Loló serves fun, small plates without pretense

Beth Laberge/Special to the S.F. ExaminerTaste treat: Loló’s beef tongue sliders represent an ideal preparation of the meat.

My friend Mike insists on bringing out-of-town relatives to Loló, though he’d list other restaurants as his favorites. I’ve got a few theories why.

First, it’s sophisticated but unpretentious, a place for Midwestern visitors to feel comfortable (maybe even cool). Next, it’s in the Mission, a neighborhood your auntie probably learned about on the Food Network. And, most importantly, Loló is a great intro to San Francisco’s insistent playful spirit.

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Walls are papered in bean advertisements and Mexican lottery results. Your check comes in an infant’s sneaker. Food is plated with a merry, Mad Hatter design sense.

In a city where grown-ups race tricycles, cars sport pink mustaches and architecture can be downright Seuss-ian, what could be more fitting?

Loló was originally opened by two friends, one Turkish and one Mexican. They mashed up Latin and Mediterranean flavors, creating a cutely niche hybrid.

But Turkish co-owner Merdol Erkal has been gone for years, and Loló’s food was adjusted to only include Latin small plates. It’s still a fun menu; you just don’t get to brag about trying Turk-Mex cuisine on your food blog.

Plates vary widely in size and heft, so be sure to ask whether your order will match your appetite. Actually, ask your server lots of questions; they’re wise and honest to a fault (“Skip the meatballs”).

I could have missed the beef tongue sliders were it not for my server’s gentle instruction. What folly that would have been — I’ve never tried a better tongue preparation.

Whole tongues are slow-cooked with chilies, garlic and leeks until reaching the tenderness of pork belly. Thin slices are then feathered onto chewy brioche buns, topped with an ancho-infused tomato sauce and a slaw of cabbage, kalamata olives and sun-dried tomatoes. For a finishing flourish, skewered banana peppers emerge vertically from the bun tops like snakes bursting from peanut cans.

Honorable mention goes to the lamb sliders, topped with rich portabella gravy — juicy and fine, but no match for that peerless tongue.

Loló’s Turkish touches may be gone, but other fusion elements pop up playfully. Seared salmon medallions polka-dotted a plate ringed in panko crumbs and crushed pistachios before being finished with a loopy drizzle of wasabi cream. Wonton ravioli stuffed with huitlacoche and mild requeson cheese floated in a green sea of basil and arugula sauce.

A few items opt out of fanciful nouveau surprises, sticking with more traditional Mexican preparations.

A thick layer of La Palma masa surrounded the squash blossom and cheese quesadillas, served with a refreshingly generous mound of guacamole. Chicken tinga tostadas hit the right spicy-sweet notes, with roasted tomatoes and a bit of smoky crumbled bacon. Deep-fried soft-shell crab tacos were close counterparts to their Baja fish cousins.

The flan was the most classically prepared item on the menu, a loyal rendering of the owners’ family recipe. With custard this rich and lush, there was no need for postmodern tweaks.

Unlike many small-plates restaurants, I never walked away hungry from Loló. Mildly regretful that I didn’t try the oxtail empanadas or the short-rib gorditas, but always full.

Have I had better meals in The City? Sure, but food is only part of the picture. Loló nails a sweet balance between haute and approachable, between fine and fun. My mom is sure to enjoy it when she visits.

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