May 01, 2002



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cheap eats
by dan leone

Word is out

WORDS LIKE CLOISTER . I learn them reading poetry by poets with bigger and better vocabularies than mine, which is all poets, every single one of them, even Bubba Paris. Except I never quite exactly learn the words, because to look them up in the dictionary would be so ... unpoetic. I go by sounds, and context, and plow poetically onward.

Does cloistered mean clustered? Or does cloistered mean walled in, a sort of self-imposed seclusion? Sound and context play tug-a-word in my head, until a cloister, to me, at this point in time, based on the last several times I've seen the word in poems (which seems to be the only place it pops up) is a collection of related entities isolated by choice. Like monks, or nuns, or juries.

I'm probably wrong, but I'll be damned if I'm going to be the one to look it up and find out. Words are more useful when you don't exactly know what they mean. Like abstract paintings, which tell the truth way more truthfully than pictures in the newspaper, for example.

Then there are hamburgers, and omelettes, and big bowls of soup. Or better yet: pancakes. If you really really want to get to the heart of a matter – not so much to understand it or even to feel it, but to soak it in, to bask in its essence, to be alive with it – if that's what you want, you taste it. You don't stand there and stare at it like art, or listen to it like music, or swirl it around in your glass and sniff it like wine, or feel it like someone else's skin. You eat it. I learned this from my chickens. Watching them spend all day every day just scratching and pecking and putting stuff in their beaks. If it's good for them – and that could mean food or glass or baked-and-crumbled egg shells – it stays in; if it's bad it drops right back out.

(And maybe it's not a question of good or bad, either. I mean, far be it from me to be the president of the United States.)

Did I tell you about when it snowed that one night this winter? The chickens of course had never seen snow before, and at first – for a total of about 10 seconds – they were afraid to come out of their house into a fresh-fallen half-inch of it. They looked at the weird white stuff, and they looked at one another, and they looked at me, and they looked at the snow again, and then they started eating it.

That was when I decided not to knock any more of their heads off. The chickens you get in the store, those no-range ones that have never seen grass, let alone snow, and that live on antibiotics and chemicals, are better for you.

But maybe I'm wrong about that, too.

I didn't like the huevos rancheros at Panchita's #3. They were too good for their own good, with fresh tomatoes and fresh red and yellow pepper slices. But I can't really complain because they're not even on the menu. How I knew to order them was because someone wrote to me and said that Panchita's #3 had the best huevos rancheros in San Fran, or anywhere, but they're not on the menu. It was just my sort of mystery, so I flapped my wings and flew on into it.

My friend Steve Stone got enchiladas – which I tasted, and which I liked just fine. Here's the thing: $6.95 for enchiladas, $5.75 for huevos. If that ain't cheap, it's going rate. At any rate, it's 22nd Street and Capp, in the Mission. So what's with the fancy-pants atmosphere?

Ah – I can't complain about that, either, because there were (unless I dreamed this detail) paper tablecloths on top of the cloth ones. So I felt pretty much at home, on the surface.

What I can complain about is this: the casamiento, which is basically black beans and rice and creamy stuff all jumbled up in one plop, with a fat pat of cheese on top. I couldn't put my finger on what flavor it was that made me want to open my beak and let it fall back out every time it touched the inside of me. Probably some fancy-pants spice, the name of which I wouldn't look up if I read it in a poem.

Well, it's my own vicissitude (lack of sophistication), I suppose, but everything on the menu, save soups, salads, and appetizers, comes with casamiento – even things that aren't on the menu. So as much as I love fresh tomatoes and peppers, I reckon I'll have my huevos rancheros down the way at Chava's, thank you. They give you three eggs to two, a lot more cheesiness, better salsa, better tortillas, and good old refrieds.

Hasta lechuga!

Panchita's #3. 3115 22nd St. (at Capp), S.F. (415) 821-6660. Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Takeout available. MasterCard, Visa. Beer and wine. Wheelchair accessible. Dan Leone is the author of Eat This, San Francisco (Sasquatch Books), a collection of Cheap Eats restaurant reviews, and The Meaning of Lunch (Mammoth Books).