Published in The San Francisco Chronicle.
Illustrated by George McCalman
San Francisco restaurants
Framed outside the front door of Puerto Rican restaurant Sol Food in San Rafael, is a complaint. Not a Yelp review, but a real-live letter, handwritten in cursive, from 2006: “Dear Mrs. Hernandez, The lime green color you selected for your new restaurant is garish and ugly. That color may be appropriate for Puerto Rico, but it isn’t for Marin County.”
It makes Christopher Adam Williams laugh, like a lot of things do. “People who don’t understand culture will complain about color,” says the Sol Food regular. “When I saw the green, I was, like, OK, this food has personality. You expect a colorful restaurant to be good!” He admits his theory isn’t foolproof. (“I’ve been hoodwinked before.”) Still, as someone who paints canvases that measure nearly 7 by 6 feet and celebrate Black joy in purples and pinks, “bright, bold color calls me in,” he says. “It’s a sign of hope.”
As was his first date with Nakeyshia Kendall, in 2018. “It wasn’t a date,” Nakeyshia says, rolling her eyes. “I was just hungry.”
An educator-entrepreneur, she was looking for an artist to lead a group of middle-schoolers in painting a mural. He was a recent graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute. They met up at the annual Art Market in Fort Mason, where he proposed coffee at Starbucks. She suggested a drive across the bridge to Sol Food instead. The wait for a table was the same as it always was: long. So, they got takeout, drove up to the Marin Headlands, and talked art and music and relationship status (single), as they watched the sun dip into the bay. “We had slow jams going in the car,” Christopher adds. (Date.)
Nakeyshia learned about Sol Food the way most outdoorsy, food-loving locals do — googling for somewhere to eat after biking or hiking in Marin. In a county with a restaurant scene about as diverse as its population (affluent, 85 percent white), Sol Food stood out back when Marisol Hernandez opened the restaurant in 2004. It still does. She expanded to a larger location, then opened a second, in Mill Valley, in 2013. People come from all over the Bay Area — and everywhere from India to Italy — for her tender bistec encebollado and pescado frito Friday special, and garlicky, oregano-spiked pollo al horno (three pieces for Christopher, two for Nakeyshia). As Hector Lugo, a longtime Oakland regular, puts it: “Marisol’s menu is honest. She doesn’t try to do fancy things like all the Nuevo Latino cuisine bulls— I can’t stand,” he says. “Who are these chefs who think they can improve upon generations of delicious dishes?”
Even Nakeyshia’s Guyana-raised mother — who considers all “restaurant food junk food” — is a fan. “It reminds her of her own cooking,” says Nakeyshia. Though she grew up in Florida eating plantains and rice, it’s not so much Sol Food’s food that reminds Nakeyshia of home as its soul. The way it feels. The people she shares it with.
Christopher, who’d been living off mostly fast-food as a student, fell hard for Nakeyshia and her favorite restaurant. “It was real food,” he says recalling the Cubano. A month after that first meal together, Christopher and Nakeyshia took off on a cross-country road trip to Maine, to drop Christopher at graduate school. Their last stop before leaving town: Sol Food. “Everything was downhill from there,” he says.
It started with really bad barbecue in Idaho. (“All of a sudden he turned serious and went on this tirade against the baked beans!” recalls Nakeyshia. “I had no idea he was this barbecue connoisseur.”) The other thing about Idaho: There were very few Black people. “We tallied how many we saw in each state,” says Nakeyshia. Three in Idaho. Zero in South Dakota, where they were served “pasty mashed potatoes out of a can” and some dude asked Christopher if he was on the Oakland A’s. (For the hell of it, Christopher said he was and signed his autograph.) They ate passable macaroni and cheese in Wisconsin, and a “world-famous meatball” in upstate New York, but they missed Sol Food. And more.
In Maine, Christopher faced racist cops and hate-emails, as well as stares every time he walked into a restaurant. “I was literally the only Black guy around. I felt like I was on display,” he says. The lobster rolls were decent, but not the people serving them. He remembers once ordering two — “and the lady goes, ‘That’s going to cost $40, you know.’ I was, like: ‘Yeah, I know.’” It might’ve been summer in Maine, but the state felt cold. Within six months, he drove West. First stop in California: Sol Food. “I was back where I belonged,” Christopher says.
He was also back with Nakeyshia. Eleven months later, they got married at Fort Mason. (Wedding catered by Sol Food, naturally.) Before COVID-19, Bianca, a server in Mill Valley, would find them a table, and gift them flan. Salt ‘n Straw always gives them free ice cream, too. “We don’t know why!” Nakeyshia says with a laugh. “I think they just like our vibe. You don’t see a lot of Black couples in San Francisco.”
As a Black couple walking around San Francisco, they’re also often asked: “Are you lost?” And then there’s the time Christopher was accused of breaking into his own car. As a Black man, he encounters more racism when he’s not with Nakeyshia, he says. It’s been better during quarantine, she says, “Because we’re always together.”
As they are on this summer day, chatting in camping chairs with purple masks around their necks and to-go containers in their laps. It’s easy to see, from 6 feet away, why Christopher and Nakeyshia get free flan. The virus is surging, unemployment is rising, systemic racism remains, and yet: This couple’s contentment with lunch and life and each other is contagious, in a good way. Early in the lockdown, Christopher and Nakeyshia rarely left their Russian Hill neighborhood. They shopped locally, took 6 a.m. walks, watched Trevor Noah. Until one day in May, they decided to take a road trip of a different sort.
They donned their matching masks and cruised over a Golden Gate Bridge devoid of traffic. “It felt like such an adventure,” recalls Nakeyshia. The sun was beaming. The line wasn’t bad. Bianca waved. They collected their collective five pieces of baked chicken and pink beans and white rice and extra maduros and headed for the headlands. Damn COVID, it was closed. No matter. They ate their Sol Food somewhere else appropriate, shelter-in-place or not: home.
It’s a quiet Tuesday night in Hayes Valley, the kind of blustery, cold, blah Tuesday night when you’d expect people to stay in and order pho from Caviar or cook up their latest Sun Basket creation. There’s nothing going on at the nearby Nourse Theater, no symphony performing at Davies, no pricey shoe boutiques still open. There’s no reason, really, for anyone to be out and about. And strolling by old-timer Cafe Delle Stelle (plugging free bottles of wine with bills over $60) and newcomer Nightbird, it looks as if, indeed, they’re not. Apparently no one is in the mood for a heady $125 five-course tasting menu.
But round the corner to A Mano, and suddenly: crowds, Saturday-night-level crowds, visible through a wall of glass as squeaky clean as the spanking-new condos above. There are people seated at every one of the 90 seats; people crammed into the sliver of a bar sipping Negronis; people spilling onto the sidewalk as a perky host quotes hour-long waits.
Everyone, it seems, is in the mood for a $14 bowl of rigatoni.
A Mano (Italian for “by hand”) opened in early May with the goal of bringing affordable handmade pasta to a city where mint tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms has tipped toward $22. It aims to be the everylady’s Locanda. Or Cotogna. Or Tosca. Or La Ciccia… The list of San Francisco’s rustic Italian treasures goes on.
A Mano is the latest “concept” from prolific restaurateur Adriano Paganini. And it’s a smart concept, if not an entirely new one. Pasta Pomodoro ring a bell? That was Paganini’s idea, too, back in 1994. At its peak, the chain had 40-something outposts, mostly throughout California, the last of which, under new ownership, closed last year. No big loss. It was a cheap, easy place to eat something edible and Italiany. It had no scene and it wasn’t supposed to.
But ever since, Paganini has been all about scene, or perhaps the proper word is packaging. In 2008, he turned his attention to pizza and figured out that if he enhanced the ambience and added exceptional cocktails — in a killer location — he’d be onto something. And he was: Beretta, on a sunny corner of Valencia Street, was an insta-hit, further popularizing the blistered crust-broccolini contorni trend that was already well underway.
Starbelly (Castro) and Delarosa (Marina) followed. He then wisely branched out to burgers, hawking humanely raised hamburgers for a reasonable $7.75 at Super Duper, which has 10 locations and counting around the Bay. And now — after adding a Belgian brasserie, tacos, and an Argentine steakhouse to his quiver — the Milan-born restaurateur has gone back to his roots: pasta.
The funny thing is, though, as I slid onto my stool, squeezing into the tightly packed communal table, my first thought was: This place reminds me of Pomodoro, just with sleeker digs and duck-liver mousse. And that was before I’d realized Paganini had anything to do with it.
Which they are. Filled with awkward first dates and rowdy tables of eight, everyone chatting, laughing, eating affordable food — which flies out of the open kitchen at a fairly rapid clip — A Mano feels like an adult cafeteria with cocktails. Call it arestauteria: a growing breed of eatery where essentially everything costs $16 or less; the kind of place that boasts all the accoutrements of a beloved San Francisco restaurant — but somehow lacks the soul of one.
There’s a muted red-white-and-green theme going on (Italy and all); bottles of Aperol and Campari lining the bar like artwork; track lighting (which they fiddled with throughout each night to get it right); and an especially warm, well-trained staff. Still, emotionally… A Mano feels kind of cold.
And, unfortunately, so did my pasta.
Not cold cold, in which case I would’ve just sent it back. More lukewarm, with pockets of varying temperatures, like a lake in summer. The problem, perhaps symptomatic of a slammed kitchen still finding its rhythm, plagued not just one pasta, but almost every pasta I had. (The agnolotti dal plin — rich, buttery pillows of pork, roast chicken, and chard — came out piping hot.)
The cauliflower bagna cauda was my favorite antipasti, roasted with garlic, lemon, torpedo onions, and chiles. The Monterey squid, too, which came in a tomato-rich stew of chickpeas and romanesco one night, summer corn another. Both were good, albeit not as good as similar iterations elsewhere.
There’s always a nightly special, like the Tuscan fried chicken with braised black kale, which was crisp and juicy and, at $20, the most expensive item on the menu. (If you really want to splurge, there’s a $95 bottle of brunello.)
The pizza at A Mano is not the focus. (Nor, after trying one topped with asparagus, green garlic, and anchovy, did it seem to me that it should be: the crust was doughy, and the asparagus mushy.) Which is why there are only two or three pizzas per night. And perhaps why, mysteriously, one evening around 7:30 p.m., we watched a delivery guy from Patxi’s, holding a box high above his head, work his way through the throngs to someone in the back.
The focus here, per Paganini’s plan, is on pasta. It’s handmade daily with durum, a finer ground semolina flour, under chef Freedom Rains, who cooked at Flour & Water and Incanto before heading the kitchen at Belga. He does seven generously portioned pastas nightly. They change frequently and always with the seasons.
Over three separate nights, I tried almost all of them. That agnolotti was the best of the bunch and probably what I’d order if I ever went back. (And I would, if I wanted more of a scene than, say, Souvla, before seeing Pop-Up Magazine or City Arts & Lecture.)
The spaghettini, tossed with clams and breadcrumbs, was firm, if dry, but flavorful enough to not render it a total mis-order. But while the pesto tagliatelle with pine nuts, fava beans, and English peas screamed spring — and was clearly made with fresh ingredients — the pasta itself tasted mealy. And the pesto was bland, as if Rains was told to play it safe.
Only the campanelle with broccoli di ciccio, a sweet heirloom broccoli, had any kick — and that’s because it was scattered with chile flakes. I actually witnessed more than one table request a side of chile flakes for their pastas mid-meal.
It’s what my rigatoni pork sugo needed, too. Like the others, it arrived sort of warm. While hearty, with hunks of braised meat, it lacked the depth and richness of a truly memorable sugo.
Therein lies the problem with a place like A Mano — there’s just too much in this town to compare it to. With every bite of my bucatini all’Amatriciana, I kept hoping it would become more like Locanda’s. (It didn’t.)
Paganini was quoted last year talking about what drives a successful company. “Why does someone open up one little retail store and somebody else becomes the Gap?” he said. Replace Old Navy with Super Duper and Belga with Banana and, hmm, maybe the Gap with A Mano, and Paganini has, in fact, built the edible version of the fashion empire —one that aims to please everyone without wowing anyone.
A Mano’s not going to win San Francisco’s heart, but when the bill comes around, suddenly a so-so sugo becomes a little easier to stomach.