You don't have to be Dr. Freud of Vienna to know that many of my friends are conflating the food of a country with its history. I was doing something similar while touring the August Sander show at SFMOMA that inspired my meals. I love Sander's work -- an ambitious, not to say quixotic, lifelong attempt to document the German people of the 20th century -- almost as much as I do Eugène Atget's similarly obsessive attempt at chronicling every corner of Paris. "We can tell from appearance the work someone does or does not do; we can read in his face whether he is happy or troubled," Sander wrote.
But whether I was looking at the well-known photograph of the burly-armed pastry cook holding a whisk and a copper bowl or a fashionably attired secretary with a cigarette held negligently between her fingers, I found myself thinking the same troubling thoughts: "Whose side were they on? What did they know, and when did they know it?" Even though the Nazis banned the portraits in 1934 because, according to the Getty Institute, "the subjects did not adhere to the ideal Aryan type," I saw plenty of "ideal Aryan types," as well as the non: suspect bohemians, epicene students, and gypsyish circus performers, many of whom would vanish from Germany soon after they were photographed, their portraits by Sander perhaps the only record of their existence.
I remembered my own woeful evening with an almost comically "Aryan type," the friend of a friend who joined us for dinner one night in the wonderful Alsatian restaurant Storch in Berlin. He was straw-blond, with pink-flushed cheeks and cornflower-blue eyes, already running a little to fat, and probably more than a little drunk when he greeted us in the tavern attached to the restaurant with the news that the place was fully booked and we'd have to eat in the bar room. I couldn't tell if he was irritated by the fact that we'd made a reservation and therefore swept aside his complaint as we swept through the velvet curtain into the main room, or if he would have unloaded his scorn for America onto me all night anyway, through the savory tarte flambée, the faultless rabbit stew, the amazing array of cheeses. That evening I found him at first silly, and eventually annoying, but I knew that he had no power over me, and that I never had to see him again. He was stupid, and mean, and scary. Yet I enjoyed my meal despite his presence and the invisible presence of his spiritual ancestors. (Why does it not surprise me that Hitler was a vegetarian? Note: I do not say that all vegetarians are Hitler! I like vegetables. I even like some vegetarians.) Food is good, and it should bring us together rather than separate us.
Which (and here comes a whiplash transition!) is what it did over the last couple of weeks as I enjoyed several meals at a small chain of restaurants that fed me dependably and deliciously. I was thrilled that my parents were willing to join me in a spontaneous jaunt to the new Chow in Lafayette -- and so were they, though my mother was surprised when she scanned the eclectic menu, including as it does warm marinated Greek olives; tamarind-glazed squid with Thai cucumbers; Rose's home-style spaghetti dinner with meatballs; smiling noodles with shrimp, chicken, coconut, and fresh yellow curry; and char-grilled flat iron steak with caramelized onions, mushrooms, and blue cheese. "I thought we were going to a Chinese restaurant, as in Chow Fun," she said.
"Why not Italian, as in Ciao?" I said. The room was large and high-ceilinged, and we'd entered through a small market in which you could purchase the same kind of produce and meats that were being used to make dinner. We ordered the soup du jour, spicy chicken vegetable, and steamed mussels to start, followed by grilled pork rib chops for my mom, a daily special of a Niman Ranch rib eye steak for my dad, and Thai-style noodles for me. My mother tried a sip of my tangerine-ginger cooler, pronounced it delicious, and then confounded me by ordering a glass of white wine-and-mango sangria over the mango smoothie ("too thick, too filling") she'd been considering. But the little diced bits of rather unripe mango had done nothing to improve the wine, so, with filial devotion, I traded my excellent beverage for her boring one. (I more than made up for it on subsequent Chow visits. I do love fresh tangerine juice.)
But the dull drink was the only disappointment that night. The bright-tasting soup was topped with crisp tortilla strips. The mussels were small and sweet, more than enough to share, and we spooned up all the white wine, parsley, and garlic broth they'd steamed in. The charcoal-grilled steak was satisfying. Though I'd been warned by our charming waitress that the Thai-style noodles in lime-chili broth had proved too spicy for some, I could have used a bit more heat (I like it when my face begins to glow), but it was full of strips of steak, chunks of chicken, bean sprouts, cilantro, all manner of good fresh things, and a generous bowlful, too. (I brought half of it home and finished it while watching TV.)
But the genius dish was the grilled pork chops, which had been brined, and thus were still moist and juicy, sided with baked yams scented with orange, and an extremely autumnal sauté of Brussels sprouts with chunks of pancetta and apple. This was a perfect plate of food, and it was only with some difficulty that I restrained myself from ordering it on my two subsequent Chow-downs. ("We come here for the pork chops," I heard one well-fed burgher tell the couple accompanying him and his wife, and soon enough four plates of pork chops hit their wooden table. I envied them.)
As we enjoyed another excellent dish, a square of deceptively simple-looking ginger cake with pumpkin ice cream and buttery caramel sauce, I looked around and saw a 21st-century equivalent of the small-town diner, full of families enjoying a reasonably priced meal, everything fresh, everything homemade. Or maybe a malt shop, after the movies: Chow even offers a Blushing Orange Dream and a Boston Cooler in addition to milkshakes and malts. (Tucked in a shopping mall, could this be Suburban Chow?)
A week later and my father was pleased to join me in an expedition to Park Chow in the Sunset; we parked a couple of blocks away and enjoyed the short stroll to the restaurant, past small shops and bookstores and lots of other dining options. Park Chow seemed nearly full at 6:30, and we decided against the tables that seemed too close to the open kitchen, choosing instead one near enough to the entrance to be greeted by a blast of cool air every time the door opened. (Too late, we discovered an entire other floor upstairs that was only half full. It would be especially pleasant at brunch because of its many skylights.)
But again we enjoyed everything we (over) ordered: tangy little barbecued chicken wings (I would have liked the traditional celery sticks as well as the blue cheese dip provided); focaccia stuffed with smoked prosciutto, Gruyère, and roasted red peppers; nice, tender pot-roasted beef short ribs in a sticky, winy, bacony sauce over floury mashed potatoes; properly toothy linguine topped with more than two dozen clams in the shell, their brine mixing happily with olive oil, red pepper, lemon juice, and whole cloves of garlic. I had two tangerine coolers.
"And we've had two terrific waitresses," my dad pointed out.
The luck with the servers didn't hold out for the supper Cathy, Jay, and I had (after seeing Quai des Orfèvres at the Castro) at the original Chow, which opened on Church near Market some half-dozen years ago and has been full ever since. The girl and guy who brought us our meal seemed sullen, and the quarter of the excellent fennel sausage pizza with red onions, escarole, basil, and feta (loved the crust) that I was looking forward to for breakfast on the morrow never made it back to our table. We did tote home part of Cathy's very chickeny grilled chicken (this time the mashed potatoes were creamier), along with half of my Burger Royale on a baguette, rare enough to permit reheating. There wasn't anything left of Jay's lightly cooked mahi-mahi. We appreciated the crust on a shared pear, apple, and cranberry cobbler as we shared an appreciation of Chow: three restaurants with the same menu, and a simple philosophy of freshness and generosity ("We are here to feed you," the menu says) that somehow seems perfect for every neighborhood in which we find them.