Daniel Azarkman drinking rose at his wine bar, El Lopo. (Andrew Curry)
Daniel Azarkman drinking rose at his wine bar, El Lopo. (Andrew Curry)

Spain and California find common ground at El Lopo wine bar

Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

For many people, the point of foreign travel is to expand horizons and see things in a new way. That’s how it was for Daniel Azarkman on a 2006 trip to Spain, when his horizons expanded specifically around the country’s cuisine.

“What was really shocking to me was the ubiquity of good food,” said Azarkman, who was an undergrad at UC Berkeley at the time. “Where you can walk into any place to use the bathroom and, just to be polite, you order something and it’s amazing. You can walk around blindfolded in Spain and eat well.”

He loved how eateries were unlike American restaurants. “They’re more like neighborhood hangouts, but they really care about the quality of products they serve, both food and drinks,” he said. “They might have really cheap paper napkins and an old TV with sports on and people smoking inside and throwing their butts on the floor, but the food is always taken seriously.”

El Lopo, his relatively new wine bar in Polk Gulch, is based on that model — minus the smoking and butts on the floor, of course.

“It’s a place that takes its product seriously but doesn’t take itself too seriously,” he said, “where you can be a person instead of a diner, and you have more of the open-ended experience that people go to bars for, as opposed to having an appetizer, entrée and dessert.”

El Lopo's chopped liver. (Alix Wall)
El Lopo’s chopped liver. (Alix Wall)

He compared it to reading a magazine instead of a novel, where you can open to any page and start reading. “I like for people to come in here without knowing how long they’ll be here or what they’ll order or how much of it they’ll have,” he said.

Azarkman’s love for Spain and its cuisine may be in his blood — his ancestry is 75 percent Sephardic, and his parents are Israeli immigrants who came to Los Angeles. His father left Iran for Israel at age 6; his father’s parents were of Kurdish and Bukharan Jewish lineage. His mother’s ancestry is from Bulgaria and Hungary. (Most Bulgarian Jews came from Spain, settling there at the time of the expulsion.) Azarkman and his father hope to some day write a family narrative and cookbook featuring the story of his grandmother, who moved from Uzbekistan to Iran to Israel, and how her cooking evolved out of her migration.

Azarkman, 33, grew up in the very Jewish enclave of Encino in the San Fernando Valley, but says he felt very different from his Ashkenazi peers. He moved north to attend Cal, thinking he’d eventually pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy or linguistics. But he was also dreaming about working in the food industry.

“I let it just be a fantasy for a long time, until the itch started to bother me to the point where I didn’t want to wonder anymore,” he said.

While he had intended to return to L.A. after graduating college in 2008, he fell in love with the Bay Area food scene and enrolled in a now-defunct culinary management program at the San Francisco Art Institute.

You can walk around blindfolded in Spain and eat well.

He worked both front and back of house in several restaurants, and during that time he realized he wasn’t quite cut out to be a chef.

“I had a bit of a romanticized version of it before I got my hands dirty,” he said. “I like to say I’m better with a pen than a knife.”

Before opening El Lopo early this year, he spent six years working for Off the Grid, helping to grow the organization that brings food trucks to common spaces and managing an incubator program for food trucks.

El Lopo has an extensive selection of vermouth and sherry-based cocktails, beer and wine. All beverages come from Spain or California.

Small plates include empanadas and glazed sunchokes with persimmon, brown butter and Manchego. This reporter tried the chicken liver mousse with dates and almonds, which was deliciously creamy and, not surprisingly, nothing like Bubbe used to make.

Wednesday is trivia night (when every table is taken), Tuesday is karaoke night, Monday is live music night and Sunday is industry night.

A lot of Jews and Israelis in the neighborhood have found their way to him, he said.

Azarkman’s sense of whimsy is all over the place, with a story about an extinct bear-wolf called a lopo on the website, a section of the menu called “little snacky things,” and a warning to “please make us aware of any dietary restrictions so we don’t accidentally poison you.”

El Lopo is at 1327 Polk St., between Bush and Pine streets, S.F. Open daily starting at 4 p.m. Full food menu available from 5 to 10 p.m. Bar is open late.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."