Sunday, March 30, 2008


Having spent much of the last three years either working or going to school almost every evening of the week I haven't been one to really "go out to dinner" much. Most evening meals are a quick slice of pizza or some Chinese takeout. When I do go out to eat it's an occasion, planned in advance with the location deliberately selected.

The flipside? I I've had the pleasure of enjoying what very few normal folks get to do.... Frequent long leisurely off-hours lunches on a whim. I don't have to blast through a sixty minute power lunch, nor do I have to eat between noon and 1:30.

Lunch has its advantages.... It's more laid back, especially if you get there after the rush. The menu, while generally smaller, will usually offer the dishes the restaurant's known for and usually have a broader array of sandwiches, salads, and smaller plates which often are a better showcase of a kitchen's abilities and innovation. And also the servers are typically less experienced, which means they're usually younger and cuter.

So in my travels I've found some rockstar fabulous lunch spots worth a drop-by.

First, the good cheap spots:
1. Sophia on Solano Avenue in Albany
2. Yammy Sushi in El Cerrito Plaza
3. King Tsin on Solano Avenue in Berkeley (Dim Sum!)
4. Magnolia Pub at Haight/Masonic in San Francisco

But recently I rediscovered A16 and have quickly found one of the best lunch spots in town. I found myself with time to kill in the Marina and I caught A16 on one of its open days for lunch (Wed-Fri only). Assortment of salads, a few pastas and small plates, and their full array of pizzas--probably the best in town.

Glass of wine, salad, and a pizza and I was out the door for $43. Of course one didn't need the wine or the salad, and I took half the pizza home so realistically you could be out of there sated and pleased for under $30.

Hard to beat for a meal at one of the better restaurants in SF.

Chestnut at Divisadero
Reservations: 415-771-2216 or

Friday, March 28, 2008

HFF Quickie: Uncle Yu's at the Vineyard

Growing up in the California suburbs there's one cuisine that you come to love more than any other: American Chinese food.

I'm not talking authentic Szechwuan cuisine or ducks' tongue congee. I'm talking General Tsou's chicken. Kung Pao chicken. Lemon chicken. All forms of chicken, pork, and etc loaded with deep-fried goodness and serious sweetness.

It's what mom or dad picks up on her or his way home from work when they don't want to cook. It's what you and your friends get for lunch when you go out to eat like grown-ups (but still can't spend more than $10 a person). It's what your parents tried every now and then to cook at home but could never get to taste as good as at Mandarin Garden down on the corner.

My dad always said it was the "dirty oil" at Chinese restaurants that made it taste so distinctive. If that's the case then dirty oil is delicious.

It's something that you don't find in the cities, but you'll find in every suburb (or even rural town) where a Chinese immigrant has set up shop to sell versions of cuisine from their home land delightfully corrupted for the American palate.

One of my great frustrations is that despite living in an area with a significant Chinese-American population, I have to return home over the hills to get really good American Chinese food. Everything out here is about authenticity, which is all well and good every now and then, but what about some nice Szechwuan eggplant and chicken chow mein on a $7.95 lunch special?

I had the pleasure of recently eating at the pinnacle of American Chinese: Uncle Yu's at the Vineyard in downtown Livermore. It was a family affair as we celebrated my brother's birthday, and everything we had was great. Only in the appetizers was there even a hint of "east-west" fusion, overall everything was authentically true to mid-20th century American Chinese food.

Duck spring rolls, dry-fried garlic green beans, fried eggplant, tender fried squid, chicken chow fun, fish in black bean sauce--it was fucking awesome. Flavors were thick without being overly salty, fried food was crisp and airy, meat was tender and of significantly better quality than most establishments of its ilk.

Plus there's none of the annoying gimmickry or pretension of a shitty-ass P.F. shitty shitty Chang Chang's.

But I have yet to get to the best part.... Uncle Yu's has an enormous wine list that offers a brilliant (if relatively conventional) array of wines from primarily California and France, including an enviable Alsatian selection to pair well with the cuisine. We enjoyed a great 2004 Guerra California Chardonnay and a pretty much flawless 2001 Pernand-Vergelesses red Burgundy with lightly steeped tannins and tasty cherry fruit.

Dinner was pretty reasonable too, about $190 for four of us for more than enough food (and that includes $90 on wine).

So there you have it. Uncle Yu's is the first restaurant east of Walnut Creek to get the HFF seal of approval. Pretty fucking great.

Uncle Yu's at the Vineyard
39 South Livermore Ave.
Livermore, Ca 94550
Reservations: 925-449-7000

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Why Yelp! Sucks, Volume 2

I hate Yelp! I really do. I don't just hate what a lot of people write on the site, but I actually hate the site itself and everything it stands for. Which is essentially providing limitedly relevant information while exploiting a false sense of community for a profit.

But that's a rant for a much older post.

The principal problem with Yelp! is that there is no oversight or moderation. Unlike Chowhound, which is a moderated message board with specific relevance criteria, Yelp! is a haven for uncorrected misinformation and irrelevance.

I'm no longer working in restaurants, so I feel compelled to speak a bit more freely. Some things I've encountered on Yelp!:

1. T-Rex BBQ in Berkeley was given a one-star rating by a user because it's menu "didn't seem like barbecue."

2. The restaurant where I worked was lambasted for our french fries being "obviously frozen." We barely have a freezer (it has ice cream and a few odds and ends in it) and have never, ever, ever, ever, not once, ever, frozen our french fries. In fact they're cut fresh every day.

3. The restaurant where I worked was also "lambasted" because of our wine service. Nevermind that the professed "wine connoisseur" waited until all the glasses had been poured and his wife complained about the temperature of the wine before he tried to somehow finagle a free bottle. Sack up and know what the fuck you're doing and make this judgment BEFORE you nod for the waiter to pour the rest of the table. Here's what you do, you say, "Why that tastes fine but I think it's a little warm, could you put it on ice for a bit before pouring the rest?" Come on! Care enough about your wife's taste to know that maybe she likes colder wine than you do. Or just slap the bitch for making you look bad. That's what I would do.

4. A two-star review of the venerable Rivoli: "if they happen to have something you like that day-- bully-- otherwise your sort of SOL." Wow, no fucking shit. What do you want some fucking terrible shithole restaurant that has chow mein, ravioli bolognese, and steak frites? How retardedly retarded. "Hey, if this place doesn't have what you like than they won't have what you like." Fuck those fucking restaurants and their small changing menus! Curse their, freshness, seasonality and restraint from wasting food! Last time I checked Rivoli typically offers a chicken/duck, pork, beef/lamb, vegetable, and a couple fish dishes on every menu! That covers pretty much the range of menu proteins. What the fuck do you want? Falafel? Then go to a fucking falafel joint.

I'm getting to a point here.

On a place like a Chowhound, such asinine reviews or such blatant misinformation could be immediately responded to by other users and done so directly in a thread, not buried a dozen posts later on Yelp! Moderators could also redirect, clarify, or in some instances delete posts that are malicious or clearly false. But even an unmoderated message board allows for immediate user correction. This is why edits on Wikipedia declaring George W. Bush's penchant for a2m pornography don't last very long. And why Wikipedia might lock certain controversial pages from further editing.

Yelp! doesn't do that because Yelp! needs happy users to visit their site and see their ads so that restaurants will pay Yelp! money to pick which reviews a user sees first.

So I guess in the democratic world of the internet Yelp! is the ultimate example of American democracy. Keep the citizenry placated by pretending that their input matters and let those with money pay to create their own reality.

And so what if Yelp! might give you a lead on a good banh mi place in downtown Oakland? You could also just walk around downtown Oakland and look for a banh mi joint, eat a banh mi, decide if you like it, then decide if it's a place you'll go back to. It's called adventure and discovery. Take that big plunge and go eat somewhere without asking a dozen of your closest internet friends whether it's good or not.

Besides, they're probably just a bunch of ignorant assholes with poor taste anyway.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Sebo - San Francisco, Ca

I operate my life on two basic principles:

1. Inconvenience others as little as possible.
2. Be as productive as possible as quickly as possible.

When principle 1 and 2 are in conflict, 2 trumps 1. This sometimes causes problems for coworkers and loved ones.

Going out to a sushi bar and ordering omakase is the only way I can think of to dine out and fully and completely abide by these principles.

You show up, you sit down, somebody brings you a few drinks, and then the sushi chef starts sending out food. He doesn't have to ask you what you want, you don't have to pore over a menu. And then when you're done you pay your bill and leave. It's liberating. The chef makes food, the eater eats. No middle person. And by eliminating the stresses of ordering food and dealing with waiters, your meal will be just that much more goddamn tasty.

I started reading The Zen of Fish recently and as a result I developed a serious craving for some reasonably authentic Japanese food. Girlfriend Charlie and I were out shopping in Hayes Valley when I noticed Sebo's unassuming storefront. Why how fortuitous! We returned right when it opened at 6pm and grabbed a spot at the sushi bar.

Omakase was the name of the game and pretty much the only way to eat at an upscale sushi bar like Sebo. The courses came steadily. First was a tender marinated octopus appetizer followed by a mountain vegetable salad. Excellent. Next up were steamed clams in sake, simply but tasty. The first round of sashimi was really nice. Your usual suspects, but all impeccably fresh. The nigiri was similar, though the uni, ama-ebi (with accompanying grilled shrimp head), and tamago were all strikingly good. The rice was warm, loosely packed, and well seasoned. We also snagged two of their rolls--one was a fresh blanched asparagus roll, the other was a deliciously refreshing combination of daikon sprouts, tuna, avocado, lemon, and sea salt. Last dish was a vegetable and shrimp chirashi sushi topped with broiled eel.

So yeah, the food was pretty fucking good. Great, even. And pretty reasonably priced for the quality. That being said, Sebo was a slight disappointment for two reasons. First, they didn't offer anything distinctive, with the exception of the one tuna roll which was still pretty straightforward California sushi, nor did they offer a particularly big selection of sushi staples. Second, in my (admittedly limited) experience with omakase, the chef traditionally offers up a course or two that isn't typically available from the a la carte menu. Sebo's omakase was simply a collection of menu items presented in a logical order. That's like finally scoring a date with a porn star, but you only ending up doing missionary. It's still good, sure... but it's disappointing. You can get any chick to do missionary.

So near as I can tell Sebo's as close to traditional sushi as you can get outside of Japan and it was effing tasty. I just wish it pushed the boundaries a little bit. Even the best sushi bars in Tokyo allow for a degree of fluidity and whimsy. It's the nature of the beast--tradition colored with faint touches of iconoclasm. Sebo felt a bit rote. Deliciously rote, but rote nonetheless.

571 Hayes St.
San Francisco, Ca 94102
Reservations: No.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Landmark Wines

Although Landmark Vineyards is an excellent Sonoma County producer of wine, I'm referring not to this esteemed purveyor of California Burgundies but rather to fine bottles of fermented liquid grapes that have changed how I look at wine.

Wine's always been a part of my life. My parents dragged my brother and me wine tasting all the time, but it pretty much all tasted like creeping death. Except for Manischewitz at Passover, which was awesome.

In the last few years I've encountered wines that have rapidly changed how I've come to understand what this vastly over-mystified, over-priced, and over-douchey product means and how it can be really fucking good.

2003 Txomin Etxaniz Getariako Txakolina. Light, crisp, slightly effervescent, and a minerally finish longer than Ron Jeremy's back hair.

2003 Michael Gay & Fils Savigny les Beaune 1er Cru"Les Serpentieres." Holy shit! There's dirt in this wine. It tastes like dirt! And not in a bad way! Awesome.

NV Bonnaire Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs. An independent champagne producer with a yeasty, bready, limey, zesty, and uber-complex glass of gold that tickled my tongue and other lame wine writing words.

2003 Wild Hog Carignane. Rich, juicy, ripe, and matched perfectly with pizza.

2002 Kuentz-Bas Tokay Pinot Gris. This was the first time I ever impressed a girl with a bottle of wine. It worked so well I bought a case. I ended up giving the rest away as Christmas presents. Because it's not worth spending money on broads, 'cause then all they want is your riches when the only thing they should be after is your jimmy. Word.

Charles Shaw Merlot. This wine fucking sucks. It made me realize that cheap wines suck and people who think they're "getting away with something" by pretending that shitty cheap wine is actually good are simply deluded assholes. It's shitty cheap wine. That's it. Enjoy it as such.

2005 Bonny Doon Pacific Rim Riesling. Now THIS is a cheap wine worth drinking. Dry, crisp, floral, and citrusy. Admittedly it's a whopping $8 a bottle at Trader Joe's, but it's like at least a million times better than Charles Shaw.