The final frontier

Pub date November 28, 2006

Regrets? I’ve had a few. At the top of the list is that, due to circumstances beyond our control, I will never get to see Beethoven play the piano — unless we have misunderstood the time-space continuum. This seems more likely than not, given the reliable arrogance of human science, and I do retain a shred of hope.
The also-rans run well behind. I do not expect my idea for a sport-tuned, high-performance Prius — the Priapus, a Prius for men! — to make it onto a Toyota production line any time soon, alas and alack. And I am sorry I can’t remember what many areas of the city looked like a decade ago, before the Great Bulldozing. What was it like to sail down the Third Street corridor? I remember doing it at least once, in the middle 1990s, on a mission to take some moribund computer equipment to a recycling facility near the foot of 23rd Street. There was a certain ominous, video-game facelessness to the buildings, and I was glad when the errand was over.
As for restaurants: once you’d passed south of 16th Street, where 42° sat at the back of the rather dingy Esprit Center (since demolished), you were in a different world. You had passed through border control, a kind of Checkpoint Charlie of culture, and you were on your own. But … change was not far off. Soon the development tide would flow south: there would be a new baseball park, a new UCSF campus, a new Muni light-rail line. And the neighborhood’s obvious virtues — nearness to the city center and the bay, flat streets, warm weather, gorgeous old industrial buildings (many of brick), sweeping views — would begin to be noticed.
Today, Third Street is lined with new live-work and other lofty-looking buildings, and people must be living and working in them (or working nearby), because if you step into the New Spot, a new spot serving Mexican and Salvadoran food, you are likely to run into a wall of these people, at least if it’s around lunchtime on a weekday. They all look to be about 30 years old, give or take, and are dressed with that studied scruffiness I associate with the late, great dot-com boom. Are we now surfing some wave in the space-time continuum back to 1999? Certainly, the traffic and parking situations are horrendous in the area, as they were elsewhere in the city at the close of the last millennium — and the crush is all the more shocking in what I had long thought to be a kind of ghost town, a deserted neighborhood that was fun to bike through on a hot autumn Saturday.
The New Spot is to Salvadoran and Mexican cooking what Chutney (on lower Nob Hill) is to Indian and Pakistani cooking. The look is minimalist clean, prices are low, and the food is fresh and meticulously prepared. My only cavil on freshness concerns the chips, which twice seemed stale to me, though the spicy-smooth red salsa ($1.40 for a half pint, if you want or need that much) covered up much of the weariness. The guacamole ($2.25) is good too, though I would have liked bigger avocado chunks and maybe a bit less lime juice.
The Salvadoran-style dishes dominate the menu and include those old standbys, pupusas (just $1.60 each, but you have to order at least two). These are disks like small pita breads, and they can be stuffed in a variety of meaty and meatless ways. We found the queso con frijoles version — with a good packing of refried beans and oozy queso blanco — to do very nicely, especially with some pico de gallo and shredded, pickled cabbage (curtido) on the side.
Pasteles ($5.50 for a plate of three) turned out to be lightly deep-fried corn pies filled with more queso. (I’d ordered chicken but was pleased with the cheese.) Generally, I stay out of the deep-fried end of the pool, but these pasteles were of a delicate crispness that made me think of golden clouds. The menu lists chile relleno ($7.50) — a fire-roasted poblano stuffed with cheese (or choice of meat) and served with salsa, beans, and rice — as a Salvadoran specialty, and perhaps that’s because it isn’t dipped in batter and fried, as in the more typical preparation you find in Mexican restaurants around town.
The fish tacos ($3.15) are exemplary. I always try a place’s fish tacos, since the range of possible outcomes is so great. Good ones are unforgettable; bad ones are … forgettable. Bland, usually. The New Spot’s menu doesn’t say what kind of fish is used — some kind of cod or pollack, I would guess, or possibly tilapia, judging from the bits of soft, white flesh — but the grill imparts some appealing smoke, and the crispy tacos are filled out with shredded lettuce (instead of the more usual shredded cabbage), diced tomato, refrijoles, salsa, and guacamole. Like a regular taco, really, and the better for it.
The food, it must be said, doesn’t exactly fly out of the kitchen, in part because the dishes are made to order and also because the crunch-time crowds are thick. At the moment, alternatives in the neighborhood are few. But the New Spot is flanked by signs of yesterday and tomorrow; on one side is a faded old-school Chinese restaurant on its way out, while on the other is a café, Sundance Coffee, that could easily be associated with a museum of modern art. The times, they are a-changin’. SFBG
Mon.–Fri., 6 a.m.–7 p.m.; Sat., 7 a.m.–5 p.m.
632 20th St., SF
(415) 558-0556
No alcohol
Noisy if busy
Wheelchair accessible