Impression: Law Cafe: Recommended

Lobby of 198 McAllister

This was a difficult meal to rate. I ate, from the Law Cafe (I can’t say “at” on account of the lack of seating), a turkey club wrap ($4.50) and a fruit cup ($2.50). Now, I have only good things to say about the convenience factor, and I have no complaints about the service. The wrap was merely OK. The insides were fine; the turkey was good, the lettuce and tomato seemed fresh, the bacon was bacon. They went a little overboard on the green condiment (some breed of aioli, I guess), but even with the ample saucing, I thought the wrap itself was sort of dry and heavy. This may just be a personal thing between me and lavash. It wasn’t terrible; it wasn’t great. I’d eat there again if I didn’t have time for anything else.

However — and here the difficulty arises — I cannot sing the praises of the Law Cafe fruit cup enough. Sure, $2.50 is a fair chunk of change, but you get a full pint of fruit, and the fruit is fresh and varied. Too often, a fruit cup is a small cup of soggy melon chunks, but the Law Cafe delivers strawberries and pineapple and grapes (and I have to say, this has been a damn good year for grapes) and bananas and yeah, some melon, but it’s fresh, sweet melon. It’s been my favorite afternoon slump snack for the last month or two. (I’m not sure they’re still doing it, but the fifty-cent hard-boiled egg was a pretty good snack too if you just need to put some food into your body between classes.) Sadly, as we move into winter, the fruit quality is ebbing a bit. The strawberries are not so good, and more and more melon appears. Even so, it’s still pretty good. Hence, the fruit cup elevates what would otherwise earn an OK rating into the Recommended band.

And the apple danishes are pretty good too. But those are mine, so back off.

Originally published at Tournedos

Review: Em’s Place; Recommended

McAllister between Hyde and Leavenworth

Em’s Place is my all-purpose fall-back lunch spot. It’s extremely convenient to school, and they haven’t let me down yet. The decor may leave something to be desired, but hey, it’s the Tenderloin. And the food is good, which is what counts.

The menu includes breakfast, American food, and Chinese food. I haven’t explored their breakfast option much, but I can vouch for the #3 breakfast ($3.65) — grilled cheese sandwich, two eggs, and hashbrowns. It wasn’t a revelation in cuisine, but all three parts of the breakfast were well-made, and the hashbrowns were generously portioned.

The Chinese food is pretty good. Their great strength here is that they use good ingredients and don’t overcook them. So most of their dishes consist of good-quality meat and nicely tender vegetables, which gets you a long way in Chinese food. Their sauces tend to be a little syrupy for my tastes, alas. I recommend the black pepper chicken ($5.25), the teriyaki chicken ($4.75), or the broccoli chicken ($4.95) (I understand you can get beef or pork in any of these for 50 cents more, but I’m cheap and I like chicken). The pork fried rice ($4.95) is hit and miss; it’s been really good on some occasions, and sort of mushy on others. On the other hand, I have to respect a pork fried rice with actual slices of barbecue pork rather than rubbery cubes of extruded pork-like product. The curry chicken ($4.95) is mediocre; there are better places to go if you want curry.

The American food is also tasty. I highly recommend the grilled chicken sandwich with BBQ sauce ($4.50). The quality of their chicken helps here, and the syrupy quality of their sauces is actually a plus with BBQ. They make a perfectly serviceable burger ($3.75), a darn tasty turkey burger ($4.50), and as I mentioned, a pretty good grilled cheese sandwich ($2.95). I can’t endorse their breaded foods; the chicken club ($4.50) and chicken-fried steak ($5.50) are fine, but not great. There’s better stuff on the menu. Of the side orders, I recommend the potato salad. The fries, in my experience, are unexciting, and while the fruit cup is fresh, it’s basically a small cup of melon chunks.

Originally published on Tournedos

Impression: Larkin Express Deli: OK

Larkin between Golden Gate and Turk

I like this place, but I have to back off from a recommend because I think my soft spot for quirky little places with character is clouding my judgment. For me, the strategically placed sign concealing a hole in the window is cute; others might feel differently. I ordered a turkey sandwich on a sweet roll, which was $4.95. It was a good sandwich, if nothing to write home about. They use fresh roast turkey, though, which is definitely a standout; I could see getting a yen for that at some point. I must warn you, however, not to get a soda from the cooler. I think they don’t get much sell-through, and my soda tasted a bit…off. When bottled soda is past its prime, something ain’t right. On the other hand, they also have fresh cookies, which are good but a bit pricy at $1.65.

Originally published at Tournedos

Impression: Taqueria el Castillito: Recommended

370 Golden Gate Avenue (between Hyde and Larkin)

I like this place; it strikes that balance between asepticness and squalor that is the hallmark of a good Mexican joint. Their regular burrito has a nice heft to it, and they don’t put anything weird or messy in it — rice, beans, meat, and salsa. You can get cilantro and onions if you want. I had mine with grilled chicken and the spicy salsa. The grilled chicken is good, but pretty ordinary. The spicy salsa is nice; it’s got big chunks of jalapeno that put some body behind the heat. The regular burrito is also $4.40, which is pretty reasonable in my book.

UPDATE: Taqueria el Castillito has another location on McAllister between Leavenworth and Jones. It’s a little smaller; I like the Golden Gate one better. But for Tower folks, it might be more convenient.

Food Review: Biryani Chapati

Turk and Leavenworth
San Francisco, CA

A restaurant just broke my heart.

Since I started school, I’ve been on a bit of a culinary expedition to try eateries convenient for lunch between classes. The Tenderloin is full of those little hole-in-the-wall eateries that could be wonderful and could be abysmal, and there’s not really any way to tell unless you give it a try. I noticed, on one of these walkabouts, a hand-lettered awning which read “Biryani Chapati”; I thought, “Cool! Indian food!” (Now, I imagine some of the locals will be saying, “You madman, why would you eat at a dubious Tenderloin eatery when the ever-fabulous Naan N’ Curry is mere blocks away?” I’m funny like that sometimes. (On a wholly separate note, Biryani Chapati turns out to be Pakistani.))

I was briefly confused upon arriving by the big CLOSED sign at the top of the front window and the small OPEN sign at the bottom, but I figured I’d take the open door as a hint. The staff, in traditional downscale ethnic restaurant style, were all sitting around a table chatting when I came in. I wasn’t really sure what the idiom of the joint was: should I sit down? Order at the counter and take out? Order at the counter and sit down? The guy who seemed to be in charge was headed behind the counter, though, so I walked over there. He handed me a folded paper menu, and cheerily offered to explain their offerings. “We have chicken curries, lamb curries, we can put vegetable…” (I do have to hand it to them, though; it was actually a pretty clear menu. I’ve been in Indian places where the distinction between certain dishes was … subtle at best.) I ordered chicken biryani and an order of naan, and he invited me to sit.

We’ve got some fine examples of the po-ass decorating style in the Tenderloin; one of my favorite places near campus is dark, rowed with cafeteria tables, and they store random supplies in the bottom shelves of the soda fridge. Biryani Chapati, however, may be the purest example of the form yet. They barely have a counter; I think they don’t even have a cash register. Bare white walls are adorned with construction paper butterflies. My table was at a slight angle. I was a little concerned. But everything was clean, and the carafe of water was a nice touch.

When the food arrived, I was still reserving judgment. The naan looked disappointing, like a whole wheat tortilla, and the biryani, while generously portioned, was nondescript. In the eating, however, I was impressed. The biryani was spicy, but not painfully so; the naan was much better than it looked. The chicken was tender and falling off the bone (indeed, my only complaint about the food would be that I’m not a huge fan of chicken dishes with unexpected knobs of bone, authentic though they may be). About halfway through my meal, they brought out what I assume was probably raita, but serving an ordinary portion of raita in a massive soup bowl looks a bit weird. I failed you, my audience, in not trying it, but as I said, it looked weird, and I don’t like raita that much anyway. The staff was extremely attentive; the manager asked me several times if I wanted more naan, because I could have more free of charge. I suspect the red carpet treatment would be on account of my being their lunch rush; I came in at 12.30, and no one else came in while I was there.

This last bit is what makes me sad. My lunch was six bucks (they didn’t even charge me for the naan, so I overtipped), and I was the only customer for at least half an hour. Maybe they do a brisk delivery business, but I suspect they won’t make it. Nice folks, making pretty tasty food, but the skankier end of the Tenderloin just isn’t prime foodservice space.

Originally published at LiveJournal

Book Review: Out of the Silent Planet

Recently, I read Out of the Silent Planet, which is the last book of C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy that I hadn’t read (though it’s actually the first book). It’s a good book, and I recommend it (primarily for its worldbuilding), but this is going to be one of my reviews wherein I talk relatively little about the book itself.

A lot of people I have known feel somehow betrayed by C.S. Lewis, mostly because of the role of Christian allegory in the Chronicles of Narnia. You’re reading along in a perfectly nice fantasy adventure series, and then one day — maybe years after reading the books — you find out, holy crap! Aslan was Jesus! (I’m sorry if that was a spoiler for anyone. Rosebud was a sled, too.)

I’m not sure if it works the same way in other countries, but I think Christian children’s fiction has really shot itself in the foot in the United States. So many extremely earnest people work so hard to make sure that kids get their regular dose of Jesus that Christian allegory has become the green vegetable of kids’ narrative. Finding out there was spinach in the chocolate cake is … well, disappointing. As if the Establishment put one over on you, the bastards. Hiding Jesus in a fairy tale; it just ain’t right.

I begin to think that this is unfair to Lewis. Reading the Space Trilogy, I realize that Lewis doesn’t write allegory at all. Rather, he writes fantastic stories in settings which include our own world, a world which for him is framed by the existence of the divine. Aslan and Maleldil don’t symbolize Christ; they *are* Christ. And yet, on some level, it doesn’t matter. The books aren’t parables; the stories are meaningful on their own terms. Perelandra isn’t Eden; neither is Narnia. They’re just places which went through similar histories after arising from similar origins.

It’s interesting, in passing, to contrast many modern comic books which rely heavily on Christian mythology, but in which God is a vague and distant presence and Jesus barely figures at all. It’s sort of the Apocalypse Now of the War in Heaven: angels and demons beating the crap out of each other with minimal supervision. It always seemed like sort of a dodge to me to tap the geekish glory of angelological hierarchy while avoiding the cosmology of which that hierarchy is a part. I would totally buy a comic about superheroes in the intertestamental period. (Yeah, I’d probably be the only one, but still, an apostle superteam would so totally kick ass.)

Originally published on LiveJournal

Book Review: The Art of the Start

One of the nice bits about the GDC was that I wound up riding BART for 45 minutes every day, which gave me some time to catch up on reading. Not that the mighty backlog of stripped books, using-up-the employee-discount purchases, and holiday loot is anywhere near expunged, but I did manage to get through the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (which I’m not going to talk about except to say that I enjoyed Runaway America more; got to give a shout out to Yale AmStud) and The Art of the Start (which I am).

The Art of the Start is the latest book from Guy Kawasaki, who made his name back in the 80s as a product evangelist for the Macintosh. These days, he writes books and runs a venture capital firm. The book bills itself as “the time-tested, battle-hardened guide for anyone starting anything”. I liked The Macintosh Way a lot; Kawasaki has a knack for drawing expansive lessons from amusing anecdotes, and so I thought I’d give this one a shot.

Alas, the book oversells itself. The entire thing would be useful for someone assembling a startup firm; maybe half of it would be useful to someone starting any sort of organization; the first chapter or so is worth reading in the context of any major project. As I am not establishing an organization, this made it interesting but not terribly useful.

That said, it’s good at doing what it does. His discussion of mantras versus mission statements alone makes it worth reading, and the chapter on pitches is excellent stuff as well. The later chapters are solid but more mundane; it’s possible I’m less enthused simply because they deal with biz dev stuff that’s almost entirely unuseful to me. And then the final chapter is the seemingly obligatory “Oh yeah. Don’t be evil.” section that every business book seems to have these days.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Book Review: Metropolis: Values in Conflict

I’ve just finished a book I picked up at the Menlo Park library sale a few months ago (any venue that sells books by the grocery bag is lethal to me). Metropolis is an urban studies reader from 1964. The first lesson I have gleaned from this is that I really need to break the habit of buying generations-old textbooks for a quarter; they’re interesting, but it’s not really a time-efficient way to learn things.

The second thing I notice is that urban theorists, from the earliest days of technocratic America up to the modern day, seem to dwell in a curiously non-geographic world. (I’m not just drawing from Metropolis on this; it just crystallized something that has niggled at me about various contemporary pieces I’ve read about reimagining cities.) I’ve seen any number of discussions of how to lay out cities, optimizing density and accessibility while preserving an appropriate amount of open and agricultural space, which completely elide the question of what happens if there’s a mountain or a river in the way of, say, your concentric rings scheme.

Perhaps I’m simply oversensitized to the question from living in a part of the world deeply at the mercy of its geography when it comes to urban development. I suppose that would explain why a lot of urban visionaries are Dutch; the Netherlands are pretty much flat, and heavily modified by human intervention already.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Food Review: Trader Vic’s Palo Alto

Last night, one of Jen’s volleyball folks had a birthday bash at Trader Vic’s, and we attended. Considering the culinary experience, I have to say that the decor was nice.

To begin with, if one is going to slap a 20% automatic gratuity on a party of 20, one ought to assign said party more staff than one waiter and a busboy. The service was extremely slow and moderately inept; I was unimpressed.

We began with drinks. Jen ordered a Mai Tai ($8.50), figuring Trader Vic’s would be the place for a good Mai Tai; while the glass was large, it was mostly filled with ice and an lime half. According to the waiter, it was made with “lemon juice, lime juice, Mai Tai mix, and rum”. Maybe it’s just me, but I am dubious of destination drinks made with mixes. I had a glass of Firestone Riesling ($6); that’ll teach me to buy wine from a tire company.

Both of us ordered salad: Jen took the house salad, while I opted for the caesar. I can’t evaluate the house salad, because it never came. At least they didn’t charge us for it. The caesar ($8) had three serious flaws. First, the croutons were bland and stale. Second, they went a little nuts with the lettuce; they used the outer leaves of Romaine and tried unsuccessfully to cut them into bite-sized pieces; as a result, most of the salad was a mess of limp, perforated leaves. Finally, the dressing was watery; I can only imagine they didn’t drain the lettuce before dressing.

For the main course, I had the grilled king salmon ($25); Jen had the seafood taro nest ($23). The salmon itself was fine, if unexciting. It came with dry, leathery fingerling potatoes, and some grilled zucchini and eggplant that I couldn’t bring myself to eat. The whole dish sat on a pool of what was probably beurre blanc, though at the time it struck me more like bechamel. So not disastrous, but I’ve had a lot better food for twenty-five bucks. Jen’s seafood taro nest was a stir fry of overcooked marine life and canned vegetables. It looked pretty dismal. She picked out the seafood and called it a night. The taro nest also came with a side of rice, which I asked if I could take a bit of, as I wanted a palate cleanser after my buttered salmon. It takes some talent to screw up rice, but they managed it. I’ve had better rice in cafeterias.

So, when all was said and done, with the food, drinks, and aforementioned automatic gratuity, the bill was $96 for an evening of insipid 50s-style Polynesian fusion cuisine for two.

I suspect I won’t be going back.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Book Review: Altered Carbon

Amazon’s been telling me I need to read this book by Richard Morgan since it came out, and a few weeks ago I managed to hack down the stack to it.

There are two things I think are structurally interesting about this book. First, it’s a wonderful example of setting economy. There’s a single central piece of technology around which the setting revolves — the capacity to upload and download consciousness in and out of different bodies — and most of the book’s world proceeds from the ramifications of that technology.

The other intriguing bit is that I think Altered Carbon is an excellent instance of the decline of prognosticatory science fiction. There was a time when most science fiction could at least be construed as an attempt to predict a possible future. More and more, however, science fiction is allegorical rather than realistic. Altered Carbon, despite being set centuries into the future, has the feel of a noir detective story plus the aforementioned braintaping tech and more sophisticated weaponry. It’s a great story, and a fascinating meditation on a whole slew of social and ethical issues, but it’s not a plausible vision of the future.

Originally published on LiveJournal