Sunday, November 11th, 2007, 1:31 am
When you’re in a strange city having someone in the know providing a guiding hand can be invaluable. And that’s the happy situation Mark and I found ourselves in as we were joined in our adventures by Tran, Mark’s buddy from med school, and by Tran’s wife Van and Minh and An, the kiddies. They arrived at our hotel around noon and we were all hungry, but we weren’t headed to Chinatown. Oh no. Tran and Van knew a place in the Vietnamese section of town, and we put ourselves in their hands and headed out into the drizzle.
The kids are still in car seats and Mark and I wouldn’t quite fit in their vehicle, so we grabbed a cab. I haven’t seen the movie Eastern Promises, but I think our driver could’ve stepped into the role of a ruthless Eastern European thug without much trouble. After he dropped us off (without saying a single word during the entire trip) I asked Mark, "What would you set the over/under on the number of people he’s killed? Fifteen?"
"That seems low," Mark said.
We met up with Tran and family at the Turtle Tower, which seemed like the typical hole-in-the-wall place where you always find good stuff to eat. As we waited for our table I saw an article from the San Francisco Chronicle taped in the window that said the Turtle Tower had the best beef noodle soup in the city. And when it came time to order that’s what we all got, a gigantic bowl of pho that looked good, smelled better, and tasted better than it smelled or looked:
Now, do you see the plastic glass to the left of my bowl? Filled with dark, cloudy, magical liquid? The second I saw that the Turtle Tower had Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk on the menu, I had to get some. I’d read Anthony Bourdain rave about it in his books, and I believe my cousin Noreen indulged when she visited Vietnam last year. I watched as the coffee drip, drip, dripped into the milk, and then Van told me when it was time to stir it up good and pour it over the ice.
Oh. My. God.
So good. So GOOD. I took a tiny sip, just a sip, and closed my eyes and went, "Ohh…" inside my mind. It was all I could do to slurp it down in one gulp. Which, of course, wouldn’t do. In Vietnam, Tran told me, they linger over their coffee for hours, as it’s so strong and rich. I already felt like a barbarian, as I was the only person in the place who wasn’t eating with chopsticks. I can’t deal with General Tso’s with chopsticks–how am I gonna deal with soup? Tran said a few words to the waitress and ten seconds later a fork was discreetly placed next to my bowl. Not a rebuke, mind you, at least not a public one. Still, I felt shame.
I was tempted to get a second coffee for the road, but if I ordered another, where would it stop? I didn’t want to spend the rest of my time in San Francisco haunting the Turtle Tower bellowing for more condensed milk. Well, maybe I DID want to spend the rest of my time here doing that, but it wouldn’t be healthy. The meal was so good it knocked Mark and I sideways:
We wanted to do something kid-friendly, so we went to the California Academy of Science to see the animals and fish. The area around there was a total zoo (no pun intended) thanks to a convention Oracle was hosting, but after we saw the turtles and fish our appetite came back. Tran and family drove to the Embarcadero Center and Mark and I decided to hoof it in the rain. Longer walk than we expected, and we were planning to eat in the revolving restaurant at the top of the Hyatt. For the view, don’t you know. Well, turns out that restaurant closed in May. Turns out that was a very good break.
When Mark and I went to the Warriors game we walked past a place with a neon sign that said "Tadich Grill". The sign also said it’d been open since 1849. A place has been open since the Gold Rush, it’s probably pretty good. When we took the trolley home that night we saw it again and Mark said, "I just know that place has incredible food".
Well, as we left the Hyatt (which is the place where the Mel Brooks flick "High Anxiety" was filmed and was pretty cool) we started walking up the road and there was the Tadich Grill. I knew that would get Mark’s attention and of course it did. We decided to take a peek and see what was up.
Felt like you were walking back into the 1920s. Long, narrow space with dark wood paneling. Waiters in long white coats. White linen on the tables, and on those tables, plates filled with incredible-looking food. As we were led to our table I saw three or four platters of oysters Rockefeller delivered, and I knew that I’d be getting some of those for myself.
Picking a main course was a bit harder. Of course the place features food that’s grilled (over a mesquite fire, actually) but I couldn’t decide what to get. Tran, Mark and I all watched with envy as steaming bowls of seafood cipollio were whisked past our table and that’s what we ordered. Normally I’d never order a tomato-based seafood dish, but when you’re in a place that opened before the Civil War and they say their cipollino is pretty good, you put your trust in them.
So freakin’ good. But as good as it was I had buyer’s remorse as I saw other seductive dishes carried to other tables. The meal was so good that Mark and I are already planning to make a return visit on Monday before we leave. And Tran told Van that they’ll have to come back the next time they visit San Fran. It was that good, and that cool a place.
Filled to the brim with good food and a few Sierra Nevada, we bit Tran and Van and the kids good night and headed for a streetcar to take us up California Ave. Tomorrow we’ll venture forth to see the game at a local Steeler bar. For now, time to sit quietly and digest what was a very good day.
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