Dr. Strangebook

Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Chowhound's Guide

God knows, putting together a restaurant guidebook is something of a thankless task: Because of the vagaries of life -- openings, closings, chefs leaving -- the day a guidebook comes out, it's already inaccurate, not to mention obsolete. In the age of the Internet, a book may seem a trifle quaint -- especially one that intends to distill the musings of a famously anarchic, famously difficult-to-navigate, famously addictive Web site, which spills over with floods of opinionated, obsessed words posted daily, in an ebb-and-flow of visits to new restaurants and old favorites. I speak, of course, of www.chowhound.com, started by New York musician and world-class eater Jim Leff, whose now more or less dormant "What Jim Had for Dinner" may have been the first food blog. If you love to eat (or, as the site is headed, For Those Who Live to Eat!), and reside in one of the geographic areas covered by chowhound.com's message boards, you'd be a fool not to check in to learn about what's going on in your local world of eating.

So I opened The Chowhound's Guide to the San Francisco Bay Area (Penguin, $18) with a great deal of excitement. In its very first line -- "You'll notice that many popular and excellent places like Chez Panisse, La Folie, Merenda, and El Farolito aren't mentioned in these pages ..." -- the obsolete factor kicked in, as Merenda, alas, is no longer with us. I read on, eager to let the book "make you so cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs-ravenous that you jump out the door in a delirious frenzy."

But as I leafed through its pages, the Guide left me more confused than ravenous. Its alphabetical arrangement of miniessays seemed capricious -- sometimes the heading was the name of an eatery, sometimes an ingredient, or a type of store, or a dish, or even an area to eat.

Bechelli's U-shaped counter and memorabilia-covered 
walls kick off a Chowhound's-inspired crawl.
Gabriela Hasbun
Bechelli's U-shaped counter and memorabilia-covered walls kick off a Chowhound's-inspired crawl.

I don't know what I expected from Chowhound's, exactly, but I didn't find this user-friendly at first read. I slogged on, regardless, doing a lot of cross-referencing. I was surprised to see only one place, Arlequin, listed under "Quick Bites Near Civic Center," on Page 75; I flipped to the back, where almost 100 pages of indexes attempt to instill a different kind of order on these quirky listings, and found my favorite, Gyro King, which is in the book under "Turkish Delights," on Page 296. And I did a lot of quibbling: "Pizza Tips" that don't mention A16, Pizzetta 211, or Tommaso's? Were there really only two croissants worthy of a "scientific croissant duel"? Fried chicken with no Southern Cafe, Casa Orinda, Pork Store Cafe, or even Popeyes Chicken -- when Albertsons made it in? A fan of offal, I wondered why all the "Krazy for Kidneys" places were Asian, why the "Enchanting Incanto" graph didn't mention the chef's predilection for innards, why there were no foie gras, liver, or sweetbreads listings. Many of the recommendations seemed sketchy, needing more research -- the "Offal in Oakland" entry, after crediting one place on International Boulevard that offers organ meats, goes on to mention "plenty of other spots to check out in this nabe, including a rotisserie ... between 37th and 38th, a gumbo house, and a birriera." Are they any good? Do they have names and addresses? There are "plenty of other spots to check out in this nabe" all over the Bay Area; we pick up a guidebook to be, uh, guided.

So my pal Jane and I went on a Guide-inspired crawl. We started on Chestnut, for two breakfasts at eateries scarcely a block away from each other. Bechelli's (2346 Chestnut, 346-1801), tucked into the embrace of the recently reopened Presidio Theatre, instantly pleased me with its slightly shabby green-upholstered booths, U-shaped counter, and plentiful sports-themed photos and banners. We were seduced by Eggs Blackstone, poached eggs atop fresh asparagus, with thick-cut pepper bacon (of which Bechelli's is justly proud) and English muffins, the whole blanketed with hollandaise (we should have asked for a bit more sauce, but we split the eggs and were nearly finished before we wanted more). The orange juice was strained and tasted just like the juice I squeeze from Valencias at home; the coffee was fine. Breakfast out! What a treat! And how ironic to be doing it twice in a row, I said to Jane, as we settled into a window table at the cozy two-story Judy's Cafe (2269 Chestnut, 922-4588), whose yellow walls are covered with signed photos of entertainment and sports stars. We shared a crabmeat omelet, the omelet more like a perfectly round frittata, laid atop an amazing amount of fresh-picked Dungeness crabmeat, mixed with sautéed spinach and chopped red onions, in a thin, very lemony hollandaise. The eggs were overcooked, to my taste -- if I'd known they were going to top the filling rather than enfold it, I might have asked for poached or over easy -- but the amount and quality of the crab were astonishing. The orange juice here was full of pulp and tasted more like navel than Valencia, but it was equally fresh. We loved the house-baked pumpkin loaf and liked the blueberry muffin (you can choose one to accompany your breakfast).

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