BOWLED OVER IN SAN FRANCISCO — Hop the crosstown bus, get off at 16th and Shotwell, that cozy tree-lined street in the heart of the barrio — a thousand miles, it seems, from Mission, the workingman’s Main Street, and its flatlands sibling Valencia, the yuppie’s turf, just over yonder — proceeding thence to Los Jarritos at 20th and South Van Ness. It’s noon on the dot and a three-man unit of strolling sombreroed players is already serenading the stevedores and architects ordering their rellenos-burritos-sopas-etc.
Jumbo bowls of soup are the heart of the matter here, Chicken one day, Beef another, Trout always, Barbecued Kid on weekends. And these are different soups from their counterparts back in the more fashionable arrondissements (the real world!) of the city. They are big. They have everything in them but the proverbial kitchen sink. They are virtual ragouts, essays in potage nuggetry, surrendering upon investigation all manner of homey bits, morsels and chunks. The Chicken for instance (Wednesdays) contains whole pieces of fowl, potato, zucchini, carrot, cabbage, etcetc. And for that enlivening piquant touch you add the contents of a condiment plate: rice, minced onion and cilantro, lime!
Can’t find space at Los Jarritos? An excellent alternative is Acaxutla, a Guatemalan restaurant-cum-bakery on Mission a few doors toward town from 19th. The chips are warm here, the salsa has unusual body, guacamole is avocado, garlic and lemon, no frills. My favorite “big bowl” at this location is Kak-ik Cobanera Soup, centered on turkey but delivering the expected roll call of vegetal goodies.
On the way out one must purchase, for about 75 cents, a huge bag of cookie “seconds,” crumbles, that is, of cookies that didn’t make it to the counter in one piece. Minimally sweet but addictive all the same, these remnants are known to aficionados as chomping food.
STIRRING MAYO — After years of resisting the challenges to oil-pouring limb in making one’s own mayonnaise, I’ve surrendered, thanks to a good recipe my daughter-in-law Lucy and I have transcontinentally perfected. It goes like this: 1) blend for 20 seconds a whole egg, 1 egg yolk, 2 teaspoons of powdered mustard, a little pepper and 1 1/4 tablespoons of white wine vinegar, 2) with the blender motor running, slowly add 1 cup of olive oil, 3) season with thyme and saffron.
And speaking of mayo, for my garden lunch today in a (mostly) gentle San Francisco summer breeze, newly planted lavender at my side, I added avocado bits and baby tomatoes to leftover oil-baked chicken whisked up in a mayonnaise I’d spiked with some five spice powder and a few good drops of Marsala. A sort of Cobb, it reminded me of the Brown Derby in old L.A.
MENU MESSAGE — A memory lane I stroll down rather frequently, with some trepidation, is . . . Menus. Menus from past chapters of my life, menus of restaurants near and far, restaurants here and gone. Just now I was studying the anemone-covered bill of fare my sister gave me from her transatlantic voyage on the French Line in 1964. Ah, to think that the fabled French Line is now Jurassic! An interesting document it is, not only because of so many good things to eat, but because the chefs of the S.S. France were trying, with grace and imagination, to please just about everybody, gastronomical hayseeds as well as bon vivants who knew every ripple in the sea between Sandy Hook and Le Havre.
More homespun one couldn’t get than Green Olives, Pineapple Juice, Young Turkey Cranberry Sauce, Baked Idaho Potatoes, Stewed Rhubarb, Baked Apple with Jelly. Looks as if Marcel and Fernand were studying their Mrs. Rombauer. But then of course there was Sorrel Soup, Choucroute Garnie Strasbourgeoise, Young Pigeon Casserole Bonne Femme (pronounce that e more like the a in apple), and ten cheeses, eight of them French. And for the fellow traveling on to Italy Spaghetti Bolonaise, for the Athenian Fried Smelts with Lemon, for the delicate of constitution Consomme with Tapioca. And for adventurers from any clime Eggs a la Tripe. Or Brazilian Pudding, whatever that might turn out to be. Bon Voyage!
PROJECT WHARF — For many a San Franciscan the idea of a meal at Fisherman’s Wharf rates a shaky 1 on a scale of 10. One expects to be buried in a blizzard of postcards, strangled in a storm of T-shirts, caught in all the fortune cookies active minds can dream up. Still, we natives are curious — could there be a good meal down there?! Ah, a summons for the intrepid blogsmith. So I decided to research the field on the net, exploring the matter clinically. Not promising! Bad reviews — admittedly, tourist reviews are sometimes highly idiosyncratic, there are people who won’t eat anything green, or red — washed over the screen. And then the expense: main courses at $40. Quel rip-off.
But help came in warm advice from Renee, that treasure of a waitperson at the U.S. Restaurant in North Beach. Go to Scoma’s, she said, the chef is Steve Scarabosio, I went to school with him. Well, Renee I trust because her frequent accounts of her exuberant home cooking are very convincing. So my friend Margot and I walked hopefully up the alley at the foot of Jones Street to this well-advertised retreat (having braved the claustrophobic confines of a slit-eyed historic streetcar not from romantic Milan or Barcelona but Kansas), advanced on the reception desk and were shown immediately to a table in a pleasant panelled salle. It looked, to be sure, over fishing boat masts but was much more oriented toward the nabobian & upper bohemian skyscrapers of Russian Hill than the hurly-burly on the wharf.
Ah, Russian Hill where my first love lived. My second, too. With celebrity photos along the wall this memory-releasing space suggested a West Coast Sardi’s by the Sea.
But the food. The menu was as copious as La Coupole’s in Paris, with everything from lobster bisque to a plateful of chard. And the revelation was the utter simplicity of our main course (expensive, but plenty for two), a baked petrale white as the loveliest sheet, cooked with mushrooms and a little white wine and accompanied by rigatoni al burro — so this was reminiscent of the sole and noodles Anne and I delighted in at the lamented Schillinger in Colmar thirty years ago. The opener was comme il faut crab cakes accompanied by three killer sauces, good enough to eat by themselves with a spoon, 1) a very intense cocktail sauce, 2) an ultra-smooth, mayonnaise-rich tartare, 3) a suave Louie-like remoulade.
I might just return to the wharf, T-shirts and all.
AND TRY THIS — My ever-creative friend Monica has come up with the Treat Street Omelette, a rainbow affair composed with spinach, shiitake mushrooms, yellow bell pepper and red onion, doubtless all from her catch at San Francisco’s Civic Center farmers’ market. Also in the orchestration: thyme, garlic, a pianissimo of chili powder and a little soy added while whipping your eggs.
The view from Monica’s kitchen is interesting too: a lone chair sitting surrealistically on a roof a block away, framed by a Twin Peaks that might be asking, What gives?