La Urbana is the newest symptom — and symbol — of the Divisadero corridor’s sudden and rapid evolution. It’s poignant that an upscale Mexican joint replaced a dingy, affordable plant shop, and that where there once were cartoonish, whimsical murals of Mother Gaia, now there is black concrete and a clubbish vibe. Now, instead of an organic dirt patch, we have a dimly lit spot with two kinds of “froth” on the menu.
You can still find recession-friendly, never-ending happy hours at Bean Bag Café and cheap bagels at Mojo, but entering the age of expensive toast and mixological innovation, things are getting awkward. Call it the pubescent phase of gentrification — unsure where it’s going and trying hard to look good on the way. In some ways, La Urbana fits right in.
With a few exceptions, the food tends to be wrapped up in concept at the occasional expense of flavor. The quesadillas — smoky and stringy, made of blue corn tortillas wrapped around smoked okra and melted goat cheddar — are of the better school.
The pozole is a modest heap of tender, mixed meats in a puddle of very oily broth. It’s a muscular showcase of very good meat, but feels unfinished, a kind of nonsoup soup.
La Urbana deals its proteins with a skilled hand, but the accents are inflated with overwrought techniques that don't necessarily hold up beyond novelty. The diver scallops, for example, are cooked perfectly, but a sparse garnish of tomato gelee and avocado do little to bolster a feeling that you're eating real food.
Same goes for the oysters on the half-shell crowned with a cloud of cucumber-serrano “froth.” They’re light, salty and leave a mild burn in your tasting bank. The dish might be more of an emotional roller coaster than I’ve ever had for $9, but at the end of the day, it’s still froth on a seashell.
The verduras con arroz — favas with delicately charred Brussels sprouts with a poached egg — comprise a simple dish ripped straight from my daydreams, proving the theory that smoky mush can work really, really well with the right ingredients.
Best of all were the esquites, or a warm and lovely mess of roasted corn with melted manchego and aioli.
The cocktails were overwrought. The place specializes in mezcal, but gets a little overzealous reinventing non-mezcal cocktails (gin fizz, Manhattan) with mezcal, when they might be better left alone. The Mezcal and Cacao is full of flowery accents like rosewater and lavender flowers, but ends up an unbalanced wash of diluted cacao and alcohol.
Same goes for the Mexican Dude, another mezcal ditty that boasts housemade horchata. It reminded me of what I made in high school the time I persuaded my mother to buy Grand Marnier for “making cookies” — creamy and sweet, with a burn that hits you like turpentine.
Desserts, crowned by things such as white chocolate orbs full of strawberry milk, follow suit; they’re showy but ultimately unremarkable in flavor.
I’d like to think La Urbana is still finding its footing, and I’d like to think Divisadero Street hasn’t gone the way of other benign, neatly pressed corners of The City. I won’t complain about evolution, but I do hope an affordable breed of gut-filling innovation makes its way there.
Location: 661 Divisadero St., S.F.
Contact: (415) 440-4500, www.laurbanasf.com
Hours: 5 p.m. to midnight Mondays-Wednesdays and Sundays; 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Thursdays-Saturdays
Price range: $7 to $26
Recommended dishes: Esquites ($7), quesadillas Tijuana ($9), verduras con arroz ($19)
Credit cards: All major