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Palace of Fine Price 

In this city, 12 bucks for a steak dinner seems too good to be true. It isn't.

Wednesday, Aug 6 2008
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I can't count how many times I've driven by the corner of Mission and Cesar Chavez and noted the restaurant on the northeast corner whose big sign with bold blocky black letters on a bright yellow background reads Palace Family Steak House. Behind bars on the windows, you can make out other signs advertising what's on offer: Club Steak, $13.69; Special New York Cut, $11.69; T-Bone Steak, $14.40. In a town where most steakhouses ask well over $20 for an à la carte hunk of meat, with the meal costs nudging uncomfortably close to $50, Palace's prices seem amazing enough on their own — even more so when you examine the placards more closely and see that the modest tariff is not just for the steak, but also includes salad, a baked potato, and garlic bread.

Even though the somewhat grubby and forbidding exterior implies that the inside is something less than a palace, the low prices are tempting - although they seem too good to be true. In cheerful red and white, another sign reads "Support Your Local Steak House," so one night I scooped up two pals who'd professed a similar fascination with the place over the years. They descended from Bernal Heights with their British houseguest in tow.

The interior reads more coffeeshop than steakhouse: There are rows of worn red and burgundy leatherette booths with white Formica tabletops, and free-standing woodgrain tables with bright-red wooden chairs as well as a yellow tufted banquette tucked along one wall. The mismatched color scheme — if you can call it a scheme — continues with walls painted green and brown with blue trim, plus large framed segments of gold-and-green grassy-patterned wallpaper. Flags of many nations hang from the ceiling; in almost every window stand black-and-white wooden folk art cows, with more scattered around the room. There's a homey accretion of tchotchkes, photos, and signs that would require quite some time to examine. Which is understandable, considering they've taken almost 40 years to accumulate — the Palace has been open since 1969. One wonders, extrapolating backwards, just what the prices could have been on opening.

The Palace has received a fair amount of ink over the years, and examples of its press are tucked under the glass on some tabletops and framed on the back wall across from the counter where you order your food. That's one way the prices are kept low: It's just a two-man operation, or, rather, one man and one woman, married to the Palace for 39 years and to each other for a bit longer.

The menu is a series of signs above the counter, with items ranging in price from a garden burger at $4.99 to the top cost of $14.40 for a T-bone with the trimmings. Marina, the beautiful and charming dark-haired hostess, takes your order, asks which of the homemade dressings you'd like — blue cheese, Thousand Island, oil and vinegar, Italian, or ranch — on the iceberg lettuce salad, puts it on your tray along with your drinks, and tells Moe, the gray-ponytailed-and-bearded chef, what steaks to slap on the grill. Before toting your tray to your table, you can choose to improve the lettuce with croutons, chopped onions, pickled jalapeños, and shredded carrots. Drink options include an array of soft drinks, milk, several domestic and imported beers, and a couple of wines (the red available at both room temperature and chilled, which is an option I appreciate on a hot day).

On my first foray, we ordered a club steak (identified as a ribeye, $13.69), a New York ($11.69), a T-bone ($14.40), and just to be a little nutty, a fried fish sandwich ($8.25). The iceberg lettuce salads were, well, iceberg lettuce salads, fresh and crisp, and the dressings were perfectly fine. A similar salad in a fancy-schmancy steakhouse — and of course you're paying not just for the salad, but for the fancy-schmancy — is usually between $6 and $10 alone, and although the tony places leave the lettuce in a wedge and use better blue cheese, it's still the same lettuce.

The big difference, of course, comes with the steaks. The ribeye and the New York look like no ribeye or New York I've seen before: they're both squarish and quite thin. They taste beefy, and there's some flavor picked up from the grill, but they're definitely not the long-aged marbled prime meat that you can find only at a steakhouse or a superior butcher. One of the pieces of literature tucked under glass at our table, in fact, is from Palace's supplier, Cargill, touting its Valley Tradition beef: "affordable, high quality, sourced regionally." The T-bone, much the biggest, looks like a T-bone, and is rare as ordered, and tender, but not very flavorful. The plump baked potatoes are invitingly squeezed open and prebuttered, again perfectly fine (sour cream in little paper condiment cups is an extra 35 cents). The long chewy garlic roll is hot and tasty.

The surprise hit is the fried fish sandwich, complete with potatoes and salad, and a cup of tartar sauce on the side. Too good to be true? The low prices are totally true, and the food is good enough, depending on your definition of what "good" is, to paraphrase a president.

I don't feel I've treated my guests to one of their key gastronomic experiences of a lifetime, but the visiting Brit is happier with his steak and spuds than with the more exotic Ethiopian meal we'd shared the night before. We have a nice time, and the total for our four meals, including several beers, is less than the tab for a single meal at two steakhouses I visited recently, at which I had fabulous steak but disappointing — and quite expensive! — starters and desserts. And Marina couldn't be nicer or more welcoming.

As she is when I return for lunch: fried chicken ($10) for me, and a ribeye steak sandwich ($8.75) for my friend. The thin cut of meat works better between the sliced garlic roll than it does on its own, and the fried chicken - a breast, leg, wing, and thigh, small pieces from a young bird - is another surprise hit: no heavy batter, just crisp golden skin over moist flesh. They have a nice touch with the deep fryer.

I'm happy I finally made it to the Palace, because it seems Marina and Moe have been talking about retiring for the last three years. They want to spend more time with the grandkids whose pictures are proudly displayed on the counter near a sign that reads "Too Young to Retire, Too Old to Get a Paper Route." So you should drop in now to get a taste of what they dish up.

A framed coupon gives a hint of what the Palace used to charge: For a Halloween promotion in 1969, you could get two New York steak dinners for $2.69. And that isn't "each"!

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Meredith Brody

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