In 2003, less than a year after I moved to the Bay Area, my mom visited for the first time. On the evening of her arrival, we were wandering around downtown, looking at buildings. Even though I hadn't yet had one myself, I figured she'd like to eat a fish taco -- because I'd heard it was one of those important California food things. I just didn't know where to get one. Since we were in the area already, we moseyed into the now-defunct Chevy's at Embarcadero Two and supped on grilled fish tacos with pico de gallo, lettuce, and fresh cheese. If she found the meal revolting, she didn't let on.
Since then, I have found better places to take her, destinations informed by what I've read and experienced as a focused seeker of tasty things -- a portion of my identity I had not quite realized in 2003. My mom digs unusual food, but nothing too strange. She will eat fish sauce, but not fish heads. She likes a clean restaurant with a pleasant atmosphere, but she's also cost-conscious and unswayed by pretentious flourishes. She eats seafood, but eschews meat -- which eliminates Korean barbecue joints, pork-heavy Shanghai-style dumpling houses, and Incanto from contention. My mom prefers to eat reasonably healthy food. As a result, sushi, ceviche, or pizza with vegetables appeal more than battered fish, cream-laden sauces, or anything destined to be dabbed with aioli. When I'm picking out a restaurant, I filter these criteria through other sets of necessary circumstance. When she visits, she usually stays somewhere in the Union Square, so I like to take her somewhere within swift striking distance via BART or Muni. Being lazy, I usually stick to my neighborhood, the Mission District, where I've lived for the vast majority of my time in San Francisco. On a few occasions, I have lightly pushed the envelope. In 2004, we went to Utopia Cafe, a sneaky spot down an alley in Chinatown. I wouldn't call it a "dive" exactly. That word is over-used; it shouldn't apply to every restaurant disinterested in putting a premium on inedible trappings like decor and service. Fruit flies circled like helicopters over a battlefield as we attacked clay pot rice with shrimp, mustard green soup, and salt-and-pepper fried bean curd, but the food tasted fresh, and that eclipsed any sanitation concerns. A year or so later, we went to Minako, the organic mother-and-daughter-owned Japanese eatery. I thought she'd enjoy the food -- tataki, gobo kinpira, salmon misozuke -- but I also suspected the restaurant's cool quirks would appeal, that she'd get a kick out of the snappy, funny daughter and the odd location -- Mission Street, boasting a sign the size of a playing card you can't see unless, as I recall, you're approaching from a very specific angle along the sidewalk. Another time we visited Kiji, an ordinary but inoffensive sushi place on Guerrero just because it was conveniently close to a Valencia shoe store she'd been perusing.
She really liked Delfina, but her reaction to the food nonetheless confirmed my suspicions that she would inevitably rather go out to eat what she doesn't cook at home, where pasta, pizza, and risotto frequently grace the dinner table. Even though Delfina is a better restaurant -- albeit a very different one -- she was truly blown away by Destino. We went there in 2006 or 2007 -- well after its heyday -- but she still talks about it -- because, at the time, it was so unusual to her.
She's coming to town for a few days later this week, and this time around, the first visit in nearly two years, I'm brimming with ideas. There's a Mayan restaurant in Louisville my mom adores. While it's not at all awful, it is something there that it would not be here, which is fine. After all, when it comes to barbecue and beef jerky, San Francisco could learn a few things too. Still, I'd like to take her to Poc Chuc -- even if platters of juicy, thin-sliced pork (the restaurant's namesake) don't jive with her diet. She'd be happy enough with feathery, toasty corn tortillas, a bowl of the smooth black beans, and a few bites of fish -- though I don't imagine she would dive into the head for the best pieces. I thought about Universal Cafe, but I think she'd prefer something less familiar. La Ciccia is another option, the current front-runner, I'm afraid. Sardinian flavors -- rich, heady fregula pasta with ricotta and cured tuna heart, smoky, spicy octopus stew -- diverge enough from the Italian fare she knows well. If I were really daring, we would go to Yellow Pa Taut on Bryant and 7th for the best Burmese in the city: Tea leaf salad, fried squash, and catfish noodle soup, perhaps -- all within spitting distance of the courthouse's grim facade.