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Velvet Cantina

An Alternative to Mission Taquerias

With its dimly lit interior, Velvet Cantina could easily pass for a restaurant hoping to capture the first date/twenty-something crowd. While its clientele does indeed consist of young urbanites, the four-month old Mexican restaurant encourages revelry rather than romance. This is somewhat in keeping with the space's prior incarnation, The El Zarape Room. Prior to the ownership and name change, Latino crowds danced salsa and held court with buckets of Coronas, while groups of hipsters slammed margaritas and suckled sangria.

The short wooden bar runs the length of the space and remains open after the kitchen closes at 10:30pm (11:30pm on weekends). Opposite the bar, a small dining area houses a handful of tables and three booths shaped like halved octagons. The polygonal shape gives the booths a distinctive look, but finding a comfortable position proves challenging. No matter where one sits, a sharp angle seemingly awaits. A corridor behind the bar leads to a space next door that accommodates another 45 guests.

The restaurant pushes an old bordello theme by hanging dark velvet drapes in doorways and a wall mural that depicts an early-20th Century Mission district where men line up on the street in front of the Velvet Cantina whorehouse. The cocktail menu also alludes to this theme; in lieu of a description of the "Perfect Margarita" ($8) is an explanation: "We would tell you but the Madame wouldn't be happy."

Since it is a Mexican restaurant, diners may instinctively choose the margarita. However, the restaurant offers several specialty cocktails ($7) -- all mixed using homemade infused liquors. The most distinctive of the bunch is a Serrano Chile and cucumber infused vodka mixed with a cucumber puree. It opens with a slight tanginess that gives way to the crispness of fresh cucumber, and finishes with a bite, courtesy of the diminutive, but potent pepper. The delectable apricot fizz, a mix of orange and pineapple juice with apricot-infused vodka, topped with a champagne float, provides diners a safer choice. Those looking for an economical libation can opt for a $2 Sol or Tecate.

Food prices are also quite reasonable -- no item crosses $15 -- but execution varies considerably between dishes. The slightly sweet jicama and baby shrimp enhance the citrus zest of the ceviche salsa ($6), but the density of the cornbread sope ($6) crust lends the dish a pasty texture.

Entrees follow a similar pattern. The slightly overcooked Santa Maria tri-tip ($15) lacks the robust flavor that characterizes the cut. However, the bold flavors of the chicken avocado enchiladas with jalapeno cream sauce and pepper jack cheese make for a hearty entrée while avoiding the sogginess that often plagues this dish.

Only two of four desserts on the menu were offered on this visit, with the s'more nachos ($5) outshining the peanut butter chocolate tamale ($6). The portions of each easily satisfy dessert cravings for two.

The service is friendly, and we noticed operations manager Gabriel Duncan visiting each table to inquire about guests' experiences and field suggestions -- this adds a warm touch.

At times though, the service grows a bit too casual. Entrees arrived halfway through our appetizers, making our small café table resemble the kitchen sink of a bachelor's apartment: two empty martini glasses, a ceviche dish, a small plate, two dinner plates and two tumblers. The crowded tabletop forced us to move the basket of tortilla chips onto the seat.

Despite some shortcomings, the dining experience still represents a significant step above the taquerias dotting the streets of the Mission. Hopefully, owner Matt Tognazzini, who purchased Blue in the Castro four weeks ago, will devise a way to make the necessary improvements at Velvet Cantina.


Reservations Essential? No