Pork Store Café / Siam Lotus Thai
Perhaps the least interesting column so far
I have this weird thing about the Haight where I can’t ever find anything I want to eat there. I’m not talking about the Lower Haight, which offers first-rate sausages, hamburgers, and barbecue. But upper Haight Street, main drag of the storied Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, the spiritual center of one crucial piece of this town’s oddball cultural heritage—its culinary slogan should be “When people are high, standards are low.” When I’m in a bad mood I’ll tell you that Haight Street is everything that’s wrong with San Francisco all braided into a single lanyard of crap: the tourist tat and the lazy post-post-counterculture and the crossbreeding of historicism with memory loss. Most of the food available there reflects this.
So I try to avoid eating on upper Haight Street, for the most part. (I like going to Cha Cha Cha, a long-running, unpidgeonholeable restaurant with unique and great pan-Latin/Carribean/Cajun/tapas food, but the atmosphere there is a little too party for me to wander in on my own after going to Amoeba or something.) The other day, though, I had lunch at the Pork Store Café, which I usually think of as a brunch place that’s much too small to go to for brunch unless you want to spend your Sunday standing on Haight Street declining narcotics. In the middle of a weekday afternoon, it turns out, it’s half-empty and serves a very respectable lunch.
I got the fried chicken in honey batter, which was really succulent and juicy. (Chicken is only valid when it’s fried or roasted. Grilled chicken, the official meat of the 1990s, is midway between real food and tofu or seitan or the robot meat of the future.) It was served with mashed potatoes that contained a little pool of white gravy to dip the chicken in, and with spinach, which seemed pretty anomalous. From the taste, it was clear that spinach contains a lot of iron, which maybe you would rather not be able to tell from the taste.
And then the next day I ate at Siam Lotus Thai, mostly because I saw one of the waitstaffers from the Pork Store Café going in and I figured he’d probably know what he was doing. I can’t tell you about anything on the menu, because I ordered entirely off the specials board. (I have always believed that if I order the special then the chef will be more interested in preparing my meal because s/he hasn’t made this particular dish a million times before, and that this will result in a meal that has been cooked with special attention and love and care. Now that I’ve written it down, it’s obvious to me that this theory is total bullshit.)
The appetizer—curry crab and shrimp with crispy rice—was a little dish of green peanut curry sauce with the crab and shrimp swimming in it. (To be honest, I don’t remember there being any shrimp, although I may have missed it.) The curry sauce was mild and tasty, but it completely overpowered the crab flavor. Whether that’s a problem or not depends on your perspective: On the one hand, crab has a pleasant flavor, and that’s partly why I ordered it. (So does shrimp, of course, but I’m not sure that’s relevant.) On the other hand, crab also has a pleasant texture, flaky and springy at once, and as a result it made a fine vehicle for the curry sauce. The curry was accompanied by four crispy rice cakes, which at a total of 16 cubic inches of rice cake was way more rice cake than I was interested in.
The mango Thai curry was exactly the kind of thing you hope to find at a neighborhood Asian restaurant. Big chunks of mango, thin slices of smoky pork, and lots of fresh basil, fried up with a couple of spicy peppers and some chopped garlic: how bad can it be? I’m a fan of the use of mango in savory dishes; it’s sweet, but it has a particular meaty robustness that stands up well to salt or chili. I wasn’t quite as bullish on the asparagus wok-fried noodles with chicken. The asparagus was fresh and still had some snap to it, and the chicken had a pleasant lemony exterior. But there wasn’t enough sauce or spice, and the noodles came off pretty bland.
I’m not here to make any extravagant claims for Siam Lotus Thai. But it obviously aims at a target demographic that’s not, you know, high as a kite, and when you’re hungry in the Haight, that’s enough.