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Dining in San Francisco: LA Dishes Back
As timing would have it, my trip to San Francisco last week came right on the heels of Michael Bauer's controversial article, The Dish on Los Angeles. Unlike many Angelinos, I did not get the impression that his article was maligning our entire restaurant scene. I thought it was a pretty standard assessment of a certain class of restaurant - the good, the bad, and the Patina Group.
As I prepared for my trip to the Bay Area, however, a few people suggested that I "take them on". An epicurian throw-down! But as I said, I have no beef with Bauer, and I am not exactly in a position to go toe-to-toe with a bonifide restaurant critic, much less take on an entire city. So this posting is not meant to be a culinary dance-off.
That being said, I did just eat my way all over San Francisco and I can't wait to dish!
I arrived in San Francisco with a few business colleagues last Friday for a 6-day conference, to be followed by two days of sight-seeing with my husband. I didn't do too much research beforehand, knowing that my dining choices would be limited by the conference. The only advice I sought was from the good people over at www.roadfood.com who always know where to find the hidden gems.
After my friends and I checked in, we decided to have a nice evening out at Millenium, a white-tablecloth vegan restaurant in the ultrahip-looking Savoy Hotel. Our reservations were for 9:30 pm. We were starving, so we arrived an hour early, and sat at the bar and ordered drinks and an appetizer. One of our foursome was not ready when the bartender took our orders, and the bartender never returned to take her order. We were sitting by the cash register, which you would think put us in the thick of things, but we had a very hard time getting another bartender to finally take her drink order. The deep-fried wild mushrooms I ordered as a starter were excellent hot, and the chutney was a nice accompaniment. But as the mushrooms cooled, the coating became an unappetizing dried-chickpea-like goo. Our reservation time came and went. Finally the hostess told us we would be seated any minute, so I settled up the bar tab.
As we continued to wait, and wait, the fast food across the street began to call to me. Finally, an hour after our reservation time had passed, I told my vegan friend that I loved her but that I was going across the street. She decided to just place her order to go. I ended up at Taqueria El Sol. They made me a beautiful made-to-order carne asada burrito. I walked back across the street and shamelessly set the bag on the bar while my friend waited for her to-go order. Later, in our room, she said the tempeh was excellent. My 4.95 burrito was also damn good.
Saturday my brother and nephews picked me up for a day of sightseeing and to sample the kind of local dives they know I love. We started out with lunch at a disappearing San Francisco institution, a hofbrau. Tommy's had me at the gaudy carnival mural. Inside, burly men hefty huge cuts of meat and weilded long, greasy knives. What more could you ask for? Beer? But of course. I split a giant brisket sandwich with one of my nephews and enjoyed a lovely amber. I could have easily hung around all afternoon.
There were sights to see and one more Tommy's to hit before returning to my hotel for the late-afternoon workshop. Tommy's Restaurant, which opened in 1965, is known for its excellent Yucatan-inspired dishes and vast array of tequilas. The entire back page of the menu contained a tequila list as extensive as many restaurant's wine lists. And they definitely pour with a heavy hand. I couldn't even finish my on-the-rocks margarita or I would have been completely wasted at my afternoon conference. The burritos were huge, the tortillas were fresh, and my Pork Adobado was juicy and flavorful. The house salad dressing seemed to just be a pico de gallo salsa, and the black beans were much more salty than I am used to. But if I had only finished that margarita, I'm sure I wouldn't have cared about a little extra salt in the food or anything else. As we left the comfy little neighborhood restaurant, I overheard the guy behind me drunkenly insisting, "Hey! I have NOTHING against Norwegians!"
Out the Door in the Westfield Mall is the low-key version of San Francisco's much-lauded Slanted Door. We were really excited to eat there, especially because of the cool minimalist decor and the large selection of vegan options. Our server did not seem nearly as excited to see us. When we asked him questions about the menu, he would just pause and stare at us. For example, if I were to say, "I'm undecided between these two dishes; what would you recommend?" Most servers would say things like, "Well, the noodles are really generous, so it depends on how hungry you are." or maybe "The chicken is very popular." Our server just stared at us, pencil poised above order pad. Finally, one of my friends felt uncomfortable enough to take over the server's duties by saying things like, "That dish has chili paste in it. Do you like spicy food?" while the server stared impatiently.
Dishes were brought one at a time, about five minutes apart, and dropped on the table by runners who would mumble the name of the dish and race off. I caught one of the runners by the arm to ask for our drinks, which had not yet arrived. My chicken curry was good, but not any better or worse than if I had ordered from a random Hollywood take-out menu left on my doorhandle. One of my friend's noodles were pretty bland. But the 5-spice noodles - WOW. They were fantastic, with intensely bright Vietnamese flavors. I would definitely return for them again and again.
My vegan friend was still waiting for her order. We all remarked upon how she always had to wait. Then they dropped a plate of chicken and noodles in front of her and whizzed away. She managed to hunt down our waiter, who had been hanging out at a table full of cute boys, chattering away. He showed her that the 5-spice noodles my other friend was eating were actually the vegan noodles. When the runner had brought them, she had clearly said, "chicken noodles." Irritated, he took her chicken plate away, and ordered a vegan replacement. He did not offer the chicken noodles to the person who had ordered them, assuming apparantly that she had cast her lot when she started mistakenly eating the vegan noodles. Whenever we needed anything else, we stopped looking for our unfriendly waiter altogether and started seeking help from a different waiter, who my friend referred to as "The Mustache." He was friendly and helpful. We complimented him to the manager as we left. I left "unfriendly waiter" a low 10-15 percent tip, but a few other people in our small party left him only a dollar.
It is no easy task getting a big group of out-of-towners to all be in the same place at the same time. After copious text-messages flew back-and-forth Saturday night, we all ended up at another San Francisco institution, Lefty O'Doul's . Running along one side of the room is a carving station with big hunks of meat ready to be carved, hofbrau-style. It gave the place a weird half-bar, half-high school cafeteria feel. They stopped serving at midnight, and by the time we arrived at 11:45 pm the choice was either roast beef or ham. I chose roast beef. The sandwich could have been better, but I got the feeling that had I arrived at a more reasonable hour, it would have been. My friend declared her cherry pie first rate, although I'm not sure it was worth it to have to hear that fucking Warrant song over and over again after everyone started getting drunk. The draft selection was impressive (Bass! Fat Tire! Yay!), and the piano at one end of the room cranked out a strange mixture of requests, mostly golden hits of the 70s. If there was a place like Lefty's around the corner from me, I would be there all the time.
When I was a teenager, there was nothing cooler than going up to San Francisco for the weekend with a friend's punk band. Everyone always hung out at Blondie's Pizza. Maybe because it's by the streetcar lines, but probably because it was cheap and there is a basement downstairs where they don't mind if you get a little rowdy.
While I waited for my friends to meet me, I sat in the basement dining room next to a group of teenaged kids. Soon another group of teenagers sat across from them and they eyed each other until finally someone spoke up, "Hey, I know you!"
"I don't think so."
"Yeah. I do."
"Yeah. last week I was on the bus, and there was some crazy motherfucker on the bus and he was punchin' everybody."
The accused sat and stared at his slice while everyone stared at him to see if he would admit to punching people on the bus.
Finally he broke the silence, "I must'a been HIGH."
Then we all turned back to our slices.
The secret of Blondie's pizza is much the same as Krispy Kreme. Take whatever slice just came out of the oven. Wait for the next pizza if you have to. Fresh out of the oven, the crust is warm and soft, like homemade bread. The cheese melts into long strings and the pepperoni is super spicy. After just 10 minutes out of the oven, the pizza is mediocre at best. They also offer acceptable chicken and salads. Drink refills are 50-cents and the bathroom costs a quarter.
Our selection of the Jazz Bistro for dinner was based on proximity to the hotel and the quality of the music being played. Red flags went up for a few of my dining partners, particularly the dirty restrooms, so there was some disagreement. But I was tired of walking and loved the music. It wasn't a BAD meal, per se, and the service was excellent. The first glass of wine my friend was given had turned, but they cheerfully exchanged it and were more than gracious when we spilled a glass of water all over the table. The food was just dull. It was good enough. The chicken and fish were properly cooked, and the ravioli was good, but the potatoes were cold. It just really, really reminded us of banquet food. It was wedding reception food. I would go back for drinks and jazz, but only after eating steaks at John's across the street first.
Millenium 580 Geary St. SF 94102 (415) 345-3900
Taqueria El Sol 595 Geary St. SF 94102 (415) 441-0405
Tommy's Joynt 1101 Geary Blvd. SF 94109 (415) 775-4216
Tommy's Restaurant (415) 387-4747
Out the Door Westfield Mall food court 845 Market St.
Lefty O' Doul's 333 Geary Street SF 94102 (415) 982-8900
Blondie's Pizza 63 Powell Street SF 94102 (415) 982-6168
Jazz Bistro 44 Ellis Street SF 94102 (415) 397-5397