by Mina Rios
After his executive chef stint at the celebrated Cha Cha Cha restaurants in San Francisco, chef Bill Higgins and wife Debra developed an insatiable craving to open a snappy tapas and sangria bar of their own.
Satisfy this craving, they did—with a feisty restaurant called Whipper Snapper, in San Rafael’s West End Village. Reeling in Latin/Caribbean food enthusiasts like fish to bait since 2009, the husband-and-wife duo has managed to build a devout following in what is a generally quiet side of town.
Colorful as the facade in front is a vibrant interior embellished with contemporary art by Patrick Maloney. Further stimulating is the Latin music playing while the kitchen hustles for the upcoming dinner crowd.
Just past the empty main dining room, life peeks through the shady palm-covered back patio, where tables of two and four are seated elbow to elbow.
Presented with a small lunch menu—featuring specials, tapas, sandwiches and salads, as well as beer, wine and various non-alcoholic beverages, I order the white sangria ($5), served in a tiny glass (near shot size), brimming with sliced apples and oranges. Pleasant and refreshing, yet bev-less after a few sips, I wished for bev-more. Best advice—order a pitcher.
Awakening our tasting palates, we start with the fresh guacamole ($7), nicely textured with bits of avocado, tomato, cilantro and onion, served with a bottomless bowl of homemade yellow corn chips.
As our star dish—the chicken skewers with peanut sauce and jicama ($14)—arrives, we ready ourselves for an explosion of flavors. Love at first bite—four seared skewers served atop a mound of julienne-cut jicama, red and green bell peppers—in a pool of coconut milk-rich, peanut sauce—sends our taste buds adrift.
Next, while my health-conscious guest enjoys his light, nicely prepared blackened Ahi tuna with Cajun spices, lemon aioli and mixed greens ($12), I begin to wonder what’s keeping my “Whip Snap” grilled fish tacos ($15). As it turns out, long forgotten was my order. Disappointed and feeling less hungry at this point, I confer with our server to change my order to something smaller. While I wait, I try the red sangria ($5); a drier, more robust fruit and wine concoction that I find preferable to the sweeter white sangria.
Swooned by the presentation of the spicy Cajun shrimp with cayenne pepper cream sauce ($11.00)—served with a basket of sliced rustic baguette, I dive into the sauce, bread first. Hoping to be swept away, I am overwhelmed instead by the feeling that flavor, as well as half a dozen, prime large shrimp were tragically lost at sea in an abyss of heavy cream. While smoke signals and added zest (acidity) would have made a great rescue effort, these attributes were M.I.A. With a guilty conscience, I abandon what is most of my bread and an unfortunate waste of sauce.
Shortcomings aside, the chicken skewers served as our catch of the day; enough so to sustain my curiosity for next time—when I hopefully find myself whip-snapped by those famous fish tacos.
Whipper Snapper Restaurant and Sangria Bar, 1613 Fourth Street, San Rafael; 415/256-1818;whipsnap.biz/.