Dottie’s True Blue Café
Paying extra and overeating to substitute for human society
Real chefs hate brunch, according to something I read somewhere. It’s hard to blame them. From a culinary perspective, brunch is absurdly limited: it comprises a subset of breakfast, itself the most limited meal before brunch was invented. (Which it was—by an Englishman named Guy Beringer, in 1895. We’ll get back to him.) Brunch, in its mainstream incarnation, can be reduced to two dishes: something involving eggs and something involving maple syrup. You can see why the talented cooks who bless San Francisco with their creativity, who lie awake nights conceiving new ways to pleasure our collective palate, spurn the idea of restricting themselves to French toast and omlettes. But the result is a weekly instance of what the economists call market failure: two thirds of the city’s restaurants sit closed Sunday morning while crowds wait for hours outside any place that can griddle a pancake.
Back to Beringer. These days we get excited about hotshot computer programmers who conceive new ways to look at maps and pay our bills, but how many people have invented an entirely new meal? Here’s how he pitched it: “Brunch is cheerful, sociable and inciting. It is talk-compelling.” In what’s surely a record for truth in advertising, that promise still holds true a century later. Late Sunday morning is the only time of the week when the claims of professional duty, sexual striving, and exhaustion don’t intrude on those of friendship. “Dinner plans” invariably turn into a months-long festival of cancellation and rescheduling, but brunch dates are kept. That sociability is built into brunch’s gustatory architecture. A proper brunch consists of one person ordering an egg thing and the other ordering a syrup thing and the two of them going halves and trying to keep the syrup from getting all over the potatoes.
Solo brunch, then, is a dispiriting affair, beginning with a lengthy sojourn in line and necessitating a compromise at the ordering stage. But it’s hard to feel bad when you’re eating brunch at Dottie’s True Blue Café. This morning I got there on the early side and stood on the sidewalk for almost an hour. Once I’d made it to a seat at the counter—the solo bruncher’s demesne—I was unwilling to sacrifice my right to enjoy both a maple-syrup dish and an egg dish just because I didn’t have anyone to share with. Instead I ordered one chipotle chicken scramble and one blueberry pancake, paid for a brunch and a half, and ate too much.
Paying extra and overeating to substitute for human society might seem like a misguided strategy, but it worked pretty well in this case. And sitting at the counter gave me an opportunity to watch the tiny little grill area and try to figure out what makes Dottie’s’s brunch so good. I’m still baffled.
There’s a stove guy and a prep guy. The prep guy is mostly out of view, and the stove guy is doing exactly the same stuff as every other short-order cook in America. I watched him reach into the fridge and grab a bucket of pancake batter, ladle a dollop onto the griddle, and then ignore it for what seemed like about ten minutes while he attended to other stuff, like sloshing eggs around in little pans and putting a sausage under one of those heavy ingots to smush it down onto the hot surface. I saw him return to the pancake, flip it confidently onto its verso side with a spatula, and ignore it for another five minutes. And then I saw him lay it on a plate on the counter. About two minutes later the waitress brought it to me. It was lighter, fluffier, and yet still somehow moister than any pancake I have ever eaten anywhere else. It contained whole, ripe blueberries rather than those emaciated little blueberry skins that you usually get in pancakes. I always assumed that cooking blueberries turned them into those little blueberry-pellets, but apparently it’s more complicated than that.
That chicken scramble: chicken, cheddar cheese, corn, zucchini, and tomato mixed with scrambled eggs. In conception it’s no different from the scrambled eggs at your local blackboard creperie, but in execution it’s a different and far more delicious beast. I wish I could give you a better explanation as to why. Some of the difference can be attributed to fresher ingredients: corn is the kind of detail that most eggmongers treat as filler, whereas Dottie’s’s corn tastes like it just came off a cob purchased at a roadside stand, i.e. it tastes like corn. But anywhere else, pieces of fresh tomato in my eggs would make me suspicious: tomato is too watery and delicate to survive the scrambling process with its flavor unharmed. In Dottie’s’s scramble it takes everything the cooking process can deliver and still punches its weight.
The specials board described the scramble as containing ground beef. When I asked for one, the waitress warned me that they were out of beef and that chicken was pinch-hitting. Apparently they had big tasty shreds of chicken just hanging out waiting to fill in for the beef. This is a restaurant with a deep bench.
Edible Complex gets results: In the August 24 issue, I somehow managed to find fault with the pizzas at Delfina Pizzeria. “The crusts extend too far toward the pizza’s center,” I wrote, like a whiny little baby that has somehow learned to type, “which means that some of the slices consist of a tiny triangle of sauce and cheese attached to a big handful of bread.” Boo fucking hoo. Subsequent visits, plus lots of surreptitious peering at the pizzas on the sidewalk tables while walking past the restaurant, suggest that Delfina has heeded my pathetic whims. Crusts are now restricted to a uniform inch around the circumference, so every slice has a full allotment of Delfina’s sauce, which was described in the earlier column as “perfectly balanced and integrated.” Don’t thank me—well, OK, thank me if you want.
Edible Complex totally fails to get results: My self-esteem was burgeoning after that display of influence, and for a few blissful hours I imagined that I might finally be in a position to make a positive contribution toward a better world. Specifically, I dared to dream that the powers that be might have addressed the fiasco that is the service at Barney’s Gourmet Hamburgers on College Avenue.
Instead, Barney’s managers seem to have read the July 13 column in which I took them to task, laughed malevolently, and gone back to counting their big piles of money. On a recent visit, a burger ordered medium rare came back medium well, and a hold-the-cheese request made in reference to one person’s chicken sandwich was applied to a fellow diner’s as well. Mistakes are inevitable in the food service game, but when those mistakes become the rule rather than the exception—when an establishment cannot be trusted to fulfill the most basic provisions of the contract between restaurant and customer—then it’s time to get your hamburgers somewhere else. Ben ’n Nick’s, about two blocks south on College, may not have the word gourmet in the title, but at least they know how to cook a hamburger without charring it all the way through.