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Back to the Future 

Wednesday, Oct 13 1999
It was the kind of a day, as Raymond Chandler never said, that made the Market Street palm trees seem right at home. The Farallons, San Francisco's age-old visual barometer, could be seen out on the western horizon. The deep-blue late-afternoon air was slow and thick. Sidewalk tables dotted with pint glasses and margaritas sprouted up outside cafes and restaurants. Jackets were slung over shoulders for the long, hot climb to Buena Vista Park. And the streets of the Castro hummed with toned, tattooed bodies feeling the sort of sunshine they hadn't enjoyed since last month's jaunt to Santa Cruz. San Francisco's fleeting balmy season was upon us.

A day like this conjures up culinary memories of a positively visceral nature. You remember the lemonade you enjoyed as a kid, stirred up from a can of Minute Maid frozen concentrate with a couple of lemons sliced in. Or the corn on the cob you'd grill in its husk over hot coals, peel back, rub with butter, and devour like a typewriter carriage gone mad. Or the pork chops and burgers and garden salads and fresh fruit pies that fueled your early existence and formed the basis for so much of what you were and what you eventually became.

You can still obtain the low-arugula, low-maintenance grub of a bygone era, of course; in fact, now it's everywhere. "Who," I wonder aloud, "was the first person to take classic American victuals, add a little Alice Waters Pan-Eurasian sauciness, and serve them up in a postmodern mod-retro quasi-deco setting, attracting a burgeoning upscale demographic and its ever-more-disposable income in the process? Was it Cindy Pawlcyn and Pat Kuleto and the Fog City Diner? Was it some anonymous marketing genius who is kept hidden away in the bowels of Young & Rubicam? And whoever it was, do the Buckeye and the Blue Plate and the Universal Cafe have to send him royalty checks every fiscal quarter?"

Blue is a one of the latest exemplars of the nouveau diner trend. Situated smack in the middle of the Castro, there's nothing blue about the place except its chlorine-toned menus and credit card receipts: From walls to tabletops it's unmistakably black, as befits a hip, culinarily retro hot spot, but the mood is as light as the sunbeams filtering through its big Market Street-fronted windows. The staff dresses in garage mechanic uniforms of the mid-Eisenhower era, the better to underline Blue's no-nonsense, fill-'er-up bill of fare. The professional attitude, though, is friendly, festive, and welcoming, and by 7:30 the small room is packed with happy locals scarfing platters of meatloaf and bottles of beer.

We were having a good time, too, with our introductory Anchor Steam ($3.50), Carmenet Dynamite merlot ($6.50), and sakitini ($5.50) -- a martini glass glistening with ice-cold premium sake, and how hip is that? -- very nicely complementing as fine a basket of hot, crisp, skinny french fries ($3) as you can find in this town. (Other house beers include Lagunitas IPA, Widmer Hefeweizen, and Sierra Nevada Porter; the equally well-chosen 16-item wine list features a Rabbit Ridge zin, an Edna Valley chardonnay, and a Cakebread sauvignon blanc.)

For dinner proper we decided to skip the fancy stuff -- fried calamari with red peppers ($7.50), spinach salad with dried cranberries ($4.50/$6.50), gourmet mac and cheese with three kinds of fromage and Japanese bread crumbs ($5.50) -- for more mnemic delights. The very green salad ($4 small/$6 large) had nice big chunks of tender avocado, crisp cucumber slices, and sweet peas, but tired lettuce leaves filled out the bowl, and the salad's herb vinaigrette was unremarkable. The grilled chicken skewers ($5.50), on the other hand, were juicy and tasty, especially if you didn't let them stray into their bed of overly sweet, underly hot jalapeño jelly. And our trendiest dish, the warm brie with roasted garlic ($6.50), was perfectly done, with the cheese at just the right almost-melting point, the garlic cloves supple and more sweet than fragrant, the baguette rounds crisp enough to support the whole.

I know from experience that the Niman pork chop ($11.50) is usually delectability itself, but Blue dries out its nice thick chop, douses it in a redundant balsamic reduction, and cushions it in merely so-so mashed potatoes. Much better is the steak sandwich ($8.50), a juice-dripping, cholesterol-rich triumph of carriage-trade junk food starring a hot, incisor-tender ribeye, a slab of melting jack cheese, and grilled bell peppers on a crunchy sourdough roll, with the final touch provided by a schmear of garlicky aioli. The chicken pot pie ($8) is wonderful in a different, more rural way: The crust is buttery, while thick, tender chunks of chicken accompany peas, carrots, celery, and potatoes in a delicious, not-too-thick gravy. A side of string beans ($3) -- deep green, crunchy, and glistening with butter -- provides perfect accompaniment.

There are two desserts on the menu. The walk away sundae ($2.50) is a specialty of the house, and for cause: It's deep and satisfying as only a very simple thing can be, just two big scoops of vanilla ice cream, a topping of freshly whipped cream, and, oozing throughout, dense, dark, delicious hot fudge. And the pecan pie ($5) is (unlike many of its namesakes) all about pecans -- they're ribboned throughout a filling uncursed by the soggy sweetness too often associated with this noble dish.

After dinner, outside, the air was still balmy, Market Street flowing with empty streetcars and contented pedestrians sniffing honeysuckle. The Castro Theater was quiet, a movie unthinkable on a night like this, but the bars and smoke shops and candy stores up the block and around the corner were humming with commerce and Monday-night conviviality. With dusk the lights came up, and off in the distance the East Bay sparkled as it does only once or twice a year. The setting was absolutely, unnervingly tropical.

May we have our fog back now?

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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