The art of the cart

Pub date December 20, 2006


The romance of street-cart food might not be high romance, but it is romance and does cast its spell, particularly in big, rich cities — like ours — with elaborate infrastructures of fancy restaurants and a concomitant epidemic of some as-yet unnamed cultural autoimmune disorder that attaches inordinate worth to the prosaic.
Street-cart chic reflects, I would say, a recognition among the high rollers that immaculate table linens and Limoges china aren’t all there is to the gastronomic life, that occasionally a little mayonnaise running down the sleeve is in order, though maybe not mayonnaise from an actual street cart, because the cart-keeper probably hasn’t washed his hands and you might get salmonella. I tilt toward this view largely because several recent street-cart-food undertakings of note have connections to glossy, big-name places, and these connections do carry a certain brand-name reassurance. Two examples: the Ferry Building’s Mijita, which serves Mexican street food with regional accents, is related to swank Jardinière by way of a shared owner-chef, Traci des Jardins, while Charles Pham’s hugely upscale the Slanted Door has given birth to a pair of Out the Doors (the latest in the Westfield San Francisco Centre, the great mall of tomorrow), which bundle up take-out packages of Vietnamese street-cart food for those on the run or on deadline.
Yet not all street-food emporiums are modest little places with richer, grander siblings that can sluice their rich patrons downstream every now and then for some edible absolution of wealth-guilt. Bodega Bistro, for instance, has a kind of dual identity; it’s a quite elegant Tenderloin restaurant that gives a section of its menu over to the street-cart food of Hanoi. And now we have the seductive Regalito Rosticeria, which combines a gleaming Pizzeria Delfina look, of warm wood, glass, and stainless steel, with a menu (by chef and owner Thomas Peña) largely given over to versions of Mexico City’s street-cart food.
The extreme makeover of what was once a pupusería is stunning in practically every respect, but its most striking feature is the long bar, or counter, which runs most of the length of the restaurant, can seat at least a dozen, and is backed by the busy kitchen, with its gas-fired ovens, mortars and pestles, and busy chefs filling stainless-steel bowls with fresh salsas and guacamoles. It’s like the Mexican version of a sushi bar. The dark side of the moon, of course, is that table seating is a little sparse.
As the glistening treasures in the chefs’ stainless-steel bowls suggest, las salsas are not only excellent but makers of dishes. Guacamole ($6) can and does stand alone, of course; it’s creamy-chunky, made with perfectly ripe avocados sliced up by hand rather than processed or pounded, and it’s served with whole tortillas (of wheat) fried to a bronze crispness. You break off a piece, as if it’s pappadam, and dip. If you want the same thing with tomatoes instead of avocados, you will opt for the tostadas with salsa fresca ($3), the crispy disks presented this time with a classic salsa made with voluptuously ripe tomatoes, finely diced, whose sweetness balances the sourness of the lime and the bite of the garlic and chiles.
But to say that other sauces play supporting roles is not to diminish them. The torta ($7.50) — a Mexican sandwich featuring roasted pork or chicken on wondrously puffy bread swabbed with refrijoles and Mexican crema (a close relation of crème fraîche) — benefits from the presence of a sharp pico de gallo, while the quesadillas ($7.50), deep-fried half moons, like empanadas depend on a red salsa, waterier and hotter than its fresca cousin. Even the sauces you can’t see, such as the vinaigrette that dresses the chopped lettuce accompanying the taquitos ($7.50), add a charge. There is nothing quite like undressed lettuce, sitting there like a pile of hay in a barnyard, to let the air out of the balloon of anticipation, and yet this seemingly minor oversight is common practice in many Mexican restaurants. If nothing else, the kitchen crew at Regalito sweats the details.
The only sauce I didn’t respond to was the roping of red-pepper coulis across the enchiladas rojas ($7.50), flaps of corn tortillas also topped with white pipings of crema, like decorations on a birthday cake. The sauce’s rich rust red color belied its undersalting. On the other hand, the tortillas weren’t deep-fried — a small mercy.
Many of the small dishes, of bar and side food, are remarkably tasty: brilliant little pirouettes of flavor and texture you could easily choreograph into a light, leisurely meal or an extended cocktail hour. If you’ve ever saved the seeds from your Halloween pumpkin and later tried to roast them, only to meet with disappointment, you will find the pepitas ($2) — pumpkin seeds toasted with chili, salt, and lime — to be revelatory. Mostly they are tender and melt in the mouth without leaving behind that terrible cud of fiber.
Beans, of course, are available in a variety of guises. Among the possibilities are stewed pinto beans ($2.50), mild and meaty, and ejotes ($3.50) — green beans — sautéed with delicate ribbons of white onion and finished with a squeeze of lime. And while we are on the subject of limes: the house-made limeade ($1.95) is a phenomenon of dense sweet-sourness. If you’re tired of lemonade and you want a bit more excitement than the usual aguas frescas can provide — or you seek the grease-cutting power of citric acid — you will be happy with it. Think of it as a little gift to yourself — a regalito, as Spanish speakers say.<\!s>SFBG

Tues.–<\d>Fri., 11 a.m.–<\d>10 p.m.; Sat., 9 a.m.–<\d>10 p.m.; Sun., 9 a.m.–<\d>8 p.m.
3481 18th St., SF
(415) 503-0650
Beer and wine
Pleasantly noisy
Wheelchair accessible