Never a Feckless Eater

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

My first question, to the man who describes himself in the introduction to Apple's America as "never a feckless eater," was when he knew of his all-consuming interest in food, and why he was so consumed. He described an Ohio childhood in which he preferred the resourceful cooking of his German grandmother (whose last name was Apfel) -- a master of domestic economy for whom one chicken could provide several tasty meals (roasted, then blanketed with sauce, with a separate dish of gizzards) -- to the less imaginative cuisine of the wealthier side of the family. I wondered why, unlike his friend "Bud" Trillin, who idealizes his Kansas City birthplace so much that he still insists that the three best restaurants in the world are there, he hadn't devoted a chapter to Akron, his hometown: "I gave it three paragraphs in the Cleveland section, and that was stretching things," he replied grimly. (How had I missed them? On returning to Apple's America, I found it to be more like three words.) "What did it most pain you to leave out?" I asked; "It's not that kind of book," he replied. But when I inquired about Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill, the North Carolina towns I love, it seemed that their group essay had just missed the cut. "That kind of book," it turns out -- the collection of food essays I longed for -- is coming out next year, to be called Apple a la Mode.

I had been hoping to give him a tip for some future trip of his own, but everything I offered -- my favorite lasagna della nonna at Angelini Osteria in Los Angeles, the miraculous pork pump at the Lake Spring Shanghainese restaurant, also in L.A. -- he knew well. I mentioned the Wreck, a seafood shack in Charleston: "Nobody," he sighed nostalgically, "has ever asked me about the Wreck before." It was like the scene in Rosemary's Baby in which a character says, "Name a place. I've been there." "Nome, Alaska." "I've been there." Tom and I had more success when we told Apple about three of our favorite Chinese restaurants in the East Bay -- DAIMO, China Village, and Saigon Seafood. Tom had even brought along a tear sheet of a recent review of Saigon for Apple. I could see a future Times piece brewing.

Our talk turned to a couple of articles in the most recent Dining section: Apple's elegy to Uglesich's, a legendary New Orleans place on the verge of closing, and another about the Ferry Building, titled "Tourists at Market to Look Crowd Those Who Cook," which struck me as singularly wrongheaded, not to say elitist and mean-spirited. "I've never gone to another city," I said, "from Guangzhou to New York, where I didn't seek out the local open markets. Sometimes I buy a peach, some cheese, a bunch of radishes; sometimes I just look. It doesn't seem to get in the way of either commerce or pleasure."

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


The Slanted Door

1 Ferry Building, #3
San Francisco, CA 94111

Category: Restaurant > Vietnamese

Region: Embarcadero


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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On the way out, I stopped at Out the Door, which has a limited menu (four varieties of spring rolls, three salads, four noodle soups, four rice plates, four noodle dishes, three sandwiches, two steamed buns, and a few sweets, including made-to-order beignets, here called sugar doughnuts). Most of its dishes were familiar from the Door's lunch offerings, though here they were a couple of bucks cheaper. There were also a few specials, that day including the Door's famous shaking beef, and an array of coffees (made with Blue Bottle beans) and iced drinks with boba tapioca pearls. The line moved briskly: I got a fragrant dish of five-spice chicken over rice and a very French Vietnamese flan nicely packaged to go. (On another day, I took back to my father, who has recently become addicted to banh mi, one of Out the Door's Saigon roast pork sandwiches. When he said that it cost about 2 1/2 times as much as the ones he's been picking up all over the East Bay, I pointed out that it contained 2 1/2 times as much meat, too, including a succulent slice of chunky pork pâté.) Out the Door is a terrific alternative for those pesky tourists who don't know that you have to call the Slanted Door a couple of weeks ahead, at least, to get a seat.

That night at the Herbst Theatre I listened to Apple, wearing a purple variation of the checked shirt, and his friend Trillin, who've known each other since they worked on their college papers (Princeton and Yale, respectively), do a Johnny-and-Bud roadshow. Trillin is the renowned humorist, but Apple got the biggest laughs: once when he leaned forward and said, "Cantonese?" after Trillin described the most disgusting thing he'd ever been asked to eat (timing!), and again when he said, after being asked to construct a perfect last meal ("Crabmeat au gratin from Uglesich's; caviar -- beluga or osetra; turbot, my favorite fish; St. Marcellin cheese; and some mangosteens, my favorite fruit, not allowed into the continental United States, for fear of fruit flies"), "And then the next morning I'd go right back to my German roots and have a big herring plate."

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