The Latin Room
The first thing we noticed about The Latin Room (560 Fourth Ave.) was the bar: dark wooden shelves towered behind a turquoise-marbled counter. But it was early, the room was empty and we opted for a sunny table on the four-tiny-tables-long patio, instead.
The chips were coated with a mild black bean dip and topped with an equally mild crumbly cheese, but the explosive tomatillo salsa more than made up for the mildness. Unfortunately, it was messy, too, and our waiter-a sort-of Spanish Peter Lorre-had a tendency to vanish for long periods of time, leaving me to forage around the empty dining room for a couple of napkins.
"Anything queso is good," my fromage-fixated companion de-clared, so we went for the "fried until crispy" cheese appetizer. But the mound of unnamed mild, lumpy cheese was neither fried nor crispy. It arrived cold, sprinkled with oregano and sitting in a pool of chili-infused oil. Less than impressive.
Our waiter grimly recommended the Lengua de Res, which is far too easy to translate.
"Stewy," I said.
"Chewy," she said and let out a yelp. "I just looked at it."
We left the cow tongue cooling on the table and headed up the street to the all-time winner for worst restaurant name, Tango Mango (901 Fourth Ave.). They use a marketing approach borrowed from Tijuana's Avenida Revolución, all but dragging passersby into the dining room. The bored bartender was juggling bottles for the beautiful, empty bar, where they proudly display a Wolfgang Verkaaik "review" (The Union-Tribune's Seal of Mediocrity). The skittish wait staff sporadically offered to refill cocktails. Corner one of them, and you might be able to order food from the insanely upbeat, lost-in-translation menu.
"What are "Beers & Tab'?" I asked, reading from the menu.
"You know," the waiter said slowly, and pointed to the tap beers. "Beers. And. Tab."
His recommendation, the tortilla español, was a huge wedge of undercooked potato slices held together with cheese and onions. Zzzz. Our shot in the dark, the pulpo al olivo, was palatable, fresh octopus chunks drowning in diced garlic that left us slavering for some dipping tortillas. If only there was a waiter. We jumped to the bar and to the desserts, but our only two options-cheesecake and chocolate mousse-were mass-produced insults.
We were halfway down the block before our spoons hit the plates, heading toward Lime (653 Fifth Ave.), where we found another beautiful bar, this one a cracked-glass countertop with a soft, lime-green backlight. By far the smallest of the three restaurants, most of its patrons were dining at the half-dozen or so patio tables.
"I like the Portobello dishes, but you really can't miss with anything," the bartender said. "I have no complaints eating here five nights a week."
Skeptical, we ordered duck tacos. I was surprised to see no salsa or dip, until I took one flavorful bite. The duck meat was marinated in a plum wine sauce. The tacos came stacked alongside thin sweet potato chips. Meanwhile, the mild shrimp potato cakes-a nice change from the typical breaded crab cake-were served around a stack of spicy julienned jicama.
"We feed jicama to our pigs," the companion said. "Are they always so spicy?"
She picked up a sliver of pepper, and logic failing her, took a small bite. She spent the next 15 bug-eyed minutes bemoaning the blisters forming on her tongue. The chef half-sheepishly and half-deviously popped her head around the corner and admitted she replaced jalepeño with jabañero. Cool. I ordered two premium margaritas, and settled in.
Later, heading back to the car, we passed the Latin Room patio, now lined with women in little black dresses shouting into little colored cell phones. Latin music pulsated and disco lights flashed in the SRO ex-dining room. When that line between restaurant and nightclub gets blurred, the emphasis does not always fall on food.
They say nine out of 10 restaurants fail within one year. To me, that's wishful thinking. While we're at it, here's hoping Lime has the tenacity to outlast the bigger, brassier competition, maybe even overtake them. They could use the space.
Ducks, pigs, cows, octopus. Vote for your favorite farm animal at cityeat@SDcitybeat.com.