svL and vliang were exactly right when they recently recommended Tamal.
While driving to Tamal a week ago, I lamented not getting a reservation ahead of time. We neednt have worried. Upon arriving at 8:30 p.m. on a Saturday night we were the only people in the restaurant. A few groups showed up afterwards but by and large it was empty. A place this good definitely deserves more patrons.
Tamal is a small plates restaurant aiming for a Nuevo Latino vibe, where all the dishes are $6 - $12.50 (with a few $3 aberrations). We were full after 3 ½ plates total between us, but weve been told were small eaters, so other people coming here may require the 2-3 (closer to 3) dishes recommended per person.
After we finished I really didnt feel like Id eaten Mexican food, but this is partly due to what we ordered (we got dishes like crab cakes, whereas there are many Nuevo Latino fusion items are on the menu such as tamales and chile rellenos with Asia and California influenced ingredients). Most everything we ordered was so good it was difficult to rank dishes, which is seriously my favorite activity at restaurants. (Okay, everybody, its time to rank!)
The $7 Creole Crab Cakes (a trio of fresh crab cakes with chipotle crèma served on a bed of baby mizuna with a blood orange vinaigrette and fire-roasted corn succotash) were full of crab and not filler. They had a little heat, but otherwise didnt seem all that creole. Thats OK though because they were mighty tasty, and the mizuna, chipotle crema, and corn/red pepper succotash were nice accompaniments.
We shared the $10.50 Tacos de Atun (crispy tacos with seared cumin seed and crushed pepper encrusted rare ahi tuna with spicy horseradish celeric-root slaw, tomatillo salsa verde, and spicy jicama sticks). The ahi made the dish sing with a very subtle, fresh, clean taste and satiny texture. The boyfriend doesnt like horseradish, but relented to putting the slaw on his taco which he enjoyed. The jicama sticks didnt really add to the dish; the ground green pepita sauce had nice flavors, but it was on the side and I was uncertain how to use it. I certainly didnt want to mask the ahi flavor!
Since Im not a huge lamb fan, the boyfriend had the $12.50 Brochetas de Cordero (grilled skewers of boneless lamb tenderloins rubbed with Scharffen Berger coco, Mexican canella and Fair Trade Volcano Blend coffee, served with yucca frits, tostones, and a jalapeno mint mojo) to himself. The tenderness varied in the brochette but the bite he gave me from the center of the cut was melt-in-your-mouth tender. The ingredients in the rub really shined through. The boyfriend loved the first brochette, but eating the second by himself was a little much for him. With a larger group sharing dishes, ordering the lamb is more ideal. The sides were a highlight the yucca frits were quite good, and Im always a sucker for plantains (tostones), and these were carmelized and wonderfully sweet.
I was still hungry, and eyeing the boyfriends plantains wasnt getting me anywhere towards getting more than one bite, so I got my own $3 order of tostones. Unfortunately, although the menu both lists tostones as being in his entrée, and lists tostones as a side order, theyre drastically different. The side order tostones were the salty, fried kind, so now I know why Chick n Fish (or whatever the new name is of the San Mateo El Pollo Supremo) had two types of tostones on the menu. Despite being fried, they were impressively greaseless; however, I couldnt taste the sweet plantains under the slightly salty batter, so I wouldnt get them again.
One quick aside before visiting Tamal, I plotted out what I would order from the menu on their website. Therefore, I was disappointed when the actual restaurant menu didnt include Empanaditas (trio of flaky pastry empanadas filled with Spanish chorizo and Yukon gold potatoes), and our server wasnt familiar with them. Our service was very friendly and otherwise informed and enthusiastic about the food. The restaurant is painted in bold orange-y colors with long curtains framing the windows, and has a comfortable but hip feel with an attractive though small bar area.
Tamal has an agua fresca of the day as well as a sangria of the day, in addition to a wine list. For $2 we each had the papaya saffron agua fresca. After getting past the initial part of being impressed by the creativity that saffron was in my drink (I could taste it and see the strands), I found myself wishing I had a simple taqueria-style strawberry agua fresca instead.
One of the best things about Tamal is its location. No, Im not referring to the empty, non-descript gritty block at the edge of SOMA in which it resides, but the fact that its only a few blocks from the freeway. Plus, it has by far the easiest parking Ive ever seen in San Francisco. There were plenty of spots just outside. So, yes, Tamal lacks the synergy and excitement of being in a dining neighborhood with plenty of people. But coming from the Peninsula, its a blessing. Often the extra time of driving and parking means we have to avoid going to the city altogether. Now its substantially more convenient!
1599 Howard St. (at 12th St.)
San Francisco, CA 94103
Take out. Reservations accepted. Happy hour.
Lunch: M-F 11:30 a.m. 3:00 p.m.
Dinner: M-Sa. 5:30 p.m. 10:00 p.m.
One hour street parking during lunch; ample free street parking after 6 p.m.