In our 21st-century, hyper-local culinary world, we strive to eat ingredients produced as close to us as possible, but we also celebrate regional cooking from all corners of the world. This can leave us in a jam. Sometimes it’s just too difficult or expensive to cook authentic food far away from its source.
Haltun, a six-month-old “Mayan” restaurant appropriately located in an un-hipsterized corner of the Mission, features dishes from the Yucatan. Its owners and staff all come from a single village, Oxkutzcab, about 60 miles south of Merida.
They include founder Pedro Tuyub, a personable guy who worked in a handful of San Francisco restaurants, and his four cooks, who migrated from the kitchens of the sadly closed Mi Lindo Yucatan.
Tuyub saw the “for rent” sign on Haltun’s mural-clad building when he dropped his daughter off at George Moscone Elementary School, a block away, and decided to take the plunge.
A work in progress, Haltun’s pale orange walls were awaiting indigenous art when I visited, but even unadorned, the place felt inviting with comfy wooden chairs, cast-iron chandeliers sprouting tulip-shaped lamps, a small wine bar at the back, and Latin music turned up high.
During the day, people stop by for piled tacos ($2 each) of buche, tender, if provocatively chewy pig stomach, sexily hinting of the unexposed and the forbidden, but not pungently; and lengua, beef tongue, on warm, soft double tortillas and dressed with chopped onion, cilantro and a dried red chile salsa.
At night, couples come in, later rather than earlier, as do solo diners who read the weeklies, as they wait for lush cochinita pibil ($11.50), the signature dish of the Yucatan and of this restaurant.
Haltun delivers hunks of juicy, fork-tender pork, redolent of citrus and chiles. The banana leaf in which it was long cooked is draped over the top, with pickled onions on the side. Many spend a whole evening slowly devouring it with freshly griddled tortillas, washed down with $6 glasses of Spanish tempranillo and Argentine malbec.
If you’re sharing, start with Yucatecan appetizers.
I particularly like kots-ditzo ($3), crispy fried mini-tortilla rolls stuffed with ground chicken; panuchos ($2), soft fried tortillas tinted with black bean puree, topped with shredded chicken, pickled cabbage, onions, avocado and tomato. Though tasty now, when avocados and tomatoes get better, these will be a knockout.
Salbut’ ($2), looks and tastes almost the same as a panucho, but without the black beans. Pol-can (two for $3), deep-fried masa fritters filled with lima beans and crushed pumpkin seeds, also are fun.
A whole platter ($16.50) of these, plus ground beef-filled fried empanadas, and two kinds of steamed Yucatan tamale, feeds four.
Many of the main courses drift toward California, protein heavy but affordable. Poc chuc de res ($14.50), a tasty grilled rib-eye with a salad, did not strike me as Mayan. Nor did a generous slice of yellow fin tuna called pan de atun ($14.50), in a sea of bland pureed black beans.
What Haltun lacks in full commitment to regional Yucatecan cooking, it makes up for in easygoing local appeal and amazingly low prices. It has something for everyone — from $2 buche tacos to that luxurious cochinita pibil.
Patricia Unterman is the author of the second edition of “The San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Location: 2948 21st St., San Francisco
Contact: (415) 643-6411, www.haltunsf.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Price range: $2 to $14.50
Recommended dishes: Cochinita pibil, buche tacos, lengua tacos, Yucatecan appetizers: panuchos, salbut’, kots-dzito, pol-can
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa