Food and Beyond: Limon

by Caleb Zigas on October 13, 2004

There’s a new face on constantly changing Valencia Street, though for many in the neighborhood it’s a familiar one. Limon Restaurant, which for two years occupied a small storefront on 17th between Mission and Valencia, has expanded its Mission District presence and brought its signature colors and cooking to 524 Valencia, a much larger and more ostentatious restaurant. Bigger doesn’t always mean better, but Limon has created an incredibly warm space which is no less personable than the old place, though certainly it appears as if the ambitions have expanded slightly.

Limon, according to Antonio Castillo, began in the kitchens of the Castillo brothers where mother and sons cooked for friends after soccer games. After a couple of years, and the encouragement of their friends, the brothers (along with mom) found a bigger kitchen and started to invite the rest of San Francisco to the party. The reception has been nothing but warm. Their first small 47-seat restaurant drew an incredible amount of critical praise not only from locals but also from the national press. Limon was on the forefront of Peru’s new wave-a movement that has made at least one corner of Latin America’s wide culinary range accessible to upscale diners.

And Limon partially defines itself around its elevated status. The aesthetic of the restaurant as manifested in not only the detail-savvy space but also in the presentation of the food is crucial to Limon’s existence. More than anything, it’s what makes the restaurant distinct. Their hongos (mushrooms) dish is a perfect example. The dish itself is beautiful, a simple circle of mushrooms in the middle of a large plate, but the first bit is a little disappointing, almost as if something is missing. Of course, not all of the appetizers follow this mold. The chicharron de pollo and the papa a la Huancaina are standouts-both are nuanced presentations that should remind eaters why simple, staple dishes are so important when done brilliantly.

Limon’s strongpoint, however, resides on the entree side of the menu. The ceviches are good, particularly the ceviche limon-a generous portion that’s perfect for sharing, but the entrees are where Limon shines. Limon’s warmth is most translatable in its classic dishes, in the moments when it feels as if you were being served from the Castillos’ kitchen again. The lomo saltado, for instance, brings thinly sliced Niman Ranch sirloin with a sauce that’s so good that you can’t help but soak it all up with the rice that accompanies the dish. When Limon gets away from home, like with the more formal ribeye (churrasco a la parilla), it loses a little of both its subtlety and its warmth. But the best dish that I had there, by far, was the parihuela-billed as a Peruvian bouillabaisse. The dish went straight to my heart-the perfect mix of spice and warmth and a generous portion of fish. It’s the kind of plate that didn’t just satisfy my palate, it satisfied me entirely.

All of this to say, perhaps, that “Nuevo Latino Fusion” is a success. The designation, present from the first moment in the expansive front window, implies a sort of post-modern blend of flavors, but it belies a more easily digested concept. Antonio explained, a little to my relief, that while the words were, to some extent, an appeal to new consumers, they were more in reference to Peru’s vast history of fusion, mostly due to colonization and immigration. It is these moments that resulted in things like the ceviche, and less of a reference to, say, Peru meets the American marketplace, though I’m not entirely convinced that’s not at play here too.

One point of conjuncture that seems a boon is Limon’s attempts to cook with both organic and sustainable products. Because their menu is, for the most part, unchanging, they must rely on some staple ingredients that are not local (especially when some ingredients, like lucuma, a fruit that provides the base for a very nice dessert, are virtually unheard of here). Their fish products are farmed and caught sustainably, at least those that come from the one (out of two) distributors I was told about. Their meat and chicken are also carefully chosen, the meat coming from Niman Ranch and the chicken always free-range and organic. While these choices do increase the price point a little bit, the Castillo brothers have decided that it’s worthwhile to, “invest a little bit” for the sake of flavor.

The front of the house staff at Limon, unlike the large majority of San Francisco’s upscale restaurants, is almost all Latino. This is the result of what is, for the most part, a family-run business. On the first night I ate there Antonio was our waiter, and the second time, another family-member served us. The service is warm and friendly, and there seems to be a good relationship between the servers and the kitchen. Mom still cooks, she was there making ceviche during the day, and the kitchen staff is also made to feel like part of the family. The kitchen wages start at about $11 an hour, slightly above the city’s norm, though no benefits are offered. This is something that Antonio would like to see change, as he himself is working without benefits as well, though he notes that it’s something they are still working towards.

One of the most striking things about Limon is the way that a Latino restaurant in the Mission caters to a clientele that often times seems largely out of place until they walk in the door. The gentrification of the Mission, and the restaurants (like Slanted Door) that have accelerated it, is no longer news, but it’s still a shock to enter what might be one of the few Latino restaurants whose clientele is (by Antonio’s reckoning) 95% non-Latino. This juxtaposition with the neighborhood is not all that surprising when one considers the Mission’s cultural appeal to hipsters and its exotic appeal to upper-class San Franciscans, though it does make becoming a part of the community a little more difficult. The old restaurant forced Limon to turn away from 70 to 90 diners a night, and they now have the capacity to accommodate more customers. This has come at the cost of seeming like less of a neighborhood fixture and more of a new neighbor with a consumer base that is often at odds with local residents. On the other hand, as Antonio explained, the Mission is Latino, and so is Limon, so if not there, then where else?

Maybe because Limon is so rooted in family, there is a warm feeling to everything about it. From the way the parihuela touches the heart to the colors on the wall to the sounds that come from a kitchen that could possibly be yours, Limon is an invitation in and of itself. There are moments of brilliance, and there are also places where there is certainly room for improvement. Peru is a vast country, and it seems plausible that a more seasonal menu would allow for more choices in organic and local produce. Similarly, Limon’s success seems apparent in its new space, and in the increased numbers it is churning out, and one would hope that such success, at some point, will filter down to its employees. Finally, while Limon is remarkably affordable for the kind of upscale restaurant that it is, its prices will continue to attract a client base that will remain at odds with large parts of the Mission community, though this may be an unsolvable paradox. Limon has an arroz con leche for its dessert that says it all. It is warm, with strong hints of cinnamon that taste like home, and little raisins that often distract you from the basic flavors of the dish. It is a superb dish, a homey dish, and a warm dish. It’s not perfect, but it’s something that I would go back for again and again.

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