Never a Feckless Eater

Talking to R.W. Apple Jr. about Apple's America over lunch

When asked if I wanted to meet R.W. "Johnny" Apple Jr., the occasion being the publication of Apple's America: The Discriminating Traveler's Guide to 40 Great Cities in the United States and Canada (North Point Press, $22.50), I jumped at the chance. Apple is the fabled New York Times man who has covered the waterfront for more than 40 years, evolving from a foreign correspondent (he's written from 109 countries) to his current enviable post as an associate editor with such beats as travel and food. His food articles combine erudition and enthusiasm with a great deal of charm, and they always make me want to dash off and sample country ham in Virginia, choucroute in Alsace, white asparagus in Germany, seafood along the Dalmatian coast, Latino restaurants in Hoboken (yes), and hot dogs in Chicago, to name only a handful of highlights from my yellowing stash of old Times Dining In/Dining Out and Travel sections.

Here, I hoped, was my chance to jettison some of these stacks of newsprint and enjoy the convenience of having these useful, not to mention mouthwatering, articles collected in one volume. I'd have to keep the Alsatian, German, and formerly Yugoslavian pieces, because, after all, the book has America right there in the title, but I could taste again through Apple's excellent prose the real Key limes of South Florida, wild morels of Oregon, and crabs of Baltimore.

A copy of Apple's America soon arrived, and I was, truth be told, a little disappointed. It wasn't the collection of food pieces I had anticipated, but an assemblage of monthly articles about U.S. cities that appeared in the Times between 1997 and 2000 covering all aspects of local interest, including glosses on local history, museums, music venues, and architecture. At the end of each 10-page section were brief paragraphs on four or so places to stay and up to nine restaurants. The hotels seemed to be of the posh, multistar, triple-digit rack rate kind that I've never stayed in, but the restaurants included a range of possibilities, giving as much space to an inexpensive French dip sandwich at Philippe in Los Angeles as to Charlie Trotter's Fabergé egg of a foie gras, salmon, and Japanese mushroom dish in Chicago.

Out the Door's dishes are familiar from 
Slanted Door's lunch menu, but cheaper.
Anthony Pidgeon
Out the Door's dishes are familiar from Slanted Door's lunch menu, but cheaper.

Location Info

Map

The Slanted Door

1 Ferry Building, #3
San Francisco, CA 94111

Category: Restaurant > Vietnamese

Region: Embarcadero

Details

Slanted Door (lunch)
Manila clams and pork belly $10.50
Grilled lemongrass pork $9.50
Cellophane noodles with crab $14

Out the Door
Five-spice chicken $7.50
Roast pork sandwich $6.50
Vietnamese flan $5

The Slanted Door, 1 Ferry Building, No. 3, Market & Embarcadero, 861-8032. Open daily for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and for dinner Sunday through Thursday from 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10:30. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: valet, $12; half price with validation at adjacent lot. Muni: 2, 7, 14, 21, 66, 71, F, J, K, L, M, N. Noise level: high.

Out the Door, at the Slanted Door. Open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday and Sunday until 5. No reservations.

1 Ferry Building, No. 3, Market & Embarcadero

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But then I started reading, and reconsidered. My rule has always been that I champion any guidebook that leads you to one enjoyable place that you wouldn't otherwise have known about -- and right away, in the San Francisco chapter, I was introduced to a Richard Neutra house I wasn't aware of (complete with address and nifty adjective: "glacier-white"), in a paragraph that also made mention of local buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright and Bernard Maybeck. I skipped around in the book, starting with the cities I knew best, finding that Apple knew everything I loved about them and then some. This portable volume packed an amazing amount of information into its 430 pages.

I'd been offered a choice of Tadich Grill or the Slanted Door for our lunch, both featured in Apple's S.F. chapter, along with the Fifth Floor, Gary Danko, Masa's, Yank Sing, and Zuni Cafe, as well as Chez Panisse and Oliveto across the bay. (I decided not to tell him that Laurent Gras was no longer cooking at Fifth Floor, nor Ron Siegel at Masa's: Every guidebook starts becoming obsolete the day it's published anyway.) I chose the Slanted Door for several reasons. For one, Apple spent two or three years in Vietnam in the late '60s (and has been back many times); I also hoped we'd have time for a stroll through the amazing food court that the Ferry Building has become, including a stop at Out the Door, the new takeout spot at the Slanted Door. It was easy to recognize Apple, not just from the tiny author photo on the book's jacket flap (in which he was wearing a darker variation of the mustard-yellow-checked shirt he had on this day), but also from Calvin Trillin's description of him in a famous New Yorker profile titled "Newshound," published a couple of years ago: "He has a round face and a pug nose that give him a rather youthful appearance ... [like] 'a very big four-year-old.' His form reflects the eating habits of someone who has been called Three Lunches Apple ...."

Trillin says this is a nickname Apple likes, so I asked him where else he was lunching today, but our meal was the only midday one scheduled. Apple's wife, Betsey, always present on his trips and frequently mentioned in his articles (her job, she has explained dryly, is "Driving Mr. Daisy"), wasn't able to join us, so I'd invited my friend Tom, another Apple fan; two people at table in an Asian restaurant seemed insufficient. After expressing some perturbation that there were no Asian beers available on a list of a dozen, about half of them Belgian, Apple opted for a Samuel Smith organic ale. I let him choose most of our lunch. He decided against pho, he said, because of the condition in which it would leave his shirt (I remembered his wonderfully evocative article about the dish, "Looking Up an Old Love on the Streets of Vietnam"), and ordered the chicken clay pot, cellophane noodles with fresh Dungeness crabmeat, and spicy Japanese eggplant. When Apple asked our server if the lemongrass pork was a particular Vietnamese dish, she wasn't interested enough to cross the half-dozen paces to the open kitchen and inquire; we ordered it anyway. I requested the manila clams with (magic words) crispy pork belly. The tender, caramelly chicken was fragrant with ginger, and the flavor and texture of the soft, delicate little clams contrasted beautifully with the bits of crunchy, salty pork belly. And I can never get enough of the Door's signature dish of transparent noodles mixed with a few shreds of scallion and lots of sweet crabmeat. "It's the quality of the ingredients," Apple observed, as he tucked into everything with relish.

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