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Saturday, July 29, 2006

El Gallito Drive In

Can I be lame and not type out a long ass post like I usually do?

I can?

Oh good, cause as much as I love doing this, I realize that whenever I start writing I can go on, and on, and on, and be really, really long-winded, which is good in some respects because I've ended up with a readership that reads and thinks as much as they drool over pictures of pork feet (which is difficult to cultivate in this age of point and click, 5-second attention spans, of which I'm also guilty), but means that sometimes I don't get this shit posted for frickin' days, or even weeks!

Uh oh. I've already started.

OK, well, El Gallito Drive In in Brentwood, California.

I had to do some web searching, and at one point I thought of asking a Mexican, but I finally found out that El Gallito means "The Cock" in Spanish. It's also a pretty popular Mexican restaurant name.


One would naturally think that The Cock would be a pretty common and irony-free descriptive name of a gay bar, but after searching high and (mostly) low...ok, I mean loooowwww, I came up with plenty of names like The Stud, The Powerhouse (Jesus, I feel sore just typing that word!), Aunt Charlie's, Ginger's Trois, more of "The Eagle" than actual eagles existing in the wild, and even a gay latino bar called Esta Noche ("Tonight"), which has that "shhhh, I won't tell if you don't, Father O'Sullivan" ring to it.

Yet, only two Cocks. What gives?

Anyway (see how I'm already starting to get off track), I'm not a frequent visitor to Brentwood, so to find a place to eat, I did a Google search and found El Gallito. God only knows what search terms I typed in to find a place like this, but my Dive-ine Higher Power must have been guiding my algorithms that day.

The El Gallito Drive In was everything I wasn't expecting and more, and what that means I'm not sure yet, but give me a minute to think about it. It's mascot (I assume from the sign) is a sombrero-wearing, goose-stepping (which is weird in so many ways), red pistolero Cock.

It had that casual, hole-in-the-wall, "whattya have, honey" quality about it, and that's simply my first impression from the outside. Half of the restaurant is walk-up/take-away while the inside has sit-down service.

Good sit down service. Friendly waitress, clean tables, and the bathroom...(record scratching).

Actually, the bathroom was ass-nasty.

But other than that...

Prices here are cheap, probably because the price of an updated cooling system isn't included in your meal. Because there isn't one. However, like so many people I know who live in hot climates do, cooling down a room is often as simple as closing off every source of natural light and sticking a floor fan up on a counter to blow less hot air towards you.

This, as well as a cool neon Corona beer sign, has the bonus effect of making you feel as if you've suddenly been whisked away to some tropical nightclub somewhere in, say, Tijuana.

The chips and salsa here were good, and when I say good, I mean the chips weren't stale or greasy or so thick you could wind up with a very expensive dentist bill afterwards. The salsa was thin (not chunky) and tasted very fresh, like tomatoes, and not very hot.

When our food came, Bruce had the pork tamale, which came with rice and beans. Nothing out of the usual here but good Mexican food.

When we asked for hot sauce, it came in this little maple syrup or cream container, which I thought was pretty cool, but then I'm easily impressed (oops, I probably shouldn't have mentioned that). Like the salsa, this was obviously made on the premises.

And it was super, crazy hot!!! Yow!

I had the Super Burrito, because the name "super" in front of anything just appeals to my American senses in a way I just can't describe; much in the same way "World of", "Barn", "House of", or "Just" does. It's creepy.

Don't worry, though. I often make important decisions this way.

I decided to go with the Super Burrito with Chicharrones because for a minute there I was out of my goddamn mind. Oh, wait, I remember thinking "hey, I've never tried this before!". Or, "I haven't seen this on a menu before, I think I'll have that!" I had a vague recollection that chicharrones were pork in substance and fried, maybe even fried skin. Still, it was in a Super Burrito, so how could you go wrong?

While I could guess that the burrito, under any other circumstances, might have been good, especially the whole pinto beans and stuff, and it definitely was super (ie, big), I couldn't really get into the huge chunks of cracklin' that dominated the burrito like a pistol-packing rooster.

Something about saving the stuff leftover from rendering fat and then putting it into a burrito just isn't quite right. I mean, did I miss something? Was I suppose to be drunk while I was eating this? Is that what the neon beer sign is for? To remind you of what you're suppose to be doing?

Oh, oh, oh...and you know that cute little container of hot sauce I mentioned earlier? It seems I couldn't operate it without being drunk either, since I accidentally poured half of it over my burrito.

This was not what I meant to get into.

I know you may find it hard to believe, but despite my mishap, if I were ever in Brentwood again, I would go back to The Cock in a flash. I liked the character of the place, I like the fact that it's been around forever and that it's still family-owned (by the original owners), the food was solid, and the service was very quick and friendly.

Wait a second!

I was in Brentwood?

Oh yeah. That's right.


Thursday, July 20, 2006

New Hong Kong Menu

The New Hong Kong Menu (NHKM) restaurant looks like, smells like, and acts like just about every other Chinatown restaurant.

However, there's a twist.

It's not exactly in Chinatown.

It's close to Chinatown and it's arguable whether it's in or out. It sits on a somewhat quiet block of Commercial Street, between Kearny and Montgomery, smack dab on the border that separates Chinatown from the Financial District. Fittingly enough, it has elements of both. And as far as dives go, it definitely fits several of my criteria (see right hand side bar), especially initial the fear factor.

However, what I like about NHKM is the fact that it's a Chinatown restaurant, not exactly in Chinatown, that you wish the real Chinatown restaurants were more like. I can't tell you how many Chinatown menus look the same, and frankly, are fucking boring! Lucky then that this menu is a little different, and by different I'm talking offal.

At NHKM, you can get beef tendon, tripe, pigs' feet, and other goodies done several ways, including with braised noodles, in soup, in clay pot, or over rice. The best part: almost everything is under 5 dollars.

Of course, NHKM could charge more if they wanted to; they certainly have the business. Believe me, New Hong Kong Menu is no secret. During lunch this place is jammin'. True, a lot of the traffic comes from people who couldn't get in or wait long enough for the dim sum service at City View across the street. But, like me, there are plenty of those who pass up City View to delight in the inexpensive meals at New Hong Kong.

The customers are an interesting mix of young Chinese and Chinese-American white-collar workers, often with their non-Chinese friends, people in business suits, and construction workers. The best part: no tourists! (This may explain why the food is so good and cheap.) The place can get pretty loud, so don't count on getting a few pages of The Barbary Coast by Herbert Asbury* read while you sip the soup.

*I'm only up to Chapter 2, "Hounds and Harlots".

But like I said, the place is a dive. The walls are wallpapered with this funky green bamboo pattern that shimmers. The restaurant is pretty dark and most of the light comes from the windows in the front. The tables can sometimes be sticky and if you are by yourself or with one other person, you may be asked to share a table with another group. However, I've often been lucky to find a table by myself. The wait staff, all of whom are friendly and accommodating, have never coerced me into taking a table I didn't want.

While I've had the fish here, as well as a few other conventional dishes, I've never had any of the offal dishes until today. For the most part, I only eat offal in restaurants since I'm pretty chicken (there's a pun there somewhere) when it comes to cooking it at home. I've thought about it, but then I get cold feet (pun accomplished).

Today, I ordered the pig's feet over rice. First, I should back up. Before I put in my order, I was seated and brought a plastic glass of hot tea and a small bowl of vegetable, and possibly pork, broth. The broth was pretty good, and I appreciated that there wasn't the occasional piece of pork gristle, lotus root, and mystery melon/gourd floating in the bottom. Others may like this, but I'm all about the broth.

Then it came time to order.

"Are you ready?" the waitress said.

"Hi, I would like the pig's feet rice plate."

"Ok...the PIG'S FEET?" she said with a smile.

"Yes, the pig's feet."

(What? Like I'm going to be the 100th white person who's ordered the beef with broccoli or chicken chow mein today? Don’t think so.)

"OK, would you like the combo?"

She turns the menu over and smiles really big.

"See. The combo. You want the combo", she says as a matter of fact.

"Ok, sure." Why argue. The rice plate was three dollars and something, while the combo ($4.95) was only slightly more.

Not long after, my food came delivered to my table. "Wow, that was pretty fast", I thought.

The pig's feet came served in a bowl, with sauce coming halfway up, and with a plate of plain white rice. With it came a big bowl of wonton and baby bok choy soup. Though I had already had a small cup of broth, I didn't waste time in starting on the soup.

I'm not a big fan of wonton soup, and this didn't change my mind. However, I did make a good effort to try some, and for the most part, it was pretty good. I appreciated the fact that the bok choy was of a manageable size, since I hate trying to eat it when comes in huge stalks. The pork wontons were small and mildly flavorful. I ate them right away since wontons are, in my humble opinion, the best part of wonton soup.

Moving on to the pig feet, I noticed that these flimsy little napkins were just not going to cut it. Make a future note: ask for more napkins next time (or better yet, bring a clean handkerchief and a wet nap). First, the pigs' feet were mostly bones surrounded by a soft and very flavorful gelatinous substance, likely being tendon. From what I've read, pigs' feet must be slow-cooked for hours to get it to the right consistency. Considering how quickly my food was served, I figured it had been sitting in a pot just waiting on me to walk in and order it.

I loved the sauce the pigs' feet came braised in (especially poured over my rice). It was rich and sweet, tasting noticeably of hoisin sauce and the pork-heavy braising liquid. It was topped with chopped scallions that offered up its onion flavor to the dish. The feet were very tender, however, I don't know if it was the sauce, the feet, or the combination of both, but after touching the feet, my fingers became so sticky that the flimsy little napkins would cling to my finger tips and break off.

This probably isn't a dish you would want most people you respect see you eat. That is, unless they happen to be eating the same. Nevertheless, it's a good thing this place has low lighting.

Though I had eaten plenty, there was still one last thing: the dessert. Typically the dessert at NHKM is a small bowl of what I assume to be a mango (or sometimes strawberry) flavored pudding with tiny balls of grass jelly floating in it. It's pretty bizarre to most folks, me included.

Still – waste not, want not.


All in all, New Hong Kong Menu scores high on my dive-ometer and great Chinese restaurants list. This tiny, no frills place has great food, decent portions, good service, and a price that can't be beat.


Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Lafayette Coffee Shop

If you wake up one morning and find that you've slipped through the cracks of society, you may find yourself reflecting over it at the Lafayette Coffee Shop.

Situated deep in the TL, it is not a place one usually seeks out, despite its relative proximity to the Hastings College of Law, the (soon to be old) Federal Building, and City Hall. The neighborhood is a partial mix of newly arrived immigrants from Pakistan, the Middle East, Vietnam, and to a smaller extent, Latin America. Alongside them are impoverished American-born residents, the majority of whom are black (though there is a good share of whites), who drift in and out of homelessness and prison.

While there are plenty of dive bars and (mostly ethnic) restaurants, the biggest employers in the neighborhood are non-profits and, yes, Poverty Pimps, who provide everything from 3 hots and a cot to clean needles and condoms. Junkies, winos, crazy people, thieves, drug dealers, crack whores, hustlers, and tranny prostitutes – there's plenty of grant writers for everyone.

The street scene is as such where shouting is constantly heard. No one is overlooked and most looks are hard or suspicious, especially if you are male. It’s probably not too wise to get into the staring game here (you know the one I’m talking about), lest you inadvertently pick a fight with someone just paroled from Corcoran.

If you feel the need to find a crooked cop, look no further than the TL. In fact, you may want to try Original Joe’s first (just a hunch).

Legend has it that the neighborhood got its name from crooked beat cops whose shakedown of the common criminals and other purveyors of vice made working in the TL easy street, thus they could afford better cuts of meat. There's no reason to believe anything has changed.

With all of the madness of street life, there is an oasis of calm in the Tenderloin and that oasis is called the Lafayette Coffee Shop. Unfortunately I can't tell you a thing about the history of the place or anything about the current owners, other than the fact that the waitress runs the show here and knows everyone by name.

Like many other coffee shops and cafeterias serving American food, most of whom have changed little since they were new, this coffee shop/greasy spoon is run by people of Asian descent, in this case (I presume from listening to the waitress's conversation with the cook) Vietnamese.

I had read before that the waitress knows everyone by name. What wasn't mentioned was that she also knows what each person is going to have. In fact, as soon as I sat down, her first words to me were "is this your first time here? I've never seen you in here before."

Considering San Francisco is a city of 740,000 residents (plus 169,000 daytime commuters, plus thousands more tourists), that's a pretty impressive memory.

The restaurant is no frills – and then some. Décor consists of one small, thrift store painting of a fishing village on a dirty beige wall and dozens of bright, bright flowers – all fake of course. Rarely do I get creeped out by fake flowers, but these looked like they were rescued from a Colma cemetary.

The seating cracks me up. Imagine red naugahyde covered booths, without the stuffing in the seat. It's like sitting on a wooden plank.

The lighting fixtures are second-hand Burger King, circa 1975. Other than the metal-trimmed, plain white, formica-covered tables and the wide, metal, venetian blinds, that's it for style.

There's not even a sign on the restroom – probably for good reason (throws the junkies off the scent).

What the Lafayette Coffee Shop lacks in style (inside of course; the outside signage is awesome), it sure makes up for in substance. As I said before, this place is an oasis of calm. Despite the noise and cacophony going on outside, it was so quiet on my visit you could hear my camera open from across the room. For the most part, it was dead silent in the place.

Most of the patrons were reading. All of them were old men, sitting by themselves, not speaking to anyone and minding their own business. Each man who came into the place or left was greeted by name.

"Oh, hi Bill! Will it be the same today?"

"Ok, thank you very much Mike! See you same time tomorrow, ok?!"

"Ok, Jerry, just like you wanted. Two orders of potatoes, no gravy."

All of this was said with the utmost sincerity and kindness. One might assume the waitress was an angel who had somehow got lost before she made her way to that late-night diner in the sky. One, especially a blonde crack ho who didn't cough up the money for her cheeseburger, would be wrong.

This one blonde crack ho, and later her crack Joe (or John), who forgot they spent their last fiver on a rock down on McCallister, mistakenly tried to bargain with someone who wasn't having any of it. And thus, tonight's dinner theater.

Whoever said dinner theater was dead never sat down in the Lafayette Coffee Shop.

And that brings us to the food.

While there was so much typical diner food to choose from, and even daily specials, I went with what seemed like a safe choice. Somehow, veal cutlets in this setting just seemed wrong.

I went with the ($6.95) Cross Rib dinner and a glass of water.

The dinner came with salad, soup (with crackers), bread and butter, which was brought to my table almost immediately.

The bread, and I say this in all honesty, was actually better than I've had in mid-range Italian restaurants (for one thing, it wasn't stale, and probably not recycled). The butter, contrary to being rock hard, which is one of my BIGGEST restaurant pet peeves, was room temperature and easily spreadable.

The salad. Well, the "salad".

What can you really say about a saucer of iceberg lettuce with one slice of a half-ripe tomato covered in industrial-grade 1000 Island dressing, other than it totally works for this place. The soup tasted as if it was poured from a can and embellished a little with the addition of carrots, celery, onions, and barley thrown in.

Despite being a foodie's nightmare, the combination of the bread, the soup, and the salad set the course for a healthy-ish, rib-sticking, good greasy-spoon, meal.

Soon, my dinner arrived and it didn't look half bad. Considering the neighborhood and the place, I would say it was rather decent.

The cross rib was plentiful and cooked medium done, with just a little bit of pink still visible. Unfortunately it was a little too fatty, but otherwise it had a good beefy flavor, made even more so by the small pool of jus it was resting in.

The potatoes were pretty good as well, covered in gravy and just the right consistency – with no weird chunks or artificial flavors (hell, maybe they did come from a box, but I couldn't taste it). And next to them was a pretty basic "vegetable medley", likely pre-cut and frozen. I had to add salt to the steamed veggies since they were unflavored, but fortunately not overcooked.

And let's not forget about dessert! Think clumpy, lukewarm, sweet rice pudding with a faint touch of cinnamon. I would tell you how horrible it was, but then I would have to explain why I ate every bit of it.

It wasn't, or it isn't, lost on me how much of a service the Lafayette Coffee Shop provides to the single men and old timers in the neighborhood. For under $8, one can have a full dinner, with good service, in a quite place, a haven from the chaos of the Tenderloin, that (to tell you the truth) isn't any worse or better than Tommy's Joynt.

I hear they even serve coffee as well!

As dives go, it's a classic. However, the real jewel here isn't the food, it's all of the good stuff that comes with the food – recognition, friendly service with a smile, peace and quiet, affordability, and just a little bit of theater thrown in for good measure.


PS For a very nice photo of the LCS at night, click here. Also check out Mark's website - a magnificient look at the TL from the perspective of its hotels.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Little Lucca Sandwich Shop

"Holy mother of Jesus!"

I thought sitting outside of the Little Lucca Sandwich Shop yesterday.

"I think I've hit the sandwich Holy Grail!"

And maybe I'm right. Judging from the constant lines outside of this 26 year old South City institution and the sheer number of Yelpers who agree, it seems as though I'm the not only one who knows this.

Until now, South City has been defined in my mind as that place, not really San Francisco, between us and the airport. Famous in my mind for the hillside graffitied in big Hollywood letters "South San Francisco – The Industrial City" and for having a good library, South City has always seemed to me as being the red-headed stepchild of peninsula towns; not really San Francisco, but constantly bewildering newcomers arriving from the airport believing they have arrived within San Francisco city limits.

South City also suffers from living in the shadow of the former Paris of the West, as it, Brisbane, San Bruno, (non-cemetary parts of) Colma, and parts of Daly City all seem to run together forming one large, indistinguishable, high-density suburban clusterfuck between San Francisco and the airport. Driving down El Camino Real, or off of a random exit from 101 or 280, I can never figure out which town I'm in.

However, I'm beginning to learn. When roaming through the hinterlands, what's helpful in learning where I'm at are landmarks, such as the South San Francisco library on West Orange Avenue, which is right off of Westborough Boulevard, which if you cross the street right there is a Filipino restaurant called Ong Pin, which is kinda "eh" and too damn expensive considering it's a place full of screaming kids, their asshole parents, and a cd player playing cheesy Filipino pop music that skips in the middle of the song everytime the waitress pulls a soda out of the refrigerator the cd player is sitting on.

However, now I have a new landmark, and what a landmark! Little Lucca is now, officially, a destination. I've said it before, but I'll say it again: every town, no matter how large or small, has a culinary jewel. It may or may not be obvious, often it's not, but every town has at least one.

I can't tell you how many times Bruce and I have driven by Little Lucca where I've thought to myself, "that place looks like a dump....I kinda like it."

It's not alone. Little, funky, hole-in-the-walls dot that whole section along El Camino Real, forming a small stretch of a diver's paradise. Yet something about Little Lucca seemed to call to me. Perhaps it's the building it's in, which looks like an old shack built in the early part of the 20th century. "Any no-frills place in a building that old must have some kind of history", I thought. "The place must be a local favorite."

One day we decided, on a whim, to see what exactly was up with this little deli. We got as far as the door when we noticed that the three or four people standing outside in front of us were standing behind a horde of people, whose shadowy figures you could see waiting inside.

"I can't eat here now", I told Bruce. "I don’t have my camera."

Little Lucca is sandwiched between a Shell station and the New Mandarin Chinese restaurant, itself looking rather divey and not very appealing. The parking lot shared between Little Lucca and New Mandarin has its parking spaces territorily staked out, with one side saying "Little Lucca Parking Only" and the other saying "New Mandarin Parking Only".

Only, something tells me that Little Lucca's customers tend to ignore this minor inconvenience. That little something may just be the fact that, after peaking our head into the New Mandarin, barely a soul could be found, despite a full parking lot.

But here we were (not parked in a New Mandarin's space) getting ready to see what all the fuss was about.

We arrived shortly after 2:30 PM and were prepared to wait in line, so it didn't bother us when we stood behind a few people several minutes before making our way through the doorway. While patrons squeezed by us carrying bags of sandwiches with them, I made small talk with a guy who had a heavy Spanish accent standing in front of me. He told me that he usually calls his sandwiches in for pick-up but had decided to stand in line instead.

He wasn't the only one. More than a few people had called their orders in, as I later found out. Those who didn't and were standing in line, must have done so only out of sheer boredom. Still, any place like this that can draw so many people, all of them obviously local and who are willing to wait patiently in line, in the middle of a sunny Saturday afternoon, must

Once we made it inside, the buzz of the room was noticeable. The line was maybe 15 persons deep and went down along the outer wall, made a U-turn, and continued alongside the counter area. A somewhat abrasive, but motherly, older woman who tended the cash register would occasionally shepard those of us in line to move down and make more space so that we got the "too much intimacy with my neighbor" effect as much as possible.

And yes, sir, that is my hand on your butt.

Behind the counter was a team of sandwich makers who were furiously trying to keep up with the demand and who never got a minute's lag-time between one order and the next. Behind them, sourdough and Dutch crunch rolls were piled high, ready to be filled. I guarentee you that none of those rolls had ever lived to be 24 hours old. Seeing the sheer volume of sandwiches fly out of that place just in the 20 minutes I stood in line, as well as considering how much STUFF they put on the sandwiches, I would venture to guess that nothing sits around too long at Little Lucca, staff included.

Many of those of standing in line weren't just ordering for themselves – they were ordering for their whole family! One woman left with 5 sandwiches. Another guy left with 7 or 8. Almost everyone got their sandwiches, got in their cars, and left. Seeing them leave with so many sandwiches might not have made an impression anywhere else, but at Little Lucca (whose t-shirts and aprons read "where size does matter") it's jaw dropping. Of course, your jaw would have to drop just to take one bite of these sandwiches.

Seeing them wrapped and ready to go, it's almost impossible to believe there's a sandwich underneath that paper. However, I soon learned that seeing is believing. Little Lucca, the place where size matters: out of this tiny, unpretentious, one-room deli comes a gargantuan sandwich.

It was a tough decision, but by the time I got to the counter, I had decided I would have the $5 Little Lucca Combo, with Mortadella, Salami, and Provolone cheese, with everything (mayo, mustard, pickle, red onion, lettuce, tomato, hot pepper sauce and garlic sauce) on it, on a soft (not the hard, crusty kind one usually encounters) sourdough roll. Bruce, also after long deliberation while standing in line, ended up ordering the $5.75 Toscano Salami and Provolone on sourdough (though the Dutch crunch was tempting) with everything, plus extra hot pepper sauce.

As the woman fixing my sandwich grabbed the roll, cut it in half, and began slathering it with mayo and garlic sauce, I began to wonder if and when my sandwich would transform into the enormous creation I saw others leaving with. Pretty soon, I stood in shock and awe as a saw lettuce, onions, cheese, and finally meat bombard the bread I thought would collapse from the weight at any moment. Just when I thought that there was no way you can get anything else on it, she topped it with the other half of bread and, using her body weight, held the whole thing down while she sliced it in half.

Size did matter as I declared victory, paid for my food, and attempted to squeeze out of the deli past a rather large woman blocking three-fourths of the entryway. After I caught my breath, and after Bruce managed his way out, we headed towards the partly sunny patio behind the shack. It was practically deserted.

There we sat, amazed at what we had sitting before us.

My Little Lucca Combo was everything I had dreamt and more. I couldn't believe how much of a difference the garlic sauce made on this sandwich, with this bread. It, with the combination of everything mentioned before, elevated this sandwich to a higher plateau.

Bruce's sandwich was just as good, if not more so, as the guy making his sandwich made an extra trip out back to grab a fresh piece of the Toscano salami and sliced it fresh for him on the spot.

Luckily, Bruce and I hadn't eaten anything the whole day, so our empty stomach were able to stretch the necessary distance for the full on Little Lucca experience. At first, there was no way I thought I could eat the whole thing. Once I got half down, I looked towards the sky, thought "Higher Power, if you're with me, I can do this", and proceeded to work on the other half.

Don't be surprised with the spiritual reference: a lot of eating we do here at Dive is faith-based – mostly praying that we won't choke, get poisoned, get shot, or rupture any internal organs from trying to down a Little Luccaesque sandwich.

Sitting here, a day later, I still can't believe I ate the whole thing. In fact, that sandwich was the only thing, other than a small slice of pizza later that night, I had eaten the whole day. But, man; was it worth it!

South City: you have yourselves quite a little deli there. Now when I hear the words "South City" or "South San Francisco", I will no longer think derisively of the Industrial City.

Instead, I will immediately think of the wonderful time I had gorging myself on a five-dollar sandwich that could choke a sumo wrestler.