featuring steamed pork, prawns, and plenty of mint; succulent garlicky roasted crab served in the shell, also available in a mint-and-curry version; plump roasted quail flamed with white rum; flaky steamed sea bass infused with ginger; similar-sized cubes of eggplant and tofu stewed with coconut milk and yellow curry; and a frequent special of shaking beef made with tender filet mignon wok-seared with garlic, fish sauce, rice wine vinegar, and watercress. After a dinner that was expertly cooked, prettily plated, and nicely served, we were flummoxed to receive a dessert of ineptly fried banana chunks still cold inside and sided with strawberry ice cream (where vanilla, coconut, even rum raisin would have made for a more appealing combination), but when we pointed this out, the dish was whisked off both the table and the bill. We were soothed by well-made drinks from the full bar, and thoughts of returning for more garlicky crab and garlicky beef.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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