Thursday, December 6, 2012

Mayonnaise - The Elvis of American Gastronomy


The question was a fair one.  And it scored for my inquisitor a hit, a very palpable hit.  Did I, wondered chef-friend and colleague, Charles H., on a very recent day at work, spend my leisure time walking around my house in my underwear, listening to Elvis, scratching my ass, while eating mayonnaise straight from the jar?  Everyone within earshot of the question suddenly froze.  It was if Sergio Leone had just shouted “action” in a crowded kitchen, a word which cinephiles and fans of the great Italian director know means, in Leone land, exactly the opposite.  All activity in that kitchen of mine came to a screeching halt.  Cooks on the plating line stopped what they were doing.  Waiters stood in place.  Everyone with a knife swallowed and twitched, looking nervously between Chef H. and me, the likely combatants in this dust up, to see who might draw first.  That this particular question regarding my off-hour habits referenced both mayonnaise and Elvis Presley, coupled with the fact that the question was loudly posited over the din of a fiendishly frenetic kitchen by a two-hundred-fifty pound black man from the mean streets of inner-city Philadelphia; a man who, depending on the angle and light, could easily pass as the older love child of Mike Tyson and Chuck D. (Chef H., too, shaves his head for added menace), clearly set the occupants of that kitchen on edge, preparing them for sudden violence, readying them for blood.  But anyone who has spent time in busy kitchens knows the words fuck you (or their many variations) is often (though not always) a disguised expression of genuine love and admiration for a fellow culinarian with whom you have just emerged from that service-industry shit storm know as the weeds. 

By fucking with me in front of our entire staff, by calling public attention to the stark, even profound, differences in our origins and antecedents (his being dodging bullets and crack dealers; mine being a white farm boy’s pedigree from rural Missouri), Chef H. was expressing admiration for the way our two respective houses, front and back, were working together, and just how beautifully we, he and I—despite our obvious differences—could rock over 600 entrees in just under thirteen blazing, white-hot minutes of pure culinary rush.  We were, the question had decided, brothers in arms.
But just because Chef H.’s question had been fair, just because it had been a sublimated way to express happiness for the way we were dominating the culinary challenges laid before us, didn’t mean that he wasn’t fucking with me.  Fucking with me he most assuredly was (in the I’m-hugging-you-while-hitting-you way friends will take the piss out of one another), and in front of nearly one hundred cooks and waiters.  A comeback was required of me.  A retort.  A rejoinder.  A verbal parry to his thrust.  So answer this very pubic white glove across my cheek I must.  My first impulse was, I confess, to defend my love of all things Elvis.  The adoration I hold in my leaky little pump of a heart for Elvis Aron Presley, in all his incarnations, from skinny Hillbilly Cat to Elvis the Fat, transcendent and inglorious alike, is legendary among my friends (I wear the same obscure, Mississippi-made pomade in my hair, for instance, and lavish my own walls with deeply-non-ironic Elvis-on-Velvet portraiture) and my Elvis man-crush has long made me an object of ridicule and source for speculation for what is clearly (to the Freudians in my peer group) a form of homo-erotic hero worship.  But the prospect of decrying (or defending) the latter-day virtues of a bloated, jump-suit-wearing, pill-popping, Cadillac-driving piece of Tupelo white trash seemed, in that moment, somehow less important than defending the reputation of the single ingredient I consider central to the still-vital, still-unique gastronomic identity of the American South, and the one ingredient most important, in my opinion, to the continued evolution of everyday American cooking.

It’s mayonnaise, yo, and it’s as important to American home eating as Elvis is to American popular culture and music.  It’s the love in your sandwich; it’s the ice in your drink, and just like Elvis, it’s everywhere, man.  Its staggering ubiquity, its near omnipresence, renders it nearly invisible to most American eaters.  People simply aren’t aware when they’re eating it, unless the dose be too heavy.  There remain, today, but three really good mid-scale, widely distributed (kinda, sorta) purveyors across the American South who are making the stuff far, far better than any of their Yankee brethren are up North.

I know what you’re thinking.  Mayonnaise is the foodstuff mouth-breathers.  Gastronomic knuckle-draggers.  Culinary close-talkers.  American eaters whose hillbilly palates could not detect any difference between, say, a really good sabayon and the white stuff they pipe into a Suzy-Q if the life of their riding lawnmowers depended upon it.  But nothing could be more heterodox to the truth.  To have food historians tell it, mayonnaise comes from Spain—not from the trailer parks of Mississippi or Missouri, thank you very much—from the town of Mahon on the island of Menorca in the neighborhood of 1756, mas o menos.  The Spanish called it mahonesa, but our name for the stuff is derived (or so it’s thought) from moyeu, the Old French word for egg yolk.  Whatever its etymology, wherever it’s place of birth, I call mayonnaise the defining American food ingredient that has elevated (with the discovery of Vitamin D in the early-1920s and advent of large-scale poultry farming, but that’s another story), the protein, starch, and vegetable sources of work-a-day people of the American Southeast from their base ingredient status to that exalted heights of being deviled, and of matriculating to the supreme status of being called a sa-a-lad (in the three-syllable manner of a Charleston church lady).

Mayonnaise is what cooks call an emulsion.  In technical terms, it forms when one ingredient with a “monolithic” molecular arrangement (that’s Harold McGee’s term, yo) is shattered by beating another incompatible ingredient into it that contains a fat compound (think oil and water).  The molecular composition of this emulsifier lowers the surface tension and allows droplets to form a creamy emulsion (again, on a molecular level, so if you beat a teaspoon of oil into mayonnaise, you’ll create roughly 30 billion droplets, ibid).  Mayonnaise is simply an emulsion of these oil droplets suspended in an amalgam of egg yolk, lemon juice, and water.  As an emulsion, it’s packed with oil droplets; nearly 80% of its volume is oil (ibid).  At its inception, mayonnaise was made in tiny batches inside home kitchens as a flavor agent and fat source for the culinary elite.  But the early part of the 20th century saw mayonnaise being mass-produced for the po-boys and egg salad sandwiches of the average Crescent City laborer.  Mayonnaise added fat, depth of flavor, and, well, moisture to the hitherto arid interiors of the southern lunch pail.  And suddenly it was everywhere across the South.  Hero of the potluck.  Rock star of the church social.  Mayonnaise was put on everything, in everything, and just like that, the tyranny of the dry sandwich was over.  Southern cuisine was forever changed.  Miraculously, a few of those early producers are still with us—three by my count—and their contributions to southern culture (well beyond just the gastronomic realm, I say) remain as revolutionary to the everyday eating of southerners as does the musical insurgency launched from 706 Union Street by that swivel-hipped kid with the long sideburns and predilection for gold lame.   

Blue Plate.  It’s the quintessence of New Orleans sandwich making.  A po-boy without it out would be unthinkable.  A heresy.  A crime against all that is good in the world.  Beyond delicious, Blue Plate Mayonnaise is emblematic of the city is has come to represent.  Having arrived in 1927 the Crescent City as a carpetbagger from up North (the culinary offspring of one Mrs. Schlorer of Philadelphia), Blue Plate has endured its share of travail over the years.  Its narrative seems to beg for accompaniment from an old Bessie Smith tune played on a tone-deaf piano.  Times were good for Blue Plate in 1929, when they ramped up production in a warehouse in Gretna, Louisiana.  Better still was 1941, when Blue Plate moved across the Mississippi to mid-city New Orleans.  But in 1960, Hunt-Wesson Foods of California acquired Blue Plate and it’s southern soul suddenly seemed put at hazard.  Things looked grim.  Soon salvation arrived in the form of one William B. Reilly, southern gentleman to all, who acquired Blue Plate as part of his family’s much-beloved Luzianne food line, and Blue Plate came home to Louisiana, where it remains today.  (Weirdly, though:  Lee Harvey Oswald worked there the summer before he gunned down JFK.)  I order mine by the four-pack, from Amazon, and rejoice every time a box appears on my doorstep, with a taste of NOLA secreted inside.  My neighbors think I’m insane. 

JFG.  That’s what this mayonnaise is called.  JFG.  A cynic would have you believe the name of this mayonnaise was created by that same marketing wunderkind who dreamed up the name Product 19 to describe that oh-so-delicious breakfast cereal of the 1970s.  But no.  JFG is named for James Franklin Goodson, who founded a coffee company in 1882, and who started making mayonnaise in 1919.  JFG is made in Knoxville, Tennessee, and for that reason alone you should buy it.  It tastes like Knoxville.  It’s the mayonnaise of a Tennessee river town deep in Appalachia, and it’s the closest thing to Miracle Whip a real mayonnaise will ever—successfully—come (due to the sugar).  Amazon also pimps JFG as well, so between shipments of Blue Plate, I’m buying this stuff by the case.  Don’t tell my neighbors.  They already think I’m nuts.

Duke’s.  The gold standard.  The best mayonnaise I have yet tasted straight from the jar.  It’s certainly the “eggiest” of this trio, and it’s total absence of sugar somehow makes Duke’s—for this eater, at least—the most “southern” mayonnaise of them all.  Discovering Duke’s is like hearing “Baby Let’s Play House” for the first time.  It’s like having the Sun Sessions all up inside your mouth because its flavor profile is so unmistakably and deeply southern.  First created in the home kitchen of Mrs. Eugenia Duke in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1917, as a condiment for the sandwiches she served the doughboys stationed at nearby For Sevier, the stuff is still made in Greenville, now under the corporate tutelage of the C.F. Sauer Company (headquartered in Richmond, Virginia), who make a damned fine mayonnaise in their own rite.  Open my fridge on any day of the week, and there is a jar of Duke’s smiling back at you like some golden ray of hope.

I know you can make a better mayonnaise at home.  I do.  I also know you can make a better cupcake than what Tasty Cake sells.  And I know you can source better fruit than what’s contained inside a can of Libby’s Fruit Cocktail.  But sometimes better is not the point.  Sometimes better means accepting a product or ingredient on its own terms—why it exists, from whence, and for whom.  I am convinced, in my heart of hearts, that a simple jar of mayonnaise represented—to generations of southern cooks—a harbinger that life was getting better, even easier, insofar as their emulsified fat now came premade in a glass jar, and that to apply the contents of that jar to a mound of chopped protein or slice of day-old-bread, was to improve that ingredient, exponentially, with a single, simple pass of the butter knife.

I spoke none of this to Chef H.  I bit my tongue and let the insult stand.  I let my waiters, my cooks, take me for a punk.  But I will have my revenge.  You know I will.  It will come on Christmas.  In Chef H.’s stocking will be a jar of southern mayonnaise and a CD:  50,000 Fans Can’t Be Wrong.  And if he’s not careful, if he decides to cross over to the dark side and walk a mile in this Missouri farm boy’s shoes, it just might be Chef H. who finds himself walking around his own house at midnight, listening to the Hillbilly Cat croon, spooning mayonnaise straight from the jar.
     


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Business of Building a Better Burrito - Pedro and Vinny's - Arlington



We’ll call it the van Gogh effect:  if commerce is anathema to the artist, then the artist without money is anathema to himself.  Toxic.  Even deadly.  Vincent van Gogh sold but one painting in his lifetime, The Red Vineyard near Arles, and the combined enormity of his artistic obscurity and financial penury—it’s widely believed—compelled an already-troubled van Gogh, at a still-wet-behind-the-ears 37, to walk to a sunny wheat field and forever stop his own heart with a bullet fired from a pretty blue gun.  The same effect is true for the restaurant business.  No matter how many Michelin stars, Beard awards, or appearances on Top Chef, no matter how impassioned or earnest a chef’s attempts to revolutionize gastronomy and forever change the way we eat, if a restaurant fails to be busy, fails to consistently turn tables one-and-a-half times a night and burn through a hundred-or-so covers, day in, day out, the restaurant is inevitably shuttered, and the chef’s vision, however grand or noble, is doomed by the cruel and irrefutable truth that nowhere outside the restaurant business is it ever truer that numbers never, ever fail to tell you the truth. 


To the uninitiated, the calculus of restaurant math must surely read like some mathematical Gordian knot of tangents, differentials, and functions.  But it’s not.  Restaurant math is simple.  It’s easy.  The math can be expressed in a single word:  margins.  To operate in the pink, a restaurant’s margins must be three times greater than its cost on everything.  What are those costs, exactly?  A restaurant’s financial pie is typically portioned like this:  30% food and wine cost, 30% labor, 20% is everything else, including rent, leaving—in the very best of times—just 20% profit for owners and operators.  Ideally, a restaurant’s monthly rent should not exceed what it grosses on its slowest day.  In haute cuisine, a restaurateur has several ways of making his margins.  While he takes a beating on the veal chop you just ordered (he’s lucky if he’s broken even), he’ll recoup his losses on the protein, the napkins and table lines (among the many things he can’t directly charge you for), through the Chardonnay-by-the-glass you’ve ordered (marked up four times its cost) and the crème brulee (which costs him virtually nothing) with which you finish your meal.  Ten percent profit at these margins makes him a success story.  Twenty percent gives him the biggest swinging dick in town.

But how, then, does the restaurateur who sells no alcohol, no appetizers, no cheese course, no dessert, possibly navigate the turbulent waters of financial solvency and stay afloat?  How does a purveyor of street food possibly sell something as calorically massive and protein-dense as a burrito and still make his margins? 

He gets creative.  He opens and operates the remarkable Pedro and Vinny’s in a double-wide trailer, a veritable white trash special, retrofitted with industrial cooking space, refrigeration, and a glassed-in customer waiting area (evocative of the American front porch) that stands, proudly, less than a mile from the Pentagon building itself, along the quickly-gentrifying Columbia Pike corridor of Arlington, Virginia, and he sells one thing, and one thing only:  burritos.

And sells lots of them.

For me, the burrito occupies that liminal culinary space of middle distance between all that’s astonishingly good about Mexican cuisine (that it would come from Guanajuanto as the penultimate people’s food, there called the taco de harina), and all that’s bad following the there’s-smallpox-in-the-blankets contact with Anglo agents of culinary armageddon like Taco Bell.  The burrito is stoner food:  always filling, rarely anything special.  But let’s not blame the burrito for not trying hard enough.  It’s ungainly.  A clumsy food.  It throws like a girl and has two left feet.  And its failure lies in that typical over-pleaser’s overreach of trying to be everything to all people all of the time.  The typical burrito is a veritable riot of competing tastes, textures, and culinary interests, wrapped in the straightjacket of a flour tortilla, and forced to fight it out for dominance in the flavor profile.  The burrito is a gastronomic Lord of the Flies.  Beans.  Rice.  Steak or chicken.  Tomatoes.  Avocadoes.  Corn.  Cheese.  Sour cream.  In there, inside that tortilla, within that very non-Mexican dairy product, there are no survivors.  It’s a Jim Morrison biography and Shakespearean bloodbath rolled into one—no one there is getting out alive.  It’s a culinary equation whose value is often less than the sum of its parts.  And it’s the only time a burrito is ever really a good idea—when, as They Might Be Giants will testify, the statue got you high, dude.


Except here.  Except at Pedro and Vinny’s.  Here the burrito begs clear-minded consumption.  Here the burrito transcends the middle-brow aspirations of its flour tortilla brethren and becomes something truly remarkable deserving of daily use.  Richard (pictured left) is the owner/operator of Pedro and Vinny’s, and what he has done is truly remarkable.  He has found two ways to make his margins.  Each is risky.  Each is highly creative.  First, he’s decided to slash overhead by operating in a parking lot, out of a ramshackle double-wide, in one of the most hyper-inflated and rapidly up-and-coming commercial real estate markets in suburban Washington.  Second, he’s decided to manage food cost by eliminating food waste in offering a menu made of a single item—the burrito—and a very finite compliment of accompaniments.  It’s a ballsy restaurant model to say the least.  It bets the ranch that his burritos are good enough to sustain an entire culinary enterprise.  Lucky for Richard (and you and me), the burritos really and truly are exceptionally good.  Oh sure, Richard offers a “bowl” option for the khaki wearers of the world, and the word salad does, in fact, appear above the plating line, but burritos is really all Pedro and Vinny’s serves and all you should really ever eat. 


To enter Pedro and Vinny’s is to undertake the architecture to your own immediate culinary destiny.  You are asked to choose from one of four tortillas (herbed and tomato-heavy varieties augment the “white” flour standard) and whether or not cheese will adorn that tabula rasa of culinary possibility.  Then you are asked to choose a protein from a trio of usual suspects:  beef, chicken and pork (there is a vegetarian option as well, though I suspect its inclusion is intended to placate the local chapter of PETA).  I go with steak.  With the foundation laid, it’s on to the expo line for adornment and architectural detail.  I ask Richard for everything and am given black beans, avocado, pico, sour cream…you get the idea.  It’s the everything-and-the-kitchen sink approach to gastronomy.  All that’s missing here, I think, is a hookah full of Humbolt County, Calfornia’s, most celebrated export, and a poster of the Red Hot Chili Peppers taped to the wall.  But the next question I’m asked assuages all doubts, and I know that I have, in Richard, a true collaborator and kindred spirit:  how hot do I want my burrito?  That’s the question, how hot, on a scale of one to ten.  I consider the question and quickly find my answer.  Kill me, I say.  Richard smiles, then administers four—count ‘em, four—pepper sauces from a series of unmarked bottles whose combined arsenal of Scoville heat units could, I fear, blister parts of me where, as they say, the sun don’t shine.  So I pay, find a seat on a parking lot picnic table, and prepare, best I can, to be repaid my hot-sauce hubris by being destroyed, as it were, from the inside out.


But no.  This burrito is different.  It’s like no burrito I’ve ever encountered before.  It’s…it’s…it’s…balanced.  Flavors are layered.  They work singularly and together, like some weird burrito hippie commune, where the avocado is always giving the skirt steak a back rub.  But there’s more to it.  Sure, its flavor points are dancing together like the cast of Hair, and sure, it’s spicy enough to have made me sweat, profusely, while sitting outside on a brisk November day, but there’s an element to the burrito that is, in every way, novel and divine.  So I cut it in half and eviscerate the fat bastard.  I gut it and go in for a look.  And immediately I have my answer:  there’s a dice of cucumber in my burrito, fucking cucumber.  It’s madness.  It’s also a masterstroke.  What’s achieved is texture—crunch—and a slight bitterness to act as ballast against the mighty tug of sweet dairy, not to mention the water content needed to blunt the infernal blaze of pepper sauce.


It’s a small thing, putting those cucumbers in my burrito.  Some might even call it a heresy.  But I call it genius, because it tells me that Richard is paying attention to the small things.  Genius because a restaurant is, after all, all about the small things, and how all those small things add up.  The restaurant game is a game of inches.  I’ve done the math, and I don’t know how it was possible for Richard to make much money (if any) on what he served me.  But he’s been doing fine this year, he tells me.  Business is good, and getting better every day.  He says he’s pleased by the yuppie filing cabinet of luxury high-rise apartments (my words) built directly behind him, pleased by the nearby high-end grocery store, pleased by the yoga studio newly built but a stone’s throw from his back door.  He thinks the new influx of chai-mocha-latte-sipping yuppies and their concentration of relative wealth will bring him and his burrito shop prosperity in the coming year.  But I don’t share Richard’s optimism.  Richard doesn’t know white people the way I do (being a white person myself).  White people drive Volkswagens.  They listen to the Dave Mathews Band.  They shop at the Gap.  And they will likely find Pedro and Vinny’s a not-so-charming eyesore of dubious culinary merit consuming commercial square footage that could otherwise be occupied by a Starbucks or Smoothie King.  But Richard has one significant talisman in his gastronomic pocket to combat the corruptive forces of gentrification:  he has the best burrito in town.  Richard also knows a thing or two about Volkswagen-driving, Gap-loving, latte-sipping, Dave-Mathews-listening white people that I have failed to consider:  they smoke weed.  They get stoned.  And when stoned, white people buy burritos.  Enough burritos to make his margins.

Go to Pedro and Vinny's.  Eat one for me.  Just remember:  I like mine hot.

Your link:  Pedro & Vinny's

  

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Time On His Side - Al's Steak House - Del Ray


The idea is as old as Western intellectualism itself.  It’s not a culinary truth, exactly, but something far, far more elemental and kindred to us all.  From Heraclitus’s pre-Socratic slice of epistemological bummer pie of determinism, to Edward I’s very non-shag-o-delic 13th century concept of just deserts [sic], to that more recent, and no-less-famous supposition posited by Mick and Keith in their 1969 masterpiece, Let It Bleed, the message is always the same:  you can’t always get what you want, but you just might find you get what you need.

Al’s Steak House.  It wasn’t what I wanted (or thought I wanted), but it was exactly what I needed.

How we crossed paths, this old sandwich joint and I, can only be chalked up to the issuance of some decree by a far-flung cosmological court adjudicating justice from somewhere out there, behind the sun, and ordering confinement and correction for my own universal crime of suddenly becoming (without my fully being aware of it) what modernity has made of so many Washington-area men:  the all-American douchebag.  Here I was, on this very recent and particularly glorious, golden autumnal midday, frantically rushing around—from bank to Costco to post office—like some lunatic whose hair had been set on fire, when really I should have been riverside along the Potomac, sunbathing in a folding chair, book in hand, with Prokofiev on my playlist, and a hint of bourbon on my breath.  But no.  Not here.  Not in Washington.  A pause to look inward is deeply discouraged in this place.  And repose is something the city’s killing pace will abide.  Nor, this day, would I fucking chillax.  I moved from errand to errand like a man unhinged.  I ran stop signs getting to the dry cleaners.  I sighed loudly and rolled my eyes when made to wait too long in line at the bank.  By midday, however, the morning’s coffee and straight feed of pure, unadulterated adrenaline had started to eat away at me; they were hollowing me out.  I needed food.  And fast.  So I hit the gas and careened into the nearest food-dense neighborhood, which, as luck would have it, was the hamlet of Del Ray, that self-consciously charming pocket of Alexandria that the hipsters will (for now) allow you to believe time has forgotten.  But the hipsters have overlooked something; the march of time has left us Al’s Steak House as some non-ironic relic of a bygone era meant to chide modernity for its silly culinary ways, and to teach self-absorbed motherfuckers like me that life is not a race, that whatever mission I’m on is hardly of lasting consequence to the greater good, and maybe, just maybe I’m not all that important; maybe my “industry connections” are meaningless; maybe, just maybe I’ll have to wait (and wait) for my fucking sandwich just like everyone else.

Opened in 1955 by its namesake and proprietor, Al’s Steak House was sold, in 1965, to a former-employee and then-neighborhood local boy named John Severson.  John is also the very man who took my lunch order last week.  He looked up at me from his place behind the cash register, amid the busy, busy lunch rush, the sizzle and heat of flat-top grill jamming out the food, and asked me, serenely and Buddha-like, not what I wanted, but how I was.  How was I?   Was this a joke?  In truth, I was starving, foul-tempered, and in one monster of a fucking hurry.  But I didn’t say that.  Instead, I used the word fine, and asked Mr. Severson how he was.  Nicely.  Mr. Severson paused.  He considered.  The man was twenty-dupes deep into a lunch rush and he was thinking.  He thought some more.  A little tired, he told me, and his feet hurt.  More thought followed by a furtive smile.  Then the only question I’d been waiting for:  what did I want to eat?  Despite the name, Al’s Steak House is not the dimly lit, red-velvet parlor where cows give up their body parts to diners tucked neatly behind heavy menus in deep leather booths.  Rather, Al’s is a sandwich shop that nods to Philadelphia with its walk-up counter and four Carter-era tables for seating.  Trophies adorn a south wall above a picture of Arnold Palmer.  On the north wall hang framed 8 X 10s of celebrity patrons.  Glen Campbell is there.  As is Bill Clinton, Oprah, and Branford Marsalis.  I told Mr. Severson I wanted a medium mushroom steak sandwich.  And I tried to imply with clipped tones and a willingness to pre-pay that I was in hurry, like big time.  But no.  Mr. Severson waved my debit card away and suggested I have a look around at the celebrity photos as my sandwich was being made.  Have a look around?  Nearly each and every inch of the roughly two hundred square feet of “dining” space was choked with tables, chairs, trash cans, and people—lots of people—either eating or waiting to eat.  The act of standing in one spot without repeated bodily contact with another patron was nothing short of impossible.  We bumped into each other.  We stepped on one another’s toes.  So I stood still as I could and waited.  And waited.  Arms at my side.  Eyes on the photograph of Arnold Palmer.  The strange woman in front of me talking to herself.  I grew increasingly impatient.  All of the food coming off the grill seemed destined for call-ahead and take-out patrons only.  They breezed in, breezed out with boxes of food, not a care in the world.  But not us.  We fools and knaves who had actually ordered in person, at the counter, never seemed to get our food; our order was never up.  Minutes went by, one after the other after the other, but the line never moved.  So I started to get angry.  Not just impatient; I was becoming indignant.  I was convinced I had discovered the one real and true embodiment of everything that was wrong with the world.  I had—I thought—chanced across the one, last food purveyor in the area who had failed to get the fucking memo that I (the singular pronoun is, alas, a parade of self-importance, is it not) am always in a hurry and that my food had better be hot and ready to go lest you incur my wrath for keeping me too long from my appointed rounds. 

And just like the characters in Jean Paul Satre’s dramatic masterpiece, No Exit, we in that room were repaid for our speculations of how much longer we’d have to wait by—yes—having to wait some more.  And more and more and more.  And as I waited, as the minutes ticked away, something strange began to happen inside me.  I passed through anger, through rage, and came out on the curiously calm side of considering the absurdity of my situation.  I could leave, I thought, with no contract or bond to hold me here other than a sandwich order given to an old man.  Beyond that, however, was soon the idea, posited by the late, great David Foster Wallace in his quietly monumental This Is Water, which suggests the power to see through, and transcend, such ridiculous anxiety-inducing situations like, well, standing in line, require empathy for agent of supposed “slowness” (the grocery-store checker, in Wallace’s case, and Mr. Severson in mine) whereby one considers a litany of possible reasons why, just why, something—thoughts of cancer, of child support—is gumming up the works.

So I did not walk out on my sandwich.  I didn’t sigh.  I didn’t yell.  I did what David Foster Wallace would want me to do:  I tried very, very hard to be patient, to wait my turn, and see what culinary reward would come of my virtue.  So I relaxed.  I let go.  I handed myself over to the culinary gods to see what would me my fate.

I soon—or not so soon—got an answer.

Twenty-three minutes.  Twenty-three.  That’s how long it took the two grill cooks of Al’s Steakhouse to produce my single 9’’ sub (all—count ‘em—six ingredients of it), wrap it in white butcher’s paper, and drop it, unceremoniously, on Mr. Severson’s counter.

So I paid and escaped to my car, where I unwrapped the sandwich, took a bite, and promptly proceeded to burn—nay, scorch—the top of my mouth with melted cheese.  But once I got beyond the flash of cheesy napalm, I tasted something deeply, even profoundly delicious.  The sandwich was incredibly good.  But wait!  Was it a trick of the brain?  Was my delight in the sandwich simply the product of being starved for twenty-three minutes while happily contended diners around me gnashed away at their sandwiches?  So I took another bite, and another, and with each swallow, with each shot of beef juice dribbling down my chin, the verdict remained unchanged:  Mr. Severson’s sandwich was almost too good to be believed.  It was hot, moist, and deeply, deeply good.  It was everything I had wanted in a hot sub, and, more importantly, everything I ever needed a sandwich to be.

What this mushroom steak sandwich was, in point of fact, was not a Philadelphia Cheesesteak, as the restaurant bills its own fare, but a steak-and-cheese, for the fact the onions were not cooked with (and folded into upon cooking) the sandwich meat on the flattop.  Nor was it Cheez Whiz that adorned the grilled-onion and canned-mushroom topping, but a melted variety of cheesefood (which successfully approximated cheddar) that magically fused meat, onion, and mushroom into a sandwich whose sum, flavor-wise, is far, far greater than it’s industrial food complex parts.  The seemingly small, even inconsequential fact (call it culinary hair-splitting, or foodie wank-speak), that what Mr. Severson produces is a steak-and-cheese is a small, but significant delineation for a Washington, D.C. population of progressive eaters forever trying to leave its own culinary mark on global gastronomy beyond what the “half-smokes” of Ben’s Chili Bowl have already well-contributed.  The sandwiches of John Severson and his rag-tag crew at Al’s Steak House are just that important.  After all, it only stands to reason, does it not, that a restaurant still packed with patrons after fifty-seven years of continuous operation just might be worth waiting the paltry twenty-minutes required (this day) to procure one of their truly remarkable sandwiches.  Call it a pilgrim’s progress, then.  Call it me trying to stand in line like everybody else.  Lesson learned.  And yes, Mr. Severson, you are the man.

Al’s Steak House is open Monday-Friday, 10:00 am to 8:00 pm and Saturday, 10:00 am to 7:00 pm.  Closed Sunday.






Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Eating at the Crossroads of Salvation and Soul - Horace and Dickie's


The restaurant world is not, we all know, a meritocracy, where hard work and culinary excellence is always rewarded with riches and praise, and where gastronomic charlatanism is met with a swift serrated knife across the throat.  Rather, the restaurant world of today appears to operate under the governance of a loose and gin-soaked confederacy of a few, well-placed taste makers and trend setters, who, in another time and place, would have been relegated to the marginal indigency of eeking out a living as pickpockets, snake oil salesmen, and tubercular side-show carnies, but who, instead, lucked into the gilded age of Rachael Ray and Guy Fieri, where culinary mediocrity is championed, and where celebrity—not the quiet, dignified, gastronomic greatness of Jacques Pepin or Charlie Trotter—is prized above all else.  Better to have a string of middlebrow (if incredibly busy) sandwich places or tapas joints (and that much-coveted cookbook deal and guest spot on Today) than a single (if maybe not-always-so-busy) flagship restaurant located in an inner-city back alley, whose daily attempts to redefine cuisine as we know it (not to mention trying to reimage the very experience of eating in a restaurant) draws comparisons with the early passions of a chair-throwing Marco Pierre White, or better, elicits rare and reverent silences from industry professionals who make the business of cooking and serving food the stuff of their daily lives. 

The apparent triumph of culinary mediocrity is more insidious than that.  It’s more odious than having celebrity chefs pimp overpriced pizza or hawk their anemic take on a bowl of ramen (as the proto-Asian component of their branding efforts demand, no less) to a seemingly lobotomized legion of slack-jawed eaters who will line-up fifty deep to clap like seals over the dubious pleasure of seeing a former Top Chef contender make a fucking taco.  The triumph of culinary mediocrity is made truly sinister by the fact they have somehow managed to change how we (that’s you and me, boy-o) now talk about food.  They’ve won because they’ve hijacked the entire discussion; for the last few years, those of us in the industry (as well as the media and eating public riding the bench on the near periphery) have been obsessed (I, for one, will cop to the charge) with debating, ad nauseam and in infinitum, the implications of celebrity on cuisine, on eating, on its impact on the industry as a whole, when, really, we should have just been talking about food all along.  Food. Where it comes from.  How it’s cooked.  How it tastes.  Nothing less.  Nothing more.  Food.  The fact that I, for one, would Tweet (and joyously so) about the theft of Guy Fieri’s Lamborghini at the hands of a wannabe-murderous seventeen year old, for example, makes me complicit in the whole shell game of food celebrity.  I’m the problem.  It’s not Guy Fieri, folks.  It’s me.  Christopher Freeman.  Wringing my hands over the likely fact that none of the Food Network “chefs” could produce, on command, and under pain of death, a halfway decent béchamel or béarnaise, is a greater sin, I believe, than Guy Fieri, looking like a bloated Cory Feldman (is there any other kind?), driving around, aimlessly, in a stupid red car, pretending to like everyone he meets, and everything he eats, duuude. 

My own (admittedly) myopic fixation on the culinary transgressions perpetrated the Food Network’s moronic inferno (stand up and be counted Sandra; you, too, Bobby boy) has done the food world (the few out there, like you, who abide to suffer my vitriol on the subject) a disservice; I’ve done it bad, I’ve done it wrong. 

But how to atone?

Lucky for me, benediction in the food world is a no-brainer.  I knew what I had to do.

I went to church.  I went on a Sunday as every sinner seeking redemption must.  But this was not just any church, mind you.  This house of worship, located in Washington, D.C.’s once deeply-troubled neighborhood of lower North East, sits squarely that fabled and proverbial culinary crossroads miraculously devoid of all restaurant-scene pretension and foodie-speak bullshit, and is operated by men and women of gastronomy’s purest faith, those cooks who wake, daily, with no other design in their hearts than to bring the most delicious, most affordable food for whomsoever should require nourishment (albeit the deep-fried variety) that acts—instantly, upon first swallow, and as deeply as the taking of Communion—as salve and salvation for the troubled soul.  It’s at the root of why they call it soul food, yo.

Horace and Dickie’s stands, as it has since 1990, as temple and shrine of culinary redemption for eaters just like me hungry for reprieve (however brief) from the ego-driven lunacy of the restaurant world.  Horace and Dickie’s is tiny, sure, and carry-out only, and has been burglar-proofed with the iron bars bolted across all its windows, but it’s also redolent of fresh-fried seafood; it’s patronized by some of the loveliest people in all D.C., and the joint is as effortlessly cool as Lester Young’s own porkpie hat.    


I arrived on a sunny mid-morning just as area churches were letting out.  The men and women crowding the walk-up counter in front of me were dressed in their Sunday best (suits and sunbonnets) and were as charitable to me (the lone white guy among them) as parishioners welcoming a new congregant into the fold.  I smiled and ordered:  the fish sandwich and three sides.  Collard greens.  Slaw.  Macaroni and cheese.  What I received was a Styrofoam clamshell in which two slices of white sandwich bread (perfect facsimiles of Wonder) had been topped with four enormous fresh-from-the-fryer (of which they have three) fillets of incredible-smelling fish.  Can I please get an amen?

I paid and sat on the lone bench in front of Horace and Dickie’s and ate (for a time) with a plastic fork, and when that fork failed me (by breaking in two under the enormous heft of my lunch, no less), I ate caveman style, with my bare hands, licking fry oil and melted cheese off my fingers for all the world to see.  The fish was, in a word, divine:  imagine whiting (likely some truly delicate variety of Atlantic cod) tossed in a light corn meal, then deep fried three-to-four minutes to that moist, flaky perfection of golden “friedness” to which we home cooks and Louis Jordan aspirants try (and often fail) on our own Saturday night fish fries.  The sides were equally surprising:  both the mac-and-cheese and cole slaw were clearly made in-house, and tasted as if they had come straight out of your grandmother’s kitchen.  The greens, while obviously canned (Horace and Dickie’s does not contain the culinary square footage required to accommodate cooking bushels of greens), did contain enough bacon fat to successfully flirt with being, well, good.

And while the sides were each, in of themselves, minor masterpieces in comfort food, it was the fish I returned to again and again, bite after bite taking me back to the Southern fried fish of my Missouri boyhood, where chefs were then known simply as cooks, and where the very success of their cuisine was measured not in Beard awards or how brightly the stars of their celebrity might shine, but simply on how the food tasted, how it enriched the body, how it enlived the mind, and how it restored the eater, overall, for having eaten it.  Horace and Dickie’s is such a place.  It’s a return to a time and place where eating was an act of affirmation of a shared and collective culinary culture, an act of restoration for the body, for the soul. 

Eating food like that purveyed at Horace and Dickie’s makes better people of its eaters for the experience of standing in line with perfect strangers just back from church and ordering the food of a culture very different than your own demands of that eater a level of humility, cultural open-mindedness, even gastronomic supplication, that can’t help but produce the kind of generosity of spirit that’s good for people and even better for the wider waking world.  Is there better fried fish to be had other than the truly delicious stuff coming out the kitchen of Horace and Dickie’s?  Likely, yes.  But that’s not the point.  The point here, friend-o, is that there are some restaurants that demand your patronage for the pure and simple fact that they’re still here.  Horace and Dickie’s is in the white-hot center of Northeast D.C.’s “H” Street corridor gentrification project, and it’s being threatened by that non-native and highly invasive species of urban jackass known as the hipster.  Horace and Dickie’s is surrounded by them—they’re fucking everywhere—and they bring with them sky-high rents and a cultural white noise that simply kills culinary sanctuaries like Horace and Dickie’s.

So go, now, before it’s too late, before the fuckheads in the white belts and the skinny jeans win the day.  Go before they turn Horace and Dickie’s into a Starbucks or a place to buy yoga mats and fruit smoothies.  Go and order the fish, eat the fried chicken, and eat on the park bench out front, because if you do, I promise you this:  you will eat really cheap, really good soul food produced in a glorious little restaurant where no one, and I mean no one, will ever bother you with the Beard Awards or make mention of Guy fucking Fieri.  You have my word on that.

Your link to Horace and Dickie's:  Home

Reader's Note:  And you know that after all the smack I've talked about the Food Network, were they ever to call, I'd gladly buy a red car, dye my hair blonde, stock up on Ed Hardy shirts, and start throwing fake gang signs at anyone who would give me the time of day.  Cuz that's how we roll, yo.






Thursday, August 16, 2012

Eating San Francisco - 72 Hours in the City by the Bay

San Francisco.  I can’t say I wasn’t warned.  Cautionary tales abound in travel writing and in song.  And they all tell the same story: that of an unsuspecting traveler who visits San Francisco for the first time, only to end up falling deeply, madly love with the place, never wanting to go home.  I am no exception.  I visited San Francisco for the first time last week with intentions no grander than to run all 26.2 miles of the San Francisco marathon, and run them well.  Maybe I would eat.  Maybe I would drink.  But running an 8-minute mile for most of the race was all I had on my dance ticket.  Simple enough, right?  What happened instead was a break-neck 72-hour gastronomic thrill ride through what is easily North America’s best town for eating.  Call it the culinary love child of Seattle and New York, vibrant and vital, yet awash in drugs and urban filth.  Call it a two-fisted drinking town that looks eastward to Europe for its morning beer, before looking westward, to Asia, for its lunch and dinnertime gastronomic cues, for its frenetic pace, for the way it sprawls across its hills and around its bay.  Ride a city bus long enough and you’ll witness violence (good old fashioned fisticuffs, in my case) and be offered all manner of vice, from discount blow, to the strangely discounted blowjob (I can only imagine what manner of sexual thrill those six dollars would have bought me).  But you’ll also see things, hear things, smell things that are truly exotic to everyday American life points east and north of the bay.  San Francisco looks like nowhere else; it tastes like nowhere else.  It’s a culinary Brigadoon begotten in one of the most beautiful cities in the Western hemisphere.  My love for San Francisco, for its food, its people, was instant and unlike anything I’ve ever felt for an American city (with possible exception of my immortal beloved, New Orleans, but that story is for another day).  Seventy-two nearly sleepless hours in San Francisco was hardly time to sufficiently express for my ardor for the city, but it was time enough to fall forever in love.  Just nine meals in three days (there was a marathon in there, after all) and I knew with utter certainty that I’d finally found my favorite city in which to eat.  And eat is exactly what I did. 

DAY ONE

Breakfast – Chipotle – Washington Dulles Airport (IAD)

I know what you’re thinking:  only a certified douchebag and culinary poser would embark on a gastronomic tour of the greatest restaurant town in America by eating breakfast in a fucking airport Chipotle.  No doubt you regard such an affront to all that is good and sacred in the food world as tantamount to standing at Robert Johnson’s culinary crossroads and making the absolutely wrong deal with the food devil.  I don’t blame you.  Really I don’t.  But before I lose what little street cred I have left, please understand why I would buy three perfectly edible (dare I say delicious?) barbacoa tacos (they’re cooked sous vide, yo) at Chipotle:  because I fucking could.  Because it was 6:30 in the morning.  Because I was hungover.  Because I was in an airport at sunrise and tacos were being served.  Hallelujah.  Tell me you wouldn’t do the same.  Be honest.  Tell me.  You know you would.  That’s what I thought.  Enough said.  On to San Francisco.  

Lunch – Cordon Bleu – Nob Hill, San Francisco

I chose this quirky little Vietnamese eatery for everything that it wasn’t.  It wasn’t Chinese, of course.  It wasn’t expensive.  It was most certainly not crowded.  Cordon Bleu couldn’t possibly be so.  It’s tiny.  More lunch counter than Asian diner, it seats roughly eight on swivel stools around an elbow-shaped counter of deeply worn Formica and offers a delightfully limited menu of protein (chicken, pork, and beef are your options), starch (white rice or meat-filled imperial roll), and vegetables (shredded raw cabbage, in my case).  All the real cooking at Cordon Bleu is done upstairs in someone’s apartment and brought down, as needed, to be held at temperature on the tiny range (as the rice and meat sauce were), or held (not at temperature) in a metal hotel pan beneath the counter or on the floor (as was the parboiled chicken).  But anyone who knows me at all well knows my attitudes toward immigrant home cooks and their third-world food-handling practices, and that those practices, however dicey-looking, will never, ever dissuade me from eating what’s offered me, and that only in the rarest, most freak-of-nature cases would a home-cooked meal distress the eater or remand him to freckling the home bowl.  That nineteen-year-old wake-and-bake line cook at TGI McFucksters will gladly poison you (jalapeno poppers, anyone?), but not immigrant cooks like this.  No way.  So I ordered what was advertised on the marquis outside; I ordered the 5-spice-rub chicken, a parboiled version of which was taken from under the counter by the lone proprietor and cook, rubbed with spice, and charred over open grill flame.  I was soon served perfectly carbonized chicken (half the bird, mind you), white rice, and cabbage slaw, all of which was topped was a strange “meat sauce,” which resembled a Vietnamese take on Campbell’s tomato soup avec an irregular, if ubiquitous, mince of mystery meat.  It was good, even epic, a truly staggering amount of food.  It was food befitting longshoreman and firefighters, the kind of lunch you’d want under your belt before embarking on a long, cold-water swim to Alcatraz.  It was also utterly delicious, and it spoke well of San Francisco that a place like Cordon Bleu would be allowed to exist at all, let alone well able to proffer some truly tasty fare.  Onward and upward, Cordon Bleu.  Your chicken is divine.  Cash only.

Link:  Cordon Bleu - San Francisco Restaurant - MenuPages Vietnamese Restaurant Search



Dinner – Bocce Cafe– North Beach/Telegraph Hill    

Dinner was a no-brainer.  It was decided for me the moment I decided to run the San Francisco marathon, all 26.2 miles of it, that my dinner before the race had to be pasta (runners jones for glucose around mile 17 the way junkies jones for smack, yo).  But in a culinary world rife with barely-mediocre Italian red-sauce joints, the question was whose pasta to eat.  As with most decisions in my life, I decided just to wing it and hope for the best.  So I took the city bus through Chinatown to the glorious (and crowded) neighborhood of North Beach, where really, really good Italian-American food can be had at any number spaghetti houses.  I chose Bocce for no other reason than I didn’t have to wait for a table; there was one for the taking and I took it.  Call it Kismet.  So I entered.  I sat.  I drank beer.  I felt good.  Bocce is, after all, kind of nice.  One might say it’s even pleasant.  Think wood tones and very non-sucky dinner jazz.  It’s secluded insofar as you leave the street and walk a short (and enclosed) distance to find Bocce and all that awaits you inside.  But let’s be clear about this:  our friends at Bocce are not trying to reinvent the gastronomic wheel.  Their menu is a veritable greatest hits playlist of Italian-American cuisine.  What Neal Diamond is to rock, Bocce is to Italian food.  No surprises there lurk, but it’s pleasant once you get into it, even fun.  Clearly Bocce’s approach is to offer food that is familiar (and good) to a public that wants, well, familiar and good.  What I went for, let the record show, was both:  I ordered the cioppino, a fish stew, and easily the city of San Francisco’s most celebrated dish.  Brought from Old World kitchens by Portuguese and Italian fisherman, who settled North Beach in the late-1800s, cioppino has amassed a cult-like following.  To order cioppino in San Francisco is like asking Tony Bennett to sing “I Left My Heart In…”  You get the idea.  It’s a culinary chest bump.  A way of saying, “hit me with your best shot.”  So Bocce did.  They brought me cioppino in a light tomato/wine sauce with a side of linguini, and the stew contained every manner of oceanic protein any marathoner would ever require:  crab, shrimp, calamari, clams, mussels, and salmon, all stewed in a tomato-and-wine based broth perfectly balanced between brininess and acidity.  It was delicious.  And I don’t mean merely good.  I mean Bocce’s cioppino was the kind of delicious wherein the eater grows hungrier the more he eats.  I remember being social, even chatty with my tablemates before my food arrived.  But half way into my bowl of fish stew, I had stopped talking.  Nearing the bottom of my bowl, were you yet inclined to watch me dismantle my meal, you would have heard nothing from me but primal grunting and the click of my teeth against empty shells.  I was fed, body and soul, and deeply satisfied in the reptilian part of my brain.  But more importantly than being merely satisfied, I was ready for the next morning's run.

Link:  http://www.boccecafe.com/

DAY TWO

Breakfast – Hotel Mayflower – Nob Hill

The ugly and twisted little truth about the gastronomic proclivities of long distance runners is this:  we don’t eat much before a race, and what we eat can hardly be called food.  What you see pictured left represents my paltry, even dismal, pre-race meal.  The hard-boiled eggs delivered protein and fat; the orange juice tweaked my blood sugar and nicely quelled those ubiquitous pre-marathon jitters.  As for the Gu Energy Gel, I hardly know what to say other than guilty as charged.  It’s not food.  But it is a magical elixir of sugar, amino acids, electrolytes, and caffeine conjoined in a gag-inducing pharmacological paste.  My flavor of choice:  Espresso Love.  And while it’s far from delicious, it’s something that runners consume like crack before and during a race.  It works.  It’s fuel for the fire, and it makes us faster.  And as every runner knows:  the faster you run, the faster you reach the post-race beer tent.  The beer served at the WiPro Marathon is not the seven ounces of weaker-than-water Michelob Ultra-Light swill served in D.C. race tents.  Oh no.  Not here.  In San Francisco, runners are rewarded with pints of Sierra Nevada Torpedo, Porter, and Pale Ale.  We drank four before ten o’clock in the morning because that’s what runners do after a race.  It’s why we run.  For the beer.  So the secret’s out.  Now you know.

Lunch – Golden Boy Pizza – North Beach/Telegraph Hill

Carbohydrates.  The race might have been over, and while my head might have been full of beer, my body was still screaming for sugar.  Pizza, greasy, protein-dense pizza, I knew, was the quickest path to feeling fully restored.  So I returned the Italian-heavy restaurant scene of North Beach and scored three slices (pictured left) at Golden Boy Pizza, then three more (of a very different style) slices at Tony’s Coal Fired Pizza and Slice House.  Competitive running does that to you.  It makes you a glutton.  So I took my pizza and repaired to the gloriously sunny, grassy knoll of the cathedral-like Saints Peter and Paul Church to tie into my slices and really chow down.  The good folks at Golden Boy offer a California-style square slice, in that the pizza is as much about the bread as it is the almost focaccia-like crust.  And when you’re in San Francisco, why not make it all about the bread.  But for my money and East Coast tastes, I’ll take the pizza offered by Tony’s any day.  Each slice Tony’s pizza was the kind of big, sloppy, glorious mess you’d find anywhere in New York’s Times Square, the holy land of truly thin crust, whose sole purpose is to deliver, with only minimal triangular interference, the greasy goodness of pizza cheese and essential toppings.  Tony’s Coal Fired Pizza did that for me.   It acted as dietary ballast and my physiological equilibrium was soon back on track.  And so was my thirst.  I looked at my watch.  Just what I thought:  time for libation, a potent potable, a stiff one, for in San Francisco, more than anyplace I’ve ever been, it’s always, always beer-thirty.

Link:  Golden Boy Pizza Home Page

Link:  Tony's Pizza Napoletana | San Francisco

Drinks – Toronado Pub – The Lower Haight   

You have to look no further than the miraculous Toronado Pub for proof positive that San Francisco is a two-fisted drinking town where midday drinking is not only tolerated, but, for many, a way of life.  I took the 6 bus.  Part bombed out punk-rock dive bar, part sacrosanct shrine where beer nerds worship before tap upon tap of the West Coast’s finest craft beers, the Toronado is the apotheosis of all that is right in the drinking world, a perfect collision of cultural zeitgeists both low and high, where drinking really rare craft beer in the middle of a summer afternoon is somehow made to feel like an act of subversion, and as if you’ve found a way to really stick it to the man.  I drank two pints total at the Toronado:  one pint of the Allagash White Ale (delightful), and one pint of the Death and Taxes Black Beer by Moonlight Brewing (even more so).  I played two songs on the no-Grateful Dead-allowed jukebox.  One song by Waylon Jennings; the other by his son, Shooter Jennings.  And no Grateful Dead.  The Toronado Pub is, surely and without question, one of the best bars in America.  It’s led by one of the best barman in America, our bartender that afternoon, and the incomparable don’t-bullshit-me, don’t-waste-my-fucking-time, know-what-you-want-before-you-order Tad (last name unknown), the high-priest of go-fuck-yourself craft beer authorities in the lower forty-eight.  If you drink anywhere in San Francisco, the Toronado it must be.  Go.  Drink.  Listen to music.  Be nice to Tad.  And bring cash.  It’s all they take.  You’ll thank me.  You know you will.

Link:  Toronado Pub, San Francisco

Dinner – House of Nanking – Chinatown

Like any food adventurer worth his salt, I always consult local wisdom when making a culinary choice as important as where to eat dinner in a new city, especially when that city is as gastronomically important as San Francisco.  So I asked every Bay area resident I could corner.  Where, dude, where?  One after another, they offered up the same name:  House of Nanking.  That was a problem.  For while I might delight in Chinese food, I am famously adverse to the corn-starched, MSG supercharged charms, as they are, of Chinese American restaurants.  My native San Francisco sources remained insistent:  House of Nanking, and then they would smile.  Why so?  I visited Nanking to find out why.  What I found was a line out the restaurant twenty deep.  I loathe restaurant lines and resolved to pull my ripcord and bail on the joint.  But this line of intrepid eaters was not your usual gathered tribe of slack-jawed tourists in Mom jeans and khakis.  All appeared to be locals; some were even—gasp—hipsters.  So we waited, my friends and I.  And waited.  And waited.  Every now and again, a scowling middle-aged Chinese lady would burst out of the restaurant and choose which patrons would be next.  The line, we quickly saw, was not so much a progression as a really good way to keep waiting patrons from blocking the sidewalk.  After thirty minutes, we were chosen to sit.  We followed the scowling, middle-aged woman through the crowded dining room to a long, bench-like family-style table.  We sat.  It was loud, very.  Our waiter appeared.  He was sweating and scowling.  He appeared…angry.  We attempted to order, but he shook his head, took our menus, and scowled some more.  You ordered two beef dishes, he said.  Not allowed.  We are famous for the chicken.  I bring you the chicken.  You have that instead.  We were astonished, even nonplussed.  No where in our collective dining experiences had our dietary wishes been trumped by those of a fucking waiter.  We would eat what they brought us.  Simple enough.  All we could do was laugh.  For now I suddenly understood why everyone who insisted I try House Nanking had smiled after making the recommendation:  the restaurant was Chinese food as performance art, a Cantonese riff on Seinfeld’s own “Soup Nazi” episode, hostility made hilarious by its own naked aggression.  I loved every minute of the performance, the highlight being when we were given our check and asked to pay just midway through our entrée course, which, alas, made it difficult to concentrate on the food (or now conjure its recollection).  Suffice it to say, the food of Nanking was decent, even flirting, at times, with kinda delicious in the precise way the General Tsou’s Chicken on the Whole Foods hot bar so nicely scratches that I-need-bad-Chinese-food itch that flares up in all of us all too rarely.  Perhaps not rarely enough, however, for the scowling hostess of Nanking.  Another blow-by Nanking on the way back to the hotel, hours later, saw her still at it, shrieking at patrons lined up like soldiers, evidently happy to stand in line.

Link:  House of Nanking Chinese Restaurant 南京小馆 - San Francisco, CA

DAY THREE

Breakfast – La Boulange Bakery – Russian Hill

The plan was not to eat breakfast.  The plan was to starve ourselves and go crazy at lunch.  But we were hollowed out by the previous night’s drinking, and hung over on Nanking’s heavy dosing of MSG.  So we decided to breakfast on something light, on fare familiar to us, food unchallenging in every way.  A glorious morning walk through Russian Hill produced the equally delightful La Boulange Bakery, a low-key Bay area chain that manages to achieve Franco rustic without being too cute by half.  The bakery (in that early morning light) felt actually, well, kinda French and perfectly unchain-like.  The menu offered hot breakfast items and the bakery case boasted all manner of baked goods, but what caught my attention were the sandwiches.  I went with a perennial favorite:  prosciutto with arugula, Swiss cheese, and Dijon mustard on olive roll, all for $3.50.  But what made an already delicious sandwich experience special was the fact that La Boulange offers a free compliment of Occidental sides (arranged by themselves on a wall-hugging side table).  Fava beans.  Olives.  Cornichon.  They’re all there.  So what turned out to be a very reasonably priced breakfast turned out to be the best breakfast deal in all of San Francisco.  That much salt for breakfast, that much flavor, all for $3.50, and I was ready, body and mind, heart and soul, for what was about to happen to us.  And what might that have been?  In a word:  lunch.

Link:  La Boulange Bakery

Lunch – Swan Oyster Depot – Nob Hill

This is why I travel.  This is why I eat.  To find a place like this.  The restaurant of my dreams.  A place so absolutely perfect, so absolutely fucking good, that it makes me want to quit the food business and the business of writing about food altogether, because there's nothing more, or better, I can contribute, nothing more I can say.  Just walk away from it all, and leave it to the people who do it better than anyone else.  San Francisco has such a place.  It’s called the Swan Oyster Depot, and it’s easily the best of its kind in America.  So what kind of restaurant is it?  It’s twenty old-fashioned swivel stools strung along a narrow hallway and set against a marble diner counter, where you sit, simply enough, and eat some of the best seafood of your life.  It’s that simple.  There is no cooking.  There is just shucking.  And laughing.  And eating shellfish.  And drinking beer.  It’s also you thinking to yourself:  so this is what it feels like to be really and truly arrive.  It’s also to arrive at ten o’clock in the morning (with breakfast still in your teeth) and find yourself and your best friend nineteenth and twentieth in line for a restaurant that holds exactly twenty (or so, but who’s counting) at a time.  It’s also to be seated at exactly 10:30AM and have a frosty pint of Anchor Steam staring you in the face.  A basket of bread comes next.  Then comes the seafood:  a large cocktail glass stuffed with every conceivable variety of shellfish and seafood on the menu that morning (the Combination Cocktail, it’s called), followed by a dozen (in six amazing varieties) of the best oysters you’ll ever put in your mouth.  And just like that, gastronomic Nirvana is achieved on a culinary transaction as simple as cold beer and raw oysters eaten with your bare hands.  Swan Oyster Depot is, for this eater, at least, a slice of true culinary heaven, and one place you must, must go.  Cash only.  And go early.    



Dinner – Andale Mexican Restaurant – San Francisco International (SFO)

So where does the culinary explorer dine after one of the most glorious, most sublime eating experiences of his adult life?  He goes to the airport.  He eats tacos.  Then he flies home, precisely in that order.  But this is still San Francisco we’re talking about, and even in its most remote and transitory of outposts, the food is still really fucking good.  To bookend the trip, (and to atone for my transgression with Chipotle) I decided I must eat tacos.  But unlike Washington’s IAD airport, or any other American airport I've yet visited, San Francisco’s SFO boasted the really good Andale Mexican Bar and Restaurant, which felt like a real walk-up taco stand, airport be damned, and which served me three really good cooked-to-order tacos carnitas.  I sat by two pilots and ate.  All flavors represented (pig, cilantro, onion, lime) were fresh and vibrant.  In any place in America, these tacos would demand respect.  In an airport, they were nothing short of divine.  So with airport food this good, I was suddenly (even deeply) sad to have to leave what is clearly the best food town in America.  San Francisco is, without question, my new favorite place to be.  And like so many other travelers before me, I did indeed leave my heart in San Francisco.  But I left it for a reason.  For I now have excuse to return to the city by the bay and get it back. 

Link:  Andalé Mexican Restaurant. Always Fresh. Always Andalé.


Postscript - The Hotel Mayflower

Every successful expedition, culinary and otherwise, needs a good base camp.  Mine was this:  the Hotel Mayflower.  Built in the 1920s and last redecorated just after the crew of Dirty Harry wrapped up shooting, she’s still a gem of an old hotel.  She is what a San Francisco hotel should be:  formerly glamorous, now a bit down at the heels, a place where you could imagine Chet Baker holed up with an ounce of brown heroin, a hooker, and his beautiful golden horn.  It’s run by a lovely Irish lady, and it’s packed with budget-minded Europeans.  It feels European on foggy mornings.  I loved it.  And it’s where I’ll stay on my return.  

Link:  HOTEL MAYFLOWER, San Francisco