Last we left the Chain, Martín Rios, now a James Beard Award semifinalist for the best chef of the Southwest, sang the praises of Andiamo! So far, we’ve showcased 12 local chefs talking about their favorite SF eateries. Here are four more to add to the mix:
Having grown up in Chihuahua, Mexico, surrounded by authentic Mexican delicacies and with a mother with a catering business, one could think of chef Esteban Parra as a master of the Mexican kitchen, a burrito and chile guru. But one would be wrong. The executive chef at Andiamo! (322 Garfield St., 995-9595), Parra admits that his talents lie in the art of Italian cooking. “I spent four years in the kitchen at La Traviata learning from great Italian chefs,” Parra says. Without a single chile on his menu, the food at Andiamo! is uncomplicated and traditional—you know what you’re getting. And that’s why Parra eats at Midtown Bistro when he’s not in the kitchen. “There’s no guessing. The menu is straightforward.” And what does Parra order? Pasta! “I like to compare,” he says. But from time to time he still pledges his allegiance to his native Mexico by ordering the roasted chicken enchiladas with red or green chile, black beans and calabacitas. “They are my favorite!”
Time: It waits for no man. And for Angel Estrada, co-owner and executive chef of Midtown Bistro (901 W San Mateo Road, 820-3121), it flies while he’s having fun...in the kitchen, that is. “When I get into the kitchen,” Estrada says. “I’m never looking at the clock. I enjoy spending time combining spices and coming up with great sauces and flavors; it’s fun.” But when the time comes to treat his taste buds, Estrada heads to El Mesón, where the tapas are authentically rustic and profoundly simple, yet infinitely varied and creative. In particular, he enjoys the alcachofas rellenas de queso con romesco (artichoke hearts stuffed with fresh herbed Spanish goat cheese, flash-fried and served over romesco sauce). Next visit, will he pair that with a tango milonga? Only time will tell.
Debating the evolution of tapas is a typ ical Spanish pastime. But this much is beyond dispute: Tapas have transformed through Spanish history by incorporating ingredients and influences from a variety of cultures, regions and countries. And it is agreed that this tapas evolution created a worldwide tapas revolution, which has ultimately enriched the food culture here. “The concept [of small plates] has finally caught on,” says David Huertas, chef and owner of El Mesón (213 Washington Ave., 983-6756), the only local Spanish bistro authentic enough to be recommended by the Consulate of Spain. But the more things change the more they stay the same: Huertas always orders the chicharrón burrito at Café Castro. “It’s old school eating…and not on the menu.” It’s also at the top of his evolutionary food chain, alongside the enormous sopaipillas which he claims are “the best in town,” and the unadulterated red chile sauce, which is “bright and fresh.” He adds, “The food is consistently awesome. It’s simple, but they do it well.”
For centuries, elders eyeballed ingredients in pinches and bunches, estimated cooking times, and relied more on common sense, instinct and tasting than on direction. But present-day generations lack the culinary confidence needed to cook without teaspoons, mostly because this kind of training evolves by watching someone who has been improvising for years, like Carlos Castro, owner alongside his wife Julia, of Café Castro (2811 Cerrillos Road, 473-5800). “You can’t learn this kind of cooking at culinary school,” Carlos explains. “I trained by working for years in the kitchen with Tomasita and Rose Leyba of Tomasita’s.” They were experts in duplicating heirloom dishes without looking at the actual recipe. And with a trained palate and an acute culinary instinct, Castro, too, can distinguish the subtle burnt taste of dried red chiles from chile powder. But when he wants to challenge his palate to other regional flavors, he goes to Omira Grill. From lamb with North African spices to a tri-tip with Santa Maria seasoning, this Brazilian-inspired barbecue restaurant cooks with a cornucopia of spices to heighten any palate—sophisticated or not. And Omira pours Kasteel Rouge, a Belgian craft beer with a tart cherry nose, a fruity taste and a spicy finish. A delightful pairing to a perfect cut of meat.