Picaro and Esperpento have been in the Mission a very long time — 35 and 25 years, respectively. I used to go a lot in the mid-’90s, with different groups of friends and family (even before I moved here from L.A.), but at some point or other, I stopped. I think I may have had a time or two where the food wasn’t quite as great, and then so many new restaurants began to pop up in the Mission that the old stalwarts fell by the wayside.

Cue the BF: “What do you know about that tapas place around the corner?” Oh, hell, I forgot all about it! It was time to see if their food had stood the test of time.

Both restaurants are owned by the same family, the Muelas. “Picaro” means “rascal or rogue,” and “Esperpento” means “a monstrosity”! I love the whimsy of these names, which reflects the spirit of the family and the fanciful Spanish décor of both locations, replete with the colors of the Spanish flag, Dali’s melting clocks, bullfighting photos, Frida Kahlo prints, and an array of bright-hued fans.

Carlos Muela (presumably the rascal) and his wife, Matilde Gomez, both from Madrid, Spain, opened Picaro as a café in 1982. They opened the smaller Esperpento in 1992, and began making tapas. Carlos’ daughter now runs Esperpento. But smaller doesn’t mean less popular. Any time I pass by the tiny restaurant, it’s packed, and tonight was no different. We were able to have a cocktail nearby while we waited about 15 minutes for our table.

I was pleasantly surprised to find the food had definitely held up, and whatever had happened the couple times I went a few years ago was obviously a fluke.

We started with the gambas al ajillo:

Esperpento gambas al ajillo.

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Very fresh, firm, succulent shrimp, sautéed in a traditional buttery, garlic sauce, perfect for mopping up with their excellent bread. That bread also comes with their “brava” sauce, a romesco aioli made with red peppers. The addictive sauce packs a punch — not in heat, but in garlic! Make sure everyone at the table enjoys some.

Next up were croquetas de pollo:

Esperpento croquetas de pollo.

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I have never been a fan of Spanish croquetas, as they are usually too creamy inside, too much béchamel, for my taste. I only learned to like croquetas in Portugal, which seem to have more substance. Esperpento’s croquetas are closer to the Spanish version (of course). They come stuffed with either chicken or bacalao (salt cod) and, since they are presumably fried in the same oil, the BF noted that our chicken croquetas tasted decidedly fishy. I couldn’t argue. The third strike against these: they were served with a gluey, spinach béchamel sauce — béchamel inside and out. We did not finish them.

Albondigas came next:

Esperpento albondigas.

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Meatballs are a cornerstone of any Spanish restaurant. While these were very tender, I found them a little bland. The BF ate them all up, however, and sopped up the broth with more of the bread.

The shining star for me in any tapas bar are the patatas bravas:

Esperpento patatas bravas.

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The potatoes are fried and then napped with a garlicky mayonnaise — here, the same romesco aioli that comes with the bread. The crispy exterior gives way to a fluffy interior, and scooping up as much sauce as you can for each bite is a must. I’ve had dozens upon dozens of plates of this dish in my life, and for me, Esperpento/Picaro make some of the best, even compared to the ones I’ve had in Spain. The sauce on the ones I’ve had in the Motherland is often too sweet, almost ketchup-y, which is a non-starter for me. In fact, I would say that Esperpento and Picaro set the bar for me for this tapa, way back when. That’s a bold statement that I am willing to back up by flying off to Spain right now to taste-test a bunch of patatas bravas — but why would I do that when I can find the most delicious ones right here in the neighborhood? Be reasonable, and go have some of these. Preferably with a chilled glass of dry-as-dust Fino sherry.

We also had a tapa called butifarra con judias blancas (white beans) — Catalonian sausage and Alubian beans.

Esperpento butifarra con judeas.

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It was my first time trying this dish. I found the sausage a little breakfast sausage-like, while the BF felt it was a little Spam-y. But it is sausage, and it is good. Loved the beans. I’d get this again.

Finally, we got what is supposedly their signature dish: alcachofas.

Esperpento alcachofas.

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Made with very fresh-tasting sliced artichokes, this would only have been better if they had been grilled longer and had some char on them. The few bites that were darker were delicious, after adding a little salt. Another dish I’d try again, but maybe ask to have them cooked a little longer.

For our second visit, we decided to go the original location, Picaro.

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I’d been here at least a couple dozen times, back in the day. The space is almost three times as large as Esperpento, with a patio in the back that opens on the weekends.

I arrived about 20 minutes before the BF, and ordered the mixed paella (seafood, meat and chicken rice dish), as it takes 30 minutes to prepare. It is always a good sign when paella is prepped to order.

Picaro paella.

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I ordered the chicken and sausage paella, but they brought us the seafood one by mistake, happily for me. But the mostly-seafood-averse BF ate it anyway, avoiding the squid but enjoying the shrimp and mussels. Picaro’s paella is wonderful, notwithstanding that there was not much socarrat (the oh-so-desirable crusty/crispy browned rice at the bottom of the paella pan — the mark of a true paellero), but the grains of rice were separate, moist and al dente, and the dish exuded the warm aroma of saffron. The seafood was cooked perfectly, although some of the squid was just a tad tough. No matter; I recommend everyone get this dish. I’m aiming to try the squid ink paella next time. Also, the portion was enough to take home and give us two servings of leftovers.

Even though we knew we were in store for that carby delight, I still had to try their tortilla de patata:

Picaro tortilla de patata with aioli.

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This is the famous egg-onion-and-potato cake found in every tapas bar all over Spain. This is another dish by which I judge a Spanish restaurant, and Picaro’s is a winner, served with a luscious, garlicky aioli. The golden potatoes were tender, the onions sweet, the whole thing light and creamy. Another must-try dish.

To appease the meat-hungry BF, we also got an order of morcilla — blood sausage.

Picaro morcilla.

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Without hyperbole, this is the best morcilla I’ve had. It was meatier, without as much rice filler as others we’ve tried, and the hint of clove was subtle. This was a new dish to me (here), but I’ll be getting it again.

Finally, we had a dish of champiñones al ajillo — fantastico!

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Super garlicky sautéed mushrooms. No tapas meal should be without them.

At the end of our meal, the BF was moved to say, “Why did we even go to Spain?”

They have fantastic happy-hour prices on the sangria, which I really enjoy, as it isn’t overly sweet.  Also, Esperpento has a “tienda!” A store! Where you can pick up a paella pan, some of that fabulous morcilla, jamon serrano, paella rice, and anchovy-stuffed olives.

I can’t believe I forsook this place for so long. Either location is great to take family and out-of-town guests, or for big parties (especially Picaro, as it is larger). The menus are identical and quite extensive, featuring lobster paella, a grilled seafood platter, gazpacho, boquerones, fried fish, a grilled meats platter, and countless other tapas. The permutations are endless! And the prices are incredibly reasonable.

It’s a perfect spot to pretend that you’re in Barcelona. Sit and enjoy a tapa or two, or a have a whole meal (they also have full dinner combination plates) and linger over a glass of sherry or a pitcher of sangria. Ah, España….

Esperpento
3295 22nd St, San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 282-8867

Picaro
3120 16th St, San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 431-4089