As I get older, I identify less and less with my adolescent self. In fact, not infrequently, I imagine going back in time and smacking myself on the head. I’m only in my very late twenties, but the period of my life has already become a vague unpleasant fog punctuated on rare occasion by vivid waves of memory. I suspect strongly that I was whiny, overly self-conscious, woefully insecure, and generally a twerp. I do clearly remember that, when I was in my mid-teens, I (like most teenagers) didn’t get along particularly well with my parents. I also recall that my impatience with their habits and eccentricities tended to erupt at meal-times.
A classic scenario: I was 13, on my first trip to Europe with the family. We were at a good French place in the 14th Arrondissement. My mom ordered in English, but she spoke with what my brother and I felt was a contrived French accent — rolling R’s, stretching out E’s, her voice rising up higher than usual at the ends of sentences. She might have been nervous. She might have been drunk. In any event, whatever it was she was doing was unintentional. At first, we giggled into our water glasses, amused. After it happened at every restaurant we visited, we were mortified, irritated and finally nasty — all because she insisted again and again that she was speaking no differently than usual.
Family vacations were known for bad meals — but usually only on the nights we’d arrive in a new city. At the mercy of indifferent hotel clerks, governed by hasty impulses spurred on by empty stomachs and jet-lag, we’d fall prey to half-cooked, insipid pizza in Rome, succumb to over-priced, grease-laden bistro fare in Paris, and settle for fusion-y Mission-style burrito wraps in San Francisco. It became a chronic thing, a syndrome that permeated all interactions. The bad food and exhaustion would inevitably lead to an argument, and we’d end up trying to put it all back together the next day.
These days, I don’t feel like a teenager too often — except maybe when I’m home for the holidays. Now, when my mom comes to San Francisco for a vacation, good feelings swell to the surface. Our meals together are the highlights of her visits and I try hard to make them meaningful and pleasant.
In 2003, less than a year after I moved to the Bay Area, my mom visited for the first time. On the evening of her arrival, we were wandering around downtown, looking at buildings. Even though I hadn’t yet had one myself, I figured she’d like to eat a fish taco — because I’d heard it was one of those important California food things. I just didn’t know where to get one. Since we were in the area already, we moseyed into the now-defunct Chevy’s at Embarcadero Two and supped on grilled fish tacos with pico de gallo, lettuce, and fresh cheese. If she found the meal revolting, she didn’t let on.
Since then, I have found better places to take her, destinations informed by what I’ve read and experienced as a focused seeker of tasty things — a portion of my identity I had not quite realized in 2003. My mom digs unusual food, but nothing too strange. She will eat fish sauce, but not fish heads. She likes a clean restaurant with a pleasant atmosphere, but she’s also cost-conscious and unswayed by pretentious flourishes. She eats seafood, but eschews meat — which eliminates Korean barbecue joints, pork-heavy Shanghai-style dumpling houses, and Incanto from contention. My mom prefers to eat reasonably healthy food. As a result, sushi, ceviche, or pizza with vegetables appeal more than battered fish, cream-laden sauces, or anything destined to be dabbed with aioli. When I’m picking out a restaurant, I filter these criteria through other sets of necessary circumstance. When she visits, she usually stays somewhere in the Union Square, so I like to take her somewhere within swift striking distance via BART or Muni. Being lazy, I usually stick to my neighborhood, the Mission District, where I’ve lived for the vast majority of my time in San Francisco. On a few occasions, I have lightly pushed the envelope. In 2004, we went to Utopia Cafe, a sneaky spot down an alley in Chinatown. I wouldn’t call it a “dive” exactly. That word is over-used; it shouldn’t apply to every restaurant disinterested in putting a premium on inedible trappings like decor and service. Fruit flies circled like helicopters over a battlefield as we attacked clay pot rice with shrimp, mustard green soup, and salt-and-pepper fried bean curd, but the food tasted fresh, and that eclipsed any sanitation concerns. A year or so later, we went to Minako, the organic mother-and-daughter-owned Japanese eatery. I thought she’d enjoy the food — tataki, gobo kinpira, salmon misozuke — but I also suspected the restaurant’s cool quirks would appeal, that she’d get a kick out of the snappy, funny daughter and the odd location — Mission Street, boasting a sign the size of a playing card you can’t see unless, as I recall, you’re approaching from a very specific angle along the sidewalk. Another time we visited Kiji, an ordinary but inoffensive sushi place on Guerrero just because it was conveniently close to a Valencia shoe store she’d been perusing.
She really liked Delfina, but her reaction to the food nonetheless confirmed my suspicions that she would inevitably rather go out to eat what she doesn’t cook at home, where pasta, pizza, and risotto frequently grace the dinner table. Even though Delfina is a better restaurant — albeit a very different one — she was truly blown away by Destino. We went there in 2006 or 2007 — well after its heyday — but she still talks about it — because, at the time, it was so unusual to her.
She’s coming to town for a few days later this week, and this time around, the first visit in nearly two years, I’m brimming with ideas. There’s a Mayan restaurant in Louisville my mom adores. While it’s not at all awful, it is something there that it would not be here, which is fine. After all, when it comes to barbecue and beef jerky, San Francisco could learn a few things too. Still, I’d like to take her to Poc Chuc — even if platters of juicy, thin-sliced pork (the restaurant’s namesake) don’t jive with her diet. She’d be happy enough with feathery, toasty corn tortillas, a bowl of the smooth black beans, and a few bites of fish — though I don’t imagine she would dive into the head for the best pieces. I thought about Universal Cafe, but I think she’d prefer something less familiar. La Ciccia is another option, the current front-runner, I’m afraid. Sardinian flavors — rich, heady fregula pasta with ricotta and cured tuna heart, smoky, spicy octopus stew — diverge enough from the Italian fare she knows well. If I were really daring, we would go to Yellow Pa Taut on Bryant and 7th for the best Burmese in the city: Tea leaf salad, fried squash, and catfish noodle soup, perhaps — all within spitting distance of the courthouse’s grim facade.
I’m lucky to share life (and a kitchen) with my girlfriend, who has an equally serious relationship with food. Our weeks revolve around dinners together. When we eat somewhere particularly nice, whether an old stand-by or a newcomer, we often imagine how our parents would like it. Hers enjoy eating at least as much as mine, if not much more. That process is natural; it makes the meal better. I feel the same way about music. I have a few big stacks of vinyl, but I don’t play records too often around the house. When friends are over, musician friends particularly, I’m galvanized into action. I slip on a record. I tell stories I know about the band. I react to what I’m hearing and the feelings I have about it in their presence, and their reactions combine with mine to enrich the experience. Food is not much different. A steak is better shared; so is Mavis Staples. The restaurants I pick for dinners with my mom have evolved along with me, but regardless of where we end up eating, every meal speaks to the power of shared experience. To adapt and respond to a well-travelled adage: If a meal falls on your table and there’s no one there with whom to share it, its deliciousness cannot help but be diminished — even if you write about it.