The Cost of Cool

If you're really in-the-know, you order the mysterious Item No. 24 at Little Paris

I'll never forget the first time I walked into an In-N-Out Burger. There I was, all bright-eyed and expectant -- giddy with the buzz that had preceded In-N-Out's arrival in these parts -- and staring at what had to be the world's shortest menu, wondering what all the hype was about. Then the guy in front of me steps up and orders a "Two-by-Four" and a burger "animal style." Mystified, I felt about as uncool as I did in high school when I was one of a few dozen losers who didn't get the memo and showed up on Senior Sneak Day.

Since that unfortunate burger embarrassment, I've been on a mission to uncover special, secret, not-on-the-menu items and insider code words at restaurants -- not only because I hate not being in-the-know, but also because ... well, nope, really that's it.

I've learned, for instance, that the Avenistas order a Giorgio's pizza and eat it with a perfectly poured pint of Guinness across the street at the Plough & Stars. And that a Half and Half at Duarte's Tavern in Pescadero means a bowl that is half cream of artichoke and half green-chili soup. And that if you sit at the sushi bar, you can get a Rainbow Roll or a 49er at Ebisu even if it's not on the blackboard. And that only a rube orders a teamonade instead of an Arnold Palmer.

But, sadly, it was only through my brother-in-law, Ted, a customer infinitely cooler than I will ever be, that I discovered the mysterious Item No. 24 at Little Paris (444 Clement, 221-6028). The no-frills Vietnamese coffee shop (it bills itself as French-Vietnamese, but the banh mi-style sandwiches on French rolls are really the only homage to colonial Vietnam) serves a neighborhood crew of elderly Asian ladies, Richmond District lifers, and informed folks who come for the soups and, of course, No. 24 (there are 23 items on the official tabletop menu).

Armed with my newfound knowledge, I sat down confidently at a corner table, looked the owner/waiter straight in the eye, and asked for No. 24 without so much as a glance at the menu. It arrived a few minutes later -- a satisfying if nondescript bowl of barbecued pork topped with scallions and chopped peanuts, accompanied by crispy-fried imperial rolls filled with shredded carrots, mushrooms, and glass noodles. The meat and rolls sat atop a bed of rice vermicelli, lettuce, and bean sprouts, and the dish was served with a side of sweet-tangy rice-wine vinaigrette. Reasonably tasty, completely unremarkable, and definitely one of the best meals I've had in recent memory.

My unqualified endorsement brings up an unfortunate side effect of secret menu-item obsession: Drunk on the superior glow of insider knowledge, I could have been served cat food and I would have said it tasted like foie gras. Standards schmandards.

Another consequence is that it's almost impossible to go someplace where you've discovered a hidden treasure and not order that item every time. The upside is that heads turn, necks crane, and everyone in the restaurant immediately wants to have what you're having. (As I sat there smugly chowing down, I overheard a woman telling the owner that she had recently returned to San Francisco and had made a beeline for Little Paris. Waffling over the menu, she whipped around at hearing my order and demanded the same, without even bothering to ask what was in it.)

Such is the cost of cool. And truth be told, I'd rather eat cat food than ever again find myself staring at the short end of a Two-by-Four.

 
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