Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms
For the last 50 years, City Lights Bookstore, smack-dab in the center of San Francisco’s famed North Beach, has been known as a “literary meeting place” – a bookstore that also served as a place for writers and readers and leftists to debate everything from Kerouac’s place in the pantheon of great novelists to the Vietnam War’s effect on the fall of America.
And even though City Lights is known as the ‘place for poets,’ it is hardly the only San Francisco literary landmark. Across town, at the center of the Mission in the heart of the Latin side of town, sits the Picaro Restaurant – an eatery that’s doubled as a stage for poets and artists for over 25 years.
Today, the Picaro is known as one of the best tapas joints in the city. However, its origins date back to 1982, when the Picaro opened its doors as a cafe known for generous breakfasts and some of the best coffee south of Columbus Avenue.
But the Picaro didn’t stop there.
Instead, husband-wife co-founders Carlos Muela and Matilde Gómez (who both immigrated from Madrid in the late 1970s) envisioned that their coffee house could be a mecca for artists to use as a second home.
And use it they did.
In the early days of the Picaro, it was common-place to catch poets like Bob Kaufman or Harold Norse in a corner, nursing an espresso and scribbling away in their dreambooks (while on the other side of the room, amid the din of fork against plate, some faceless painter splattered his tattered canvas with the wings of a rainbow – his plate of eggs and toast half-eaten on a stool in the background).
You see, even though the early Picaro billed itself as a coffee house, it also served as a stage for armies of unknown artists to use as they pleased – this sprawling stage built out of some tables and chairs, framed by random shelves of used books that patrons could read as they ate and drank.
In essence, the Picaro (which means “rogue” in Spanish), was a place which extended the vision of City Lights, encouraging freedom of expression, encouraging true freedom of self. In sum, the early Picaro allowed you to be the who that you were, this place where odd-ball poets and painters could gather and feel comfortable in their own skin.
As much as it was about coffee with just the right amount of sweet and bitter, Picaro was also about community, carving its home out of neighborhood that was half bohemian (the famed art-house theater the Roxie is just across the street) and half Mexican market-place – the ultimate mix of coffee and pastry, of poetry and impromptu violin concertos.
In 1992, Muela and Gomez again put their imprint on the neighborhood and opened Esperpento (Valencia and 22nd ), which was the first tapas restaurant in the city. From the beginning, Esperpento enjoyed great success and showed that San Francisco was hungry to experience more than the typical burrito-taco fare that so many call “Latin cooking.”
Two years later, in 1994, following the Esperpento template, Muela and Gomez decided to give the Picaro a facelift as well, transforming their revolutionary cafe into a second tapas kitchen.
Tapas menus are comprised of a wide array of appetizers and snacks which are common-fare throughout Spain. Unfortunately, one of the problems that often plagues tapas plates is that they can be over-produced, with so many flavors clashing haphazardly against each other at once.
However, the Picaro’s food consistently avoids this mistake – its market-fresh ingredients and down-home presentation elevating it above some of the more glitzy downtown tapas houses.
A good place to start exploring is with the Spanish cold cuts, sausages and cheeses. To this end, the Serrano ham on toasted French bread with ripe tomatoes and olive oil is noteworthy – the slightly fatty salt-cured bite of the ham blending perfectly with the sweet hue of the oil-smeared bread. This particular dish naturally segues into the Queso Manchego (ultra-creamy Ewe’s milk cheese from La Mancha) – these two tapas akin to traditional antipasti plates you’d find at the center of the table at some Italian trattoria.
Moving down the vegetarian column of the menu, many plates stand-out. The “Tortilla de Patata” is a succulent potato-onion omelet presented in the shape of a tortilla and served with a slightly spicy dipping sauce – somehow light and filling at the same time. The grilled artichokes and grilled asparagus provide a nice dose of ‘green,’ enhanced nicely by an array of dipping sauces.
In terms of tapas that bring a heartier bite, the paella is the true star of the show. Paella is basically a ‘rice stew’ – this divine amalgamation of saffron-infused rice, vegetables, meat and seafood slow-cooked together in an iron skillet so that the rice absorbs the flavors of the other ingredients.
Picaro’s paella demonstrates the reason why this is the unofficial national dish of Spain – this perfect blend of meat and fish soaked into a bed of rice blooms with intense flavor (the best saved for last as you scrape the crusty-bottom of the pan, savoring every morsel).
Other noteworthy selections include the albondigas or Spanish meatballs – this ultra-light dish is moist and succulent, served in a soft brown gravy meant to be sopped up with the sweet French bread. Finally, the ox-tail stew is a real throwback to the cuisine of ancient Europe – tender ox-tails in a robust sauce that throbs with an intense and gritty flavor.
Each of the tapas should be accompanied by the house Sangria: The Muela-Gomez version of this common Spanish wine resonates with depth, splashing with character – the fruit and ruby-dark wine playing off each other and adding an extra bite to the food.
The Picaro desert menu might seem limited, but each are exceptional. The traditional flan and the chocolate mousse are delicate and light, driven by the subtle hint of sweetness. However, the centerpiece of the dessert cart is the ‘Crema Catalana’ – Spain’s own unique take on flan. The “Crema” is a real treat – a thick and creamy custard covered by a burnt-sugar hood that is truly addictive and wholly original.
Also worth mention is the coffee list which continues the grand tradition of the old Picaro: The smoky rich imported blend on display here works with each of the sweets or alone as an after-dinner cap.
BAR: Wine and beer. With coffee, soda and juice.
STAFF: A courteous wait-staff does an exemplary job of explaining various tapas, while being careful not to rush your through your meal or hover with endless recommendations.
ATMOSPHERE: Clean and mellow. With ample table space. The mid-Mission, the part of town the Picaro calls home, is a notorious area that has often garnered headlines for rowdy behavior. However, the Picaro seems immune to the din of 16th Street madness – a world unto itself that strives to keep the idea of community alive and well.
OVER-ALL: A hidden gem in the Mission serving some of the best tapas in the city – this is good food served in generous portions at rock-bottom prices. You can’t do better than the Picaro in terms of Spanish food in San Francisco.
COST: Inexpensive. Two can dine elegantly off the menu for around $30.00, including tip and a cocktail. Simply, it’s hard to believe that you can get food this good this cheap anywhere in the city.
HOURS: Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 AM to 10 PM; Fridays and Saturdays, 11:30 to 11 PM.