Mariachi music poured out from behind the closed doors of Carmelita’s Mexican restaurant, flooding the handsomely tiled entrance and echoing off the stone facade of the two-story building. Woo-hoo, there’s a party going on inside!
As the lunch pals and I approached, we paused to admire two large stained-glass windows and the casual but striking metal sculptures out front — mariachi musicians over here, a bull-riding vaquero over there, a few figures peeking out from behind the well-manicured foliage. Hey, this looks like fun.
We opened the massive wood doors and tumbled inside, expecting to find a sombreros-wearing mariachi band and a roomful of burst piñatas, swirling confetti and happy revelers hoisting icy margaritas.
Well, no. The place was empty except for the manager and a few servers, but the sound system was cranked up to maximum. Later, the volume was turned down as the lunch crowd began arriving, but the volume at a nearby table of 11 made up for it.
We sat at a large booth next to a wall of arched windows, ordered Arnold Palmers and took a look. The restaurant is a large, interesting space with so many vivid colors and so much wood, stone, tile and decorative elements that we didn’t know what to view first: ceramic tiles, wrought iron, ceiling fans with blades resembling palm fronds, elaborately framed mirrors, paintings and drawings (Mexican painter Frida Kahlo looms large), sculptures including howling coyotes and a warthog, stylized cattle skulls, a toucan, and two mermaids carved out of wood.
“It’s like being inside a museum,” lunch pal No. 1 said.
That’s because Carmelita’s is staged to look like an eccentric, art-filled hacienda in, say, Mexico City. We went with it and enjoyed the sense of fun.
We cruised the lengthy menu and loaded the table with an assortment of standards. Creamy guacamole arrived with crisp tortilla chips, smoky chipotle salsa and cubes of mild white cheese, an attractive presentation in the colors of the Mexican flag.
The best dish was the specialty of the house — excellent carnitas (shredded pork), dark and crispy-tender. We folded the delicious meat into flour tortillas and added house-made hot sauce.
Then we knocked off a plate of perfectly sauteéd prawns and a mound of veggie-studded white rice made better with pours of accompanying white sauce.
Next: Soft flour tortillas were heavy with shredded cabbage and lightly battered fried shrimp, what our server called the second-most-popular item after the carnitas. Moving along, an enchilada filled with moist chicken and topped with well-balanced red sauce was a pleasant surprise.
Those were the highlights. Not faring as well were chile verde, semi-tough chunks of pork in a surprisingly mild tomatillo sauce. The “stew” lacked the bite we’ve found at other Mexican restaurants.
A chile relleno was overwhelmed by red sauce and filled with cheese that had not melted. As for the ceviche, we couldn’t get far past the dominant tart taste of lime juice and into the mushy fish and shrimp topping a crisp tostada.
We visited Carmelita’s twice. On one visit, the dishes were brought to the table lukewarm, and the melted cheese on the so-so refried beans had solidified. On a second visit, the dishes arrived appropriately hot, and the cheese on the beans was molten. In both cases, the colorful Mexican rice lacked any real flavor.
“The place has a lot of energy, but there’s also a lot of ‘no-flavor’ going on here,” said lunch pal No. 2.
“I would come back for the atmosphere and stay for the food,” a third lunch pal remarked. Good plan.
Sampling West Portal
San Francisco is 49 square miles of neighborhoods, each with its own personality and — in a city devoted to eating and drinking — flavors.
We found West Portal near Forest Hill and St. Francis Wood, and strolled along the fascinating West Portal Avenue. Part of our route took us by a lineup of ethnic restaurants, and we pulled in to Fresca, serving “nouveau Peruvian cuisine.”
The narrow restaurant was jammed for Saturday brunch and we found out why. Soon our table was alive with vibrant dishes — a succulent ceviche of halibut, calamari, shrimp, red onion and cilantro, with firm white beans and crunchy corn kernels; a mix of crisp fried shrimp, calamari and scallops, with spicy remoulade (tartar-sauce-like aioli); and a pair of flaky empanadas (pastries) filled with ham and eggs.
We’ll go back to sample the rock crab cakes, house-cured gravlax (salmon), beef-potato croquettes and paella with cilantro-spiked rice.
Fresca, 24 West Portal Ave. San Francisco; (415) 759-8087, www.frescasf.com.
Out of the East
The cronut — a hybrid doughnut-croissant — came out of the Dominique Ansel Bakery in New York City and is making its way west.
Meanwhile, ramen blogger-chef Keizo Shimamoto recently debuted his ramen burger at an “outdoor food flea market” in Brooklyn, and we hear that 300 people lined up for the sandwich.
It’s a ground-beef patty in a “bun” of fried ramen noodles, with “secret sauce.” Take a look at www.goramen.com. We hope the novelty dish makes it to Sacramento. Great lunch: cronut sharing a plate with a ramen burger.
Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.