Loló

When Turkey met Mexico ...
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Photo by Rory McNamara

paulr@sfbg.com

The turkey is native to Mexico and one of the few animals to have been domesticated by the Indians. Turkey is central to Yucatecan cooking in particular — and by "turkey" I of course mean the bird, the roasted star of so many Thanksgivings, not the country east of Greece. No turkeys there (though plenty of lamb) or really any other connection to Mexico. Which makes Loló difficult to explain.

And what is Loló? A kind of soda? A male stripper? No, it's a restaurant that opened last fall in the old Vogalonga (and before that, La Villa Poppi) space, with an important addition: the annexation of the storefront immediately to the east. So now, instead of seating fewer than a dozen, the place can accommodate ... well, not mobs, but a couple dozen at least, if you factor in the bar. I loved the intimacy of Vogalonga and La Villa Poppi; eating in them was like having been invited into somebody's home for dinner; only the nearby Gravity Spot was cozier. But Loló does breathe more easily with the added square footage. And the second dining room is done up in newspaper broadsheets that give the Mexican lottery results in mind-bending detail. This is the Mission the way it ought to be: sophisticated but playful and even a little silly, with whimsical improvisation more important than money and all the overdesigning money can buy.

A further point of interest is that Loló serves a kind of hybrid cuisine (I decline to describe it as "fusion") that adds Turkish flourishes and grace notes to what is basically a pan-Latin or nuevo Latino menu. The marriage might be an arranged one, but it reflects the realities of the restaurant's ownership (the principals are Merdol Erkal and Jorge Martinez) as well as a surprising harmonic convergence between cuisines and cultures that would appear largely unrelated. A Turkey-Mexico combination might be something you'd expect to see in a World Cup soccer final, not on your plate. It's worth remembering, however, that Mexico's mother, Spain, was not unfamiliar with the Ottoman Turks. Their relationship might be described as peppery.

Pepper is a binding agent at Loló. The food as it emerges from the kitchen doesn't lack liveliness, but if you want to do some tweaking, you'll be given a small dish of crushed black Turkish pepper to brighten up the party. Even if you don't feel the need, you'll find plenty of pepper on your plate anyway — in the oily sauce ladled over octopus tiradito ($8), a version of carpaccio. The combination of pepper flakes, lemon juice, and olive oil lent this dish a real presence, and the slices of octopus were too paper-thin to be tough. But the dish was served a little too cold to be fully awake. It was as if it had been plated well ahead of time, then grabbed from the refrigerator.

Just right, temperature-wise, was a handful of what the menu called "dumplings" ($8): fried, empanada-like pockets filled with a mince of huitlacoche (a truffle-like fungus that grows on corn) and served with a pot of thinned ricotta cheese for dipping and a few ribbons of roasted yellow pepper for color and a slight smoky sweetness. An arugula salad ($7) was a flea market of colors, tastes, and textures, a jumble of apple slices, pine nuts, shreds of cherry and crumblings of feta cheese, all drizzled with a deep-voiced orange muscat vinaigrette.

The bigger plates aren't quite full-size, and — here is a sizable difference from typical Latin-American restaurant practice — they aren't stuffed to the rafters with starches, either. The only starch on a plate of "three meat bites" ($12) was the trio of grilled bread spears the meat patties were seated on. Those patties, incidentally, were the most purely Turkish items we were able to find on the menu. They could easily have passed for kofte.

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