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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

What the F?

Okay, I know it's been awhile since I posted.

Do you read my other blog? No? Well, there you go. If you had, you'd know that I've been busy cooking, going places, eating, and moisturizing.

Here's the bad news.

I'm crazy busy. Busy with work, busy getting ready for Bruce's birthday party, busy getting ready for this trip in May. I've been checking out new places but I haven't had the time to write about them - in that special way that I do.

Please be patient. I'll have some new stuff up eventually, but it may not be until I get a break OR until I get back from my vacation in mid-May.

It's a long time, I know. If you do the RSS feed thing, that's probably good.

Otherwise, please check back here ever so often and I'll have some new stuff up.

Until then, keep knockin' those greasy spoons together.


Monday, March 19, 2007

Dives That Dove

Oddly enough, shortly after writing about them, two of the dives reviewed on this blog have closed their doors for good.

Honestly, it's not my fault!

Thanks to a tip from an anonymous reader, I discovered that one of the hofbraus featured in my Hofbraus of the Bay Area series has closed. After calling them this morning to confirm if my anonymous reader was correct, I've learned that Jerrold Market Place closed 6 months ago and is now only available for catering.

Seeing as how JMP wasn't the best choice for fine dining (or diving), I can't imagine how their catering business will fare any better. If anything, the JMP was a great place for a stiff drink and fried eggs at 5 in the morning - or at least I imagine it was.

Jerrold Market Place: presente!

Also no more: the Bryant Wok Shop

Unfortunately, I could see this coming a year ago. This place could have easily survived in another location like Chinatown, where cheap, mediocre Chinese food thrives in all its greasy glory. However, the techies and web geeks who populate this area for lunch weren't having any of it. It's sad to see a small, established business go - but truth be told, I never gave it much business myself.

It just wasn't that good.

Now there's a new Malaysian restaurant where the Bryant Wok Shop used to be and it's already getting positive Yelp reviews. My personal theory is that Yelp reviews on a new restaurant aren't to be trusted, as they are all too often written by Me-Firsters. These poseurs stand in line the first day a restaurant is open and cheerlead it simply based on the criteria that it's new and they're the first to eat there. Maybe the food is really good – who knows? But I suspect what goes on in the mind of Me-Firsters is that the cuisine seems better than it really is because it's new and different, or (most likely) there's a bit deception going on in a sad and pathetic attempt to slide from the Early Majority class up to the Early Adopters.

Me? I’m a total Laggard.

If it was the case that the web identities of Yelpers were 98 percent anonymous, my theory wouldn't apply. But Yelpers are gathered in social networks, like Friendster, and have a bit of face to show and save when taking the 5 minutes to review the hip, hot, happenin' new thing.

I have no Yelp friends and it's easy to see why. I can be a bit of a negative asshole. However, you can trust my reviews.

Bryant Wok Shop: presente!


Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Save Our Faves 2007: Clown Alley

In general, I don't do memes.

Not because I have anything against them (although some of them are rather blah), but because I usually don't get asked. Now that I've mentioned this, please don't take this as an invitation to tag me, especially if it has anything to do with catblogging or lists.

But when Eric over at The Short Exact Guide tagged me for Save Our Faves 2007, a meme in which you write up your favorite "mom-and-pop" restaurant in danger (whether real or perceived) of closing, I figured it was right up my alley.

Ahem...Clown Alley, to be exact Eric.

Clown Alley is a venerable North Beach restaurant founded by Enrico Banducci, whose other venture – the hungry i – once was a legendary nightclub that propelled the careers of Lenny Bruce, Barbra Streisand, Bill Cosby, and even Maya Angelou. In the 1950s and 60s, Banducci was one of the visionaries who made North Beach the epicenter of nightlife in the city and put it squarely on the map in San Francisco's cultural lexicon.

Clown Alley in (left) 1964 and (right) 2007

Banducci's other endeavor, Enrico's Sidewalk Café, closed late last year after 48 years in business while the original hungry i exists in name only; it's been a tittybar for decades. 10 years ago, Clown Alley closed for a 2-year stint in an attempt to sell the place. The longtime owners, the Pailhe family, eventually decided to hold on to the place and reopened it, albeit with a few touch ups. Doing so, they remained faithful to the original concept and spruced up the place to the delight of long-time Clown Alley regulars. Clown Alley's famous burgers and late business hours were retained and the clown décor continued to terrify coulrophobes everywhere.

As of February 1, 2007, the restaurant has finally come under new ownership - but with the potential of causing some of its regulars to begin singing Tears of a Clown.

The San Francisco Chronicle announced on January 31st that the current owner of Myth and the Myth Café, Tom Duffy, has purchased the restaurant and intends to make some changes, or in his words "a facelift". However, in my humble opinion, there is something rather stupid in trying to fix something that isn't broken, simply because you now own it.

Uh-oh. You can probably see where this is going.

On any given day, Clown Alley is packed with everyone from guys in suits, low-key office workers, construction/blue-collar types, and of course those wacky (and I actually do mean wacky) Scientologists from the "church" next door. Clown Alley's tent is big enough for everyone, and practically everyone at one time or another has gathered under it – everyone except the clown-hatin' snobs you'd expect to find at, say, a certain Café a few blocks away.

Long before krump, there was punk, and before that - there was the Clown. In the 1980s, there was a San Francisco hardcore punk band named Clown Alley featuring Shirley Temple Black's daughter (yes, the Shirley Temple), Lori Black, on bass. While there's nothing punk about today's Clown Alley (the restaurant), the size of the burgers are pretty hardcore.

Clown Alley is all about the burgers (okay, well mostly) and they certainly make one of the best in, if not the City, North Beach/FiDi. Hamburgers, Double Hamburgers, Cheeseburgers, Double Cheeseburgers – it doesn't matter, all you need is one. Each one is made to order by the friendly guys waiting to throw a burger on the grill for you as you stand in line to pay. Often, your order is ready to pick up before you reach the cashier.

The fries are great, if you can finish them (usually you are too full from the burger). For the most part, I stick with the burger and if I'm with someone, we share the fries. Here's a double cheeseburger I happened to have macked on yesterday.

One of the best parts of the Clown Alley experience is clean up guy.

I'm not kidding.

There's this guy who works there who, basically, kicks ass at his job – although, sometimes it's enough to make you laugh. He's the guy in charge of clearing the tables. Often, he non-chalantly hovers near your table, just itching to pick up your empty trays and garbage. Sometimes he's there to grab your garbage as soon as you've swallowed the last bite and dropped the last napkin. Don’t get me wrong: He doesn't do it in a way that makes you feel rushed. Rather, he does it because (it seems) he loves his job.

And that's what I like about the Clown: it has enough charm to fill a big top.

How much of that charm will be retained under the new ownership, we will see. Frankly it doesn't bode well when the new owner immediately says he wants to give it a face lift. It would be okay if that new owner was, say, Dr. Biggles. But unfortunately, that ominous figure of speech comes from a guy who sells butternut squash soup and duck confit for a living – not your typical Clown Alley fare.

What's most perplexing is that, according to the SF Chronicle article, he wants to include new items on the menu – items like "Chicago-style hot dogs".

Uh, what.

What the fuck does Chicago-style hot dogs have to do with San Francisco? This isn't Chicago. Why would anyone come to San Francisco to eat a Chicago-style hot dog? Wouldn't you just go to Chicago? And what sense to does it make to serve them anywhere other than the "Windy City", which unless your talking about the Upper Market/Van Ness Corridor, doesn't describe Frisco at all. Besides Sufjan Stevens who blew through on a US tour a few months back, how many Chicagoans actually are there in the Bay Area?

Frankly, I doubt such a city called "Chicago" actually exists! I haven't seen it. Should I have faith that it's just there? Or that this hot dog with the neon green relish and sliced tomatoes is supposedly indicative of the local cuisine? In his book, The Areas of my Expertise, John Hodgman suggests that Chicagoans are actually a nomadic people whose lost home exists only in their minds ("and in the glowing crystal memory cells they all carry in the palms of their hands") – and I'm likely to agree.

I guess I shouldn't be so quick to judge. The guy does say he plans to "live in the environment before making any changes". Clown Alley has a way of growing on you like, well, a clown – and hopefully its natural charm and excellent burgers will persuade Duffy to retain it's homegrown character. If it doesn't, well, I guess we all should treat ourselves to a heartfelt rendition of Pagliacci and wait for the next act.

However, you still have time to enjoy the show while it lasts. It may not be the greatest show on earth, but it certainly is on the corner of Jackson and Columbus.

That show: whose next curtain call may very well soon be its last.

Send in the Clown.


Monday, February 26, 2007

What's in a Name?: Anatomy of a Coffee Shop

Discovery is seeing what everybody else has seen, and thinking what nobody else has thought.
- Albert Szent-Gyorgi

Before, when I saw coffee shops like the Golden or HRD, I thought nothing of them - except that maybe they were good places to get a cheap and greasy meal. Now that I've had a chance to explore more of these curious culinary landmarks, and sort of mentally tie them all together, I see coffee shops with a new pair of eyes. The more I learned about them, the more I "discovered" them, and a whole new meaning about these places and where they fit into this large and confusing world suddenly became clear to me.

Apart from the "new immigrant experience" as it pertains to Asian American ownership, coffee shops themselves are living, breathing reminders of our not-so-distant past; where we've been and, to a certain extent, where we're going. Even more, they are distinctly Californian and as such, we Californians should pay homage to them – as well as mourn for those who close up shop for whatever reason.

Before coffee shops came on the scene, restaurants in America had a history dating back roughly 150 years – give or take a decade or two. Casual restaurants, which served both women and men, had an even shorter history.

The predecessors to those quirky American institutions we lovingly refer to as dives were the lunch counter and the lunch wagon. From the first lunch counter was born the luncheonette and the drug-store/five-and-dime lunch counters, many of which were made famous (or infamous) during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.

Lunch wagons gave birth to that quintessential American classic: the diner. They also gave birth to the less glamorous, but much appreciated, roach coaches (aka mobile catering trucks) and spicier sister, the taco truck; both credited with rising construction worker midsections and skillfully circumventing anti-junk food regulations, much to the frustration of San Franciscan parents.

Somewhere down the tree of this deep-fried, heavy on the mayo, family was born the drive-in, the 24-hour donut shop, the fast food burger chain, and the coffee shop.

Californian coffee shops are unique in that they're not typical diners, lunch counters, or cafes. Even more confusing: many coffee shops serve typical diner food, only have a lunch counter, and/or also serve coffee. The one common denominator is that most trace their history back to the 1950s and 1960s. This two-decade period was the heyday of the coffee shop and its boom was felt large and wide.

Coffee shops in Northern California tend to be situated in heavily foot-trafficked urban areas while coffee shops in Southern California revolve, like most things, around the automobile. SoCal coffee shops are often architectural survivors in a world of suburban sprawl; uniquely astonishing in their design. The design style, commonly called "Googie", began with a coffee shop called Googie's but by the 1960s had permeated much of the commercial architecture built in California – occasionally spreading North and Eastward to other parts of the country. Today, Googie architecture is endangered, with only a handful of passionate people continuing the fight to save these classic restaurants from the developer's bulldozer.

It may surprise you to learn that one of the most successful and longest lasting of these Southern California coffee shops is Denny's.

Photo graciously borrowed from You Are Here.

Although a totally different company today, the Denny's restaurant chain began in 1954 as Danny's Coffee Shop. Apparently, some of the original Googie-style Denny's still in operation were the inspiration for a half-hearted campaign to go retro a few years back – a campaign called "Denny's Diner". This costly exercise not only engaged in historical revisionism – the original Denny's was a coffee shop, not a diner – but it completely turned off Denny's true demographic: the Drunk-at-3AM college student.

In Northern California, coffee shops have a much lower profile. No surprise here - NorCal has always had a rep for being mellow.

NorCal coffee shop facades are often uninteresting and blend into their surroundings, almost to the point of camouflage. If it weren't for an unassuming sign above their door saying "coffee shop", these dives would be practically invisible. In fact, they are the opposite of SoCal flash and seem to take delight just blending in.

Of course, there are exceptions. Places like the Manor Coffee Shop and It's Tops Coffee Shop certainly announce to the neighborhood that they're there. Others, however, like the Taylor Street Coffee Shop, stand like architectural pipsqueaks amongst the towering Goliaths that overshadow them.

Taylor Street Coffee Shop, San Francisco

And yet, a rose by any other name would smell as - ahem - fried; many coffee shops call themselves cafes or go by their own unique name, like The Koffee Pot. However, there exists the opposite phenomenon in the Bay Area - and in San Francisco in particular: the all-greasy-no-spoon coffee shop. In other words, businesses that call themselves "coffee shops" which aren't.

Instead, they seem to be shells of former coffee shops in which the new owners have kept the old name but not the cuisine. Ming's Coffee Shop on Second Street is a good example, as is Little Paris on Stockton - which, while is a great place to grab a cheap bahn mi sandwich, is not a coffee shop.

Little Paris

To Ming's credit, they still serve a traditional American breakfast, but the rest of the day it's straight-up, easy-greasy Chinese food. Oddly enough, they just opened a brand new Chinese restaurant around the corner on Mission but kept the "coffee shop" in their name.

However, don't let Ming's and the rest of the coffee shop imposters fool you. Here's what a coffee shop really is: A small, casual restaurant, often with an open kitchen, and almost always with counter seating. Hours of operation are between early morning (usually 7AM) and late afternoon - in most cases 4PM.

While a lunch counter with swivel stools plays a prominent role in the layout of the restaurant, there is usually table service as well. One pays for their meal at the table or, if seated there, at the counter. A glass of water is usually customary.

Although coffee is often served, it is not the focus of the restaurant. Despite their catchy names, coffee shops have absolutely zippo to do with coffeehouses, Starbucks, or European-style cafes.

The focus for these coffee shops is breakfast and lunch (and very rarely dinner). Breakfasts include standard American food such as waffles, pancakes, omelets, fried eggs, bacon, sausages, hashbrowns, toast, and any combination of the above. In some cases, such as with the "Country Scramble" at the Oakdale Cafe, these combinations border on the bizarre and dangerously calorie-laden.

"Country Scramble": Country sausage gravy on top of scrambled eggs on top of a fried country sausage patty on top of melted cheddar cheese on top of a slice of sourdough bread.

Lunch includes hot and cold sandwiches, as well as burgers, along with the occasional teriyaki chicken or roast turkey and veggies plate thrown in for good measure. French fries and coleslaw are the usual sides and beverages range from ice tea, coffee, sodas, and beer.

Of course, I cannot forget to mention the influence coffee shop owners have had on their own menus. Asian-owned coffee shops, such as Curly's and Golden, have introduced their own lunch standards that, alongside traditional American cuisine, make for a peculiar fusion between the old and the new.

It's these peculiarities that convinced me to pursue this series in the first place, and I'm happy to report to you: I'm not disappointed.

However, if there was one thing I wish I could've done better with this series, it would have been to include a personal perspective from the coffee shop owners themselves. I regret that I haven't included that here, but rest assured that I am not closing the chapter with the end of this current series. I still plan on visiting many of these coffee shops in the future, and hopefully one day I will be able to report back on new and interesting "dives", perhaps even with an interview or two.

By no means am I finished here. But I am moving on for now.

In closing, I hope that I have fairly shone a spotlight on these restaurants and restaurants like them. I've enjoyed visiting these dives and being able to write about them, and I hope you have enjoyed coming along with me.

If so, stay tuned. There's more to come.


Monday, February 12, 2007

Irving Street Cafe

Sometimes things don't go your way and you just have to accept the fact that Art's Cafe is closed on your birthday (the day you took off work) and that even though you braved the dark and low clouds - heavy with rain and symbolism - and drove all the way to the Inner Sunset to wax poetic about a Korean-owned lunch counter that serves a mean omelet, Art's Cafe is closed for repainting and the lady patiently looking up at you on her hands and knees retouching that door jamb says they're not open on Mondays anyway.

Son. Of. A. Bitch.

So, we went across the street. To the Irving Street Cafe.

Here's the deal: The Irving Street Cafe looks like, at one time, it was an old school coffee shop but it's had so many changes of ownership and remodels that it seemlessly blends in with the rest of the uneventful breakfast and lunch joints on that commercial strip. It has a lunch counter from which you can watch your food being cooked or you can sit at one of the tables off to the side. The lighting looks chic and modern - for 1991 – and framed, mass-produced Ansel Adams prints hang on the wall.

Personally, I'm more of a Diane Arbus fan. But then, hello, look at this blog!

Even though the Irving Street Cafe fits the criteria of my Asian-owned and operated Coffee Shops series, I hadn't planned on writing about it. It wasn't even a Plan B. We only ate there because we didn't want to leave the neighborhood hungry, since we were on our way to the Mission via Daly City and a quick jaunt down Geneva.

But that's when Bruce brought up the Patty Melt. Oh yeahhhh. Okay, let's see: wasn't I just complaining about the lack of good Patty Melts we've encountered on this mini-circuit of Asian-owned Coffee Shops? I believe I was.

The plan: I'll try the Patty Melt and Bruce would get the omelet. If the Patty Melt was good, I'll take pictures and then maybe, just maybe, I'll write about it.

Apparently, it was.

Don't worry: I asked for medium-rare.

In fact, it was the Patty Melt that Bruce deserved instead. Had he known this was the place to get it, he might have skipped the "chicken apple sausage" and cheese omelet, even though he said it had a good flavor, the sausage was sliced real thin (which worked in the omelet better than chunks) and was made with real cheese. It was served with toast (butter and strawberry jam) and hashbrowns - just in case one actually needed the extra carbs – and came on a plate so large and heavy I actually felt pity for the person who has to wash the dishes.

I had the choice of french fries, potato salad, or green salad to go with my sandwich and I chose the green salad. Because it's healthy. And isn't that why we Americans are so overweight? Bad choices?

However, taking a healthy option and then smothering it with 1000 Island dressing probably cancels out whatever you were going for in the first place, but then the waitress was kind enough to bring the bottle and leave it. Thank you!

Oh, and is it really a surprise that the service was incredibly friendly? Not really.

I swear, all of these Asian-American Coffee Shop people must go to the same charm school. Where is this place? And can somebody please bestow some humanitarian or Nobel peace prize upon it?

Irving Street Cafe: thanks for restoring my faith in the Patty Melt.

Art's: you better recognize.


Manor Coffee Shop

I've been thinking about things lately. Thinking a lot.

I've been thinking that there are people who must champion the new, as well as those who champion the old. Both are important. Often, one takes precedence over the other, but either way we're sacrificing something.

No doubt, often is the case where such thoughts are unheard of and matters progress for better or worse. I see it happening all the time, and so do you.

But while it may seem contentious to juxtapose champions of the old against champions of the new, I think that a well-rounded person, a well-rounded community, and a well-rounded society must possess the characteristics of both.

You know how when you're driving east on Portola at night from the western side of Twin Peaks and then you pass Tower Market (now a Mollie Stones) and then you hit that spot where you can see the entire eastern portion of the city and you get this whole perspective of "Wow, this is it. This is who we are"?

Right about that time, Bruce and I were coming from the Manor Coffee Shop after having an early dinner. We had been out what seemed like all day, volunteering at the SF Food Bank (and meeting some nice folks), going to the hardware store, and getting special diet cat food at the SPCA. By the way, if our cats could articulate their displeasure, they would tell you that "Fancy Feast" is neither.

Anyway, so there we were. I began to take a mental inventory of all of the coffee shops I had eaten at and those where I had planned to eat. That's when it hit me: self-doubt. Doubt about what I'm doing. Is it right? Where am I going with all of this? Why am I spending my time on this?

I began to think, "what if nothing changed?" It's nice and cutesy to have all of these quaint relics from the past still in operation in our city, but what if there were more of them? In fact, what if nothing in the last 50 years had changed and we simply lived in one huge museum?

And that's when it dawned on me: we need both. We need both the old and the new for our own integrity; our integrity as a society and as a culture. We need the old to understand where we've been and for new generations to unlock the secrets and hidden mysteries only things older than ourselves can possess. We also must give these places and things time to mature so that we can appreciate them when their time is right. If large swaths of Westlake were destroyed in the 1980s to make way for new housing, I would've never had the opportunity to see these beautiful homes.

At the same time, we can't be stifled by the old. Sometimes fire must clear the brush for seedlings to grow. We've seen that fire quite literally in this city. We've seen the fire of development take away from us precious places and institutions, but we've also seen it "clear the brush" so that something new and beautiful and grand could grow in its place.

There is a place for both to coexist, and coexisting is what the Manor Coffee Shop is all about.

The Manor Coffee Shop is run by immigrants from China, but the clientele are mostly older white locals who've no doubt lived in the same neighborhood since the Manor was new. One doesn't have to be a genius to see that all of which I've mentioned above is at play here: the new, the old, both coexisting. New owners, new to America – old to America, old just in general.

And in fact, the interior décor of the Manor Coffee Shop itself is a hodge podge of constant reminders of the old and new. Old photographs of San Francisco and the West Portal neighborhood abound amidst the classic 1950s lunch counter and dining booths, while the occasional Vitamin Water or latest soft drink store display screams out at you from the clutter of yesteryear which surrounds it.

Maybe it just happened to be this way yesterday late afternoon, but when Bruce and I walked in, there were a few single old men sitting at the counter while most of the booths were occupied by groups of older ladies.

By the way, I'm pretty sensitive when it comes to age, so when I say old I mean that if you weren't to be trusted by ageist hippies during the Summer of Love, you're old. In fact, if you were an ageist hippie at the Summer of Love – you're fucking old, okay? I'm not hatin'!

I overheard our waitress remark to one of her table of regulars that she had been working there for the past 15 years and was an old lady now at the age of forty.

Oh. My. God. You should've heard the contempt those women muttered. In fact, I believe the precise words I heard were "Oh, puh-leeze. Someone bring me a violin already."


Anyway, the clutter of the past at the Manor is nothing compared to the clutter of their kitchen, which you have to walk through in order to get to the restroom. Bruce tipped me off to it and said that I needed to get a photo for the blog. He was right, only when I tried to be sly about it, the flash went off and scared the bejeebus out of the Chinese cooks in the back.

Flashes blow my cool every time.

Still, I've seen less clutter at Cookin' and that's really saying something. In a way, it's cool that it's this old kitchen with a lot of, ahem, character. On the other hand, I just hope none of that character spills over into my vegetable beef soup. This soup had all of the character it could handle, but it did need some salt.

Thankfully, our meal came quickly after the soup arrived. Bruce suffered through another Patty Melt while I opted to go for an item off the dinner menu. The Manor differs from the usual Coffee Shop standard in that it's open past 4 PM and has a dinner menu. Many of the lunch items are served for dinner and despite the 3 PM cut-off time posted on the menu, we were told at 5 PM that lunch was still available if we wanted it.

I had chopped steak and spaghetti with "homemade" meat sauce. I'm not sure when Italy abrogated her parental responsibilities and relinquished custody of her spaghetti children over to America, but nothing makes a more solid American meal than a big ass plate of spaghetti and red sauce.

The chopped steak, which I ordered medium rare, actually came little more rare than that but was decent nevertheless. Basically I ordered it because: what is this thing you call "Chopped Steak"? It's rare, no pun intended, one actually sees chopped steak listed on a menu anymore. Though at one point it was more common, chopped steak hasn't been in vogue since Key Parties.

Basically, it's steak which has been chopped and then reformed into a patty – yes, like a hamburger. It's less fatty than a hamburger and has a beefier flavor. The best part, if in fact you consider this a plus, is that it cuts without a knife, simply by using your fork.

And yes, there was A1 steak sauce to go around. I didn't even have to ask the waitress. She brought it to my table and thanked me for not asking. In fact, she'll thank you for just standing there. A smelly crazy bum walked in while we were waiting for our food and tried to get a free cup of coffee. She thanked him for "leaving now". She thanked him because her boss wasn't in right now and then thanked him to not come again.

It was refreshing in a way, because for once no one was thanking Jesus or God – and I'm certain they get tired of it themselves.

For the most part, I was happy with my throwback-to-another-era meal and the service (as I've mentioned) was excellent. However, Bruce got screwed on the Patty Melt.

What the hell?

We are finding out more and more that these wonderful, Asian-owned coffee shops excel in breakfast and certain other dishes but seriously lack in the patty melt department. How hard can it be? It's just a freakin' hamburger!

If you know where the bomb Patty Melt lives, can you please let me know?


Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Westlake Coffee Shop

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,
Little boxes, little boxes,
Little boxes, all the same.

There's a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they're all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same.

That song, called "Little Boxes, was written in 1962 by Malvina Reynolds, a native San Franciscan, presumably about the newly built/newly developed suburb of Westlake in Daly City. If you're not a folk connoisseur, don't worry. You've probably heard the song if you've ever watched the phenomenal Showtime series Weeds, a dark comedy about a young, suburban widow who turns to selling pot to support her kids and middle class lifestyle.

The song was just one of many in a series of criticisms leveled at the then new housing development that 50 years later is viewed as one of the finest examples of post-World War II suburban planning and architecture in the United States. At the time, Westlake was unique in that it was a planned community built very quickly and very cheaply for the thousands of returning soldiers and their families for whom living in cramped city conditions was no longer an option. Unique for its time, the development consisted of newly constructed 2-3 bedroom homes equipped with all of the modern conveniences (ie., small yards, parking garage, modern appliances), a shopping center, a library, and schools.

It was the Suburban 50s like you wouldn't believe – unless, of course, you lived through it.

It isn't difficult to imagine what the critics of Westlake felt as rows upon rows of homes were built over the course of a decade (starting in 1949), turning what was once a peaceful coastal hillside and valley into the proto-sprawl of what we see happening in America's small towns today. Although Westlake, unlike it's sister-suburb Levittown, offered the new homebuyer with a choice of eight stylized floorplans, it's must have been hard not to feel just a little bit of your soul sucked out by the overwhelming conformity and sheer enormity of the project.

This is, after all, the age in which Howl was written; read aloud just a few miles up the way by a young and horny Allen Ginsberg. Yet while Ginsberg, Burroughs, Kerouac, and the rest were busy getting their coffee-skewed beatitude adjusted in the city, young families of doctors, lawyers, business executives, and their pretty children made of ticky-tacky, were busy getting their optimistic burbs on westside.

Interestingly enough, despite the many legitimate criticisms of the then-new Westlake community, I imagine one huge criticism fairly applied likely didn't surface until years later: that homes were sold to "whites only". This may seem odd, especially given the Bay Area's liberal reputation, but until somewhat recently it was common practice in San Francisco and outlying areas to openly discriminate against non-white homebuyers – most notably, San Franciscan icon Willie Mays.

Even though Westlake shares this ugly bit of history with much of the Bay Area, it would be unfair to lump it in as just another suburb. Its history and the history of the man who built it are just as colorful as the many homes maintained (though, with some controversy) and preserved to this day – homes that, in my humble opinion, match San Francisco's Victorians in terms of beauty, architectural integrity, and historic significance.

A great resource for anyone interested in Westlake can be found in the book "Little Boxes: The Architecture of a Classic Midcentury Suburb" by Rob Keil, which details the beginnings of Westlake, the eccentricities of the man, Henry Doelger, who built it, the architects and builders who worked for him, and what Westlake was like to the people who once lived there and what it's like now.

I happen to have a copy of the book at home, right now. In fact, I checked it out from the Daly City library. It's a beautifully written and designed book, with many full color photographs, which would look perfect resting on my Boomerang coffee table, if I had one.

However, what's interesting and unfortunate is that, while the book also highlights Westlake Joe's (which I thoroughly rake over the coals here), an extinct drive-in called Tips, and the Westlake Shopping Center, the Westlake Coffee Shop is never mentioned.

If you, like me, happen to enjoy your irony served warm with a low-carb side and a tall, cool glass of ice tea, then perhaps you'll appreciate knowing that the community that began as a "whites only" enclave 58 years ago is today one in which whites constitute a mere 25 percent of the population, with Asians (mostly Filipinos) being the majority group.

Nowhere is that more evident than the Westlake Coffee Shop; a culinary landmark that, perhaps more than Westlake Joe's or any other place in the district, speaks more to the legacy and current culture of Westlake than any other business in the area. While many, if not most, of the Westlake Coffee Shop's regulars are elderly whites, the business is owned and operated by middle-aged Chinese immigrants.

However, much is still the same at the Westlake Coffee Shop, despite a complete overhaul and redesign of the whole Westlake Shopping Center (for the worse, if you ask me). It's original fixtures and seating are still intact and the signage has changed little. The waitresses still wear uniforms – uniforms that match the interior color scheme of the shop.

I have to mention that, while I'm on the subject, the waitresses here are all very gracious and dependable. Something I've noticed every time I've been in is that, if you do become a regular here, they'll greet you by name and give you a warm send off.

I also appreciate how they go out of their way to decorate for various holidays. Around Christmastime, they have plenty of poinsettias decorating the counter area (which could seem sinister, since poinsettias are poisonous). And even though Easter is still two months away, they have all sorts of porcelain chicken and egg figurines poised behind a metal and glass display case above the coffee station. It has that whole "Aunt Shirley's house" feel to it, and I like to imagine that somewhere there is a glass candy dish filled with stale mints lying around.

Regular coffee shop hours are in play here and so are the menu items. The breakfast items shine the brightest while the sandwiches can be hit or miss.

Hit: my Monte Cristo; so bad it was good. Lots of ham and cheese, so much fried egg batter it was crazy, lots of powdered sugar – and if that wasn't enough, two packets of strawberry jam.

Miss: the Pastrami on Rye and the Patty Melt.

These were virtually the same sandwich. The meat portions in general were skimpy (considering the price), while the pastrami itself was perhaps the biggest hate crime against the Jewish people I've seen since Adam Sandler. Like Sandler, this pastrami was some weird, processed, imitation of the real thing and made the traifling hot pastramis at Lee's Deli look like they just aliyah'd from Second Avenue (RIP).

The Patty Melt, a coffee shop sandwich if there ever was one, lacked the sex appeal one automatically finds when taking a butch hamburger patty and tarting it up in Grilled Cheese drag. As any self-respecting queen will tell you, never show your pickle on the first date. Unless it's big. And this pickle needed a penis pump. In fact, I've seen better patty melts on prison visits.

But despite improvements to be made in the Certain Sandwich department, the Westlake Coffee Shop is a real keeper and we should be thankful that it's still around, virtually unchanged. Anytime I'm at Beverly's getting my crafting supplies, I definitely make it a point to stop by the coffee shop, if nothing other than they're the only decent game in town (sorry, I don't do chain Greek or Italian).

I wonder sometimes if the whites who worked so hard to keep their neighborhoods ethnically homogenous, who populated the ticky-tacky houses and all wanted to be the same, could've foreseen a day when one of the few sole surviving businesses of their era, this lone coffee shop, ended up itself being an anomaly, a place perhaps Malvina Reynolds would be seen at if she were alive; a place surrounded by the 21st ticky-tacky of Starbucks, Home Depot, and Trader Joes.

This lone coffee shop, shunning its eccentricity, and kept alive by the people Westlake was built to keep out. The same people who now smile at you from the other side of your coffee cup.

That's what I love about this place.


Sunday, February 04, 2007

Golden Coffee Shop

First of all, in my fantasy I'm rich.

In most people's fantasies they're rich, even I suppose in the fantasies of rich people. Nevertheless, I have money. Not a crazy amount. Certainly not so much that I blow it on the obvious trappings of wealth – flashy cars, expensive clothes, first class seating.

Wait. Okay, I'll take first class...because I'll be flying to Europe a lot.

Still, got money, got a nice secluded farmhouse in the country with animals, a greenhouse, a garden, a cement pond, and a large barn that has lots of power tools, a built-in darkroom, and industrial kitchen staging area with walk-in cooler. But I divide my time between town and country, and in town I own a cute little restaurant in which I happily serve my friends and regulars simple, basic, food – usually with a twist, such as real country ham biscuits or Bruce's home-cured, smoked pastrami with my homemade sauerkraut Reuben sandwiches.

I envision that restaurant looking exactly like the Golden Coffee Shop on Leavenworth and Sutter. In fact, that restaurant is the Golden Coffee Shop.

And even though I'd be rich, I wouldn't retouch a ratty stool or posh up a single thing in this place. Don't fix it if it ain't broke, and if it is, that's okay – your customers will appreciate the broke factor just as much as I do. The fixtures and interiors in this place are perfect just the way they are. And if I saw someone even touch those wonderful stools with a redesigning eye, they would come back with a bloody nub for a hand.

But I don't want to mislead you: nothing is broken about the Golden Coffee Shop. This place runs with the utmost efficiency. The service is quicker at the counter than at the tables, but it's all friendly and that counts for a heckuva lot. Actually, most of the service is done at the counter which is one of the few I've seen in San Francisco (other than the one at the Silver Crest) still in that beautiful, classic horseshoe shape. In fact, the counter is really the centerpiece from which all life revolves around in this beautifully preserved coffee shop.

Like most coffee shops, it's only open for breakfast and lunch and closes at 4 PM. I learned that the hard way one night when, after a long walk after work, I discovered that the Golden was closed. Not only Golden, but both Han's - located directly across the street - and the Taylor Street Coffee Shop (all owned and operated by Asian immigrants) were closed. Though I was disapointed, I was pleased to learn that almost all Coffee Shops, with very few exceptions, keep these hours – and that was like solving another piece of the "what is a coffee shop?" puzzle.

The menu at the Golden features the standards for a typical San Francisco Coffee Shop: eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes and waffles, a pancake sandwich (what the hell?), omelets, sandwiches and burgers, and last but not least – Chinese food. In noticing the menu, Bruce pointed out that there were none of the typical, and humorous, misspellings and bizarre word reversals one often sees on Chinese restaurant menus. But then, this place looks like it's had a long time to work out the obvious kinks.

What I like about places like this – these old American coffee shops with a Chinese influence – is that the level of quality the Chinese food is on never really rises above the level of the American food, which is to say good, but never knocking-your-socks-off great.

And really, I may be steering you in the wrong direction when I mention that a coffee shop also serves Chinese food because rarely will you see fried rice and chow mein served like this in China, or so I've read. To be more precise, this is Chinese-American/American food – which is a common trait among so many of these great little coffee shops that it's what led me to do this series in the first place.

I'll have to try the Chinese food later, but for now Bruce and I stuck with the traditional American breakfast – him with an omelet and I with a waffle and sausages.

At first glance, I've had these sausages before; hard, flavorless, and just gross. However, despite appearances these sausages were tender, juicy, and spicy; the only exception is that they could've been a little larger. The waffle wasn't any different than what I've had a million times before in other coffee shops and diners, but in it's own predictable way, that's not such a bad thing. Part of the whole experience and reputation of these culinary institutions depends on reliability. This is, after all, what the masses want, what they've come to expect, and yes, even demand.

Bruce's omelet was the real stand-apart winner here. His avocado, cheese, and onion omelet was "surprisingly good". The eggs were fresh-tasting and, even though it was the mass-produced, pre-sliced block of Jack, the cheese tasted and worked well with the other ingredients. I didn't ask him how his hashbrowns were, but they looked perfect and likely tasted like hashbrowns are suppose to taste – fully cooked, crispy, and with that delicious fried potato flavor.

Okay, the hashbrowns were Golden.

But so was the weather that day, which perfectly matched our experience at this first class coffee shop – one that, hopefully, is a long, long way from it's golden years.


Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Curly's Coffee Shop

To be in North Beach today means there is no overt anti-Asian sentiment one immediately notices. That's not to say there isn't any, but whatever there is remains covert.

I hear it sometimes in subtle ways, such as the City Lights Bookstore owner fondly reminiscing how "in the old days" the Italian immigrants of North Beach were more receptive to anarchism as opposed to the new immigrants who make up the neighborhood now, meaning Asians. This is likely true, but then what remains of your average Italian in North Beach isn't exactly a fellow traveler of the Left, neither.

Other times, it's more overt and in your face, such as the butcher at Little City Meats telling me that I probably shouldn't bother asking for pork fat scraps from the Chinese butchers because they don't sell to whites.

You know, I don't need to hear that jive. If it's true, then I'll find out on my own, but I don't need you telling me something I know isn't true – because I patronize Chinese butchers. And like Stevie Wonder/Paul McCartney once said, "there is good and bad in everyone".

Overt or subtle, what I see are people who are sore over the enormous Asian expansion into areas abandoned by Italian white flight during the last three decades, and frankly a large part of me wants to just say "fucking deal with it".

In all fairness, I understand and sympathize with what Ferlinghetti and Little City guy are going through. The same pattern of sweeping demographic change has happened in other parts of the city, such as the Irish abandoning the Castro for the suburbs and, to a different extent, the Japanese forcibly evicted and replaced by African-Americans in the Fillmore.

To these old Italian-American guys: this was their neighborhood. They knew everybody, said hello to everyone, spoke the language, and knew who they were by who surrounded them. They remember men gathering on the street in front of the A. Cavalli & Co bookshop in the 1930s, eager to listen to radio broadcasts of Benito Mussolini – a photo of which is still hanging in the shop. They remember the Columbus Day parades, now called the Italian Heritage Day Parade to better suit the politically correct attitude of the times.

The A. Cavalli Museum of Italian-American Fascists

But the harsh reality is that they're the ones who stayed. Like most immigrant communities in America, the old Italian families of North Beach moved on when they could. Their children now live in the suburbs, on the peninsula, or in the East Bay. They've assimilated; most to the extent that they're no more Italian than I am.

So for the old timers who've stayed, they have to ask themselves, "who am I, where do I belong, how do I fit in when everything and everyone around me has changed?" I have to cut these guys some slack though, because when you're one of the few non-Asian owned or supported businesses within two blocks, in what use to be your neighborhood, the task of feeling like you belong must seem rather daunting.

But life is kind of funny like that. You see, while the old days these guys miss are no doubt filled with many happy memories for them, memories for those of Asian descent who happened to have ventured above Broadway in those days, where one would be set upon and beaten by a mob of Italian youths, are certainly less than happy. The Chinese in particular were objects of scorn, official discrimination, and harassment for decades and confined within an area that is much smaller than today's Chinatown.

A view of Broadway and Columbus - once the dividing line between Chinese and Italian neighborhoods

To put it bluntly, Chinatown was a ghetto in the original sense of the word. The Chinese were allowed to go about their business and enforce their owns rules, laws, and customs – so long as they kept it in their neighborhood, stayed in their neighborhood, and kept out of the sight of racist white folks. Indeed, what happened in Chinatown, stayed in Chinatown – which the white majority silently sanctioned so long as they could occasionally slum around the gambling parlors, dive bars, opium dens, and houses of prostitution.

Much of that legacy still holds true today and is evidenced every time some outraged white moralist goes all crazy regarding the sale of live animals in Chinatown. Chinese business owners are fully aware of gweilo prejudice against them, but the fact remains that white city officials are still more apt to look away and let the community of Chinatown police itself according to it's own rules and customs, and damned be any asshole whose cultural imperialism/insensitivity/chauvinism/ignorance, or whatever you want to call it, starts stirring up trouble.

If you are still with me, all that which you've read up to this point is intended to provide you, the casual reader, with some background on the North Beach/Chinatown neighborhood in which Curly's Coffee Shop has operated and thrived for the last 34 years. The year, 1973, in which Yoko and Seikichi Maeda first opened their doors to the public was also the first year any Asian American had been appointed to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

In the midst of this ever-changing neighborhood that is North Beach, Curly's is a coffee shop with a twist. Not only is it owned by Asian-Americans, but the Maedas are Japanese; and Curly's, in addition to serving the usual coffee shop fare, also serves Japanese food.

I won't go into length on the history of Japanese-Americans in San Francisco (that is far more complicated), but I will say that after the forced relocation and internment of San Francisco's other "Greatest Generation", it's a wonder there are any Japanese left in San Francisco at all.

And maybe I'm just projecting, but I find it inspiring that Curly's, being Curly's, has held it's own for the last 3 decades and is still "dishing it out" as it were.

But you probably want to know more specifics, right?

Well, Curly's has been in its current location at 1624 Powell Street for a few years. Before it was located at 500 Columbus in the space currently occupied by Café Dulucchi. From what I've read, it seems as though the old Curly's had more character (read: dive) to it, although it's new digs still feel very homey (read: not "homely").

There are nice, bright windows near the front to sit beside, though I noticed some folks prefer the darker back. Judging from the number of people who say this is where they go to cure a hangover, I can see why.

Judging from what the customer seated across from me ordered, the breakfasts here look hearty and delicious. Although breakfasts (as well as typical American sandwiches) at Curly's are served all day, I decided to try the Japanese lunch, which comes with a side of miso soup.

Although my friend Bill once jokingly referred to me as an Orientalist, the truth is – as far as food goes - I'm more of a Chinophile. However, I can mack on some sushi, some tempura, and in the case of Curly's, some donburi.

Donburi describes any bowl of rice that has a combination meat and vegetables, which are usually stewed or sautéed together, served on top. At Curly's, I had a very typical donburi dish called Oyako-don, which is a bowl of white rice served with chunks of boneless chicken pieces, onions, and a fried egg. There's a sweet and light soy sauce (teriyaki I believe) that's also in the dish. All in all, a perfect lunch for a cool day in the city.

If you think about it: chicken, eggs, carbs – doesn’t that describe coffee shop/diner food anywhere? And let me tell you, I have been carbo-loading during this series on coffee shops – you guys should be grateful!

Almost as grateful as I am that Curly's is in business.