Where the roadside diner gets the Left Coast-Gay Bay treatment
DINE One of the revelations in Peter Mayles' cycle of enchanting memoirs about life in Provence (A Year in Provence, Toujours Provence, Encore Provence) is that some of the best food in France is to be found at truck stops. This stands to reason, since truckers are a migratory species whose survival depends on knowing where to eat — and French truckers spend their days zooming around France, a land where food and wine are as much a part of the national identity as the language itself.
Citizen's Band (which opened in August on a semi-sketchy stretch of Folsom St. in SoMa) isn't quite a truck stop and it certainly isn't in France, but it does have, stashed above the door, a collection of vintage CB radios, the kind whose tinny crackle helped drive C.W. McCall's 1975 truckers' anthem, "Convoy." And it is, in its hipster-city way, a convincing contemporary version of a roadside diner: it has a long counter, zinc-topped tables, harsh lighting, and plenty of din, all at the edge of an insanely busy street.
But the place doesn't serve Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, despite a plethora of hipsters, and the staff all seem to be relations of Flo, the cheeky woman from the Progressive Insurance TV ads. Indeed, beer places a distant second as a libation to wine, which is offered in a variety of interesting pours listed on the huge chalkboard that backs the counter. So maybe we're not so far from France after all. Or somewhere in Europe. Lately I've noticed a small but definite bloom on wine lists of reds produced in German-speaking lands, and Citizen's Band offers a glass of Blaufränkisch, an Austrian red, for $7.50. Our (female) server described it as "feminine," not a customary description for wine. To me, the wine was light and spicy, like a nero d'avola after some heavy core training. Could this be what she meant?
If a convoy of hungry, discerning French truckers came rolling up to Citizen's Band, what would they find, apart from trouble in parking? American food, subtly reimagined and cooked to the highest standard. Chef Chris Beerman's menu includes elements of what we might call comfort cuisine, including macaroni and cheese and a burger with fries, but it also soars into the higher airs of the gastronomic ether — and even the homey stuff is enriched by a close attention to detail.
The mac 'n'cheese ($8) was made with fontina and a Sonoma dry-jack fonduta, which helped permeate the pasta tubes. I didn't like the fried onion rings on top; they were crunchy but discordant. A plate of humble franks and beans ($8) was stylishly reinvented with grilled sweet Italian sausage from Paul Bertolli's Fra' Mani in Berkeley, surrounded by butter beans (from Iacopi Farms) in a rich sauce of oregano, pecorino romano, and (to judge from the glossiness) butter. And how many diners, or truck stops, would toss a salad of baby arugula leaves ($8) with diced peaches (for deep sweetness), almond brittle (for sweet crunch), Point Reyes blue cheese (for rich bite), and a huckleberry vinaigrette for a final fillip of piquancy and (deep purple) color?
The burger ($13, plus $2 for cheese) was quite a production. The beef was kobe, from Snake River Farms; the bun, challah (which is pretty much brioche, for purposes of richness). Also aioli and house-made burger pickles and — better than either of those items, good as they were — no raw onion. Best of all, the kitchen actually grilled the meat as ordered, to medium rare, as recommended by Flo. A medium-rare burger means a juicy burger, and juiciness makes all the difference. A dry burger is a dead burger. The stack of fries on the side was excellent, still warm and crisp from the deep fryer.
The roasted red trout ($20) looked like a pair of cantaloupe slices slipped atop an heirloom-tomato panzanella, with a scattering of garlicky Monterey Bay calamari and some uncredited braised greens. The fish was lovely, but it was the panzanella that commanded our attention: it was colored by several shades of cherry tomatoes and made crunchy by croutons toasted gold. Panzanella is summer on a plate, but it's also, at least traditionally, frugality on a plate, a way of rejuvenating bread that's past its prime. To find it deployed with such elegant discipline here was a delight. Encore!
Dinner: Tues.–-Sat., 5:30–11 p.m.
Lunch: Mon.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m.
Brunch: Sat., 10 a.m.–2 p.m.
1198 Folsom, SF
Beer and wine