I grew up in an unlikely fertile valley for upscale Mexican cuisine — Chicago (credit to Rick Bayless) — and so it’s with hope, nostalgia and primal hunger that I’ve clambered toward the dressed-up mole and grass-fed beef on heirloom corn tostadas of our new food regime.
With every good dish, I get a little more nervous that maybe I’ve just been lucky. But now, with the re-emergence of Loló, I gladly surrender: The new wave is here, and it better never leave.
That said, Loló is neither very expensive, nor very new, but its re-arrival around the corner from its old location is important. The new spot, an ebullient, chromatic explosion, breathes an almost cartoonish sense of joy onto the changing face of Valencia Street.
Inside, a wobbly installation of crates houses clusters of plastic puppies. Screensaver beach scenes clothe the bar wall, and the men’s bathroom is papered in cleats and halves of colored soccer balls (sometimes thorough research means trespassing). The place is a playground, but the food is decidedly more grown up.
Take the chicken confit “tinga” tostadas, where fatty, tender chipotle chicken specked with bacon married perfectly with thick, crisp blue-corn tortillas. The gorditas, in a mezcal barbecue concoction, were deep, earthy and sweet, improved by the satisfying crunch of cabbage slaw.
I ordered fondue because it was fondue on a Mexican menu and it seemed precarious — dangerous, even. A small, steaming iron pot lit from beneath kept a perfect mix of cheese bubbling. And when the candle was snuffed and the cheese cooled, I wound the salty streams around a spoon to finish off the dish.
The carnitas were equally rich, steaming and swaddled snugly in banana peel, balanced by the mildly acerbic, slippery sweet crunch of pickled onions. Seeing the metate, with a truckload of fresh masa, seemingly made the dish tastier.
Huitlacoche, finding a home under the surprising cover of ravioli made from wonton wrappers, was coupled with ricotta and sage-green basil arugula sauce and pine nuts. The fungal umami of huitlacoche cut through the verdant cream.
The kitchen did a bang-up job with tuna, too.
The tuna tacon had small, sharp, rectangular strips of seared tuna coupled with creamy avocado wedges and a fresh, bright shellfish aioli, with piquant roasted tomatillo.
The playful cocktails stopped short of being offensively cartoonish (barring one with liquid smoke). As a benchmark, the margarita, delightfully dry and a little bit peppery, stood up. In the Gold Digger, grapefruit bitters added pucker to mezcal. The Hamaicon looked like a yacht drink, but tasted more vegetal, both floral and tart, like smoked beet juice on rose petals.
With its jolly good fun, inescapable optimism and good food, Loló is refreshing, and particularly welcome on the ever-more-jaded Valencia Street corridor.
Location: 947 Valencia St. (near 21st Street), S.F.
Hours: 6 to 10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. to midnight Fridays-Saturdays
Contact: (415) 643-5656, www.lolosf.com
Credit cards: All major
Recommended dishes: Chicken confit “tinga” tostadas ($8), carnitas ($14), tuna tacon ($10)