Calvin Trillin: Another unlikely hero in the gastronomic trenches

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Those who aren’t aware of essayist, novelist and poet Calvin Trillin and his canonical work on food and the eating thereof are destined to live out their lives in a gastronomic wasteland.

Trillin is to food writing what Eric Clapton is to rock guitar. His stomach is in constant and joyous growl mode. He is the everyman of American eating — not uppity dining — and has written about food and restaurants in a series of books and in The New Yorker. You don’t have to be hungry to read Trillin, but I guarantee you will be after you read him.

If Trillin says a restaurant is outstanding, it behooves one to try it. He once wrote that San Francisco’s House of Nanking on Kearny Street was the best Chinese restaurant in the world. That’s Trillin you may say. But is it possible he may just be correct?

A Kansas City native, Trillin has frequently written about his favorite restaurant there or anywhere, apparently. In American Fried, subtitled Adventures of a Happy Eater, Trillin states right in the first sentence of the book that “The best restaurants in the world are, of course, in Kansas City. Not all of them; only the top four or five. It has long been known that the single best restaurant in the world is Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue.” See what I mean about Trillin?

In a piece about Vietnamese food in his home base, The New Yorker, Trillin wrote: “The bánh mì sandwich is the only good argument for colonialism.”

Following the Trillin tradition of extended hyperbole, I will state that the best restaurants in the world are, of course, in San Francisco. Not all of them; only the top four or five. Trillin is also fond of holes-in-the-wall, so here are three North Beach holes-in-the-wall I am sure he would approve of.

You’s Dim Sum

No atmosphere and mostly takeout, You’s, on Broadway, has a few tables with the requisite soy and chili sauce in case you can’t wait to eat until you get home. It also has the best pork buns in San Francisco. In Calvin Trillin fashion, my daughter, Laurel, a diligent dim-sum researcher, thinks they may be the best in the world.

Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe

Oral history has it that what is now called Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store —the funky little North Beach cafe at the corner of Union and Columbus, which does not in fact sell cigars — dates back to the 1920s when it did. Over the years this hole-in-the-wall has had several owners, but in 1972 Mario Crismani, a retired police inspector from Trieste, took it over, and his son still operates it today. So forget the cigars and dwell on the panini or focaccia sandwiches, admirable pizzas, cannelloni, lasagna, and eggplant parmigiana. And a tumbler of red wine, an espresso or a cappuccino will help you settle in for the afternoon.

This narrow Italian cafe with a few tables and a bar-counter is today an unlikely combination of old school, North Beach Italian tradition, and young, finger-snapping pop culture. The sound system is programmed with heavy metal, blues, hip-hop, Israeli pop, gypsy punk, and whatever else strikes the fancy of the all-purpose countermen Jacob and Alby, who supply a twitter of hipster playfulness that attracts locals and visitors alike.

The House of Nanking

This Kearny Street Chinese restaurant still meets the requirements for a Trillin hole-in-the-wall, but lately it has gone somewhat upscale. When I first followed Trillin and tried it many years ago, it had the kind of service you can imagine receiving in China under the Red Guards. Ambience was not a word in its vocabulary. Yet the food was then, and still is, so compelling I can’t stay away. Apparently neither can anyone else. Beef with string beans with a dark sauce powered by garlic and red chili flakes; sesame chicken, sweet but hot; and the spring onion cakes gently caressed with a peanut butter sauce — these are big favorites.

When the Michelin Guide awards two stars, it states that the recipient restaurant is worth a detour. These North Beach holes-in-the-wall are worth a detour; however, Calvin Trillin would probably give them three stars: “cuisine worth a special journey” according to Michelin.

Ernest Beyl identifies with Calvin Trillin and others who define themselves as eaters rather than diners. He once flew from San Francisco to Houston primarily to eat at Dozier’s Barbecue where the meat is smoked over pecan wood.

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