Welcome Home

Those parts of America where balsamic vinegar is still viewed with suspicion

In his 1988 critical study T. S. Eliot and Prejudice, Christopher Ricks lambasted “the ethnic slur which preposterously reserves the word ethnic itself for certain privileged (disprivileged) ethnicities or even restaurants.” San Francisco is ground zero for this sin. We’re spoiled by exotica, by the foods of Asia and Europe and our own minority cultures. We are rootless cosmopolites, stuffing ourselves with every cuisine except the indigenous one. This city, so well supplied with every extrinsic kind of restaurant you can imagine, suffers from a dearth of mainstream American food.

There’s fast food, but that’s not mainstream except in the sick corporate fantasia of efficiency that passes for a modern world. There’s a couple of Denny’s, a chain that seems to take its inspiration from the old-Jewish-ladies joke: “The food here is terrible!” / “I know! And such small portions!” There’s the Lucky Penny, at Geary and Masonic, which gets points for being open all night, and for being furnished almost entirely with booth- and counter-space, and that’s about all the points it gets.

Filling the gap, though, is the Castro’s aptly named Welcome Home—a little window on those parts of America where balsamic vinegar is still viewed with suspicion.

Although Welcome Home seems to survive on brunch custom alone, the menu is admirably complete. The sandwich list reaches beyond the BLT and club and tuna melt to offer a French dip, a turkey/cranberry, and a corned beef Reuben. The entrées include salisbury steak, pork chops with applesauce, and the comeback-ready liver and onions. But, as any ontologist will tell you, things are defined as much by what they don’t contain as by what they do. In that spirit: Welcome Home does not serve a single vegetable-based entrée. They don’t offer to make your scrambled eggs with tofu instead of eggs. The only fish dishes are variants of tuna salad.

More to the point, Welcome Home betrays not one shred of attitude about preparing food the way a hundred million people have made it before. Welcome Home has been around since 1977, according to the front of the menu, during which time it has thankfully been kept safe from reformers and modernizers who might have decided to go all tempura with the onion rings or turn the sandwiches into panini or otherwise treat the autochthonous cuisine of the American highway with the kind of condescension that says red-state cooking is only valid when some high-art snob trying to be all postmodern comes along and gussies it up.

I would love to be able to report that each item on Welcome Home’s menu represents the Platonic ideal of the dish in question. This would be an exaggeration. Rather, I will say this: Welcome Home makes the grade, clears the bar, gets the job done. I’ve tried the chicken-fried steak, the pork chop, and the hamburger. None of them will become the standard by which all others are judged, but each one will satisfy its corresponding itch thoroughly.

Chicken-fried steak—steak fried in breadcrumb batter as if it were fried chicken—is one of those best-of-both-worlds dishes, like chocolate-covered pretzels, that make you feel like you’re getting away with something. At WelHo, the batter is sufficiently thick and crisp, and the meat is lean but not tough. The traditional white “country gravy” contains big pieces of sausage, which tells you something about the restaurant’s particular interpretation of the concept of luxury. There’s also mashed potatoes and a baked biscuit. The biscuit is thickly slathered with butter and comes with a little side dish of butter—room-temperature butter, rather than one of those solid oblong lozenges that are packaged between two sheets of wax paper and then stored in freezers to prevent them from attaining spreadability.

No one is going to get as excited about a pork chop as they are about a chicken-fried steak (except perhaps the editors of Food and Wine, who four years ago, after what one presumes was a pretty heated internal debate, named pork “the meat of the millennium”). But WH’s pork chop was juicy and tender, and the menu’s promise that it would arrive “smothered with grilled onions” was no mere promotional hyperbole. And the hamburger, while no Burger Joint–style Niman Ranch masterpiece, met the three main tests—pink in the middle, gristle-free, doesn’t taste like the inside of a freezer—thus setting itself two solid tiers above the average.

Welcome Home encourages take-out: the menus, at least, bear the legend, “All Food Available for Take Out” on the front. Sadly, this takeout-friendliness is not reflected in the to-go packaging, which consists of the standard Styrofoam clamshells: on arrival at my residence, the French fries were getting friendly with the applesauce, while the hamburger had been doused in vinaigrette. Welcome home indeed.

P.S. This completely contradicts that whole bit above about the inherent nobility of indigenous cuisine and the iniquity of trying to fancify it, but here’s something that occurred to me while I was eating the chicken-fried steak: some culinary wunderkind should add a chicken-fried filet mignon to his or her menu and then email me about it immediately.