Cheap Eats
by Dan Leone

All the pretty salads

DAMN, MAN , I drive all the way to fucking Vallejo yesterday to look at a van like my ex-one, Rocco (R.I.P.), and I'd have had to laugh if it weren't for the all-out dark-as-a-dungeon depression. Thing's got a flat tire and no air in the spare. He brings out a battery charger to get it started. Runs great! But a test drive on three wheels strikes me as ... well, it just doesn't strike me, I guess, to be honest. Completely gutted inside, no back seats, shredded front ones, anything remotely electrical has been removed from the dash, and not even the little lever that opens the little gas-fill door works. Did I mention the steering wheel was twisted at a rakish, jaunty, devil-may-care angle, so that any driver with any kind of a spine would require chiropractic adjustments every 50 miles or so?

So, OK, bought it ...

Just kidding. I could have strangled the guy. I wanted to, but didn't, but only out of consideration for the possibility that he'd have strangled me back.

I'd also like to strangle Norman the Insurance Man, who values my spectacular ex-van at $500 less than Mr. Vallejo values his piece of crap.

And, finally, so long as we're strangling things, I'd like to strangle the city of Vallejo for not having any funky-looking dive restaurants for me to duck into and drown my sorrows, starving as I was. Not that I exhausted all the possible side streets. Not that I exhausted any of them, actually. But all I saw on my beeline back to Highway 37 was fast food, fast food, and fast food. I'd rather fast.

Anyway, I already have a place to tell you about: Great City Deli. It's great. It's on the corner of Divisadero and Bush. You'll see a sign says, "King of Falafel," and "Billy Award Winner," and "Bud's Ice Cream." Inside it's bustling (at lunch time, at least) and bright, with big windows and a tall ceiling. Classic deli-style decor, meaning basically none. There's a TV on a stand in the back corner and an open indoor window up above, in which a guy was chopping stuff. The cooking gets done down below, behind the counter where you order and the glass display case of all the pretty salads and stuff.

Hummus, shawarma, kabobs, sandwiches ... everything goes for under or barely over five bucks. And they do it up with character. I ordered a large falafel ($4.50), thinking "King of Falafel," and I asked for tabbouleh on it instead of hummus and tahini. They gave me all three, no extra charge. But the woman behind the counter couldn't get the credit card machine to work, and the guy helping her didn't seem to know what to do, either. They bickered and laughed at themselves and rolled their eyes at each other, and finally she said, "We have to wait for my son to get here. He'll fix it, and then you can sign. Sit down and eat."

I sat down and ate. I should tell you that I love falafel. You wouldn't know this about me because I never eat it, even though it's generally cheap and definitely eats. Reason why is because, no matter how much I love it, it always gives me a big bellyache later. Don't know if that's the chickpeas talking, the friedness, or the combination.

In any case, Great City's falafel, while no exception to the laws of gastro-personal repercussivity (as I realized five or six hours later), was great. It was not at all dry, like falafel sometimes is. The hummus and tahini did not drown out or sog down the whole deal, as they sometimes do. The bonus tabbouleh was excellent, and, speaking of bonus, one little piece of meat even managed to find its way inside the grilled pita pocket!

But maybe I shouldn't mention that.

But I already did, so just shut up and plug your ears, vegetarians. Which ... why are you reading this column, anyway?

Anyway, the son showed up and figured out the credit card machine, and he turned out to be as much of a character as mom, if not more of one. One of those giant dudes with one of those mean looking physiques and one of those deep, gravelly voices – all of which somehow manage to add up to about as pleasant and lighthearted a disposition as you could ever hope to find behind a counter in a place. Every time I looked over he was smiling sweetly or joking around with someone.

The Billy Award, by the way, means that Bill Mandel, of the San Francisco Examiner, swears by the place. Put me on board, too.

Great City Deli.
1801 Divisadero (at Bush), S.F. (415) 931-5455. Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat., 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Takeout available. Beer and wine. American Express, 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).

June 25, 2003