Thursday, July 12, 2012

Veggie Dog Days

The State budget is in place and agencies are paring both their functions and their rosters.  For his part, the Lunchmiser is back to basics (and, oftentimes, at lunch, back to his desk).  But today he wanted to go out and enjoy the sunny summer weather.

Within the Lunchmiser's immediate range are three hotdog vendors; each of whom carries a single veggie option.  Among these, Annie's is the Lunchmiser's preferred venue, since it offers shaded seating on the Civic Center Plaza itself, but today Annie's was out of veggie dogs.  "I'm sorry, sir; would you like something else?"  Hardly.  The Lunchmiser was not in the mood for flesh.

One might tramp down Market to Showdogs (see previous posts) but that was four long blocks in the sun and today the Lunchmiser was looking for quick and easy.  That left "What's Up Dog" snug in its newish location, on Market between Hyde and Larkin.  This fellow's a real businessman; well-stocked and professional. The lower volume for veggies sales no doubt explains why the veggie "combo" (dog + soda + chips) costs a dollar more than the meat version.  No seating but the marble ledge on the bank next door is accessible, and usually clean.


What's Up Dog
1210 Market Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
415 431 8811

1020 Market Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
415 558-9560

Annie's Hot Dogs 
Civic Center Plaza; Polk Street side

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Unbearable Hardness of One Fried Egg

The Lunch Miser, astute readers will have discerned, is a vegetarian, and on Tuesdays he usually lunches at venerable Em’s Place (154 McAllister Street), a greasy spoon near the Earl Warren State Building (the block-long, gray granite edifice on McAllister Street where his office is located) because it is possible, there, to have cheap breakfast (eggs, that is) at lunchtime.  The two large plate glass windows between which one is bidden to “Enter” Em’s reveal an unappetizing row of small tables opposite a half dozen grimy banquettes, all poorly lit by bare bulbs that hang from the ceiling on cheap rubber cords.  But don’t be deterred — Em’s is the classic, if much decayed, urban American diner.  Most of the customers are students from nearby Hastings Law College.

Em’s breakfasts may generally be had for under $5 (and table and chair, napkin and cutlery, all are provided) — the Lunchmiser’s kind of lunch.  On a recent Tuesday, however, a challenge to the Lunch Miser’s personal integrity was posed, at Em’s — one so egregious as to raise doubts regarding whether the Lunchmiser can, in good conscience, return (even to enjoy such prices). 

The events in question began when the thin, grim-faced woman of indeterminate age who stands at the register and takes orders refused to record the Lunch Miser’s stated request for “the fried egg sandwich, please.”  (She is not Em, who is long gone, but, rather, the wife of the current proprietor, who presumably purchased the joint from Em, or from a successor.)  The Lunch Miser’s order was plainly stated and could not have been simpler — a fried egg sandwich.  Rather than simply write that order on the slip that she held in her hand (and that the Lunch Miser needed for her to pass over the steam table to her husband, so as to trigger preparation of the ordered meal), however, this . . . cashier . . . demanded that the Lunch Miser acknowledge his desire for:  “the number 2, then?” 
            It was downhill from there.
            “Fried egg sandwich, over hard, please,” the Lunch Miser intoned (rather pleasantly, he thought).
            “You mean the number 2?”  A glance upward confirmed that the fried egg sandwich advertised on the greasy board above our heads was second on a numbered list.
            “Fried egg.”  The Lunch Miser wasn’t going to be pushed around; she knew what he wanted.
            “Number 2, then.”  But she didn’t write anything, waiting …
            Now, the hour for lunch was passing quickly and, obviously, the intelligent thing to do would have been to allow this woman the satisfaction of compliance with her establishment’s protocol.  She was the owner’s wife, after all, and exacting such compliance (especially from her suited customers) probably was the highlight of her day.  As a petty bureaucrat himself, could the Lunchmiser not identify?
            “I would like a fried egg sandwich, please, and a glass of water,” the Lunchmiser repeated, a trifle testy this time.
            “That’s the number 2.”  Still without writing, she reached over to a stack of dirty cards and shoved one in the Lunchmiser’s direction.  “Fried egg is number 2.”  Again, she waited.
            You get the idea.  The Lunchmiser wishes he could report that, ultimately, his order was taken and his sandwich prepared (and eaten).  Not so, however.  He ended up grabbing a generic salad at the Subway around the corner, fuming.

Like the rest of us, the Lunch Miser routinely endures shortcomings in service or ambiance, when necessary, in order that he may enjoy a lunchtime meal for under $5 (including tax and tip, per his requirements) within 15 minutes’ walking distance of Civic Center.  He has his personal limits, however, and he is bound to acknowledge that he reached them, in exasperation, that Tuesday at Em’s — and now, of course, he must await the passage of a decent face-saving interval before again darkening the door of that establishment.  Forewarned as you have been, however — dear reader — to order by number, you may wish to avail yourself of Em’s proximity and prices.

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Cut and paste:

Em’s Place
154 McAllister Street (between Hyde and Golden Gate)
415 552-8379
Eat in or take out.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Two Vietnams: North and South on Larkin Street In Search of the Perfect Bahn Mi

Now that the voice-to-text function on his EVO has evolved so it no longer renders “tofu” as “snafu,” the Lunch Miser generally makes a point of calling ahead to avoid the long line at Saigon Sandwich (560 Larkin) — the bahn mi (Vietnamese sandwich) place that started it all in Little Saigon.  (“Little Saigon” is the City’s four-year-old marketing appellation for the Tenderloin’s western region, comprising half a dozen blocks of cheap eateries, Asian groceries, jewelry repair shops, and massage parlors on the seediest stretch of Larkin Street.  Apparently erecting those two marble stanchions with the dragon-dogs on top -- on Larkin, north of Eddy -- was cheaper than actually cleaning things up.)

The line at Saigon Sandwich is long because the bahn mi are excellent, but also because the tiny premises (perhaps 6 may squeeze inside) are operated by two lone women who must process hundreds of orders everyday — aided  only by each other and the world’s oldest operating microwave oven.  Regardless of quantity (ranging from the Lunch Miser’s “single tofu, please,” to a construction crew supervisor’s “three dozen roast pork”) orders are processed strictly in the sequence received.

A bahn mi  — literally, cake or biscuit (bánh) and wheat or flour (mì) — consists, as increasing numbers of San Franciscans are aware, in a wad of Vietnamese coldcuts or pate (or grilled or barbecued pork, chicken, or tofu) mixed with a salad of pickled daikon and carrot and sometimes cucumber, and stuffed, along with sprigs of cilantro and sliced jalapenos or another hot pepper (if “you want spicy?”) into a crusty French baguette.  Saigon Sandwich boasts a varied selection, each meeting the Lunch Miser’s requirement of a full lunch for under $5 available within 15 minutes’ walk of Civic Center.

Lunch Miser tip: skip the wait by calling ahead to place your order — but don’t be put off by the chilly telephone reception you are likely to get. The trick is to specify your bahn mi straightaway at the outset of the call (as in “one tofu in 15 minutes, please”).  While the surly helper who answers likely will hang up without acknowledgment (irritated at having to interrupt the sandwich-assembly process in which she has been furiously engaged since 11am), she lacks the courage, apparently, to fail in relaying the order.  Her employer, the motherly-seeming proprietress out front, whose culinary and business acumen have combined in such wildly successful fashion on this obscure corner of skid row, would take a dim view.  In the Lunch Miser’s experience, the sandwich is always waiting as ordered.

Calling ahead facilitates speedy pickup and preserves the bulk of one’s lunch hour for dining al fresco at the Federal Building’s mini-park, or in Civic Center itself, perhaps on one of the comfortable benches inside the fenced play area near Larkin and McAllister that is signed: “No Adults Allowed, Unless Accompanied By Children.”  Eating outside is really the only option, because there’s no actual interior seating at Saigon Sandwich — just a couple of plastic chairs to accommodate the occasional elder who collapses in queue.

One block south of Saigon Sandwich — and plainly calculated to siphon off the latter’s excess traffic is a competing establishment, Wrap Delight (426 Larkin), located one block to the south and sporting a similar menu.  The woman who runs this place formerly was associated with her competitor — and (perhaps inadvisedly, given the delicacy of successful restaurant formulae) she endeavors to improve upon the original by providing indoor tables and chairs, and widening the selection of snacks and desserts.  She’s also a bit of a wheeler-dealer (BART passes and City parking cards may be bartered, as well as purchased) and for awhile was seeking to enhance revenue by renting out the front reaches of her commodious storefront to other food vendors (including, for awhile, a Chinese steam-table and, more briefly, a taqueria).

Both Saigon Sandwich and Wrap Delight price their bahn mi within the $2.50 to $3.50 range and, as noted, at each restaurant one may round out one’s meal with snacks and drinks well within budget.  Wrap Delight’s greater proximity to the State and Federal government buildings on Larkin Street makes it marginally less likely (over waiting in Saigon Sandwich’s line, at the corner of Eddy) that one will be importuned, as one’s bahn mi is being prepared, to purchase (or to subsidize another’s purchase of) illicit drugs, or that one’s purse will be snatched before the sandwich is in hand.  For one reason or another, however (extra creaminess in the sauce?), popular acclaim continues to favor Saigon Sandwich.  The North wins again.

cut and paste

Saigon Sandwich
560 Larkin Street (between Turk & Eddy)
415 474 5698
Mon-Sun; 7am-5pm
The bahn mi place that started it all in Little Saigon.

Wrap Delight
426 Larkin (between Golden Gate & Turk)
415 771 3388
Mon-Fri; 7am-6pm
No waiting bahn mi.

Lee’s Sandwiches
625 Larkin Street (between Eddy and Ellis)
415 929 6888
Daily; 6am-9pm
Half bahn mi available ($2.50)

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

At the Public Trough: Government Cafeterias in San Francisco Civic Center

San Franciscans shouldn’t have to choose between good government and good food — and they don’t, because the public has access to half a dozen cafeterias catering primarily to government workers (some at taxpayer-subsidized prices) right on Civic Center.

Topping the Lunch Miser’s list this week is the popular Federal Cafeteria, serving up fresh and grilled options five days a week to judges, secretaries, police and politicos. More than once, I’ve seen two ex-mayors lunching here the same day. Take the escalators on the left to the second floor after disrobing for the metal detectors (picture I.D. required) at the Golden Gate Avenue entrance (as the technology guarding the rear entrance on Turk Street runs much more slowly). The varied menu, which includes daily specials and a $3.50 quiche-of-the-day, is generally worth the hassle.

Mocha’s Café and Grill, with two locations (in the State of California Building on Van Ness Avenue, and in the Earl Warren State Building on McAllister Street), offers numerous breakfast lunch and dinner choices under $5. Peet’s coffee is served, and one may choose pancakes or waffles. Soups abound, as do burgers (ham-, cheese-, and garden-) as well as grilled sandwiches — all under $5. (Mocha’s also offers salads and wraps, but not within the Lunch Miser’s price range. The side salads and veggies are generally priced under $3.) Large indoor and outdoor seating areas allow diners to opt for group bonhomie or contemplative privacy.

On the lower level of the Civic Center Courthouse, Mint Cafe serves breakfast at lunchtime and (also under $5) a variety of fresh and tasty, if not particularly imaginative, lunch fare, including small salads, sandwiches (a “half” is within budget), and soups. For jurors or potential jurors unfamiliar with the neighborhood and mandated by the court to return within 45 minutes, grabbing a sure thing at the café may be a better bet than striking out for something more interesting in Little Saigon — and hoping to make it back it time. (Contempt citations have issued.) Regular readers, however, should consider trekking one block to the previously-mentioned Federal Cafeteria, where the offerings within budget are more interesting and varied.

In transition: City Hall Café. Located in the basement of the building whose name it bears, this longtime favorite of the Lunch Miser (for its proximity to the office, mainly) is temporarily shuttered. A handwritten sign near the cafe’s basement entrance (from the Registrar of Voters, proceed to the left, then around the corner) designates the “Future home of Mint Café” — who apparently are expanding from their location in the neighboring courthouse. Only the candy and coffee machines remain operative, but no true miser spurns the mechanical option when faced with lunchtime necessity. After all, vending machine prices tend to lurk in the more desirable range and, as every public servant is aware, sugar and caffeine fuel much of the bureaucracy’s best work.

Additional government-issue cafeterias near (but not actually on) Civic Center, include Terrace Café, located on the second floor of the State Compensation Insurance Fund building at Larkin and Market Streets, and the self-service cafe in the corner on the lower level of the San Francisco Public Library on Polk Street. Regrettably, in the former establishment only two items — the daily soup, and the bread pudding with raisin plum sauce — are priced under $5. And while the latter venue might otherwise afford a supremely literary and lunchable nook, the constant, odiferous restroom traffic that runs immediately alongside the dining area makes anything but take-out unthinkable.

-- the Lunch Miser

(Listed establishments are federal, state and municipal food vendors actually located on Civic Center. Except as noted, all open for lunch, Monday through Friday. For further information call the telephone number given or check the indicated website.)

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Cut and paste:

Federal Cafeteria
450 Golden Gate Ave
(no public telephone access)

Mocha’s Café and Grill
505 Van Ness Ave (415) 437-2233

Mocha’s Cafe
455 Golden Gate Avenue
(415) 864-6637

Mint Cafe
400 McAllister Street
415 431-6468