Frugal feasts

Our resident budget gourmet picks the best of the Bay's thrifty dishes
Penny of Penny's Carribean Cafe
Photo by Charles Russo

>>Click here for FEAST, our guide to sexy suppers, classic cocktails, and more hot eats for the season

At Cowgirlpalooza, I ate four bowls of gumbo. I'm not bragging, just setting a scene — a scene featuring the smell of gumbo and the flavor of gumbo, with heart-shaped corn bread and phallic biscuits that were possibly supposed to resemble guitars or banjos or drumsticks but, uh, didn't. The patio at El Rio, early evening, Outer Mission, lemon trees, blue sky, the chill of oncoming fog, Denise Funiami, five or six twangy bands, and the sticky syncopation of flip-flops on the dance floor ...

Every time I made eye contact with Denise, whom I personally consider the queen of San Francisco's country music scene (although she was conspicuously absent from the stage that day), she would raise her eyebrows questioningly. I would look at the current bowl of gumbo in my left hand, look back at her, and hold up however many fingers. When I got to three, she cursed me loudly, over a sea of cowboy hats, and she cursed my whole family with our hollow legs.

I get bored with drinking. And broke with drinking. There was a $10 cover charge. My family doesn't have hollow legs so much as empty pockets. This is Gastro-Economy 101: $5 for a beer, and the gumbo's free. What, are you kidding me?

As usual, I was the soberest person in the place. Afterward I staggered home like everyone else and opened my refrigerator door, like everyone else, and stood there stuffed, with my eyes half open, in a sort of a swoon. Was everyone else looking at what I was looking at? Do you keep a jar of salsa from Papalote Mexican Grill in your fridge? Do you treat it with respect and reverence? Turn to it for solace and support in times of need, boredom ... loneliness? I'm talking about the stuff with roasted tomatoes and pumpkin seeds in it.

If you came into a kitchen in a house in the middle of the night and saw me licking this San Francisco delicacy off a stick of celery (in lieu of tortilla chips), my eyes glazed and my lips on fire, my hardly hollow legs already weak with gumbo ... I don't know if you would fall in love with me or not, but you would almost certainly invite me out to eat sometime.

Everybody wants to eat with me. I'm not bragging — just exaggerating. A lot of people want to eat with me. Even vegans, and that's a journalistic fact. A dude I've known for years but have hardly ever eaten with (so for all I know he might be magic) says, in an e-mail, "I would love to make you a salad."

Bam, crash, boom: I'm seduced. No matter which way I take the simple sentiment, I am so there. I love salad and would love to be salad.

Someone else has a new favorite Korean restaurant, ohmigod, the Kim Chee, or a barbecue joint, and they want me in on it. And I want in on it! I'm the luckiest little chicken farmer chick alive, and don't think I don't know that. Miraculously, given my two-year campaign to destroy my credibility as a critic, if not a human being, by declaring every single place I eat my new favorite restaurant, people still think I know shit.

Or they want me to. Or something.

Truth is, philosophical fine points aside, as well as semantic silliness (but no way am I giving up hyperbole, so don't ask), there are certain things at certain restaurants, yes, that I dream about and drool over and want to marry and couldn't live without. Flavors, textures, smells, memories, fucking feelings that can call out to me even after a burrito or four bowls of gumbo and bring me to my knees. I'm talking about my favorite favorites, if you will, for real and in no particular order. I love each and every one of these dishes more than madly.

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