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Coastal Commuter

When roaches are your dining companions

The destruction of Candlestick Park to make way for new development — shopping, corporate, residential, whatever — brought back many great memories of Giants and Niners games I had the pleasure to attend. Seeing the ruins was a bittersweet experience. Yes, there was little need for the crumbling dump since the Orange & Black decamped for the best ballyard in Major League Baseball: Pac Bell/SBC/AT&T Park, home of multiple World Series championships. And, for better or worse, the turmoil-ridden Niners are now ensconced in their sterile, sun-baked, high-tech Santa Clara stadium, along with the five Super Bowl trophies that were won when the Red & Gold played at the Stick. So let the wrecking balls swing, the bulldozers plow forward, and the rising dust conjure dreams of past glories.

Those glories aside, the Stick’s demise also reminded me of a rather unique Bayview eatery I’d always motor past on my way to see my hometown teams play. It was a run-down building on Third Street, a couple blocks north of the main access road to Candlestick. It actually looked like a shack, a hobo hideaway, or an abandoned bait and tackle shop even though it was quite a few blocks from the bay itself. Emblazoned across the front of this less-than-inviting one-story eyesore was a crudely lettered sign that read, “You Need No Teeth to Eat Our Beef … Bar-B-Q.”

Appetizing? Not so much. But late one afternoon after a Giants victory, I was paused at the traffic light on the corner next to this sketchy-looking joint, and I could smell the smoky-sweet-and-spicy fragrance of somethin’ cookin.’ So I parked and went in. The interior was not particularly well lighted. There were a few patrons, including a family of four sitting at a shaky wooden table and absolutely wolfing down a mountain of ribs. No one appeared particularly toothless. I went to the counter and ordered a side of beef ribs with collard greens and cornbread after considering a catfish dinner listed on the yellowing paper menu. Questions of hygiene aside, the food was spectacular with the most tender fall-off-the-bone meat and a barbecue sauce that provided a perfect balance of molasses sweetness and peppery bite.

I wondered if there was a story behind the establishment and its name, but I was too busy reveling in the flavors to ask. As soon as my plate was emptied of all edibles, I left to meet some friends in SoMa for a postgame beer. I doubt that “You Need No Teeth, etc.” sign is still there. So be it. The memory of that magnificent meal sticks with me. And I didn’t spot a rat or a roach in a restaurant that, from the outside, seemed like a perfect place to breed them.

I should always be so lucky.

I’ve long been a patron of Tu Lan, the recently renovated Vietnamese restaurant on rough and raw Sixth Street at Market. In addition to being a destination lunch spot for my fellow journalists and me when I worked at the San Francisco Chronicle, Tu Lan was extolled by no less a food authority than legendary chef Julia Child, whose visage and endorsement are printed on the menus there. I’m not sure if Child ever encountered the cadre of cockroaches that would boldly skitter about the place during business hours in the years before the renovation, but they never stopped me (or so many others) from eating there. I thought the risks were worth it, especially when it came to Tu Lan’s Vietnamese cold chicken salad. The health inspectors clearly thought differently; thus, a closure was followed by a remodel and reopening. Though I’ve heard no word about any uninvited dinner guests at the new Tu Lan, I’ll be dining there again at some point in the near future, and will see for myself.

I wasn’t so sanguine about returning to Damiano Mr. Pizza on Fairfax in Los Angeles after I discovered a roach masquerading as an anchovy on a slice of what was, at the time, the closest thing you could get to New York-style pizza in L.A. My pal Hugh had initially recommended Damiano, and I had enjoyed quite a few slices there over the years. I also noticed that the lighting in the pizzeria got dimmer and dimmer with each visit. It’s amazing that I could even see the creature crawling on my last slice, considering how dark the room was. And in that darkness, who knows how many other creepers lurked just beyond my reach — and how many I might have eaten over the years? As it happens, the owners shuttered Damiano in 2013. If it wasn’t closed for sanitary reasons, it should’ve been.

It’s the threat you don’t know that can be the most treacherous. At least Tu Lan was always brightly lighted. You could see the roaches before they reached your plate, and block them from sharing your grub. There was something comforting about that.

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Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on KPFK/Pacifica Radio's David Feldman Show and Thom Hartmann Show and on Michael Snyder's Culture Blast, available online at GABnet.net and YouTube. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster

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