Some restaurants are the culinary equivalent of Merchant & Ivory films, ruled by sumptuous set pieces and a rigid adherence to tradition. Some are like art-house flicks, all stripped down and avant-garde. And some are cult classics, intensely beloved by a dedicated group of fans who worship them despite, or because of, their shortcomings.
Emmy's Spaghetti Shack is one of the latter group, a funky, well-loved hole-in-the-wall in the Outer Mission. The Shack, as it's known colloquially, has the feel of a neighborhood joint, even if it's so popular there's a wait spilling out onto the sidewalk most nights. Part of the pull is the irreverent, rock 'n' roll atmosphere, but mainly people flock to Emmy's for its excellent spaghetti and meatballs, one of the most simple, pleasurable, and comforting foods on earth.
This isn't “deconstructed” spaghetti and meatballs, nor a “take on” the red sauce classic that draws influences from a mishmash of international cuisines. It's just a very good rendition of the dish most of us have loved since childhood. A large swirl of firm spaghetti is topped with a bright, zippy marinara, and three sizable, well-seasoned meatballs. The serving is probably more than you can finish in a sitting (which works out nicely, because few things are better at lunch than reheated spaghetti), and though you can also order the meatballs in a sandwich or by themselves, at least 90 percent of the tables had at least one order of the spaghetti.
Emily Kaplan opened her eponymous shack around 2000, back in the days before Ichi Sushi, The Rock Bar, Iron & Gold, and others made this stretch of Mission south of Cesar Chavez trendy. Kaplan was a restaurant industry veteran who says she just wanted to make a place where she and her friends could hang out after work and eat the kind of comfort food they were craving after a long shift. Low prices and big portions were and still are important to her – after she lost her last head chef to the Roosevelt Tamale Shop, she opted to forgo a head chef in favor of promoting her sous chefs.
The décor and attitude of the room reflect Kaplan's personal style. “That's what my house looks like,” she says, and though the décor is eclectic, is does reflect an overall aesthetic, quirky and lived-in. Corrugated metal walls give way to chalkboards printed with colorful cocktail, beer, and wine lists, and the occasional drawing. The seasonally changing menus are hand-drawn too, by Kaplan herself (her son draws the children's menu). There are strings of Christmas lights with a row of vintage aprons hanging from them. The music is loud. The table at our cracked vinyl booth was topped with leopard print. There's a vintage bar that turns out very strong cocktails. The air smells reassuringly of garlic.
Outside of spaghetti with red sauce, which you can also order sans meatballs, the rest of the menu items are a mixed bag. Grilled flatiron steak was seared to a perfect medium-rare, but the too-dense mashed potatoes that came with it could have used more cream. Same with the mac and cheese, which disappointingly didn't have much cheese at all. But I enjoyed the smooth and creamy risotto with mushrooms, asparagus, and shaved pecorino.
Other Italian-American classics didn't rise to the same heights as the spaghetti either, like the Caesar salad – long romaine leaves with a surprisingly feeble dressing, considering the heavy hand the kitchen usually has with garlic. The garlic bread had too much of it and too little butter. The linguine was pleasant though, with tender clams and a lusty, red-pepper-laced white wine sauce.
The most untraditional item on the menu is the guava-tamarind rib appetizer, a dish as ambitious as it was incongruous. The sauce turned out to work, with a tangy, flowery quality from the tropical fruit, but the ribs were immature tasting – fully cooked, but needed a few more hours to get to the point where they were falling off the bone.
Service at Emmy's is sassy, full of attitude, and not particularly attentive. Everything, from drink orders to main courses, seemed to take forever, and there were long waits for water refills and the check. But the brassy service seemed like part of the package, and the drinks, when they arrived, were strong. I particularly enjoyed the crisp pear Moscow mule and the strawberry margarita. Beers run the gamut from local microbrews to 40s of Mickeys and Budweiser, and there's a decent wine list. And if the wait is long – it can stretch to more than 90 minutes on weekend nights – you can hole up in the connected bar next door, secure in the knowledge that you'll be able to soak it up later with a steaming plate of carbs and meat, your reward for joining the cult of the Shack.