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By Doug Konecky
Store Trek is a regular Voice feature profiling new stores and restaurants in the neighborhood. This month, we introduce an upscale Mexican restaurant that recently filled Alcatraces' old space; a Chinese eatery with East Coast roots located across from St. Paul's Church, and a cozy furniture, gift, and design store at the corner of Diamond and 24th streets.
Mexico City Restaurant
4042 24th Street near Castro Street
Chef Rene Barragán has lived and given cooking classes in Oaxaca, Querétaro, Acapulco, and Mexico City, which helps explain why the menu at Mexico City Restaurant, Zephyr Real Estate's new neighbor on 24th Street, encompasses wide regions of Mexican cuisine.
Backing away from the steady diet of burritos and tacos San Francisco diners have come to associate with "Mexican," Barragán prepares three regional mole sauces--black and green from Oaxaca, and serrano from the state of Querétaro--cochinita pibil from Yucatán (marinated pork in achiote sauce, cooked in a banana leaf), and discada Chihuahuence from the north (a flour tortilla topped with cubes of beef tenderloin, onions, and bacon). His camarones tequila (prawns sautéed in tequila and mango/chipotle sauce) have an Acapulco flavor, while the filete de pescado a la Veracruzana (fish filet fried with capers, tomatoes, and plantains) comes from Mexico's eastern Gulf Coast.
As in life, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera occupy different walls--Kahlo's colorful prints fly high on the aqua-colored east wall, while husband Diego Rivera's prints hold down the west. The restaurant's dining chairs are painted that same aqua, but aside from a different color scheme and new art, Mexico City looks and feels remarkably similar to the late, lamented Alcatraces, the California Creole hangout that Mexico City replaced in November 2003.
Victor Juarez, who also owns the Casa Mexicana taqueria down the street (24th near Sanchez), feels Noe Valley is ready for more traditional Mexican food in a more refined atmosphere, but he understands that cost seems to rule these days, so he is attempting to keep his prices down. Entrées at dinner hover in the $8 to $12 range, while the lunch menu offers soups and salads from $4.50 to $5.75, guisados (special tacos and burritos) for $2.50 and $4.75, and main courses such as flautas and enchiladas from $5.50 to $8.50.
Juarez is also well aware that Mexico City's midblock storefront--between Noe and Castro--has been bad luck for a few restaurants, so he and Barragán have been sure to include lighter fare that the neighborhood craves, plus many vegetarian entrees, marked with a (V) on the menu. These include the poblano chili relleno and corn-filled crepes, two of the less expensive dinner items, plus the sopa tarasca, a bean-tomato soup normally made with a chicken stock but not here.
Desserts include a coconut flan (favorite of server Allison) and pastel de tres leches, a kind of wet pound cake. Sangria and wine are available, as is a weekend brunch.
Hours for lunch at Mexico City Restaurant are Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m., and Sunday, 5:30 to 9 p.m. Brunch is served Saturday and Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Reservations are not necessary.
Long Island Chinese Restaurant
1689 Church Street near 29th Street
The "Long Island" in the new Long Island Chinese Restaurant on Church Street does not apply to Hainan Island, nor Taiwan, nor to any other Asian islands, long or short. We're talkin' "Lawn Guylund," New York, Oyster Bay to be precise, where Judy and Jimmy Shu ran their original Long Island Restaurant before moving across the country to San Francisco.
Taiwan born and bred, the Shus emigrated to Santa Cruz, Bolivia, in 1974, where they operated their first restaurant; continued on to Arlington and Charlottesville, Virginia, where their two sons still run the family's first North American eateries; then carted their culinary talents to New York and now to California. The Shus certainly do get around.
Last fall, they took over the space vacated by China Pepper Restaurant and performed a much-needed makeover.
After a thorough refurbishing and fresh paint, the new restaurant has the sunshiny appearance of a spiffy luncheonette. Though one of three Chinese restaurants in Upper Noe Valley, Long Island has more of a traditional feel than the others. Pop's at the register, Mom's cooking or running the front of the house, and the food is classic East Coast Chinese cuisine. (Instead of a pot of tea, a bowl of fried noodles is placed on the table when you sit down.)
Judy Shu specializes in duck dishes--the Mandarin Duck ($10.95) has a crispy skin but moist, delicate meat; the whole Peking Duck ($21.95) is served with traditional plum sauce, scallions, and eight Chinese pancakes. Spicy Hunan or Szechuan preparations are available in seafood, beef, pork, or chicken ($7.25 to $8.95), and vegetable dishes ($6.50) are large and plentiful. Prices include steamed rice.
Lunch specials (served until 3 p.m.) are a particularly economic choice, with plates served with rice and soup for $4.65 (shrimp plates $5.25). All takeout orders receive an extra 10 percent discount.
Jimmy Shu says he starts every morning with two hours of tai chi in Golden Gate Park, so he understands good health. In the bottom corner of Long Island's menu is a Health Food Section, which offers steamed vegetables, by themselves or with shrimp, chicken, scallops, or bean curd, along with brown rice.
Indeed, while in Virginia, the Shus cooked for such notables as George Bush Sr., General Norman Schwarzkopf, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who, according to the Shus, pronounced their establishment his favorite. We'll see if he remembers, now that he too is running a new business in California.
Long Island is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
J. Allen Home Furnishings and Fine Gifts
746 Diamond Street at 24th Street
If Allen Grant's face looks familiar, it's probably because for four years he was manager at Home furnishings, on 24th Street in Star Magic's old spot (now occupied by Yoya women's clothing). Then, after Home moved to its new dwelling in the Castro, Grant started scouting around for a place to display his own collection. So, when the small storefront on the northwest corner of Diamond and 24th became available--across the street from PastaGina and the Diamond Corner Café--Grant decided to move in.
J. Allen Home Furnishings and Fine Gifts opened its doors on Dec. 13, and is filled to the rafters with objects bearing a decidedly Asian sensibility. A small wooden cabinet from Korea, a plaster angel from the Philippines, Japanese new and vintage obis, a beautiful red Chinese circular bench, and black lacquered boxes from Vietnam are stuffed into every square inch of display space on the first floor. Up a few steps, a second level offers still more: candles, decorative tassels (a specialty of the house), ceramics, lamps, and even a few paintings.
This is not the store to bring your dog, nor to wear flowing clothing. It is best to stand in one spot and swivel the neck--to view all the unusual furnishings inside this cozy but handsome shop. Prices start at $8, with the bulk of items in the $25 to $75 range.
Grant notes that there are few interior designers with actual storefronts in Noe Valley or the Castro, so he has allied himself with two--an interior designer and a lighting designer, both of whom will work out of J. Allen. Customers can make an appointment to consult an expert about a particular trouble spot in the home, or have a customized piece built to order.
Grant, who was a banker with Bank of America for 18 years, says he has a bit of work yet to do on the outside of his shop, which was once the home of the San Francisco Mystery Bookstore (and more recently, Artemisia gifts). But that's no problem--after all, he has a designer on board.
J. Allen is open seven days a week: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 6 p.m. m