East West Cafe
1220 Ninth Ave. (at Lincoln), 566-6976. Open Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., from 8 a.m. on the weekends. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Parking and Muni as above.
Every San Francisco neighborhood gets the restaurants it deserves. In the Inner Sunset, with hordes of hungry medical students descending from UCSF, many of the new restaurants stampeding into the area feature affordable "healthy" fare and/or rivers of vitamin caffeine. The latest two entries in the cheap-and-healthy race are Park Chow and East West Cafe.
The instant popularity of Tony Gulisano's simple Italo-American-Asian food at his original Church Street Chow almost guaranteed him a second location, and Ninth Avenue was an obvious choice for it. Park Chow now occupies the erstwhile site of Stoyanoff's, a well-loved Greek eatery that closed when its owners retired. In front, Gulisano has added a small, heated sidewalk patio (no smoking allowed) and inside, the formerly sunny premises now sport mellow lighting, closely packed tables, and mustard-colored, poster-encrusted walls. The bill of fare features the original location's tried-and-tested pastas, small pizzas, sandwiches, and grills (plus fresh juices and fountain drinks), with listed entrees all under $8 and a nightly special fish at about $13.
Unlike the Castro Chow's ongoing omnigendered camp comedy, the new branch's patrons run young and straight. There have also been some minuscule menu changes: Instead of the bewitching "Purple Haze" ice cream soda, Park Chow offers a "Blushing Orange Dream" (essentially a liquified Creamsicle, with orange sorbet and vanilla ice cream), and while the Castro's Monday sandwich special is baked eggplant on baguette, the Inner Sunset greets the workweek with (aagh!) tofu and greens on whole wheat.
More significantly, either Chow's vast wood-grill inferno is hotter and better than the smaller one in Park Chow, or the new location's cooks need more practice. On our slice of vegetable pizza ($1.75), the thin crust was slightly soggy. Still, the thick, chunky tomato sauce made a good squishy layer under the cheese. Marinated Roma tomatoes on grilled garlic toast ($4.25) were disappointing compared to the glorious Church Street rendition: Sour and pulpy, their acidic juices quickly turned the crisp baguette base to mush. And the tomato slices accompanying the Burger Royale ($7) resembled pernicious anemia patients. Luckily, they're just one element of the array of condiments and fixings you get with the giant burger, ground in-house and done to order -- you really can have it your way here. The accompanying Yukon gold fries were greaseless but limp enough to prompt a round of Viagra jokes.
The herb-rubbed grilled "1/2 young chicken" ($8) is young indeed -- any smaller, and they could call it poussin and charge twice as much. But "half" is an exaggeration; we received a wee boned breast, thigh, and wing drumette, deliciously crisp-skinned and served with a loose, warm cranberry-plus-mystery-fruit sauce, a heap of chunky, lightly garlicked mashed potatoes, and a scattering of sweet young sugar snap peas. It was comfort food raised to scrumptiousness. However, a rosemary roast pork loin and Crescenza cheese sandwich ($6.50, with a cup of pleasant minestrone included) featured thin-sliced pork so sere and salty, it could've passed for ham.
I've never been crazy about Chow's pastas, least of all the bland-on-bland "Rose's Homestyle Spaghetti Dinner" with meatballs ($7). Fortunately, sweet Sicilian sausages are cleverly offered as an alternative to Mama Gulisano's huge, mealy meatblobs. Rigatoni with wild mushrooms ($8) suffered from chewy pasta and an oily, muddy-flavored sauce of sauteed fungi.
The beer choices are extensive, the wine list brief and cheap ($20 tops). At dessert, a moist, homey warm ginger cake ($4.50) came with coarse-tasting caramel ice cream and a caramel sauce burned slightly bitter. The daily pie ($4) was peach with a fine, not-too-sweet filling, but its flaky shortening crust bore the evil aftertaste of Crisco. Milky Indian-style spiced chai ($2) was untouchable in a scaldingly hot glass.
Weekend brunch is the Inner Sunset's pet meal, and Chow's choices include a truly "classic" eggs benedict ($7), with a delicious lemony hollandaise and perfectly poached eggs. Brioche with asparagus ($6) isn't classic, though: A large, light-textured white roll (not eggy brioche) twists around a filling of asparagus, provolone, and (the menu said) Hobbs' ham. Sauteed mushrooms stood in for the ham that morning, but the cheese had cooked into the dough, leaving the whole concoction rather dry. Both plates came with a green salad and tiny diced potatoes and onions, lovably sauteed in clarified butter. A summer cooler ($2) of pureed and cubed cantaloupe was the nectar of the gods -- but how could the produce-buyer who found such heavenly melons have settled for the shameful tomatoes? Park Chow is a boon to the neighborhood, but it needs Gulisano's continued attention to bring the food up to the grand simplicity of the original Chow.
Down the street, at the park end of the block, East West Cafe now occupies the lovely white-arched, blue-tiled home of Ya Ya (which moved to the Financial District), and has taken up Stoyanoff's role as a purveyor of light Greco-Mediterranean fare, adapted for med students, vegans, and the similarly health-obsessed. It's '70s hippie food, successfully updated for the new century.
On a Saturday night, a crowd embracing all ages and most ethnicities was dining mainly on veggie burgers and sandwiches ($7 each). The third most popular entree, a vegetarian "Mediterranean platter" ($8), boasted an irresistibly tart and nutty-flavored Syrian-style baba ghanouj, eggplant whipped with sesame paste and yogurt. A refreshing, lemony tabbouleh held more parsley than bulgur; the hummus, dolmas, and falafel were fine and the pita was fresh. The sauceless, cheeseless vegan moussaka ($8) is nothing like moussaka, but it's a nice casserole of cinnamon-scented grilled eggplant with tomatoes, peppers, onions, and slivered almonds. Unlike most old hippies, the kitchen staff know how to handle globe eggplant, evidently giving it the full prep (salting, draining, rinsing) to draw out the bitter juices before cooking. Cool, man! The veggies sat on a bed of chewy-soft short-grain brown rice mingled with corn kernels and grated carrot, which was pretty good for health food. All entrees include a side of greens and shredded beets, also not half-bad.
Beverages include smoothies, chai, a half-dozen yuppie beers, and a bare-bones wine list at a minimum markup (the most expensive bottle is $17). The menu shuns mammal-meat but offers seafood and poultry. Grilled salmon ($10) was a thick, narrow fillet, brightened by a pleasant honey-lemon glaze. It came with sauteed peppers and mushrooms, hummus, brown rice, and a salad dressed in honey-sweetened vinaigrette. (Many Americans seem to like such goopy dressings; don't ask why.)
Kebabs ($8 veggie, or $8.50 with shrimp or chicken) have bamboo-skewered onion, tomato, zucchini, and bell peppers, plus brown rice and most of the components of the Mediterranean platter (minus dolmas and falafel). The shrimp version included pineapple chunks, but the small, peeled shellfish were cooked to the consistency of dog-chews. All the vegetables, though, were done to a turn.
The cafe serves breakfast whenever you want it; we chose a Sunday brunch on the charming rear garden patio (nonsmoking, of course), with its fruit-laden miniature apple tree and blooming miniature lemon. The menu is 21st-century vegetarian-Mediterranean Denny's: eggs, omelets, pancakes (organic nine-grain buttermilk, organic blue cornmeal, or nondairy organic yellow cornmeal), several veggie scrambles, and the requisite tofu scramble.
"Heuvos" rancheros ($6.50) proved as backward as their spelling: Instead of tortillas topped with eggs and spicy ranchero sauce, with beans on the side, the eggs sank into a heap of black beans, stale tortillas were on the side, and mild salsa fresca came in a ramekin. The "East West Combo" ($6), a better choice, featured two perfectly cooked eggs with one pancake (the yellow corn version, dryish but OK), real maple syrup, and a pair of exciting sausages containing big chunks of artichoke in the well-seasoned ground chicken. Alas, none of the staff could name their manufacturer. Alongside were pleasing "country potatoes," actually a potato pancake. The weak coffee nearly put me back to sleep, but my partner's hot chocolate ($2.25) was startlingly chocolatey, at least until the whipped cream topping melted into the dark, bittersweet liquid and turned it sweet and milky. All in all, I'd prefer a marshmallow on top. Otherwise, it's easy to see why the neighborhood has adopted East West -- the food is emphatically healthy and generally tasty, and surely the price is right.
Naomi Wise can be e-mailed at Wisenaomi@aol.com.