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During a recent trip to the East Coast, I spent hundreds of dollars in the pursuit of good meals, trying a catholic assortment of new, well-reviewed places, ranging from a tiny, cozy storefront offering eclectic seasonal cooking in Philadelphia to a huge, glitzy modern American cuisine emporium in a former bank building in D.C. to interesting Indian-fusion cooking in an underdecorated room in midtown Manhattan.
San Francisco, CA 94103
Region: Mission/ Bernal Heights
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Flautas $1.50 each
Cochinita pibil $6.75
Frijol con puerco $6.75
Cantaloupe agua fresca $1.25
Rice pudding $1.25
Open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday until 10 p.m.
Parking: fairly easy
Noise level: moderate to high
And on my return I found that the most memorable dishes, the ones I would love to eat again and again, the ones I feel the need to describe with gusto to my friends, were a plate of noodles that cost $4 and a pretzel that cost $1.40. Both were consumed in Philadelphia, under the aegis of my friend Jeff Weinstein, erstwhile restaurant critic of the Village Voice and author of one of my favorite food books, Learning to Eat. Jeff whisked me to Nan Zhou, a small, nondescript place in Philadelphia's Chinatown, almost as soon as we'd gotten off the train from New York. The only décor was provided by the man making the fresh noodles at a table in the back, flinging the fat tube of dough onto the floured surface repeatedly until it magically broke into thin strings. He then threw the noodles into boiling broth, and about 20 seconds later they were served to us. Jeff ordered my usual, the beef noodle, in which the fragile pasta is served in a bowl of broth with thin slices of stew beef and chopped onions; he instructed me to order the dish described as "hand drawn noodle with fried soy sauce," an unalluring description that translated into a plate of steaming noodles topped with a delicious thin ragout full of ground pork and crowned with lots of leafy cilantro. The steaming hillock looked like more than I could eat, but somehow I found myself twirling the last strands on my fork within a few minutes. Nan Zhou offers its impeccable noodles in a dozen variations, including lamb noodles, clam noodles, and chicken leg noodles (ranging in price from $4 to $5.50); I can't imagine any future trip to Philly that wouldn't include a feast there.
Nor would I want to miss the treat we had just a few blocks away at the Reading Terminal Market. Jeff steered me through the aisles of the place that advertises itself as "America's greatest public market since 1892," pointing out Bassett's Ice Cream ("Here since the beginning") and the scrapple at Dutch Country Meats on our way to my second revelation in dough: a pretzel made before our eyes by young girls in Amish costume at Fisher's Soft Pretzels. In a ritual that rhymed with the one we'd just witnessed at Nan Zhou, the baker picked up a tube of dough and, instead of flinging it onto the floured surface, deftly twisted it into, yes, a pretzel shape, which she quickly dipped into a container of melted butter and another of salt. A few minutes in the oven, another swish through melted butter, we handed over a buck and change, and it was ours. I'd initially thought myself too full of noodles for perfect enjoyment ("Can we come back tomorrow?" I begged. "No," Jeff said firmly. "The market's closed on Sunday," which he agreed was an odd decision for a place billed as Philadelphia's third-greatest tourist attraction after the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall). But within a block or two's stroll, the Best Pretzel I'd Ever Had was just a salty, buttery memory.
In the interest of complete honesty, I will admit that I did have one startlingly good, startlingly original, and expensive (though not startlingly so) meal in New York at Wylie Dufresne's new restaurant, wd-50. The dish I was dying to try was his much-written-about starter of fresh oysters somehow compressed into a tile-shaped square, but I was saddened to learn it had been taken off the menu ("He wanted people to order something else!" our waitress said). The block of foie gras topped with tiny silvery anchovies dusted with crunchy unsweetened cocoa nibs that I ordered instead was dazzling, as were my main course of chunks of long-cooked pork belly with fava beans and a bit of anise-scented sauce and my dessert of roasted pineapple served with lychee-cilantro sorbet and a squiggle of hot red-pepper jelly.
Still, as tasty as the offerings at wd-50 were, even a cursory glance at their ingredients reveals a kitchen aesthetic that's risky and challenging. Sometimes we want to dive into soft, pillowy dishes that are simply delicious, like the noodles and pretzel I enjoyed in Philadelphia. Or the two plates of pure pig heaven I discovered on my second visit to Mi Lindo Yucatan, a new Mexican spot in the Mission District.
My first lunch there was at the invitation of my colleague, the omnivorous Jonathan Kauffman of East Bay Express, whose snappy, erudite column has introduced me to many exciting places. The clean-but-modest premises (cash only, Formica tables, linoleum floors, the only décor a couple of red stripes painted around the open kitchen and a few pieces of folkloric Mexican dress casually nailed to the white walls) belied the somewhat grand subtitle printed on the menus: "El Arte de la Cocina Yucateca" (helpfully translated as "The Art of Yucatecan Cuisine"). But there were, indeed, many unfamiliar dishes on that menu, including salbutes, polcanes, and chilindrinas (among the more familiar empanadas and tamales) under antojitos, all of which we sampled on the platillo Mi Lindo Yucatan, an appetizer assortment that included two small versions of all of the above, plus flautas and tamales. The salbutes, like tiny chicken-and-avocado tostadas, were my favorite bites; the polcanes, nutty bullet-shaped cornmeal dumplings stuffed with lima beans and pumpkin seeds, and chilindrinas, tortilla squares filled with spinach and hard-boiled egg and drizzled with tomato sauce, were chewy, doughy, and interesting, if not completely alluring.
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