Balompié Café looks like many another modest restaurants in the Mission, but it does make a convincing claim to uniqueness, in three parts. The first is the striking name — basically “ball foot” in Spanish. Football by any other name — including “balompié” and “fútbol” — is still … soccer. Somehow soccer’s claim to being the true football is more convincing than our own. In American football, the combination of ball and foot is seldom a presence or factor.
The second part of our triad is Balompié’s identity as a soccer bar. The walls of the otherwise unassuming space are festooned with soccer-club banners from around the world, and flat-panel televisions mounted high on the walls show plenty of action. Some of the patrons scattered around the dining room and at the bar are likely to be watching rapt, while others will be dividing their attention between the screens and the plates of Salvadorean food in front of them — the place’s Salvadoreanness being its third distinguishing characteristic. Salvadorean cuisine resembles its Mexican cousin in broad outline, with corn and beans at the foundation, as they have been for centuries in Mesoamerica. But Salvadorean cuisine has its specialties and special delights.
Torn though some of the other patrons might be between the food and the televised proceedings, there was no contest for us. Soccer is a little too free-form a game to translate comfortably to television; the main impression made on the remote spectator pertains to the green vastness of the playing field. It’s like looking at an image from Google Earth, with tiny figures frantically running around. The food, on the other hand, richly rewards the attention you pay to it. It is as flavorful as any food you’ll find in this city and is also monumentally inexpensive. Balompié has been at its central Mission location since 1987, and in recent years has opened up at a few other spots (one in SoMa, the other in the outer Mission), but it still gives big bang for the buck, and that’s probably never been more valuable than it is now, in this depression-by-any-other-name.
The best-known Salvadorean dish in this country is the pupusa — and I probably should say “pupusas,” since, as with Lay’s potato chips, the singular reference is absurd. (Balompié’s menu codifies this preference for the plural by requiring that you order a minimum of two pupusas; the regular ones are $2.50 each, the fancier sorts $3.50.) Pupusas are basically stuffed flatbreads (made here either from masa or rice flour) that look a lot like small pita breads, and they can be filled with a variety of delectables.
Spinach and cheese reminded me of the Greek pastry pie spanikopita, while chorizo and cheese had the air of a Mexican-style breakfast. In the case of the blander pupusas — the cheese-and-beans combo springs to mind — enhancement is available in the form of an impressively spicy cabbage slaw, a dish of pickled vegetables (including carrot coins, cauliflower florets, and rounds of jalapeño pepper), and a richly tomatoey, though mild-mannered, salsa.
The pupusas are griddled. The corn pies called pasteles ($5.75 for three), on the other hand, are deep-fried and resemble an improbable cross between corn dogs, falafel balls, and Easter eggs. They’re crunchy on the outside and are filled with well-seasoned minced pork. (Chicken and shrimp versions are also available.)
The bigger plates tend to include large swaths of beans and rice — a worthy combination that can assume the proportions of a small landslide. (You can get the beans and rice as discrete entities, with salad, or mixed together and fried as casamiento.) The wonderful garlic chicken ($9.95), for instance, would have been fine on its own. The meat had been sliced into boneless flaps, then cooked — I would guess on the griddle — until the edges were lightly crisped and caramelized. The finishing touch was a fabulously creamy garlic sauce with a hint of lemon ladled over the top.
A chile relleno ($10.75) turned out to be less routine than it sounded. The pepper, a poblano, was familiar enough; the filling, of chopped, spiced beef, was less so. But the real puzzle was a band of mysterious white threads with the texture of pickled radish and a bitter-fruity flavor. That bite took some getting used to but was, in the end, a real enhancement. We quizzed our server, and she brought forth a jar labelled “pacaya,” or date palm — actually a date-palm blossom, pickled in brine. The date palm is a native of Mesopotamia and is one of the world’s most venerable food sources.
This is the sort of interesting food factoid that can get overlooked when Mexico scores on Costa Rica and the tiny figures run around on the surface of their flat green planet while, at Balompié, murmurs of exultation or disappointment ripple through the crowd and more beer is ordered, perhaps a bottle of Regia from El Salvador, a gorgeously smooth golden lager in a vessel like a quart of motor oil. Sort of the beer equivalent of the foot-long hotdog.
Daily, 8 a.m.–9:30 p.m.
3349 18th St. (also at 525 Seventh St. and 3801 Mission), SF
(415) 648-9199 (558-9668, 647-4000)
Beer and wine
Loud but bearable