North Beach Journal

Pho, ‘San Francisco Noir,’ signs of the times, the Grateful Dead, and Alice Waters

Is the Coit Tower filled with pho? photo:


I used to entertain the not too far-fetched idea that Lillie Hitchcock Coit’s wonderful tower on Telegraph Hill was filled with red sauce piped down daily to North Beach restaurants. But I’ve changed my mind about that. Neighborhood Italian joints are getting too good at making their own sauce. Try U.S. Restaurant for example. It makes some of the best spaghetti sauces in the business.

These days I believe Coit Tower is filled to the brim with pho, that incredible Vietnamese broth of the gods. Vietnamese noodle soup establishments are all over the city now. There are three in North Beach alone. But the best is My Canh on Broadway. My friend Tran Thi Thuy, proprietor, makes her own pho. Slurping Thuy’s pho is an out of this world odyssey, like dining with one’s ancestral spirits.


Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe in North Beach has become a hot bed of musical talent. Some fine musicians are hanging out there. Consider:

Jimmy Sorensen, the manager, plays guitar for gigs around the neighborhood.

At a recent North Beach party, Jasiel Berg, the beautiful barista, sang the Roy Orbison part for a cover of the Traveling Wilburys tune “Handle Me with Care.” Jas sang with Mario’s regular, Patrick Douglas, who plays guitar and sings at events around town.

Jessie Silva, a talented singer, left the comfort zone of working as a barista at Mario’s for Austin, Tex. I’m watching for her to appear on Austin City Limits.

Now, up springs Brian Keeney, another Mario’s regular and one-time bartender at the old Washington Square Bar and Grill. He’s cut an album of his own tunes called Brian Keeney: Live at Bird-SF.


I was doing some fieldwork on neighborhood saloons recently and dropped into La Rocca’s Corner, an old-timers joint on Columbus Avenue, and discovered an intriguing sign in the window: “English Spoken Here.” And that prompted my continuing investigation of saloon signs as part of my ongoing scientific study of just what’s going on that’s right in our country. I offer for your consideration two examples that reflect, well, signs of the times. Of course, all of this is in the spirit of scholarly inquiry.

Next to the bar at Original Joe’s: “Champions Reside Here.”

Behind the bar in Gino and Carlo: “F—k Jed York.”


Not long ago I ran into Linda Kelly at a North Beach joint. You may recall the vivacious Linda as the author of a book on the Grateful Dead. Her book, Deadhead, is my choice of this month’s Marina Times’s “must reads.” Linda, a lean, mean machine, was sitting next to me at the bar and there were instant thunderbolts from the guy sitting next to her, who I thought was paying undue attention to our conversation.

“Is this guy your main squeeze?” I inquired of Linda.

He was.


I ventured downtown recently for the Leica Gallery debut of the new Fred Lyon photo book, San Francisco Noir. Beautiful collectors’ prints were mounted around the gallery, and Fred was there signing copies of this new masterpiece.

Many of the photos were shot in North Beach, a noir kind of neighborhood where a lot of noir kind of people live.


Alice Waters, doyen of California food culture, has a new book, an autobiography called Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook. North Beachers will be delighted to know when Waters was planning for her Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, which opened in 1971, she dined in this old neighborhood repeatedly for inspiration. Where? Tomasso’s, Vanessi’s, and Yuet Lee. At Tomasso’s, she writes, “I loved the pizzas with garlic. There was some sort of convergence of taste for me — the garlic flavor was associated with that taste of really good food from the wood oven.”

Let’s have a round of applause for North Beach garlic.



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