I waited a bit before scheduling a dinner there with two guys from work, who made the requisite crack about the restaurant's name, inquiring whether the gumbo was prepared by hookers, or for them. I'd checked out the Web site by then and told them the Hooker was owner James Hooker, a San Francisco native whose "California style of soul food" incorporates Southern country, Creole, and Caribbean influences, and who has undoubtedly heard every possible version of the gag.
Earlier in the day Joyce had called, stuck at home and hoping I'd be able to join her for an impromptu lunch. I'd been tethered to my desk, but later, when the dependably undependable duo canceled right on schedule, Joyce was still available to join me for an early dinner.
We entered a long corner space, one side taken up by a white-tiled open kitchen, and lined with rows of tables on the other, cheered up by a festive wallcovering of vertical stripes, black and a pink so hot it was almost red, at the same time circus-y and Vogue-y, a wallpaper designed by Elsa Schiaparelli. There didn't seem to be a whole lot of choice on the one-page printed paper menu: two gumbos, one seafood, one not; a half-dozen sandwiches and lighter entrees; four dinner entrees; four salads; a half-dozen vegetable sides; and a couple of desserts. We decided to share a classic seafood gumbo (which felt a bit pricey, both for the neighborhood and for the modest if cheerful surroundings, at $24.95, but the menu said it contained "Lot's [sic] of Fresh Crab!") and an oyster po' boy, quickly adding a starter of crab cakes when our affable and friendly server, whom I recognized as Mr. Hooker from his picture on the Web site, told us they were a special that night.
And they were special: two of the biggest crab cakes ever, juicy, crabby, with hot-sauce-induced heat. Joyce moaned with delight. There was indeed lots of just-steamed Dungeness crab heaped atop the tomato-y, pleasantly spiced bowl of gumbo, okraless but otherwise brimming with fresh vegetables, bits of chicken, shrimp, and chunks of sausage in its soupy broth. I'd been a trifle worried because the Web site had described the restaurant's cooking as "healthy," in a way ("low fat, rich in nutrients") that sometimes translates -- especially in adapting a cuisine that doesn't give a damn about health and is only concerned with tasting good -- to faint flavor. But this was a robust, well-flavored stew, and the crab was as good as it could be.
I was more impressed with it than with the oyster po' boy: The oysters, on a boring roll lined with one limp lettuce leaf, were more flabby than crisp. Not so the freshly made sweet potato chips alongside. We also shared sides of rich, sugary candied yams, here called yams with sweet onions, and made from fresh yams rather than the usual canned; nicely bitter chopped collard greens; and the only dish that betrayed its California-zation, too-clean "dirty rice" with not a hint of the chopped chicken gizzards and livers that give the concoction its name, just disappointing minced vegetables. Joyce was more a fan of the thin, chewy, seemingly unsalted hot-water corn bread than I was.
We were delighted by both the refreshing homemade berry lemonade and a blueberry cobbler a la mode, but I was even more impressed when I got the check and found out that the gumbo I'd thought was the $24.95 size was in reality the smaller $12.95 version, which easily fed us both.
A night later, I felt drawn back to Hooker's after Hilary and I saw the delightful Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio a few blocks away at the Metreon. I loved Jane Anderson's quirky script (based on local author Terry Ryan's memoir) and direction, and Julianne Moore's spunky, luminous portrayal of the mother of 10 who supported her family by entering slogan and essay contests. But the truly chilling moment was near the end, when Mom wins a prize that includes a weekend in a hotel, where she, for the first time, "sleeps in a bed she hasn't made and eats a meal she did not prepare." I wondered: Have I eaten more meals prepared by myself or others? I figure if you include the 17 years of meals prepared by my own mom, it's a tossup.
I really enjoyed this meal prepared by others: a silky, thick, grilled New York steak, an excellent piece of meat ("I had it with eggs for my breakfast -- it's my birthday!" Mr. Hooker told us), sided by luscious caramelized onions, for me; and big, fat fried chicken wings with collard greens, a bargain at $6.25, for Hilary, who had never had collards before. She liked them! We exited the brightly lit rooms for the slightly creepy walk back to our cars (the Web site's characterization of Hooker's as "conveniently located near Union Square and Moscone Center" may be a trifle optimistic).
Weeks later, when I return to pick up some takeout for a family dinner, the menu has changed considerably from my first couple of visits: The chicken wings are gone, alas (though you can get Cajun hot wings with blue cheese dip as an appetizer), but now there's country fried chicken at $7.55, with corn bread and two sides, among a number of new entrees. The fine crab cakes have become a permanent fixture.
I order the fried chicken and the shrimp Creole, which each come with two sides, and a hot link sandwich. The fried chicken -- a leg, a thigh, and a wing -- is made with good-quality bird dipped in a well-seasoned, faintly peppery batter, but it's ineptly fried: The coating on the leg is almost black on one side, while the thigh, still bloody at the bone, has uncooked batter clinging to it. (The wing, however, as in the story of the three bears, is just right.) The shrimp Creole, full of fat, sweet shrimp and the requisite peppers, celery, and onions in a mild tomato-based sauce, is generously served over white rice: It's an innocuous but soothing stew. The red beans are earthy and good. The link sandwich would have been better eaten right away. There's no corn bread in the takeout bags, but I don't miss it.
Hooker's is a friendly spot on a block otherwise empty of dining opportunities after dark (I wish the busy, popular lunch dive Tu Lan across the street would take a hint and give itself a good scrubbing and maybe a fresh coat of paint). I salute Mr. Hooker -- the former director of job development with the Mayor's Youth Employment and Education Program, whose stated desire is not only to serve tasty food, but also to improve the neighborhood and the employment opportunities for local youth -- for both his intentions and his gumbo.