Category Archives: Travel

Mexicali

San Francisco needs no introduction. It has fast become a great food town with all the trimmings. But there are several charms in the surrounding Bay area as well, most notably The French Laundry and Chez Panisse, four star dining California style. Other notables can be sought out by word of mouth. In this instance just 17 miles north of San Francisco, in Novato of Marin County, Las Guitarras stands proudly. Since 1978, owners Roja and Maria Elena have been serving the best of Mexico to anyone willing to take the trip.

The purpose of the visit was to meet the family of my companion, K, who feels partially raised by this tight knit Mexican-American family. Although she is she is Costa Rican, she often acts like a Chicana. Tia Emma, who apparently was working that night, invited us to her table. Her son Alberto was at the table too, watching his daughter Isabella playing with a ballon. This is a family joint, family run, and the sight of a Mexican family at play during work hours is endearing. Isabella was just too cute. The boss sat down, and her first glance sent chills down my spine. I came under immediate scrutiny. I told a few jokes, aided by the margaritas, and wooed them with my voracious appetite.

It’s hard not to stare at the grill from my vantage point. The giant oysters, laying there naked and ready, looked look like clients of Balco as well. But first the margaritas, on the rocks made with El Jimador tequila, pure and delicious, easily one of the best I’ve ever had on either side of the border. Not to be outdone, but feeling good, I ordered number two, but requested it frozen. Lalo, part of the family, took quick but cordial offense. “Frozen. Then you lose the fine taste of the tequila. We don’t do frozen at Las Guitarras.” I swallowed in embarrassment, and said, “Of course.” Then Lalo brought out a fresh concoction, this time with the addition of hibiscus, a potent flavor making for an unusually fabulous libation. Time for those monster oysters. Maria Elena insisted on the oyster al Jerez, and I asked for the BBQ for comparison. The BBQ was savory and sweet. The oyster underneath, fat and meaty. The al Jerez had melted white cheese, and the sherry vinegar was a great counterpart. Not a drop of sauce was left. I used the remaining tortilla chips to sop up the sauce from the shells.

The menu was a cross-section of famous dishes from all over Mexico. At the top of the list is the mole, one of the most fascinating and complex dishes Mexico has to offer.

The meeting went well, and the donias nodded in approval. If not for a dinner appointment at Chez Panisse, I would have eaten the house down. Mercifully, after the second potent margarita, I was given my leave, as long as I promised to return for a real taste of Mexico on the following visit. I think I passed the test, if only barely. Hugs and kisses later, we were off to Berkeley for fine dining, but deep in the back of my mind I couldn’t help but thinking about what tasty notes I was missing at Las Guitarras.

The Oyster is a Swan

No trip to the west coast would be complete without sampling some of its oysters. Unlike in rap music, I don’t get into a west coast vs. east coast debate about which is better. I like them all, briny, sweet, large, small, etc. I’m sort of the Kobayashi of bi-valves. I’ll eat as many as you’re willing to shuck. Maybe not as quickly, but slow and steady wins the race.

In San Francisco, the Swan Oyster Depot is the kind of unpretentious, family run place you wish you had in your neighborhood. All white tile and a veritable fisherman’s aroma, with the menus on the wall and family paraphernalia collected from over the years. I made the mistake of walking in there at 5:30 on a Thursday. There were two diners finishing up their meal, and I strutted in expecting to chow down. “Everybody knows we close at 5:30.” I was devastated. The wind got knocked out of me, and I mumbled something as I tumbled backwards out of the restaurant. I stood outside lingering, when one of the burly employees came out to dump some trash. “Don’t fret. We’ll be here tomorrow. We open at eight. Come down for some chowder.” An invitation if I ever heard one.

As it turned out, I strolled in at eleven with my companion and we nudged into two seats near the end of the bar. There is only a bar, of course, as it should be, and the writing is all over the wall. This is the real Mcdeal. I nice older fella took my order, which was everything I could get, and then he proceeded to prepare it himself. He did all the shucking and plating. There were no stations to speak of. Every man or woman was responsible for his/her own customers. A plate of pristine Miyagis came forthwith, and I knew I was in trouble. If not for a lunch appointment, they would have had to ask me to leave, which of course they wouldn’t. They’re so polite. Shrimp cocktail was spot on and the clam chowder warmed my cockles from the San Fran breeze. There was a Stony Hill chardonnay and a $90. Pahlymeyer, but I was happy with my Anchor Steam.

Soft shell crabs are in season, but I couldn’t get my fill of clams and oysters. Everyone had the same smile on their faces, like they’d rather be nowhere else. I agree. I didn’t try the lobster, but I had to leave something for next time. I left, feeling pumped up and ready to go, kissed my swan goodbye, until again.

IN-N-OUT

Unlike Starbuck’s, there are some chains that never make it from the West Coast to the East Coast. The effect Starbuck’s has had on the coffee emergency NYC used to suffer from is palatable, the verdict of its ubiquitous logo, I leave up to you.

I heard so much about In-n-Out, I actually almost forgot to give her a whirl. As a hole in the schedule and my nearly empty belly would have it, there it was, on my way to Half Moon Bay.

The operation was efficient and massive. Burgers were getting produced by some unknown quota. You place your order, pay, get a receipt, wait and consume. The burger was quite tasty. The fries were weak. I had a strawberry shake, not the greatest, but hit the spot. All in all I was happy. I hear there is a secret menu. Something about the 3X3 or the 4X4. All this you can look up on the website.

Back home in NYC I admit I am craving an In-n-Out burger. Maybe we could trade them for White Castle?

A San Francisco Treat

I am on the adventures of the wine and food trail, an extended fourth of July celebration of the best of San Francisco and the Bay area. Slanted Door, Chez Panisse, Swan Oyster Depot, Las Guitarres, Main Street Sushi, Ton Kiang are just a few of the spots I will be reviewing. Stay tuned for a sun filled time to come.