CHEAP EATS Hedgehog and me are on the road again. Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone Park, and the Mission lie ahead — by mere days! — and shrinking in the rearview mirror are both our families, several old priced-out-of-SF pals, 10 big states, four or five completely different kinds of barbecue, and many, many baseball games. Including big league ones, a minor league one, a semi-pro one, and a little league all-star game.
The American pastime, you will be happy to know, is alive and well on the other side of the bay. At PNC Park in Pittsburgh, for example, there are Polish Hill dogs, which are hot dogs with pierogi on them.
Earlier today, in a desperate attempt to be healthy, we both ordered grilled tilapia at a little family restaurant in Chenoa, Illinois. Make note, in case you are ever out Chenoa-way: “grilled,” in Chenoese, means breaded and fried.
You know me: I love these kinds of curveballs. But Hedgehog, who is still smoldering from the ears over a grilled pork chop disguised as a fried ham steak that occurred to her in Georgia three years ago, was less amused.
She has antiquated notions about the things she eats. She wants them to be what they are. That’s why I was surprised a couple nights ago in Youngstown, Ohio, my hometown, when she wanted to go to C. Staples barbecue.
The last time we were in Youngstown, a year ago or so, I took Hedgehog to C. Staples so she could experience the barbecue I lost my barbecue virginity to, which (and I warned her) isn’t barbecue so much as fried chicken slathered in a tangy, gritty sauce and served on white bread.
As I recall, she wasn’t amused.
So why did she insist on a do-over this year, on our way to the ballpark (Connecticut Tigers 5, Mahoning Valley Scrappers 4)? And why was C. Staples’ unbarbecued barbecue so freaking delicious this go-round?
I don’t have an answer.
And Youngstown was not the biggest barbecued revelation of our last thousand miles. That would be Pittsburgh, where, before the game, Moonpie and her man took us to Union Pig and Chicken. There, the truly smoked chickens and ribs and ohmigod the pork shoulder rocked my little world harder than it’s been rocked in a long time — by barbecue anyway. The brisket was only so-so, but that’s OK, cow being merely a special guest at Pig and Chicken.
San Francisco Giants 6, Pittsburgh Pirates 5.
We tend to root root root for the home team, so that game was kind of confusing for us. Not so Cleveland, where the Indians spanked the Tampa Bay Devil Rays 7-3. We met Kiz and her man beforehand at Hodge’s — a place fancy enough to bring out amuse bouches and unfancy enough for the amuse bouches to be tater tots. Crème fraiche for dipping.
There were lobster corn dogs with banana ketchup too, but that’s neither here nor there. Well, it’s there.
Here, we have the wonderfully fluorescent and blue collar Vientiane Cafe, on Allendale in East Oakland — which may as well be Des Moines to most City dwellers, I realize. But that’s OK. Go stand in line at San Tung.
We first discovered Vientiane last fall during our desperate search for a replacement for San Tung’s dry fried chicken wings. Angel wings, Vientiane calls them, and they come crispy and piled up on the plate, all second joints — which, as it happens, is both of our favorite joints, mini-drumstick be damned. Speaking for myself, I just like sticking my tongue between those two little bones, and getting the goods.
That joint reminds me of eating crawfish and crabs, and some other things. Vientiane’s dark, sticky sauce, according to Hedgehog, tasted like it belonged on Cracker Jacks.
Berwick 8, Danville 7.
Besides these angelic cracker jack wings, I love the papaya salad, which is almost too spicy and fish saucy, even for me. The menu has probably a hundred Lao, Thai, and Vietnamese dishes, and I hope to eventually try all of them. New favorite restaurant!
3801 Allendale Ave., Oakl.