Balboa Café

The tongue finds it easier than the heart to put prejudice aside

You’re probably over the whole runoff election thing by now, but I’m writing this three days after the Gonzalez campaign party—easily the best defeat party that I’ve ever attended—and the whole thing is still a bit too fresh. The window signs are still up, and people haven’t taken their buttons off yet, and I still can’t say “Mayor Newsom” without choking a little.

I’ve been thinking about something Gonzalez said at that party: “When Mayor Newsom is wrong, we’ll be there to oppose him. [Huge cheer from the crowd.] But—I want to emphasize this—when Mayor Newsom is right, we’ve got to get behind him and support him. [Quieter, more complicated cheer.]”

I admire that sentiment. Gonzalez insists on treating politics as a rational discussion among people of mostly good faith. It’s to his credit that he continued to treat it that way not only through the season of his insurgency but on the night of his defeat.

I admire it, but I don’t know that I can live up to it. I don’t want to find things to like about Mayor Newsom (choke) right now, and I suspect I won’t have a hard time finding things to oppose. I don’t know how well I’ll be able to put aside my rancor (the guy built his career on cutting welfare benefits!) and support Mayor Newsom when he implements this great new computer system he keeps talking about (not all welfare benefits—just the ones for people sleeping on the streets!) that helps target city resources more effectively.

It might be easier, though, to maintain some neutrality in the culinary arena.

First, the full-disclosure bit. As a staffer at this paper, I wrote some stories and editorials that were unfavorable to Newsom. Last year I worked on a campaign to fight his Care Not Cash measure, which I thought was a despicable piece of political exploitation, and this year I volunteered in small and unspectacular ways for two of his opponents.

And yet, trying to live up to Gonzalez’s injunction, I went to the Balboa Park Café, one of the three San Francisco restaurants founded and owned by mayor-elect Newsom’s Plumpjack group, and ordered a roast pork sandwich to go. I ordered it to go because (a) this column is about takeout food, and (b) I didn’t feel entirely comfortable there. I sat and ate the sandwich in the car, because it seemed unfair to judge it after a trip across the city in the rain, and because I was hungry.

The first thing to note about the roast pork sandwich is that it wasn’t a sandwich at all—it was a serving of pork in barbecue sauce just sitting there in the paper carton, with no bread (the sine qua non of a sandwich) of any kind in sight. I don’t know if the “roast pork sandwich” listed on the menu is a misnomer or if this was an error on the part of the restaurant staff, but either way: Poor management! Something Mayor Newsom has done wrong! A chance to oppose him!

And yet I didn’t oppose him—at least, I didn’t go back into the restaurant and complain. I lodged a silent protest, alone in my car, and ate the pork with the plastic knife and fork provided.

The shreds of meat were tender and chewy, with a rich, woody flavor: they had plenty of juicy moistness but no big pieces of fat. The heavily caramelized barbecue sauce was perhaps a bit sweeter than absolutely necessary, but tasty all the same. It turns out that the tongue finds it easier than the heart to put prejudice aside. There was a part of me that didn’t want to like the food at Balboa Café—a part that hoped to find it expensive and insincere or something. But that part was overruled by the inescapable evidence on my plastic fork. The roast pork is something that Mayor Newsom is doing right, and I am going to get behind him and support him on it.

I’m also going to wholeheartedly endorse the pickle slices, which were incredible: sharp, sweet, and slightly spicy all at once. There are delis in New York that wish they had pickles like this. The pickled red onion rings were almost as good. The handmade potato chips, hash-sliced, were maybe not worth the trouble of handmaking—I’m not sure I’ve ever had homemade chips that are any better than, say, Cape Cod brand chips from the store—but on this issue there is surely room for reasonable minds to disagree. And I can’t cavil with the quantities: there were at least seven or eight of those pickle slices, a generous serving of the chips, and an adequate allotment of pork. The price—nine bucks—was more than I’d like to pay for a roast pork sandwich, especially one without bread, but that’s what you get for venturing north of California Street.

Mysteriously, Newsom included little sachets of ketchup and mustard—a sign, I suspect, that someone had intended to serve the pork on a sandwich, someone who can’t quite differentiate between a hamburger (on which ketchup and mustard might be appropriate) and a barbecue pork sandwich (on which they would be anathema). Perhaps I could attack this: A wasteful corporate giveaway? An example of the private sector’s inefficiencies? I could make a play on pork barrel ... The mustard, in true Marina style, was Grey Poupon. I sat there in my car, on Fillmore Street, in the rain, waiting for a limousine to pull up next to me and ask for some.