The word “cowboy” has carried its share of evocative adjectives over the years — midnight, urban, lonesome (yet do we really believe that an urban cowboy would be lonesome at midnight?) — but fondue is unexpected. In part this must be because fondue itself is slightly unexpected in these parts. Our best-known fondue restaurant, Matterhorn, is something of a Swiss period piece, and whatever else Fondue Cowboy might be, it certainly isn’t that. The place, which opened early last summer in a SoMa spot that had been an Extreme Pizza outlet, is surprisingly light on the Wild West kitsch you might expect to find inside. Indeed, there is virtually none, other than the black-and-white cowboy movies playing silently on the flat-screen behind the bar. The crowd is interestingly mixed, if not quite emulsified: groups of shrieking (and apparently heterosexual) 30-ish people, along with dottings of young gay men, heavy of bicep, who look as if they might have just stepped off the set of Cruising, William Friedkin’s dark cinematic ode to life in Manhattan’s meatpacking district circa 1980.
What binds these disparate elements is fondue, whether melted cheese or chocolate. Fondue should probably be more popular than it is; for shareability and participation, it’s hard to beat. And because the dunkables are brought to you almost in mis en place form, you get a good, close look at what you’re about to eat. In these respects, Fondue Cowboy shares some ancestry with Matterhorn — but in the execution, the new place goes its own way. A lot of its distinctiveness has to do with the cheese blends in the savory fondues (all $20 for two). They’re given atmospheric names — Desperado, Quick Draw, Rawhide — and are seasoned accordingly, with real Southwestern verve. For traditionalists, there is the Traditional, of Gruyère and Emmenthaler cheeses, white wine, roasted garlic, and nutmeg. More typical of the Fondue Cowboy experience is the Outlaw, which begins with cheddar cheese and adds beer, roasted tomatoes, garlic, cilantro, and jalapeños.
The presentation turned out to be not entirely unlike that of a queso fundido, with the seasoned cheese bubbling in its little cast-iron chafing pot above a blue Sterno flame. But whereas queso fundido is generally accompanied just by tortillas, the Outlaw turned up with an impressive ensemble of bite-sized items ready for dipping: baguette squares, roasted fingerling potato, broccoli florets, black grapes, black olives, cornichons, and green apple. A modest surcharge of $8 brought a sizable plate of sausage coins, spicy Louisiana edition. The coins were delicious, whether dipped in the melted cheese or eaten straight, and they compared favorably with chorizo, the Mexican sausage that has made many a queso fundido memorable.
The brief menu does offer a few other items, mostly salads, such as white bean ($8), a jumble of mixed baby greens, pickled red onions, red and orange pepper julienne, shredded black olives, and plenty of the advertised white beans. The dressing: an extroverted red-wine vinaigrette that glistened like morning dew on the greens. I would have liked a little more sugar for balance in the dressing, since sourness and saltiness were already strongly represented by the onions and olives. A vinaigrette is a bar stool, and a bar stool needs three legs, the third — and sometimes neglected — leg being sugar in some form.
Speaking of sugar: the marvelous Happy Trails ($18 for two), the dark-chocolate dessert fondue, was notable at least as much for its cayenne kick as for its sweetness. Of sweetness, it had just enough, and of kick, it had .. just enough. I have eaten chili-infused chocolate before, but never did I find it sublime, as I did here. Maybe this had to do with the chocolate being molten. Or maybe it had to do with the supporting cast, a rich array of fruit (kiwi, strawberries, banana), along with baked goods (pieces of madeleine and squares of chocolate-cherry cake) from nearby Pinkie’s, and — for the final festive touch — slivers of marshmallow. Roasting marshmallows over embers in a Weber kettle was one of the great treats of childhood — maybe something that actual cowboys might have done — but dipping them in pepper-charged melted dark chocolate, in a handsome urban restaurant far from midnight, turned out to be a fine alternative.
Dinner: Tues.–Sun., 5–10 p.m.
1052 Folsom, SF
Beer and wine