By Pete Kane
By Anna Roth
By Lou Bustamante
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By Max A. Cherney
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By Alex Hochman
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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.)
53 Lafayette Circle
Lafayette, CA 94549
Focaccia stuffed with prosciutto, Gruyère, and peppers $7.50
Steamed black mussels $6.95
Fennel sausage pizza $7.50
1/2 grilled chicken $9.95
Pork chops $10.25
Ginger cake $4.95
Chow, 53 Lafayette Circle (at Mount Diablo), La Fiesta Square, Lafayette, (925) 962-2469. Open Monday through Thursday from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. No reservations, but you can phone ahead to be put on a "courtesy call-in list." Wheelchair accessible. Parking: easy. Noise level: moderate.
Park Chow, 1240 Ninth Ave. (at Lincoln), 665-9912. Open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. No reservations, but a "courtesy call-in list." Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 44, N. Noise level: moderate.
Chow, 215 Church (at Market), 552-2469. Open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday from 11 a.m. to midnight, Saturday from 10 a.m. to midnight, and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. No reservations, but a "courtesy call-in list." Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 22, F, J. Noise level: moderate.
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.
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