I have a lot of fond memories of my grandma Shirley, who’s actually my step-grandmother, but since all my actual grandparents had passed when I was little or before birth, she’s the grandmother I got to know. She came into my life a year before my bar mitzvah and spoiled me rotten for the next 15 or so years and man o man do I miss her. Mostly because she was a hoot! Whether she knew it or not.
I remember this one time– I was probably 20 years old– I’d driven home to San Diego for the weekend since I had a car at UCLA and the dorm laundry machines were always broken, occupied, or because I was generally out of quarters. Yep, sitting in 405 South traffic for five hours on a Friday night was worth it. Sometimes I brought some friends with me and sometimes I didn’t, but regardless, a weekend at home was a chance to relax with family, leisurely wash eight loads of laundry for free, raid my parent’s fridge, “study” without too many distractions, and watch whatever I wanted on cable TV.
At the time of this one specific visit, I was a vegetarian. I know, strange right? How many internationally renowned food and travel blogger do you know are vegetarian? And yes, there are people in other countries that read Eatsporkjew.com….I can’t confirm how many, but I know they’re out there. But that’s not the point, being a vegetarian was something I needed to get out of my system. Something I needed to do at least once in my life so I could check it off the list and move on. I’d just met a few white kids with dreads in my anthropology of women’s health class who’d made vegetarianism sound trendy and cool, like it was the right thing to do for my own health and that of the environment too. And before I knew it, I was eating like a rabbit…and pooping like one too! Just know that I was very impressionable in college. I’d just come out of the closet and I was still trying to figure out what kind of “gay” I was gonna be. Looking back, it’s now clear that vegetarian gay wasn’t me.
That weekend at home I was about a week into my stint as a lacto ovotarian (vegetarian who eats eggs and dairy). I’d just put my whites in the dryer, started a new load of colors, and was foraging for food in my parent’s kitchen. Grandma Shirley was sitting in her La-Z-Boy recliner; where she always sat, either doing her crossword puzzles or pretending to understand Rosalinda, the Mexican telenovela Lupe (her Mexican day-nurse) was glued to everyday between 10am and 3pm.
Unable to find anything “vegetarian” that would satisfy my urge for meat (go figure), I let out a big sigh of frustration and slammed a few kitchen cabinet doors.
“Do you want me to make you something, honey?” Grandma Shirley asked with her mouse-like voice. She must have heard the hunger pains of my stomach churning from across the room. Slowly she pushed herself up from the chair where her ass had left a permanent indentation and I quickly responded.
“No, I’m fine,” I said, “don’t get up, I’ll find something I’m sure.”
By then she’d gone vertical, and I could see the conviction in her eyes telling me there was no chance in hell she’d go back to sitting down without making at least one daily loop to the kitchen and back first.
“Are you sure?” she asked, “I can make you a pastrami sandwich.”
Her frail body moved slowly across the room. Ever since she broke her hip, her physical capabilities had been on the decline.
“Thanks Grandma,” I said, “but I’m a vegetarian now.”
“A what?” she asked, with her white poof of thinned curly hair crimped in the back from where it rested on the chair. She had the most confused look on her face, her eyes sunken behind folds of wrinkly skin, practically hidden by her giant plastic rimmed glass frames.
“I’m a vegetarian now.” I said, repeating myself a little louder to make sure she heard me. I remember the joy and satisfaction those words I’m a vegetarian now gave me, because I’d finally experienced that moment I believe all vegetarians dream of; that moment where they get to guilt people into feeling bad for them for taking one for the team, and putting their Birkenstock-adorned feet down against cruelty to animals. If my vegetarian brethren and I couldn’t eat everything, we were going to make other people feel bad about it. And it felt good to finally be the one who got to be the inconvenience rather than be inconvenienced. Unfortunately, I was challenging my 85-year-old grandmother to find me a suitable workaround, and for that I felt a little guilty myself.
“It means I don’t eat meat anymore.” I said, thinking that would end the discussion.
But without missing a beat, she looked up from the floor, and with a look of certainty she said, “Oh that’s alright. It’s turkey pastrami!”
I laughed for a second and explained to her that turkey pastrami was still meat and not something us vegetarians were allowed to eat. I gave her a kiss on the cheek and thanked her for the offer, before leaving the room to check on my laundry. And when I made it back to the kitchen a few minutes later, I noticed a small plate on the counter with a paper napkin folded in half and tucked underneath. On it was a small turkey pastrami sandwich on rye bread with a light scraping of dijon mustard.
I haven’t told anyone until now….but I ate that sandwich like a savage beast and washed it down with a Diet Coke before going straight back to being a vegetarian for another week. And then I realized that just wasn’t my cup of tea.
I miss you Grandma Shirley!
Frances in San Francisco’s Castro District
It took us awhile to get a reservation, but eventually we got in—to Frances! One of the San Francisco’s best restaurants—definitely the best in the Castro—that is coincidentally named after Chef Melissa Perello’s grandmother, Frances. The story behind the name not only makes it an awesome restaurant with special meaning for anyone who loves/loved their grandmother, but it happens to be delicious. It’s no surprise that it’s one of the hardest reservations to get in town, because, in addition to producing some of the most delectable dishes, it’s tiny too.
In the first year it opened, we’d passed by the restaurant a few times late at night and tried to get a seat at the bar, which they keep reserved for about 10-12 walk-ins, but the seats were always full, or the host warned us that they were out of four of the five mains already. But we were patient and eventually got a reservation, and it was definitely worth the wait.
The small San Francisco restaurant reminds me of so many Brooklyn restaurants with dark wood floors, warm grayish brown walls and two-tops delicately arranged to just fit within the dining room like a Tangam wooden puzzle. The wait staff is amazing! They know every obscure ingredient inside and out, and Paul (the sommelier) is not only friendly and easy to talk to, but depending on your taste, he might just suggest you order a carafe of their house red, because it’s not only palatable, but it’s the best value on the menu! Yeah, they do house wines by the ounce, which is awesome for your pocketbook.
Having little room to work with, I have to applaud the servers and Patrick (the GM) for conducting them in what feels like a seamless symphony of bobbing and weaving. There were four of us at our table, which might be a scosh smaller than a normal four-top, and the waiters knew exactly when and where to move our plates around. Attention to detail is key for me, and when the bread guy asked if I wanted to middle or an end piece rather than just give me whatever was left on his plate, my heart warmed even more. They fluffed the bench seat pillows along the wall before you sit down, and the butter is served with salt and shaped into a little tube.
Feeling cramped is not an option with the friendly hospitality you’ll find at Frances. The warmth and love everyone put into taking care of us and serving us dinner, reminded me of eating Shabbat dinners at my grandmother’s house. Only at Frances, the food is so much better!
Here’s what we ate:
Grilled calamari with pickled currants, roccola and fennel. The calamari was perfectly cooked, just warm enough to melt like butter with these little bursts of sweetness from the pickled currants. The bright acidity of currants complimented the bitter fennel and arugula salad with Meyer Lemon vinaigrette.
Baby kale and duck confit salad with crisp shallots, Medjool dates and fennel agrodolce. The dates were soft and sweet like a brown sugar and butter paste, which is exactly what you want with each bite of gamey duck.
Iacopi butter bean soup with grilled crostini, olive tapenade and parmesan cheese. I can’t be sure, but I think there was bacon in this soup, because it had a strong smoky flavor that was gently cut with the salt from the olives.
Gulf snapper with yellowfoot mushrooms, sunchokes, celery root, and Meyer Lemon gremolata. The sunchoke was cooked until soft and sweet like chestnuts and the fish was moist, and flaky with a nice crispy skin.
Now I love my side dishes and would normally order at least two or three, but since we were dining with Jonathan’s sister and mother; who’ve mysteriously mastered the art of self-restraint, we just got one. But it was soooooo good, we didn’t need any others.
The gratin of broccoli with San Andrea Mezzano cheese was served in a cute ceramic dish and a cheesy bubbly crust.
And we saved the best for last with the chocolate almond ‘Clafoutis’ with caramelized bananas, burnt caramel, next to a cannelle salted caramel ice cream. To this day, I dream of this dessert!