504 Broadway Street
San Francisco, CA
Flavor sets define a cuisine to popular culture, more or less and for better or for worse. In Chinese cooking, it’s typically garlic, ginger, and scallions. Italian: basil, tomato, garlic, olives, and parmesan. French: butter, herbes de Provence, and Bordelaise. American: grill marks, fried, and buttered. If you keep these in mind, it makes ad hoc cooking easy. It’s oversimplified and makes food trite sometimes, but there it is.
The Basque cuisine formula is more difficult to distill at this point in culture and time. Fatty foie, bacalao (cod), fennel, garlic, olives, roasted peppers, grilled skewers, preserved seafood, simple things like fried peppers, bigger things like roasted meat with myriad sauces. You know it when you taste it. It tastes of ocean, pastures, open fires, and passion.
Txoko gets it right, even if they sacrifice the ambience of a crowded San Sebastián pintxo bar with tipsy eaters spilling out to the sidewalk in order to achieve the accurate flavor note. Located in North Beach, it’s floor particularly spacious in one of the only parts of San Francisco that can feel as condensed as Europe—they take reservations. The bar is small in comparison with a limited pintxo menu, and there are no pedestals displays of creative concoctions centered around a toothpick to satisfy amuse-bouche compulsions. Though we had hoped for more tapas serving style, the co-owner and wine director Ryan Maxey informed us that they switched to the family-style format because it is more marketable. Hard to believe that this is the case here in San Francisco, but it is what it is. There isn’t even a crowd jammed at the door waiting—on one hand, this is a relief; on the other hand, doesn’t food taste better when it’s scarce?
Start with one of their many very decent cocktails: the Picon Punch ($10), the Basque national drink, which taste like a soft Coca-Cola for adults, and continued on to at least a few more drinks off of their concise yet quality wine list (take the waitstaff’s recs, or from Mr. Maxey himself). The hard-seared foie on a crispy pan de mie with onions in melted and fried forms ($18) is a near replica of something I could have had at La Cuchara, one of the best pintxo bars in San Sebastián. The Txuleton ($65, serves 6-8) is amazingly cooked, ample portioned steak with lovely accoutrements of roasted tomatoes and carrots, potato-turnip gratin, and chimichurri and Bordelaise sauces. Though this could be a point of debate at the table, the garlic potato soup ($9, with delicious bits of bacon and a melted quail egg amidst) is easily shared. Definitely don’t forget the mushroom arroz ($12/$24, with a dense helping of al dente hen-of-the-woods). Vegetarians, non-seafood lovers, you may want to reconsider your food life choices before coming here, or maybe coming here will change your mind.
Txoko is just part of the evolving North Beach scene is becoming somewhat of a Little Basque (New Basque? Basquetown?) with other Basque-esque contributers of 15 Romolo, Bask, Piperade, Bocadillos. What had made this food so appealing to the rest of the world is half how it’s cooked and half how it’s served. Two of the best 10 restaurants in the world hail from Basque country (#8 Arzak, #3 Mugaritz), but they represent merely the tip of the creative design in food happening regularly on the ground in San Sebastián. The execution, ingredients, and flavors of Basque food are easily transported to a place like Northern California, but thus far, no one has replicated the ambiance. If we could teach the stripper-bar goers and the tourists on a one-track path to The Stinking Rose to enjoy better food, maybe we’d have a chance. For now, Txoko and the like may be the best Basque that America can do.