Food & Drink

The gadget diarist


As a confirmed gadgeteer, I naturally feel a pang of genuine sorrow and sometimes real inconvenience when a kitchen gadget expires. Most such instruments die lingering rather than sudden deaths, of course; they become inefficient or unwieldy or caked with gunk. Or, as in the case of the fancy, French-made digital scale I acquired midway through the Clinton years, a naughty deus enters the machina, causing it to give jittery and therefore useless data. This is the mechanical equivalent of dementia, uncorrectable by a fresh battery, and so the device now sits on a remote stretch of counter, daring me to throw it away.

My little spice mill, on the other hand, died unexpectedly earlier in this winter of cold rain and mortality. It was born as a Braun coffee mill, one of those upright cylinders whose top you press down to make the blade whir, and it served without complaint through two decades of grinding fennel seeds, whole dried Anaheim chiles, and countless teaspoons of cumin and coriander. Later it was joined by a Bosch cylinder I reserved for the grinding of nuts. And then, one day, around Valentine’s Day, I cleaned the Braun, pushed the top and nothing happened. I couldn’t even turn the blade manually. So now it too sits there like a dead tooth, daring me to take action.

There is no ready substitute I am aware of for a kitchen scale gone haywire, but when an electric spice grinder fails, there are "work-arounds," if I may briefly borrow a Rummyism. There is the mortar and pestle, of which I was astounded to discover we had two examples: a small one, acquired a few years ago to pulverize the dog’s pills, and a larger edition, brought back last year from Vietnam by the neighbors as a gift. I’d set the latter on the counter as a display item, only to discover, in a pinch, that it is not just handsome but does a good job, is good exercise, uses no electricity, and short of some unimaginable catastrophe cannot break. This is basically the catalog of virtues of the ideal cook’s tool. Also, the mortar and pestle, while not silent, makes no noise to compare with the nerve-<\h>shattering whine of the Braun an important consideration for the gadgeteer who prefers that gadgets be seen, and used, but not heard.

City on a hill



It is noteworthy, though seldom noted, that Rome’s claim to be the capital of Christianity is, you know, a little … odd. All the Passover and Easter drama the donkey and the palm fronds, the Last Supper, the betrayal by a kiss in moonlit Gethsemane, the crucifixion, the rock mysteriously rolled away from the mouth of the tomb was supposed to have taken place in, or near, Jerusalem, after all. Why, then, do we not find the pope there, waving to the crowds from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre? One obvious part of the answer is, of course, that Rome, not Jerusalem, was the seat of the Caesars, whose honorific title, pontifex maximus, was appropriated by their successors in imperial interest, the popes (hence pontiff). Another might be that Jerusalem is a contested city, the symbolic heart of a triad of related monotheisms whose fierce and often violent competitions carry some of the sharp flavor of sibling rivalry.

When you take a seat at little Old Jerusalem Restaurant, which opened earlier this winter on an as yet unyuppified stretch of Mission, your eye is ineluctably drawn to the mural of the Old City that fills most of the restaurant’s long north wall. Yes, you think, the city on a hill, bundled within its 16th-century Ottoman walls, really is that color, a pale gold with just a slight suggestion of rose. And: Yes, there is the gilded Dome of the Rock, conspicuous in its looming centrality, at least in the mural. Jerusalem is many Jerusalems: It is the place from which Mohammed is said to have ascended to the heavens as well as the home of the Western Wall and of the pit where St. Helena claimed to have found pieces of the True Cross.

Fortunately, everyone likes falafel, the hamburger of the Middle East and the lingua franca of Palestine, a torn land desperately in need of shared joys and pleasures. You can buy falafel from street (or lane) carts all through the Old City, but if you happen to be here instead, you’ll find that Old Jerusalem’s version is pretty good, consisting of golf ballsize spheres of ground, seasoned chickpeas that are a deep, crusty bronze outside and pasty green within and just 39¢ each if you can stand your falafel naked. (A sandwich edition, with pita bread and condiments, is $4.99.) Naked falafel balls are actually a little harsh for my taste, a little dry in the mouth, but luckily the menu, while fairly brief, is rich in saucy and spreadable things that can be discreetly spooned around, whether the tahini-lemon dressing of a Jerusalem salad ($3.49) of quartered tomatoes and cucumber chunks, or the fabulous hummus that turns up as an accompaniment to many of the larger plates.

These are of variable appeal, with dryness being an intermittent issue. The best are quite fine and memorable, and in this category I would certainly put the chicken shawerma ($9.99), chunks of tender, boneless meat slow-roasted on one of those vertical spits to help retain moisture. Not far off the pace is shish taouk ($9.99), more boneless chicken chunks, grilled this time on skewers and not quite as tender or moist, though still tasty and with an appealing hint of char. For purposes of skewer grilling, the red meats hold up better, and Old Jerusalem offers both beef and lamb versions of shish kebab. The peripatetic appetite may well be most interested in the combination plate ($11.99), which offers an ensemble of skewer-grilled chicken, lamb, and beef, along with a length of grilled kifta, a kind of cilantro sausage very tasty, but parched, we found, and in need of a sauce. (The restaurant filled with smoke shortly before this platter was presented to us. We could have been witnessing a magic act at the circus.)

So meat is hit-or-miss, but it is probably for the best that the rest of the world isn’t quite as meat-involved as we are. When we move into the field of legumes which are cheaper and healthier than meat and, in the view of many of us, tastier and more interesting too Old Jerusalem reliably shines. There is the fine hummus. There is also a chickpea stew called fata ($4.99), a mix of whole and puréed chickpeas mixed with tahini sauce and spooned over torn chunks of pita bread. And there is qodsiah ($4.99), an addictive mix of hummus and foul, a similarly seasoned, rust-colored paste made from (presumably dried) fava beans. All are eminently scoopable with pita bread (baskets of which, still warm from the oven, are continually refreshed) and highly compatible with the plate of dill pickles and olives that is presented shortly after the menus.

The restaurant’s signature dish takes the improbable form of a dessert. It is kunafa "shredded wheat in goat cheese baked in syrup," says the menu card. Sounds dreadful as described, but it turns out to be a svelte square, jellyish red-orange on top, with a base layer of cheese. We took a pair of skeptical first bites but were soon won over by the mix of sour, fruit-sweet, and creamy, with a faint echo of crunch. You can get a single square for $4, and that’s plenty for two people (it’s rich), but the kunafa is also issued in larger denominations: A full sheet is $60, and there are half- and quarter-sheets available too: a triad, or trinity, of choices. SFBG

Old Jerusalem Restaurant

Daily, 11 a.m.–10 p.m.

2976 Mission, SF

(415) 642-5958

No alcohol


Moderately noisy

Wheelchair accessible

Dumpling drifter



CHEAP EATS Me and Wayway went to the store and bought 67 chicken wings, a carton of buttermilk, and a big bottle of oil. Then we went out to eat. I had a show that night in the Sunset, at my new favorite bar, the Riptide, so the plan was to point ourselves in that direction and just roll.

The Riptide is on Taraval, way out there, almost all the way to the beach. But we barely got past 19th Avenue, of course, before we had to stop rolling and walk. What pulled us over was this new Hawaiian joint where JT’s diner used to be. It looks pretty good. I looked in the window, and Wayway looked at the menu in the window.

"Eggs and rice," Wayway said. "Spam and eggs."

"Hay," I said. "Straw."

We meant all these things as compliments. You know, sometimes I wear Hawaiian shirts when I play the Ping-Pong, and sometimes I wear Western shirts. If I had been wearing a Hawaiian shirt, I might have had a new favorite Hawaiian restaurant to tell you about, but as fate would have it, I was wearing a Western shirt.

Which was just as well because I’d already eaten about five eggs that day anyway. We looked into a couple other places and wound up agreeing on a hole-in-the-wall just a few doors down called White Horse Dim Sum & Restaurant.

Hot dang it smelled good in there. It smelled kind of like celery. There was no art on the walls, no music, and just a couple of tables. So the atmosphere was the smell of celery. And general hominess. The White Horse family, from little kids to Gram and Gramps, was just sitting down to eat at this one big table. Every now and again one or another of them would get up and pour our tea and take our order and cook and everything.

So now, finally, I have a new favorite Chinese restaurant. Check this out: Dim sums are 60 cents each, they have Shanghai dumplings for $3.50 for six, lunch specials for $3.95 with rice and wonton soup or coffee, and they have almost 20 kinds of soup for under 5 bucks, most of them under 4. Rice plates, noodles … a lot of $3.50s, $3.95s, and $4.50s. I don’t think anything was more than 5 bucks.

What I’m getting at: Cheap!

And don’t forget that it smells real good in there. So, OK, so what we wanted, in honor of yet another soupy San Francisco day, was soup. And the guy sitting behind us was eating dumplings, so, sure, we were going to need dumplings too. You can’t talk about frying and barbecuing chicken wings without dumplings. At least a dozen.

Wayway told me how when he was living in Shanghai he used to eat these things for breakfast every day, and how sometimes, because of the language barrier, he’d ask for six, which was one order, and they’d bring him six orders of six.

"I want to live somewhere with a language barrier," I said.

Shanghai dumplings, those are the steamed pork ones with like little bowls of soup in them. Pig drippin’s, you figure. It pools inside while the pork cooks, and stays warm but somehow not too hot, and then when it erupts inside your mouth you get this flow of buttery, greasy goodness all over your tongue, and … and … um . . .

I lost my train of thought.

Chicken wings. Buttermilk. Barbecue sauce. Strategy. Celery. Oral sex. Oh yeah, soup. That was the other thing we were eating. Fish ball noodle soup, and pork noodle soup ($3.95 either way). Both were great. The broth was excellent, the noodles had to have been homemade, they tasted so good, and the vegetables were done perfectly, with still a little life left to them. Bok choy, broccoli, celery.

I’ll tell you, I walked out of the White Horse feeling really good. And I stayed that way all through the rest of the evening. Pabst Blue Ribbon. Rum. Coffee, next morning, and we went to work like two well-oiled machines, Wayway frying, or parfrying the wings, and the chicken farmer manwomanpersoning the grill. Barbefried chicken. My joke is that it’s health food, if two wrongs make a right, which, conventional wisdom being, for our purposes, damned, they do. Right? SFBG

White Horse.

Mon.–Sat., 7 a.m.–8 p.m.; Sun., 8:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m.

937 Taraval, SF

(415) 665-9080

Takeout available

No alcohol

Credit cards not accepted


Wheelchair accessible



Without Reservations

Split is a splendid little word, one of my favorites, at least when we are wandering through the joyous realm of sparkling wine. Who wouldn’t want an adorably petite bottle of bubbly for one’s own, complete with cork wrapped in fancy foil in a cage of golden wire? Yet split, alas, has other meanings too; in that terrible, inevitable restaurant moment when the check arrives, the word becomes the occasion for close scrutiny of the bill, who had what, some people drank more than others, tax is always a muddle, multiple credit or debit cards (all confusingly similar in appearance) are produced, and, at the very end, there is the dreadful business of agreeing on a tip. It is a business negotiation, basically, a moment for teams of accountants, and it sounds a slightly off note at the end of a lovely evening.

Splitting a check is somewhat less cumbersome and embarrassing in cash transactions, true which tend to be smaller anyway and I would grant an exemption for gigantic get-togethers like birthday-party dinners, where 20 or more people can gather at a single table and the tab can easily drift past $500 or even higher. But: For the usual small rendezvouses, têtes-à-têtes and so forth, somebody should just pick up the check. I nominate rich people. Rich people should pay. The richest person at the table should fess up or, better yet, just discreetly snatch the bill when it comes and discreetly whip out the putf8um card to settle the matter. This would be a kind of gracious ad hoc socialism that would also meliorate a small but galling social blight, and while it wouldn’t necessarily assure the fate of one’s eternal soul, if any ("Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" Matthew 19:24), it couldn’t hurt. Spending money on food is a virtue, as is spending money on other people so spending money to feed other people must be doubly virtuous.

How to determine who the richest person at your table is? I recommend the stare-down. And if two rich people happen to be having dinner? (Surely this happens from time to time.) One pays this time; the other, the next socialism for the rich, kind of. SFBG

Crazy on you



Kookez looks like a name from The Epic of Gilgamesh, or perhaps the name of some lost city in ancient Persia near Shiraz? but really it’s a kind of phonetic or spoof spelling. Hint: Resist the urge, almost irresistible in this city, to see the word kook; remember that we deal in food and restaurants here and visualize … cookies! (No, not whirled peas.) For Kookez Café is, indeed, in part about cookies; they are the pride of founder, owner, and baker Lynn Marie Presley, and a selection of them, along with other tempting baked goods, is on display in a glass case just inside the entryway.

But Kookez is about more than cookies. It is the successor to the long-running and successful Miss Millie’s (recently decamped to the East Bay) and accordingly has inherited the pole position in Noe Valley’s busy weekend brunch derby. It is also a cozy evening spot, serving "coast to coast" American comfort-food dishes many with a decidedly Southern accent in as appealingly old-fashioned a setting as you’re likely to find around town. The look is that of some venerable, family-run café on a narrow lane in Paris or London: lots of warm wood, yellowish wall lamps, snug booths, and a small garden in the rear whose charms are, thus far in this indescribably dreary spring, hypothetical. Those with long memories will recall that the space, before becoming Miss Millie’s, belonged to a coffeehouse named Meat Market, which took its name from the butcher shop that once occupied the premises.

An overhead rail for hanging split carcasses is still mounted from the ceiling just in front of the small exhibition kitchen, where the chef, Amir, goes about his business. When Miss Millie’s opened, in the mid-1990s, the original menu was vegetarian, and the rail was left in place as an ironic reminder, a kind of memento mori for meat eaters, or maybe nonmeat eaters. But Miss Millie’s later expanded beyond meatless offerings as the neighborhood changed, and as Kookez picks up the baton, the neighborhood continues to change.

Noe Valley is known as the city’s "baby belt," and really you can’t go a block without encountering a baby stroller, a nanny, a pack of tots, or a young father carrying an infant in some kind of chest sling. The Kookez brain trust is on the case; in addition to the cookies, the restaurant offers a kids’ menu (cupcakes included), the waitstaff seems unfazed by strollers zooming to and fro inside, and the cards of fare are laminated. I understand the precautionary nature of taking this last step, since children do have a way of spilling, scattering, smearing, and otherwise making messes with their food. At the same time, the menu card entombed in plastic does summon for some of us the ghosts of forgettable meals in chain restaurants near freeways at the outskirts of cookie-cutter cities in the heart of the heart of the country.

For the most part, Kookez pulls off its Comfort Food Nation conceit pretty nicely. The familiar stuff is the best: a bowl of New England clam chowder weighted with potatoes and bacon and heady with black pepper ($4.95); a chicken pot pie ($10.95) with a lovely golden pastry crust and a pea-rich stuffing; an excellent hamburger ($8.50), subtly swabbed with chipotle aioli and served with a stack of garlicky home fries in need of but a sprinkle of salt to come to attention; an herb-roasted half chicken ($12.50), tender and moist and plated with garlic mashed potatoes (under- and perhaps unsalted) and sautéed zucchini.

The chilled tomato tower ($7.75) basically a napoleon, layers of red and gold tomato slices buffered by disks of mozzarella and seasoned with basil and balsamic vinegar would be a lovely dish in summer, when the tomatoes are soft, juicy, and deeply flavored. At the end of winter, one tastes mainly the chill. The mango quesadilla ($7.50) is a worthy attempt to dress up a possibly overfamiliar friend; the decorations include a nippy blend of jack and brie cheeses, the aforementioned mango, and slices of strawberry on top. The strawberry slices looked a little forlorn on the golden half disk, as if the door to a party had been shut in their faces and they were left to pace around outside. At the same time, their presence did suggest not just seasonality but the possibility of some clever innovation: How about pureeing them with some garlic, cilantro, cayenne, and lime juice into a kind of spring salsa?

One of the best of the Southern-inflected dishes is the bayou butter-BQ dippin’ shrimp ($21.50), eight or nine big sautéed prawns accompanied by three lengths of grilled fresh okra a surprisingly appealing bit of exotica and not one but two dipping sauces: a peppery bourbon-butter number and a fruity-sharp jam of ginger and chilis that’s reminiscent of something you might be served with pot stickers. I would say this dish is well worth its sticker price, while noting that the sticker price is slightly lofty for a neighborhood joint. And it isn’t alone in being on the high side of $20; two other dishes also wander above the tree line, while several more are in the upper teens. But … this is the new Noe Valley, the Beverly Hills of the Googleocracy.

This can be a depressing line of contemplation, and a ready antidote is the infantile pleasure of dessert: a slice of rich amaretto cheesecake ($7.95), say, with blood orange sorbet. Or just a cookie maybe chocolate chip ($1.50) if you’re not nuts about such a rich finish. SFBG

Kookez Café

Dinner: Wed.–Sat., 5:30–9:30 p.m.; Sun., 5–9 p.m.

Brunch: Sat.–Sun., 9 a.m.–2 p.m.

4123 24th St., SF

(415) 641-7773

Beer and wine


Moderately noisy

Wheelchair accessible

Tossing the salad



During the long weeks of this un-spring, I have often found myself looking out into the rain-swept garden and thinking: salad. The reasons for this connection have to do, I suspect, with the fact that the garden looks like a huge salad greens of various shades and shapes dripping with water, as if from those computer-<\h>controlled squirt guns in the produce section at the supermarket and with the fact that by the end of winter, one is just sick to death of greens, of any and every kind. The winter dinner so often ends in a simple tossed salad because the diners simply cannot bear another round of beets or turnips or parsnips or broccoli or cauliflower.

But even salad can grow wearisome, and this is true even if the greens or baby greens are enlivened by the colorful presence of edible flowers. What can the beleaguered home chef do to bring a spark of life to the season’s umpteenth tossed salad? You can cheat, of course, by slicing in some hydroponic tomatoes, or cucumber that comes in that Saran Wrap stuff, or some other imported memento of summer; you can add leftovers, like white beans or risotto. You can add bottled artichokes, you can change your vinaigrette, you can drop the vinaigrette entirely in favor of creamy dressing.

Or: You can add parmesan chips. There are many, many upsides here, from welcome crunchiness to a distinctive nutty-<\h>salty tang to the pleasure of actually making the chips. If there is a catch, this is it: Parmesan chips are DIY. You might be able to buy them prepackaged, but I’ve never seen them so offered, and anyway, making them is easy and fun.

Begin by finely grating a cup or so of parmesan cheese. Real Parmigiano-Reggiano is vastly preferred here, of course, but you could also use grana padano or romano or any other gratable cheese. (The pregrated stuff in the green can? I cannot comment.) Preheat your oven to about 300 degrees Fahrenheit and grease a cookie sheet or line it with wax or parchment paper. Spoon the grated cheese onto the cookie sheet in well-spaced little mounds, as if making cookies. Bake for 5 to 10 minutes; when the cheese melts into disks and turns a pale gold at the edges, the pan is ready to come out of the oven. Let the disks cool slightly, remove them from the pan, add them to the salad and … toss!

Cav Wine Bar


REVIEW Maybe it’s the flight of robust German reds talking, but Cav seems like the sleekest, yet somehow the most laid-back, entry in the recent rush of wine bar openings. (Is there, like, a wine bar mafia hiding out here lately?) While other new oenophile venues certainly have their particular charms, Cav’s the only one that aims for hipness without turning class into sass.

Owners Pamela S. Busch and Tadd Cortell have fashioned a list with global reach (Portugal, Australia, the surprising Germany) that highlights the adventurously cozy and pairs it with a full menu of worldwise California fare — gnocchi with crayfish and sunchokes ($7.50/$15), lamb osso buco with creamy semolina polenta ($10/$20), both available as tapas or main courses. Along with the quiet, humming atmosphere, outgoing staff, and clean-lined, low-lit interior (like being on "a train ride for taste buds," as a friend described it), this makes Cav a perfect date place — strange wines to talk about and comfy food to share. Another bonus: Because Cav focuses on little-known foreign regionals, there’s no pressure to look like an expert. Menu and flights change weekly. (Marke B.)

CAV WINE BAR Mon.–Sat., 5:30 p.m.–1 a.m.
Kitchen closes 11 p.m. Mon.–Thurs., midnight Fri.–Sat.
1666 Market, SF. (415) 437-1770, D/MC/V, $$$


Virtual sausage



CHEAP EATS Sometimes it’s almost too much. You’re driving home in the middle of the night, country roads, nothing but static on the radio, sky full of stars stretched out before you, big balls of rain tapping into the windshield, small and large animals darting across the road in the beam of your headlights, graceless, confused. And you think, It rains without clouds now! Large blocks of ice are crashing through roofs in Southern California. San Francisco is the new Seattle. My friend Steve the Turkey Hunter in Maine says winter never came there this year.

How are you supposed to tell the difference between awake and asleep? This is an important distinction for operators of motor vehicles. People ask me: "When did you know?" And I just look at them because it’s all I can do, like a deer in their beams, like, Know what?

I can’t help it, personally. My mind returns and returns to the contemplation of antimatter, the uncertainty principle, and quantum chicken farming in general. Life keeps getting funner, and funnier. For example: the popular misconception that the world won’t likely come to an end in any of our lifetimes. Um, that depends, Mr. and Mrs. Physicist, does it not, on your definition of words like life, and time, and doo-da? Where, exactly, does the world happen? Out there somewhere? And how do they get all that juice to stay on the inside of Shanghai dumplings?


I do have a new favorite dim sum restaurant out on Taraval near

19th Avenue

, but that’s little consolation under the stormy stars,

Valley Ford Road

, middle of the night. Think I’ll pull over and have a nervous breakthrough.

Oh, now I get it. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarghhh!

Next thing you know: venison sausage. Next thing you know: homemade hot Italian sausage. The Chicken Farmer is standing outside next to his or her mailbox, waiting for the mail, wondering how human beings, the animals that invented sausage, can still find it necessary to believe in god. Or something. Let’s see, we can turn pigs into pork, pork into sausage, and so on — milk into butter. We can make airplanes and air mail and post offices, and one still craves … what? Answers? Spirit? Church?

But we have the Internet! Just like that, I can receive an e-mail from my friend Rube Roy in Ohio saying, "I mailed you some sausages. Go stand by your mailbox."

Personally, I don’t need any more information than that. The sausage is in the mail. The coals are glowing. The chickens are looking at the Chicken Farmer like, Well, what’s in it for us?

Answer: grass. There’s a lot of grass around my mailbox, and they can’t get at it. You talk about your symbidiotic relationships. I love to graze, but I don’t particularly like grass. I prefer eggs, and sausage. So, while I’m waiting for the mail, I’m basically mowing the lawn with my hands, throwing it over the fence to the chickens, and they’re going to town, converting green into yellow, healthier, tastier eggs for tomorrow’s lunch, for me, with sausage.

What’s in it for Rube Roy? Well, he gets to be, very fittingly, the first official inductee into the Cheap Eats Hall of Fame. Are you kidding me? He made and mailed me about five pounds of meat — a long string of venison sausage, a short, fat string of hot Italian, and three sticks of spicy, smoked, dried whatever-the-fuck. Soppressata?

It’s delicious, whatever it is. I’m chawing on some right now, writing this. And I still want to tell you about my new favorite dim sum place too, but that’s probably a story unto itself, soupy enough to sink me to the bottom of this column and off the page, into your lap. Where, with all due respect, I don’t know if I want to be, so let’s save that for next week and stay for now with the Cheap Eats Hall of Fame.

You want in, send me something. By e-mail. To eat!

In the meantime, so Rube Roy doesn’t get too lonely, I’m going to take this opportunity to also induct a couple other inductees, that philosophy-talking piano student who hand-delivered to me an order of North Carolina barbecue, hush puppies, and sweet tea. And this Red Cross worker in Seattle (Ketchup County, or something like that) who sent me a big bottle of barbecue sauce. I don’t know. She works for the Red Cross. The bottle says Jones on it, and it’s fantastic.

So if your name is Jones, and you live in Seattle, and you gave blood, I love you. On ribs, especially, but you also go good with meatballs. SFBG


Deeper into sushi



Opera Plaza doesn’t look like restaurant heaven, and, for the most part, it isn’t. The development’s long-running success story is Max’s Opera Café, a faux deli that deals in mountainous portions, with dill pickles and fries. Over the years there have been a few places with more style, among them Carlo Middione’s Vivande and Bruce Cost’s Monsoon, but in neither case was traction established, and neither concern lasted long.

The crash of Monsoon isn’t all that difficult to understand in retrospect. Whereas Vivande at least had a big sign overlooking the busy corner of Franklin and Golden Gate Avenues to let potential patrons know it was there, Monsoon (which opened soon after the 1989 earthquake) was buried deep in the complex and wasn’t all that easy to see even from the interior courtyard, complete with its Stalinist concrete and fountain. Here, too late, are my directions: Enter the courtyard from Van Ness, with A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books on your right, pass the fountain, and shear to your right as you approach the movie theater. You will see a neon sign and, beyond some glass doors, will find yourself at the host’s station in a restaurant, and while the restaurant won’t be Monsoon (which closed early in 1993), it will be pretty good. It is Shima Sushi and represents a return to respectability for a centrally located yet obscure site that had fallen into slightly tacky gloom.

A postulate I have been forming recently is that many troubled and oft-flipped restaurant spaces find a stable life serving sushi and other Japanese food, and Shima Sushi bolsters the argument. It helps, certainly, that uncooked fish has long been a form of fast food in Japan, for the large lunchtime crowds at Shima consist, one supposes — to judge by the office garb and accoutrements — largely of people who work in the neighborhood’s complex of municipal, state, and federal offices, and they are visibly under some time pressure. Shima accommodates them gracefully, with bento boxes ($7.95 for a choice of two items, $8.95 for three) featuring such delicacies as tuna sashimi and crisp-skinned, smoky-sweet salmon teriyaki, along with miso soup, mixed green salad, and bean sprouts with scallions. (There is also a vegetarian bento box.) Other choices include a sushi lunch special ($8.95), with a California roll (real crab is $1 extra and worth it) and a mix of sushi pieces likely to include tuna, hamachi, salmon, and shrimp. Those averse to raw flesh have recourse to various forms of teriyaki, tempura, donburi, and udon. Service is quite swift and polite, but the staff is too busy hurrying to do much hovering, and once you’re served, they’re likely to let you be unless you make some want or need known. Then they do come running.

By evening, the mood of the restaurant visibly softens: The light seems a bit yellower, the blond wood of the Japanese-style partitions a bit warmer, the bubbles in the aquarium a bit bigger and lazier. The patronage, too, mellows — but then, people do live in and around Opera Plaza, and for them, Shima is a jewel of a neighborhood restaurant, with a favorable quality-to-price ratio and enough room to accommodate walk-ins while keeping the noise level reasonable. The dinner menu resembles an expanded version of the lunch menu; the chief additions are a list of specialty rolls and a trio of "special combinations" — blow-out sushi festivals served in wooden boats. You order according to the size of your party; we were three and opted for the Shima special ($75, "serves three or more") but quailed when the ship approached the table looking like one of those freighters you sometimes see sailing through the Golden Gate, so laden with booty as to be nearly submerged.

"We’ll never be able to eat all that," said one of my fellow musketeers and one justly renowned for doughtiness in the face of huge amounts of food. As things turned out, we did empty the ship of its cargo, which the other musketeer, to my right, perhaps a bit less doughty, described as "tuna-heavy." As indeed it was, not that there was anything wrong with that. We worked our way through nigiri and sashimi editions of maguro, toro, and albacore (underrated; always fabulously buttery), along with salmon, red snapper (thin sheets of pearly flesh splashed with rose), and bonito, whose ribbing gave each piece the look of a chunk of burst all-terrain tire on the shoulders of a mountain highway. Astern, the ship had been laden with rolls, among them Super California — strips of barbecued eel laid atop rice disks stuffed with avocado and snow crab — and Lion King, a California roll wrapped in salmon, then baked in foil like a potato.

In due course the denuded ship sailed away, guided by a smiling server who nonetheless shook her head in polite awe at what we had accomplished. A few moments later she showed up with small bowls of green tea ice cream: reward or penalty? Neither; the ice cream was included in the deal, to be shipped under separate cover. The doughty musketeer made a face at the prospect of green tea ice cream but polished it off since, in the end, a sweet is a sweet is a sweet, especially if at no extra cost. SFBG

Shima Sushi

Dinner: Mon.–Thurs. and Sat., 5–9:30 p.m.; Fri., 5–10 p.m.

Lunch: Mon.–Sat., 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.

601 Van Ness, SF

(415) 292-9997

Beer and wine


Moderately noisy

Wheelchair accessible

Tossing the bone



CHEAP EATS Crawdad de la Cooter has a new squeeze. I called him up and said, "Hey, man, let’s go eat, huh? You hungry?"

And he said what anyone would have said in his position. He said, "Who is this?"

"It’s the Chicken Farmer," I said. "Crawdad’s ex?"

We hadn’t met yet, but we knew enough about each other, I reckoned, him being her new squeeze, and I maybe being her best friend. Why we hadn’t met yet didn’t have nothing to do, I don’t think, with him or with me. That’s why I was going over her head, because they’d been seeing each other for months, or at any rate long enough to have already had a falling out and a falling back in.

"It’s up to you," I said. "You can invite Crawdad, or not."

He did. We went to K.C. Barbecue in Berkeley. I had wanted to go to Penny’s Caribbean Café, especially since Crawdad was coming, because then it would have been like a double date. Believe me, no two humans can love each other as head-over-heelingly as I love Penny’s curry goat roti.

Of course I’m fond of barbecue. But I eat barbecue at least once a day at home. I eat barbecue so much that I piss smoke. I eat barbecue so much that I am barbecue. That’s cool, but it ain’t love. It’s like masturbation. When I eat barbecue, my eyes are still going to roll back in my head and my toes are going to curl and all my cells are still going to go, "Yes!" But while all that’s happening, chances are I’m fantasizing about curry goat roti. Penny’s Caribbean Café.

How did I get here?

This is a review of K.C. Barbecue, my new favorite barbecue joint. The straightforward, tomatoey sauce is nothing to write home to Arthur Bryant about, or even across the bay to Cliff about. But that only says that much more in favor of the meat. The ribs are perfectly smoked, Patsy Cline-ing to the touch of your teeth. You don’t even need teeth. Gums will do. I’m not even sure you need gums. The meat might fall to pieces on your tongue and melt into it like butter, or curry goat roti.

Amazingly, for pig meat this tenderly smoked, it doesn’t lose anything in succulence. In fact, K.C.’s ribs may well not even need any sauce which is about as indicative an indicator of excellent barbecue as there can be. I can’t vouch for the brisket, because they were all out. The new squeeze did toss me a bone of his chicken, and even that had life to it. But you know, barbecue’s hard to get right consistently, nobody knows better than I do, so you gotta have the sauce, just in case.

Oh, that reminds me, before I get too far onto the topic, I did get barbecued eggs down. I’m not saying the invention can’t be improved upon; I’m saying: Pay attention. There’s a window more like a pinhole of opportunity, where the white part will have set and the yellow will not yet have turned into a superball. Juicy, smoky, with Spanish rice this time, over a homemade tortilla . . . Huevos dancheros, take two. Three, counting the whole egg I put in the smoker once and forgot about but not counting the countless ones I’ve cracked open and directly onto (and through) the grill, for the highbrow entertainment of many a dinner guest.

Back to K.C.: The beans were good, the Wonder Bread was white, and they had orange pop.

"So, what did you think?" Crawdad says to me over the phone next morning.

"Well, the beans were good and the Wonder Bread was white," I said. "Sauce not great, but the ribs

"You know what I mean," she said.

I did. I didn’t say it like this, but I loved Crawdad’s new squeeze for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was that I love everyone. I mean, we’re all in this together, you know what I mean? And I loved the guy’s favorite barbecue, and I loved his laugh, and you know his heart’s in the right place, or else he wouldn’t be crawdoodlin’ the great Crawdad de la Cooter. Best of all, though: He ain’t like me. If she’d of gone and buddied up with some other bowlegged starving artistical pirate-headed Ping-Pong-playing backyard philosophizing tranny-ass barbecued chicken farmer with a Chevy Sprint pickup truck, that might of maybe been tough. SFBG

K.C. Barbecue

Tue.–Thu., 11 a.m.–9 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 11 a.m.–midnight

2613 San Pablo, Berk.

(510) 548-1140

Takeout available

No alcohol

Credit cards not accepted


Wheelchair accessible

A Twinkie defense?



A question too seldom pondered in these parts might be put as follows: Do twinkies eat Twinkies? The latter, of course, is the iconic cream-filled cake from Hostess; the former, a term for decorative if not decorous young men who can often be found at parties thrown by rich old queens with wine cellars full of Napa cabernets. And the answer to the question is almost certainly no, at least not if the twinkie ("twink" is a butch truncation see Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City) is interested in maintaining his value on the sociosexual market. This is because Twinkies, like so many of their near relations on the supermarket’s junk food shelves, are bad for you, and may I be forgiven for being the bearer of this truly stunning news.

As a child in the 1960s I liked Twinkies well enough, but I have not eaten one for decades nor even thought about them for years, not until a press release arrived the other day like a bolt from the blue, announcing that Ten Speed Press of all presses! is bringing out The Twinkies Cookbook. I have not yet seen the book, so perhaps it will turn out to be a fabulous joke, but the press release is not reassuring, with its references to recipes for Twinkies-pecan bananas Foster, pumpkin-Twinkie bread pudding, Twinkie burritos, and chicken-raspberry Twinkie salad all of them, apparently, submitted by red-blooded, star-spangled, born-on-the-Fourth-of-July American Twinkie lovers.

Since the Twinkie is famous for its long shelf life and (unlike the twinkie) its sponginess, my thoughts turned immediately to trans fat, the hydrogenated vegetable oil that is one of the most artery-clogging substances you can eat but, until the health furor of the past few years, has been immensely helpful to the food industry in keeping packaged baked goods moist and salable. In the last year or two, many junk food makers have responded to public pressure by phasing out trans fats with alacrity; would I find that the Twinkie had been upgraded too?

No, alas. A quick trip to a neighborhood market and a quick scan of the (lengthy) list of ingredients in Twinkies revealed the words hydrogenated and shortening. End of inquiry: When you see either of those words, you move on, whether you are or were a twinkie, or even if you aren’t or weren’t. SFBG


The burger hopper



The hamburger has a certain Zelig quality in America: It turns up all over the place, in guises high and low, at fancy metropolitan restaurants and greasy truck stops on the outskirts of every Podunk and Palookaville from coast to coast. Some, like the famous Zuni burger, are made from carefully ground high-end beef; many others many, many others are made from meat whose provenance we probably don’t care to think about.

The hamburger, then, is democratic in the best American sense. It looks as good in coat and tails as it does in a pair of sweatpants. It uncomplainingly accepts the companionship of cheese, yes, all kinds of cheese, but also of bacon, avocado, mushrooms, and grilled onions not to mention lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickles. It can be made in a flash cooked in a pan, under a broiler, on a griddle, over hot coals and eaten with ease, being a variant of that incomparable finger food, the sandwich. It is suitable for practically any occasion; it is our national food. Presidents and paupers alike eat hamburgers.

Yet as democracy in America wanes, one cannot help wondering about the fate of the burger. Of course, San Francisco is not the ideal location for these kinds of ruminations, for this has never been much of a hamburger town. The city’s culinary roots are, instead, Franco-Italian, Chinese, Mexican, and maritime none of them huge on ground-beef patties and in later years we have witnessed a bloom of vegetarian regimes in which the trusty burger is anathema or worse. Add to all this a raft of concerns about mad cow disease and E. coli contamination, LDL and the ethical treatment of animals, and you have a recipe for … linguine with broccoli, or something.

Yet the burger is a hardy little fellow, and places that honor its tenacity persist and even, modestly, proliferate. One new such spot is Toad’s, which opened toward the end of January in the old Café Arguello space at Valencia and 26th Streets. You would not think, walking into Toad’s, that here is a restaurant dealing mainly in hamburgers and hot dogs, nor for that matter that you were entering a restaurant named Toad’s; the cream-and-dark-wood look is one of understated elegance and makes the tall, straight, boxy space look like a small Town Hall. The flat-panel television mounted above the bar toward the rear and tuned to ESPN does give a slight sports-bar air and does, perhaps, whet the appetite for such all-Americana as buffalo wings, potatoes, nachos, and curly fries, all of which the menu offers.

Not too many years ago, curly fries were a Jack in the Box exclusive, but now you can get them at one-off places like Toad’s, and they’re every bit as good crisp and slightly spicy coils as the fast-food version. You can get a full order of them, complete with buttermilk ranch dressing, for $3.95, but a better option might be to upgrade the fries included in the cost of your burger. This slight surcharge bumps the price of the well-seasoned and juicy avocado cheeseburger, say (with a half avocado’s worth of buttery, ripe slices and choice of cheese), from $8.95 to $9.95 and provides more than enough curly fries, unless you are really fixated.

In keeping with the restaurant’s handsome look, the Joe Six-Pack menu is full of sly upscaleness. The beef burgers are made from Black Angus, and there are several meatless choices available (including the amazingly lifelike Boca burger), along with homemade chili and soup of the day ($4.95 a bowl), which, even when it sounds drab zucchini and mushrooms, maybe, classic bottom-of-the-bin, end-of-the-week stuff is likely to be spiffed up with some cumin and chili pepper. You can get Stella Artois and Big Daddy IPA on tap. The one thing Toad’s doesn’t have is the alfresco option. For that you’ll have to traipse over to Barney’s Gourmet Burgers in Noe Valley.

Like Toad’s, Barney’s is a burger joint with a fair amount of discreet spit and polish. The space used to belong to a bistro, and the beer gardenworthy garden out front, set with umbrella-shaded tables and potted plants, was an important draw for diners who might otherwise be tempted to step into Little Italy (now Lupa) across the street. When Barney’s took over, there was quiet mourning in some quarters at fate’s lack of imagination, but the place has had a long run and to judge from the crowds in the garden day and night a successful one.

As it happens, Barney’s, too, offers curly fries, and they are as good as Toad’s (and Jack’s), right down to the ranch dressing. Although I made the mistake of ordering the curlies separately, I thought I was exercising moderation by getting only a half basket of them ($3.50) and was dismayed to find, when I weighed myself the morning after, that I’d gained five pounds. Moral of story: no morning-after weigh-ins, and curly fries should probably be eaten with tweezers, or handled with some of the same ceremony and officiousness that Seinfeld‘s übertoff Mr. Pitt brought to the enjoyment of his Snickers bars. (Knife! Fork! White linen napkin!)

The burgers, they are fine and conform nicely to the local standard. (Assuming you know what I mean, I shall say no more.) Lighter eaters and beefphobes will be relieved to learn that Barney’s offers turkey burgers outfitted in various ways dusted with Cajun spices ($6.95), maybe, then blackened like Gulf red snapper. Such a burger might not play in Palookaville, but here in the big city, it’s the people’s choice, or one of them. SFBG


Dinner: nightly, 5:30–9:30 p.m.

Lunch: Sun., noon–3 p.m.

1499 Valencia, SF

(415) 648-TOAD

Beer and wine


Potentially noisy

Wheelchair accessible

Barney’s Gourmet Hamburgers

Mon.–Thurs., 11 a.m.–9:30 p.m.

Fri.–Sat., 11 a.m.–10 p.m.

Sun., 11 a.m.–9 p.m.

4138 24th St., SF

(415) 282-7770

Beer and wine


Pleasant noise level

Wheelchair accessible

Wild Pepper


Travelers on Interstate 280, northbound across the south face of the city, may well have had occasion to use the San Jose Avenue exit, a two-lane ramp that curves through a tunnel and onto another multilane road scarcely different from the freeway itself, except for the Muni trains running along the median and the lower speed limit, which is generally ignored, as is the case on the freeway proper. But, like a wadi fading in some desert, San Jose Avenue soon becomes a ghost. Traffic curves onto Guerrero and speeds north, and San Jose itself seems to end even before reaching Cesar Chavez.

It doesn’t end, though. It’s just interrupted, and a block north of Cesar Chavez it resumes its languid progress as a kind of village lane all but inaccessible to the automotive furies on nearby thoroughfares and lined with quaint old houses and a small slice of park, beatifically calm. At the foot of this segment of street, in a building that could easily be mistaken for a Laundromat, we find Wild Pepper, a recently relocated Chinese restaurant (ne Long Island, on Church) notable not only for its isolation for restaurants, like wolves (and humans!), tend to operate on a pack model, clustering together but also for its offer of evidence that two people can indeed eat quite royally in this town and still get out the door for less than $40, maybe nearer $30. Those numbers include tax and tip, yes the latter covering table service at tables covered with proper white linens and set with handsomely lacquered rosewood chairs.

None of this is to suggest that Wild Pepper is the lap of luxury. The setting, intimate to the city yet remote from it, has its charms, of course; I would not have been surprised to find a hitching post for horses outside the front door. The interior design too, while not without its flourishes, including an aquarium full of bubbles and decorative tropical fish, is Spartan in the manner of one of those semilegal in-law apartments in which the dehumidifier is always running. But all this means is that there is less sensory clutter to distract one’s attention from the excellent food.

As Wild Pepper’s menu reminds us, excellent Chinese food need not be imperial nor be prepared with a banquet table and 14 courses in mind. Earthiness helps, pepperiness too, along with an attention to freshness of ingredients and continence in the use of cooking oil. As an introduction to these admirable qualities, Wild Pepper offers a deceptively boring-sounding cucumber salad ($3.95); the crisp, cooling cuke is cut into coins and dressed with a simple but lively oil flecked by chili flakes and minced garlic. If you thought the cucumber was a dark green torpedo fit only to be made into effete little white-bread sandwiches for the high teas beloved of the garlic-fearing English, you will be pleased to think again.

Many of the menu’s more attractive offerings are to be found under the heading "chef’s specials." Here we find such treats as minced-chicken lettuce cup ($6.95), basically a variant of mu shu pork (including a small dish of hoisin sauce), with chicken substituted for the pork and immaculate leaves of iceberg lettuce for the pancakes. Also good, if on the richer side, is Szechuan crispy beef ($8.95), cords of shredded meat hot-wokked to a certain snappiness in the company of slivers of onion and an unassumingly brown but potent sweet-sour sauce laced with Szechuan peppercorns. For a Thai spin, try basil eggplant with prawns and scallops ($10.95) the classic Siamese combination of sweet and spicy, with the eggplant neither tough nor mushy, those disastrous termini of many a home cook’s ministrations.

If there is a weakness on the menu, it lies in the hot appetizers and can be recognized by the alluring but somehow repulsive scent of the deep-fryer. The pork pot stickers ($4.50 for six) are an exception, being just pan-seared instead of dunked in a vat of hot oil. But they are an exception; also a bit floury. The combination plate ($6.25) gives the full oily effect; here we have egg roll and fried chicken wings (which consist of little more than deep-fried batter and some slender bones but are tasty!), along with a pair of pot stickers and a couple of disks of crab Rangoon: crab meat mixed with cream cheese and, yes, deep-fried. Good, but positively Homer Simpsonesque.

A better hot first course might be one of the soups. Hot and sour ($2.75 for a cup) is fine in a mainstream way, but a more enriching choice might be the ocean party ($6.95 for a large, and that means at least six cups’ worth), an egg drop soup fortified almost beyond recognition. Emendations include seafood, of course (mainly scallops and chunks of white fish), along with shreds of bok choy, rounds of baby corn, panels of carrot, and slivers of shiitake mushroom. There is no obviously dominant ingredient in this soup, and its flavor is delicate easily obscured, say, by the bite and fire of the preceding cuke salad, if you had eaten that first, as we made the mistake of doing. But we found that once the cuke fireworks had ended, the soup quietly asserted itself until its mild flavor filled our mouths and we could not get enough of it. Pepper, you see, is nice, whether red, black, white, or Szechuan, but it is not the only way to go.

Wild Pepper

11 a.m.–<\d>10 p.m.

3601 26th St., SF

(415) 695-7678

Beer and wine


Not noisy

Wheelchair accessible

222 Club


REVIEW This jazzy, Euro-cozy joint in the ’Loin just got licensed for hard alcohol, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying its Spanish-inflected wine list and sparkling sojuladas (a lovingly crafted combo of soju and limonada). Victrola-era tunes pour out of the upstairs bar’s speakers, while in the downstairs lounge, art students, hip-hop aficionados, and old-school bebop fans mingle over upscale housemade pizzas ($10$15) or the delicious antipasto plate ($11), featuring marinated sausage, berry jam, wine-braised beef, warm pâté, and imported cheeses. Owners Bianca, Joseph, and Manuel provide enough hands-on bar service (and peppy personality) to sate any classy barhopper’s appetite. (Marke B.)

222 Club 222 Hyde, SF

(415) 440-0222. D, $, credit cards not accepted



CHEAP EATS “Did you hear about the barn swallows in Minnesota?” Earl Butter said, while we were waiting for our waffles.

“This reminds me,” I replied. “This idea that there are more alive people now than dead ones where did you get it?”

“Late Night,” he said.

“David Letterman?”



“Actually,” he said, “I heard it somewhere else too. Why?”

“No reason,” I said. “Fact-checking.” I checked myself. “After-the-fact fact-checking.”

“Well, about the barn swallows

“What are your sources?” I said, before-the-fact fact-checking, for a change.

“Public television.”

“What show?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Some nature show.”

Our waffles came. On paper plates with plastic forks and knives. They came with two eggs apiece, over-easied into neat little triangles, and meat. Sausage for me of course, and Spam for Earl. You can also get bacon, or some kind of veggie patty ($4.75).

There was butter already melting into the waffles, and, to my amazement and delight, and surprise, given the paper and plastic and overall fluorescent lighting of the little joint, the butter looked like butter. “Can I get more butter?” I asked the guy. Partly this was a fact-checking maneuver, and partly I wanted more butter. I knew I did, without tasting, because I always want more butter.

He smiled and went to get it for me. Sweet guy. Great place. New favorite restaurant. I already knew that, but maybe you want hard evidence.

“About the barn swallows,” Earl Butter said, halfway done eating, and I hadn’t even started.

On the radio: Forum, with Michael Krasny and a panel of tweedy-sounding indie rock “experts” boring the world to death with Noise Pop blah, blah, blah, making it, blah, blah, sincerity, blah, passion. Get off the radio and dance, dudes.

Guy comes back with a little paper bowl full of real butter, and I could of kissed him, speaking of rock ’n’ roll. This was all I needed to know, and knowing it, little plastic knife in hand, I buttered and buttered my golden, crispy waffle, which was starting to get cold. Which is perfect because then the butter really sets there. Speaking of cold, hard facts. It doesn’t disappear into the waffle. It globulates. Waits, looks back at you, existingly. Then, finally, melts into your tongue. Hot damn!

“Can I try a piece of your Spam?” I said.

He gave me a whole slice. It was pretty good, a lot better than I expected. Would you believe I’d never eaten Spam before? Well, I have now eaten Spam. It’s pretty good.

The sausage was chicken apple sausage and this is my only bone to pick with the place. What’s up with the fancy-pants sausage? The name of the joint is the Little Piglet Café, you got pork this and pig that all over the menu, little piggy visual touches all over the walls and all around the paper-hearts-in-the-shape-of-a-heart in the window in the door . . .

The big sign outside over the window, which drew me to the place in the first place, Ninth Street between Bryant and Harrison: Waffles, Soups, Boxed Lunches, Daily Specials, Hot & Cold, Little Piglet Café, real cute picture of a pig. I don’t get it. What’s up with the chicken sausage?

“Barn swallows,” said Earl Butter.

It’s still my new favorite restaurant. I mean, waffles, eggs, and meat for under five bucks, and with real butter, are you kidding me? Plus the coffee is coffeehouse quality, and there are enough other good-looking things on the menu to keep me coming back for weeks and weeks without even repeating myself: Cajun meatloaf sandwich, barbecued pork with “pig sambal” (whatever that might mean), roasted peppers and avocado salad with pineapple vinaigrette.

Is this a Hawaiian theme I’m picking up on?

“Home Depot,” said Earl Butter.


There’s a Spam can dispensing candy canes, and a picture of Jessica Simpson setting on a can of tuna fish.

“They figured out how to open the automatic doors and get inside,” he said.

“Who did?”

Little Piglet Café

Mon.–Fri., 8 a.m.–4 p.m.

451 Ninth St., SF

(415) 626-5618

No alcohol

Takeout available

MasterCard, Visa


Wheelchair accessible

Cuvee organica


Organic wine is on the rise, and the French, no dopes as regards marketing, are on the case. A recent tasting of organic and biodynamic wines by the importer Louis/Dressner (at K and L Wine Merchants) included offerings from some small producers from the south and northeast of France and the Loire Valley and served as a reminder that (1) French winemakers do right by chenin blanc in a way that American winemakers, to my knowledge, cannot yet even crudely approximate, and (2) if you are going to buy French organic wine, you might be better off with a white than a red.

We did not taste all the reds, but the two we sampled, a 2004 Coteaux-du-Loir rouge-gorge from Domaine de Bellivière and a 2004 Côtes du Rhône from ?

The steak-out


EDIBLE COMPLEX In a very 20th-century way, steak connotes adulthood. A turning point for me was a visit to one of those cook-it-yourself steak restaurants with my extended family when I was 12. I aspired to be a grown-up at the time, and so I determined to take steak-eating seriously. I chose a big hunk of meat and grilled it until the outside was totally charred and the inside was thoroughly gray. The whole thing seemed very manly.

Meanwhile, I watched my uncle Charlie take a different approach. He examined the raw steaks carefully and selected a filet mignon that seemed especially tender and juicy. He timed his cooking by his watch, flipping the steak at just the right moment and removing it when it was a fraction on the rare side of medium rare. When I was halfway through eating my Neanderthal dinner, feeling big and strong, he cut me a bite from the center of his filet and said, "Try this."

I hadn’t asked him for a bite, and I didn’t particularly want one, and I had no reason to think his steak was different from my own except that it was smaller and thus less powerful. I could see the bite of meat he offered me in cross-section. Most of it was a vivid pink, which was frightening for some reason I couldn’t articulate. And then I put it in my mouth and realized that my attitude toward steak had been childish and unsophisticated, and likewise my ideas about adulthood itself. Real maturity, it turns out, is not about being big and tough but about being tender and true.

There are maybe a half dozen reputable steak houses in San Francisco, and I would have liked to order a filet mignon, medium rare, in each one of them, then compared them in detail and presented the results here, but financial considerations ruled that out. (Any dot-com millionaires who would like a thorough survey of the available steak options: e-mail me.) I picked Harris’, on Van Ness, because it’s not a chain and because I’ve never understood the name "Ruth’s Chris Steak House."

You can tell Harris’ is a traditional steak house by checking out the clientele: I have been in San Francisco for eight years, and this was the least hip crowd I have ever been a part of, including jury duty. It was kind of relaxing. The dining room has a high ceiling and padded banquettes and seems to have been designed to minimize ambient noise. This is not a space for young movers and shakers governed by the need to imagine they’re at the center of a vibrant social world at every moment. It’s a space for people who are losing their hearing.

The steak house is a relic, a vestige of an age of different ideas from our own about what constituted good eating. The steak house is the greatest generation’s idea of luxury dining, a restaurant where quality consists of the time-tested, the tried-and-true, a nice cut of beef with a baked potato. When we want to describe something as unostentatious and essential and without fripperies or pointless ornamentation, we compare it to meat and potatoes.

It’s the exact antithesis of current ideas about restaurants. Cooking today is a branch of the fine arts. We expect chefs not only to please us, but also to surprise us with some as yet untried combination of the limited number of edible objects that exist in nature. It’s a school of dining that offers great pleasure, as anyone who eats out in San Francisco can attest. But after years of watching San Francisco chefs work their magic on ever more exotic cuisines, conjuring ever bolder combinations of disparate flavors, there’s something appealing about going to a steak house. You know before you arrive what will be on the menu. The choices you’ll be faced with — New York, porterhouse, sirloin, filet; medium or medium rare — will be so similar as to barely constitute choices at all. You’ll pay a lot of money, but there will be no gambling involved, no risk. The cooking of your steak will not afford the chef an opportunity for self-expression, but it isn’t about the chef. It’s about you and your hunger and your desire to eat a steak.

So it’s hard to review a steak because the dish is predicated on familiarity and quality rather than on creativity. Unless something is badly wrong, a $40 filet is going to taste delicious, and the words that describe it are going to be words like tender and moist and juicy, and I can report those are exactly the adjectives brought to mind by the filet at Harris’. I had the filet mignon Rossini, with which, for just $2 more than a regular filet mignon, you get a slice of foie gras on top and black truffle sauce. This is the kind of thing that passes for variation at a steak house. The sauce was thick and rich and couldn’t possibly dent the impact of a perfect piece of lean beef, charred and salty on the outside and basically raw on the inside. Plus, hey, foie gras. But I was a bit saddened by the presentation: three halved cherry tomatoes and six green beans arranged in a circle around the filet. San Francisco, it seems, has made its mark even here. The baked potato, on the other hand, was reassuringly identical to every other baked potato ever. *

An archive of Edible Complex columns can be found at


Mon.–Thu., 5:30–9:30 p.m.; Fri., 5:30.–10 .pm.; Sat., 5–10 p.m.; Sun., 5–9:30 p.m.

2100 Van Ness, SF

(415) 673-1888



Shooting a pig


A good deal of blood gets spilled in Michael Pollan’s intelligently gory new book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Penguin Press, $26.95), but amid the accounts of chickens’ throats being methodically slit and steers’ assembly-line encounters with the so-called stunner, the shooting of a wild pig near Healdsburg commands a particularly dark fascination. For one of the shooters is Pollan himself, our guide, narrator, and conflictedly omnivorous Everyman, and his act of marksmanship in Sonoma’s golden hills closes the circle that is the book’s central conceit: of bearing personal witness to, and accepting moral responsibility for, the collection of the food one will then prepare and eat.

The breaking of that circle is a chief objective of the food industry. As Pollan notes, Big Food "depends upon consumers’ not knowing much … beyond the price disclosed by the checkout scanner. Cheapness and ignorance are mutually reinforcing … [and] the global economy couldn’t very well function without this wall of ignorance and the indifference it breeds." And even in America, ignorance and heartlessness cannot be assumed. "Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively," Pollan writes, "we would not long continue to raise, kill, and eat animals the way we do … for who could stand the sight?"

The pig who falls at Pollan’s shot — "a very large gray sow" — was probably shot by Pollan’s more experienced guide, or so Pollan seems to imply. Later there will be ham and prosciutto and other porcine wonders, but under the hot Sonoma sun, the immediate prospect is "a dead wild animal, its head lying on the dirt in a widening circle of blood." One cannot help admiring Pollan’s nerve, his gameness, even as the hunting episode brings forth a spasm of not quite seemly triumph — his sense of himself, candidly described, as "playing the hero’s part."

I would not, could not, shoot a pig, or any mammal, any creature — and I say this not with pride but as a fact. I recoil from accounts of Dick Cheney’s beer-bust quail hunts. If I had to do what Pollan did to eat meat, I would not eat meat. But I don’t, none of us do, and there is our dilemma.

Paul Reidinger


Regis lives



"Show me a sane man," Jung said, "and I will cure him for you."

I saw this on a billboard on Turk Street, I think, but I didn’t catch what it was advertising. Jung’s psychotherapy practice, I guess. But that seems like a waste of money to me, Jung being dead.

"Show me a dead man," I said to Earl Butter, my passenger . . .

And . . . and . . .

"What?" said Earl Butter.

I didn’t know. Which is why I’ll never be on a billboard. I can’t complete a thought, let alone . . . um. Well, I can throw a curveball and I’m alive, so I was going to go play baseball after I dropped Butter off in the Mission.

We’d just had lunch at my new favorite Moroccan restaurant in my old favorite neighborhood, the Tenderloin. Tajine. Jones Street.

Maybe I can be on a bumper sticker.

For example: Regis lives.

I wear a ring with 86 and 99 on it. Don Adams, Barbara Feldon. Dead and alive, respectively. Over a really red, really cuminy, really good sausage sandwich with some kind of salsa or chutney or something on it, tomatoes, onions, Earl Butter informed me that there are now more people living than there are dead ($6.95).

This astounds me. And like so many things Earl Butter tells me over lunch, it changes everything. For starters, we no longer have to be afraid of zombies. We’ve got them outnumbered. Barring big bombs and/or bird flu, it’s a power play from here out. Night of the Living Dead? Not scary.

Secondly, I can’t help wondering: When they counted, which side did they put Jesus and Elvis on? Dead or alive? Because judging from some other billboards and bumper stickers I keep seeing, there seems to be some question on the one hand. I can’t remember whether or not I ever pointed it out yet in this column, which may account for some of the confusion, but . . . Jesus? He died. Look, Christians, even if the cat did "come back to life," so to speak, he died again. He’d of had to by now, or else he’d be 2,000-and-some years old. So get over it already, and get real.

And don’t worry. Yeah, they’ve got Socrates, Jesus, Elvis, Jung, and Don Adams . . . But we’ve got Regis. Everything’s going to be OK.

The chicken ($8.50) was a little dry, but the preserved lemon sauce that it was drenched in was fantastic sop for the great homemade Moroccan bread. And there were good olives and, oddly, a handful of french fries scattered artfully about the leg and the thigh, sticking up like arrows out of General Custer (dead).

This is a tiny restaurant, Tajine. Maybe just six or seven tables. Very cozy and superfriendly. Sandwiches go for seven bucks with meat, five-fifty without, and entrees range from seven to eight-fifty, except for the brochette royale, which is basically everything, lamb, chickens, and ground beef, with soup and salad for 12 bucks.

And thirdly but not leastly, all kidding aside, if we got more people now aboveground than under it, you gotta wonder at least a little, if not to distraction, what this says about our planet in terms of, you know, real estate trends and compost.


I know, I know, you’re on that already. Well, my job is poetry and poultry, not politics or theology, but has anyone suggested yet tax breaks for the childless, state-subsidized sex-change operations, and, I don’t know, the supreme naturalness, in an overpopuutf8g species, of same-sex marriages?

Damn, we’re nostalgic, ain’t we?

Well, we got Regis! Regis saves. And he lives, I know, because I just heard him on the radio. He’s pushing grape juice instead of wine. Welch’s. Blood of Regis.

Another thought occurs to me. It occurred to me awhile ago, actually, but I saved it until last, so as not to ruin everything. It’s this: that Earl Butter got his story wrong. Heard wrong, misunderstood, or even lied to me, for kicks. He’s a notorious kidder. And I’m a pretty gullible traveler. It does seem far-far-far-far-fetched, huh? People have been dying for a pretty damn long time. How can they possibly be outnumbered by the living?

Listen, I gotta go now. I have a therapy appointment, and groceries to get, and I have to do my makeup. You do the work. Look it up online, think about it, figure something out, and get back to me. *


Tues.–Wed. and Sun., noon–10 p.m.; Thurs.–Sat., noon–11 p.m.

552 Jones, SF

(415) 440-1718

Takeout and catering available

No alcohol

Credit cards not accepted


Wheelchair accessible

Heart of glass


One way to temper the shock of the new is to leaven it with bits of the old. The Europeans are expert at this, though they are more likely to do it the other way around: fluffing the old with bits of the new. On a long-ago visit to Oxford, England, in the first gray days of 1989, I was startled to find a Benetton, slick with plate glass and multicolored neon, installed along the high street in a sooty medieval building. We did not go in — for what would be the point? — but continued on to Christ Church College after a brief pause for fish and chips in a hotel pub.

If Bushi-tei is the most beautiful restaurant to open in San Francisco for a long while — if it is, in fact, arrestingly beautiful — it is because its designers understood that the present and the past are having a long conversation about the future. Bushi-tei (the name is said to mean "samurai with a big heart") is ultramodern and at the same time rustic; it is plate glass, frosted glass, a table for 16 topped with glass, and it is aged lumber salvaged from a mid-19th-century building in Nagano, Japan, and strategically placed around the dining room so that one moment you think you are south of Market, the next in the dining hall of a medieval monastery, and the moment after that in a ski lodge, with winter whistling beyond the log-cabin walls.

The main floor of the dining room is dominated by the huge glass-top table, laid with a long row of flickering votive candles as if it were part of the set for a Brother Cadfael mystery on PBS, or in the sanctuary of some Anglican church at Advent. Was the restaurant expecting some huge party? I asked our server. I was full of apprehension, for huge parties tend to grow festive and then raucous, which can have a swamping effect on parties of two.

She shook her head. No, no big party, she said. I asked what the big table was for, then, and she explained it was sometimes used to accommodate lone, stray diners, as was done at inns in the days of Chaucer. Town Hall, in SoMa, has used a similar communal table to great effect while at the same time smoothly accommodating walk-ins and other slipshod planners.

Town Hall does not have food like Bushi-tei’s, however. The executive chef, Seiji "Waka" Wakabayashi (one of his recent gigs: Ondine, in Sausalito), is fluent in the high culinary idiom of France as well as the varying dialects of the Orient, and the result is an extraordinary and stylish melding of East and West, presented on gorgeous white ceramic tableware (from Tak and Wak) that perfects the interior design.

As at the fancier sorts of French places, the sequence of courses is punctuated by little grace notes that don’t appear on the menu, starting with an amuse-bouche of, say, tuna paté in a little pastry buttercup and scattered with minced chives, and ending with petits fours, about which more anon. In between are dishes of greater substance in which disparate elements are often artfully mingled, as in a carpaccio of golden beets ($12), sliced into thin coins and overlaid with bolts of fluke (a remarkably tasty white-fleshed fish), some mizuna for shrubbery, and red dots of raspberry-ume sauce. (Ume is a Japanese plum variety noted for its tartness.)

When the food is not a mingling of East and West, it tends to be Western. A quiver of grilled asparagus spears ($6), for instance, is simply dressed Mediterranean style with some verjuice and sea salt and topped with shavings of parmesan cheese, while pan-seared Sonoma duck breast ($22), finely carved into carpaccio-like slices, each with a heart of rose, is accompanied by braised spinach, a crème-fraîchey whip of mascarpone and mustard, and dried chutney.

Not all the fusing, meantime, is flawless. It should be back to the drawing board for the seared blue-fin tuna belly ($28), a slim filet of doubtless pricey fish — in sushi bars, tuna belly is prized for its fattiness and commands a high price — that does not respond well to heat. Fish fat might be highly desirable when uncooked, but when cooked, it develops a strong, acrid scent and flavor I found dislikable despite the camouflage of celery-root puree, bean sprouts, and lime-herb sea salt. Since it takes all kinds to make a world, it did not entirely surprise me that my companion liked the tuna belly as much as I deplored it; he is, after all, a tireless eater of crackly, crinkly, aromatic bronze skin, whether of chicken or salmon. There was something deeply atavistic going on here, some ghost conjured from the hunter-gatherer past whose presence I could sense but not see, something about smoky, fatty flesh. I traded for the remains of the duck, gamy but still civilized.

The petits fours — an intense chocolate tart the size of a half-dollar and an orange financier of about the same size, glazed with Cointreau or some other orange liqueur — make a nice postprandial nibble. Sweet tooths of a harder core will want something more substantial, though, and among the more interesting of the larger choices is a black-sesame blancmange ($6.50), essentially a kind of pudding served in a nifty little capped pot and topped with pineapple dice: sweet but not too sweet, and interesting, though not shocking. *


Tues.–Sun., 5:30–10:30 p.m. (Fri. until 11:30 p.m.)

1638 Post, SF

(415) 440-4959

Beer, wine, sake


Not noisy

Wheelchair accessible

{Empty title}


I’ll finish the poem in a minute, but first I have to put on five more sweaters, go break up the ice in the chicken waterer, and saw up another armload of scrap wood for the fire.

Where was I? Pittsburgh, calzone. You know, as much as I’d love to only write about out-of-town restaurants now, by way of being nutty, I just

Without Reservations


We haven’t quite reached the point at which you can cuss somebody out with the phrase “farmed salmon,” but for responsible fish buyers it’s a fairly hair-raising expression nonetheless. Farmed salmon, while predictable, convenient, and relatively inexpensive, implies a great many bad things, among them water pollution, the spreading of pathogens, and the overuse of antibiotics whose long-term effects in people are poorly understood. Salmon farming is also part of the unfortunate American habit of industrially producing everything, from furniture to writers. And, for connoisseurs, farmed salmon is just not as tasty as its wild cousins.

My dark confession for today is that, all other things being equal, I would prefer to buy farmed seafood

Dine review


In the arena of raw seafood, the Japanese are not unchallenged. They are probably dominant, of course, being masters of nigiri and sashimi and of rolls in versions beyond count. But the Spanish and French and their New World offshoots offer us ceviche (or seviche)

Eat the old


THERE’S NOTHING LIKE  in-the-moment enthusiasm to make you lose critical perspective. I can think of a hundred albums that have excited me to the point of thinking, "This is the best band ever." That a handful of those albums belong to early-’70s-era Funkadelic makes it that much harder to be unbiased, especially since the recent reissues of their Westbound Records catalog have been parked in my disc changer for the past month.

 So when I call Funkadelic the best rock band of the early ’70s, I’m aware of the possible hyperbole – but I still think I’m right. Yet the recent reissue of their first seven studio albums – with liner notes, original artwork, remastered sound, and bonus tracks – is the first time these records have been given the archival treatment they deserve. Funkadelic and Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow (both 1970), Maggot Brain (1971), Cosmic Slop (1973), and Standing on the Verge of Getting It On (1974) are all start-to-finish classics in my book, with the transitional, uneven America Eats Its Young and the more casual, jam-oriented Let’s Take It to the Stage just a notch below them.

 Taken together, these albums represent an amazing progression of sounds and styles, from acid rock, Detroit soul, and studio-based psychedelia on the earlier ones to heavy funk-rock, sicko novelty songs, and soaring R&B ballads on the next few. There are also hints – especially on America and Stage – of the anthemic funk style that sister band Parliament and the later, slicker version of Funkadelic made famous, but not as many as newcomers or casual P-Funk fans might expect. After all, I remember how surprised and blown away I was when I heard Maggot Brain’s proto-metal masterpiece "Super Stupid" for the first time. I had only heard a Parliament greatest-hits CD before, and I somehow thought I knew e xactly what this whole P-Funk business was all about. Boy, was I wrong.

 One of the remarkable aspects of the Westbound-era Funkadelic is the sheer variety of their music. Commercially, this variety probably worked against them – as if there weren’t enough strikes already against an acid-dropping, guitar-wielding black rock band with a bunch of uncredited vocalists and no true lead vocalist. But the range encompassed in these albums is part of what gives them depth and makes them so interesting to listen to over and over. Funny songs, angry songs, sad songs, uplifting songs – they did ’em all equally well, thanks to leader, producer, and chief songwriter George Clinton’s casting instincts as well as the vast pool of talent he had on hand.

 It’s true of the much-lauded Maggot Brain as well as the purposefully slicker Cosmic Slop. In addition to Clinton’s grim Vietnam War monologue on "March to the Witch’s Castle," Slop includes a tasteless recounting of a transvestite groupie encounter ("No Compute") followed by an old-school R&B tearjerker ("This Broken Heart") – a remarkable contrast that gives both songs a resonance they wouldn’t have just on their own. Such contrasts are one reason why you can’t just buy a greatest-hits album and get what Funkadelic were about. They were an albums band, not a singles band – in contrast to Parliamen t, which made several fine albums but excelled more at making concise, catchy dance-floor anthems.

 The liner notes to these reissues do a helpful job of sorting out the group’s confusing, on-again, off-again personnel changes. After Maggot Brain, the lineup changed so much that Funkadelic was less a "band" than a conglomerate (although not nearly as loose a conglomerate as the P-Funk All-Stars touring act). This revolving-door cast included legends such as guitar shredder Eddie Hazel and keyboardist-arranger Bernie Worrell, as well as lesser-known heroes like drummer Tiki Fulwood and vocalist-guitarist Gary Shider, a VIP on the post-Maggot Brain albums. America Eats Its Young alone includes some 40 musicians and vocalists, while the others average around 10. (Yes, bass icon Bootsy Collins is one of them, but he wasn’t a major player until later, beginning with Let’s Take It to the Stage.)

If you’re an old fan who’s just interested in bonus tracks, Funkadelic, with its many alternate versions and B-sides, and Maggot Brain, with its alternate, full-band mix of the monumental title track, are the standouts. If you haven’t heard these albums, just start with the first and go in chronological order from there, skipping America Eats Its Young and saving it until after you’ve heard Cosmic Slop and Standing on the Verge. (America is less of an a rchetypal Funkadelic LP and more of a hodgepodge of various P-Funk ideas.) I love ’em all, though, and  will continue to generate hyperbole on the band’s behalf until stations like the Bone drop the Guess Who and Grand Funk Railroad and start playing "Super Stupid" and "Funk Dollar Bill," or until journalists quit perpetuating the booty-shaking party-band aspect of Clinton and company’s legacy at the expense of all the other incredible music they made. Don’t hold your breath.