San Francisco comes to Harlem.

Struggling last night with my roughly 10-word grasp of the Spanish language, my girlfriend and I pondered whether it would be at all feasible to go to a Spanish-speaking vacation destination, or whether we’d restrict ourselves to one of the former English colonies. The occasion for this problema was a meal at St. Francisco de Asis, located at 1779 Lexington Ave., and on the Sietsema 2005 list at number 25. Fortunately, the struggle with the language was more than worth it: the food was amazing, and I found the journey to and from the place to be more than edifying.

On one hand, it’s hard to believe that Lexington Avenue between 125th St. and roughly 105th St. is the same proud avenue that counts Grand Central, Hunter College, and Gramercy Park among its destinations. On the other hand, the ugly/relatively down-market commercial corridor has more continuity than you’d think north AND south of 96th St. (roughly the end of the UES proper, and of the towers that my girlfriend deems “frat guy heaven”). Other than several stretches of projects on both sides of the road (between 123rd St. and 112th St., mostly), the bodegas, low-end restaurants and bars abound.

St. Francisco de Asis is a hybrid of the latter two of these – a restaurant in the front, the rear is dimly lit in a fashion similar to several of the bar-like spaces further south on Lex. I read somewhere (Sietsema or chowhound?) that these darkened spaces cater to homesick worker-immigrants, who come for a taste of home cooking and to flirt with the short-skirted waitresses. It made me flash back to my days in Austria, where I’d sit in a darkened bar decorated like a TGI Fridays…okay, I’m making that up (there was/is, apparently, a Hooters in Graz, Austria, though. Insert your own Schwarzenegger joke here.).

I managed to make clear what we wanted, eventually, using my old favorite pointing and nodding trick (which actually DID make me flash back). Shortly, we found ourselves presented with two square-shaped tamales oaxaqueños, which seemed to be wrapped in banana leaves rather than the usual corn husks ($2.50 each, I think). Stuffed with corn meal and what appeared to be chicken, with a dash of a reddish sauce, they were among the best versions of these snacks I’d ever tasted.

The main course was, for both of us, a chicken leg sided with rice and queso-dusted beans – the only occurrence of a dairy product in the entire meal, for what it’s worth. The differences in our plates were the sauces in which the chicken was cooked – mine was the Sietsema-recommended pipian verde, which is green and made of pumpkin seeds, and hers was the mole poblano (both $9.50).

Both sauces, I’m happy to report, were quite excellent. The pipian was considerably spicier than I’d expected, and the texture was unusual – it looked like a cross between a cream sauce and a salsa. Given that pumpkin seed products are a specialty of the afore-mentioned Graz, Austria, I’d thought I’d seen just about every possible cooked permutation of the savory seed – guess not!

The mole was not nearly as thick as the variety I’d recently sampled at El Huipil, but it was easily as delicious – the complex sauce/marinade/stew contained such a wide variety of sympathetic flavors, it was impossible for me to discern them – I assume that peppers and cocoa were a part of the recipe, and I think I saw sesame seeds, but I don’t want to start any rumors.

The assemblage came with a schwack of heated corn tortillas (the soft kind), which were good, despite being stuck together. Catering to the Tex-Mex crowd, I guess, I saw a packet of store-bought burrito-sized Mission flour tortillas sitting on the counter of the open cooking area. I’m thinking at this point that the restaurant’s estimation of us probably improved when we didn’t order them – I’m sure the filling would be fine, though.

My girlfriend and I enjoyed our food and experience at San Francisco de Asis greatly and would certainly go back, but last night, we might have even enjoyed the walk home even more. Maybe it was just the thwarted food coma manifesting itself as giddiness, but we were dumbfounded, impressed, and exhausted by the hill that exists between 102nd and 103rd St – a miniature version of St. Francis’ hilly western outpost transported to Spanish Harlem, in close proximity to the restaurant bearing his name. With the snow lightly falling, it felt to us like a street-scene snow globe.

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