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At Cowgirlpalooza, I ate four bowls of gumbo. I’m not bragging, just setting a scene a scene featuring the smell of gumbo and the flavor of gumbo, with heart-shaped corn bread and phallic biscuits that were possibly supposed to resemble guitars or banjos or drumsticks but, uh, didn’t. The patio at El Rio, early evening, Outer Mission, lemon trees, blue sky, the chill of oncoming fog, Denise Funiami, five or six twangy bands, and the sticky syncopation of flip-flops on the dance floor …
Every time I made eye contact with Denise, whom I personally consider the queen of San Francisco’s country music scene (although she was conspicuously absent from the stage that day), she would raise her eyebrows questioningly. I would look at the current bowl of gumbo in my left hand, look back at her, and hold up however many fingers. When I got to three, she cursed me loudly, over a sea of cowboy hats, and she cursed my whole family with our hollow legs.
I get bored with drinking. And broke with drinking. There was a $10 cover charge. My family doesn’t have hollow legs so much as empty pockets. This is Gastro-Economy 101: $5 for a beer, and the gumbo’s free. What, are you kidding me?
As usual, I was the soberest person in the place. Afterward I staggered home like everyone else and opened my refrigerator door, like everyone else, and stood there stuffed, with my eyes half open, in a sort of a swoon. Was everyone else looking at what I was looking at? Do you keep a jar of salsa from Papalote Mexican Grill in your fridge? Do you treat it with respect and reverence? Turn to it for solace and support in times of need, boredom … loneliness? I’m talking about the stuff with roasted tomatoes and pumpkin seeds in it.
If you came into a kitchen in a house in the middle of the night and saw me licking this San Francisco delicacy off a stick of celery (in lieu of tortilla chips), my eyes glazed and my lips on fire, my hardly hollow legs already weak with gumbo … I don’t know if you would fall in love with me or not, but you would almost certainly invite me out to eat sometime.
Everybody wants to eat with me. I’m not bragging just exaggerating. A lot of people want to eat with me. Even vegans, and that’s a journalistic fact. A dude I’ve known for years but have hardly ever eaten with (so for all I know he might be magic) says, in an e-mail, "I would love to make you a salad."
Bam, crash, boom: I’m seduced. No matter which way I take the simple sentiment, I am so there. I love salad and would love to be salad.
Someone else has a new favorite Korean restaurant, ohmigod, the Kim Chee, or a barbecue joint, and they want me in on it. And I want in on it! I’m the luckiest little chicken farmer chick alive, and don’t think I don’t know that. Miraculously, given my two-year campaign to destroy my credibility as a critic, if not a human being, by declaring every single place I eat my new favorite restaurant, people still think I know shit.
Or they want me to. Or something.
Truth is, philosophical fine points aside, as well as semantic silliness (but no way am I giving up hyperbole, so don’t ask), there are certain things at certain restaurants, yes, that I dream about and drool over and want to marry and couldn’t live without. Flavors, textures, smells, memories, fucking feelings that can call out to me even after a burrito or four bowls of gumbo and bring me to my knees. I’m talking about my favorite favorites, if you will, for real and in no particular order. I love each and every one of these dishes more than madly. I love them beyond numbers, alphabets, art, or laws of gravity and with all my hollow heart, until death do us part and then some.
SMOKY MOUNTAIN WINGS AT MEMPHIS MINNIE’S
There’s this thing in folk music or blues, right, or … I don’t know where it comes from originally, but you have to have heard at least one take on it: "When I die, don’t bury me at all/ Just pickle my bones in alcohol/ Put bottles of whiskey at my head and feet/ And then I know that I will keep."
My song substitutes butter for alcohol, of course, but in real life, between me and you, I would prefer to be preserved in barbecue sauce. I just couldn’t think of anything that rhymes with it.
Since Cliff’s closed, my go-to rib joint has been Memphis Minnie’s in San Francisco, only I don’t get no ribs. And surprise I don’t much care for any of the three kinds of sauce they keep on the tables either. If you mix the so-so vinegar-based one with the so-so tomato-based one, that’ll put you somewhere between North Carolina and Texas, or in other words, Birmingham, Ala., which has fine barbecue, but Christ, Flint’s is just over the bridge in Oakland. If you want ribs or brisket, go to Flint’s.
But if you want chicken wings, and I, for one, do, Memphis Minnie’s not only has you covered, it’s got you covered in the best barbecue sauce I know of right now. It’s sticky, a little bit sweet, and a lot hot, and why it ain’t in bottles on the tables with the so-so ones is for better minds than mine to figure out.
You have to order the Smoky Mountain Wings if you want that particular sauce. If you don’t want the wings, get them anyway and lick and suck them dry. Chicken is hit or miss at barbecue joints, I know. But two out of every three times, you do want the wings. They’re smoked and fried, for crying out loud on the starters menu for $5.75. Order them twice, if you must, or once, with a side of my favorite slaw (no mayo!) and a big glass of sweet tea.
Who the hell else serves sweet tea around here? That in itself would make Memphis Minnie’s one of my favorite favorite restaurants. The Smoky Mountain flap-flaps just seal the deal. And the tart and tangy slaw sweetens or sours it.
576 Haight, SF. (415) 864-7675, www.memphisminnies.com
MARINATED RAW BEEF AT LE CHEVAL
Now, I’ve been carrying on for years about fried barbecued chicken, or barbecued fried chicken (which is the order I do it in). But actually, my all-time favorite favorite way to cook meat is not to cook it, not even once.
I’m thinking specifically about that raw beef salad you sometimes find at Vietnamese restaurants. At Le Cheval, which is just a great place, period (although not undiscovered), the bò tái chanh ($9) will make you fly out of your seat and zip willy-rip-snort all over the place’s considerable atmosphere like a blown-up-and-let-go balloon. I’m speaking figuratively. Although, if you’re a vegetarian, you might in fact have visions.
Otherwise, expect to be instantly hooked and almost explosively happy when your teeth and tongue hit this thin-sliced, lemon-drenched meat, with 1) cilantro, 2) mint, 3) ginger, and 4) onions. I mean, come on. It’s almost not fair to stack the deck like that. These are, if not the essential elements of our universe, the exact ingredients that make it wacky and wonderful and that cause the people in it to have to sing. Cilantro, mint, ginger, onions, lemons.
Not to mention peanuts and sesame. (I was afraid if I put them all in the same paragraph I might lose my readership.) And not to mention the meat itself, which kind of half seviches and half stays pink, and in any case is wholly succulent and tender.
If they put a bò tái chanh stand at either end of the Golden Gate Bridge, you would never again have to hear or think about the words suicide barrier in connection with the span. I’m convinced of that.
1007 Clay, Oakl. (510) 763-8495, www.lecheval.com
CURRY GOAT ROTI AT PENNY’S CARIBBEAN CAFE
I’m also, of course, a clown. The first time I ate at Penny’s Caribbean Cafe in Berkeley, I was moved to go out to the van and get my steel drum and come back in and serenade the chef and the server and the proprietor, in fact the only person in the place, Penny.
Since then I have been back at least 30 times with at least 30 different people. My mission: to single-handedly or double-handedly or in any case greasy-handedly keep this place in business. Because I’m afraid it’s too good to be true, like those dreams in which your dearly departed loved ones are alive again, in the yard, pecking corn and laying eggs.
I’ll say it: curry goat roti ($8) is my favorite favorite thing to eat, and Penny’s is my favorite favorite restaurant. And Penny is one of those rare people, like Fran of the late Ann’s Cafe, whom I love even beyond her capacity to cook. If bò tái chanh literally did contain all the most fun pieces of the universe, Penny might be the universe itself. I just want to hug her, to disappear into her floury apron and kitchen smells, then decide for myself whether or not to come back.
Know what I mean?
Then maybe you should give this place a try. It’s a dive, in the divine sense: it has two or three tables, and it’s not always exactly all the way clean, or quick (she makes everything to order). Neither efficient nor organized, Penny’s is not a well-oiled machine. But you will be after your roti, which you eat with your hands, like Ethiopian food.
Just so you know, West Indian roti is nothing like East Indian roti. It’s a soft, layered dough with chickpeas crumbled into it and enough flavor to start or stop wars, even before the curry goat touches it. You can also get curry chicken, jerked chicken, or just vegetables. That’s chickpeas, potatoes, and sometimes maybe some other things, like spinach. With or without your meat, it’s ridiculously, eyes-rolling-back-in-the-headedly delicious.
But get the meat. The goat. Trust me on this. Goat is actually smoother and subtler tasting than lamb, if you’re worried about it. In which case you must not have ever had it.
2836 Sacramento, Berk. (510) 486-1202
BEEF LARB AT MANORA’S THAI
Here’s a dish, larb, that I had and had and had about a million times, on the East Coast and on this one, not to mention most points in between, since even small towns in Kansas have Thai restaurants now. Why I ordered larb so many times, considering that I never once liked it, is a big fat mystery, even to me. Theories include: 1) it’s just an irresistibly funny word, and 2) maybe I knew, deep down inside (where all the weird, oniony dream images hang), that one day I would find Manora’s Thai Restaurant in San Francisco.
Manora’s is my favorite Thai place now. It looks like it’s going to cost you, because the atmosphere is nice, as in fancy-framed pictures, cloth tablecloths, candles, flowers, chandeliers, and a waitstaff who all have good posture.
But don’t be scared off. The food is great, and it’s really not any more expensive than anywhere else just nicer. Larb, basically a meat salad, goes for $7.50. However, whereas most places make their larb with ground or minced beef (or chicken or sometimes duck), Manora’s uses chunks of grilled steak. It’s got juice to it, even pinkness, sometimes even redness, and you know how I feel about all that.
Also: lemon, mint, and hot pepper, hoorah, but the distinctive flavor is roasted ground rice. And I think maybe most places overroast the rice or overrice the roast, just to mess with me. The bastards! If you haven’t tried larb, don’t not until you can try it at Manora’s.
And if you know of another place that uses grilled, not ground, meat in this dish take me there.
1600 Folsom, SF. (415) 861-6224, www.manorathai.com
LONGANISA AT JUST FOR YOU
My favorite favorite breakfast place is still Just for You. I love the beignets. I love the cornmeal pancakes. I love the chili scramble over corn bread. I love, love, love the Hangtown fry (oysters and bacon together I rest my case)…. But the thing that I dream about and wake up craving, of course, is longanisa.
That’s those Filipino sausages I affectionately (and foolishly) refer to as sausage donuts. They have nothing to do with dough. They’re just meat. They’re sausages, only absurdly and sweetly and greasily delicious. Like donuts.
Because they are sweet and pork and therefore good for you, they make a perfect, perfectly healthy breakfast sausage. Why don’t more places have them on the menu? I blame the chicken and apple industries. Not even all Filipino restaurants serve longanisa.
Just for You is not a Filipino restaurant. It’s a New Orleansy, Southern-style joint with some Mexican touches. For going above and beyond the call of duty to bring me longanisa, Just for You will always be for me.
732 22nd St., SF. (415) 647-3033, www.justforyoucafe.com
CARNE ASADA BURRITO AT PAPALOTE
Everyone, no matter where they live, has to have a favorite breakfast place. If you live in San Francisco, you have to have a favorite burrito place too. This is a burden. For years, for me, it was easy: Taqueria Can-Cún. Then I finally tired of its on-again, off-again carne asada, its stale chips …
For the next few years I didn’t have a favorite taquería and was so embarrassed that I moved to Sonoma County.
Well, I’m back in the city, for now, and so I had to have a favorite taquería again. Right? No-brainer: Papalote! I resisted it for a long time, because it looked so fancy-pants and hipsterish. But then I got over all my snobby prejudices and gave the place half a chance.
Holy shit, the salsa! Last time I tasted such an earth-shaking, mind-blowing, eye-watering condiment, it was the green bread-dip Peruvian potion at Rincon Peruano in 1996. Papalote’s salsa, served with actually warm, fresh tortilla chips, is roasted Romabased, flourished by cilantro and hot, hot peppers, and the secret ingredient is pumpkin seeds.
You can bring a jar and fill it up to bring home, but what the hell, you may as well suck down a carne asada burrito ($5.49) while you’re there. I’m not sure I can forgive Papalote for not having lard in its beans, but the meat is grilled to order, not sitting in a bin, and that makes a huge difference.
Then too, they could be rolling up dog food with leftover fried rice and hospital cafeteria beans in a stale, store-bought tortilla, and, drenched in my favorite favorite salsa in the history of the whole wide world, ever, it would still be the best burrito in town. I swear.
3409 24th St., SF. (415) 970-8815
DUCK NOODLE SOUP AT CHINA LIGHT RESTAURANT
Sorry to take you out of town for this one, but get in the car. We’re going to Santa Rosa. And I’m not shuttling you to no wine country froufrou, chichi chateau either. We’re eating at one of the scariest- and sorriest-looking Chinese dives in one of the bluest-collarest parts of a pretty dumb-ass town: China Light Restaurant, where warehouse workers and truck mechanics break for lunch.
I was pretty much zombied into this place, initially, against even my better judgment, by the irresistible allure of a dish called oil-dripped chicken. It was the most appetizing sounding of seven $4.35 lunch specials.
Five, six, seven visits later, and I still haven’t tasted this sure-to-be-spectacular specialty. I was permanently derailed by a sheet of plain white paper under the glass on the table casually mentioning, among other things (but don’t ask me what else), duck noodle soup ($6.15).
I looked up from those three simple promises with tears of hunger forming in the corners of my eyes and a drop of drool on my lip. I remember there was an old guy wearing rubber boots slowly sloshing from the kitchen, across the dining room, to the parking lot in a manner I would describe, retrospeculatively, as plumberesque.
Don’t fret! Get back in the car! Get back in the car! I have saved the best for last, I promise.
Now, I know there is no shortage of duck noodle soup right here in the city. If anyone wanted me to, I would very, very (very, very, very) happily do another one of those detailed investigative reports on just duck soup. A lot of Thai restaurants and noodle houses have it, and it almost always floors me. In a good way.
In the best possible way.
I just love duck noodle soup, and right now my favorite favorite example of it is an hour away. It’s Chinese, not Thai. It’s like a whole half of a roasted duck, bones and skin and all, chopped up on a bed of thick noodles and bok choy in a dark, rich broth. But you can’t even see any of this other stuff for the meat, and by the time you get to it, you are pretty much full and silly and slippery and just juiced.
China Light’s duck noodle soup makes me crazy and makes me do crazy things like right now, in my mind, in my hollow, insatiable head, I am driving a little tiny car full of every single one of my readers, even vegans, all the way to Santa fucking Rosa. For dinner. Tonight.
Close your eyes.
80 College, Santa Rosa. (707) 527-0558
L.E. Leone is a Bay Area writer and musician and the author of The Meaning of Lunch and Eat This, San Francisco. Her next collection of stories, Big Bend, is forthcoming from Sparkle Street Books. She writes the weekly Cheap Eats column in the Guardian.