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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Sam's Pizza

I walked by Sam's Pizza a year and a half before I realized it wasn't closed for good - only closed between 3 AM and 5 PM.

During the daytime, with the inside lights turned off and a rickety metal gate blocking closer inspection, it looks abandoned and lonely. Because the décor hasn't changed in the 40 years it's been open, from first glance, one isn't sure when it closed, if it is indeed closed.

By chance, I finally figured out that it was open for business on a night I was in the neighborhood. Very rarely am I in the vicinity of Columbus and Broadway at night, and frankly, why would I be? The only difference, though a significant one, between that area during the day and at night is that the strip clubs and tacky bars are open, populated by the drunk and coarse American versions of British chavs who flock to them.

It's generally not in the chav nature to post restaurant reviews, although a few do, and they are often easily identifiable by their Yelp reviews (keywords: "drunk", "2:00 AM", "bar-hopping").

The sui generis character of the area is further enriched by the hordes of horny incognito gentlemen of all backgrounds who swarm to the quarter-booths on Kearny and Broadway for practically endless hours of jack-off time.

Sorry, but I don't have enough anti-bacterial Wet-Naps to navigate the hundreds of potentially touched door handles in that hood after sunset.

It helps to look at this neighborhood through the lens of history, because when you realize that virtually little has changed since the days of Sydney Town, the Sydney Ducks, Dirty Tom McAlear, and the Chileno harlots who sent up camp on the slopes of Telegraph Hill, you come to view it all with a quaint nostalgia, even as you turn your nose up at and away from it.

If there is any place in the whole Bay Area where history is still alive, albeit with different players and different dives, it is in this area.

Sam's Pizza looks as if it has changed little as well, except for the prices. There is something to be said with sticking with what works. Times may change, but true dives rarely do. That's what makes them either distasteful to some or homey to others.

My visit to Sam's revealed that it is homey, most especially to others – "others" being passed out homeless men and lower working class stragglers. Because my visit wasn't between 12 and 3 AM, I was luckily spared the conversation of some mooks who decided on Sam's because they were too drunk to find Clown Alley.

Nevertheless, the conversation of the two other coherent diners and the cook wasn't much better. It fairly ranged between discussing the reason a friend was booked on a felony charge (slapping a police horse's ass) to where to shop for ghetto fabulous clothes in New York, and which Market Street store had the best brand clothing (note: not the one that sells mostly to whites).

Sam's Pizza is a fairly cramped dive that's dominated by a short bit of counter space and some small wall tables that seat one on each side. Like a lot of Broadway dives, it's not the cleanest joint, and perhaps rivals You's Dim Sum in terms of the Sticky Icky Factor.

The walls are cluttered with yellowed and aging menus and the look of the place is fairly dingy. The smell of grease from the fryers hangs heavy and mingles with the bus exhaust and cigarette smoke drifting in from the bus stop outside. Despite its age, it has all the charm of Jack in the Box on First Street.

After I began eating my cheeseburger and the previous two customers had left (one of them throwing his wadded-up garbage down on the street like a slack-jawed moron*), the young Arab-American cook wearing a Kangol hat walked from behind the counter, stood at the entryway, and began smoking a cigarette. He stood there for several minutes, watching the never-ending stream of Chinese people walk by, and seemed to be passing the time until the non-Chinese invaders appeared - drunk, loud, and obnoxious.

*We, here at Dive, HATE litterbugs.

When he came back inside and walked back behind the counter, I instinctively waited to hear the sound of running water, and yet nothing. Suddenly I looked down at the food in my hands and a not-so-strange thought entered my mind. Could it be that this 8-dollar cheeseburger and fries were touched with unwashed cigarette hands?

A hard gulp followed.

I squirted more ketchup onto my paper plate. The fries, although hot, were previously frozen and not any different than what you would buy off the cheap shelf at the supermarket. The cheeseburger was fairly non-descript and a pale rendition of the burger at AllStars, at double the price. Perhaps I should've ventured over to Clown Alley instead.

Clown Alley, which is just about as old if not older, unfortunately isn't a dive…anymore. It's had one too many remodels and now is a fairly clean and nice place to get a great cheeseburger. The price for a cheeseburger, fries, and a coke reflect that (upwards of $10 for all three).

The price at Sam's Pizza for the same, unfortunately, doesn't. And that's too bad, because I really wanted to like Sam's, especially after the long wait.

Sam's, however, is a great example of how a place can have strong elements of a dive and yet have no redeemable qualities. Sometimes sticky tables, a skanky clientele, an aloof cook with questionable sanitary practices, and overpriced mediocre food makes a worthless shithole just that, and nothing more.

That, my fellow divers, is what we must trudge through in our ongoing journey to the top, by way of the bottom.

So take another deep breath and follow me.


Thursday, August 03, 2006

Taqueria Cancun

Walking South of Market on unwashed sidewalks deformed, broken, and raised up by overgrown tree roots and years of neglect, I told Mark Ellinger the other night that I thought his and my blog were of the same spirit and similar in purpose; kindred spirits of a sort.

After sleeping on it and thinking about it more today, I can't help but feel that, maybe, I egotistically put myself on a level that I don't deserve.

After all, Mark's work is much more subjective, while the places I write about often place me in the role of an outsider discovering a place for the first time. Still, I would like to compare what Mark does and what I do, if only because, egotistically, I'd feel honored to be mentioned in the same sentence as him.

I think part of the appeal of what we both do lies in what the scientist, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, meant when he said "discovery is seeing what everyone else has seen, but thinking what no one else has thought".

Of course, not all of the places I write about have previously gone unnoticed, while not every hotel Mark photographs has remained unphotographed and ignored by the people who live there. Rather, it's the way him and I connect these seemingly isolated elements together that make them seem, at least to some people, new or interesting.

Mark's hotels are just ordinary buildings until, through his photographs (and essentially, his eyes), we see them, and we think about them, in a way we may have never seen or thought about them before.

If eyes are the windows to one's soul, then we also see a part of Mark himself in, and attached to, each photograph. In each one, he seems to bring out a personality or a feeling - sometimes brazen, sometimes timid - in each hotel or sign or stairway he photographs. An open window can be heavy with insinuation, while a surreal sunrise can reveal a tender moment in the life of a structure seemingly frozen in time.

"Dawn Over Taylor Street", photo by Mark Ellinger

Where dives are concerned, I only wish I could accomplish with the keyboard what Mark does with the camera. But as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. If I had to type a thousand words for every dive I visited, I'd give this shit up and start drinking again. Your ass is lucky I can barely scratch out the few words I do!

The night of our walk, I had the opportunity to talk to Mark about his work over a burrito at Taqueria Cancun. We had originally planned to meet for dinner at Mimi's Manor House Restaurant but, to our disappointment, it closed at 5 PM. Instead, Mark suggested we head over to Taqueria Cancun at Market and 6th Street.

Now, I've never actually been to the town of Cancun, but I've read about it, and something tells me that Sixth and Market is about as far away from this margarita-swilling-sunburnt-Americans, sanitized tourist resort as you can get.

Nevertheless, I wasn't certain at first that this place would meet my dive criteria. True, it's on Market and Sixth, which is hardcore dive territory. However, everyone and his sister in the greater Bay Area has known that Taqueria Cancun (at 19th and Mission) was the shit for burritos, at least as far back as I can remember (12 years). Like with the new location of Taqueria Pancho Villa down near the Ferry Building, I figured this new Cancun location might be a less dive-worthy joint and/or attract an upscale, non-neighborhood crowd.

Excuse me - but what crack was I smoking, again?

On my visit, Taqueria Cancun's crowd was predominantly working class, and to a certain extent, the up-to-no-good class - or what a hyper-PC acquaintance of mine would consider "survivors" of the "street economy".

During the brief time Mark and I spent eating there, the crowd ranged from a table of young and streetwise latinas; a DPW worker sneaking in some break time; a young, scowling, wheelchair-bound guy (totally hit in a drive-by, I'm sure); an uncomfortable looking 30-something white guy in a suit; a bike messenger who looked oddly familiar; a security guard/serial killer; a couple of giggling hipster girls; a guy who's probably uttered more than once the words "don't hate the playa, hate the game"; and a skanky, crazy guy whose face had been recently punched black and blue, and who was immediately told to leave upon being noticed by the guy behind the counter.

Inside, there's not much room to move around or sit down. The few tables that exist line the wall of this narrow, one-room dive leaving very little space between the counter and the line of customers ordering and waiting for their food.

From the front of the dive, directly back to the door with a "NO RESTROOM!" sign above it, the entire place is one, small, open space; the only divide between you and the guy making your food being the counter itself.

Luckily having the opportunity to visit more than a few upscale, trendy restaurants in my day, I'm pretty familiar with the "open kitchen" concept. However, Taqueria Cancun takes this concept to an absurd extreme. We were sitting so close to the dishwashing action, I think my glasses steamed up a little. Any closer and we would've had dishpan hands.

The place basically works best as a take out place, and for the most part, that's the business they were doing. Up front, next to the window, a guy was chopping freshly roasted pork and carne asada, while another lurked unseen behind a range hood. In addition, there was a guy taking and making orders and another working as back up – washing the dishes when things got slow.

Mark was an excellent Taqueria Cancun dining partner, especially since he lives right around the corner and Cancun is one of his regular haunts. When a guy like this recommends the al Pastor, you don't give lip, other than "I'll have the Wetback Burrito, al Pastor."


Something about asking for a "wetback burrito" from a taqueria worker who may or may not have once dipped his gams in the Rio Bravo del Norte is a little unsettling, especially to a fragile, politically-correct gabacho like myself.

For a second, I thought about ordering the "er, uh, the you know, ahem, w-e-t back burrito", but I just bucked up and said what I wanted, wetback and all. At that point, the guy behind the counter, apparently not amused with my reluctance, gave me a look so cold it could freeze blood.

I know he was thinking "Oh yeah? A wetback huh? Let's see who's a wetback after I bitch-slap your punk ass."

I just know it.

Mark had ordered a regular al Pastor burrito that had been grilled and then wrapped in aluminum foil, and both of us were chomping away on the tasty tortilla chips, guacamole, and salsa, but I was completely focused on this "wetback" burrito.

He was filling my brain with stories of going to diners with his grandparents as a child and of San Francisco dives from the 70s and 80s that have long since passed but, honestly, it was really hard to concentrate with this radiant, tasty burrito sitting before me - and I speak to you as someone completely burrito-jaded (though probably not as much as this guy and these people).

Still, if all insulting stereotypes tasted this good, I would be one regular offensive eating motherfucker.

Nothing could go better with this food other than a nice cool agua frescas, and this sweet, refreshing cantaloupe drink was a perfect sidekick to the melange of flavors set before us.

True to Mark's word, the al Pastor burrito (with beans, rice, onions, and salsa) was damn good and the addition of the toppings (enchilada sauce, green salsa, melted cheese, sour cream, and more salsa) made this burrito to die for.

Or at least suffer a heatstroke.

Seriously, if this is what illegal immigration tastes like, why are we even having this "debate"?

Ya basta, fools!

Open those borders already and get your ass to Taqueria Cancun, pronto!