Took 13 friends to Fina Estampa on Van Ness last Saturday. I wanted to go to the original in the Mission but our group would have been way too big for the restaurant to handle. Their suggestion was to make a reservation at their Van Ness branch. I did so, somewhat reluctantly as I had my heart set on the source but it was the wise thing to do given the size of our group.
Our party was clearly the largest in the restaurant and the service was very accomodating and welcoming. We were not rushed, hurried along, left alone for too long of a time at any one period. The service was good enough not to be a distraction which is one thing I always look for.
Our waiter was patient with the entire table as we tried to decide what appetizers to share. After asking him about which were Peruvian versus Spanish (don't know if they also do Spanish food at the Mission location but they have a good representation at the Van Ness branch), we ended up sharing about 7 appetizers. We ordered anticuchos or marinated beef heart (Peruvian); tamal or a "tamale" which was an olive, chili, egg, and pork/or beef filling steamed in masa; ceviche (Peruvian ceviche, acc. to our waiter); green steamed mussels, tortilla, fried calamari, and grilled tripe (Peruvian).
I am not a fan of offal but will try anything once, except for brain. The beef heart was excellent and had a great marinated flavor. The marinade had left a citrusy and smoky imprint on this meat and the texture of this app. itself was like cubes of medium-well steak. It was very surprising to me that it "tasted" like beef. I had the expectation that it's texture may be more liver-like (I don't know why I thought this). However, as the heart is a muscle, it really was like cubed steak. It was excellent and I would definitely enjoy it again. The tripe was so-so. It was very chewy, a la rubber band, and it had a serious charred grill flavor to it. The only thing I tasted was carbon and I don't think I'd get this one again, neither for flavor or novelty.
Of the other apps. we ordered, I was most impressed by the seafood ones- ceviche and fried calamari. The ceviche contained shrimp, clam, squid, and fish. The citrus marinade was lime based but not overpowering. The seafood was just cooked through so everything was very tender. This dish also had some sliced onions in it. It had excellent flavor and texture but I also like a little bit more crunch in ceviche. Outside of that preference, I'd order it again. Fried calamari was outstanding. The batter was light and very crunchy but this dish was not greasy at all. Some of the best calamari I've had ever.
Moving on to entrees...Our group was satiated by this time by our appetizers and a few rounds of libations. Entree orders were not nearly as diverse as the appetizer round. 1/2 of the table got some form of Spanish paella and the other 1/2 got some form of arroz con name-your-meat. The entrees were huge and very filling. In fact, most people left half of the dish uneaten as the rice was so filling.
I had gotten spicy rice with seafood. Again, the seafood was cooked through and not rubbery. I am so impressed when people can cook squid properly. The only drawback to this dish was the lack of spiciness. There were fresh condiments on the table that you could add to kick up the spiciness or the sourness of your dish. I opted to go sour and garlicky (lime, cilantro, and garlic sauce) versus trying the aji sauce which was extremely tasty but too spicy for me.
My husband got the killer dish though. He got squid stuffed with crab and scallop meat(scallop-I think). The squid were then lightly battered, fried, and served with an olive sauce. This dish made me sit up and pay attention. The flavors were different, interesting and complementary. Again, the squid were cooked superbly-no rubberiness at all. The olive sauce was not too salty and yet retained a mild olive flavor (not black canned olives either, mind you).
I had included Fina Estampa on my ethnic supper club hitlist, solely on the basis of the recommendations from this site. It was outstanding and we will definitely pay another visit soon to the Mission location. I can't wait to taste the beef hearts and all the excellent seafood again!