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updated: Sep 18, 2010, 9:30 AM
Our best Russian friend from our Peace Corps time in the Russian Far East deserved a brief view, at least, of San Francisco. She experienced Santa Barbara, and L.A. could wait (although I argued that there's more to L.A. than meets the eye, and it has been argued that there is less to S.F. than meets it).
I, and probably my small but determined band of readers, have "been there, done that", and so what's new. Up Hwy. 101, and down Hwy. 1 so many times …
The attractions of 101 haven't changed much, except the vast acreage now planted in grapes. Ludmila Borisovna Vinnikova enjoyed taking it all in: Our county's cattle country, brown hills (this month) studded with wonderful Valley Oaks, miles of many kinds of crops ripening in the autumn sun. I told her that it seems as though much of the country thinks of the Golden State as urban sprawl, but I think of it as a giant farm, interrupted only by L.A., S.B., S.F., Bakersfield and Fresno (the northern redwoods being out of reach).
There was good food to be had on our brief journey. We soon found the fabled eateries of Frisco. I've heard locals hate that term, but it seems so . . . so San Fran, somehow.
Three visits ago, one of our kids led us to Betel Nut, an Indochinese place at 2030 Union St. It is now my favorite restaurant, anywhere. The chile-crusted calamari, the green papaya salad, the "tribal salt-roasted chicken", noodles, shrimp … the sauces for these things are nonpareil and are worth numerous happy exclamations.
I think next time I'll try Betel Nut's "Beggar's Chicken" - a chicken roasted in lotus leaves is wheeled to the table and a guest is asked to whack it a couple of times, rather hard, with a big wooden mallet. This adds to the festivities.
Then the server cuts and opens the leaves and -- more exclamations, as the splintered remains are lifted out of the pan.
Whole roast suckling pig was the special of the night this trip, but we didn't have the appetites that I would think are necessary for the whole enchilada.
(Insert happy sigh of contentment here.)
A few blocks back, on the corner of Union Street and Steiner Street you'll find Rose's, an Italian-accented place invariably full of happy and noisy diners. We enjoyed it thoroughly two years ago. My only complaint with San Francisco's eateries is that people talk too long and loud, probably fueled by fine wines.
This was also true at Gamine, a very small place with a French spin, supplied by its French owner. It's on Union, half a block from Rose's and across the street - near Fillmore. We were lucky to find an open table there, and the food made the happy chatter worth enduring. My poor-man's restaurant critic's report:
Ludmila's salad, pour example: a relatively simple one of arugula, but the dressing was a trifle sweet and really fine, accented by what appeared to be bits of sauteed onion and seasoned cippolini onion pieces, of delicate perfection in flavor.
The salad was outfitted with a jaunty cap of warmed goat cheese that enriched the plate and was a delight.
Things are seldom uniformly perfect, I guess, and in this case the bread was just plain ol' lower-case french bread. Not the famed sourdough, and not nearly as good as the crusty offerings of Santa Barbara's Our Daily Bread.
A Vietnamese lunch in the Richmond district was typical, with noodle assortments and the usual rice paper-wrapped shrimp rolls. "Typical" really isn't up to S.F. standards, but it was handy and cheap.
And of course morning hunger can turn a place like Mel's Drive-In, a ‘50s look-alike, into a gratifying feast, accented with jukebox oldies selected from your table. Our Mel's, one of several in S.F., is located at 3165 Lombard St. (Our old one, in the real ‘50s, was Santa Barbara's Blue Onion at State and Valerio, where IHOP now flips flapjacks.)
Headed for home, Hwy. 1 is always a treat, although time has somewhat dulled - either mine eyes, or the colors of the drive. I'll take another look later. Ludmila loved it, and got the requisite photos, but my favorite pullout has become Nepenthe Lodge, for lunch.
I don't see how it could be any better - a splendid use of a view down the coast. The owners - one of whom was sampling new wines for purchase in the dining room when we arrived - made a good decision in installing two dining areas: the traditional-type dining room at the top of the stairs, and an outdoor café on the second level. Coastal views in both places.
Nepenthe would be a natural for price gouging, but the owners are above all that. Big Sur is a classy place all around, after all.
Deetjen's Big Sur Inn is a much smaller eatery, but a very good one years ago; I would bet it's still good.
And so, like Napoleon's army "marching on its stomach", I must move on, looking for new challenges and leaving a reminder that Central Coast Pizza in King City is still offering very good all-you-can-eat pizza for $7 plus drinks. It's at 500 Canal St., in the shopping center near the highway on the left as you drive north.
That's if you can pass up the many good Mexican cafes in old King City, to the right.
We do eat well in California, don't we?
N.B. Please don't tell me that there are much better restaurants than the above, and that they're all over the City. No question. North Beach, for example, is too bulging with fine pasta dishes to go into, and so on. But these were the places we were, and it was, as a Czech friend used to say, "very big fun". SF sightseeing is always a hoot, and there's something really pleasurable about showing places to people who've never been there.
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