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A Laid-Back Meeting Place Opens in the Mission

You've probably noticed by now that Pintxos, that tapas place at Valencia and 16th, has been replaced with... surprise... another tapas place. This incarnation of small plate purveyorship is called Ramblas (after Barcelona's historic district), and its parentage is comprised of Ron Silberstein and Ragnhild Lorentzen of ThirstyBear Brewing Co., well respected by foodies and SOMA happy hour hordes alike for its hand-crafted beers and bistro-grade tapas menu. Ramblas looks to recreate ThirstyBear's elegant-casual beer-and-snacks appeal in a hip, modern space designed by Roddy Creedon and Allied Architecture, responsible for Ace Wasabi, Butterfly, Firewood Café and Gordon Biersch.

Although Ramblas looks fancy, with its welcoming quietude, handmade tapestries, mosaic glass tiles, restored timber columns and wood floors, the menu and service are distinctly unsophisticated. With low prices to match, the low-caliber Spanish tapas don't hit the mark consistently, and even on a slow night, the admittedly sweet and friendly servers don't seem to have been trained well enough to bring the wine before each course is delivered, which should be standard procedure.

We don't want to slam the place, though, because it's truly perfect for grabbing a delicious 14.5 oz. handmade beer for $3.00, which is a damn good low-rent beer price in the upscaling Mission District. Plus, Steve Kerr's wine list is really a catch - you'd be hard-pressed to find many of the Spanish varietals on his list anywhere else in town. The crisp, dry whites are especially cool; we're all familiar with white Rioja, but have you tried an Alella or a Rueda? Delish. Reds rule too, with cool offerings like Ribera del Duero, Jumilla, Navarra and red Rioja.

These delicious wines, most priced at $4 - $6 per glass, go well with the dishes that do succeed at Ramblas. Be warned, even though prices are low, plates are small and that check total can skyrocket before you know it. This is not The Original McCarthy's/Cha Cha Cha, where two plates will fill up two people in no time. Ramblas' cuisine is meant to be savored, but unfortunately, most of it has been purchased and prepared with an uninspired hand. Still, the food can work for you if ordered properly. As for cold tapas, we enjoyed the dense, meaty, marinated fresh anchovies ($5), but the air-cured Serrano ham ($7) exhibited the neverending chewiness of low-end prosciutto. We loved the house-cured salmon's loxy goodness ($6), served in a surprisingly sizable portion, but the Spanish tuna with tomatoes ($7) resembled Chicken of the Sea more than the high-end tuna to which we've become accustomed.

The hot tapas menu is equally mixed. While we enjoyed the shrimp and garlic saute ($8), we didn't find it particularly heart-stopping, although the sauteed spinach with garlic, pine nuts and raisins ($5) was so delicious that we would have been happy dining on two pounds of it. The bacalao (salt cod--$11), a well-loved Spanish menu standard, looked delicious but had a rubbery texture... so lame. We were hoping that the grilled pork skewers ($6) would redeem the menu, but they were tough and overcooked. Bummer. In a final effort to really give the place a shot, we went for the grilled blood sausage ($5), because, you know, you find a good blood sausage and you've found a great chef. However, our findings were predominantly negative on the blood sausage tip, too.

It's really too bad, because with such reputable backers as the ThirstyBear people, Ramblas should have a kickass menu to match its quite kickass beer and wine offerings. Our suggestion: if you're going to offer obscure menu items preferred mainly by foodies (anchovies, blood sausage, bacalao), shop high-end and hire a chef who knows how to prepare them well. Otherwise, it's more cost-effective just to offer fresh, easily-prepared bar food that has a more universal appeal.

Until Ramblas starts putting a little more love into the kitchen, it's going to remain a pleasant, centrally located watering hole with a hit-or-miss menu. Support local business and meet some friends there for beers... the staff is really nice, the room is comfortable, and the beverages are tops.

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