Stok­ing the flame

Pasatiempo - - RESTAURANT REVIEW -

Is spon­tane­ity dead? Rather than try a new restau­rant sim­ply be­cause it catches your eye as you stroll down the street, now al­most ev­ery­one car­ries a de­vice that al­lows them to quickly iden­tify the best — or at least most pop­u­lar — res­tau­rants within a half-mile ra­dius. It seems like no one with even a pass­ing in­ter­est in food dares dine out with­out vet­ting the restau­rant on­line first.

That de­lib­er­ate, tar­geted ap­proach might work in fa­vor of La Fo­gata Grill, hid­den as it is down­stairs on the north side of the Plaza Mer­cado. That spot has proven dif­fi­cult for a num­ber of busi­nesses since the orig­i­nal San Fran­cisco Street Bar & Grill moved on to fancier digs. It’s tan­ta­mount to a base­ment, with no win­dows and no real nat­u­ral light ex­cept on the faux pa­tio in the build­ing’s atrium.

La Fo­gata, which means “the bon­fire” or sim­ply “the fire,” has got a bead on the food, though. It pri­mar­ily serves Latin Amer­i­can and New Mex­ico dishes, and the tacos and pu­pusas are some of the best I’ve had in town. The red and green chiles could go to the mat with the city’s big­gest names.

La Fo­gata works hard to cheer things up with vi­brant red and green walls and col­or­ful, quirky art. Servers wear multi-hued flo­ral-em­broi­dered dresses, ev­ery­one is at­ten­tive and friendly, and the kitchen works fast. The restau­rant of­fers wine and beer as well as an agave wine mar­garita and a slightly sweet but sun­set-pretty wa­ter­melon san­gria. Happy hour runs from 3 to 6 p.m. daily.

While you en­joy an aper­i­tif, nosh on the pa­p­i­tas caseras, curly house-made potato chips doused in lime juice and Valentina and dusted with Ta­jín. It feels like some­thing con­cocted dur­ing a late-night study ses­sion in a dorm room, but it’s salty, starchy, tangy, un­pre­ten­tious good­ness.

La Fo­gata takes ad­van­tage of the pop­u­lar Taco Tues­day meme: On that day, the menu is re­stricted to tacos. The kitchen makes eight kinds — asada, car­ni­tas, al pas­tor, tripe, bar­ba­coa, chicken, deshe­brada, and veg­etable. An or­der con­sists of three mix-and-match tacos, each gar­nished with chopped onion and cilantro, plus a bowl of some­thing hi­lar­i­ously akin to beanie wee­nies.

We tried six. The mixed veg­eta­bles were fresh and well cooked, though a lit­tle bland. The al pas­tor had a mild fruity sweet­ness, the bar­ba­coa was fall-apart ten­der, the tripe was rich and fatty, and the chicken was ro­bust and al­most gamey. A mari­achi band in full re­galia con­trib­utes to the am­bi­ence, though I’m pretty sure the singer, with her im­pres­sively pow­er­ful voice, doesn’t need a mic for this gig.

La Fo­gata is open for break­fast, which you can or­der un­til 4 p.m. That menu runs the ga­mut from pan­cakes to and waffles to chi­laquiles and en­tomatadas. At lunch there are sal­ads and sand­wiches and heftier plates like en­chi­ladas, while the din­ner menu adds op­tions like shrimp, steak, paella, chile en no­gada, and bar­ba­coa de pollo.

The Santa Fe En­chi­ladas are a fine name­sake dish. Two rolled en­chi­ladas (in this case stuffed with pleas­antly toothy hunks of car­rot, squash, and zuc­chini), well-sea­soned black beans, for­get­table fluffy rice, and the req­ui­site ice­berg-tomato “salad” are all given a tidy pre­sen­ta­tion. Both the earthy red and the clean, bright green chile bal­anced ad­dic­tively bold fla­vors and some se­ri­ous heat.

Pu­pusas — avail­able as an en­trée at lunch or an ap­pe­tizer at din­ner — are im­pres­sive. Th­ese hearty masa pan­cakes are light, fluffy, vaguely sweet, and not at all greasy; they’re stuffed with cheese and either black beans or chichar­rónes and given a lovely sear on each side. A strap­ping cur­tido rel­ish of cab­bage, jalapeño, and car­rot is blan­keted with a thick, saucy orange salsa that has a mouth­wa­ter­ing tang.

Our re­spectable green chile cheese­burger (per­fectly medium-rare, as re­quested) fea­tured fiery hot chile, asadero cheese, sautéed onions (not quite caramelized, as the menu claims), and a puffy out­size bun. Even the fries were mem­o­rable: cooked to a deep gold; crisp on the out­side, fluffy and ten­der on the in­side; and just as greasy as you want them to be (they’re not health food, af­ter all).

For bet­ter or worse, fac­tors other than ap­petite de­ter­mine where we de­cide to eat, and a big one is am­bi­ence. De­pend­ing on the mood and who you’re eat­ing with, you can end up in a place that serves medi­ocre food sim­ply be­cause the vibe is bet­ter or the space is more invit­ing. If it were lo­cated some­place sun­nier and eas­ier to spot, La Fo­gata Grill would be killing it. With this food, it’s half­way there.

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