I’ve never taken a Spanish class, but that should not excuse how long it took me to figure out that garaje is Spanish for garage. Garaje, SoMa’s new casual dining spot, could only be more obviously garage-themed if there were cars on stilts in the dining room and exhaust in the air. License plates from all 50 states, vintage street signs and old tire ads hang everywhere. The feeling is industrial, but more laid-back than chic: This is a working man’s food garage.
Though at first glance it seems like a straight-up Mexican joint, street food is the cuisine here, sans national borders. I guess you could call it fusion, although the dishes don’t always fuse (I will hold back from subjecting you to a car-related fuse joke here, but feel free to come up with your own).
Many of the beers are Belgian. Some dishes are Thai. You’ve also got Chinese, a touch of British and a dose of good ol’ American. Some of it purrs, some of it chugs and some of it stalls, but for the most part, the food is hearty, tasty and cheap.
Garaje’s signature dish is the Zapato, a flattened burrito-panini hybrid. I liked the Cali steak version, stuffed with crispy yet tender steak, french fries, delectable beans (warning, vegetarians: they’re full of lard), cheese, pico and avocado, but I yearned for some heat. A hefty slug of Tapatio sauce transformed the Zapato from a novelty into an eagerly wolfed-down delight.
Most of Garaje’s dishes lack any spicy intensity, which may be intentional as they offer an array of hot sauces from around the globe so you can fire up food to your tastes. When I see Thai and Mexican on a menu, though, my taste buds expect a good searing, even without sauce, and I found myself wishing for more.
The least exciting dish was the fish and chips, which lacked any exotic flair. The tilapia and batter were fine, but among the other dishes it felt bland and uninspired.
A better bet for pescatarians is the Thai prawn taco, warmly spiced and suitably messy and crunchy with peanuts, or the ahi taco, packed with a ridiculous amount of avocado atop a nicely seasoned hunk of meltingly soft tuna.
Both are wrapped in two tender corn tortillas just thick enough to hold the mountains of fillings together.
Garaje makes a darn good cheeseburger, too, with a thin Angus patty still showing pink on a buttery Acme bun loaded with toppings, fully customizable with options like chopped bacon or a fried egg. This is a big, sloppy two-hander, so make sure you have plenty of napkins nearby, especially if you order the monstrous Crazy Dave’s Double.
Same goes for the street tacos, which at two for $5 are the best value on an already value-laden menu. We tried the carnitas and mojo chicken side by side, and to my surprise the moist, flavorful chicken won us over.
Lunchtime was abuzz with crowds, dinner less so. Both times, service was quick and the staff extremely affable and eager to answer questions.
Side note: I can attest that Garaje’s food is the perfect antidote for a hangover. It’s also the perfect accompaniment to beer while you’re on your way to one. Just don’t forget the hot sauce.