September 18, 2002

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cheap eats
by dan leone

And so to farm

IT WAS ONLY a dream, but I dreamed that I was walking down a sidewalk in South San Francisco and there it was: the Sincere Cafe II. I'm not sure if it was 1992 or not, because there weren't any calendars in this dream. The Sincere Cafe II, in this dream, looked a lot like the Sincere Cafe used to look at 16th and Valencia in reality. Well lit, inviting, sincere ... Closed and empty, but the door was open, and the lights were on. There was a menu on a counter on the back wall of the place, and it was my imperative, in the dream, in that funny way that dreams have imperatives, to make my way across the impossible room to that menu and find out the price of fish-and-chips. Everything depended on this. If fish-and-chips were $2.99, then that meant that all was well and good and right with the world – vis-à-vis, you know, the 49ers having a good year, no new wars or car problems, lots of love, and chickens in general. If fish-and-chips were anything other than $2.99, or worse, not on the menu, then I don't know what that would mean – what do I look like, a dream interpreter?

Anyway, it doesn't make a lick of a difference, because of course, dreams being dreams, I never made it to the other side of the room, to the menu. I woke up. It was not quite exactly light out yet, but I got out of bed, because that's the way I am – a farmer.

"Where are you going?" Crawdad mumbled.

"To farm."

First I put the water on the tomatoes, then I went to see if my sick chicken, Rube Roy, was still alive, then I watched the sun come up over the Sonoma Mountains, then I turned the water off on the tomatoes, and then I went back inside for breakfast. I was thinking: fish-and-chips, but we didn't have any fish.

We had chips! So to speak. A handful of leftover french fries that I took home from Darla's the other day to study and then forgot about. I thought they might go good with coffee, dunked, and I was wrong.

By the way, we are back in reality now. Everything means what it says. This is not a dream. This is Cheap Eats. Hi. I'm the Cheap Eats Guy. A couple days ago I was walking down Irving Street when I was lured into a slickish burger joint (Darla's) by the most tentatively hyperbolic slogan I have ever read: "possibly the best burger around."

I liked that. Not "the best." Possibly the best. Not "in the world," or even "San Francisco." Around. Which could mean the whole wide world but could just as easily refer to the corner of Irving and Ninth. Talk about going out on a limb!

Well, it worked on me. I had to know, and now I know. It's not the best in San Francisco, but it's pretty goddamn good. So now you know too, and you didn't even have to pay $7.50 to find out. They're one-third-pound burgers on a French roll with three kinds of cheese (American, Swiss, and I think Jack). The good news is it comes with a huge heap of fries (or potato salad or soup), and not only that but salad too. A good salad, with real green lettuce, lots of carrots, tomato, and cucumber.

You're thinking: salad?

Sound sort of foofy, for a burger joint? Well, wait'll you see the atmosphere. There are little candles on all the tables! There are planted flower plants! There's a counter, but you can't eat at it because it's too cluttered.

You can eat outside, either out back, on a nice little wooden deck that even has heaters, if you need them, or out front, at the one little sidewalk table. Either way, though, you're not going to escape being waited on by a waitressperson, and if it happens to be the exasperated eye-roller working when I was there, well ...

Actually, I liked her. I think she pissed off the table of people next to me when she said, and I paraphrase, "All right, listen up, you're all going to get the same choices, so don't make me have to say it again: ranch, blue cheese, Thousand Island, Italian" – and so on.

Personally, I think a hard-line high-speed mean-ass waitressperson is just right for burger eating, and just what Darla's needs to offset the borderline "nice" decor. But what do I know?

French fries. Oh, man, these were perfect. Super-thin-cut ones that managed that miraculous blend of a crunchy crust and buttery soft innards. I won't say they stand up to coffee, but I will say they were possibly the best french fries around.

Darla's. 822 Irving (at Ninth Ave.), S.F. (415) 753-3275. Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Takeout available. Beer and wine. MasterCard, Visa. 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).