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Welcome to the Neighborhood

Andalu Makes Good in the Mission District

When Maya Taqueria closed the doors to its lofty, rustic space at the corner of 16th and Guerrero, the neighborhood stood leery of its replacement by yet another fine dining price gougery. While some feared that Calvin Schneiter's Andalu might continue the fancypants dotcom era invasion, the good news is that this relaxed, elegant restaurant is in fact a quality, mom-n-pop establishment run by the nicest guys in the business. Chef Ben de Vries' menu offers a welcome mix of innovation, balance and comfort, while the lengthy wine list affords diners luscious deals on hard-to-find wines.

The simple, streamlined decor and high ceilings give Andalu a distinctly downtown San Francisco look, but the menu and service are more friendly Pacific Northwest than cosmopolitan. Three blocks from the 16th Street BART and a block from the social nexus of 16th and Valencia, it's an appealing location to meet for drinks if you're not in the mood for one of the area dives (not to knock the dives -- love them, adore them).

Andalu's price point is such that a ten-spot (plus tip) will buy a glass of fresh sangria ($4) and a plate of curly polenta fries with spicy tomato vinaigrette ($5) -- or a Red Stripe ($4) and a decidedly creamy, steaming crock of aioli-topped salt cod brandade ($7), one of the city's best.

Should dinner be on the agenda (which it should), thirty dollars per person should suffice for a few shared plates and a couple of glasses of wine. Try the Primitivo ($5/glass), an Italian red touted by my wine writer friend as one of the greatest values in the city. After a Caesarific plate of seared veal carpaccio with tuna-anchovy dressing and wild arugula ($9), check out the mild, savory scallop and truffle ravioli, sublime in a beurre blanc. Much has been written of the ahi tuna tartare tacos with mango salsa ($10), which as a small pair may not be filing, but they and their painstakingly handcrafted, thin potato shells are truly fabulous.

Other standout dishes include the house-made venison sausage with smoky bacon-braised cabbage and a portobello mushroom laced with bone marrow and aged balsamic, a gourmand's wet dream. Less hearty but just as creative, well-executed and delicious is the grilled cabbage-wrapped halibut, sauced subtly with lemon beurre blanc (strikingly similar to the ravioli sauce) and served over toothsome farro, a barley-like grain which accepts sauce rather magnificently. Awesome.

On a recent visit we looked to try the most interesting menu items and ended up having one of the greatest, yet most casual, San Francisco meals of recent memory. We finished with a masterful persimmon dessert (persimmons are murder to work with successfully, so this particular mastery was especially notable). GM Craig Demko, who spent months refining his extensive wine list, was available to pair wines with each course. Ask to speak with him if you're feeling your iner food geek; he's really friendly and knows his wines inside and out.

After dinner it's a mere hop next door for a few games of pool and a digestif of Jagermeister at Doctor Bombay's, our 16th Street dive of choice. The Roxie movie theater is a mere block away should you care to devote your wine buzz to some Russ Meyer, surf footage or local documentary magic, and if you're on the make, there's always Casanova.