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San Francisco on $36.82 a Day 

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

Wednesday, Apr 6 2005
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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.

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.)

Again I didn't finish my sandwich. (I gave the wrapped-up remainder to a rather well-dressed elderly lady panhandler huddling in a doorway just across the street.) The boys and I then swam downstream to City Lights, where they perused all three floors and bought Beat poetry volumes and books on bushido.

And then I was stumped. Where to now? I tentatively asked what else was on their list. And was instantly relieved when John said, just as tentatively, "Do you know any of the places where Vertigo was shot?"

Did I know? Hell, I'd been making Vertigo pilgrimages since I was their age, or just a year older, when I ate dinner at Ernie's before attending my senior ball. We piled back into the car and in the next several hours made stops at the late-lamented, now-scaffolded Ernie's, undergoing the slow process of condominium-ization, scandalizing the boys; the Nob Hill apartment building where Kim Novak as Madeleine Elster lived; the Lombard Street building where Jimmy Stewart as Scotty Ferguson lived; Fort Point, where Kim jumped (into a studio tank) and Jimmy followed (and where we paused for hot chocolate in the Warming Hut, total $15.73, with tip); and the Legion of Honor, where we were gratified to learn that general admission was free that day, and Daniel treated me to a $2 ticket to see the "Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet!" show.

While we drove to Mission Dolores to admire the putative grave of Carlotta Valdez through the iron gates, John demonstrated an unexpected talent for singing Rodgers & Hart songs in the style of the Mills Brothers, including "Bewitched," rarely heard introduction and all, which prompted a drive-by of the Spreckels Mansion, not only because the boys had seen Alma Spreckels' gift of The Thinker at the Legion of Honor ("She had an affair with Rodin," I helpfully volunteered, still on the education tip), but also because it was the place where Rita Hayworth lived in the San Francisco-set Pal Joey.

But that excursion was after dinner, which was coming full circle, sort of: Penang Garden is right down the street from Coppola's beautiful flatiron building, around the corner on Washington. Its not-particularly-alluring facade opens up to a deep room, rather riotously decorated with tropical murals, both photographic and painted, of dreamy palm tree-shaded beaches. Our table was next to a fake tree (built around a supporting column) into which real tree branches had been inserted, Robert pointed out, and further dressed up with fake birds. (We stopped deconstructing so as not to discover whether the birds were covered with real feathers.)

Penang Garden is the closest local equivalent to a food court in Singapore. It offers dishes from Thailand, China, Indonesia, and Malaysia as well on its many-paged menu, illustrated with Day-Glo photos. It seemed that Kemp boasted both Singaporean and Malaysian blood and had enjoyed many Asian travels, and with his aid and our own appetites we achieved a candy-colored (and -flavored: My one quibble was the consistent sweetness of the dishes) feast. We started with roti canal, the most basic version of the popular street food, a huge, light, thin pancake from which you tear pieces and dip them into a thick, faintly curried sauce; and superlative beef satay, five sticks laden with plump, juicy, grilled chunks of beef ("It's usually dried out," Kemp observed), with a bowl of delicious peanut sauce. We ordered two noodle dishes: Kemp's favorite, chow kueh teow, thin stir-fried elastic noodles with bean sprouts, scrambled egg, small shrimp, soy sauce, and chili pepper; and the half-Japanese bushido boy Robert's choice, hokkien mee, braised, thick, resilient yellow noodles with shrimp, fish cakes, and soy.

The table was soon covered with plates and bowls of the uniformly tasty, easy-to-eat food: John's selection, mango chicken, sautéed sliced bird and julienned mango and red pepper in mango cups, a little sweet and sticky for my taste; king pork buff, another sugary but irresistible dish of deep-fried on-the-bone pork chunks red with marinade; and hot and spicy jumbo prawns, which could have been hotter and spicier but could not have been any jumbo-er, washed down with tall glasses of watermelon juice, a lychee drink, and Thai iced tea.

We thought about fried ice cream or A.B.C. (a shaved ice confection), but ended up with fried bananas covered with strawberry and vanilla ice cream, fluffy whipped cream, and a cherry; sticky rice with sliced fresh mango; and a divine, huge crepe stuffed with chopped peanuts and cut into tiny rectangles that Kemp said was as good as the version he'd eaten with his grandmother on the streets of Kuala Lumpur. The meal came to $127.36 (I tipped 20 percent, after tax). For a grand total of $184.09, we had stuffed ourselves silly all day long -- just $36.82 each. And my four courtly and charming companions had erased any jealousy of the solo-flying Miss Ray. I was sad to see them go.

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Meredith Brody

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