A few years ago, I got a call from a stranger -- a friend of a friend of my friend Chet. He and his partner were looking for a food consultant to redo the menu at their cafe in Palm Springs. Their existing menu read like a Midwestern housewife's weekly meal plan: liver and onions Tuesdays, meatloaf (generic) Wednesdays, pork chops (no further description) Thursdays, fish (that's all she wrote) Fridays, etc. etc. Using Chet's highly sophisticated palate as my template, I started developing some fantasy food-schemes, e.g., "worldwide desert food." But Chet himself brought me back to earth. "You ever been in Palm Springs?" he asked. I confessed I'd never so much as passed through it. "Listen," he said, "gays in Palm Springs don't want that exotic stuff. They don't want gourmet stuff. They just want relaxing, familiar food -- they want mom food." Bam! a stereotype smashed. Whoops! I don't do mom food. End of story.
Chet's analysis solves the puzzle of some restaurants in the Castro. Like the densest-packed eateries in student neighborhoods, many Castro cafes aim their menus not at food nuts (like Chet and me) but at folks who've moved here from all over the country, who may love the S.F. atmosphere but miss the food back home. It's easy for a foodie to forget that going out to eat can just mean "to eat," not "to dine," and that it can be a pleasure to relax over food that's simply good in an atmosphere that's even better.
Chow is probably just what the Palm Springs guys must have wanted. Owner Tony Gulisano has had ample experience as a chef and consultant, including a stint with Spectrum Foods, the umbrella company of the Il Fornaio chain. Now he's soloing with a reasonably priced, informal, down-home community eatery, majoring in California-Italian with an Asia minor.
From Church, it looks like a tiny cafe, but once you enter, Chow reveals unexpected depths, with smallish tables spaced at friendly-but-comfortable distances in front of, alongside, and behind a long warm-toned wooden bar (where smoking is OK, hurray). The look is plain and pretty, cream and green with wood trims that match the bar. Portraits of cult film stars intersperse with bright oil paintings. A gigantic open kitchen in back displays a great wood-fired pizza hearth and a long wood-fired grill, both spouting heavenly flames. Gulisano's ace management extends to the details: Not only are the restrooms wheelchair accessible, but the ladies' is larger than my home office and features a big fresh bouquet of flowers. And only a month after opening, the kitchen staff already has the precision timing of Rockettes. Every item we ordered in two meals was cooked perfectly to the split second.
The menu includes manageable selections of salads, appetizers, pastas, pizzas, grills, a daily special sandwich, and desserts, with nothing higher than $7.25 (except for the variably priced daily fish special, around $11). A narrow choice of wines are available by both glass (mostly under $5) and bottle. Reds are decently if briefly represented; except for a verdicchio, however, most of the whites are on the sweet side, but the house chardonnay ($2.75) from Bogle is so harsh it just Bogles the mind. The longer beer list includes TJ's favorite, Moretti (from Friulia), which tastes like it was made for a marriage with pizza. There's also a healthy array of house-made lemonades, coolers, smoothies, and milkshakes. The sophisticated Purple Haze ($2.50), a blend of blackberry cabernet ice, vanilla ice cream, and raspberry, made a delicious dessert on our second visit.
My initial gander at Larry, our first dinner's waiter, produced a loony wave of cognitive dissonance, tenderness, and anxiety: The surface was regular San Franciscan -- buzz cut, earring, white shorts, brown spaniel-eyes, ebullient manner, and exaggerated mannerisms -- but his loud voice and underlying accent ("Ya done yet?") revealed the jokey-coarse stamp of one of New York's working-class Italian neighborhoods. In Little Italy, the Red Swans Social Club would probably have beaten him to a pulp, even though he coulda been one o' dem himself.
Both our appetizers displayed the glory of simplicity. We started with fire-roasted mussels ($5.95) cooked on a bed of coarse salt. The small, velvety-rich mollusks came with a tasty herbed-butter dip. Larry asked did we like them, and we said they were super. "Dat's because dey're farm-raised insteada wild. See how clean dey are, no bee-ards." Also fabulous was a slab of fire-toasted garlic bread with a generous, addictive tumble of ripe, herb-marinated plum tomatoes ($3.95). On our return visit, we started by splitting a slightly undersized main course of perfectly grilled portobello mushrooms (actually, it was just a single 'room), roasted peppers, and garlic mashed potatoes ($6.50), with a thin, delicious, herb-flecked brown gravy. "That's exactly the kind of gravy I keep asking you to make," said TJ. "Not that thick Southern stuff."
We were less thrilled with our pastas. We felt duty-bound to try Rose's spaghetti and meatballs ($6.95) named after Tony's mother, their inventor. The spaghetti was cooked al dente, but the large meatballs were herb-impaired and filler-full. "This tastes just like my mom's meatloaf, and my mother wasn't much of a cook," said TJ. "I'm sure the filler is crushed saltines. Once you know that taste you can always recognize it." The sauce was evidently bland by plan, a mild marinara that had already been mixed with Parmesan. We also took home a sample of an Asian pasta from the menu's "Good To-Go Meals." Chow's mein, Shanghai noodles ($4.25) consisted of -- more spaghetti. (Genuine Shanghai noodles are fresh, not dried pasta, and their flour base isn't semolina.) Their slightly spicy peanut sauce was the standard recipe that runs in the Wednesday food sections once or twice a year. The sauce is also served with a half "Thai chicken" ($7.25).
But our pizza (12 inches, $6.95) was a reminder of how fine ingredients can make familiar dishes special. With a tasty, slightly puffy crust (the way Wolfgang Puck's frozen pizza would be if it were any good), it had big, creamy dollops of whole-milk mozzarella (not the stringy semiskim of cheap chains), plus melty bites of tangy feta and hunks of flavorful Italian fennel sausage turned out of its skin. Slivers of red onion added sweet piquancy. As we were sawing away with a pizza wheel, a couple of guys sat down at the next table. The one nearest resembled a Papa Hemingway clone colored like the Stars and Stripes with red skin, white hair and beard, and blue eyes. "Do you mind telling me what type of pizza you're eating? Is it good?" he asked. I happily handed over a slice, saying, "It's great, but we're both running out of appetite." "Papa" tasted it and swiftly ordered one for himself.
On the return visit, we had the lemon rosemary grilled half-chicken ($7.25), which came with rosemary-strewn roasted new potatoes and a few asparagus spears. All quite nice, but not half as nice as the Burger Royale ($6.50). Ever since the big burger scare, the America "where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day" seems to have vanished on us. Between the crummy chains and the food-cop alarms, for years all we've been able to get are dried-out steer patties. At Chow, we ordered "rare" and the giant house-ground chuck patty was genuinely flame-broiled and rare indeed, served on a sliced baguette and accompanied by a heap of thin french fries, plus a dress-it-yourself array of fixin's, including the usual burger-veggies, house-made mayo, and a vast collection of bottled stuff (ketchup, mustards, steak sauce, Worcestershire, hot fudge ... not really) a waiter plunked on the table. The next time hamburger hunger strikes, we'll know where to go.
After our first meal, unaware of house policies, I slipped out the door for a cigarette; Larry followed to fetch me back inside, assuring me that smokers are welcome at the bar. TJ and I moved there and discussed dessert: We couldn't eat another bite, but couldn't resist Sicilian cannoli ($2.25). "Takeout!" I said. "In the immortal words of Clemenza, 'Leave the gun, take the cannoli.' " (Later that night, we ate the semicrisp, light-colored pastry shell filled with a sweetened ricotta cream, semisweet chocolate chips, and minced pistachios. It was good, but not quite the best version; I missed the classic crumbly shell and bittersweet candied orange peel in the filling.)
I finally asked Larry if he was from New York. Yeah, he confessed, he was from Bensonhurst (a lower-middle-class Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn). Just then a crush of waiters and waitresses amassed at the cash register at the end of the bar, as several tables simultaneously needed their bills. "New Yorkers are so pushy," said a short, cute waiter, pushing to the front. "Would you believe -- he used to be a professional skater?" Larry guffawed. "And Larry used to be a football player," the smaller waiter riposted. "With the New York Jets." As Larry mimed tackling him, the little guy burst into, "When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way, from your first cigarette to your last dying day ...."
A musical comedy erupting in real life? You gotta love the place. And lots of people do. On our second visit, by 7:30 it was almost SRO, with every age, gender, and sensibility represented. As we were crossing Market, we overheard two guys dressed all in leather saying, "Have you seen the kitchen yet? It's brand new and it's huge!" And we knew for certain where they were heading for some chow.