Sweetbreads and Fried Cream

There's nothing I like better than visiting an old favorite, especially for the very first time. And what's more, sometimes a city dweller just needs to get away from the San Francisco restaurant scene -- the swanky decors, the well-heeled waitpersons, the often-ingenious fusion of the very best ingredients and techniques from around the world -- and venture into the suburbs in search of more traditional, broad-shouldered American fare.

Having succumbed over the past few years to a peculiar apathy that makes any journey south of Bernal Heights seem unendurably long, I must admit that, until recently, I'd never been to the restaurant known properly as Joe's of Westlake, and more commonly as Westlake Joe's. Luckily, I was able to remedy this one Sunday evening when I coaxed a handful of out-of-town relatives right back to the city limits with promises of an old-fashioned, family-style dinner.

Nestled amid the rolling hills and mile-wide boulevards of Daly City, Westlake Joe's hasn't changed much since it opened in 1956. A sign out front advertises "Fine Food," which happens to be my very favorite kind. Inside, flags and U.S.A. placards grace the walls, as do framed newspaper columns by friendly old-timers lauding Joe's hearty Italian-American fare. Older couples sit quietly together, the gentlemen in dinner jackets and the ladies in evening pearls. Young boys in sweaters fidget unendingly. The place smells overwhelmingly of meat.

After our party took a stroll through the dark, low-ceilinged bar, which featured an open fireplace and a delightful, live jazz duo, the hostess (who asked if this was a special occasion) led our band of seven to a booth in the cavernous back dining room. Our waitress didn't like us, which made me like her. After all, who the hell did we think we were? Though lacking the sweeping views and open-air kitchen of the front dining room, the back room at Joe's offers a peculiar amusement: As patrons walk past a gigantic aquarium, their faces are distorted into all manner of fun-house shapes.

Before I go further -- and be assured, I'm going all the way -- I should point out that it's impossible not to like Westlake Joe's, one of those rare establishments at which you can show up in a yellow Cadillac (as one party did) and not be mistaken for a pimp. The place oozes ambience, a blue-collared, red-blooded, Marlboro-smoking vibe that, whether you grew up in the suburbs or not, creates an overwhelming feeling of having been there a million times before. With that said, I must admit that the food at Westlake Joe's is somewhat problematic.

Things started going bad with the first round of cocktails ($4-5.50), which were served in glasses approximately two sizes smaller than the tiny ones they use in Reno and Las Vegas. "And those drinks are free," remarked my mother. The menu at Joe's is a monstrous affair, featuring seafood cocktails, nearly a dozen different salads, omelets, pastas, sandwiches, fish, steaks, and a variety of specials and chef's suggestions. I was hoping someone would try the boiled beef ($8.90), but no one was quite so brave. As we ordered, my stepfather asked foolishly if the mixed vegetables were fresh. "Fresh frozen," answered our waitress. But of course.

My girlfriend and I split a Caesar salad ($4.65), which, she felt, was a tad heavy on the anchovies, though it seemed just fine to me. Everyone helped him- or herself to bread and butter (free), which, the majority of those present remarked, was the best thing Joe's had to offer. As for the entrees, I'll begin with the positive: My brother thoroughly enjoyed his sweetbreads sauteed with mushrooms ($10.35; and if you don't know what sweetbreads are, well, you probably don't want to). Infused with a light wine and lemon sauce, the dish was spectacular, he said, dropping a puffy white sweetbread on my plate. Thanks so much.

Since Joe's was out of prime rib, I ordered the New York steak ($14.95), a juicy 12-ouncer served with a side of fries. Unfortunately, I didn't get to eat many of these, as my girlfriend preferred them to her veal parmigiana ($11.75). Topped with an unappealing lagoon of coagulated cheese and served with a side of mushy rigatoni, poor sweetheart's dinner was overcooked and went, for the most part, untouched. My mother fared no better with the veal piccata ($11.25), nor with her side of fresh-frozen mixed vegetables -- a melange of crinkle-cut carrots, bits of broccoli, cauliflower, peas, and a lone lima bean that appeared to have been poured onto her plate straight from the bag.

My sister-in-law managed to eat about a third of her chicken sauteed with button mushrooms ($10.35), which was likewise overcooked and unflavorful. My 3-year-old nephew, who was sharing her plate, wrinkled his face and cried. But as awful as the veal and chicken were, no one suffered as terribly as my stepfather, whose pot roast ($9.95) was not only overcooked, but topped with a strange, salsalike gravy.

But then again, the pot roast seemed like ambrosia compared to his after-dinner coffee ($1.30), which -- and I have five adult witnesses to back me up on this -- took on the gray pall of death just minutes after he added a splash of cream. He sipped once, twice, three times, then gave up. "This stuff is murder!" he exclaimed.

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