In our 21st century, hyper-local culinary world, we strive to eat ingredients produced as close to us as possible but we also celebrate regional cooking from all corners of the world. This can leave us in a jam. Sometimes it’s just too difficult or expensive to cook authentic food far away from its source.
Haltun, a six month old “Mayan” restaurant appropriately located in an unhipsterized corner of the Mission, features dishes from the Yucatan. Its owners and staff all come from a single village, Oxkutzab, about 100 kilometers south of Merida. This includes founder Pedro Tuyub, a personable guy who worked in a handful of San Francisco restaurants, and his four cooks who migrated from the kitchens of the sadly closed Mi Lindo Yucatan. Tuyub saw the “for rent” sign on Haltun’s mural-clad building when he dropped his daughter off at George Moscone Elementary School, a block away, and decided to take the plunge.
A work in progress, Haltun’s pale orange walls were awaiting indigenous art when I visited, but even unadorned, the place felt inviting with comfy wooden chairs, cast iron chandeliers sprouting tulip shaped lamps, a small wine bar at the back, and Latin music turned up high.
During the day, people stop by for piled tacos ($2 each) of buche, tender, if provocatively chewy pig stomach, sexily hinting of the unexposed and the forbidden, but not pungently; and lengua, beef tongue, on warm, soft double tortillas and dressed with chopped onion, cilantro and a dried red chile salsa.
At night, couples come in, later rather than earlier, as do solo diners who read the weeklies, as they wait for lush cochinita pibil ($11.50), the signature dish of the Yucatan and of this restaurant. Haltun delivers hunks of juicy, fork tender pork, redolent of citrus and chiles. The banana leaf in which it was long cooked is draped over the top, with pickled onions on the side. Many spend a whole evening slowly devouring it with freshly griddled tortillas, washed down with $6 glasses of Spanish tempranillo and Argentinian malbec.
If you’re sharing, start with Yucatecan appetizers. I particularly like kots-ditzo,($3) crispy fried mini-tortilla rolls stuffed with ground chicken; panuchos ($2), a soft fried tortilla tinted with black bean puree, topped with shredded chicken, pickled cabbage, onions, avocado and tomato. Though tasty now, when avocados and tomatoes get better, this will be a knock out. Salbut’ ($2) looks and tastes almost the same as a panucho, but without the black beans. Pol-can (2 for $3), deep fried masa fritters filled with lima beans and crushed pumpkin seeds, are also fun. A whole platter ($16.50) of these, plus ground beef-filled fried empanadas, and two kinds of steamed Yucatan tamale, feeds four.
Many of the main courses drift towards California, protein heavy but affordable. Poc chuc de res ($14.50) a tasty grilled rib eye with a salad, did not strike me as Mayan. Nor did a generous slice of yellow fin tuna called pan de atun ($14.50), in a sea of bland pureed black beans.
What Haltun lacks in full commitment to regional Yucatecan cooking, it makes up for in easy going local appeal and amazingly low prices. It has something for everyone–from $2 buche tacos to that luxurious cochinita pibil.
Haltun, 2948 21st Street, San Francisco
Contact: 415 643-6411; haltunsf.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Price range: $2 to $14.50
Recommended dishes: cochinita pibil, buche tacos, lengua tacos, Yucatecan appetizers: panuchos, salbut’, kots-dzito; pol-canHaltun, 2948
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