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Palm House adds fun and flare to tropical flavors

Salmon ceviche with taro root chips at Palm House.

I’ve always loved 2032 Union Street, the site of the original 1854 dairy farmhouse where Cow Hollow got its name. I remember sitting in the airy atrium upfront with my boyfriend when it was L’Entrecote De Paris — the food wasn’t memorable, but people watching through rain drops glistening on the glass was. When L’Entrecote closed after 23 years, Palmetto, Home on Union, and most recently Nettie’s Crab Shack came and went.

When managing partners Anderson Pugash and Bruce McDonald took over the space last year, they jumped on two hot trends — spice profiles and tropical flavors — to create Palm House, named after the soaring palm tree that has graced the building’s façade since the Barbary Coast days. Pugash and McDonald opened SoMa happy hour hotspot Bergerac a few years ago, and Pugash will be a partner in The Dorian, set to take over the old Circa space on Chestnut Street. McDonald is also a partner in the Mission’s Foreign Cinema, and brought on chef-partner Gayle Pirie to help with Palm House’s original menu. In March, the team added Chris Ricketts, formerly of The Tipsy Pig, as executive chef to update the menu. Ricketts’s concept was to follow the Americas spice trail reflected in the cuisines of Cuba, Hawaii, Brazil, and the Caribbean. He focuses on ingredients from those regions, utilizing starches like yucca and taro as well as chili peppers, including habanero, Serrano, and scotch bonnet.

As with most San Francisco restaurants, the seasonal selection changes without notice, but on a recent summer evening my dining companion and I sampled a number of dishes with varying degrees of success. We started with the Puerto Rican smashed avocado, a light, creamy guacamole brightened with lime and just enough habanero heat, served with yucca and taro chips (a welcome respite from the usual tortilla chip) for scooping. I love tempura shrimp and New England-style fried shrimp (butterflied and coated with breadcrumbs), but I have never been a huge fan of coconut shrimp until I tried Ricketts’s coconut-crusted prawns — large, plump, juicy tail-on crustaceans sandwiched between slices of grilled pineapple, drizzled with a sweet and sour citrus soy glaze and topped with green onions. The coconut adds a nice crunch but is subtle enough in flavor not to overwhelm the dish.

I’m also not a fan of ceviche (I like my raw fish in the raw), and Palm House features three on the menu. Our server, who was attentive and knowledgeable, hadn’t steered us wrong yet, so we went with her recommendation of salmon “lomi lomi” with pineapple, tomato, onion, and serrano chili. After one bite I found the same issue as I do with most ceviches — the fish, which cures in the acidity, has an almost spongy texture. Firmer fish, such as ahi tuna, hold up better, but salmon is a soft fish to begin with, so it didn’t work for me. It turns out my dining companion, normally a fan of ceviche, wasn’t crazy about it, either. Black beans are on my list of least favorite legumes, but Ricketts’s velvety Cuban black bean soup swirled with crème fraîche and chili oil was delicious.

For an entrée, our server highly recommended the vanilla-brined pork chop, a bone-in behemoth grilled to medium-rare perfection and served with plantain dumplings, bacon, Brussels sprouts, and pork jus with Kona coffee-pickled mustard seeds. We also had the marinated hanger steak with roasted fingerling potatoes, sweet corn, grilled asparagus, and shishito peppers, topped with chimichurri sauce redolent with parsley, garlic, and red pepper flakes. Interestingly, the runaway hit of the night was an American classic with just a slight tropical twist: gooey, comforting mac ‘n’ cheese crusted with toasted macadamia nuts. For dessert you can rarely go wrong with fried bananas and ice cream, and the Palm House version was the best I’ve had.

With its large front patio and well-crafted list of sultry cocktails, Palm House is great for socializing or people watching. There are drink and food deals during the weekday “Leisure Hour” (3 to 6:30 p.m.). My top drink pick as we head into San Francisco’s real summer is the signature Palm House Slushy, a frozen concoction made with white and spiced rums and fresh lime juice (add a buck for some prickly pear, passionfruit, or strawberry; three bucks gets you a Kraken dark rum float).

The lunch menu features appetizers (including those coconut crusted prawns), a few entrées, salads, and sandwiches. Weekend brunch stays with the tropical theme (think kālua pork hash and a BLT with farm egg, palm sugar bacon, and jerk aioli). On Sundays, check out the chef’s playful specials from house-made candy bars to a summer melon medley with ginger yogurt sauce, pickled watermelon rinds, and candied walnuts.

Palm House: 2032 Union Street (at Buchanan), 415-400-4355, palmhousesf.com; dinner daily from 5 p.m., lunch Monday–Friday 11 a.m.–3 p.m., brunch Saturday–Sunday 10:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m.

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