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Eating Good in My Neighborhood

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“Hey there Blondie, you gonna order or what?”

I turn red and bite the side of my mouth. “Uhhh.” How could I possibly be confused? The menu is painted three feet high on the back wall. Three youngish, muscular, handsome Italian men stare at me over the large deli counter, arms folded across their chests, curly black hair tucked under baseball caps. “Hey Sal, looks we’ve gotta stall out.” What? Me? Am I the “stall out”? “Italian on a bun, please,” I mumble. “What’s zat?” “Italian on a bun, please,” I say loud and clear. This better be a good sandwich, I think as I hand over $5.75 to a wise-cracking cashier.

It is. It’s an Italian sub like I’ve never tasted. Warm, fresh-from-the-oven bread. Freshly shaved Italian Boar’s Head meats, lettuce, tomato, deli mustard, salt, pepper, and a dash of oil and vinegar. This is Salvaggio’s Deli in Boulder, Colorado, and this is the abuse one may have to endure in order to wrap your mouth around a piece of Italian heaven. Is it worth it? To me, yes. To you, well, if you’re in the neighborhood, you’ll have to make that decision yourself.

So what gives with the rudeness? I’ll tell ya. The antics and unpredictable behavior of ethnic restaurants are becoming an attraction to foodies these days. The more cantankerous the chef or the wait staff, the more attractive the place. What keeps us coming back to these hole-in-the-wall establishments that are low-priced and high-abuse? It’s the addiction to the experience, the authenticity, the feeling like you’ve just barged into someone’s kitchen for dinner—uninvited—but what the heck, sit down and grab a plate. These out-of-the-way restaurants, cafés, and delis usually aren’t the cleanest—or well-decorated, or even fully-staffed—but the food is real, hearty, and full of flavor and history. So much so, that we find ourselves pushing aside any number of complaints that would have us storming the kitchen in a three- or four-dollar-sign eatery.

Victor’s, in the San Francisco neighborhood of SoMa, is real Tijuana-Mexican food. Have I been to Tijuana? No, but I imagine if I did it would look and smell like Victor’s. “Hola Guapo. Hola Guapa,” the ladies who are cooking call out when you walk in. (Translation: “Hi handsome. Hi Beautiful.”) The tables and chairs are mix-and-match and there are crumbs on the floor, but that’s not really the first thing you notice. The smells of stewed meat and tomatoes and spicy chilies preoccupy you and draw you to the counter, where there is a bowl of homemade salsa next to a basket of chips. Normally, I would see this setup as a Petri dish for germs—but at Victor’s, I find myself in a finger-fight for the bowl, large chip in hand, against businessmen and construction workers alike.

Taqueria Cancun in San Francisco’s Mission District is much the same. If you’re willing to withstand loud Mexican music, drunk après-party crowds, hustling teenagers, and homeless people, then you’ll eat one of the best burritos you’ve encountered without a passport. Arriba!!

At Lee’s Deli in San Francisco, they set records for the fastest, cheapest sandwiches ever made. As soon as you walk in to these small corner stores you hear,

“Nextpleasehihowareyouwhatcan Igetyouthanksforcomingnextplease.” It’s massive confusion—with lettuce, tomatoes, and mustard. The key is knowing exactly what you want to order before attempting Lee’s. It’s not hard, because they have all of your standard sandwiches, from egg salad, to PB&J, to BLT. The thing about Lee’s is that before you blink an eye, you’ve been hustled through the line to the checkout stand and handed over money for your sandwich. When I lived in SF, I had an addiction to Lee’s “Healthy” sandwich—three to four times a week. The price varied between $2.85 and $3.10, but my sandwich never did. It’s a phenomenon I never resolved, and decided not to—because I loved the sandwich. Like the Seinfeld episode, “Soup Nazi,” if you fumble or stutter or take too much time, you’ll be cast out from the line. It’s a tough, stressful situation—but I assure you, for sandwich lovers, well worth it.

Bakeman’s, in Seattle’s Financial District, shares the same credo. It’s a cafeteria-style sandwich place that serves sandwiches reminiscent of mom’s leftover Thanksgiving sandwich—with turkey, mayo, and cranberry sauce on white bread. The line snakes out the door and down the block from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and if you hesitate or change your order: “Hey—are you a blonde? What’s going on in ya head? Move. I got more sandwiches to make.” Step up to the counter, ask for white-on-white, m-and-m, and you’ll be safe.

Maybe the crown jewel of all food joints that disrespect you and keep you coming back for more is the Weiner’s Circle in Chicago. They serve a Chicago dog (i.e., Vienna all-beef dog topped with celery salt, mustard, tomatoes, and mayo) to die for. At first glance, the Weiner’s Circle looks like your standard hole-in-the-wall hotdog stand, but when you enter and hear, “What the f**k you want?” you’ll understand why it’s best to come back after you’ve had a few beers and can withstand the total degradation of your manhood/womanhood (they don’t discriminate). The staff is loud, crude, full of obscenities, and have been known to show some extra skin for $10. But it’s the best beef in a bun you’ll ever have.

Should good food come with a side of embarrassment and agony? Well, the alternative is a standard meal of boredom and blandness. You take your pick. Just know that at the neighborhood ethnic joints, there are no clear rules established for decorum or ordering. You’re never guaranteed that the atmosphere will be calm or even attractive. What you can count on is a food experience like no other. So let’s keep eatin’.

Try out the places I visited in this article:

  • Taqueria Cancun: 2288 Mission Street, San Francisco, California
  • Salvaggios Italian Deli: 1397 Pearl Street, Boulder, Colorado
  • Victors: 210 Townsend Street, San Francisco, California
  • Lee’s Deli: various locations around the Financial District, San Francisco, California
  • Bakeman’s: 122 Cherry Street, Seattle, Washington
  • Weiner’s Circle: 2622 North Clark Street, Chicago, Illinois


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