Basque country, stuck somewhere between France, Spain and the ETA, holds within its borderless region some of the world’s best food. High in the hills of San Sebastian, for example, hides the restaurant Arzak-what I would argue is, simply, the best restaurant in the world. But below Arzak, in the windy streets of San Sebastian, countless restaurants, tapas bars really, line the streets, and each one of them manages to stand up against the weight of such culinary pressure and produce its own sense of style, cuisine and comfort. Gerald Hirigoyen’s newish restaurant, and San Francisco’s own Bocadillos, achieves much the same success-bucking the misinterpreted small plates trend and providing this city with the quality of casual food matched only by those remote restaurants from which it takes its inspiration.
Mr. Hirigoyen is no recent arrival in this city. First reknowned for his work at Fringale, and more recently at Piperade, he also authored several works on Basque cuisine. This background, and a desire to see a true tapas bar in San Francisco, appear to be what propelled him to open Bocadillos-what he calls “San Sebastian meets Barcelona in San Francisco.”
Apparently, the point of intersection of these three cities lies somewhere in San Francisco’s Financial District. Here, on Montgomery Street (at Washington), the feeling is more San Francisco’s Financial District than, say, Barcelona’s gorgeous plazas or San Sebastian’s cobble-stone streets, but the food is no worse off for the location. Hirigoyen and chef de cuisine Robert Petzold offer three menus at Bocadillos. The first menu, for the early-morning crowd, provides a neat selection of coffee drinks along with simple pastries and some egg dishes. But it is not until the early afternoon when Bocadillos’ kitchen begins to prove itself.
The afternoon meal at Bocadillos begins with its namesake-little sandwhiches. The 11 sandwiches on offer ($7.50 for any two) take Spanish classics like Serrano ham or Manchego cheese, and pair them with Calfiornia chic. The price is perfect, almost shockingly inexpensive for the quality, and the meal itself is splendid. There are, of course, other options at lunch-time, including soups, salads, daily specials and combos. Nearly all of the options seem geared towards the Financial District’s lunch crowd, a decidedly un-European social set (at least in terms of culinary traditions), but, again, the food surpasses its surroundings.
This remains the case in the evening, which happens to be when I think Bocadillos shines brightest. The dinner menu offers a wide selection of tapas, divided neatly into twelve sections. Narrowing the choices feels strangling, and it’s one of the reasons that Bocadillos feels so comfortable-it feels as if you could return again and again, and, in fact, that you will. Whoever works the fryer knows what they are doing. The calamari with romescu sauce ($7) arrived light and fluffy, with just the right crunch, even after being dipped in the slightly spicy sauce. At the same time, a dish of fried oysters revealed the wet taste of the ocean inside the deep-fried breading, a perfectly Basque feeling. One of the sections, the “innard circle”, seems designed to challenge San Francisco’s diners, offering three offal selections like tripe, pigs trotters and foie gras. Both the tripe and the pig trotters gave what they promised to give-unique renditions of food normally left off of San Francisco’s menus. The tripe dish arrives in a big stew, and it’s one of the warmest dishes in the place. The pig trotter needs the salad that it comes with to cut its richness, but if one has a craving for pig trotter, Bocadillos is the place to go.
Other sections shine as well. The pinxtos, classically Basque bites, offer nice compliments to the lovely and affordable wine list, and the vegetables delivered my two favorite dishes. The papas bravas are a staple in Spain-twice-fried potatoes with a spicy sauce-and at Bocadillos they are perfect. The same can be said for the spinach dish, a gorgeous balance between the leafy vegetable and the sweet raisins that dot the plate. Some dishes fell short, though never by too much. Most disappointing, perhaps, were the baby back ribs ($10) which were too sweet, and the octopus salad ($9) which lacked the texture that makes the dish so promising. By no means does that dull the experience, and the desserts can easily make you forget about whatever minor disappointment you might encounter.
The food, like a classic tapas bar, comes out when it’s ready, and the best way to eat there is in good company. A communal table anchors the center of the restaurant, and a curvy bar flanks the kitchen, allowing space for only a couple of two and four top tables throughout. Sharing at a restaurant like this one is not simply a good idea but instead mandatory. Nor would you go to Bocadillos for the quiet sit-down dinner you’ve been planning with your parents. The space does not accommodate privacy, nor does the service, though I would argue that they were never meant to, and for that reason one should not expect it. The service that does exist is always friendly, and often knowledgeable, but never attempts to elevate the restaurant from its more casual confines. I happen to think that’s a good thing, the casual feeling being a part of the draw, though I witnessed some diners flounder in exasperation at being ignored.
San Francisco’s small-plates obsession once gave me hope, it seemed an aesthetic that I could look forward to. Somewhere in the execution, however, the joy of sharing, of simplicity and the essence of what small plates aspired to disappeared into over-priced half-portions. While menus that don’t offer small plates these days are nearly impossible to find, spaces which accommodate the camaraderie of sharing are even harder. Bocadillos, in one well-wrapped package, offers everything that small plates promised, without doing anything fundamentally new. You will never feel as though you are in Spain when you enter Bocadillos-the shadow of the Financial District could never possible recede that much. But you may also feel the shadow of something much greater, of Arzak of San Sebastian and of Barcelona, and that is a shadow worth taking comfort in.