El Techo de Lolinda (San Francisco)

Overall: 3/5

Landing in SFO the night before a conference, I had budgeted some time to meet up with old friends. Getting picked from the terminal curb just as the sky turned up the dial on the waterworks, we careened towards the Mission District for some after-hour eats.

Through luck, karma, and an assortment of unexplainable cosmic forces, we ended up at El Techo de Lolinda, which my friend eloquently described as a “Mexican place? Tapas place? Whatever, it will be ok.” (Google, on the other hand, provided a more comprehensible description: “Chic Mission hangout with Argentinean grilled meats & small plates plus a terrace & 2 cocktail bars”)

The place certainly was chic. A rooftop terrace enveloped by a transparent tarp to shield the patrons from the pelting rain, this looks like an appropriate place for a good time. If nothing else, the large Hispanic gentlemen hysterically laughing and tumbling towards the elevator as we arrived served as confirmation.

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The wait staff was friendly, enthusiastic, and completely indistinguishable from the other customers. The kitchen was closing as we were sitting down. Thankfully, somebody came around right before last call.

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Guacamole ($7)

Nothing to complain about here in terms of taste. The addition of cotija cheese on top added some salty contrast to the smooth avocado.

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Flautas ($10)

The tortillas were crispy without being overly greasy. The filling of chicken and potatoes within were too dry, although chimichurri layered underneath helped with the moisture problem. The slaw on top was a distraction.

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Empanada de Carne ($8)

Again, a good job with the frying as the exterior of these dumplings was crispy. Unlike the flautas, the mixture inside was moist, probably due to the egg added with the ground beef and potatoes. The menu said the filling also contained raisins, but you wouldn’t know it unless someone told you. The accompanying chimichurri was unnecessary.

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Skewers (6 for $35, with carne (add $1), chicken, and shrimp (add $3)) *Apologies for the poor picture quality*

The carne skewer comprised of flap meat (a cut of beef from the bottom sirloin), onion, zucchini, and panda (mild, sweet pepper from Peru) glaze. The carne skewers were uneven, some of the pieces of flap meat were appealing caramelized and tender. Other pieces, however, were over grilled and were covered with a charred crust.

The chicken skewers were included red onions and an aji amarillo (Peruvian yellow chili pepper) glaze. The chicken was more consistent than the carne in execution. The pieces appeared to be a combination of breast and thigh meat, and were properly grilled to include just the right amount of char. The red onion added some mild pungency.

The shrimp skewers came with white shrimp, aji amarillo glaze, and salsa criollo (a type of salsa typically comprising of onion, red bell pepper, tomato, vinegar, and oil.) The shrimp suffered some of the same consistency problems as the carne, as some pieces felt mushy from being undercooked while other pieces were firm and had a nice snap. The salsa provided acid which made the skewers taste a bit like ceviche.

For tapas-styled food in San Francisco, the prices are within expectations. Yet, something feels amiss. Perhaps a little more care in the way the food is prepared, perhaps a little bit more generosity in portion size. But all of this is perhaps beside the point. Submerged in a sea of patrons busy consuming margaritas and cervezas to either wind down to relax or gearing up to party, a few friends took advantage of a rare opportunity to catch up and talk about things profound, profane, and everything in between. As to my ultimate recommendation, I defer to my friend’s succinct remark: “Whatever, it will be ok.”

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El Techo de Lolinda (San Francisco)

Mission Chinese Food (San Francisco)

Overall: 4/5

On a recent weekend trip to San Francisco, we took the opportunity to visit the much ballyhooed Mission Chinese Food. Apprehensive of long waits, we took advantage of the online reservation system and booked a table for six at noon on a Saturday.

As we ambled inside, we were greeted with a dim interior that was adorned with an eclectic mix of Chinese-themed paraphernalia, such as paintings of communist generals, or a paper dragon snaking through the ceiling. For good measure, a cutout of Michael Jordan was propped against at a corner of the restaurant.

The place was also empty.

One of the two cheerful waitresses that manned the floor gave us free rein to pick our table. I reflexively told the waitress seating us that we had a reservation, and ended up looking very silly doing so. As it turns out, it was explained to us that the place is actually pretty quiet during the day time. It’s the night-time, when revelers of the night seek to sober up by eating comfort food and sink into drunkenness even further by equal measure, does the place truly come alive.

Yeah, yeah, let’s get to the good stuff you say – I agree,

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Tea-Smoked Eel – Fresh rice noodle, chinese celery, salted plum hoisin, braised pork cognac soy

What I noticed right away was the rice noodle. It was indeed fresh – sticky and chewy. The chinese celery was bright and provided very nice contrast in texture. With each bite, different flavor notes asserted itself moment to moment. The cognac-tinged soy, the salt of the pork, the smoked aroma of the eel. Considering that we were literally the first customers of the day, the advanced execution is to be commended.

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Mongolian Long Beans ($12) – Xinjiang spices, horseradish, chili oil

The beans were well prepared. The wok heat had wilted and scorched the beans to a nice charred and soft texture. The beans were spicy, and perhaps overly salty from all of the spices. I really could not discern the horseradish, perhaps it was overwhelmed by the spices and chili. Also, it was a huge portion, capable of feeding four or five people.

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Chongqing Chicken Wings ($11) – Explosive chili, crispy beef tripe

I had a lot of expectations for the wings, and I was slightly disappointed. The plentiful chili peppers were edible and lived up to the spiciness, but the spiciness was not imparted to the wings. The wings themselves looked to be coated with a five-spice based rub. The skin on the wings were crispy, but the meat inside were a little dry. This may be due to the fact that the wings were not very large. The tripe was deep-fried and were indeed crispy. It still had a slight offal taste to it, but did not do much for the dish either way.

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Ma Po Tofu ($11) – Braised shiitake, aged chili paste, Sichuan peppers, scallions

Another solid dish. Everything here is generally on point. The silky tofu, the fragrant spices and scallions. The Sichuan peppers will start giving you the numbing sensation after a few bites. A couple distracting issues, however. Again, the dish was slightly too salty for my taste. Also, I could not identify the braised shiitake. Nevertheless, there was something very inviting and comforting about this dish. None of the issues I mentioned stopped me from eating most of this thing.

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Forbidden Fried Rice ($13) – Roasted shiitake, fresh asparagus, egg

For the uninitiated, the “forbidden” part of the dish is actually in reference to the rice. Once reserved for Chinese royalty, forbidden (or black) rice is high in antioxidants and other nutrients. On the downside, it’s not as glutinous as regular white rice and has a more granular texture. The dish appeared to be topped with puffed rice. Again, the taste veered a little bit too salty for me. The only ingredient that asserted itself was the asparagus. Cut into one-inch stalks, the asparagus was indeed fresh and gave the dish some crunchy context. As a vehicle for the Ma Po Tofu and the Mongolian Long Beans, it was terrific. On its own, it was good but not great. But at least the rice is good for you.

Overall, it was a very satisfying meal. The place lives up to the hype with well-executed and comfortable dishes. The heavy touch with the salt had me searching for water for the rest of the day, but hey, that’s why the place serves beer.

Mission Chinese Food (San Francisco)