As a 10-year-old in the early eighties, I first fell hard for Mexican food at Roosevelt Tamale Parlor.
To a kid from the Detroit suburbs, Roosevelt's giant platters of enchiladas and tamales drenched in sauce and melted cheese were matched in exoticism only by the then sketchy, not yet gentrified 24th Street corridor.
Since then, watching Roosevelt's severe decline has been akin to watching a favorite pet suffer through a long, painful illness. So it was with word of new owners Aaron Presbrey and Barry Moore, former employees of nearby favorite Emmy's Spaghetti Shack, that I recently sat down for dinner at the renamed The Roosevelt with cautious optimism.
In the round tamal, there is new hope. Smothered with a pulsating house-made red gravy and tasting strongly of just-shucked corn and rich pork, this tamal, now made with organic, stone-ground masa, bore little resemblance to the dried-out specimens often found around town.
More importantly, it was light years better than what Roosevelt Tamale Parlor was serving the last time I ate there a few years ago.
Even the usually boring accompaniments demonstrated care in the kitchen. Rice was cooked al dente so that each grain was discernible, and oil-free refried beans lacked the usual gut-bomb aftershock.
Presbrey and Moore wisely ported over the Caesar salad from Emmy's and, even more wisely, left its components relatively unchanged. Crisp, cold stems of romaine lettuce were liberally doused with a just-garlicky-enough dressing under a generous layer of shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano. Having recently eaten at Caesar standard-bearer Zuni Cafe, I can safely say that The Roosevelt's version needs to be added to the discussion of best in town.
Other longtime devotees are clearly thrilled to partake in The Roosevelt's resurgence. Dotted with vintage calendars touting its 91-year existence, the small dining room was filled with what looked to be regulars on all three of my visits.
One table was so effusive in its praise of the Mexican jambalaya that I put it on my must-order list despite the gimmicky title. Skilled eavesdropping paid off in the form of a gargantuan bowl of grilled chicken, chorizo bits, huge prawns and pintos drenched in a zesty tomato sauce. If, like me, you're into pain, ask for a dollop of intense, homemade hot sauce to mix in.
Perhaps because so many of The Roosevelt's dishes were boldly seasoned, it was a surprise that two plates were downright dreary. Though I usually find local moles to be cloyingly sweet, here, ladled on top of a pair of chicken enchiladas, it was lifeless.
My dining companion gave up after a few bites and picked at my far superior chile verde plate, livened by tomatillos and cilantro. Similarly, an exciting-sounding plantain and carnitas empanada tasted of neither and was mushy to boot.
A better starter was an albondigas soup featuring two tender, golf ball-size meatballs and a garden's worth of vegetables in a clean, bracing broth. Rice, cilantro, lime and onions were provided on the side for your own tailoring.
Above the front door, the ancient, partially functioning neon sign beckons passers-by to come on in for a feast. After years of labeling The Roosevelt a has-been, I'd now suggest to anyone that they follow that sign. A neighborhood institution has been revived.
Location: 2817 24th St. (at York Street), S.F.
Contact: (415) 824-2600, www.facebook.com/EatAtTheRoosevelt
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sundays
Price range: $7 to $16
Recommended dishes: Famous round tamal plate ($10), Caesar salad ($10), Mexican jambalaya ($16), chile verde plate ($13)
Credit Cards: Visa, Master Card