These days, it takes an awful lot for a San Francisco restaurant to fly under the radar. Professional food writers, bloggers and dilettantes hunt for secret gems with the doggedness of a search-and-rescue team.
So how can you account for Peña Pachamama, a charming and unique North Beach restaurant that has plugged along for more than a decade without attracting notice?
To be fair, the place isn’t a total secret; it has a reputation for lively Latin dancing, earning it high marks from rump shakers such as Robin Williams and former Mayor Gavin Newsom (Williams claims it’s a place where even the Amish would boogie).
But what of the cuisine, a curious mix of traditional Bolivian dishes and raw vegan fare? It seems to get largely overlooked, an effect of its unlikely neighborhood and overshadowing from the live entertainment.
After all, who says, “Let’s get vegan tacos in North Beach”?
On my first visit, the host asked if I was there for dinner or music. When I said dinner, he led me a few tables away from the band, reminiscent of the side-by-side smoking and non-smoking sections of yesteryear.
The striking menu immediately diverted my attention. A roster of raw foods and nut cheeses rubbed elbows with beef, chicken and salmon. Chicharron or kale chips, what’s your pleasure?
I’ll break character and suggest the kale chips, as Peña Pachamama seems to put more care and attention into its natural food options.
For instance, the beef empanadas and the chicken chicharrones didn’t make a lasting impression on my palate, but I can give you the full rundown of every vegan item I tried.
Like the bluntly named “Bolivian vegan stew,” an intense surprise made of fava beans, squash, peas and other farmers market bounty, flavored with Bolivian aji pepper and textured with kale chips and quinoa. I kept poaching bites from my friend while she watched the band.
A “BLT” used maple-marinated coconut strips as a bacon substitute. Stop rolling your eyes; the sweet and smoky marinade was a perfect flavor agent for the fleshy coconut. It wasn’t bacon (what is, really?), but I doubt you’ll cry too much.
The organic raw ravioli, made of zucchini and coconut flour with a cashew cheese center, sounded as appealing as a lemon-pepper cleanse. Yet the dough had phenomenal texture, beautifully enveloping a sweet creamy paste within. I only wish you got more than three pillowy squares.
The vegan items were not without blemishes, such as the pesto pizza served on a drab, soggy buckwheat crust. And the meat-based items had minor victories, such as the fiery papas bravas (made with chicken stock).
But if I had to make a sweeping recommendation, the vegan items are your best bet. Meat gives Peña Pachamama’s menu wider appeal, but the chef’s heart clearly beats vegan.
I even enjoyed the nondairy white chocolate cheesecake, a silky blend of vanilla, cacao and that ever-versatile cashew nut.
I know, I’m doing that thing omnivores do at vegan restaurants: “Amazingly, I managed to not spit out my dinner!”
But truthfully, my surprise was less about the food’s quality and more about its lack of buzz. Judging from the fervor of Gracias Madre and Millennium fans, there should be lines around the block.
“You think maybe we should try advertising?” asked co-owner Quentin Navia.