By Molly Gore
By Molly Gore
By Pete Kane
By Lou Bustamante
By Pete Kane
By Ashley Goldsmith
By Pete Kane
By John Birdsall
There's one pair of food writers whose career I have always envied: Jane and Michael Stern, the Roadfood authors, whose life together seems to be one long road trip, traveling America's highways and byways in search of authentic American cooking as practiced in the cafes, diners, coffee shops, lobster shacks, and barbecue pits tucked away seemingly in every nook and cranny of the 50 states. Reading their books, their monthly column in Gourmet, and their newsletter (www.roadfood.com), I fantasize about my own road trips, heedlessly feasting on big ol' egg-and-pig breakfasts complete with warm fresh biscuits; lunching on local specialties such as lobster rolls, fried oyster po' boys, or Philly cheesesteaks; and choosing pot roast, meatloaf, or fried chicken for dinner, followed by a slice of home-baked pie or three (probably including one of the Sterns' favorites, the elusive sour-cream raisin pie).
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!").
San Francisco, CA 94117
Region: Haight/ Fillmore
3122 16th St.
San Francisco, CA 94103
Region: Mission/ Bernal Heights
Fried chicken $7.75
Eggs Florentine $7.95
Walker's Restaurant and Pie Shop
Fried chicken $15.75
Prime rib $18.95
Chicken pot pie $15.95
Pork Store Cafe, 1451 Haight (at Masonic), 864-6981. Open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 6, 7, 33, 43. Noise level: loud.
Pork Store Cafe, 3122 16th St. (at Valencia), 626-5523. Open Sunday through Tuesday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday until 10 p.m. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: moderately difficult. Muni: 22, 26, 33. Noise level: low.
Walker's Restaurant and Pie Shop, 1491 Solano (at Curtis), Albany, (510) 525-4647. Open for breakfast Tuesday through Saturday from 8 to 11 a.m., Sunday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; for lunch Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; and for dinner Tuesday through Sunday from 5 to 8 p.m. (Friday and Saturday until 9 p.m.). Closed Monday. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: easy. Noise level: moderate.
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?