In my real life, I've gone on precious few road trips, the result of a misspent youth, when I was too busy going to movies to drive around America eating in diners and rooting around in used bookstores and junk shops -- which I can't really call a decision I regret because no decision-making was involved. However, I do, unlike Mlle. Piaf, have certain regrets, and going on insufficient road trips is one of them (along with not dying my hair many different colors during my 20s, when I could have gotten away with it).
There are places tucked away in towns big and small across the US of A where I've had iconic meals of the sort that deserve road-food ennobling. Every time I visit my friends Jeff and John on Long Island, we drive to Riverhead for the fried chicken served at the modest Riverhead Grill. And when the Kirgo-Kaufman family lived in Middlebury, Vt., no trip to see them was complete without a breakfast or lunch (often consisting of fried chicken) at Steve's Park Diner (where, the father of the clan reminds me, "Steve makes his own sausage and maple syrup!").
Fried chicken seems to be a leitmotif of my happiest memories of home-cooking restaurants, several of which, alas, no longer exist: the old Tick Tock in Hollywood, whose multicourse meals included soup, salad, and a bread basket that featured tiny orange-glazed sweet rolls and corn muffins as well as bread, and where you could find fried rabbit as well as chicken; the vanished Pico-Lo in Los Angeles, where I invariably chose pea soup to start and vanilla pudding with rhubarb sauce (both homemade) to finish. Visiting these places felt like I'd stumbled through a tear in the space-time continuum and ended up eating in a Midwestern farmhouse sometime in the '30s.
A couple of recent meals in the Bay Area (featuring fresh vegetables, homemade pea soup, a variety of baked goods, and, yes, fried chicken) pleasantly re-created that time-travel feeling. Hiya and I had lunch at the Pork Store Cafe on Haight, named after the original inhabitant of the space, the Haight Street Pork Store, a butcher shop that opened in 1916 and closed in the early '50s. In 1979, a fortuitous renovation uncovered a charming stained-glass Pork Store sign, which had been boarded up for decades, and the Pork Store Cafe was born. My slight dismay at the cramped quarters and rather grungy floor beneath our feet vaporized when our astonishingly good meals arrived. We'd chosen them with amazing alacrity despite the extensive menu offering hundreds of items (almost every breakfast variation you can imagine, burgerssandwichessalads, blue-plate lunches including pork chops, roast turkey, and rib-eye steaks). My eye was caught by the honey-dipped fried chicken, and Hiya's was influenced by a platter of eggs Florentine carried past our table.
The dis-jointed half chicken (four pieces: breast, thigh, leg, wing) reminded me of the one I drive many miles to enjoy in Riverhead: a small bird that tastes reassuringly chicken-y, in a light, lacy batter that cooks up thin and crunchy, and fried quickly enough that the meat is still moist and juicy under its crisp crust. But the Pork Store has it all over the Riverhead Grill in the quality of its sides -- real mashed potatoes, soft baking-powder biscuits, and impeccably fresh leaf spinach.
The excellent spinach was one of the key ingredients in Hiya's superb eggs Florentine, along with a biscuit (instead of the advertised English muffin) base and poached eggs whose still-liquid golden yolks blended with the creamy, lemony hollandaise that blanketed the dish. Yumyumyum. I was in love with the Pork Store after one meal -- the integrity of the two dishes made me an instant fan -- so I was excited to learn that a second Pork Store Cafe had opened in the Mission. My mother loves eggs Florentine; my father loves fried chicken; I'd take them there for lunch!
But before that happened there was a family pilgrimage to a favorite restaurant of my youth that I hadn't visited for many years: Walker's Restaurant and Pie Shop in Albany. Its homey Midwestern feeling was always enriched by the fact that the second generation of Walkers who ran the place were patients of my father and greeted him with affection (and maybe slipped us a second piece of pie). But the Walkers sold the place a few years ago, and I was worried that changes might have crept into the formula I found so reassuring. Would everything from the soup to the salad dressing still be homemade? Would the multicourse prix fixe still rule?
It was reassuring to see that the Pie Shop's décor still replicates a Main Street restaurant in the farm belt, the kind that never redecorates because its clientele concentrates on the well-filled plates. The tables are topped with dark wood-grained Formica, and the wooden chairs are serviceable and comfortable. We sat in the emptier and plainer of the two rooms, because toddler Ben enjoys getting up and running around at fairly frequent intervals (we were joined in the room by another family with three children, including a babe in arms, and there was much friendly mingling).
I was pleased that the complete dinner still includes soup, salad (tossed green or Jell-O), popover (single on the menu, multiple in practice), and a slice of pie, at prices ranging from $15.75 for the fried chicken to $21.95 for a double-cut slab of prime rib. I was more pleased when I found that the soup of the day was a tasty split pea with bits of bacon (other days might feature minestrone, cream of chicken, or clam chowder), the mixed green salad included several other lettuces as well as iceberg and was topped with a couple of canned beet slices (I like canned beets), the dressings included a chunky blue cheese and a nice smooth ranch, and the baskets of light, eggy popovers (the soufflé of baked goods) kept appearing on the table.
But my admiration increased with our lovely main courses: faultless fried chicken, juicy prime rib, and chicken pie under a buttery, cookielike, short dough crust full of big pieces of chicken in a creamy gravy. The baked potatoes were small but succulent, the lemon-garlic version roasted, with crunchy exteriors and floury interiors. The vegetable that night was cooked carrots, fractionally overcooked but still reassuringly carroty. A biting horseradish sauce in a tiny paper cup came with the beef; containers of honey appeared for the popovers, butter and sour cream for the baked potatoes. My only disappointment was with the leg of lamb, a Thursday night special (along with the pot pie). I thought it would come in thick slices like the prime rib, but instead it was a heap of thin collops, tasting only mildly like lamb, though cutely sided with mint jelly in another tiny paper cup (I like mint jelly! I like tiny paper cups!).
Pie finished the meal (and us) off. We toted portions of the main courses home in order to have room for that pie, of which there were more than 20 choices available. We had rhubarb, chocolate cream, banana cream, and black bottom (too reminiscent of the chocolate cream; I should have tried almond-rum instead). The waiter brought the baby a dish of orange Jell-O on the house.
I was reassured by Walker's continuing quality (my friend Robert points out that the Walkers sold the place to their longtime cook), but dismayed by my one lunch at the Pork Store Cafe on 16th Street, which has so recently taken over Bitterroot that the Bitterroot sign is still in place (there's a small, temporary placard underneath that says, "The Bitterroot is now the Pork Store Cafe"). The menu looks the same as the Haight Street venue, but the increase in comfort (we sat in a big booth) was nullified by both the incredibly burnt liver that arrived after my father requested it rare and the rather careless service. What I thought would be a treat turned into an apology. Someday a plate of fried chicken will be set before him at the Pork Store Cafe, and all will be forgiven.