When owner and family matriarch Angelita "Lita" Lopez told El Calderon customers, early this year, about planned sale of the beloved 44-year-old Salvadorean restaurant at 699 Calderon Ave., she was unsure exactly what would replace it. A new owner with Chinese connections, she told me, to open a vegetarian restaurant. Versions of this prediction circulated.
When El Calderon closed, it brought out neighborhood memories, a going-away party, and a Voice article: Web Link . The article drew recollections from the Milk Pail's founder, and a reference to Herb Caen coming from SF to try El Calderon.
In August, Yam Leaf Bistro opened on the site. Remarkably, Yam Leaf, so far anyway, is a continuation of El Calderon, only vegetarian.
The interior is remodeled and updated. Cook and servers from El Calderon remain, and Lita herself frequently consults. (The popular papusas have been renamed in her honor on the menu.) Some of El Calderon's dishes were vegetarian already, while some meat dishes have been adapted, using mushrooms or vegetable protein sources. The menu has slowly grown as dishes are tested out. At least one new, non-Salvadorean, specialty appeared (a vegetarian Reuben sandwich, based on smoked tempeh, at lunch), but as of last week, the rest of the menu was faithful to El Calderon. We may see other specialties, including Chinese, over time.
I got most of this last week from Yam Leaf's principal owner, Christina, who said she's a local resident (like Lita), and eager to preserve El Calderon's legacy. (It also seems that some potential customers don't realize this. A server told me she sees many people approach the entrance, then depart when they notice it's no longer El Calderon. Without stopping to discover that in many ways, actually it IS the old restaurant.)
Christina is pragmatic, recognizing that many potential customers aren't strict vegetarians like herself. Still, "most people don't eat meat at every meal," and might well enjoy good vegetarian cooking from time to time. Fresh and local ingredients are Christina's particular interest, she added.
I noticed diners with a dog at an outdoor table. "Dog-friendly?" Christina laughed: "Dog-friendly, kid-friendly, grandpa-friendly!"
About the cooking. Before meeting Christina, I visited Yam Leaf Bistro with a group of former El Calderon fans for an exploratory meal, trying and sharing as many dishes as we could.
The pupusas and their curtido garnish were unchanged from El Calderon, unsurprisingly. Enchilada del rio, formerly a chicken dish, now uses king trumpet mushrooms and was pronounced excellent by a fan of the former version. Black-bean quesadilla, which comes in wedges, was popular with the group, as was the guacamole (though I personally prefer the livelier version now offered at Agave downtown). Likewise the chile rellenos. Frijoles con crema y platanos fritos was a unique course, plantains over refried beans, drizzled with cream sauce. Unusual, delicate, didn't last long. Some of these dishes, ordered as full plates, came with a new and refreshing salad that includes strawberries. The only dish that didn't do much for me was the very delicate vegetarian tamale, and I'd already been warned by the server. Not bad, just very mild among other El-Salvador specialties that largely (unlike some of their Mexican counterparts) favor subtlety over intensity or spiciness. A couple of different spicy salsas appeared here and there on the side, giving diners the option. The various meal platters ran $9-$12.
All dining were omnivores; none particularly noticed the absence of meat. We had no room left to revisit El Calderon's delicate desserts -- faithfully preserved on the menu. I'll certainly be back.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of El Calderon's demise are greatly exaggerated!