Friendship Times, or why San Francisco is the best place to get brunch (and afternoon beers, and dinner).

My friends Emily and Pete are visiting from Philly and yesterday I showed them around the city, crafting a tour around generally-agreed-upon points of interest (Golden Gate Park, Haight St., Ocean Beach) as well as lesser-known attractions (my apartment). Of course, I also wanted to take E & P to some (many?) of my favorite restaurants and bars, hoping both to solidify the city’s food lustworthiness while maybe also planting the seed that E & P should move out here.

We started things on the right foot — that is, by getting brunch at Zazie.* Everyone loves Zazie, it’s true, but for good reason: it’s arguably the best brunch in the city. It also happens to be a stone’s throw from my house, a factor that only increases a brunch joint’s likeability/overall quality rating. Prior to arrival, I encouraged E & P to order the gingerbread pancakes with lemon curd and a poached Bosc pear, the selfsame plate I order every time I’m at Zazie. Actually, I’m glad that neither took my suggestion. Emily ordered the “Miracle Pancake,” a lemon-ricotta cake topped with lemon curd and raspberry preserves, and she gave me a bite to try. Oh, goodness: I didn’t think anything would ever (ever) reclaim from the gingerbread cakes the title of Garky’s Favorite Brunch Food, but the Miracle Cake came close. Pete ordered poached eggs with fontina, spinach, and prawns (I think) and also had a jolly good brunch. The lot of us also ordered Bloody Marys, made with Soju and garnished with celery and pickled green beans. Though the Mary could have been spicier — I added a dash of Tabasco and a few shakes of pepper — the pickled bean made up for any spice deficiency: it was crisp, fresh green, and had a delicate garlic flavor that made me wish for another bean. Or maybe another Bloody Mary — just for the bean, of course.

We’d planned to be productive in the afternoon. Really, we had. As things tend to happen when people are on vacation, though, we resorted to daytime drinking. I should note that ours weren’t any old afternoon beers: it was a sunny (for once!) and Zeitgeist was right around the corner. I was surprised that the patio was as empty as it was — I mean, what else would people be doing on a balmy Monday at 4:00 besides drinking out-of-doors? — and glad that E & P got to experience one of my favorite, if infrequently-visited, bars.

Fast forward through the evening, the majority of which we spent at the vacant and dimming Buddha Bar.
Dinner was the most memorable and nostalgia-fueled meal of the day. Initially, I’d planned to take E & P to La Trappe, touting the restaurant’s binder-sized beer menu and craveworthy Dijon mustard, but en route to the bar, Pete spied the sign for Sam Wo’s. Pete’s mom spent the late 60s living in San Francisco and recounted the heaping, cheap plates she got at the restaurant; I was curious to find out whether the menu had remained the same since Pete’s mom last ate there, moved by third-hand nostalgia to try the evident hole-in-the-wall.

As P’s mom had said, one enters the restaurant through the kitchen, where cases of bean sprouts and platters of ground pork, mixed through with onions and spices, occupy every available surface. Our waitress was gruff at best, negligent at worst. But E & P didn’t care: Philly, they said, is known for service of exactly this caliber.

Dining room at Sam Wo's.

I ordered a plate of Chinese donuts and veggie Chow Fun. E & P shared a bowl of wonton soup, a duck noodle roll, and also ordered chow fun. Hook, the daintiest eater among us, stuck with Kung Pao shrimp. I will say that the food took a long time to be delivered and that our plates were presented at different times, which proved semi-awkward, given our level of hunger. I will also say that the food was transported upstairs via dumbwaiter — awesome — and that it was really greasy and pretty delicious. The Kung Pao Shrimp was pleasantly spicy and had a good shrimp-to-veggie ratio. My Chow Fun was not something one would order if one were on a diet, either purportedly or in reality. My Chow Fun was not something one should order if one is concerned about sodium intake (for the day or for the coming fortnight). But man, it was delicious. The noodles were chewy and hot; the broccoli retained a bit of crispness, though the bok choy wilted considerably in the generous pour of oil used to make the dish. Best of all, the dish was $5. Seriously — five bucks. I don’t remember the last time I spent $5 on a decent plate of food (though I think it may have been at a Subway in Wisconsin in 2004).

The donuts never arrived. I was bereft, but I was also too full to eat anything else. Silver lining, eh?

And the duck noodle roll. There’s a reason I saved this bit for last. The duck noodle roll isn’t listed on the regular menu, but we got a tip from another diner (a regular) who told us to order it nonetheless. In appearance, it resembled a glistening, un-fried eggroll. Inside a thick band of noodle were rolled assorted veggies and pieces of duck. I didn’t try a piece until after I’d nearly finished my own food, and one piece was all I could handle. The duck itself was super rich. The duck fat, which was not cooked to the crispiness that I’d have liked, was downright unctuous. It had been years since I’d bitten into a piece of pure, chewy fat. I was stunned.

I was also a wuss. I gingerly removed the fat from my mouth, setting it on the side of my plate, and ate the noodle wrapping, which itself had absorbed the flavor of the fat.

We were stuffed. It was approaching ten, and the dining room — grease-hazed, wood-paneled — grew dim. We leaned back in our chairs and sat quietly, enjoying the last moments of the long day. When our waitress came to clear our plates, she asked if we’d like the remainder of the noodle roll wrapped to go.

“Oh, no,” I said. “We couldn’t.”

She then noticed that we hadn’t been brought any mustard. We insisted that we were full, that we couldn’t eat another bite, thanks, but she brought a saucer of mustard and mixed with it a shake of soy sauce.

“Try it,” she said. So we did. The spice of the mustard was highlighted by the salt of the soy sauce.

“Where do you get it?” I asked the waitress, pointing my chopstick at the saucer.

“We make it here,” she said.

“Well, where do you get your mustard seed?” I asked.

“That,” she said, “I won’t tell you.”

***

* Note: I had actually started things on the right foot a few hours earlier with a breakfast of Saint Benoit yogurt (Meyer lemon flavor) and a semi-homemade scone, but that’s for another entry. The yogurt, at least.

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