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Platanos

Feeling that there was something missing in the San Francisco food scene, Lisa Rodgers and Marvin Avilez began to joke that they should just start their own restaurant. A year ago this November their joke became a reality, as they opened their doors to the public. From that point on they became the neighborhood restaurant that could. Everyone was surprised they made it through their extremely trying first year: Marvin was sent off to serve in South America, they lost their head chef Carlos, and Lisa was left alone to run a restaurant with none of the recipes having been written down. Everyone was surprised, that is, except the locals, who supported them through it all and kept coming back for the authentic Latino cuisine in an atmosphere that was a big step up from your corner Mission taqueria.

The menu's inspiration stems from Marvin's Nicaraguan heritage and incorporates traditional touches from all of Central America as well as Mexico and South America. Although there are towers of grilled vegetables and chile rellenos stuffed with mushrooms, pinenuts, and Brie, the majority of the menu is traditional and satisfying without all the "nuevo" fanfare. You're not going to find flavor combinations that test the imagination, but you will find good, satisfying food in ample portions.

The cozy yet open dining room, complete with palm ceiling fans, seats about 40. The orange walls combine with the dark wood bar and yellow glass tabletops to give warmth to the room, even on the gloomiest of San Francisco days. After settling into our corner seat and getting the brief but stunning history of Platanos (It's an entire article in itself, but if time permits and you ask nicely, Lisa just might share.), the food began to arrive.

We ordered the panuchos ($7) because of the description alone: bean filled tortillas topped with duck confit and salsa. The combination of flavors and contrast of acidic, rich, and creamy textures was amazing. Given the restaurant's namesake, plantains were also must. We opted for the very classic combo of ripe plantains with black beans and rice, finished with a cilantro crème fraiche that added a nice cool freshness to the whole dish. And if ceveché ($10) is on the menu, I must eat it. This also did not disappoint, not too chewy and the lime wasn't overwhelming, plus they added avocado - you can't go wrong with avocado.

For the second course we started with cochinita pibil ($15.25), chunks of pork braised in a rich tomato-orange sauce. The flavor was sweet and tangy and the pork very succulent. Make sure to get a side of tortillas to mop up the extra sauce. The tamal de cerdo (pork) had an addition of potatoes and white beans to the filling, which added to the comfort-food appeal. We also sampled the sopa marinera ($16.25), a rich yet refreshing seafood stew in a coconut broth. There is a bit of work involved, as the crab is still in the shell, but settle in and enjoy, you won't be disappointed. And, upon Marvin's suggestion, we finished with the chicken molé ($14.50), a great recommendation, as this was one of my favorite dishes. I never thought I'd say it, but chicken and chocolate go well together especially with a sauce this thick and lush.

To accompany this extravagance we had a sampling of the wines by the glass that paired with the food nicely. I recommend starting with the Spanish sparkling wine Cava, because everything is better with bubbles. The wine list is a nice mix of domestic, Chilean, Argentinean, and Spanish wines, all very moderately priced. While not extensive, there is definitely something for every taste.

So forgo the fluorescent lighting and beer in a can and head over to Platanos for some homestyle Latin food.