Food for People
There is nothing quite as agreeable to any diner as discovering you’re now “a regular” at a particular restaurant. The staff recognizes you at the door, they know what you’re usual order is (though they are still kind enough to provide a menu) and sometimes, if you’re gregarious and friendly and remember everybody’s name, you get preferential treatment, like early seating or complimentary drinks.
Other times all you get is a smile and a “Hey, guys!” and you’re happy enough for that. So it is for Robert and I when we visit Valencia Street stalwart Puerto Alegre during our almost-weekly sojourn into the Mission for a weekend burrito brunch. We’re now appearing there with a regularity that suggests addiction, but it’s not really the burritos we hunger for.
Rather, it’s not just the burritos.
As any resident of San Francisco knows, there are dozens of places to find a good burrito, and more than a handful of places to find a great one. The great burrito debate goes on in the cafes and coffee shops of every neighborhood, from Richmond to the Embarcadero, and there’s a good chance that every resident has a favorite burrito or tacqueria they’ll defend to the death. This isn’t about that, because while Puerto Alegre has good burritos, they’re not as special as some others you can get wrapped in aluminum foil and weighing several pounds. Eating an entire burrito at some establishments is something of a challenge, but for around $5 you simply can’t beat this rolled up, hand-held meal.
Why we go to Puerto Alegre is for something the restaurant — indeed, every Mexican restaurant — gives away for free. It’s the pre-meal salsa and chips. At Puerto Alegre, you get two different kinds of salsa and an unending supply of fresh, hot tortilla chips, lightly salted and ultra crisp. It may seem a little bit stupid to favor a restaurant not for the things one pays for, but rather the things one gets for free, but on the hand I’ve been known to go to a restaurant for better service and worse food, and ostensibly it’s not the service we’re (directly) paying for.
Puerto Alegre is a sit-down Mexican restaurant rather than a serve-yourself Tacqueria. Waiting for a table on weekend evenings can stretch into hours, such is the reputation of the place. Having experienced it on several occasions over the years, I cannot say for certain why this happens to be so. As I said, the food is unremarkable, the service friendly but commonplace and the atmosphere is just this side of Tijuana funky, what with the Virgin Mary statue draped in Christmas tree lights behind the bar, and the sampling of odd portraits of some cartoonish riverside village on the walls. It’s the type of look that gets built up over decades, like repeated layers of paint that don’t quite hide what’s beneath. It’s what restaurants like TGI Fridays and Peoples are trying to mimic without really managing to evoke anything like Puerto Alegre’s charming awkwardness.
Additionally, burritos here are served ‘wet,’ meaning that when you order the chile verde version (here called simply ‘pork stew’) the entire burrito is doused in the green sauce accompanying your meat choice. You’ll also get something like rabbit food with a squirt of Thousand Island dressing atop it which I usually consider garnish, though they call it a salad.
I must also mention a word about their Margaritas, which are one apparent reason for the restaurant’s weekend madness. Whichever one you order, for they have at least a dozen varieties, and whether you like yours blended or ‘rocks with salt’ like I do, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to note that you can really taste the Tequila. It’s never overwhelmed by the mix, and you get a big drink for your money. Order a pitcher if you’re in a group and you can’t go wrong.
So, what about those burritos? As mentioned, I’ve had better, and bigger, so that’s not the reason to seek out this little hole in the wall. It’s the overall experience that manages somehow to achieve a kind of wonderful achievement of satisfying expectations that brings me back time and again. It feels like they genuinely like that I’m here, but not in the sense that they want to sit down at my table like family. I think they really care about me as a customer, and nowadays that’s a commodity in fairly short supply. Often, a meal out means you’re not much more than another reservation, and they’re counting the minutes as you sit there, waiting until you’ve finished tonight’s special so they can clear out every remnant of your for the next table for two. At Puerto Alegre, they won’t treat you like family — they’ll treat you like a person. And sometimes, that’s a lot better anyway.
April 25, 2007