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Plate Tectonics 

Wednesday, Oct 8 1997
2000 Hyde (at Union), 346-0800. Open daily noon to 10:30 p.m., until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Parking by miracle only. Muni via the 41 & 45 Union and the Powell-Hyde cable car. Not wheelchair accessible.

"We're going to a tapas bar," I told TJ.
"Oh, cool! It's about time we started reviewing the sleazy side of North Beach," he answered.

"Tapas, stupid, not topless!" I said, "Y'know -- Spanish bar food. Instead of pretzels and peanuts at happy hour, in Spain they serve shrimp and squid and mussels, all sorts of good stuff." "That's our whole dinner -- happy hour snacks?" he asked. "Well, in Spain they're supposed to be hors d'oeuvres while you're hanging around a bar before a meal, but Americans are so crazy about 'grazing,' mostly we make a whole meal of tapas. I sure plan to. And believe me, it's easy. They really have a lot of different things to taste. If you like garlic, you'll like tapas."

My old friend Dave -- a world-roaming culinary adventurer when he's not disguised as a mild-mannered civil servant -- was back in town, after several weeks in exotic Woodside baby-sitting his nephews. We'd been talking about where he liked eating. After eliminating tacos and postponing South City Filipino pig-blood stew, we fixed on Zarzuela, a local Spanish restaurant where this frequent visitor to Spain had found the food authentic.

We were driving down Lombard when we passed another restaurant called Alegrias. "I've vaguely heard of that place," said Dave. "Do you know anything about it?"

"It's a tapas bar," I said.
"Here? I thought they were all on Broadway," Dave said.
"Have I developed a speech impediment? Do I sound like Baba Wawa? Tapas, not topless!"

Our Higher Power granted us a parking spot a block from the restaurant, and our luck held in getting a table immediately, manned by the best and oldest of the waiters, who was willing and able to answer all our questions, like "What's in this?" and "What's that wine like?" Zarzuela's in a spacious tile-floored room with big arched windows looking out on the corner of Union and Hyde, where little cable cars clunk halfway from the stars. The ceilings are high, with exposed wooden beams and wooden wainscoting near the top of the bisque walls. The latter bear many ceramic plates, and some bullfight posters on paper, not black velvet. Moorish arches decorate the windows and, outlined with Paving Rocks Lite, frame the doors to the kitchen and the little side waiting room a few steps down (for those who don't get tables right away, as the restaurant doesn't take reservations). About half the patrons appear to be twentysomething double- and triple-daters, and the noise level, never exactly low, fluctuates during the evening depending on how many graduated frat boys and gorgeous young blondes are present at the moment. (Luckily, they eat faster than other people.) The wine list is terrific, mainly Spanish (hence, potentially rather mysterious) and affordable (mainly in the low $20 range); I started with a glass of a fresh-flavored white Rioja (made from grapes I've never heard of); then Dave and I had a red Rioja that was round and easygoing. TJ wasn't happy with the short beer list, but Dave observed, "Looking for beer in a Spanish restaurant is like going after wine in a Chinese restaurant."

The waiter brought bread, fragrant green olive oil, and a plate of olives of many colors, from small salt-cured black ones to big green ones, all deliciously remarinated in olive oil and herbs. "Notice how weighty and moist the bread is," said Dave. "In Spain, it's usually heavy and dry, but here people would complain. And there isn't any of the usual white asparagus on the tapas list, but that's another thing that wouldn't work in California."

Then we plunged into a vast array of tidbits, both hot and cold. Lord, we ate more tapas than human tongue can tell, and if electronic word processor did the telling, it would run another whole newspaper page. What counts is the great stuff and the weird stuff. The greatest was rollitos de berenjena ($3.95), eggplant sliced 1/8-inch thick, brushed with olive oil, grilled, and wrapped around mild, creamy goat cheese, and served with a simple pimiento sauce of olive oil, red pepper, and red pepper juices. It was the culinary equivalent of sleeping on a featherbed. Another wow were the chipirones a la plancha ($4.75), grilled squid in ginger sauce. "This is the only time I've had grilled squid that you couldn't use it as a Super Ball," noted TJ. It was exsquidsite (I am heartily sorry), touched with the flavor of the grill and robed in a light garlic-ginger sauce reminiscent of ace Chinese food. Salpicon de mariscos ($5.95), a tasty mixed seafood salad, included both cooked shellfish and bay scallops "cooked" by marination, seviche-style.

Our least approachable tapa was callos a la madrilena ($4.95), tripe stew. The long-cooked tripe was imbued by the flavor of a smoky ham in the rich sauce, and mainly contributed a texture. "It's like the idea of cassoulet," said Dave. "You let the flavors almost disintegrate into the sauce. In fact, this almost tastes like there's beans in it." What I liked best was, it didn't taste like tripe. But it still was tripe. Another famous and typical Spanish dish was chipirones en su tinta ($8.95), baby squid in its ink, one of the house "especialidades" (small entrees). Served over a mound of rice, the squid, stewed long enough to travel from tender to rubbery to renewed tenderness, contained a smooth, salty, meaty stuffing, and was drenched in a heavy black sauce of thickened squid ink with a black-peppery, faintly maritime flavor. "It's sort of macho," I said. "Simple, strong, and salty." "Macho, that's right," Dave agreed.

A couple of the pastry chef's desserts seemed more California Culinary Academy than Catalonia. A concoction of chocolate-espresso mousse and spongecake seemed harsh-flavored until we dipped it into the underlying raspberry sauce with creme patissiere squiggles. A mango ice cream tart had faint mango flavor, over cheesecake and under a macadamia cream topping that tasted like bottled marshmallow cream. Both were way too fancy given the context.

TJ and I returned some days later by bus, fearing that our miraculous parking the first time had used up our Good Parking Karma. We'd promised ourselves we'd have just a salad and a main course -- maybe the oxtail stew or mixed grill, or (if we could hold out) the paella, which Dave told us was excellent, but which takes 25 minutes. No way; that tapas list lured us again. The second-best of all the tapas we tried was boquerones con piquillo ($5.25), juicy fresh anchovies that had been lightly pickled, served on roasted piquillo peppers. Piquillo means "with a little nip," that is, a little spicy, and these were exactly that. Scattered around were several intriguing anchovy-stuffed green olives. We'd had a plate of these (aceitunas rellenas, $2.75) at the first dinner, and both the guys went mad for their unexpected flavor combination. Put all three elements of the boquerones together -- the salty, the spicy, and the slightly sour -- and you've got a sensualist's epiphany. We also had the most famous of all tapas, gambas al ajillo ($4.95), shrimp "with a little garlic." The shellfish were gently sauteed in olive oil with way more than a little garlic, and a touch of hot red peppers. The dish leaves you glowing. I also enjoyed the thin-sliced serrano ham ($6.50), which tastes like a moist prosciutto, and came with tomato-basted bread croutons.

The Ensalada Romana ($3.95) proved to be an engaging Spanish take on -- yes, again -- Caesar salad, with flavorful Manchego cheese in place of Parmesan, and a touch of bacon in the lemon dressing. We concluded with a big main-course bowl of Zarzuela ($13.95), a Catalan seafood stew that the restaurant's named for. It included tender salmon and some whitefish, and slightly overcooked mussels, clams, shrimp, one prawn, and half a split crawdad, in a coral-colored tomato-based sauce smoothed at the last minute with cream.

Warmed all through with garlic and rich green Spanish olive oil, we watched a cable car groaning upward from the Wharf, tourists in shorts projecting from its every orifice. "We were very tired, we didn't give a damn/ We rode back and forth all night on the tram," I improvised. "It's not a tram," said TJ. "We were very tired, but we still were able/ To ride back and forth all night on the cable," he continued. "All right," I said: "We were very tired, but were quite particular/ We rode back and forth on the funicular." Our bus, mercifully, arrived right then, and when we changed buses, our final bus came just that quickly too. Perhaps all that garlic is the charm. Not only does it ward off evil, it attracts the Muni.

About The Author

Naomi Wise

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