Thursday, April 9, 2015

California Eatin'

I took off a long weekend from book-writing last Thursday to fly to San Francisco to attend a party celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Well, the online community I've been a member of since early 2001, making me something of a n00b. The party wasn't four days long, but I wanted to see some old friends while I was out there, and, well, eat a bunch of stuff I can't get here in Austin.

The event stirred up a bunch of feelings and ideas about community that feed directly into my post last year about my ambivalence about returning to America, and I'll address them sooner or later, because I keep seeing things that disturb me in this country besides the headlines about rogue cops and Republicans. But first, let's eat.

* * *

I started out the trip in a bad mood. The booking I'd made on Virgin America was apparently for the 1st, and I'm quite sure that's not what I'd paid for, since I knew I had to teach a class that evening. It only cost me $350 to rectify this "mistake," which I couldn't prove I hadn't made, bringing the cost of the flight almost up to the cost of a flight to London, since I opted for one of the legroom rows, not wishing to repeat my little adventure with pulmonary embolism. Once on board, the flight attendants failed to tell me that food was free, and in order to catch the 8am flight, I'd skipped all breakfast, which caught up to me later. 

On landing, it was easy enough to catch BART almost to the front door of my hotel, although BART, for some reason, has ticket vending machines that won't take a bill larger than $10. Although I'd notified the hotel of an early arrival, the front desk snarled at me when I tried to register, even hinting that they might be oversold. Not a promising beginning, but I checked my bag and walked down Market Street to the Ferry Building, about which I'd read a great deal since it had been turned into a "farmer's market." The quotes indicate that there are only a few farm-to-market stands (offering, true, some very nice looking stuff), but that most of the space is filled with lifestyle accessories more or less oriented towards food, and some restaurants. Starving and disoriented by not having had any coffee yet, I searched for something light I could eat and for some coffee: I had a 2pm lunch scheduled, and it was already after 11am. Acme Bread sold me a delicious sourdough cheese spiral and practically next door was Blue Bottle Coffee, where I purchased a café au lait. I'd heard great things about the coffee (including how expensive it was), and found it just adequate. After colliding with a woman staring into her phone and losing a bit of it, I made it out onto the deck, where the only seat I could find blocked the view of the East Bay with some kind of dredging equipment. Still: a nice place to sip the coffee which hadn't flown out of the cup and work on the pastry -- my teeth still aren't up to most bread, dammit, because Acme is easily the finest bread in San Francisco. 

After walking back to the hotel and being reminded that check-in was 3pm, but that my room was indeed ready, although I was very early, snarl snarl, I checked into the room and headed to the lunch appointment, for which I was slightly late. It was worth it because it was at the legendary Zuni Café, a San Francisco landmark most famous for its roast chicken (one-hour prep time) and hamburger, but also featuring other nice comestables. Trouble was, I wasn't too hungry, as the poorly-chewed pastry was taking up a lot of room. There were nine or ten of us, all Well people except for a friend of one guy who happened to be in town from...Austin. One of our party ordered oysters and champagne, half of which I availed myself of (I do like oysters, but I was still too zonked to want alcohol), and I ordered a salad (arugula and hazelnuts, if memory serves) and a soup (black bean soup, but not like I'd expected). Conversation, as it is on the Well every day and as it is when we meet face-to-face, was lively and wide-ranging. Eventually, we paid the bill and dispersed until the party at Rickshaw Stop that evening. The party was largely a blur for me: the crowd was large enough that I missed a couple of people I knew, I neglected to eat any of the snacks, and two beers just about laid me on my ass, although I did spend several hours sipping them. I did have a good time, though, and crawled back to my hotel at 10:30 to sleep the sleep of the dead. 

I felt much better when I awoke the next day, and then less better when I managed to buy two muffins, a coffee, and a bottle of orange juice for $22 at a nearby trendy supermarket. Lunch would be with my former next-door neighbor, Susie, in what I was hoping would become a tradition: dim sum in the Chinatown of Clement Street. My friend George, who moved to the Bay Area from Austin just as I moved from France to Austin, had recommended a place called Good Luck Dim Sum, and I wished we'd had some. Some good luck, that is: we had the dim sum, and most of it was awful: thick, gummy wrappers around all-but-tasteless fillings. One, which was spinach and minced shrimp, was wonderful, and George later said that none of what we'd had was anything he'd tried. Bad luck. But a fun time catching up and walking the blocks of Chinese Clement. 

Dinner would be solo, and I was thinking of walking down to the Ferry Building to see what the Slanted Door was like, since I've been cooking out of owner Charles Phan's Vietnamese Home Cooking book since returning to Austin and have liked what I've made. But it was Friday night, and I was afraid of going all the way down there and getting turned away, so when someone brought up the fact that Tadich Grill wasn't far away, I became awash in nostalgia for the many tons of sand dabs I'd put away there in the '70s, and headed out there. Tadich was also perfect because, in the food-obsessed society that San Francisco has become, it's way déclassé even though it's superb. Everyone's been there, the menu never changes, isn't it just a tourist trap? Well, no. And when I got there, I decided on crab louie, which is essentially crab, chopped lettuce, and louie dressing, which is sort of like 1000 Island dressing. Crab was in season, sand dabs could wait for next time. I was also kind of full from lunch. Perfecto. Got a seat immediately, waiter was excellent, food was great, there was a hunk of bread served with it that was classically San Francisco sourdough sour, and I was a happy guy. Tomorrow I'd rent a car and the second half of the adventure would happen. 

* * *

A snapshot of Berkeley. Note: it's colder than it looks.
Saturday morning, I checked out of the hotel, only getting snarled at twice, and walked a few blocks to Turk Street to pick up my reserved car. This sent me through the heart of the Tenderloin, a neighborhood calculated to depress the sunniest individual. That old joke says that they picked up America, tilted it to the west, and all the fruits and nuts slid over to California. The Tenderloin is chapter two of that joke: and then they all got old. A lot of the people in the streets were victims of Ronald Reagan's decision to empty out mental hospitals while he was governor. They were shuttled into derelict hotels, and now they still live there, drinking, doing drugs, or just high on their own craziness. 

So in my new Dodge Charger, a car that operates without a key (ain't technology grand?), I headed to Berkeley, to the cottage behind the house of Amy, a Well person who'd offered it for the weekend. It was my first crossing of the new Bay Bridge, which looks suspiciously like the bridge in Milau, north of where I lived in France. Berkeley hadn't changed much, but I wasn't going to spend much time there, since most of the weekend would be spent with George and his girfriend Robin, with a couple of specific goals in mind. The first was to find some salt-cured anchovies. I've been buying them from Amazon for $13.99 plus $10 shipping, and it was the shipping I was planning to avoid. But there was a snag: it was Easter weekend, and apparently there's something traditional that Bay Area Italians make that involves salt-cured anchovies, because Robin called around and called around and finally located a can or two at Genova Deli in north Oakland's Temescal district. This place is legendary, and I'd never been there in all the years I lived in California, plus they make authentic deli sandwiches on fresh sourdough rolls. It was totally satisfying, I have to say. Plus, anchovies. Okay, the cans were $21.95, so I saved two bucks. But I'm set for a year: keep 'em in the fridge in a plastic bag and dig the fish out of the can when you need them and you'll have a new taste sensation; these are not your neighborhood pizzeria's anchovies, not by a long shot. 

So what to do next? There are huge stretches of the Bay Area I haven't seen, including Vallejo, where George and Robin live (not that it's all that worth seeing from all accounts), and north of there are some wonderful wetlands and the town of Napa, which I don't remember visiting, probably due to my extreme wine allergy when I lived out there. (Check your allergies every seven years, folks: sometimes they go away. But that's another story). 

Napa has turned into a gahongous foodie/yuppie destination, in part because of the decision to build a covered market on the formerly bad side of the river, the Oxbow district. There's not much in the Oxbow market per se, just more food-as-lifestyle accessories, non-essentials like a rainbow worth of flavored olive oils, a place selling about 15,000 kinds of bitters, some restaurants, and a fancy butcher shop with dry-cured steaks (something I'm going to try some day). Next door, though, is a building with a baker and another high-end butcher called Fatted Calf that makes its own charcuterie, and we mooched around there for a while. I longed to spend a couple hundred dollars and take a bunch of stuff home with me, but that was impractical from a number of viewpoints, and I note that the website says they also have an outlet in San Francisco, so I might sneak some back sometime. After Oxbow, we went to the other side of the river, where I became gradually horrified by the spectacle while simultaneously becoming thirstier and thirstier from the wonderful sample of prosciutto the guy at Fatted Calf had handed us. Eventually we landed at a gelateria which had Italian sodas, and George got a lemon soda and Robin and I had chinotto, which I'd always wanted to try. A very distinctly adult soft drink, bitter but with a fruit note in the taste, you can find it in Italian delis and probably high-end groceries. 

It was growing dark, and time to head back to Berkeley, although on our way out of town we took time to look at the reconstruction underway from a recent earthquake. There was a great sunset, which I couldn't stop on the freeway to photograph, and after hitting the cottage to drop off my anchovies, we decided to go to an Indian restaurant George had heard about and I'd seen for many, many year, Ajanta. This place is a Berkeley institution, and, like Tadich, it's not as full as it should be, and for the very same reasons. What I liked about it was that it listed not only the ingredients, but also the region where the dish originated. I had chicken mulligatawny, a descriptor I'd only seen referring to the Raj soup, but this was a well-developed curry. The prices here were reasonable, the service impeccable, and yeah, I know, everyone's already been there. You should still go. 

(George's photos of our jaunt are here, by the way.)

The next day I met my friend Elissa, who lives in San Jose, for lunch in Oakland Chinatown, almost certainly the best Chinatown in the Bay Area: not as touristy as the one near North Beach in San Francisco, bigger than Clement Street, it's clearly serving a Chinese-Vietnamese population, as well as other minorities. George had handed me a menu for a place called Spices!3, but I wasn't sure it was a good idea for lunch, more for a group for dinner. Some of the items on the menu also put me off: what's "stinky tofu"? Do I really want to order "Gangsta" Casserole "Murder Style"? On purpose? We decided to wander and see if anything else presented itself, and it did: Classic Guilin Rice Noodles. As you can see from the website, there are two chili sauces that can be mixed in with the noodles, which are very much like rice-based spaghetti. You get them with various meats, mix everything together, and then, towards the end of the meal, mix in a white, milky liquid that comes with the order, or else eat it on the side. I couldn't figure this stuff out, since it seemed to have no discernable taste, but the drier of the two hot sauces wasn't insanely hot and had other stuff -- nuts, maybe? -- in it that really set off the meat-noodle combo. Guilin province is apparently on the border of Szechuan province, and their noodles are apparently legendary. Based on one experience, I'd say so. After that, we stopped briefly at an Afro-Caribbean shop I'd seen while we were looking for parking, far more Afro than Caribbean, but the did have authentic Jamaican curry powder, so now I can try to make beef patties at home. 

That evening, I'd promised to buy dinner for George and Robin at Tommaso's, a restaurant with which I have a long-standing love affair -- and they with me: I helped save the restaurant from closing during the darkest part of their history (to be fair, Francis Ford Coppola, a man I despise, was also instrumental in this) by reviewing it in a magazine. For many years, the review was framed just inside the door, but there have been hundreds since. I was anticipating the food, and possibly a reunion with one or another member of the Crotti family, was Easter. Tommaso's was closed. Ah, well, I had other fond memories: Henry Chung's original Hunan restaurant, another place that magazine had discovered and that became a favorite, with lines out the door. Closed. So, it appeared, were other, tertiary choices. We wound up at the Michaelangelo Cafe, which was perfectly nice (not to mention open), but not what I was dreaming of. It was the stuff I'd found inadequate in San Francisco when I moved there 45 years ago, a New York boy not happy with the far more delicate, northern Italian take on southern Italian food. I now understand it, and I know the ingredients were fresh and tasty here, but it wasn't what I'd hoped for. 

All in all, I had a nice trip, and might well head back there, particularly if summer in Austin makes me crazy: it's never warm in the summer in San Francisco, after all. And I will get to Tommaso's, dammit. 
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