Its title and appearance conjures Barbary Coast-era decadence. The Velvet Cantina is only about seven years old, but it feels thoroughly dyed-in-the-wool, a seemingly eternal fixture on its corner, 23rd and Bartlett Streets in the Mission District, a residential spot just a little bit removed from the hubbub of Valencia, 24th, and Mission Streets. Perhaps spurred on by that ghostly air of bawdy house lasciviousness that clings to The Velvet Cantina like a stained kimono made of burgundy cobwebs, the owners have fostered in their spot a loose atmosphere conducive to high-decibel drunken merriment. The music is played loud, with ample bass to rattle the ice in your pitcher of well-made margaritas.
The cuisine contains few things out of left field, but it’s damned good, the “street taco” being my favorite. Also consumed: a plate of enchiladas filled with cactus (nopal), carnitas, and avocado, accompanied by the usual abundance of beans, rice and a less typical medley of lightly pickled vegetables (red cabbage and onion, mostly). Those pickles were served in a little pile next to my taco as well, and they provided a welcome acidic punch to the smooth richness of the entree.
I’m not a consumer of margarita normally, but you feel slightly ungracious at The Velvet if you don’t have one, because the bar shelves are stocked almost exclusively with tequila (about 72 of them), with a small corner off to which have been shunted a few obligatory spirits (one bottle vodka, one bourbon, Fernet Branca- ‘cuz it’s The Mission, one gin, etc.). Their agave-centricity practically demands you have a margarita, and so I caved in. It was well-balanced, if a little light on the tequila (Herradura Reposado).
As the afternoon sun fades, The Velvet Cantina is bathed in a dark, red hue that reflects off the shining faces of its besotted clientele, perhaps possessed by the rosy, glorious dissipation of some bygone group of Edwardian revelers letting their hair down. Glory in that faux-nostalgia and try and ignore whatever horrid shit is booming from the speakers.
3349 23rd Street (@Bartlett)