Monday, February 8, 2010

Let's (Not) Do Lunch

As the remarkable Joni Mitchell once sang, don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone?

For years I worked at various companies within downtown San Francisco (except for a five-year span where I toiled in a blasted-out section of central Oakland that has, at long last, seen some of the regentrification that had been promised for a decade). I took it for granted that at lunch time you could stroll outside and satisfy whatever food craving happened to hit you. A steaming bowl of Vietnamese pho soup? Head for the seedy but culturally-rich Tenderloin (or Tenderknob or Knobbyloin, as people used to say just to be provocative). Fresh sushi? There's no end of fine selections. The same for even anything as simple as salad or sandwiches...there's no end of choices, and their offerings can be enjoyed in restaurants, in the city's sunny squares or street cafes, by the bay or, if you must, at your desk.

So it was quite an adjustment when I began working at a suburban "campus" near the airport. My office building doesn't have a cafeteria, though there's a sad, crowded one in a highrise more than a hundred yards away across the vast parking lots that are inevitable when nearly everyone must drive to work. The salad bar there is a mixture of odds and ends -- stringy pesto spaghetti and soggy artichoke hearts nestled beside wilted spinach leaves and dolmas with the taste and consistency of wet wallpaper. The sandwiches are okay and there are other offerings I've not partaken of, but when you've sampled Yahoo!'s showcase cafeteria of pasta bars and ice cream stations, or the legendary cafeterias of some of the other internet giants that try to create a complete culture for their employees, the Hamachi cafeteria pales in comparison.

Then there are the various mobile options. Having grown up in Maine, my interest perked up when it was announced that a "chowder truck" would be arriving several times a week from Half Moon Bay. But the price of a lobster roll ($16) is prohibitive in itself, and the lobster meat is soaked in butter that must triple the calorie count. And do I really want to eat seafood from a truck?

As though to keep us engaged, there are the other lunch "wagons," usually with some sort of cute, punny name that tries to encapsulate the culinary direction it offers. A recent one is something like "Curry Up Now," probably in response to requests from the large Indian and Pakistani population that works here, though so many of them seem to bring their own elaborately prepared food. Having grown up on bland New England boiled dinners, spicy food to me is like a ticket to the emergency room, so I've come to refer to that truck not as "Hin-don't." There's a Korean lunch truck that's started making the rounds called "Seoul on Wheels," which I choose to believe is a playful take on Eldridge Cleaver's "Soul on Ice" -- but perhaps I'm giving them too much credit. I did try that one but even when I requested "super mild" I couldn't get past the first flaming bite of barbecued pork.

What next -- a polish sausage and beer truck called "Sloshages"? Thai from "Bangkookers"? Chinese a la "Peking Truck"? Or Italian from "Roman Around"?

Joni was right -- and now we know why they paved paradise to put up a parking lot.

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