A developmental chart of food service might start with street hawkers and progress to carts, trucks, booths in markets and then food windows in grungy bars.
The Broken Record, a food operation in the back room of just such a bar, may not be high on the evolutionary scale of restaurants, but it turns out some of the most elegant and deeply satisfying American food in town.
We’re talking Excelsior here — black walls, a short bar with not enough stools, and people three deep trying to order a beer. One old flickering TV set is tuned to sports. Hard rock blasts. A pool table takes up most of an adjoining room with a few seats around the perimeter.
But everyone knows where to go — though a narrow corridor to a back room full of people eating. A line stretches in front of a glassed-in kitchen where Shane Lavalley and James Moisey work calmly and nonstop the whole night. They are prodigies of bar food, and everyone seems to know it. Their tip bowl runneth over.
Though I find the place miserably uncomfortable, I love their food so much I forget about it. Who knew that Texas toast or grits or pork fries could be so transcendent?
Texas toast ($6) begins with two thick slices of puffy white bread, toasted on the griddle, cut into triangles and smothered with cream gravy with big shreds of moist chicken and crumbled housemade sausage. The textures stay discrete and the flavor is deep and perfectly balanced, the result of attention to every detail of preparation. And so it goes with everything that emerges from that modest kitchen.
Crawfish grits ($9), a porridge of stone-ground corn enriched with butter, cheese and bacon and lots of “low-country lobster,” was smoky, residually hot and engaging. The crawfish stayed moist; the grits almost chewy.
Food that is usually bland, dull and starchy is light and vibrant at The Broken Record.
Hamburgers ($10) come on airy, absorbent, toasted egg buns. Bacon is actually mixed into the house ground beef, making it extra succulent. Sweet and sour pulled pork slathered with cole slaw and chile-spiked mayonnaise also makes for a brilliant sandwich ($8).
Evil-sounding pork fries ($8) turned out to be a revelation — thick, greaseless, crunchy, waffle-cut fries layered with moist hunks of succulent braised pork, creamy cheese sauce, a splash of Tabasco, scallions and a little American flag on a toothpick to commemorate “nachos gringos.” Makes me proud.
Though you’re in a dive bar, you still might want a charming salad of marinated beets and oranges ($7) arranged on curried yogurt, strewn with chopped cashews and a pouf of mache; or crispy fried oysters on a cool pile of shaved fennel, avocado and grapefruit.
Of course food this heartfelt, skillfully executed and cheap has a following. Expect to patiently wait in line — a sign tells you to do that — and find a place to sit before you order so the guy at the cash register will know where to bring your food when it comes up.
Someone needs to make a separate trip to the saloon to get drinks. But no one should grumble about the lack of amenities. Never forget, it is the bar that begot this remarkable kitchen.
Patricia Unterman is the author of many editions of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Guide.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Location: 1166 Geneva Ave., San Francisco
Contact: (415) 963-1713; www.brokenrecordsanfrancisco.com
Hours: 6:15 to 11 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 6:15 to 10 p.m. Sunday
Price range: $7 to $10
Recommended dishes: Texas toast, pork fries, crawfish grits, beet and orange salad on curried yogurt, bacon burger, pulled pork sandwich
Credit cards: None taken; cash only