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Defense Begins at the Table 

Cheap eats worth repeating — and not

Wednesday, Mar 29 2006
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I can't say I wake up every morning with a song on my lips, but always — OK, often (I'm a realist) — I rise excited that I'll have several chances to eat something delicious that day. It could be a perfect peach or an elaborate and expensive concoction prepared by a genius chef, neither of which I'll ever taste again, but which might live on forever in my memory.

The proletarian (read: affordable) pleasures are the ones that tend to get repeated. I may dream of the sea urchin and avocado at Scott Howard, the lobster pot pie at Aqua, the tajarin pasta at Quince, but I've eaten each dish exactly once, in my professional guise. Not that I won't let go of a considerable sum when dining on my own dime (so to speak), but nothing makes me happier than to find great food at a good price. (I recently introduced a Canadian friend to the bliss of a Double Double at In-N-Out Burger; after enjoying it more than she'd expected to, she kept repeating the price disbelievingly, accenting different syllables: "Two seventy-five. Two seventy-five! Two seventy-five!")

Every Friday I have lunch with my father somewhere in the East Bay, usually someplace small, cheap, and ethnic. We both keep lists of possibilities, choosing on the day according to hunger or location or chance. After three years, the first place we repeated wasn't the Pakistani storefront on San Pablo, the Middle Eastern grill on Solano, or the barbecue joint in Lafayette — all of which we'd loved — but the Southern Cafe in Oakland (2000 MacArthur, 510-261-1404), where my father had surprised me by declaring, after failing to finish a plate of fried chicken wings sided by another plate covered with three vegetables, rice and gravy, buttery sauteed cabbage, and pinto beans, that this was his favorite restaurant of all we'd tried so far.

So when I heard of another likely fried chicken possibility, Nellie's Soulfood Restaurant & Bar (1155 Third St., Oakland, 510-625-1350), we headed over on a rainy afternoon. After I went for the fried chicken (with mashed potatoes, corn and okra, and yams), my father chose liver ("Underdone, please"), perhaps in subconscious homage to the luscious liver I'd had at the Southern Cafe, with black-eyed peas, french fries, and collard greens. We waited a very long time for our food, much longer than at the Southern Cafe, where we'd been warned that the fried chicken takes a while (maybe 20 minutes, as I recall). When our food eventually arrived, the chicken was good — very good, though not as good as the Southern Cafe's. Nellie's does get points for serving mashed potatoes, inexplicably not on offer at the cafe; I also liked the candied yams, the corn stewed with okra, and the black-eyed peas flavored with diced ham hocks. Unfortunately, the long thin strip of liver at Nellie's was fried to the consistency of an old shoe, completely inedible. I knew why my father didn't even consider sending it back: He didn't have another hour to spare. "This place is very fashionable," he'd said to me during the Long Wait. "Why?" I asked. "Slow Food."

We'd been perusing the useful new book The Slow Food Guide to San Francisco and the Bay Area: Restaurants, Markets, Bars with an eye to adding new places to our lists. (Full disclosure: I, along with my colleagues Robert Lauriston, Jonathan Kauffman, and some 80 other Bay Area foodies, contributed to the guide.) The Slow Food manifesto, written in 1989, includes such stirring phrases as "A firm defense of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life. ... Our defense should begin at the table ... and banish the degrading effects of Fast Food."

But there are so-called fast foods whose otherwise slow construction merits their inclusion in the guide: notably a chapter on hamburgers, hot dogs, and sausages, within which are my S.F. favorites Rosamunde Sausage Grill (the book fails to note that the "good burger" mentioned is available only on Tuesdays) and World Sausage Grill. To my horror, though the volume devotes space to both the 10 East Bay Casper's and the Original Kasper's — at an Oakland location closed for years (as noted) and with no sign of reopening (as optimistically foretold) — it contains no trace of the venerable (since 1966) Top Dog, my hot dog stand of choice. Or, rather, my hot dog stand of almost no choice: If I go to the Pacific Film Archive, I always, always find myself afterwards a couple of blocks away at the Top Dog on Durant. If I'm hungry enough for two dogs, the first might be almost anything on the menu (well, not the chicken, turkey, or vegan dogs); the second, invariably, is a snappy all-beef "New York style" namesake Top Dog. If I just want a light snack, it's the Top Dog alone — with mustard (sometimes the hot Russian, sometimes the spicy brown deli, sometimes the yellow ballpark), and lots of chopped onions.

Recently my hot dog hunger took me to two eateries in San Francisco, one rumored to be a Top Dog franchise in all but name, the Dog Out, somewhat oddly sharing space with Java Xpress and Tako Nako in an L-shaped food court bravely holding down the corner at Market and Seventh streets, the other a Fatt Dog outlet, a wedge-shaped stand in the courtyard of Rincon Center, which advertises that its namesake Fatt Dog was voted the No. 1 all-beef dog by the Chronicle's "Taster's Choice" panel.

My appetite was curbed somewhat by the mean streets I trudged to get to the Dog Out. The immediate area felt so scuzzy that I was surprised, when I entered, to find a line of clean-scrubbed youth patiently waiting to order from a list of sausages that seemed eerily reminiscent of the Top Dog lineup (German, bockwurst, kielbasa, bratwurst, Louisiana hot link, Italian Calabrese, etc.), but for $3.39 instead of $2.75 (the lowercased "top dog" is $2.99). There was only one harried girl behind the counter, instead of the couple of seasoned doggers who keep things moving on Durant, and I could tell she was undercooking the sausages because of the pressure of the hungry crowd. Certainly my "top dog" was nearly unmarked by the grill, its bun barely warmed. The stand itself was clean, but there was lots of trash underfoot, the floor was grimy, and the lighting was harsh; nothing encouraged me to linger. (Of course, the Berkeley Top Dog I frequent is no bigger than a minute, and I regularly consume the objects of my affection while walking away from it.)

I had higher hopes when I tried Fatt Dog: It was a sunny day, there were nice places to sit and linger in the courtyard of the Rincon Center, and there was no line harrying the guy behind the counter. The lineup again seemed familiar: bratwurst, German, hot link, kielbasa, and so on. I had to try the award-winning all-beef New York kosher style Fatt Dog. Its snappy casing would have been snappier, again, if it had received a few more minutes on the grill. Thinking, perhaps, of the tangy drinks I almost never ordered with my Gray's Papaya dogs in New York, at Fatt Dog I got a Mahalo Madness — pineapple-strawberry juice and vanilla blended with ice — which tasted sweet and synthetic. The trash bucket embedded in the relish counter, inches away from the mustard dispensers and the chopped onions, was overflowing. My appetite flagged. "Top Dog," I thought, "you're still the Coliseum, the Louvre Museum. You're the top."

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Meredith Brody

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