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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Mimi's Manor House Restaurant

I've put this post off for far too long, and I probably should apologize to Mark and you all for it. But, as you can see, I have my excuses.

So without further ado, I present to you Mimi's Manor House Restaurant.

Mimi's is a restaurant Mark Ellinger turned me on to after we hit Taqueria Cancun to discuss his photographs of SRO hotels in the Tenderloin.

While we're on the subject of Mark's photographs, please go to the Partners in Preservation website and vote on your favorite landmark that's in need of funding and restoration. We here at Dive are rooting for the Tenderloin Façade and Neon Sign Improvement category because, frankly, we can't imagine San Francisco without the Lafayette Coffee Shop or Original Joe's signs.

I arrived at Mimi's early one Sunday morning and grabbed a table while I waited for Mark. When I say grabbed, I literally mean grabbed. The place was jamming, and almost everyone at Mimi's were vying for a seat.

When Mark showed up, I was somewhat relieved since I no longer felt like I might have to fight off a few Tenderloin denizens for the extra seat I was holding on to.

I've thought about this post for some time and to be honest, I've been very reluctant to call Mimi's Manor House Restaurant a "dive". It has some of the qualities I list as being dive-worthy, such as the Regular, the Rock Bottom (ie,. price), and the Idiosyncratic factors. It, to a certain extent, even as the Fear Factor – we're in the Tenderloin after all.

But I'm not really sure I should call it a dive.

What it is is a restaurant that's attached to a low-income residential hotel in a run-down area of town that recently had a major facelift. And while I generally approve of remodels, especially when it benefits the needy, I'm a preservationist when it comes to dives – so hands off the yellowed photographs and Formica countertops, already!

Trust me, I've watched Antiques Roadshow enough to know that you don't fuck with the patina of anything old.

Unfortunately, the interiors of the Manor House Restaurant are utilitarian to a fault. Bright fluorescent lights glare onto walls painted in institutional, calming colors - as if one could be sitting in the waiting room of the VA hospital. Wear and tear is noticeable on the square support columns and chair rails where tables, chairs, wheelchairs, and God-knows-what else has banged into them.

But despite the cold feeling you get from the interiors, the feeling the staff gives to the customers is warm, particularly from Mimi herself. Despite envisioning her as an elderly mother figure, the real Mimi is a young woman of Asian descent who knows each and every regular and what they usually will have to eat. I can see why Mark speaks so highly of her, as she shows such politeness to random strangers, some of whom, unfortunately, do not or cannot reciprocate.

Don't think I'm being too down on the customers at Mimi's. For the most part, they are there to be fed and then go about their business. It just happens that some of their business involves selling drugs or getting back home before their parole officer calls (as was the case with the woman sitting behind me).

The day I met Mark, a high roller parked his brand new SUV out in front of the restaurant. Out of the large plate-glass windows that line the exterior of Mimi's, I could observe all that was going on outside.

The guy sat there for the longest time, watching all that was going on, or maybe passing the time until his next appointment. Eventually I looked up and he was gone.

At that point, a portly, old school, high roller, perhaps not so high or old, walked into Mimi's with an outfit that screamed either pimp or complete idiot. It was a suit jacket that had wide lavender and white vertical stripes, worn with white pants, shoes, and a wide-brimmed hat. I think he even had a pimp cane. The guy looked like a walking circus tent and suddenly made me crave taffy, cotton candy, and drunken clowns.

Meanwhile, a black guy sitting at a corner table near the entrance, who had scrutinized every single person who walked through the doors (including yours truly), finally saw the guy he was waiting for – a young, unkempt white guy with stringy, greasy brown hair. They both exchanged a curt greeting and left the restaurant together.

At this point, our food finally arrived. Mark had the corn beef hash with fries and eggs ($4.55), plus a side of bacon, and I had the pork chops with hash browns and eggs ($4.45). While most of the food was hot and plentiful, my pork chops were a little lifeless and cold. The eggs were ok, but kinda greasy.

I really wanted to like the pork chops and I definitely had my hopes up, but they were way too flavorless and fatty.

I think Mark had the right idea with the hash and fries, since those looked much better than mine. Still, it was hard to argue with the price and the quantity of the food set out before us. Combined with the standard side of toast and the bottomless cup of coffee, this is what you'd expect from a good greasy spoon, even though you wouldn't know it was one at first.

I can see why folks in the TL love this place so much. It has a strong "commitment to the neighborhood" feel to it and the food, while not always the greatest (I'm still waiting to try this famous cheeseburger I keep hearing about), seems to be pretty solid.

And even though it seems as if I do, I don't rate food higher because of the price/quantity ratio. However, the low price of a breakfast at Mimi's remains just a little bit shocking to me, even as I write this long after my first visit. In a city where the average omelet and homefries will start you off at around 7 or 8 dollars, the prices at Mimi's, with a few exceptions, average out to $4.00 a plate.

If it weren't for the short hours it was open, I'd be making more trips over to the Manor House Restaurant. As it is, I'll have to find another Sunday to go over and try the lunch menu.

Until then, I must give up my seat to someone who's ready to eat.


Thursday, September 21, 2006

Harvey's Place

It sounds counterintuitive to have a big, greasy, carb-laden breakfast right before you visit the doctor for a yearly check-up, but that's exactly what I did when I stopped by Harvey's Place.

I stopped by to grab a quick bite at a dive that's become more interesting to me since I started a blog about hole-in-the–wall places to eat. However, this could've been a passive-aggressive reaction to visiting the doctor - an act I often revile.

I should consider myself lucky that I can visit the doctor and only have to pay $10 to do it. Yet, I never look at it that way. Instead, I find the process a stressful and inconvenient way to spend my time.

What annoys me most, besides the fact that my doctor's assistant (bless her heart) and the English language are two star-crossed lovers, is that I see the doctor at his convenience and not mine. Since I cannot see him after work or on the weekend, I have to take time off of work to make my appointment.

In other words, I lose money or use precious sick time – sick time I'd rather cash in being fake-sick at home watching Tyra, Oprah, and Judge Judy.

In my underwear.

Eating leftovers.

Plus, it's never "take an aspirin and call me in the morning". Rather, it's "go to the lab so I can do some tests…only…they're not open right now. And you have to fast overnight before you go".

So then, I have to take time off work again, to have them take samples so that I can come back, yet again, so that my doctor can say "you're fine, although you should probably lose some weight. Call me if you have any questions".

Oh! and if I have a question, it's actually impossible to call and speak directly to my doctor. Instead, I get "ummm, ohhhh, he not in now. Who this? What?"

"(sigh) Hi. It'ss Keee-viiin (last name). I'mmm patient of Doc-torrr (last name)."

"Okay, yeah."

(long pause)

No, of course he doesn't have email. Should it be as easy as sending Herr Doktor a short message and having him respond in his down-time, the supersized hand of God would reach down from the fluffy white clouds and swoop me up into the sunbeaming sky.

No, answering questions is what my insurance company wants some total stranger at a call center to do. And trust me, I've called them. You know what they said?

"Talk to your doctor."

So this is why I find myself at Harvey's Place, early in the morning, and consuming what is possibly the greasiest, greasy spoon breakfast I've had in quite a while.

Honestly? I'm eating it with a pissed-off reckless abandon. In fact, throw in a side of raw spinach while you're at it.

Harvey's Place is a small, unassuming (well, besides the graffiti mural on the side of the building) convenience store with a lunch/breakfast counter in the front. It sits on a long, wide-open stretch of 5th street that still has that old, industrial area of town, classic South of Market, pre-loft construction, feel to it. It's precisely the area of town I have stumbled long city blocks down at 3 in the morning on my way to AllStars Donuts.

As unassuming as it is, Harvey's (like The Wall) remains a landmark in the history of San Francisco's bike messenger subculture. Since the late 1970s, Harvey's has been a popular spot for bike messengers to meet, hang out, and sometimes organize each other into unions. In terms of labor and cultural history, Harvey's should be mentioned in any complete SF history book.

However, maybe it's a sign of the times that, in the last few years, I've rarely seen hide or hair of a bike messenger in Harvey's vicinity. New technology, such as email, faxes, scanners, plotters that can scan and send construction documents electronically from person to person, have lessened the reliance on human-powered delivery, and thus bike messengers in San Francisco have dwindled from over 400 in 1998 to below 200 in 2005.

Or maybe Mo chased them away?

Somehow, I doubt it.

Mo, short for Mohammed, Asghar is the guy who seems to be running the show at Harvey's Place – which is now called Mo's Place (according to the menu at the counter), even though the outside sign says different. Harvey Woo, the long-time owner of Harvey's Place, must have moved on or retired since the business name is no longer registered in his name, but in Mo's. When I called to see if Woo had passed away, Mo said that Woo was still the owner and still around.

I don't know if Mo is as revered in the bike messenger world as Harvey Woo is, but he seems like a decent guy to me.

The morning I was in, he was tending the cash register and baby-sitting one of the homeless guys who came in, sat at the counter, and started reading a new copy of the day's paper. Instead of kicking him out, Mo grabbed the paper, carefully folded it and placed it back on the rack, and sternly gave the guy yesterday's paper.

"This is yesterday's paper", the guy whined. Mo shouted something back – something to the effect of "take it or leave it". They both knew and tolerated each other. Barely.

Meanwhile, I waited at the counter to order the eggs, bacon, and hashbrowns. The old man who took my order had a small, faded tattoo on his forearm. He had a full head of hair, which was gray and uncombed, and a 3-day stubble wrapped around the leather-like skin on his chin and jaw. He wasn't much for words or very direct.

A small cup of coffee was laid out before me. It wasn't the cleanest cup, either.

Cheap silverware and a napkin were also laid out and I fiddled with them while I took in my surroundings. To one side, the store; filled with the usual cheap goods, mostly beer and liquor, with some candy bars and bags of chips thrown in to disguise it's sin.

There was a cold case, likely for the cheapo egg salad and diarrhea/vomit-inducing, pre-packaged sandwiches you find so often in these types of places. At one point, when I had more of a death wish, I use to pick up one of these at Jack's Market, along with a bottle of Stolichnaya.

Perhaps the vodka killed whatever was bad in the sandwich, or perhaps I just got lucky.

The kitchen and counter area of this place had seen happier days, but it's not the worse I've seen. Chinatown is full of kitchens so filthy looking you might as well call work and tell them you'll be out sick before you ever leave the joint.

All Harvey's needed was a little housekeeping. Near the windows, there was a bright, semi-circular nook that had what could've been a nice place to sit at a table, only the seat was half covered by a filthy-looking sheet; the kind bugs, scabies, and staph infections like to commandeer.

By the time my food arrived, I was working on my second cup of coffee, and please, don't mention Blue Bottle, Graffeo, or any other coffee snobbery here in these parts.

Instead, I tried to savor as best as I could the eggs and the hashbrowns which seemed to be one and the same – same color, same thickness, same shape, same flavor. Fortunately, the bacon rescued the plate from the monotony of the eggs and hashbrowns with it's wide, meaty strips.

Bacon this wide is rare to find, and frankly, it scared me a little. Nevertheless, I didn't let that smudge on the rim of my coffee mug scare me, nor did the cast of morning characters that filtered through. Why should I care now?

Besides, slap it on toast and suddenly the scariest bacon, sausage, and eggs on one's plate becomes something more. It somehow transcends and rises to the level of….something else, I don't know what. But toast will do that.

In fact, toast – plain old white bread toast, sometimes smothered in butter – should be a metaphor for all things good in life.

"He likes his toast buttered on both sides."

"The room was warm and toasty."

French Toast. A toasted cheese sandwich. A toast to life. It shouldn't be "to have one's cake and eat it too", but "to have one's toast", with a cup of coffee.

After pondering these critical thoughts, I wipe the corners of my mouth, check my watch, feel for my wallet, and walk over to the register to pay up. The whole breakfast sets me back four dollars and some change, plus the dollar or so I leave at the counter.

Peering through the convenience store paraphernalia that blocks the view of the customer and the person at the register, I finally get the attention of Mo. Mo, whose sour face hasn't changed the whole time I've been around, smiles and graciously thanks me. Like we had been old friends all along, he invites me to come again and even says please.

And why wouldn't he? I'm the kind of customer Mo likes.

I bring in my own paper.