November 2020

Pecan Pie

About thirty years ago there appeared on 24th Street a few doors east of Castro an enterprise known as Noe Valley Bakery. It flourished owing to the high quality of its baked goods; and I routinely bought the sublime asiago cheese bread, a delicious loaf with rich veins of cheese.

And since I was in there, I’d often pick up something small and sweet from the wide variety of choices. But then, when I started having to slash my carbohydrate intake, my visits became less and less frequent.

Ten years ago, they put out a tee-shirt emblazoned “Born and Raised in Noe Valley”, so witty that it was snapped up almost as rapidly as their pastries. Shortly after it appeared, I mentioned to the countergirls that it really ought to be “Born and Risen” owing to the difference in meaning, transitivity, and conjugation of the verbs “rise” and “raise”. This suggestion met with, at best, indifference.

Not that I stopped going in. By this time I’d discovered their pecan pie, offered seasonally from just before Thanksgiving until just after the New Year. As a southern boy, I loved my mother’s pecan pie and even made it for myself a few times, but this bakery’s pie was undeniably superior to my mother’s. Her crust was as good, her pecans were as good, but their filling was much better. It had by no means turned into health food, but it was somehow lighter and not as cloyingly sweet. Forgive me, mother.

Over the years I’ve bought that pie to take to others, and the response has been invariable. In every case it was declared to be “better than mother’s”.

Last Tuesday it struck me that the season was probably about to begin, so I called ’em up and discovered that this year’s premiere would be in two days. Gotta have one.

I figured they’d probably sell out before the day was over and that I’d better get there early. So I did. I hit ’em at 8:30 this morning, asked for a pie, and learned that I’d cut it rather close since the one on display was the only one left.

I snatched it home, thinking about how I might carve it up and pass around slices. But when I took it out of the box I realized that I needed to sample it to make sure the quality remained up to standard.

Oh hell, might as well go ahead and have lunch.

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United Dumplings

We all know how I love dim sum in general and Chinese dumplings in particular, and I’ve struck it rich by discovering United Dumplings. It’s on the aorta of Bernal Heights, Cortland Avenue, across from the library and a five-minute Segway ride from home. This is not the traditional dim sum with which San Franciscans are familiar. Rather, it’s a more northern Chinese version, so the menu doesn’t include most of the primarily Cantonese dishes we’re accustomed to but rather features northern Chinese food.They’ve occupied the parking space in front of the restaurant, which, driven by the twin imperatives of the city’s continual transition away from the automobile and the need for more space for outdoor dining during the epidemic, is now happening more and more in San Francisco. This yields a couple of tables for six and a pair of deuces on either side of the door. Unclear about opening time, I was there for the grand opening an hour early and grabbed a deuce. Alas, I picked a bad day since it was the third in a row with temperatures at a very rare 90 degrees. The sun was blazing and I was medium well by the time my meal arrived.

I loved my introductory meal so much that I keep going back, working my way through the menu two items at a time. Might as well just list them in order. Well, one note: Several of the dishes on the menu are marked by a red chile icon, but do not worry because none of them was all that “hot” for me.

Spicy Sichuan Wonton in Red Oil – Ground pork, shrimp, water chestnut, and green onion in a wonton wrapper and soaked in Sichuan hot chile oil. Superb, and that piquant red oil set them off.

Sauteed Green String Bean – Excellent. I might have eaten a better version of this classic dish but don’t remember when.

Chicken Mushroom Truffle Dumpling – These were good, but not as good as I’d expected.

Sauteed Pea Shoots with Garlic – Good enough but nowhere near the string beans.

Mission Chicken Pot Stickers – Chicken, sweet corn, and mozzarella cheese. Very good.

Mongolian Cumin Lamb – Lamb, sauteed with bell pepper, onion, ginger, and cumin seeds. Excellent.

,Grandma’s Pork Pot Stickers – Ground pork with Napa cabbage. Excellent.

Sweet and Spicy Chicken Wings – Marinated with ginger, garlic, and house special sweet-spicy sauce. They were cooked so that the breading formed a quite crisp outer shell over the tender meat. The sauce definitely had some chile in it. Superb.

Pork Xiao Long Bao – Not as “juicy” as others I’ve had, and that’s an observation rather than a criticism. Very good.

Sichuan Dan Dan Noodles – Spicy with hot chile oil and topped with caramelized and crispy ground pork and bok choy. I’d not had noodles of this sort before and found them intriguing. Excellent.

Seafood Stir-Fried Noodles – The same noodles but stir-fried with fish filet, shrimp, fish ball, and imitation crab. Very good.

Crispy Shrimp Toast – A savory Chinese donut with baby shrimp and creamy sauce. I was expecting that southern Chinese dish, a shrimp mashed onto a piece of bread and deep fried, but this was radically different. The donut was way better than a piece of toast and it was deep fried so that it became crunchy and flaky. The little pot of creamy sauce set it off beautifully. Superb even though the tiny dried shrimp were pretty much tasteless.

And I’ll stop now even though I’ve eaten less than half the menu. I highly recommend this place, but bring a coat because Cortland is a wind tunnel when it’s not a calm day. I’m thinking that since it is now legal to offer limited indoor dining in San Francisco, they could have four very widely spaced tables in the front end of their space to use as the weather grows colder.

Meanwhile, instead of a photo of the front of the place, here’s a sign on Valencia that displays our famed San Francisco humor.

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