Related Articles: Restaurants, All

Tamal Tapas and Wine Bar

Creative Small Plates That Highlight Organic Mexican Ingredients

Gourmet tamales, an eclectic wine selection, and tasteful sangria are just a few reasons to check out Tamal Tapas and Wine Bar in SOMA, chef/co-owner Moaya Scheiman's new restaurant on the not-so-busy corner of Howard and 12th Street. Maybe it's the abundant parking, but the 49-seat spot already has a steady following -- from lunchtime loyals and neighborhood diners to foodies on the quest to stay ahead of the Bay Area dining scene.

Melon-colored walls, wispy violet and olive curtains, and two-story, floor-to-ceiling windows create an open yet intimate vibe. Whether you grab a stool at the bar, a seat at one of the tables, or the lone booth off to the side, the inviting atmosphere is conducive to kicking back for hours with a few friends. The service is attentive and down to earth, and the servers happily field questions and offer helpful dish-selecting tips.

The menu shows off Scheiman's depth of talent and successfully blends flavors from Mexico, Spain, North Africa, and the Mediterranean. In addition to teaching at Ramekins in Sonoma, he recently opened Tropix Backyard Cafe in Oakland and Café Sanchez here, and although he's been in the Bay Area for 15 years, he's also traveled to kitchens in Latin America, France, Bangkok, and New York. For several years, he was a food and wine pairing consultant for Wente Vineyards, which explains the well-chosen selection of 15 wines available by either the glass or the bottle. I couldn't get enough of the Dr. Loosen Blue Slate Riesling from Germany. But if wine's not your thing, ask about the sangria of the day. During our visit, it was a punchy pomegranate mango.

True to its name, the menu starts off with five (six if you count dessert) gourmet tamales including a vegan one. We ordered two savory tamales -- a shrimp and a mushroom. The tamal de camaron, shrimp in organic corn masa that was blended with roasted butternut squash and Thai curry and topped with pineapple salsa, had a hint of spiciness and tasted way richer than its $6 price. The tamal de hongo, a medley of sautéed local wild mushrooms in a porcini-infused organic corn masa, was perfectly mushroomy and would send any mushroom lover to fungus paradise.

Dining here might be one of the city's best-kept secrets, both for the food and the bargains -- all the dishes are $12.50 and under. And in addition to the tamales there are about a dozen dishes ranging from plantain soup ($6) to pato y chocolate ($12.50), a duck leg in a Scharffenberger bittersweet chocolate, Grand Marnier, Valencia orange, and guajillo chile sauce.

Looking back on the meal, it is virtually impossible to choose a favorite. The tacos de atun ($10.50) were like maguro sushi inside a crispy corn tortilla shell. Each taco was wedged into a pumpkin seed paste that made for a unique presentation and tasted out of this world -- far more gourmet than the fish tacos I used to eat on the beach in Rosarita. The tacos were my favorite until I bit into the empanaditas de cangrejo ($7), a trio of empanadas filled with Dungeness crab. Each delicate pastry stuffed with fresh crab was flaky and light, unlike the many other empanadas I've tried. As a Marylander, I can never get enough crab, even if it's not blue, so when the Creole crab cakes ($7) arrived, I dove in. Yet another trio, these were atop mizuna with a blood orange vinaigrette and fire-roasted corn succotash. On top of each rich, yet fluffy cake was a small dollop of chipotle crema. Those could've been the night's winner. For our final dish, we ditched seafood for the churrasco de pampas ($11), a fire-charred Niman Ranch skirt steak with green chimichurri sauce. It was perfectly tender and nicely seasoned, and the grilled red onions added that extra oomph. Each plate was artistically presented, which heightened our senses from not only taste and smell but also by sight. However, as demonstrated by the crushed pumpkin seeds propping up the fish tacos, the presentation was not only beautiful, but flavorful.

We shouldn't have had room for dessert, but our meal was perfectly rich without being heavy. So when our server mentioned the chocolate tamal, we were sold. Once again the dramatic presentation compelled us to linger and look a bit. The raspberry coulis was zig-zagged over, and a big spoonful of whipped cream was on top (personally, I would've preferred ice cream). Although the tamal was a bit dry, I liked that it wasn't too sweet or too chocolaty -- overall, a good meal ender.

Tamal's out-of-the-way location doesn't seem ideal, but you can tell that this joint is up for the task. When you can pop into a restaurant, receive a warm welcome, toast with good drinks, savor inventive dishes, and walk out without emptying your wallet, chances are you'll be back -- again and again.

Mexican/ Nuevo Alta California Small Plates