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Wednesday, Jan 7 1998
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Bitterroot
3122 16th St. (at Valencia), 626-5523. Open daily from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. for breakfast and lunch; for dinner from 6 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed for dinner Sunday and Monday evenings. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Parking: moderately difficult. Muni via the 22 Fillmore, 26 Valencia, and all Mission Street buses. The 16th Street BART station is a block away.

Golden Gate Park Brewery
1326 Ninth Ave. (at Irving), 665-5800. Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Thursday through Saturday until 11 p.m. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Reservations recommended for four or more. Parking: Very difficult. Muni via the N Judah, 6 Parnassus, 43 Masonic, 44 O'Shaughnessy, 66 Quintara, and 71 Noriega.

Please, no more foie gras, that's enough champagne -- not another ovule of caviar! (More foie gras? What foie gras? I resolve to cultivate a better class of hosts in '98.) Despite lingering goose-liver longing, now that the holidays are over, I mainly want plain, good food that won't strain my credit card any further -- at least until next week. And I want to wear toasty saggy woolen pants with a delicate filigree of moth-nibbles along the hem, and to get a table without waiting in the cold for it. This can be a tall order in the city's two hottest restaurant-destination neighborhoods, the Inner Mission and the Inner Sunset.

At the 16th and Valencia nexus, the answer is Bitterroot. "You call this a bohemian neighborhood?" said TJ, as we threaded gingerly among panhandlers and street-sleepers asprawl between creperies and bookstores. "Hmm, more hobo than boho," I agreed. "Maybe all the bohemians are at Macy's re-enacting the Charge of the Charge-Card Brigade." Bitterroot did shelter several at dinnertime. Decorated like a western saloon (minus customary kitsch), the spacious restaurant is named after the Bitterroot Range, the harsh outcropping of the Rockies along the border between Montana and Idaho, an area that to this day is largely unpopulated and unexplored, still scary. The restaurant isn't. You pass a bar-lounge and a wooden bar, floored with old, good hardwood. The dining room's cream and brown old-timey wallpaper alternates with warm wood, bedecked with hanging cast-iron farm implements, wooden oars (left by Lewis and Clark?), one well-worn cowboy boot (so that's where the other one went!), a saddle (but no stuffed Trigger), and black-and-white photos of black-and-white Old Westerners. The centerpiece is a giant hand-painted map of the developing U.S. territories, an ongoing historiograph starting when western Kentuck was the "back country," moving on to the buffalo ranges of 1870, and ending in 1880 with the delineation of the Indian reservations -- the bitter root of American expansion, the sweet melancholy of Liberty Valance and Ride the High Country, when destiny's been manifested and you print the legend.

Bitterroot's dinner menu manifests short and sweet, with "small" and "large" plates all priced under $10. We started with a "small" plate of four alluring tequila- and lime-marinated jumbo shrimp ($6.50), served over a dark, spicy "salsa" of corn kernels, roasted garlic, tomato, and (I'd guess) a soupçon of adobo sauce from canned chilpotles. The tender flame-seared prawns (large, but not all that "jumbo") came with subtle-flavored, irresistible giant yam chips. A grilled portobello mushroom salad ($5) had four medium mushrooms with a delicious, slightly sweet balsamic vinegar glaze, topped with a caress of roasted red peppers and a crisp scattering of shelled pumpkin seeds. The standard "spring greens" mix under the fungi was the best restaurant salad I've had in months, delicately and sanely dressed with a well-balanced balsamic vinaigrette. The staff is so inured, though, to the brisk pace of lunches, our entrees were ready a bit too soon, and I nearly pinned the server's hand with my fork when she reached for my salad plate prematurely.

Choosing one veg and one non-veg main course, we passed on a "hippy fried rice" vegetable melange and chose a potato lasagna with havarti cheese and chunks of wild mushrooms ($8), dressed in rosemary-tomato sauce that needed more rosemary to liven it up. It definitely tasted like home cooking -- mine, on an uninspired night -- but the tender Asian-flavor sauteed spinach alongside was scrumptious. Lots more fun was a plate of country fried chicken ($7.50), greasy-good in a very light, elusively sweet batter, with a comforting honest herbed gravy. Alongside were chunky home-style mashed potatoes (including some Yellow Finn or Yukon Gold, lending their sweet starchiness) and some amazingly sugary corn on the carb. (All the veggies are also available as $2 side dishes.)

Returning for a late lunch, we found Bitterroot buzzing, but we immediately chose a seat and were quickly served. The "Bitterroot Burger" ($5.75, cheese 75 cents more) is 6 ounces of juicy, very salty, flame-broiled meat on a sesame bun. "Very rare" came out just medium rare. (Unlike Chow, which makes our favorite burger, Bitterroot doesn't grind its own beef -- and probably can't risk serving it at half-past moo.) It did have a good chucky flavor, and you can cheese it up with Swiss, cheddar, or blue; TJ chose the last, a creamy, crumbly true blue that was a treat on the meat. Among the fixings were a dixie-cup of wimpy coleslaw, good pickles, and a tomato slice expiring of pernicious anemia. A yummy North Carolina barbecue pork sandwich ($6.75) on the same type of bun had finely shredded fall-apart-tender meat in a savory, semispicy mid-South barbecue sauce. A side of onion rings ($4) was humongous; the fresh-fried frizzles were a tad limp but their batter was grainy, light, and bright with a touch of hot pepper. So-o-o-o down home!

A similar menu, albeit slightly higher-priced and more ambitious, appears at the Inner Sunset's spanking-new Golden Gate Park Brewery. (The management is negotiating with nearby St. Anne's Church for evening parking. Godspeed and amen!) With its high ceilings, steel-gray walls, and exposed pipes, ducts, and conduits, the cavernous, darkish space looks like a converted aircraft hangar. Just two weeks after opening, it was nearly full at prime time Friday night, and we were seated up on a balcony (where it's a bit quieter than the first floor), whence we studied pipes, ducts, fans, and wooden rafters, viewed the patrons below reflected in giant mirrors, and peered through an open doorway at the shiny vast vats of the beer-making operation. Under English brewmaster Tim O'Day, the house makes seven ales and stouts. However, three of the vats were still "in progress." TJ, sampling the four that were ready ($3.50), found "our lightest flavored beer," Four Sheets Cream Ale, pretty darn hoppy, and Hetch Hetchy even hoppier, but enjoyed Celebration Red as "zesty and not too bitter."

We started with seared ahi ($8.95), fine-quality tuna correctly done in the usual fashion, but benefiting from a tasty pool of unusual "red miso" vinaigrette, and from a sharp, refreshing salad-tangle of radish sprouts, red onion slices, cilantro, and a few soothing avocado squares. But a "caramelized onion and goat cheese tart" ($5.95) was so laden with forceful Kalamata olives they were all you could taste, and the underlying salad (spring mix with a very sweet vinaigrette) didn't relate to anything else. We both loved the entree of braised beef short ribs ($11.95), fork-tender in a tasty, rich all-American gravy over smooth mashed potatoes topped with crispy little parsnip chips.

Against our resolve to keep it simple, we succumbed to our waiter's raves about the night's special, wahoo ($17.95), aka ono (meaning "sweet"), a white-meat bonitolike fish from Hawaii. It was salty, tender, sweet-fleshed, flame-grilled so you could taste the wood in the char-marks, and rested on a bed of creamy, starchy, wholly sensual risotto, with sexy little sauteed chanterelle slices strewn around the edges. Both entrees came with well-garlicked sturdy sauteed greens. But dessert was something of an ordeal: a megaton of warm apple and cranberry crisp ($4.95) with tart apples and sour cranberries, some pasty thickener, and a big scoop of rather naive cinnamon ice cream, made with too much power-mad Saigon cinnamon.

At lunch we began with the all-meal appetizer of a big portion of very fresh, tender, savory cornmeal fried calamari and rock shrimp ($6.95), with a "preserved lemon-thyme sauce" for dipping. The latter proved a subtle, pleasing variant of aioli, although its lemon-juice component bore no perceptible signs of antiquity. A salad of spring greens with candied walnuts and clumps of assertive Maytag blue cheese ($5.95) had an insipid vinaigrette lacking the charisma to unite the flavors. The beef for the flame-grilled burger ($7.50) comes from Niman Schell (organically raised premium meat), pre-ground but trustworthy, and it arrived very rare as ordered, and topped with a thin glaze of Vermont cheddar. But pedigreed or not, we found the burger too lean-tasting and juiceless for our pleasure. Part of the problem was that it came on a big bun with a biscuitlike texture, so intensely flame-grilled that the inside tasted like burned toast. But there are several more imaginative lunch choices we didn't have time to try: I've got my eye on the grilled portobello sandwich with pesto mayo ($6.95) if I ever eat lunch in this town again. In any case, it was a delight to return to affordable, home-style comfort food for a wintry week, before resuming our appointed rambles through the exotic corners of a whole planet in 49 square miles.

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Naomi Wise

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