<BODY><!-- --><div id="b-navbar"><a href="http://www.blogger.com/" id="b-logo" title="Go to Blogger.com"><img src="http://www.blogger.com/img/navbar/3/logobar.gif" alt="Blogger" width="80" height="24" /></a><form id="b-search" action="http://www.google.com/search"><div id="b-more"><a href="http://www.blogger.com/" id="b-getorpost"><img src="http://www.blogger.com/img/navbar/3/btn_getblog.gif" alt="Get your own blog" width="112" height="15" /></a><a href="http://www.blogger.com/redirect/next_blog.pyra?navBar=true" id="b-next"><img src="http://www.blogger.com/img/navbar/3/btn_nextblog.gif" alt="Next blog" width="72" height="15" /></a></div><div id="b-this"><input type="text" id="b-query" name="q" /><input type="hidden" name="ie" value="UTF-8" /><input type="hidden" name="sitesearch" value="iscasemvara.blogspot.com" /><input type="image" src="http://www.blogger.com/img/navbar/3/btn_search.gif" alt="Search" value="Search" id="b-searchbtn" title="Search this blog with Google" /><a href="javascript:BlogThis();" id="b-blogthis">BlogThis!</a></div></form></div><script type="text/javascript"><!-- function BlogThis() {Q='';x=document;y=window;if(x.selection) {Q=x.selection.createRange().text;} else if (y.getSelection) { Q=y.getSelection();} else if (x.getSelection) { Q=x.getSelection();}popw = y.open('http://www.blogger.com/blog_this.pyra?t=' + escape(Q) + '&u=' + escape(location.href) + '&n=' + escape(document.title),'bloggerForm','scrollbars=no,width=475,height=300,top=175,left=75,status=yes,resizable=yes');void(0);} --></script><div id="space-for-ie"></div>

Friday, May 26, 2006

Bryant Wok Shop

The Bryant Wok Shop always seemed to me the perfect little hole-in-the-wall restaurant. In fact, so perfect, I never wanted to stop by.

I've walked past it for years, usually on my way to the Post Office. Because it's a Chinese restaurant, I've always been curious about how it was, but then I thought about the other Asian restaurants in my hood: Bill's Teriyaki Kitchen, Rainbow Way, and HRD.

If the Bryant Wok Shop was even remotely similar to those places, walking on by was the least I could do. Running might be better. There aren't many dives in my neighborhood, but those that are have so much divitude that it more than makes up for the upscale places down the street.

Still, the Bryant Wok Shop stood there, unmoving, unchanged after all of these years. Like a motherfucking tree that stands by the water, it has not been moved. Every time I passed it, it seemed to call out to me, like a hooker, "Hey! You! Yeah, you! I bet you want some of this, doncha?"

Or at least a crack dealer. I guess I could be mistaken. There are several crack dealers on my block (sorry Bryant Wok Shop!)

Of course, I tried to ignore it, but the more I ignored it the more I wanted to go in. Only, they were always closed! Well, not always. Only when I'm around it seems, which is after work and on the weekends. You and I both know that we desperately want what we cannot have, even if it's cheap, greasy, and of questionable origin. But the kicker is, I wasn't even sure it was all that. I just figured, "hey, look where it's at."

You know Meredith Brody isn't penning whimsical about this joint.

So today, yours truly had the day off, which means yours truly is in the midst of a four-day weekend.

Can I rub it in just a little?

But don't take that as meaning I'm not working today. Hell, you're reading my work at this very moment. Besides, I walked all up and down this little town today buying salame at Molinari's, some crusty bread from some crusty, but cute, FOB Italians at Danilo Bakery, gai lan at some place on Stockton, and Chinese dry cured bacon, duck legs, and lop chong (sausage) at the only place I would buy such things, Guang Zhou King and King sausage.

And I was busy taking pictures of trucks that deliver food to restaurants and markets for a new photo project and possibly blog entry for Bacon Press.

So after all of that walking and shopping, I was ready to take on the Bryant Wok Shop.

What I thought would be just an ordinary Chinese lunch ended up turning into a very serious reminder of how much things in this neighborhood has changed, and in turn, the real hardships some of the local business owners have had to endure.

But first things first, the food.

Nothing truly special. Sorry.

I walked in to the restaurant and was immediately greeted by an old man and middle-aged woman standing behind a steamtable. Since there were no menus in sight, except for a very bare-bones sign above the steam table, I ordered from the steam table.

Actually, the steam table entrees were pretty much pushed on to me. With just a little too much enthusiasm, the lady behind the counter kept grabbing various spoons and ladles, opening various covered trays and such, saying "Do you want this? This? This? Fried rice? How about some noodles? Two entrees just $4.50."

I could just see her inching that fried rice onto my plate, but I held back, almost sadistically, saying "Hmmm, I don't know. How much for two entrees again?"

Finally I said "OK, two entrees. How about the Chicken in Black Bean sauce. Hmm, and the Thai Curry Chicken."

"Oh, you like it spicy!" she said.

"Lady," I thought, "don't be playin' no games with me. I've had the *Ring of Fire consistently for several weeks now. You have no idea who you're talking to."

*Ring of Fire: Commonly, or uncommonly, known as Bung Burn, Red Star, or Fire in the Hole....Go ask your mother.

I grabbed my plate, or actually she grabbed it and brought it to my table. As she sat me, she pulled out a newspaper and placed it on my table and then smiled at me. "That was mighty considerate", I thought.

The food wasn't half-bad. It's what you would expect from a hole-in-the-wall like this. True, there are hole-in-the-walls with exceptional dishes, but this didn't seem like one. Because as I knew before, this is the same neighborhood which spawned Shan Indian and Pakistani restaurant, which despite the rave reviews it gets on foodie messageboards, continues to be the most mediocre South Asian food I've ever eaten (well, there was that place on Brick Lane).

As I was getting ready to leave, I asked if I could take a picture of their menu. After the usual "sure, no problem", I asked how long they had been in business. To my surprise, they've only been around 8 years, which is only one year longer than I've lived in the hood.

This question, to my surprise, provoked a long story by the chef/owner, a kind and humble older man, that by the end made me feel guilty that I hadn't bought ten entrees and given them to the winos up by Jacks Market. Depressing isn't even the word. I'm talking Travis, ok.

According to the owner, when the restaurant opened, the dot com boom was in full swing and his restaurant was so busy, he had doubled the seating and had 5 employees. All was well for 2 years, and then suddenly the crash came.

Business hasn't been the same since and now he's down to 2 employees. He keeps waiting for the supposed biotech boom that everyone seems to keep saying is going to happen, but as for now, his restaurant is mostly empty, even during lunch. The guys who work down at the auto mechanics shops down the street don't come in since most of them brown-bag their lunches. Truckers and other blue-collar workers still come in, but only because the price is low.

The folks who work at Organic, Wired, and other high-tech related businesses and who eat out favor the more expensive restaurants now.

"This neighborhood has changed a lot", he says. And actually, I was really, really touched and really sad for him. I saw a side that I knew was there, but until now, never felt much empathy for.

Because, you see, I looked at the dot com boom and eventual bust as a renter, as a working-class schmoe who could be evicted at any moment and displaced to the East Bay or further. There wasn't a day that went by that I didn't feel the real estate speculator's noose around my neck. When the industry imploded, I breathed a sigh of relief. Not only could I stop worrying about being evicted so that more ugly and unaffordable lofts could be built, but there was less traffic on my street as well.

I was glad it happened, and frankly I was a little glad to see these neo-49ers leave town back to Seattle, Austin, or wherever they came from. I admit that I was happy, even though I knew they wanted to stay and that many of them weren't the evil, gentrifying bobos that they were made out to be.

I met one of these ex-dot comers weirdly enough while working out at the gym. He approached me and asked if he could take some photos of me. After getting over being creeped out and figuring out that he wasn't some perv, he told me the photos were to be part of a series of advertisements for the new Palm Pilot. I guess the scheme and business venture never went forward, since after the photo shoot at some 60s motel on Lombard, I never heard back for him. But if you come across a touched-up, photoshopped version of this photo in any ads, let me know. It's the closest I've come to America's Next Top Model.


That's me on the nightstand...losing my religion.

Unless things pick up very soon, I have a feeling the Bryant Wok Shop won't be there for much longer. That's a shame since the folks who run it really seem like good and honest people. And you know, we need more, not less, places like that around here.

OK, ok, ok. So the food isn't fabulous. But come on, Quiznos or Subway or McDonalds is?? You know for the price and the hot, freshly made Chinese food, plus the standard American breakfast items, the Bryant Wok Shop can't be beat...welllll, unless they're up against HRD, but then HRD's Chinese menu can't compete with BWS.

So if you are reading this and you work in the neighborhood, do me a favor. Patronize this little joint. If not every day or every other day, which is understandable, then at least once a week. I know it's like charity and in the food and business world there is no place for charitable giving, but try it once. At least. And then, do whatever.

Ok. Speechifying over.


UPDATE: As of March 17, 2007, the Bryant Wok Shop is no more. It finally succumbed to the hardships it endured. In its place is V2 Malaysia Cuisine. Good luck to them.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

HRD Coffee Shop

It's taken a while for me to figure out what I like and don't like about the HRD Coffee Shop.

Initially, when playing hooky from work, I sometimes use to put on my sandals, the baseball cap from the company I was laid off of, and dark sunglasses and mosey on down to HRD for some cheap and greasy Chinese food. Of course, with it being so close to home, I almost never stuck around since I still had hours of watching Montel, Ricky Lake (Ricky's Real!), Mother Love, and a bazillion technical school commercials left at the hizzouse. Hey! Know this one? "With Western Career College…duh-duh, duh, duh, duh, You can doo-oo it!" Or how about, "for the best car rates in town, call 1-800 General now!"

Anyway, before I plopped back down on the futon, I would open my styrofoam to-go container to reveal a beef chow fun that was neither much fun or chow-worthy. It looked like beef chow fun, kinda smelled like beef chow fun, but was missing something.

After a few more visits, I realized what it was missing. It was missing "wok breath". No need to brush your teeth, wok breath (or wok hay) is what Grace Young describes as the act of breathing "energy into a stir-fry, giving foods a unique concentrated flavor and aroma" that only a wok can give.

Instead, it had more of a "griddle breath" flavor, which is the energy going into a dish that gives it a concentrated flavor and aroma of hot cakes cooked together with sausages, eggs, cheeseburgers, chow mein, chow fun, chicken steak, and the occasional clumsy hand. And you may brush your teeth now.

For this reason, I'm not so hot on the fried noodles at HRD. So instead, let's travel from the East back to the West without ever leaving the comfort of our counter stool.

Walking into HRD, one feels as if one is walking into some gritty, urban diner from yesteryear, and actually one is, so that kind of blows away my analogy I was just trying to work up here.

Anyway, I swear, nothing in this place has changed, except probably parts of the menu and maybe a few decorations hanging on the wall. The window sign has taken decades to peel and fade away and if I could drag the whole place to the Cow Palace in my Big Red Radio Flyer for the Antiques Roadshow, one of the appraisers probably would suggest I insure it well over its actual worth and warn me not to repaint or touch up anything lest it loses its patina, which apparently is like gold to a collector of anything, especially Chinese American diners.

And HRD is in a really old brick building that was built at a time before sleek modernity and cheap-ass developers who take no pride in building anything grand or of beauty anymore.

While it looks dark and forboding from the outside (I blame much of this on the ratty awning), it's actually quite bright and warm on the inside. Everything concerning your food is straight ahead of you as you walk in. There is the open kitchen, the steam table, the menu, and the cashier.

There are counters in the front for sitting (one at the windows and one directly behind) and tables in a backroom, which has never appealed to me seeing as it looks depressing back there. Besides, the counters are sooo cool, with original Formica finishes in that old 50s whimsical pattern. Despite it's age, the furnishings in the front and the kitchen itself looks well taken care of.

In it's layout, it kind of reminds me of New Lun Ting, only a little smaller and with more counter space, like a true, old school coffee shop. Like New Lun Ting, HRD is run by Chinese people often serving American food to non-Chinese people (actually more so) and having that one-on-one relationship with repeat customers. Something tells me that if I went into HRD, as I have in New Lun Ting, and ordered the same thing twice, by the third time the hosts would know my name and exactly what I was having. I know this because they don't shy away from making eye contact and trying to establish who you are in their minds.

But besides this, I suspect that the reason HRD has so many local regulars has to do with serving basic American diner/greasy spoon food. I've noticed often that while staring up at the menus above the kitchen, trying to decide on what to have, most of the customers a) frequent HRD on a regular basis, b) know the owner, his wife, and daughter and are on a first name basis, and c) don't order the Chinese food.

This is totally speculation, but here it goes nonetheless. The HRD Coffee Shop probably started back in the 40s or 50s serving basic diner food to all of the warehouse workers and the locals back when the neighborhood was predominantly black and Filipino. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if the original owners were black, Filipino, or American-born Chinese. Eventually, the original owner closed shop and transferred the restaurant to the new owners, whom I've always assumed were the man (cook), the wife (waitress/cashier and sometimes cook) and the daughter (extra help).

So I called HRD to find out.

To my surprise, the husband and wife aren't the owners. According to the daughter, HRD is owned by an "old man" whom she doesn't know. I found this strange, so I went to the website of the Office of the County Clerk – Fictitious Business Name index (God I love the Internet!). According to them, HRD is owned by Chan Sir Lit and Chiang Lai Sheung, and the business under its current owners has been around for at least 20 years (the index doesn't go back any further). If you're reading this now, Chan and Chiang, can you let me know a little more about the history of the restaurant?

Apparently the name, HRD Coffee Shop, was inherited by the new owners. When I asked the daughter what HRD stands for, she said "Human Resources Department". I couldn't tell if she was bullshitting me or if someone joked about the initials once and it just stuck. She sounded serious, though.

Or maybe she's just sick of people asking. Maybe she just calls it what others supposedly do, the Chinese Diner. Nevertheless, Human Resources Department probably isn't far from the truth since it seems to be the local grub stop for cops, garbage men, postal workers, construction workers (gee, they seem to know where all of the cheap grub is), and the occasional geekazoid from across the way at Wired Magazine.

While I still had the daughter on the phone, I asked her what the most popular dishes were, to which she confirmed what I knew all along: the chicken steak and the turkey. The turkey lunch (with tax, $5.31) is what I had the other Saturday. After wasting my time with the chow fun, this is when I realized why people ate here. All this time I've been thinking, "God, this Chinese food sucks. Other than being dirt cheap, what the hell else do people come here for?"

It's the turkey, stupid. Or maybe it's the cheap breakfast, or the cheap hamburgers cooked to order, or maybe a whole bunch of these things. I'm not saying no one comes here to eat Chinese food. But a whole lot of what makes up for HRD's business seems to be that guy who just walked in and ordered a plate of hot cakes and sausages.

My turkey dinner, even on a Saturday, was a joy to eat. Simple, yet satisfying. After ordering at the counter, I waited until the cook slices my turkey, straight from the bird, and piled it onto a plate loaded with mashed potatoes and gravy (which tasted eerily like KFCs, yet less processed – did they steal the recipe?) and sesame flavored steamed broccoli, which was buried underneath the turkey.

I just had water to drink, which was a "help yourself" deal – an empty glass near the register and a jug of water sitting in the soft drink cooler to the right.

The turkey was tender and no knife was necessary. It wasn't juicy moist, but neither was it tough and dry. The broccoli was also very nice and flavorful, and the addition of a steamed, green veggie served the meat and potatoes well.

Sitting there eating the meal, I got a little disappointed that HRD is so off limits to me. Seriously. It's only open in the morning (not far, but too far out of the way for me to walk when catching the bus) and the afternoon until 4, well before I get back to the neighborhood from work. It's open on Saturdays, but those are the days I sleep in and mosey around until well past 2, their closing time. They're closed on Sundays, to the consternation of the fashionably-dressed man and woman I saw walking by just the other day, asking the Korean convenience store owner next door, cleaning the sidewalk, what time they closed.

"They're not open on Sundays."



Seriously, they were like, "Awww"! Totally whining. Something just isn't right in the world when the local Post Office closes at 5 and HRD closes at 4. Even the BoBos agree.

Human Resources Department: I'd like to lodge a complaint.

"Dear Mr. Chan Sir Lit, aka Old Man."


Friday, May 05, 2006

Eatin' Good in the Neighborhood

You know, the San Francisco Bay Area really has such a great foodie scene.

I mean, if you just look at the sheer number of food-related blogs that originate from here, some of which rank very high on the food blog chain, you'll realize that we Bay Areans (ok, bad choice of words) loves us some grub.

While there are many notable foodie thingys about the Bay Area, like

- a prestigious (despite some legitimate criticisms) Food Section in our largest daily paper
- amazing Farmers' Markets
- a crazy number of restaurants per capita, some of them hidden
- several culinary schools and ongoing classes
- unique, region-specific foods and dishes
- innovators in the organic food movement
- and innovative chefs and authors,

one new and notable development is the rise of a new species of foodie referred to as the Locavore.

And since many of these Locavores are also bloggers, well it was only inevitable that an Eat Local Challenge would strike the food blogosphere with a resounding clang. Last August, I think it was, was the first Eat Local Challenge, followed by a very unsuccessful "Eat Uncomfortable Challenge" put forth by yours truly at Bacon Press. You could say I was given as much attention from the food blogger status quo as Stephen Colbert was by the MSM following that dinner last Saturday night.

But I'm not bitter!

Anyway. While I think, for the most part, it's a worthy goal, Theme Months are beginning to take on the air of kitsch. I, of course, love kitsch. In fact, I've begun collecting and wearing vintage colognes from the 70s and 80's, such as High Karate, Jovan, Brut, English Leather, Aramis, and Drakkar Noir. I call it Olfactory Retro-Camp.

So, even though I'll often pick up the tomato grown in Tracy rather than Mexico, I'd like to think of myself as an Eat Globally, Shop Locally type of guy.

In otherwords, there ain't no month that I'm going without my bananas, my Roquefort Carles, my Parm, or my sardines. But if I can buy strawberries in front of the field in which they were picked...

Like these were last weekend

...or avocados, eggs, milk, bread, and so on picked, raised, grown, made locally, and I can buy them in an independently owned shop or at least one that has local ties to where I live, then hell yes I'll buy them! But please. Any absolutes on anything or high fallutin preachin' and you'll see me marching in the opposite direction.

As far as preachers and sinners are concerned, I consider myself a lifelong habitual latter, though I've had more than enough good times with the children of the former.

I've already said what I have to say about elitism and "eating locally" on someone else's blog (me = bacon press), so I won't go back over it here.

But I will entertain this notion of an Eat Local Month, if only because it currently jives with an excuse to post about dives that I don't have to venture into the TL or the southern part of the city for. In fact, I can walk 5 minutes down the street and be diving long and deep for your reading pleasure.

Thus I present to you:

DIVE's Eat Local Challenge
A month of eating and reviewing dives within the author's immediate neighborhood so that he can come back home, type this shit up, and get to bed at a reasonable hour.

Some background on my immediate neighborhood:

I live in the area that consists of the southern half of Rincon Hill, South Park, and Tar Flats (a term no longer used in the local vernacular). This neighborhood in the last decade has taken on the nickname Multimedia Gulch.

There is a deep and rich history to this area, starting with the fact that it was home to the first wealthy enclave in San Francisco, as well as the first slum. These days we have a fair mix of both. There are neglected streets here where the concrete has been worn away reveal the original brick foundations...

...and that are used predominantly by high-priced cars of the paleo, nouveau, or in this case, used-to-be riche.

In this area is the former location of the first public school West of the Rockies, which benefitted mostly the poor and orphaned children of Tar Flats.

Rincon Hill was once a magnificent and wealthy enclave...for a short time. A myriad of factors changed it forever into the original skid row of San Francisco, but in a weirdly circular way, it's once again becoming an enclave to the rich. In the 1980s, South Park was a hardcore wino and junkie park. Within a matter of years, in the early 90s, it had significantly gentrified. The flagship of this gentrification, was/is the South Park Café (duck confit with your Night Train, ladies?).

The alley that runs parallel between South Park and Bryant during this period of the late 80s/early 90s was being used at least twice a month for television and movie scenes since it was one of the grittiest, graffitti-ridden (thus, photogenic) alleys in San Francisco.

Jack London was born a few blocks down from where I live at 3rd and Brannan. Recently, Borders Books opened 1 block down in a new mixed-use development consisting of market rate housing (in SF that means $700,000 for 1,100 square feet) and chain retail stores that one can find in any generic suburb. I asked the clerk at Borders why there were no prominent Jack London displays in their local authors' section (being a former bookstore clerk myself) seeing as though his birthplace is right down the street.

The guy didn't even know who I was talking about.

Good thing I didn't mention another Jack - Jack Kerouac. He wrote a lot about this area. He use to work and live and play and write and get in trouble around here. You've read or heard "October in the Railroad Earth", right? I love that piece.

When I think about what he would've felt seeing the Hotel W at Third and Howard (or Little Harlem), I feel as drawn to hit the bottle as hard as he did. Maybe it's a good thing he died early.

But as gentrified as the area has become and is becoming, it still has its, eh hmmm, charm. For one thing, as long as 88 Perry Street exists, there will always be a constant supply of women walking around in SpongeBob SquarePants slippers and stretched-out, stained, white t-shirts while buying cheap liquor at Jacks on the corner of Stillman and 3rd.

Added to that is the fact that the 15 from the Bayview, aka SF's most violent and depressing ghetto, runs towards downtown up 3rd and back on 2nd. Or that two large drop-in shelters for homeless men sit both on 1st and Harrison and 5th and Brannan. The methedone clinic on 3rd and Bryant is gone, although we now have a psychiatric outpatient clinic of the VA, complete with an oversize portrait of W staring from the inside at you, sitting on the eastern corner of 3rd and Harrison.

Of course, there are the bootie clubs (such as the western corner of 3rd and Harrison) that draw 18 and 19 year olds from the Outer Mission and the immediate suburbs into the city every weekend (and some weekdays); the majority whom generally are well-behaved except for the occasional graffiti, the drunken screaming, bottles of Hennessy and Bombay Saphire strewn about, and the endless stream of broken glass from car windows caused by petty thieves who prey on the weekenders.

Jack's Market, the neighborhood flagship of sin which has the dubious honor as the one-stop-shop vice market on 3rd, has it's own interesting history. For years it was owned by a short, fat Jewish guy named Maz whose claim to fame was that he starred in a California Grapes commercial where he was dressed in a bellboy's uniform holding a tray of grapes. Afterwards, he had a picture of himself from the commercial taped up to the register. He would also always take your last coin and roll it on edge when he'd give you your change. Apparently, from what I've been told, Maz was also too busy to excuse himself to pee and had a trough sitting below his seat where he sat at the register.

I found out this interesting fact out from the new owners...Palestinians. In an interesting twist of Arab/Jewish cooperation and equitable land swapping, Maz had sold Jack's to a group of Palestinian men whom I've grown to know as Mazen, Mahmoud, and...oh, now I forget his name, but it should've been "Buddy", cause that's what he called everyone else.

Mazen and Buddy have moved on and at first I wasn't sure if they had joined the Intifada or what (ok, stereotype, I know), but recently I saw both of them in business suits looking like they were moving up in the world of convenience store ownership. This was a startling change from years of seeing both in raggedy blue jeans and white undershirts. I was happy, to say the least, that they hadn't travelled back to join in the struggle.

Now Mahmoud, the guy I previously referred to as "The Oaf", runs the joint with his sometimes Asian girlfriend and a young, but super-nice, fella by the name of Khalid. Now that I've gotten to know him better, I no longer think of Mahmoud as an oaf, and he's actually helped me out when I've been stupid myself.

The neighborhood lowlifes now latch on to them like they did Buddy and Mazen and it seems as though things never change, although the introduction of the young kid and the Asian lady has provided some relaxation. Buddy and Mazen were always no-nonsense, straight-up, "what'll you have" business. It took me years to get acknowledged as something other than a crack whore by them.

Mazen always loved to talk about politics. He was the smartest one of the bunch. Buddy...well, Buddy was nice, but I wouldn't trust him to deliver my mail. But if you ever needed malt liquor, cigarettes, rolling papers, plenty of porn mags, a lotto ticket, and a bottle of Ginseng Royal Jelly, which you can smoke your rocks out of now that those Miniature Roses have been cracked down on, he's your guy.

During the crazy real-estate speculation phase that accompanied the dot-com boom, I thanked the bums and crazies everyday, often giving out money to make sure they stayed on my street. Call it what you will: It was my form of housing security. It seemed like everyone was being evicted in those days, and of course, many were. Even the sweatshops on my street were forced out. And now that it's gaining strength again, these bums may be the frontline against a economic assault that will eventually cleanse, ethnically or otherwise, the neighborhood.

But, for now, they're still here and thankfully so am I.