April 4, 2017

Flores people. Flores.

April 4, 2017

Flores people. Flores.

Adriano Paganini is one of the city’s most successful restaurateurs, but he’s probably not a household name.

Yet anyone who dines in San Francisco regularly has likely visited one of his restaurants. At Beretta, he created a sensation in the Mission by serving great pizza and cocktails, and he’s since been an unstoppable force in the business with Starbelly, Delarosa, Uno Dos Tacos, Lolinda and the hamburger chain Super Duper.

Two years ago Paganini opened a Belgian restaurant, Belga, in Union Street’s former Cafe Des Amis. In November, he opened a Mexican restaurant named Flores on the same block in the space that was home to Betelnut for two decades. The word spread quickly and the place has been packed since.

Being a consummate restaurateur, Paganini understands that people remember the beginning and the end of a dinner. Instead of the chips and salsa that just about every other Mexican restaurant serves, Flores provides wheel-shaped snacks. Dusted in chile salt and lime powder, they have the airy crunch of chicharrones. Then when the bill comes, the tab is not only reasonable, but there is a small box of Chiclets.

In between, there are such things as sopes served with hearts of palm and black beans ($9); chile relleno ($13) stuffed with spinach, mushrooms and cheese in a tomato guajillo broth; and chicken enchiladas made with blue corn tortillas ($13).

Paganini is becoming a master of many cuisines, and for this restaurant he teamed up with Luis Flores, his partner at Uno Dos Tacos, and Alejandro Morgan, who was the chef at Lolinda.

Walking into Flores still reminds me of Betelnut with two, sometimes three sentries at the host stand telling people it’s an hour-long wait as more people crowd into the lounge and step up to the bar to order one of the cocktails, like the Curandera ($10) with lemon, ginger and agave. Then, of course, there’s the margarita ($11) balanced with the proper amount of lime.

While Flores began taking reservations a few weeks ago, half the space is still set aside for walk-ins. The waiters try their best to keep up. In most cases, they succeed.

The layout of the 160-seat space is pretty much the same as when it was Betelnut, with the long open kitchen — now sans woks — and the rear dining room, which features blue and white tile, cinder-block partitions, concrete floors and strings of lights. The shutters were removed from the back window to reveal a small garden outside.

As an alternative to guacamole ($7), which is also very good, Morgan offers sikil p’ak ($6), ground pumpkin seeds smoothed with tomato and spiked with habanero for some bite. It’s accompanied by cool leaves of Little Gem lettuce and wedges of lime so diners can smear the spread on the leaves and add a squirt of citrus. He also offers pan de elote ($6), a baked corn custard that tastes like wet corn bread, served with a crema that’s advertised as spicy but was actually very mild. Both are fine ways to begin.

Most of the 20-plus dishes are good, and a few are memorable. If I had to choose one that would lure people back it would be the tacos de pescado ($12). The cod is fried just long enough to turn the seasoned potato starch batter golden and crisp, locking in the juices. The chunks of fish are arranged in house-made tortillas piled with spicy, slightly acidic cabbage slaw and creamy chipotle aioli.

Chile Colorado ($19) would be a close second. The tender cubes of chile-braised boneless short ribs are thickly blanketed with an inky sauce made with four different dried chiles, tomato, garlic, celery and onions. The meat is served with dices of red onions that inject a fresh burst, and cilantro rice that could’ve used a little more flavor.

A more subtle side of the cuisine is shown in the crab tostada ($14), where a thick smear of avocado purée with a hint of chipotle brings out the sweetness of the crab on top, laced with pickled onions.

I also fell for the Flores version of posole ($11), green from tomatillo with shreds of chicken and hominy.

Morgan reaches back to his Argentinian repertoire for the whole branzino ($25) that’s rubbed with dry chile and grilled before being topped with cherry tomato halves and sauce criolla.

The menu also features three plates in two sizes that serve one to four people: carne asada ($21/$38), marinated grilled pork ($17/$30) and carnitas ($18/$32) that have an exceptional caramelized crust but a mild flavor. The chunks of pork were good, but I’ve had better.

A few other dishes were more disappointing, including dry chicken enchiladas and a dull shrimp cocktail with avocado and burnt tomato sauce.

Three desserts (all $9) are offered but only one is worth ordering again. The custard is too dense and sweet and the tres leches cake borders on soggy, leaving the churros as the best way to finish. They are fried crisp, and come with a chocolate dipping sauce.

But it’s the final touch, the Chiclets, that telescopes the charm of the restaurant and lets diners know that this is a restaurant that’s trying hard, thinking about ways to distinguish itself and taking pride in what’s being produced.

★ ★ ½


Food: ★ ★ ½

Service: ★ ★ ½

Atmosphere: ★ ★ ½

Price: $$$

Noise: Four Bells

2030 Union St. (near Buchanan), San Francisco; (415) 796-2926 or Open for dinner 5-11 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday and until midnight Thursday-Saturday. Brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Full bar. 4% S.F. surcharge. Reservations and credit cards accepted. Difficult street parking.


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