Saturday, July 28, 2012

San Francisco 2012 Part 1 - the food

As I (somewhat depressingly) mentioned earlier, my wife and I spent last weekend in San Francisco - and I'm finally getting some time to post some pics! It was a short trip, but we packed in a lot of stuff. If there's one thing we know how to do, it's vacation.

Over the two days we were there, we had four of the most amazing, memorable meals we've ever had. So I'm gonna start with that. In the order in which we ate them:

1090 Point Lobos
San Francisco, CA 94121

This is a San Francisco institution. Everybody in the city knows it, and a seemingly large percentage of them go there on the weekends - you're in for a long wait at certain times, and the regular dining room doesn't take reservations. (There's now a separate fancy dining room called Sutro's that does.) They hand you those little beepers a lot of restaurants use now, so you can wander around a little bit while you wait.

But it's so, so worth it.

This was the view from our table. Depending on where you get sat, you'll have this view, a full view of the ocean, or a view of the ocean and rocks on the other side. Any of them are beautiful in their own way.

I feel kind of bad for people who sit on the inside - there's a row of tables away from the windows. I was glad to sit where we were.

Somehow we forgot to take pictures of our entrees. I had fish and chips; I think my wife just had crab cakes. We also shared a shrimp cocktail, which I remember getting as a kid. They were great, and very fresh, although the crab cakes were a different style than what we're used to in the northeast. Just crab and chopped up vegetables, basically; no real binder or liquid component.

But these popovers... holy crap. The free popovers were the highlight of the meal! So light and airy and fresh out of the oven. It's worth going just for the view and the popovers!

After our meal, we wandered down to the rocks along the water where the ruins of the Sutro Bath House are. I think of this as part of the Cliff House experience. I loved coming down here when I was a kid, and it was fun to do it as an adult too. A little word of caution for anyone who does the same: going down on one side is easy. Coming back up on the other is another world. You can reverse course and go back up the same way you came down, but we tried just making a circle - which you can do, but it's very difficult and dangerous, and you'll be climbing straight up steep cliffs. You will also get dirty. So much fun, though, and not something you get to do very often in the northeast!

5929 Geary Blvd.
San Francisco, CA 94121

Another place I used to come often as a kid. This was the place that got me into Mexican food! Because of Tommy's, my default meal at any Mexican restaurant is the enchiladas. And I've never found any as good as Tommy's.

Tommy's is just a little hole in the wall restaurant - doesn't look like anything special. Also looks the same as it did 30 years ago, to me. But the food! This is authentic homestyle Mexican. I know New York has everything, but just like you can't get ramen as good as you can in Tokyo, you cannot get Mexican as good as you can in San Francisco. (Ok, San Francisco is not in Mexico... but it's the same general land mass. And closer than NYC. You wouldn't think that necessarily matters, but it does.)

You can see my enchilada in the background, but honestly it didn't look great in photos so I'm showing my wife's red snapper instead. She loved it, and I loved my enchilada - it was just like I remember it from 30 years ago. Nobody does enchiladas better! I cleaned that plate, and my plate held literally about two pounds worth of food.

The flan! I forgot this, but Tommy's was also the place that got me into flan. I remembered after seeing it on the menu that in 4th grade, we had some class project for home economics class to make a dessert, and I made flan. There's no other place I would have ever had it besides Tommy's - I couldn't have even known about it otherwise. And now I always try to order it whenever I see it on a menu elsewhere, but I'm always at least vaguely disappointed.

But not here! This was so smooth, but dense, and with just the right amount of caramelization (no burnt taste, but a real deep sweetness). This made me remember why I loved flan to begin with... it was because of Tommy's!

Image credit: SFWeekly
2101 Sutter St.
San Francisco, CA 94115

I forgot to take my own exterior pics of this place - a business friend brought us there, and we didn't know about it beforehand. Nice to get some help from the locals!

That's my deep-fried french toast(!) along with scrambled eggs (you can get them any style) and something they call "millionaire's bacon". The bacon is thick cut - real bacon - and spiced up, then I think also deep-fried. I felt guilty eating it - I could feel my arteries closing up with every bite - even though it was so good.

My wife's somewhat healthier dish - I don't know what can be so special about a salad, but she is still talking about this.

1906 Van Ness Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94109

Another SF institution, though one I either didn't know about or remember until I saw it featured on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations. As Tony says, it's a restaurant that's stuck in time, as old-school as it gets - my kinda place. It felt familiar enough that I do think I probably ate here once as a kid, but my stepmother at that time came from a butcher's family so we got good meat pretty much all the time. It was tough for me to appreciate a place like this back then, but now it's a lot harder for me to find really good meat to begin with, let alone someone to cook it properly.

Tough to get decent white balance in there - I'm sure this doesn't look as appetizing in photos as it did in real life. House of Prime Rib has one thing: prime rib. And sides to match. That's a big slab of prime rib, fresh baked Yorkshire pudding, mashed potatoes and creamed spinach. (Actually my wife's meal; I got creamed corn instead of spinach.)

I think I'd have to put this at the top of my list for best beef dinner that I've personally had in at least the last 20 years. And that includes the real Kobe beef I had just a few months ago (though it's close!). The beef, you can seriously cut with a fork, it's so tender. And it has a tremendous amount of flavor, cooking in its own juice, which is then turned into an au jus that's served over the meat and on your plate.

I gotta mention one kind of weird thing about our visit to these restaurants. Two of these four are places I used to go all the time with my dad, and a third I think I probably did at least once. This trip was kind of a nostalgia trip for me, since we were going up to Portland for his final internment (he died about six months ago). Well, at the restaurants I knew as a kid, there happened to be a parking spot either right in front or at least suspiciously close to the restaurant waiting for us, even during busy times. In fact, as we pulled up to Tommy's I was telling my wife how hard it was to find parking nearby and how excited my dad used to get if he'd find a spot right in front. Well, guess what? We got a spot right in front. Only spot that was available. Almost like we had help...

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Life and death

I've been thinking about life and death. Middle age does that to a lot of people, but it started earlier for me - I've always felt like the end was uncomfortably close, and I've just been trying to put it off as long as possible. We're all slowly dying.

When I was 16, the first girl I ever loved died in a car crash. I have really never gotten over that. It wasn't while we were in a relationship - we had drifted apart, like kids do, often too quickly. But somehow that made it all the more shocking to me. We hadn't "broken up" or anything - we had one of those weird informal teenage relationships but we lived a couple towns over from each other, which made it difficult to get really serious, or even see each other as much as we wanted to. Neither of us could drive. So there was no big fight or formal declaration of separation. After a brief but intense period where we'd spend 8 or 10 hours on the phone with each other every single day, we had just gradually started talking and seeing less and less of each other, until she finally got a new boyfriend. But I still considered her a friend, and felt I could call her any time I wanted to. And I thought about her a lot.

She was not the love of my life, and this was a long time ago. But she was the first, and she was a friend.

One day in 1988, I got a call from somebody - I don't remember who - to tell me she had been in an accident. I remember he sounded pretty shaken up too, and he finally just blurted out "she's dead, man." I thanked him for calling to tell me, picked up a newspaper to verify what he said and then locked myself in my room and didn't come out for three days. I was a wreck.

Her name was Jean. Every couple of years, I do a search for her on the internet. There's nothing. (There are others who share her name, but she's not even lost in the shuffle... there's just nothing.)  There was nothing even back then; a news story the day it happened in the local paper, an obituary, and that's it. People had stopped even talking about her within what seemed like a week.

I don't know why I would expect any different - life goes on, and a lot of people have died that aren't mentioned on the internet. But it seems somehow... unjust... that a person can touch somebody's life like that and then just wink out of existence as if they were never even here. And I don't mean unjust in a cosmic way; I'm talking about the way we as people remember the dead. None of her friends have ever thought to even so much as write something about her and post it somewhere, in all those years? How do you just forget someone like that? I include myself in that, though others were a bigger part of her life when she died.

A few months ago, my dad died after a relatively long bout with cancer. I actually don't know if I've fully processed it yet; I think I'm still going through that, and trying to figure out what he meant to me (we had a complicated relationship). A lot of the things I've been thinking about lately are probably related to his dying. His death was a little different in that we all knew it was coming, and had had about two years to prepare for it. But still, it's always a shock when it actually happens. One day this person's there, and the next day they're not.

This weekend, I'm going to Portland to finally have whatever service my stepmother has planned for his internment. On the way, my wife and I are stopping in San Francisco, mostly for "fun", although I've realized that most of the stuff I want to do is retracing my steps from when I lived there as a kid... with my dad.  The strangest moment of the past few weeks for me was when I realized I remembered actually going out with him on his 40th birthday, at one of the places we're planning on going this weekend.

I turned 40 last month.

Not only am I practically reenacting that day as him, but I now have only as much time left in my own life as the time between that memory and now. (Or less, because hopefully I won't get run over by a bus in the meantime.) That's... weird.

I don't feel old. I feel like I was 16 yesterday, and writing songs (that I never finished) about Jean's death. But I'm 40, and I've had two collapsed lungs and I have a dilated aorta that could rupture someday. I look younger than I am, I'm as thin as I was in college and I feel fine, but underneath I'm in pretty sorry shape, and my body's working against me.

I feel like I'm building towards some sort of question here, but I don't know what it is yet. I don't think it's as simple and cliched as "what's the point?" I guess I'll have to finish this thought later... if I still have time once I figure it out.

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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