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Dr. Strangebook 

Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Chowhound's Guide

Wednesday, Sep 7 2005
God knows, putting together a restaurant guidebook is something of a thankless task: Because of the vagaries of life -- openings, closings, chefs leaving -- the day a guidebook comes out, it's already inaccurate, not to mention obsolete. In the age of the Internet, a book may seem a trifle quaint -- especially one that intends to distill the musings of a famously anarchic, famously difficult-to-navigate, famously addictive Web site, which spills over with floods of opinionated, obsessed words posted daily, in an ebb-and-flow of visits to new restaurants and old favorites. I speak, of course, of, started by New York musician and world-class eater Jim Leff, whose now more or less dormant "What Jim Had for Dinner" may have been the first food blog. If you love to eat (or, as the site is headed, For Those Who Live to Eat!), and reside in one of the geographic areas covered by's message boards, you'd be a fool not to check in to learn about what's going on in your local world of eating.

So I opened The Chowhound's Guide to the San Francisco Bay Area (Penguin, $18) with a great deal of excitement. In its very first line -- "You'll notice that many popular and excellent places like Chez Panisse, La Folie, Merenda, and El Farolito aren't mentioned in these pages ..." -- the obsolete factor kicked in, as Merenda, alas, is no longer with us. I read on, eager to let the book "make you so cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs-ravenous that you jump out the door in a delirious frenzy."

But as I leafed through its pages, the Guide left me more confused than ravenous. Its alphabetical arrangement of miniessays seemed capricious -- sometimes the heading was the name of an eatery, sometimes an ingredient, or a type of store, or a dish, or even an area to eat.

I don't know what I expected from Chowhound's, exactly, but I didn't find this user-friendly at first read. I slogged on, regardless, doing a lot of cross-referencing. I was surprised to see only one place, Arlequin, listed under "Quick Bites Near Civic Center," on Page 75; I flipped to the back, where almost 100 pages of indexes attempt to instill a different kind of order on these quirky listings, and found my favorite, Gyro King, which is in the book under "Turkish Delights," on Page 296. And I did a lot of quibbling: "Pizza Tips" that don't mention A16, Pizzetta 211, or Tommaso's? Were there really only two croissants worthy of a "scientific croissant duel"? Fried chicken with no Southern Cafe, Casa Orinda, Pork Store Cafe, or even Popeyes Chicken -- when Albertsons made it in? A fan of offal, I wondered why all the "Krazy for Kidneys" places were Asian, why the "Enchanting Incanto" graph didn't mention the chef's predilection for innards, why there were no foie gras, liver, or sweetbreads listings. Many of the recommendations seemed sketchy, needing more research -- the "Offal in Oakland" entry, after crediting one place on International Boulevard that offers organ meats, goes on to mention "plenty of other spots to check out in this nabe, including a rotisserie ... between 37th and 38th, a gumbo house, and a birriera." Are they any good? Do they have names and addresses? There are "plenty of other spots to check out in this nabe" all over the Bay Area; we pick up a guidebook to be, uh, guided.

So my pal Jane and I went on a Guide-inspired crawl. We started on Chestnut, for two breakfasts at eateries scarcely a block away from each other. Bechelli's (2346 Chestnut, 346-1801), tucked into the embrace of the recently reopened Presidio Theatre, instantly pleased me with its slightly shabby green-upholstered booths, U-shaped counter, and plentiful sports-themed photos and banners. We were seduced by Eggs Blackstone, poached eggs atop fresh asparagus, with thick-cut pepper bacon (of which Bechelli's is justly proud) and English muffins, the whole blanketed with hollandaise (we should have asked for a bit more sauce, but we split the eggs and were nearly finished before we wanted more). The orange juice was strained and tasted just like the juice I squeeze from Valencias at home; the coffee was fine. Breakfast out! What a treat! And how ironic to be doing it twice in a row, I said to Jane, as we settled into a window table at the cozy two-story Judy's Cafe (2269 Chestnut, 922-4588), whose yellow walls are covered with signed photos of entertainment and sports stars. We shared a crabmeat omelet, the omelet more like a perfectly round frittata, laid atop an amazing amount of fresh-picked Dungeness crabmeat, mixed with sautéed spinach and chopped red onions, in a thin, very lemony hollandaise. The eggs were overcooked, to my taste -- if I'd known they were going to top the filling rather than enfold it, I might have asked for poached or over easy -- but the amount and quality of the crab were astonishing. The orange juice here was full of pulp and tasted more like navel than Valencia, but it was equally fresh. We loved the house-baked pumpkin loaf and liked the blueberry muffin (you can choose one to accompany your breakfast).

"We're two for two," I said to Jane as we jumped in the car and drove to the Presidio, so Jane could check out one of my favorites, Desiree (39 Mesa, 561-2337). The Guide lists it under "Eat Your Salad," though we picked up some of Anne Gingrass' amazing baked goods: a nectarine-and-berry tart, and one of her airy scones that have spoiled me for all others (and, surprise, the Guide has a "Scones That Aren't Like Doorstops" listing, with a number of scones featured that are way heavier than Anne's).

Next on our list was the Moscow and Tbilisi Bakery (5540 Geary, 668-6959), but we drove out the Arguello gate from the Presidio and turned down Clement, where we were tempted to stop by a row of cute shops. We browsed the exquisitely displayed culinary antiques at Period George (7 Clement, 752-1900) and the kitschier contemporary stock at Kumquat (9 Clement, 752-2140), before getting back on the horse and driving by the site of the late-lamented Fountain Court at Fifth Avenue, the wonderful Kamei Restaurant Supply Co. in the next block, and the Russian Bear restaurant. "I've always wanted to eat there," I said, idly. "Well, it looks like you've missed your chance," Jane replied, pointing out the "FOR RENT" sign on the papered-over windows.

I told her about my favorite Russian bakery in L.A., called Tbilisi and Yerevan, and its long, fried piroshki for a dollar, which left huge oily stains on the brown paper bags I brought them home in. They were very different from the diverse piroshki I had in Russia: Some were like empanadas, some were made with puff pastry. Tbilisi is the capital of Georgia, Yerevan is in Armenia, Moscow is, well, Moscow, and the piroshki at the Moscow and Tbilisi Bakery looked a lot like the ones I loved in L.A., and they were a buck and a half. I bought one, filled with an oniony chopped meat mixture, as well as a meat-filled blintz for only 60 cents, along with a huge loaf of challah for $3 and a gooey slice of chocolate cake for Jane.

I'd intended to try a banh mi sandwich next, as well as an Asian crepe, also both on Clement, but the clock was ticking, and we decided to jump on the freeway and head for a highly touted sandwich shop near the airport. Some of the combinations on the big board at Darby Dan Sandwich Co. (733 S. Airport, South San Francisco, 650/876-0122) reminded me of my favorite Genova Delicatessen in Oakland. I took the Guide's advice and opted for the Half & Half (crab and shrimp salad, available Thursdays and Fridays only) on Dutch Crunch, hold the jalapeños; Jane opted for the Darby Dan (ham, mortadella, salami, cheese), saying, "I always have to try a dish if they've named it after themselves," which struck me as genius. I loved the two different salads, especially tarted up with Darby Dan's pungent garlic mayo; but neither the restaurant nor The Chowhound's Guide pointed out that the crab salad is made with fake crab. I happen to appreciate fake crab as an interesting seafood product in itself, but I also appreciate truth in advertising. There was a lot of meat on Jane's sandwich, but not of the best quality. Still, I could see picking up a sandwich on the way to the airport; "Each half," Jane said, "should see you through 3,000 miles. The whole thing would get you to Europe, easy."

Jane had been intrigued by what she'd glimpsed of Grand Avenue, South San Francisco's Main Street, so we strolled its length; I wanted to point out Villa del Sol, an Argentine place I love. Close by, we found a new Peruvian restaurant, the Golden Inca, down a flight of stairs, and noted it for later. (Now I look at its menu and wonder why we didn't get a pan con chicharron -- fried pork sandwich -- at least to go. But then I remember how full we were, and how many to-go bags were piled up in the back of the car.) We did share a spicy and refreshing cucumber and chili paleta (popsicle) from the new Hernandez Panaderia and Market across the street, but even that defeated us after a few bites.

We had to pause for a bit. Somehow we ended up in the new de Young, in Golden Gate Park; we checked out the ground-floor bits that are open to the public, the museum stores and the cafeterialike cafe, which is already doing a land-office business (oh you novelty-hungry, first-on-your-block San Franciscans) and had just stopped serving its locally sourced salads, sandwiches, and grilled items for the day. The chain-mail-draped building reminded both of us ex-Angelenos of the Parker Center, L.A.'s downtown jail.

The Golden Gate Bakery (1029 Grant, 781-2677), whose exquisite don tat (custard tarts) we'd looked forward to all day, was closed for its annual two-week vacation; the fact that the 99-cent store on Vallejo is now a 69-cent store, for the same colorful merchandise, soothed our hurt feelings. We were headed to Alfred's (659 Merchant, 781-7058), to finish up where the guidebook started, with a chicken-fried steak. With garlic mashed potatoes and superlative creamed spinach, it was only $15, tasty and easy to eat, though I thought calling it "high-quality beef," as the Guide has it, was a bit of an exaggeration. Maybe because I'd ordered an $8 Manhattan (which is more like a Manhattan and a half, as you get a bonus in an icy cocktail shaker), our waiter didn't charge us the $6 split-plate fee, or perhaps he was just being nice. On a first pass, the Guide hadn't steered us wrong once.

About The Author

Meredith Brody


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