Dona Marta

I don’t want to bore you or get too whiney complain-ey, but I guess I should give some explanation as to why I haven’t been around for the last few months.  Part of it was a bit of insecurity;  I was feeling uninspired by my photography and writing and felt like, who I am to be doing this?  Why should I think anyone would care to read my natterings and look at my crappy digicam pics?  Then I got my first (and only) mean comment.  It was short and succinct, but very nasty.  And that really put me off the rails.  But!  I have gotten some really nice comments lately and I’ve licked my wounds and I’m ready to get back in the ring, to mix a few metaphors.  So, here we go.

Another reason that I took my extended break was the restaurant I’m going to talk about in this post, Dona Marta.  It was for sure my most exciting dining experience of last year (yes, last year, sorry, but we are going way back for the next few posts folks) and I couldn’t wait to write about it.  Then, the longer I waited to write this post and the more I thought about how great Dona Marta is, the more weird emotional wall I built up.  It got to where I was panicky about not being able to competently express myself and so I made the most logical decision (obviously) and just didn’t write the thing.  I still don’t feel quite ready, but I’m going to try.  Just for you.

Dona Marta is at the rather sketch south easterly corner of Ellis and Leavenworth (just down the street from Bamboo Pizza!).  Not so bad on this sunny fall day, lucky for me.  Steve and I wandered inside and the place was empty except for the guy behind the counter.  Throughout our meal dudes passed in and out the doors, sometimes eating something, sometimes just chatting with the counter guy in Spanish.  As we sat down the music was switched from Latin hip-hop to romantic Spanish language songs.  It was very considerate, though either choice of tuneage would be acceptable, and was our first sign of what a hospitable place we had chosen for lunch.

I loved the look of Dona Marta.  The leftover diner stools and checked lineoleum with the bright colors of the walls, the absence of artificial light and the homey touches of knick-knacks and houseplants made me feel like I was somewhere closer to the equator.

We went up to get menus and counter-guy ended up describing every. single. item. on the menu to us.  It was great, especially because I am not at all familiar with Yucatan food.  Counter-guy began every description with “this is very good also.”  After our education we ordered and waited with sodas for our food.

Steve ordered carnitas and we were surprised by what came out.  These are not the big hunks of crispy edged pork we’re used to.

Though they were new to us, we found the slightly chewy bits of pork and soft onion to be quite tasty, especially with the soupy black beans and roasted tomato salsa that were served alongside.

I ordered panuchos because they sounded amazing, and they definitely did not disappoint.  They are griddle fried tortillas stuffed with black beans, then topped with whatever you desire.

I loved the poc chuc; with pickled onions and grilled pork it was my kind of taco type thing.  The turkey mole didn’t hit the sweet spot quite as directly, but it was solid.  I’m still not sure exactly what the black slice atop it was, though my best guess is a (blood?) sausage with an egg yolk in the center.  Whatever it was, it tasted real good.  If I were smarter I’d be eating nothing but panuchos, pupusas and tacos for the rest of my life.  One day I’ll let myself be happy…

I really want people to go to Dona Marta because I’m a little worried about it closing.  Also, I am occasionally seeing things that say “there’s a dearth of Yucatan food in San Francisco!” and when good Yucatan places are discussed Dona Marta is never brought up, which is really too bad.  The sweet people running this place should be busier than they are, especially if San Franciscans are clamoring for more food like theirs.

To wrap it up, I leave you with perhaps the best part of the whole Dona Marta experience, their amazing business card.

Ok, I think I got it.

Dona Marta

499 Ellis

Their Yelp page

KFC/Taco Bell

I headed to KFC/Taco Bell with a pocket full of coupons.  It was early evening and I was meeting Sarah for a fast food feast.  I was a little apprehensive about this particular venture, because I am quite familiar with the corner that houses this restaurant, and it’s a little gnarly.  As I approached the doors things seemed pretty quiet and I looked around for Sarah.  I didn’t see her so I popped into the restaurant.  From outside I saw a tall manly figure in a black skirt and top and from that distance I figured he was just a guy in drag, nothing out of the ordinary, but when I got inside I found that wasn’t exactly the case.

Here’s Sarah’s artist’s rendering

Full gray beard, tank top pulled down under his man boobs, ass drooping below his skirt and what looked like tassels on his nipples, but upon closer inspection were nipple clamps.  Homemade nipple clamps no less, just black binder clips.  Ouch.  I was pretty taken aback by this guy, but Sarah was put in a slight state of shock.  We had lots of time to observe (and notice his leopard print thong) because the couple in line in front of us took an extraordinary amount of time to place their order.  They did apologize to everyone in line afterwards though.  To my surprise, all our fellow customers were very nice.

We ordered a pretty wide variety of stuff from taco bell.

That’s Sarah’s bag of goodies, here’s mine;

Most of what sounded appealing was on the taco bell menu, but I made sure to order one thing from the KFC side.  Most of what I ate was stuff I’d never had before.  I ate a bean burrito, which was pretty normal, it seemed like there was less sauce than usual.  I also ordered a Fresco Ranchero chicken soft taco, which came off the Drive Thru Diet menu.  It was ok, but kind of hot dog tasting.  The biggest disappointment was the Mexican Pizza.

I was so excited for it too, it sounds super amazing right?  A Mexican pizza!  It should be great!  But no, it was weird; weird texture, weird flavor, and look at it, it looks weird.  More gross, it looks gross.  I could only eat a couple bites of this.

From KFC I ordered the Fiery Grilled Wings, which to my surprise were pretty good.   They weren’t too spicy, but the chicken wasn’t the gross greasy mush that KFC’s fried chicken usually is.  It was pretty standard barbequed chicken.  Not too bad.

Sarah also had a bean burrito, and I believe a soft taco, and this slug looking thing

that I’m pretty sure was a meximelt.  Sarah said it was alright.  She had a lot of trouble determining what was in it, but that’s just a fun mystery, right?

The very best thing we ate that night were, shockingly, the cookies.

They were 3 for a dollar, and I joked about the sign on the cookie case that said they were fresh baked daily, but the joke was on me because they did taste pretty fresh.  The chocolate chip was the best, but the sugar wasn’t bad.

Taco Bell/KFC didn’t make me sick like McDonald’s did, but I’m not in a rush to get back.  But if I had to eat there I wouldn’t be sad to eat grilled chicken and cookies.  I’d probably skip the weirder stuff on Taco Bell menu though.

KFC/Taco Bell

691 Eddy St

Fina Estampa

For Steve’s birthday dinner he wanted to go somewhere for the blog.  What a nice guy!  Since we were planning on hitting up a movie at the AMC 1000 (Youth In Revolt) he choose Fina Estampa.

Fina Estampa is notable for turning into a pretty off the hook dance club on some nights.  Other than that I knew nothing about it.  It looks kind of creepy from the outside because all the windows are pretty high off the ground so all you have to judge it by is the fortress-like exterior.  Inside is not much more inviting.

It’s rather cavernous and dark.  And, at least the night we were there, totally empty.  So empty, in fact, that we were almost sure that nobody was working there for at least a minute.  A really nice waiter eventually appeared and seated us and brought us our menus, then brought us bread and dips.

AMAZING bread and dips you guys.  This was the best thing we ate.  Check this stuff out.

The gold stuff is butter, obvs.  The white stuff is a kind of vinegary hominy.  The red is a super spicy roasted pepper sauce and the green stuff was this garlicky salty fucking delicious stuff.  I ate way too much of it.  Way way too much.  But I couldn’t stop.  I want to go back to Fina Estampa and just eat bread and dip and drink this.

Pisco Sour.  So delectable.  I think this has egg whites in it, but it tastes like a really good creamy margarita.  We got a pitcher of this for $26.  Totally worth it, especially because check out the classy wine glass you get to drink it out of!

Things went a little downhill from there.  It was so sad because I had such high hopes.  It didn’t suck or anything, but we didn’t have anything else as outstanding as the bread and the drinks.

Fina Estampa has their menu broken up into four sections; Tapas, Mexican Food, Peruvian Food and Platos de Mariscos.  We ended up ordering from each section except the Mexican food, because it was the most ordinary and boring, though if I were to return I’d probably order some quesadilla or something, because it’s also the cheaper sections.  We started off with the Spanish food,

When we ordered the mussels, or choros a la criolla, I was expecting steamed mussels, but these were more like a ceviche.  This was difficult to eat because there was so much of the pico de gallo-esque salsa on top of each mussel, and also because it was so lemon-y sour with not much salt to balance it out.  This could be remedied somewhat with some doctoring up with the bread condiments.  The sourness was also accentuated by the lack of flavor in most of the mussels.  They were of very uneven quality, there were a few that were tender, plump and sweet, but the others were bland and difficult to chew. 

Steve choose his entree from the Platos de Mariscos section of the menu, Saltado de Mariscos

I found the calamari to be the standout in this dish, which consisted of tomatoes and onions sauteed with calamari, clams and shrimp as well as french fries.  It was pretty good, but I think a saltado is better when it’s made with steak or chicken.  Seafood is a little more delicate in flavor and texture and has a harder time standing up to french fries.

I ordered from the Peruvian portion of the menu.  There were several dishes featuring noodles, and I couldn’t resist trying one.  I had never encountered noodles in South American food before, so how could I pass them up?  My tallarin de pollo was very much like chow mein, but not exactly.  The chicken strips were reminiscent of cheap Chinese food, dry and rough on the outside but moist on the inside and still pretty tasty, and the noodles were certainly chow mein noodles.  The tomatoes and onions were cut in a decidedly un-Chinese fashion, and the seasoning was more like what you’d expect in a Spanish dish.  It was an odd juxtaposition, and I definitely didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either.

In all, I enjoyed my experience at Fina Estampa.  It wasn’t the best food I’d ever had, but our waiter was really nice, and I like eating in a big empty room, and if I were to go again, the menu is so extensive that they would have a lot more chances to get it right.  I would recommend it as a spot to get a drink and bite before a movie at the AMC 1000; get that Pisco Sour.  Yum.

Fina Estampa

1100 Van Ness Ave

El Castillito

Steve and I decided one sunny Saturday to take our bikes out to Angel Island.  I’d read that there’s a nice flat-ish bike trail out there that picturesquely circles the island.  It was the first time that I was really excited about something bike related and, I dunno, it felt pretty good.  It felt good to get up early on a Saturday morning and bike through nearly deserted city streets to the Ferry Building and drink delicious Four Barrel coffee from Out the Door while looking out on the lovely bay.  This experience was only slightly marred by the LoveFest (or LovEvolution or whatever the hell it is) revellers arriving by ferry from across the water and by the fact that Steve has something of a panic attack whenever he encounters too much moneyed douchebaggery. 

So what does this have to do with the Tenderloin?  Well, we also decided on this fine day that it might be nice to mix it up and have a scenic backdrop against which to take photos for this blog, and that we should pick up lunch in the Tenderloin and take it with us to the island.  I hemmed and hawed a little trying to decide what to take (I considered Vietnamese sandwiches and dim sum) before agreeing with Steve’s decision, which was made quickly and decisively: he was getting a burrito from El Castillito.

El Castillito is a block away from Galaxcy Pizza, and I’ve already expounded on the virtues of the area in that post.  Suffice it to say, it is much more pleasant down there in the morning, before all the smells have had time to bake to ripeness in the sunshine and many of the nearby inhabitants are still sleeping.  Still El Castillito is a pleasant enough place to eat in, the people running the joint are pleasant and the tables are reasonably clean.  It is a standard taqueria, you order at a counter in front of the grill where you can watch your meal being prepared.

They ask you what you want, probably throw your meat on the grill, ask what beans you’d like, spicy or mild salsa

Here’s Steve’s grilled Chicken burrito getting ready to be rolled up and passed over to the cashier, who rings you up, asks if you want any drinks or chips and sends you on your merry way.

Prices are pretty San Francisco standard, maybe a little low even; about 5 bucks for a regular no guac no cheese burrito, 6 and a half for a super.  The torta, which is what I ordered, is crazy cheap at just under 5 dollars, that’s for a sandwich that could easily feed two people on a regular day.  They have a fairly good meat selection, all the standards plus cabeza and lengua, which you won’t always find.  No tripas and sesos, sorry.  I’m not quite sure that those are available at any Tenderloin taquerias, but I guess I’ll soon find out.

We packed up our grub and set out to the sea.  We had heard rumors that the weekend would be windy and cold, but the first half of that Saturday was as nice as any I’ve ever seen.  When we got to Angel Island we found out we’d (actually I’d) been duped: while the bike trail was paved and was a mostly easy ride, it was not very near the shore, in fact to get to the trail you had to climb a pretty steep stretch of unpaved switchbacks.  After that though, it was smooth sailing (except for one particularly intense hill rivalling many in San Francisco.  You’ve been warned.)  After our first jaunt around the island we decided to break for lunch.  We sat at a picnic bench under the shade of some eucalyptus trees and got out the spread.

As you can see, they’re a little worse for the wear.  I ended up with a torta partly because I really like tortas, and partly because I believed for some reason that it would hold up better in Steve’s messenger bag than a burrito would.  Turns out that is not the case.

Ugh, all squished.  All the lovely toastiness from the grill was lost.  The torta contains meat, cheese, tomato, lettuce and avocado; none of those items sounded too wet to me, but maybe it was just the steam that was caught in the foil wrap that did it.  The carne asada was still tasty, the avocado still creamy, but in whole it was a little less than fully satisfying.

Doesn’t Steve’s burrito look dry?  It’s still retaining some grill crispness, and the perfectly cooked rice still has some bite to it, distracting from any other mushiness that might be happening.  And it tastes good, even though I am not a huge fan of the grilled chicken at this El Castillito location.  It reminds me of Chinese food chicken, smooth little nuggets of meat, as opposed to the shredded or rough chopped chicken I’m accustomed to in Mexican dishes. 

So, lessons learned.  Next time I’m planning a picnic I’ll pack burritos instead of tortas.  And your lesson learned?  If you’re at City Hall or the Court House, or otherwise in the area and you have a hankering for quality taqueria fare, El Castillito Taqueria is your best bet.  Also, be careful because there are two El Castillitos on Golden Gate, the one this post is about is between Larkin and Hyde.  The other one is between Hyde and Leavenworth.  There seems to be a good Yelp debate going on about which is better, though at this time they both have four star ratings.  A good way to remember which is which is this is the Castillito next to the Wells Fargo ATM, the other one is near to a Bank of America ATM.  Confusing, right?  There are quite a few El Castillitos in San Francisco, I’m not sure of the exact number, but this one is my second favorite.  My first favorite is the one on Church between Market and Duboce. 

El Castillito Taqueria

370 Golden Gate

Their Yelp page

El Tesoro Geary

It’s entirely possible that it’s been a year since I’ve had a San Francisco burrito. 

Over the last 10 months I’ve been going through something of a health nut phase, attempting to eat in a manner more friendly to my body.  The monster tubes of carbohydrate and fat that are the burritos of SF’s taquerias don’t exactly fit in with my new habits, so they have been eschewed.  Well, until this past Sunday anyway.  Sunday is the night that I am home alone, the night that my dinner plans are entirely up to me.  Which sucks, because I despise making decisions, especially when it comes to what I’m going to put in my face.  I’ve been known to spend literal hours trying to decide which restaurant to order delivery from, only to give up and eat gardenburgers and microwaved mac & cheese.  Such is the glamourous life I live.  This past Sunday it seemed I was doomed to play out the same scenario; I was poring over the menus on, trying to decide which Thai place had the cheapest noodles…but I didn’t feel like anymore damn noodles.  And pizza was out too, just not in the mood.  I had a sudden urge for the comfort of creamy beans and cheese; I wanted a burrito, damn it!  For once on a Sunday night, the idea of leaving my house wasn’t completely abhorret to me, so I decided to walk to El Tesoro on Geary for take out.

El Tesoro is a fairly standard San Francisco taqueria except that it is in a nice little Mexican market.  This is a pretty awesome market to go to if you want a large selection of Bimbos treats, chicharrones or canned seafood.  Also, a good place to go if you want to make pickled eggs a la Joe Jost’s (I use this guy’s recipe) because they carried the jarred yellow peppers that are integral to the recipe.  El Tesoro’s kitchen is in the corner of the market, they have a small seating area that seems like it would be pleasant enough to sit in if you don’t live two blocks away.  I ordered a chile verde super burrito, which comes with guacamole and sour cream in addition to the regular fixings; beans and rice, salsa and cheese.  It usually bothers me that super burritos almost always come with guacamole AND sour cream, because I really only want the guac, but if you ask for no sour cream you still pay the full price, and adding guacamole to a regular is more expensive…it’s complicated.  That evening, however, I was feeling decadent, so the sour cream was okay.  I was also feeling a bit parched, and I noticed they had big plastic barrels of colorful liquid chilling on a hotel pan full of ice.  They were making my mouth water.  I ordered a strawberry agua fresca and started sucking it down while I hit up the salsa bar.   

They had some interesting stuff at the salsa bar, like a creamy looking green salsa and whole pickled jalapenos.  I wasn’t feeling too adventurous so I went with a standard pico de gallo and a darker red, less chunky salsa with lots of chile seeds.  My burrito was finished so I took it and started my walk home, still sipping on my agua fresca. 

When I’d started drinking it I was wowed by the freshness of the flavor.  It was definitely real fruit, not those from powder drinks you’ll sometimes find.  There were chunks of strawberry and tiny seeds coming up through the straw and there was a slight pulpy texture to the sweet liquid.  I was enjoying it until I got about two blocks away from El Tesoro.  That’s when I started noticing an odd, off flavor.  It was like when I was a kid and my dad would chop onions, then use the same knife and board to chop up watermelon.  The predominate flavor was the sweet fruit, but there would be a definite onion note.  Yum.  I decided to cool it on the agua fresca until I got home.

When I got home and took the burrito out of the bag I was pretty surprised by how large it was.  I know it’s been a while since I’ve bought burrito, but I’m pretty sure this was larger than average.  I unwrapped the foil and got down to business. 

The burrito was similar to the agua fresca.  I started off pleased with my first few bites.  Everything seemed standard.  Then things started to go bad.  There were two distinct sides to this burrito, one with rice beans and sour cream, one with cheese meat and guacamole.  The cheesy meaty side was fine, the pork was a tiny bit dry but it had a good sour tang from the tomatillo sauce, the cheese was standard white taqueria cheese, gooey and salty, holding everything together.  The rice side was bad, real bad.  It seems that all the liquid from the chile verde had migrated into the rice where it mixed with the sour cream to create a puddle that surrounded the rice.  This had the obvious downside of giving me a soggy burrito, but it also took away the positive attribute of sour cream, which is its thick creaminess.  Instead the sour cream was turned into a milky mess.  This is something you will almost never hear me say, but the garlic in the rice was much too strong; it was funky and musty and quite unpleasant.  To pull all this subpar-ness together, the final touch was that this burrito had not been finished on the grill.  It was steamed to heat it and make it pliable, filled with stuff, folded up and wrapped with foil and that’s it.  People.  Come on.  You need to grill a burrito after you fold it up!  That’s all there is to it!  I imagine if, instead of a gummy, moist, chilly tortilla soaking up that foul sour cream liquid I’d had a crisp, warm tortilla, pockmarked with toasty brown spots this would have been a much more enjoyable meal.  It still wouldn’t be able to measure up to the greats, but it would have been palatable.  As it was, I was unable to finish more than half of this burrito.  I tried eating only the meaty cheesy side for a while, but it wasn’t working.  I wrapped it up and put it in the fridge for Steve.  The tortilla chips were pretty much the same story.  The chips themselves had that odd bitter aftertaste that chips sometimes have; I think it’s from being fried in old oil but I’m not sure, and they were slicked with grease.  The salsa had the same funky old garlic flavor that plagued the rice, the pico de gallo was slightly better than the pureed stuff.

Overall, El Tesoro was a disappointment.  I paid 9 and a half bucks for my burrito and agua fresca, which seemed a little steep to me at the time and seems even steeper now, considering the quality of the food I received.  If I were going to try El Tesoro again, I’d probably skip the sour cream and go for a grilled meat like carne asada or carnitas to minimize juiciness.  The fact is that I probably won’t go back.  There are plenty of other taquerias in the area and it’s not worth it to me to give this  El Tesoro another try (There’s another location on O’Farrell that I will be visiting sometime in the future.  It’s supposed to be better.).  Maybe I’d pick something up if I were coming in to buy my yellow peppers, but it’s unlikely.  If you still want to try El Tesoro, or if you want to buy some yellow peppers for your own pickled eggs, you’ll be glad to know that this block of Geary is pretty low on the scary-meter.  The north side of the block is lined with legit store fronts which draws in the normals and repels the unsavories.  To wrap up, you will be safe from tweekers if you decide to visit this taqueria, but you will not be safe from off-flavored food and unwarranted slightly high prices.  Better to avoid.

El Tesoro Geary

868 Geary

No website – phone number is 415-474-0530