When I lived on Potrero Hill circa 1992, eating out meant going to Farley’s for a cup of coffee and a cookie. Now 18th Street is lined with a dozen stellar choices. I’ve eaten toasts and salads at Parker Potrero that made me feel virtuous, overindulged on macaroni and cheese plates at Mac Daddy, and relied on Sunflower for refreshing bowls of bún chả on hot days. But the neighborhood restaurant I’ve returned to most often there is Plow.
Describing it as the best place for brunch in San Francisco is reductive. Chef Maxine Siu’s potatoes are actually divine. The first time I ate there with my friend Mercedes, we paused after tasting them and smiled at each other. Our eyes beaming joy back and forth across the table. From that moment on, we met there for lunch, if not weekly then at least once a month. Until the lines became prohibitively long to accommodate a workday lunch hour. San Franciscans everywhere returned in droves for the lemon ricotta pancakes, buttermilk biscuits and two egg breakfasts.
Siu runs the restaurant with her husband, Joel Bleskacek, who divulged the secret two-step process of their signature potatoes. “We parboil them in salted water. Then, they’re cooled and smashed.” But it’s the rice bran oil that gives them a nice, nutty flavor. “Unfortunately, it’s about the most expensive fry oil you can use, but it’s totally worth it,” Bleskacek explains. “People equate Plow with those potatoes.”
Those potatoes, like everything else that Siu and her sous chefs make, have been travelling in to-go containers since the city issued its shelter in place order in mid-March. As of June 19 though, Plow opened a few tables for outdoor dining. Bleskacek says that Plow potatoes are meant to be eaten right as they come out of the fryer. That’s when they’re super crispy and tender on the inside. Sure, they’re still delicious at home but something gets lost in the half hour between picking up an order curbside and opening the box in your own kitchen.
One trend that Siu and Bleskacek noticed early in the pandemic was that people craved baked goods. On a daily basis, they started to sell out of their buttermilk biscuits and cakes. This shift was noticeably different from the pre-pandemic dine-in days. “During stressful times, people are gravitating toward carbs, comfort or sweets,” he says.
Bleskacek praises his wife for being a “phenomenal baker.” He told me that Siu developed her passion for baking when she worked at Oswald’s in Santa Cruz. After becoming regulars, Mercedes and I learned to put in our orders for dessert the second we sat down so as not to miss out. Siu made a summer fruit trifle once that was an extraordinary improvement on the often overly sweet British version. She demonstrated an enormous amount of restraint by limiting the amount of sugar. The combination of fresh fruit and cream was notably forward and, finally, deliriously uplifting.
When a restaurant catches diners’ imaginations the way that Plow has done, the food amplifies the spirit of the place. COVID-19 altered that welcoming atmosphere. “It felt very strange and foreign at first to have the tables barricaded in the front door,” Bleskacek says. “Everything that we taught our staff about the restaurant industry, about being hospitable — now all of a sudden you have a barrier and nobody can come in.”
Over the last few months, he’s wrestled with staying optimistic, both for his family and his staff. Bleskacek readily admits that, “I’ve spent so many nights without sleep, sometimes crying myself to sleep.” But he’s also been resolute about making whatever changes are needed to step into the new world. “I won’t accept that ‘it’s not going to work.’ Or the restaurant industry is dead in San Francisco,” he says.
Bleskacek believes that this is the time when people should be working on their business plan — “to be able to pivot to the next phase of whatever is going to happen to us because none of us know.” If there isn’t a vaccine or a cure for COVID-19 by the end of the year, restaurateurs like he and Siu will have to determine what the industry is going to look like.
I haven’t been able to bring myself back to Plow since Mercedes died of cancer in 2017. Of course, we kept going back for the food but we also confided in each other while lingering over too many refills of coffee and iced tea, until the restaurant emptied out. Over the course of our twenty-year friendship, one of the memories that often strikes me is the two of us eying each other after savoring another one of Siu’s recipes. Our spirits are still contained there, on those days when we were fortunate to share one more meal together.
That’s what the industry used to look like. I hope it looks like that again sometime soon.
Strawberry Buttermilk Cake
By Maxine Siu
Strawberries from Dirty Girl Produce
— 1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
— 2 teaspoons baking powder
— 1/2 teaspoon salt
— 1/2 cup oil
— 1/2 cup buttermilk
— 2 eggs
— 1 tsp vanilla
— 1 cup white sugar
Butter and flour a 9-inch round springform pan. Preheat oven to 325°F.
In a large bowl combine the flour, baking powder and salt. In a second bowl, whisk together the oil, buttermilk, eggs, vanilla and sugar. Pour the wet in ingredients into the flour mixture, stirring to combine. Using a rubber spatula, pour the cake batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake 45 to 55 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean.
Allow to cool in the pan for 5 minutes then run a knife around the cake and gently release the spring form. Allow to cool to room temperature. Serves eight.
1299 18th St., San Francisco