Last year in Lisbon, Portugal, I was served a 12-course meal that stuffed me so brutally, I was this close to dashing to the restaurant bathroom and purging myself. I felt like an engorged zeppelin, about to burst with the sloshing goulash bloating my belly. I was in theatrical distress.
And the food, which was amazing, kept coming. And coming. I finally had to hold up a hand when the server brought the final course, which was a square of baklava the size of a matchbox. That hand said, “Cease. Go back wherefrom you came. Take that morsel of food with you. Be gone before disaster strikes.”
Still, he insisted on boxing up the dessert. I conceded. All the while an argument raged between my mind and my stomach. The mind won. By the grace of god, I did not vomit.
I was reminded of this fine-dining discomfort the other night at an eatery that’s the opposite of the gourmet Portuguese blowout: La Tapatia, a homey, festively painted Mexican restaurant/cantina in Concord, Ca., some 30 minutes east of San Francisco.
(My brother and I are in the East Bay clearing out my late Mom’s townhouse and putting it on the market. Wading through Everests of old photos is by turns amusing, exhausting, and wildly depressing.)
We adore La Tapatia and anticipated its decadent cuisine before we left the East Coast. It’s a destination spot dishing up fiercely old-school Mexican food: chips and salsa, margaritas, rice and refried beans, tacos, burritos, the whole enchilada.
With a tangy margarita, I had a chicken taco and chicken enchilada. The plate was massive, flooded in a sea of beans and rice:
It was deliriously good. But here’s the thing: I got so gorged on chips and dinner, I spontaneously puked when I got back home. It was quick and painless, and I topped it with a gin and tonic. I’m disgusting. (A girlfriend once told me I have the “constitution of a bird.” I cannot argue with this.)
To offset the stress and gloom of this seven-day trip, we’ve turned it into a foodie foray, hitting many good places — we’re eating out twice a day, every day — as well as favorite restaurants we’ve long loved in the area.
Like the scrappy, frantic joint in San Francisco’s Chinatown. From the SF airport, we went straight to our reliable haunt House of Nanking, where I had the celebrated Nanking Sesame Chicken, a dish of cosmic savoriness:
I’ve mentioned before that I own a House of Nanking t-shirt. It’s that good. I learned that scenes from “The Matrix Resurrections” were filmed there. Photos of Keanu Reeves with the beaming owner paper the windows. For some reason, I’m proud.
Yesterday we met our old friend Tony for lunch at the classy, very bougie Acre Kitchen & Bar on College Avenue in Berkeley. Though the sardines, arriving with three tiny bottles of Tabasco, were wonderful, Tony was the highlight. He’s about the nicest guy you could know, a real mensch, radiating a gentle joy that inspires faith in the world. He ate a French dip and took a selfie of us.
In Berkeley, where my brother went to Cal, we kicked around used book and record stores, working up an appetite for an early dinner at Alice Waters’ legendary restaurant Chez Panisse. Considering this could be our final trip to the Bay Area, we splurged on the crazy-expensive four-course dinner menu, which changes daily, and it went like this:
California white sea bass tartare with Meyer lemon, ginger, and fried capers
Wild mushroom ravioli in brodo with Parmesan
Corvus Farm guinea hen roasted in the hearth; with potato-rutabaga purée, spring onions, and spinach
Hazelnut sherbet and chocolate ice cream meringata
Pretentious? Nuh-uh. Chez Panisse keeps it real with a humble farm-to-table ethos that’s exquisitely prepped and presented. Service is impeccable, always with a smiling expansiveness, never fussy, and often with a quip or two. The food: spectacular without being show-offy. It’s special but to the point.
I don’t think I’m overselling the experience, because we went back two nights later (after scrambling for a coveted reservation) for the more modest à la carte menu, no less delicious and memorable. My appetizer was “sprouting broccoli roasted in the wood oven with preserved lemon and mint yogurt”; my main course was “grilled lamb leg with shoestring potatoes, glazed carrots, and red wine butter” — all of it superb, as expected.
Bonus: I didn’t throw up.