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By Anna Roth
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Though I field restaurant questions on an almost daily basis, there are times when I draw a blank, even when the question is mine. The other day it was where to have breakfast with Craig Seligman, in town briefly for a book tour for Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me. Craig, who lived in San Francisco for many years, was staying with friends in Potrero Hill and wanted someplace nearby. Though I had strolled 18th Street (the neighborhood's local shopping lane); sampled Chez Maman, Chez Papa, and Baraka (all under the same management); and noted other places I might like to try, a breakfast spot had escaped me. I phoned Peter, whose exhaustive local food knowledge I'd called on before. "Call Karen," he suggested. "She lives up there."
732 22nd St.
San Francisco, CA 94107
Region: Potrero Hill
Soup and half sandwich $5.95
Cowgirl (pancakes, eggs, bacon) $8.95
Breakfast burrito $8.95
Huevos rancheros $8.95
Beignets 3 for $3
Open Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Parking: moderately easy
Muni: 15, 48
Noise level: moderate
Karen, who lives on Carolina, had an immediate suggestion, though not in the immediate neighborhood. "Just for You," she said, almost dreamily. "Do you remember when they were where Chez Maman is, just a sliver of a place, and people used to line up down the block?" I didn't interrupt her reverie to point out that I hadn't been living up here then. "They're down the hill in Dogpatch now," she continued, "in a much bigger space."
I instantly saw the excellence of her suggestion, almost kicking myself, because I had probably eaten at Just for You as often as I'd eaten anywhere in the Bay Area -- with great pleasure and on my own nickel. But in my personal geography I thought of it as "near the office" and "the place I eat in alone" and "where I eat breakfast for lunch," not as either near Potrero Hill or where one would eat breakfast for breakfast.
Breakfast, as I've often said, is a meal that features some of my favorite things -- eggs; smoked meats; bread and the whole panoply of bready things, like biscuits, scones, pastries, pancakes, French toast, stop me, I'm hungry -- but at an hour I usually find too early to face such foods (anyway too early to enjoy them). Which is one of the reasons I fell for Just for You, where there is no nonsense about breakfast being served until 11:30 a.m. or some such, which I rub up against frequently. (Why is it that I can never get to Café Fanny before the kitchen stops serving its wonderful poached or soft-boiled eggs? Luckily, I am almost as enamored of Fanny's sandwiches, and a ham on focaccia does very good late-breakfast duty, I have found.) At Just for You, you can have breakfast as long as the place is open -- which, it is true, is only until 3 in the afternoon. (When I talked on the phone with owner/chef Arienne Landry, a native of Lafayette, La., about what it is that makes her Creole crab cakes Creole -- Tabasco, among other things -- I told her I wished the place were open 24/7, which elicited an ironic laugh and a possibly more ironic, "Me, too!" I find that breakfast is an ideal meal for the wee hours, especially when dawn is threatening to break before you've actually gone to bed.)
My first visit to Just for You was under the aegis of Joyce, who has that wonderful facility, which I share but can't always indulge, of knowing just what she wants to eat at a specific moment. (Variety being not just the spice of life but one of its motivating forces, I consider it a gift from the gods not only that my appetites vary, but also that there are so many different ways to satisfy them. Sometimes a specific desire will form, unbidden, like Joyce's: "I want spaghetti carbonara" or "a hot pastrami sandwich" or "salt-and-pepper crab," and NOW! I'm thinking of a dear friend who has the same thing for lunch every day -- a tuna fish sandwich. He finds this soothing. I find it nearly inexplicable, especially the fact that he always finds it enjoyable. I am relieved that his tastes at dinner are considerably more catholic.) "I'm dying for their crab cake sandwich," Joyce said one rainy gray day, and we drove right over.
Her mind was made up, but I had quite a bit of trouble choosing from the vast menu. Too many things looked good, and I found myself tasting alternatives in my imagination to see what jump-started the appetite. (Hmm, I could do a standard two-eggs-any-style, but with Louisiana hot sausage, or Filipino longaniza sausage, or a grilled catfish fillet, or I love fried egg sandwiches, or a BLT -- no, I want something warmer because it's drizzling, maybe eggs scrambled with chorizo, or here's a combination I don't think I've ever tasted, eggs scrambled with blue cheese, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, spinach, and red peppers, sounds good).
The menu slyly interrupted my reverie. "Still Looking?" it asked sassily. "Only about a hundred more choices to go." And right under that line I saw just what I wanted at that particular moment: biscuits and gravy made even better (for another dollar) "with two eggs anyway you like 'em."
I like 'em over easy, and that's the way they came, with yolks still liquid enough to add their golden richness to the creamy gravy, thick with tasty crumbled sausage. Joyce thoroughly enjoyed her crab cake sandwich on grilled bread; I remember the slight peppery kick of the crabby patty, but at this remove not whether Joyce chose fries, slaw, or a small green salad to accompany it. (In keeping with Just for You's agreeable atmosphere of choice -- just for you! -- you can also have a crab cake po' boy on French bread, which contains two crab cakes, for a couple bucks more than the crab cake sandwich. Or you can have a crab cake with your two eggs any style. Or you can just have a side order of crab cake, on its own.)
I liked the place. It was homey and eccentric, not wildly comfy (the tables are just a little bit smaller than I'd like, and there are no booths in which to lounge), but welcoming all the same. I didn't return right away, but over the months I kept turning in its direction, most often on a Monday, leaving the office with no particular hunger or new restaurant in mind, remembering Just for You as a nearby place for an affordable treat. One day I had a fat burger topped with both cheddar and jack cheese; on another, a windy, chilly day, I had a good bowl of split pea soup with half a ham sandwich, which felt, sentimentally, like school lunch.
But most often I had breakfast for lunch, enjoying the multiple-choice questions: Home fries or grits? Home-baked white, whole wheat, or cinnamon-raisin toast (also sold by the loaf, befitting the "bakery" of the restaurant's name), or biscuits, corn bread, or scone? One of the dozen alternatives of breakfast meats, among them six different kinds of sausage, or pork chop and eggs, or steak and eggs, or nine different kinds of scramble, or the lone frittata (fully loaded with half a dozen vegetables and nicely called Frittata of the Decade)? Buttermilk, cornmeal, or buckwheat pancakes? I was impressed with the depth and quality of the larder, particularly in what seemed to be a smallish kitchen. (With its customary generosity, Just for You has even given its clientele a choice of nomenclature, for on the awning, the Web site, and the to-go menu another name appears: Mabel's Just for You, in honor of the owner's grandmother.)
So. The perfect place for breakfast at 10 with Craig. I choose the Cowgirl -- two pancakes, two eggs, sausage or bacon: I say eggs over easy with soggy bacon, and am annoyed with myself later because I acquiesce too quickly when the server says, "Buttermilk pancakes OK?"; I'd forgotten about the mildly crunchy cornmeal option, though the buttermilk version is just fine (and there are three big strips of bacon). Craig has a breakfast burrito: two eggs scrambled with cream cheese, plus bacon, rolled up in a flour tortilla with grits on the side. He, too, hails from Louisiana. I offer to get beignets, made to order here, but he's not in the mood.
We could even have ordered champagne (on the tiny alcohol list, which also includes five beers along with red, white, and pink wine) to toast Craig's book, a unique, uniquely interesting, and totally personal examination of the work of two writers he knows backward and forward, Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael. The latter is the mutual friend through whom Craig and I met, and I had considered our sharing breakfast to be a tiny homage to Pauline's famous childhood on a chicken farm in Petaluma. I tell Craig I was surprised to learn from his book that Kael eggs were sold as such in the Bay Area; I hadn't ever seen them, and an empty carton would be a fetish item for me. (I never met Sontag, but nearly every time I ate at Miss Ruby's -- a now-vanished, much-missed, excellent American restaurant in Chelsea -- I would see her there, enjoying her dinner in animated conversation. Fetish sightings.)
Over the years, I had countless meals with Pauline, who enjoyed restaurants both for good food and as a backdrop for conversation -- about movies, of course, but also about everything else of interest in the world. (I remember one lunch at Le Dome in Hollywood, when a depressed writer of cheerful songs, among them "How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?," asked Pauline, "Do you get bored?," and she laughed, "Honey, I'm not going to live long enough to read everything I want to.") In her honor the breakfast should have started with Irish whiskey and ended with raspberries. Instead Tom drops by, semi-unexpectedly, to share reminiscences of Pauline's repertory cinemas on Telegraph Avenue and demolish an enormous plate of very saucy huevos rancheros. And when Silvana arrives from his own breakfast with his sister at Tartine to drive Craig to his afternoon reading and signing at Book Passage in Corte Madera, Just for You accommodatingly whips up a crisp-crusted crab cake to go, just for him.
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