New Year’s, New Tamale

Better blogged late than never . . . .

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My friends and I primed our stomachs to drink in the New Year at Tamal, a . . . hmm, how to categorize – Latin fusion restaurant located in, uh, the Mission/SOMA neitherland.

Energetically orange, this corner hipster of a restaurant features the omnipresent small plates format, which means the food is expensive enough that you won’t want to order as much as you actually want to eat. It’s like tapas for stereotypical Americans: everything bigger is better, right?

To disparage the size is not to disparage the taste – make no mistake.

The options range from new spins on tradition to traditional takes on trendy cuisine. Catchy, eh? My friend’s chile relleno was one of the most gorgeous things I ever seen on a plate – green, robust, and oozing with goodies like goat cheese, onions, and a complex salsa.

As the name suggests, Tamal offers a wide range of tamales that are a far cry from my great aunt’s. I had the Tamal Vache Ivres ($8.50) – a beef tamale doused in a cabernet reduction with succulent shitaki mushrooms. My other dish – shared with a friend – was a set of tasty crab cakes ($8) that were like me: mostly traditional but with a hint of flair. Another friend ordered the Tres Campanas – a trip of corn tortilla tacos presented upright, like little taco soldiers on a plate. One soldier went a bit past my palate, despite containing duck – one of my favorite foods. The Pato (uh, duck, like I said) taco was stuffed with confit of duck in a scharffen berger chocolate, orange, and chile mole that was about as chocolatey as a mole can be. It was an advanced set of flavors that probably would’ve been better had it not come at the end of the meal after I’d wowed the old ‘buds enough for one night.

As you’d expect from any tapas-y establishment, sangria in smaller-than-you’d-want pitchers figured prominently into our night. It wasn’t the best ever, but it was still a lovely companion. And by the third pitcher, it was really, really lovely.

Holidays mandate dessert and New Year’s in no exception. I mean, hell, EVERYONE swears to make the coming year the year of fitness, so why not be egregiously bad in the passing year? Yeah, that worked for us. So goat cheese cheesecake for all! Goat cheesecake? No, that would’ve led to a misunderstanding. But call it what you will, it was luscious. It didn’t taste fantastically different from the kind of cheesecake you’re likely to find in North Beach – the ricotta kind. If you aren’t used to that, it might surprise you compared to the ubiquitous New York Style that is probably more commonly known. If you like goat cheese or cheesecake or adventure, its worth stopping just for the dessert even if the rest of the menu doesn’t appeal to you.

And lastly – a note on service: Tamal is a small restaurant and our unruly, indefinitely sized group put the staff through the paces by moving the tables on our own (much to the staff’s chagrin), asking for various check splits, but through it all, they were friendly, warm, helpful, and good-spirited. Especially considering they were working on New Year’s Eve. Good service always makes everything taste better.

Tamal: 1599 Howard Street at 12th Street, 415-864-2446, Dinner Tuesday through Sunday from 5pm-10pm, small plates range from $7-$13, good date atmosphere.

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