I know exactly where my hunger for squid at Yuet Lee came from, however: the same Calvin Trillin article that sent me to the Mission in search of taquerias last week. (Hey, I get my money's worth from an issue of the New Yorker. And that was a particularly good one for foodies: It also included a casual about a chef, charmingly called Chef Bobo, who cooks for both a private prep school and Derek Jeter and who believes that "learning to eat is a life skill" -- you go, Chef Bobo! -- and another, titled Ciao Radicchio, about the last, or maybe it was the next-to-the-last, customer to shop at the Greenwich Village Balducci's before it closed forever.) Trillin threw in an anecdote about the fried squid at the renowned Chinese restaurant Yuet Lee, and suddenly I could not rest until I tasted that crisp, salty, entirely addictive dish again.
So it will seem strange that, when I actually sat down there for lunch a week or so later, I didn't order the fried squid. I was uncharacteristically late, and I could tell that my cousin Diana, though happy to see me, had spent a quarter of an hour perplexed by my choice of meeting place: Yuet Lee's narrow dining room, containing only a dozen tables, is clean but slightly shabby, and decidedly underdecorated, except for pictures of customers Jackie Chan and Nicolas Cage and a cash-only sign. To me, the worn Formica tops of the tables are badges of honor, since they bear mute witness to the untold numbers of delicious dishes that have rested there while being spooned up by happy eaters (who often form a waiting, anticipatory line out the door -- likely the envy of every North Beach nightclub).
I wanted Diana to fall in love with the place, so I assembled a lunch of three perfect dishes that mysteriously omitted the fried squid that had drawn me there: a special that day of steamed whole flounder; a dish of pepper and salt roast prawns in shell; and my other favorite squid dish at Yuet Lee, the sautéed fresh and dried squids. I think I was thinking pink (the shrimp were, and the sautéed squid put me in mind of a sunrise or a sunset as it blushed pink and ivory on the plate, set off by the fresh green of cilantro and spring onions) and delicate (the fragile flounder, also ivory, was unbelievably soft and sweet and tender). (Fan mail to some flounder!) My strategy worked: Diana confessed, after we'd tried the food, that she'd been taken aback by a sniff of grease when she'd first entered the room, but now that she was eating she knew why we were there.
I thought everything was genius. The shrimp are the best version of that dish I know (you eat the crackling carapaces, of course, but these were so fresh that I ate most of the heads, too, though I've felt unconcerned about discarding them at other places). When the server expertly freed the flounder from its bones using only two spoons, I thought of a book by David Douglas Duncan of photographs of Picasso, in which the master, after finishing his own lunch of a whole fish, picked up the skeleton, sucked the last bits of flesh from it, took it to his studio, and pressed the beautiful bones into a clay form that became a famous plate. But even before I told this to Diana, who's a photographer, she was saying, "That would make a wonderful photogram" -- another word, I think, for a Rayograph, Man Ray's term for the photo that resulted from placing ordinary objects such as keys or cigarettes directly on photosensitive paper and exposing them to light. I don't think Yuet Lee has often been asked to wrap up a fish skeleton to go, but our waitress improvised with aplomb. I liked the idea of a work of art resulting from our artful lunch.
That fried squid was still on my mind, but now it had been joined by a hunger for crispy Indian snacks, induced by reading In Berkeley, Strollers Find Art With Curb Appeal, an article by R.W. "Johnny" Apple, Jr., in the Jan. 17 New York Times Escapes section. Ostensibly it's an article about the Arts and Crafts buildings of local architect Bernard Maybeck, yet a single sentence at the end of a sidebar on Berkeley lodging and restaurants caught my eye (and stomach): "It's like eating in a garage, you're served on paper plates and it's only open until 6 p.m., but the Indian street food ... is fabulous." Yes, it's the legendary ViKs Chaat Corner, charming by its very charmlessness since at least 1991. Calvin Trillin once wrote, in his first collection of gastronomic essays (American Fried: Adventures of a Happy Eater), exactly what you are supposed to say to somebody who tells you about a "secret" restaurant by enumerating its peculiarities, just as Apple does: "Oh, is that place still good?" ("In the tone," Trillin adds, "of someone doing his best to be polite while listening to the plot summary of a film he happens to have written.")
I was seized by a desire to see if ViKs, which started as an adjunct to the more-or-less wholesale Indian grocery next door, was still good. So on a misty day I scooped up my friend Peter, who was full of chat about the foods he'd sampled at the San Francisco Fancy Food Show at the Moscone Center the day before (especially some seaweed noodles), to eat our fill of chaat (which, as ViKs takeout menu has it, means "to lick," based on the fact that roadside snacks in India are often served on a leaf and are so good that you can't resist licking the leaf before discarding it).
At ViKs the pakori chaat (amazingly light lentil dumplings covered with yogurt and dressed with tamarind and mint chutneys) arrives in a little paper box, and the bhatura cholle (the biggest puffed puri, a freshly made bread, you've ever seen, wonderfully crisp and served with well-spiced garbanzo-bean curry and mango pickle) indeed comes on a paper plate, as do the daily specials, of which there are two or three every weekday. (There are more to choose from on weekends, but beware, for the line to order can stretch out of the warehouse and into the street.) We tried the chicken curry (excellent), the lamb curry (good), and the vegetarian plate, which featured a most fabulous lightly charred spicy cauliflower curry called gobi.
ViKs is better than "still good," as proven by a take-out dinner I picked up for Anna and Cathy a week later. I mourned not being able to order the freshly fried puffy breads that wouldn't survive the ride home, but we feasted quite nicely on aloo tikki cholle (two potato patties stuffed with peas and served with more of the glorious garbanzo curry), mixed vegetable pakoras (fritters of chopped cabbage, spinach, cauliflower, potatoes, and onions in chickpea batter), bhel puri (crisp puffed rice topped with a sharp salad of chopped vegetables), and a special that day of aloo paratha, a thin smear of cumin-y potatoes stuffed in a thick wheat pancake and served with raita, a creamy yogurt dressing, and achar, a hot crimson condiment.
Janice and Adam later joined me for squid, on a day when Chinatown was putting on the dog for the upcoming year of the Ram; they're even putting up lucky decorations at Yuet Lee. We ordered a couple of dishes that are the favorites of one of Janice's best friends in L.A., a divine soup of salted egg (very salted!), fresh mustard greens, and sliced pork, and a clay pot stuffed with plump oysters, roast pork, fragrant ginger, and onions. But the big hits were the crunchy pepper and salt-roasted fresh squids, which made our lips tingle with salt ("I could eat this all day long," Janice sighed) and a special, impulsive order of sautéed scallops, shrimp, and what Yuet Lee calls "sugar bean" but we recognize as the best sugar snap peas we've ever tasted.
"This place," I say, "is still good."