Maybe because it's 15 degrees out there, with all-day every-day lake effect snow warnings on the radio every hour. Or maybe it's the sauna-hot temp of our steam-heated apartment. Whatever the reason, what I'm thinking about right now is...
Ice Cream! Specifically, the burnt-caramel ice cream being served up at the Bi Rite Creamery in San Francisco. The Bi-Rite Market, nearby, is one of the best places in my old neighborhood, a tiny but excellent gourmet market with everything you'd want to eat jammed into it, from organic blood oranges, Acme walnut levain bread, and Green & Red zinfandel to Scharffenberger chocolate mini-bars and fresh wild-caught salmon. And flowers, fancy booze, and loads of good juices and cool sodas. It also didn't hurt that it was right next door to my favorite restaurant and equidistant from Tartine Bakery and the Dolores Park Cafe.
Because I'm, like, old, I can still recall the pre-gourmet days of this stretch of 18th St, when Tartine was the danish-and-birthday-cake Carl's, and the rest of the businesses were junk shops, barber shops, and old-lady beauty parlors. On the corner was a dingy health-food restaurant called Real Good Karma, aka Real Bad Karma, because everyone had a really bad date/breakup story from that place. Across the street was Anna's Danish Butter Cookies, a 50-year-old place decked out with a cheery red-and-white striped awning. Yes, Anna was making from scratch the kind of cookies usually found only in pleated paper cups inside that big blue metal tin. You know, the grandma container, last filled with cookies in 1973, now a receptacle for old buttons, ball-point pen caps, and broken crayons in perpetuity.
But that was, oh, 1992 or so. You can't buy a beat-up Campbells Soup Kids commemorative bicentennial mug for 50 cents or a huge cherry danish waxed with squiggly white icing here anymore. My second San Francisco girlfriend no longer lives just up the street across from the huge cocktail glass sparkling with pink neon bubbles over the corner dive. The dive that advertised "Open at 6AM" on the sign outside, and actually was, the Sunday morning when we were getting a cab from a long Saturday night in SF General's emergency room, and the driver refused to make change from our single $20 bill. There was the dive, and yes, very early on a Sunday morning, they were open and willing to break a twenty for a woman wearing a leopard fake-fur coat, a black rubber halter top, and blue surgical booties. The same girlfriend who, when I finally had to cop to the fact that I was ditching her for a glamorous, if drunken, local Elvis impersonator, hissed miserably at me over mushroomy brown-rice slop at Real Good Karma. As Jen would say, small city, long life (see "like, old", above). But I digress.
So the sleepy, low-rent charm is gone, but it's still very much a neighborhood strip, at least during the day. And Bi-Rite now has an ice cream store! I haven't eaten there yet (although I'm heading there as soon as my California-bound plane touches down in mid-April) but word on the (Chowhound) street is already very thumbs up. We'll see; can Bi-Rite truly rival Paris's Berthillon in the satiny caramel ice cream taste test? Stay tuned, or tell me what you've eaten lately down on 18th St.
But sometimes I crave egg creams more than ice cream, and this place is making them:it's called the Soda Shop, owned by the guy behind Anglers and Writers and the Bespeckled Trout, both now-closed Village spots. The BT was a candy-shop-cum-soda-fountain in my old Hudson St West Village nabe. I wanted to like it, although as a business it didn't seem to have much going on; it was more a stage set for a olde-time candy store than a place where you could actually purchase things. I think I got one of their much-vaunted egg creams once; it wasn't memorable, except for the cranky lady who really didn't seem to want to be bothered to make it. But maybe they're doing better at this new location; if nothing else, the fabulously scavenged decor (black walnut paneling from the Plaza Hotel! Marble from old banks!) sounds worth a look.
What? You ask what is this egg cream of which I speak? According to E., it's an ice cream soda without the ice cream, aka completely pointless. But he's from California, a great place but not one that knows from egg creams. Egg creams, like bialys and black-and-white cookies, are a New York City thing. Chocolate syrup (traditionally, Fox's U-Bet), milk, and seltzer not poured from a plastic bottle but shpritzed in forcefully from the cartridge-loaded nozzle of a heavy glass soda siphon. It's sweet and chocolatey and fizzy, a little like a homemade Yoo-Hoo.