San Francisco on $36.82 a Day

Feeding four hungry Spring Break-ers on Pittsburgh-style sandwiches and Singaporean street food

On the whole, I don't have an envious bone in my body. I'm not bragging: It's just an accident of psychological makeup. But I do experience the unfamiliar sensation from time to time. The current object of my (dis)affection is one Rachael Ray, the terminally perky Food Network star. I don't envy her because of her near-omnipotence on the network, with three (count 'em, three) shows in constant rotation. It's not 30 Minute Meals that occasions my interest, or even the eponymous Inside Dish With Rachael Ray, wherein she chats up a variety of food-obsessed celebrities (or those who consent to appear food-obsessed for the duration of the program; my heart sank when Morgan Freeman, who co-owns a couple of restaurants in Clarksdale, Miss., said he "eats to live" rather than the reverse).

No, it's her budget travel show, $40 a Day, that does it -- not for the unending stream of inexpensive French toast, microbrews, and appetizers-as-main-courses that sluices down her gullet (or at least the first bites of them, invariably appraised as "superb," "moist," "spicy," "yummy," whatever they need to be), but for the travel itself. And not even for the jaunts to Rome, Florence, Paris, and Brussels (or "Brussles," as it shows up on the Web site's episode guide) -- been there, done that. It's the small-town Americana, however touristy, that really ignites my envy: Cooperstown. Asheville. Cleveland. Chattanooga.

The $40 a Day formula popped into my mind after my 16-year-old godson, Daniel, e-mailed to tell me that he and his classmates John, Robert, and Kemp were going to spend three of their Spring Break days in San Francisco. Further deconstruction of the message revealed that Days 1 and 3 were to be spent riding the rails (no, not picturesquely hoboing, but on Amtrak, between L.A. and S.F.); the boys wouldn't spend much more than the 24 hours classically allotted to R. Ray in this town. Daniel mentioned Alcatraz, Chinatown, and City Lights in his missive; I figured Alcatraz would take up their morning, and I would feed the boys lunch and dinner.

Tropical Riot: Penang Garden is the closest 
local equivalent to a food court in 
Singapore.
Anthony Pidgeon
Tropical Riot: Penang Garden is the closest local equivalent to a food court in Singapore.

Location Info

Map

Giordano Brothers

303 Columbus
San Francisco, CA 94133

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Embarcadero

Details

Giordano Bros.

Hot coppa sandwich $6.75

Sausage sandwich $6.75

Penang Garden

Roti canal $5.90

Chow kueh teow $7.95

Jumbo prawns $16.95

Watermelon drink $5

Peanut crepe $5.95

Giordano Bros., 303 Columbus (at Broadway), 397-BROS. Open Sunday through Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday until 11 p.m., and Friday and Saturday until 12:30 a.m. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 12, 15, 41. Noise level: moderate.

Penang Garden, 728 Washington (at Kearny), 296-7878. Open Sunday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10:30. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 1, 15. Noise level: moderate.

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Unwisely, as it turned out, I offered to pick them up at Amtrak and ferry them to their hostel. Unwisely for me, not for them, as the reliably tardy train outdid itself, beginning with a two-hour delay due to a bomb scare at Union Station and steaming into Jack London Square about five hours behind, at 2:30 a.m., in a pelting rain.

And it was still pelting on the morrow. Slogging around the Rock in the rain had lost some of its charm for the boys; they called me from Chinatown, and I arranged to meet them just down from Grant Avenue at Café Niebaum-Coppola on Kearny, knowing that film-buff Daniel would love to see Francis Ford's stomping grounds. I'd never seen Ray's San Francisco $40 episode, so I checked it out ahead of time just for the hell of it: She'd dined on a couple of dim sum at Oriental Pearl (where I'd coincidentally snacked with my goddaughter Nora after our own Alcatraz jaunt last year); both calamari salad and Crab Louie at Swan Oyster Depot (imagine trying to snag five contiguous seats at that tiny counter, much less stand in line in the rain, much less pay for the seafood that four healthy 16-year-old males could consume); and a mint chocolate mousse cake at Citizen Cake; finishing, less than spectacularly, I thought, with a measly coquille St. Jacques at the Metro Café on Divisadero, a place I wasn't familiar with, washed down, I imagined, with her invariable glass of water "with a big piece of lemon!" (If I read the date correctly, the San Francisco episode was shot in the first season of the show, after which viewers complained that tax and tip weren't figured into the totals. They are now, though the tip is rigorously figured at 15 percent, before tax.)

I knew where I wanted to take the boys, anyway (at least for lunch and dinner; I was at something of a loss for the tourism part of the equation). I'd wanted to return to Giordano Bros. for another of its Pittsburgh-style sandwiches -- towering creations that include both coleslaw and freshly made french fries along with meats and provolone on specially baked Italian bread -- ever since I'd lunched there with Hiya and Joyce a couple of months ago. The sandwiches cost less than $7 each, and I'd managed to finish only half of my double-egg-and-cheese that day. I pointed out such historic sites as the Condor, birthplace of topless dancing, as we trudged up the street, bemoaning the loss of the Carol Doda-inspired sign with red light bulbs for nipples. (Educational!) The boys gratifyingly wanted to try almost everything on the short menu, without prompting on my part: We ordered two cheesesteaks, a smoked turkey, a sweet Italian sausage, and another double-egg-and-cheese for me, which I tried to transform into the apotheosis of the Egg McMuffin by ordering the addition of hot coppa.

Or so I thought. In the event, we received six sandwiches: The crunchy grilled hot coppa turned up on a plate, by itself (and turned out to be my favorite). It disappeared, somehow, after the boys handily demolished their towering sandwiches (the thick-sliced, soft, pillowy bread compresses enough so that they're less daunting than they appear), heartily approving of the vinegary coleslaw, the meats, and especially the inclusion of the house-made, slightly limp, slightly oily, skin-on fries. Even with several soft drinks and the gift of a black coffee (it's not on the menu, but the owner offered me a cup from his private stash), the bill came to $40.15. (I magnanimously dropped 85 cents in the tip cup.)

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