Entree #4: PAELLA DE MARISCOS @ PICARO (SF, CA)
My buddy wanted to be a rock ‘n roll star. I think. Or at the very least, he wanted to be the note player/singer that was well liked and well understood. I’m not sure if either has happened for my friend yet, but in the past, while his star rose, I was there. I was also there when no one gave a shit at all.
Anyway… During the times when all seemed on the upswing, my buddy comes up to San Francisco, summer of 1999. Particularly trying time for me, I was 25, recently divorced, and I didn’t really want to hang with a musician and his band o’ groupies. I wanted to wallow.
“We’re in town to shoot my video,” he says. “What do you think we should do?”
“Lineup,” I say. “Lineup of beautiful, naked women, maybe they’re in body paint, but they’re definitely all behind you, as you do your music video thing.”
“What are they doing?”
“Being beautiful. Being naked. Making you seem more controversial than you really are.”
“Nah. I think that’s a bit much.”
And, while he might’ve been right, it was 1999, I still think I was more right. Why is it that THE MAN would ever have a problem with a naked woman, after all?
“Madonna did it. You can do it. And you’re playing your own music,” I said. “Just say fuck em. And before you know it, they’ll all wanna fuck you.”
I was dismissed as too extreme. I’d pay for that youtube video now though. Those groupie chicks were hot! And we could’ve found more. Or not. But anyway…
During the shoot one night, me, him, his newly fangled entourage of groupies and band, we went out for dinner, near the shoot, near my apartment at the time, and it just so happened that we stonily stumbled into a place called Picaro.
Talk to the whitey hipsters of that time, they said Picaro sucked. Talk to most anybody from the Mission around that time, and Picaro was considered average at best. Spaniards of SF were mostly agreed: it was just okay. Most people felt Picaro was mediocrity inside of a mediocre egg. Why? Because the dotcommers who’d infested my neighborhood thought they were average, and like osmosis, this opinion seeped into the Mission’s zeitgeist. Fine. Yet. Why would anyone pay attention to a nerd’s take about art?! Either you make art, so you can talk on it intelligibly…or, you don’t, so you can’t.
THIS was the first paella I’d ever shared…with anyone…ever. Amazing. Buttery rice and lemony seafood and saffron and garlic and veggies and I love that this LOVE is hitting my mouth, with a slight kick, just like love does. This paella took 45 minutes to cook for a reason. I had to savor every bite. I had to. That paella’s balance of rice, seafood, saffron, stock, heat, sweet, sweat, mole, salt, acid and umamskys…these were all in effect on that one night — not traditional, not easily categorized, this was just one phenomenal pot o’ rice n’ stuffs. I had to take in every syllable of that night too, cuz I was rockin with a wannabe rockstar and for a night, it did not seem so. The sangria (which was also amazing) was flowing, everyone was loose, happy, free. It felt like we ruled the universe of rock that night. One of the truly special meals I’ve ever had.
I think that this seafood paella taught me a huge lesson: you don’t need to be a rockstar to rock. You just need to be you. Critics are critics. Celebrities are celebrities. And you are you: a creator. And curator. And destroyer. Repeat. Totally different. Totally unique. Totally you. You can make a dish, you can make anything at all, you just have to make it true to you. If it is true to you, well, you’re on a brilliant path, and this will shine through.
One last detail about that meal that I should not overlook. One of those groupies showed me her left breast/nipple that night, after I told her about my idea for the video, which she agreed, was brilliant. It was bold, erect, made this elegant arc up toward the sky, like a perfectly groomed bunny slope. Yup, I still think I was right about that music video.
Editor’s Note: There was not mole in that paella. That was a lie.
The nipple thing is 100% true.
entree #5: CABEZA/Lengua BURRITO @ El FAROLITO (SF, CA)
In 1999, I used to live in the Mission District of San Francisco. Very close to my place, at 24th & Alabama, was this small little Mexican Restaurant called El Farolito. One of my roommates in my flat said that this place was going to change my entire world: this was the best burrito in San Francisco he said.
I wasn’t about to be impressed by this place right away. I’d been around to several places in the Mission alone that served really good burritos. I’m a California kid. Through and through. Santa Cruz represent. You grow up here, you grow up eating burritos. Some of the best burritos I’ve ever had come from hole-in-the wall places in Santa Cruz county. In fact, I’ve seen every county in this state, and I’ve probably had the best burrito that could be claimed from 3/4 of them.
I must implore you: El Farolito offers the burrito to end all burritos.
“El Farolito” means “the lighthouse” and what a perfect name for this place. Why? Because wading through the fog of opinions about burritos in California, one bright beacon of burrito shone through at the hole-in-the-wall on 24th & Alabama.
The ambience was awful. Fluorescent lights. Orange plastic picnic tables from the 1960’s. Casio driven Tejano music. Drunk people wandering in at all times of the day and night. This was a place where you’d better place your order in Spanish, in well pronounced Spanish, because you could see it in the cooks/counter people’s eyes, they didn’t particularly care for the massive gentrification going on around them, for the last 5 years, even if it was making them some more money.
However, if you ordered in Spanish, you were showing respect for the fact that Yerba Buena’s (San Francisco’s original name) oldest neighborhood, the Mission, is overwhelmingly Mexican, and that the vast majority of residents in the Mission primarily have spoken Spanish for about the last, oh, 150 years. So I’d order in Spanish. And I’d get a nod that says, I know that you know that we must respect each other here.
Like most white boys, I was a carne asada guy for awhile. Maybe I’d go pollo. Maybe some nights I’d get adventurous and go al pastor. But like so many great ideas in history, I discovered something of incredible importance during a drunken stumble…this time into El Farolito…I started to order, then, I stopped and thought on it. Though I’d been for a loyal customer for about a year, I was about to push the boundaries of our newly forged mutual respect. Thankfully, the cook took pity on me as I fearlessly and drunkenly made an interrogative before placing my order.
“Que comida te gusta aqui?” (What food do you like here?)
“La cabeza. O la lengua.” (The head. Or the tongue.)
“La cabeza?…En el interior?” (The head?…On the inside?)
The cook laughed… “No. Interior es sesos. Fuera es cabeza.” (No. Inside is brains. Outside is head.) As a side note, El Farolito serves sesos, but I’ve yet to order them because, I’ll admit it, I’m just too much of a pussy to eat brains.
I thought I understood at that point. Cabeza meant the forehead, the cheeks, etc. So I ordered the burrito con cabeza. I took a bite. Ridiculously good. The meat was so tender, it melted when it hit the palate, almost like chocolate. The bite was unforgettable. Was it the booze? Was it that I was starving? I went in for another bite. Then I proceeded to wolf down that bad boy in about 1 minute flat.
I went home, passed out, and briefly wondered if what I’d eaten was as good as I thought it was. I had never heard of “nose-to-tail” at that point of my life, but from that point on, I was excited to eat animals, or parts of animals, that one might not immediately consider eating…(Except for brains. Ech.)
Since I was pretty broke during those days, I was a frequent visitor to El Farolito because you could get a sizable meal for cheap. But could I also get something amazing tasting for cheap too?
So in the next few days I went back. I ordered the cabeza and ordered the lengua too. I’ve got to say, these, to this day, are the best tasting burritos I’ve ever eaten. They must have braised that stuff for hours upon hours – so damn good. As time has gone on, El Farolito has expanded their locations and has become increasingly popular. And you probably don’t need to order in Spanish to get a little bit of neighborhood cred.
The lesson learned this time? If you have the opportunity, ask the cook (better than the waitstaff) what food he/she likes @ the place. If you ask with humility and if you are truly curious, most cooks will tell you what the absolute best thing to eat in their place is, nine out of ten times.
entree #6: Kaya Toast @ street (LA, CA)
Years and years passed from the time I’d had those El Farolito burritos. Another stint in Washington DC came and went, then some time in Sonoma County, before I moved to LA in 2003. And I admit that I’m omitting a lot of great meals and great dishes from my list of life-changers, because, everything that I’d had during this time just doesn’t make the cut for me that way.
However, in 2012, I was to have my mind blown again. In what used to be Highland Grounds Cafe was a place known as Street, and has since been rebranded and is now called Mud Hen Tavern. When the place was called Street, the concept was simple but complex: make elevated forms of street food from around the world.
So check it out: this is the dish – toast wedges, coconut jam (kaya) that has been infused with something called pandan leaves, used in Southeast Asian cooking, soft fried sunny side up egg, a dash of soy sauce, a dash of cracked black pepper. Some greens. Done.
This is essentially toast, jam, veg, and an egg. And it is one of the best tasting little dishes I’ve ever had. When Street ceased to be called Street, and was transformed into Mud Hen Tavern, I was pleased to see that the Kaya Toast was still on the menu. Kudos to Chef Susan Feniger for this choice.
The lesson here: if you do something great as an artist, it doesn’t necessarily need to be incredibly hard to execute, it doesn’t need to follow any rules per se, it just needs to be consistently great and it absolutely should be a staple of your repertoire.
Greatness is hard to achieve. So don’t turn away from it when you find it.