Esperpento Is Still the Happy Place

Part of a series on restaurants that have been around so long they've slipped into a media black hole.

In 1992, Carlos Muela opened Esperpento, part of the great wave of tapas restaurants that ended up changing San Francisco dining forever. So-called authentic Spanish tapas begat global-fusion tapas begat "small plates," which some think have killed all that is sophisticated about fine dining in this city. If Esperpento has seen a slow night in its 18-year-history, SFoodie isn't aware of it. A friend who used to live in a nearby co-op always called the restaurant ― with a tinge of far-left disapproval ― "the happy place," because everyone inside was always smiling.

Alcachofas a la plancha.
Eighteen years on, the customers still look happy, perhaps because so many of them seem to be celebrating birthday parties. Also unchanged: the decor, painted in colors Betsey Johnson would approve; the swirl-topped tables; and the photo of Salvador Dali, waxed mustache finally fashionable again. Esperpento's menu hasn't changed much since the days when we used to go there for the cheap sangria, rabbit stew, and patatas bravas. Come to think of it, the prices haven't changed much, either. Most of the tapas are in the $4-$7 range, and they're not two thimblefuls' worth of meat served on a sand dollar-sized plate.

SFoodie's enthusiasm for this whole "Black Hole Dining" project has been flagging, given the number of restaurants we've visited that haven't aged as well as we'd hoped. So we started the meal wary. But then we tasted a bite of the alcachofas a la plancha, artichokes sliced thin and griddle-cooked until they picked up the Spanish equivalent of wok char. We swigged sweet, fruity sangria and rolled wedges of fried potato through the salsa brava, a mayonnaise reddened with chiles and peppers.

No matter how long the cooks have been using the same recipes, the menu is still too big to control. There was a bland creamed spinach and a mayonnaise-soaked fried cauliflower, and the jamon serrano Esperpento imports tastes as cheap as it costs. But whole anchovies, lightly breaded, were good; so was the escalivada, a tangle of heavily caramelized onions, eggplant, and peppers. We mistakenly ordered a dish that had obsessed us in Spain ― pinchos morunos, or pork skewers rubbed in cumin and other Moorish spices;  once we'd reminded ourselves that no dish should ever be compared to the version eaten on vacation in another country, we were able to appreciate Esperpento's pink-centered, wine-marinated pork for its own charms.

And then, after all that food, we looked at the check ― $22 dollars a person, including wine. We do believe we walked out happy.

3295 22nd St. (at Valencia), 282-8867.

Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie. Follow me at @JonKauffman.

Location Info




3295 22nd St., San Francisco, CA

Category: Restaurant

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