You would expect that a restaurant with "green chile" in its name would serve at least one memorable dish with green chiles, and Green Chile Kitchen does. In fact, the restaurant serves a host of memorable dishes (some with green chiles, many others without) and, because it’s in the middle of NoPa rather than at, or just past, the edge of it, Green Chile could be the best restaurant in NoPa. Much would depend on our understanding of NoPa: region with definite borders or state of mind?
This is the sort of question some of us occasionally mull with respect to Mexico. There is, or was, Old Mexico, whose reach extended all the way up the Pacific Coast to the Strait of Juan de Fuca (near Seattle), and there was (and is) New Mexico, one of the Lower 48. The boundaries of Mexico have long been hazy; a legal border has existed since the end of the 1848 war (a good account of how it was drawn can be found in Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848), but, as travelers through the Southwest can attest, the reality is far more zonal and interesting.
Green Chile Kitchen serves a good deal of what the menu describes as "New Mexican" food, and much of this seems Mexican, or Mexicanish, with Indian and desert overtones: salsas and guacamole, tortilla chips made from blue corn, and pinto beans. The restaurant opened about three years ago in a location easily reached by USF students and Haightsters, and it strikingly combines elements of college-town café and stylish restaurant. You order at the counter and carry a numbered plastic doodad to your table so the service staff can find you, and while you wait you admire the soaring ceiling, the burnished wood trim, and the pale sage paint scheme. Full table service would seem to be about a half baby step away, but maybe the current arrangement provides some real savings. Even given the kitchen’s emphasis on organic ingredients, the prices are surprisingly gentle.
There is no better deal to be had on Green Chile Kitchen’s menu than the green chile stew ($4.50/cup, $6.95/bowl). The scale isn’t quite that of a typical pho at a Vietnamese restaurant, but it’s considerable, and the stew itself is an impressive, faintly smoldering collection of green chile strips, chunks of slow-roasted Niman Ranch pork, quartered potatoes, and bits of tomato in a clear, even-tempered broth. The broth (vegetable, I thought) was key; it didn’t add as much flavor as an animal-based stock might have, but, like subtly textured white walls in a museum, it let the main ingredients be heard without completely disappearing itself.
If you pine for the modesty of Fresca or Limon in their earliest incarnations, you will thrill to GCK’s rotisserie chicken (made with Fulton Valley birds). A half-chicken dinner costs $10.95; the bird is rubbed with your choice of herbed citrus or green chile and is served with blue-corn chips, Spanish rice, beans (pinto, black, or refried), and calabacitas, a succotash-like jumble of green and yellow squash cubes, corn kernels, and bits of green chile. The chicken itself was expertly cooked, the dark meat done through while the white meat remained juicy. That is the test of all roast chicken. The party of the second part did register some mild disappointment with the pinto beans, which were thought to be underpowered. A jolt of some blood-red salsa helped bring them back into trim.
I was slightly disappointed in the quesadilla ($3.50), which combined jack and cheddar cheeses to colorful effect but suffered from a dry and brittle tortilla. And the starters offered what little sticker shock there is to be found on the menu. The plato de aperitivos cost $11.95, and while it was full of bright variety from a pair of tamales to a crock of pristine guacamole to a quartet of salsas and a heap of blue-corn chips to dip in them the price seemed a little high for what was, after all, mostly starch, indeed mostly corn.
Still, the salsas were excellent: a tour de force of salsa-making. There was the regular tomato kind (seemingly darkened and deepened by roasting), a smooth-tart, pale-green blend of avocado and tomatillo, a pico de gallo, and the standout a habañero number the color of lobster bisque, with a hint of citrus fruitiness mixed in to temper some of the high heat. (Habañeros can be quite deadly to the tongue in their pure, untempered form.) When we wearied of using these salsas to coat chips, we started spooning them over the rice and beans and the forlorn quesadilla to pleasing effect.
In the evenings, the people come and go, talking of … well, probably not Michelangelo so much as takeout, which appears to be an appreciable part of the business. (So are breakfast and lunch services.) The clientele tilts toward hip-looking youth, although older people are not unrepresented and we even noticed what seemed to be a family grouping: a set of parents in late middle age and their young-adult children, everyone eating and happy in one another’s company, as if on a sitcom from the 1950s. Not many restaurants are able to cast so wide a net. Green Chile Kitchen, by serving distinctive, carefully made food in an attractive setting at a moderate cost, manages to appeal simultaneously to the price-conscious, setting-conscious, and quality-conscious constituencies. And for those of us who have finger in each of those pies or stews the word can only be jackpot.
GREEN CHILE KITCHEN
Sun.Thurs., 9 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Fri.Sat., 9 a.m.10 p.m.
601 Baker, SF
Beer and wine