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City Places for City People
Street Food

What is street food? Street food is good food that's not fancy. It's a great meal you can order quickly, yet without feeling like you're supposed to leave fast. It's food the locals usually know about--food that you don't feel strange eating by yourself, but are always glad to reveal to a special friend. Street food costs less than $10 per person. You order it at the counter, or at least pay for it there.

Red's Java House: Where Nothing has Changed and (Practically) Nothing Should

by Carli Schultz Kruse

In the height of the dot com era in San Francisco, sometimes the office drones buzzed away from their cubicles in search of a place to escape the hype. Lunches had become business affairs, and trendy little spots bloomed like fungus around the entire South of Market area. Finding a greasy plate of chow fun became almost impossible, let alone tracking down a nice, plain burger without chipotle sauce, vidalia onions, and goat cheese on an organic, whole grain bun.

Folks started wandering farther from their office and eventually found their way to one of San Francisco's dusty gems, where the shine is cheap food and honest, no-frills ambiance. A place where one could sit among the dock workers, painters, and other blue collar sorts and feel like one of the people--or at least pretend to fit in as one.

Red's Java HouseThe end of Bryant Street collides with the stretch of waterfront known as the Embarcadero. It is here, where giant palm trees wave in the sun and majestic ferries cut gracefully through the bay, that Red's Java House squats in the shadow of the Bridge, covered with seagulls and needing a new coat of paint.

Red's is a relic, a frozen slice of time amongst the trendy new condos and luxury lofts found across the street in South Beach. Here, less than $5 can get you a double cheeseburger and a beer, wine is a dollar, and espresso is nowhere to be seen. Red's does, however, sell its own American-style coffee for folks to take home, so they can continue to enjoy that authentic Red's taste, though without the smell of the bay.

Red's Java House isn't classy; it is delightfully unpretentious for a waterfront spot. Long piers full of warehouses flank the small white building, and inside you can forget the large city surrounding you as you look at the menu board, chock full of bargain fare. Burgers, hot dogs, french fries, and beer dominate the culinary landscape here, and there's just about every combination available to you: a double burger and beer, hot dog and beer, hot dog and burger and beer, fries and beer...you get the idea.

Red's MenuA nearby blackboard lists the special of the day; all were dishes more elaborate than the tried and true classics. My friend ordered a double cheeseburger, a soda, and fries and was served in less than 15 seconds. Behind the counter, sweaty male cooks churned out burgers and fries at a smooth pace; my order of a double cheeseburger and fries also arrived at lightning speed, with all the fixings: chopped onions, mustard, and pickles.

Red's double cheeseburgers are an entirely different species from the fast food definition. Instead of two burgers piled on top of each other on a bun, Red's spreads them out sideways, on bread that is shaped more like a roll for a submarine sandwich. More bang for your buck than a mass produced McClassicWhopper, far more humble in mystery toppings, but tasty on a chilly, foggy day by the bay. The cheese was the real thing--not processed cheese food slices of unknown origin, but thick, orange slabs of melted cheddar goodness.

My only complaint was that each burger only came with one slice, despite the bun cradling two burgers, and a little more cheese would have been perfection. The fries come in a paper cups and became increasingly more soggy the further down we burrowed into ours, causing us eventually to empty them out onto the paper our burgers were wrapped in. They were tasty, similar in size and shape to fast food restaurant fries, and satisfying. It would be hard to not be satisfied with the food for the great pricing. And with the price comes the slice of honest to goodness blue-collar flavor.

While we ate, a porta-potty truck drove up and parked right in front, blocking our view but adding to the experience, as we were surrounded by painters, a few guys from the local power company, and several men in various colors and styles of overalls. I saw no one in business suits and heard only a few snatches of conversation that sounded like anything corporate, and that conversation was food-related, so I let it slide.

Back at the counter, a small selection of candy bar wrappers was on display over the register, but I chose not to have dessert. My double cheeseburger and fries had hit the spot.

If burgers aren't your thing, there are other options. Sandwiches such as ham, deviled egg, or turkey are all available for $2.15, with an extra $.25 for cheese. If you aren't a coffee achiever or a beer drinker, hot cocoa, tea, milk, and juices can be found on the wooden menu board as well. And of course, the item labeled espresso, with the price of "No Way!" found next to it.

Patrons dropped their used paper in a garbage can by the door and placed their empty beer bottles and cans (one guy dropped in four bottles all by himself) in a cardboard box set aside for recycled items. We left our table, the aging music on the radio, and the various photos and old news items on the walls behind us, and walked back out into the business end of San Francisco, having escaped the work world very cheaply for a small bit of the noontime hour.

These days, perhaps many of these folks have traded in their Dockers pants and really are living the life; with the dot com bust many a former geek drone has gotten their soul back and taken up an entirely new line of work. Perhaps some of those who imagined the life of the dock worker sitting at the table next to them now are happily dock workers themselves, or carpenters, electricians, or even the drivers of sewage trucks.

I hope that when they enter Red's once again, they appreciate the fact that such a place is truly theirs, in a way it can never be to an interloper like myself. But with a friendly smile, a few dollars, and perhaps the desire to shed a pinstripe skin, even for just a half hour, Red's allows us all some fantastic street food with a style all its own.

Carli Schultz Kruse