By Pete Kane
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By Lou Bustamante
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Something recently came into my mailbox that seemed eerily apt, seeing as I was thinking about Chinese and Thai food: a press release whose headline read "2005 Poised to Be Year of the Asian Cuisine, According to New Report." The fortuitous timing led me to read further, despite the apparent syntax error in its brief headline (surely it should be "Asian Cuisine," not "the Asian Cuisine"?). Maybe it was a subtle play on words, a witty allusion to Chinese astrology, meant to echo the rhythm of, say, the Year of the Rat. Still, if the report identified just one Asian cuisine making its mark in 2005, that would be interesting, too.
San Francisco, CA 94109
Region: Hayes Valley/ Tenderloin
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San Francisco, CA 94114
Region: Castro/ Noe Valley
Papaya salad $6.50
Bamboo shoot salad $6.25
Pork leg stew $8.25
Sautéed squid $9.95
Sautéed eggplant $7.95
Coconut-palm juice $2
Open Sunday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m., Friday and Saturday until 2 a.m.
Parking: difficult during the day, easy at night
Muni: 19, 38
Noise level: moderate
Hedging its bets by pointing out, "Spanish and Latin ingredients are still hot, while Caribbean has slowed somewhat," this market-research pitch fearlessly predicted, "Asian cuisines ... take center stage, with the flavors and spices of India becoming more prominent." Pausing briefly to list fruit as an ingredient trend ("pomegranate; tamarind; Asian fruits yuzu, kaffir lime, and lychee; and berries with health benefits including guarana, acai, and goji berry") and mentioning in passing the ever-popular umami, the Asian "fifth taste" (joining sweet, salty, bitter, and sour) that covers savory, the release stopped me dead in my tracks -- just as I was trying to remember if I'd ever run across guarana, acai, and goji berry on any menus -- by revealing that to access more of these fascinating prognostications would cost me $1,195. My interest in the report, however new it might be, ended abruptly.
I went back to thinking in my own, nonprognosticating way about Chinese and Thai food, or rather two artful recent meals, one not so Chinese, though it offered the option of sitting in entirely Chinese surroundings, and the other quintessentially Thai, consumed in a modern urban room with no obvious Asian cues other than the aromatic stir-fries covering every table. Joyce and I had traveled to the de Young Art Center, on the corner of Irving and 26th Avenue, to sample one of the artists' installations that comprised "Fog Food," four weeklong takes on restaurants in which food (takeout from the many ethnic restaurants and delis that line Irving) could be consumed, along with other things. In the first week, for example, diners got two menus, one of food and one of videos (with which to choose what they would watch on a ceiling-hung TV); in the second week, participants played games of chance and skill, and the winners got free food.
Joyce and I were instantly charmed by the special seating constructed just for the third week, booths made to look like the iconic Chinese takeout box, with red pagodas on the sides and "Thank You" in that old-fashioned mock-Asian font on the folded-down tops. (I immediately thought of the set for the discarded second-act opener of Moss Hart's Once in a Lifetime, a restaurant called the Pigeon's Egg in which patrons sat in booths made to look like cracked eggs.) Alas, there were only two of the chic booths, and both were occupied, forcing us to sit on stools at a metal table, where artist Mads Lynnerup was taking orders (from a menu written in Danish, with some obvious dishes -- vegetar kombination nuddelsuppe, flamberet banan med honing -- and some less so -- gulerøds kage, kokos kyllingesuppe). Lynnerup then phoned diners' choices in to the appropriate local restaurant (no Chinese available; it was replaced by the now more ubiquitous Thai), sent his assistant on a bike to pick them up, dished out the food when it arrived, and wrote up as many checks as he could. He was a full-service artist.
It was immediately clear that our usual restaurant expectations were not going to be met by this charming, fly-by-night operation. Since it was art, and we knew we were participating in a performance piece, we relaxed and let ourselves be charmed by the restaurant theater: watching new arrivals size up the situation, leave to pick up their own takeout, and return to perch on folding chairs and hang out; savoring the inevitable mishaps and delays ("No, you were supposed to pick up two kebab plates"); mentally totaling up our own check and leaving more than enough to cover it, just as I had that time when I had to catch a bus in Yugoslavia and the bill hadn't arrived despite three requests.
We intended to stroll around the neighborhood and check out the establishments that had actually cooked the kebab plate, ham sandwich, and vegetables on rice we'd eaten, but time had run out. So instead I wandered from an ephemeral, not-really-a-restaurant that you can no longer go to (even if you had the time) to another place, a real restaurant that everybody should go to, and where my only regret was the speed with which our dishes arrived (and were consumed, although that's obviously a good thing; but I like to linger over a delicious, interesting, and exciting meal). I should have known from the place's very name, Thai House Express, that rapidity was part of the deal, but I hadn't thought it through as Peter, Anita, and I trudged up Larkin to the restaurant. We passed a brightly lit gallery full of brightly colored art; an opening of sorts seemed to be in progress, but we were right on time to meet Robert.
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