After an unsuccessful attempt a few months back to enjoy some Mexican food on NW 21st (is Taste of Mexico still in business?), I decided to give the strip another shot and hit up Cha Taquería and Bar, a new, relatively upscale venture from the folks who own the burrito chain Cha! Cha! Cha!
I don't share the popular hatred of Nob Hill—I'm actually kind of nostalgic for the pre-Pearl days when NW 21st and 23rd comprised our yuppie district (remember that?), and as a dining destination, the region undeniably offers some of the city's high-end highlights (Paley's and Wildwood leap to mind). Cha, though, has some work to do before it lives up to its locale—or its own menu, for that matter.
Now that we're all such conscientious consumers, restaurants are increasingly inclined to announce where their meat and produce is sourced, and Cha has their bases covered (Painted Hills this, Draper Farms that...). You'll also find seasonal vegetables and fruit salsas rounding out a menu of entrées that hover in the quite reasonable $8-15 range. The menu highlights seafood offerings like salmon tacos and crab enchiladas, while ceviche flights provide an opportunity to try a selection of marinated seafood, from Pacific ono to wild-caught salmon.
Cha serves lunch and dinner, lunch being just an abbreviated, cheaper version of the dinner menu. Lunch, in fact, is quite affordable given the fancy digs: A veggie burrito and a seafood empanada ran $14 for the both, and were supplemented nicely by chips and a tasty dip of pureed avocado. The veggie burrito offered no surprises (the vegetarian options are limited, and feel like token concessions); the usual grilled veggie setup served with guac and a pico de gallo had seen better days. My empanadas de tampico contained a generous portion of crab and prawns—but the crescent-shaped pastry itself was dense and heavy, topped with a wan tomato-based sauce that tasted like it came out of a can. I ate half of it and took the rest home because I felt guilty about wasting it, where it sat in the fridge for a few days until I finally gave up and threw it out.
Dinner didn't fare much better, save for the addition of surprisingly good cocktails: A cucumber margarita was crisp and not too sweet, while a martini combined jalapeño-infused tequila and vodka to spicy-yet-drinkable effect. The food, though, was just... fine. Totally edible, not gross, but certainly nothing to get excited about. The chicken in my enchilada was on the dry side, and the sauce seemed on the shy side, unwilling to engage with my taste buds. The campechana (cocktail of prawns, oysters, scallops, and mussels, served with crackers), on the other hand, was so aggressively marinated in lime juice that the seafood was totally overpowered by the onslaught of tanginess ("Good thing I don't have any cold sores," my dinner date observed).
Sometimes you can tell when a restaurant is going to fail: There's a palpable air of defeat from day one. Cha is not one of those restaurants, and there is potential here: It's a great space, high-ceilinged with huge windows, not to mention well-orchestrated outdoor seating, and the added appeal of a huge tequila bar and well-made cocktails. Given some time and some serious attention to the menu, this place could be quite good; here's hoping it happens.