The Roadhouse Less Traveled

I was walking along Jones Street in the Tenderloin the other day when the former director of a neighborhood advocacy group chased me down to deliver a desperately urgent message: I absolutely had to eat lunch at Stix Roadhouse.

Figuring that, if nothing else, I would never again have an opportunity to begin a restaurant review in such a manner, I pressed him for details. Stix Roadhouse, he said, has become his new favorite haunt. He promised huge salads and gigantic, well-made sandwiches, and added that the place also featured “cafe prices and downtown quality,” and, as an added bonus, a view of the driving range in the sunny Mission Bay Golf Center.

As luck would have it, my girlfriend and I were taking a road trip a few days later, and, figuring that no journey should begin on an empty stomach, we dropped by the Roadhouse on a Friday afternoon to see if his tip would pan out. Located near the Mission Creek houseboat colony, just a hop, skip, and a jump from soon-to-open Pac Bell Park, Stix Roadhouse looks remarkably like … a roadhouse, a sort of open-air, barn-type structure with sliding glass doors and a corrugated, fiberglass roof.

Out front, a half-dozen or so duffers milled about, looking purposeful with their golf bags chock-full of drivers and wedges. Inside, sunlight poured through the roof onto neat blue-and-white checkered tablecloths, giving the place a festive air. Had it been a tad more shady — and, say, located on a stretch of lonely highway somewhere east of San Bernardino during the 1970s — Stix would have been the kind of place where Hell's Angels rode their Harleys across the bar, downing pitchers of Miller as they pawed at the waitresses and picked the bugs from their beards. But this, of course, was San Francisco in the late 1990s, and patrons seemed to lean more toward happy-hour revelry than chain fighting, a vibe codified by the following slogans, set in succession on the rafters:

Work like you don't need the money.

Dance like nobody's watching.

Love like you've never been hurt.

If only.

Having already journeyed a good two or three miles, my girlfriend and I were famished by the time we sidled up to the counter and scanned a very promising menu that featured sandwiches, salads, pizzas, and a handful of daily specials. The average cost of an entree hovered at around seven bucks — Hot damn, I cried out, these were some cafe prices. As for the downtown quality I'd been promised, well, we'd just have to see about that. But with 330 miles to go before we slept, I figured we'd do best to load up on the grub, ordering an iced tea ($1.25) for the lady, a Sierra Nevada ($3) for myself, and, to wash it down, an eight-course lunch that would have put the most potbellied truck driver in Texas to shame.

We made our way to a spacious deck whose trellis was hung with passion vine, took a table with a view of the putting green, and waited for our number to be called. At Stix Roadhouse, you walk up and get your own dang food — which may or may not be a roadhouse tradition, but then again, I'm no roadhouse expert. Interstate 280 curved past us in the distance, its soft hum interrupted by the sharp smack of golf balls being driven toward the horizon. In addition to daily happy-hour specials (e.g., Tap Tuesdays — $2 draft beers from 4 to 8 p.m.), Stix also offers half off on a bucket of balls with the purchase of a meal and beverage over $6.50, which I would advise as a means of burning off the excess calories generated by what proved to be some hearty, roadhouse portions.

We began with a pair of small tossed salads — the Jackie Chan ($5.95) and the Louis salad ($5.95). As they appeared before me on the counter, I asked what is undoubtedly a common question at Stix: That's a small? A delightful medley of sesame chicken, julienned red bell peppers, and crunchy fried wontons perched on a heaping pile of greens, the Jackie Chan featured a delicate hoisin dressing and could have been a meal in itself. The Louis came with jumbo shrimp, cherry tomatoes, whole black olives, and a half-avocado smothered in — what else? — Louis dressing.

Next, we sampled a cup of chili con carne ($2.95), which looked more like a bowl and was topped with fresh salsa and a dab of sour cream. The sandwiches were also generously sized — like either of the salads, the “fish stix” sandwich ($6.95) with a side of potato salad could have easily been a meal in itself. An ample fillet of grilled salmon on focaccia with lettuce, tomatoes, grilled onions, and a tangy piccata mayonnaise, it definitely delivered on the “downtown quality” part of my acquaintance's promise.

Moving on to heartier fare, we tore into the roadhouse's “famous” four-star cheeseburger ($5.95), a monstrous, 17-pound burger (OK, maybe it was only a half-pound) made of beef ground right there on the premises. Served on focaccia, the cheeseburger was topped with provolone and featured a side of 100 percent fresh potato french fries. I added a dab of Grey Poupon and decided that this was, in fact, better than downtown quality: It was uptown. We stacked our empty plates one atop the other, our eyes burning with ferocity, and moved on to the main course: a braised zinfandel lamb stew ($7.95) with a side of garlic mashed potatoes.

With its tremendous hunks of tender, slow-cooked lamb, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, and carrots bathed in a rich wine sauce, the stew proved my favorite item of the day. (And the next day, too, since a friendly waitress dropped by to provide us with a few to-go boxes.) For our final entree, we indulged in an innovative take on an old favorite, the grilled cheese sandwich on sourdough ($5.95) with basil and tomato. The bread was perfectly toasted, and came stuffed with provolone, cheddar, and, much to my delight, a thin layer of cream cheese.

Repeating my own personal mantra (Eat like you'll always be thin), I sauntered back to the counter to procure a sweet for my sweetie: a heated apple turnover ($1.50) topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream (a buck extra) that was flecked with tiny bits of vanilla bean. As we made our way out the door, we grabbed a couple of packets of cookies for the road ($1.50 each) — crunchy chocolate chip cookies with walnuts, and somewhat less crunchy spiced oatmeal cookies that we nibbled on throughout our journey. Stix also features a small but affordable breakfast menu (bagels, breakfast sandwiches, eggs, served until 11 a.m.), all-day brunch on weekends, an after-4 p.m. snack menu, cappuccinos, lattes, satellite TV for the sports fan, and to-go orders for those on the run.

Since it's located a ways off the beaten track, I like to imagine the Roadhouse is rarely crowded, and would make for a perfect post-baseball game hangout. And it's also the kind of place where you could drop by for lunch, start ordering pints of beer, and not leave until after sunset: I guess the next time I'm walking along Jones Street in the Tenderloin and happen upon the former executive director of that neighborhood-based advocacy coalition, I'll have to thank him.

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