Six Days of Saag Paneer

In my new apartment, I can wander disconsolately from room to room for nearly ten minutes before finding the spot where I put down the wineglass. The funny thing is that it's a studio.

I moved here because my ex-boyfriend, who doesn't love me anymore, came home the other day and said, "I have to tell you, I don't love you anymore." I blinked and said, "But there's tuna casserole in the oven." Then I cried. Then I moved out.

Photo by Bill Konstant
A monkey's face, photographed by Bill Konstant

I hired a moving service called "Two Gals and a Truck" to help me. I was hoping for a pair of burly, hostile dykes to glower at my ex, who doesn't love me anymore, and who had taken every opportunity in the days leading up to the move to demonstrate how little he cared that I was leaving. I'd grown to hate his smiling monkey face and his relentlessly cheery patter about all the fun activities he had planned with his friends, to which I was of course not invited. Hate's really easy to get to from love; it's how you get to indifference that I'll never understand.

The movers in fact turned out to be one bright and friendly woman and one beefy guy (a substitute worker). They packed up my stuff like champs, so I didn't complain. They might even have glowered if I'd asked them to, but there was never really a chance, as my ex (who doesn't love me anymore) stayed in the back of the house, reading comics and humming to himself as I tearfully packed up all my belongings. He made a move to come hug me when I said goodbye, but I backed out quickly and closed the door before he got to me. The last thing I want is for him to think we're still friends or at least I was nice to her, because we're not and he wasn't. Shallow, fake cowards can resemble nice people in many situations, but they're actually totally different, and from now on I'll be more careful not to get the two mixed up.

I like it here in the new place. The bottles last longer, and I don't have to share them. Also, the apartment is constantly infused with the smell of tandoori and saffron rice. This is because there are actually six Indian restaurants coverged around the adjacent intersection of O'Farrell and Jones: Shalimar, Mela, Naan 'n Curry, Little Deli, Chutney, and Pakwan. Apparently the wits call it the Tandoorloin.

I went to Shalimar on Saturday, moving day, because that was what I thought of when I was lying there on the bare floor in the middle of all my boxes, staring at the ceiling with wetness dripping into my ears. I'd struck a deal with myself that I could stay there, on the floor, until I thought of a good reason to get up. Finally I thought of saag paneer, so I got up and went out.

501 O'Farrell

I went to Shalimar because I knew better than to go to Pakwan. I'd been to Pakwan once before, when I was totally broke and utterly starving. I spent my last five dollars on aloo palak, which smelled incredibly good, so rich and redolent with flavor, but that intense and wonderful aroma is apparently caused by spices of Satanic proportions. Pakwan's food is HOT. I was literally moaning in pain as I ate the stuff, and even though I'd had nothing else to eat all day I was only able to choke down about a third of it. I left still hungry. Don't go to Pakwan unless you've already killed all the nerves in your mouth.

532 Jones

Shalimar is the godfather of curry. I think it was the first Indian place on the block. It's dirty and undecorated and noisy and crowded, and they don't even serve booze. What Shalimar has is authenticity. All the other restaurants put testimonials up in their windows that say things like "If you can't get into Shalimar, come here!"

Shalimar's menus, which are greasy and scarce, say the place was founded as a restaurant serving Indian cab drivers. They came for a quick hot meal, and they're still coming, and now so are their families, and the occasional restaurant critic, and the downtown kids like me. There were lots of people there, but also lots of tables, so I had no trouble finding a seat. Twelve bucks paid for palak paneer, onion kulcha, rice, a coke, and a dollar something for tip. The gratuity isn't as shabby as it sounds because Shalimar doesn't have much in the way of table service; you order at the counter, you fetch your own drink from a cooler, they bring the food out to you, and when you're ready to leave you go up and pay. I figure a ten percent tip's about right for that setup. The other restaurants on the block all do the same thing, I assume because they're following Shalimar's lead.

Saag is soft and boneless, like my ex.

It was good. The palak (a spinach puree kind of thing, in case you don't know) was spicy to the edge—but not beyond—of painful, and the paneer (soft chunks of cheese) was totally yummy, though I would have liked more of it; I think there were only two cubes of paneer to go around. The rice was really perfect, imbued with saffron so that individual grains took on a golden or orange hue, and the whole plate looked like a sunset. The bread was nice and hot and soft. I ate the whole thing and went away feeling pretty okay.

I don't know what the difference is between kulcha and naan, by the way, or between saag and palak for that matter. It seems like if you order bread, you get naan, which is of course a flat soft bread like pita, but bigger and greasier and better-tasting. Sometimes you can get your naan with garlic in it, in which case it is called garlic naan, but when you get onions in it, it's called onion kulcha. You can get cheese or even ground beef in the same kind of bread. And then there's the spinach/cheese thing that I like so much. Sometimes it's called saag paneer, and sometimes it's called palak paneer. It's always spinach with chunks of soft cheese in it. I've never seen a menu have both saag panner and palak paneer—always one or the other. Is it a regional variation? I don't know. I could go do some research, but I'm a dumb American. For the same reason, I am referring to all these restaurants as "Indian" when in fact some of them are Pakistani.

So, I walked out of Shalimar feeling something that wasn't bad, and feeling it very intensely. It wasn't happiness, because I was still conscious of being sad, but sad in a way that was easy to handle. I was just feeling, that's all, feeling the city being lively all around me, feeling the spicy food in my belly, feeling lonely and tired and also excited about being in a new place on my own again. All my inner nerve endings were raw and exposed, and I was kind of grateful for the reminder, for the chance to sit up and notice what it's like to be human.

Sunday it all turned a bit manic. I'd left my hairbrush, toothbrush and toothpaste back at my old place, with my ex, who doesn't love me anymore. Fucked if I'm going back there for anything. Since I had to go shopping anyway, I opened a new Macy's credit card and went on a four hundred dollar shopping spree. I bought a pricey down comforter, two matching down pillows, some cast iron skillets because they were on sale, and a couple of cobalt iced tea goblets to replace one that my ex, who doesn't love me anymore, broke. I went to Sur La Table and bought a pewter salt and pepper set, as well as a "gourmet" chopping block and three truly lovely ivory-handled forks. (I only have three chairs, you see, so I talked myself out of full flatware for four and felt very thrifty.) I bought a bouquet of daisies. Then I lugged the whole mess home—it was a several-stage process, and I was cursing the cast iron skillets the whole way—and went to Chutney and got the saag paneer. I didn't notice until later, but what I didn't buy was a hairbrush, or a toothbrush, or any toothpaste.

511 Jones

Chutney is right across the street from Shalimar. It has a trendy-looking facade with the restaurant name written in gold fancy lettering across a black background, and underneath some dippy slogan like "Gourmet Curries and Fusion Cusine." It's clean and spacious inside, with tile flooring and wooden chairs, and the menus are laminated instead of being printed on thin paper like Shalimar's. The food was totally good, and it was a buck cheaper than over at Shalimar. But don't ever go to Chutney. How could you respect yourself, sitting there in a soulless yuppie restaurant when all the cab drivers are chowing down right across the street?

Ken doll
A cheap artificial man.
Clothing by Jean Woods

When I got home I pulled out the beautiful ivory-handled forks and stared at them for a few moments in rapt admiration, until a belated and terrible realization flashed over me: Ivory comes from elephants! Dear god, what had I done? I had a very vivid image in my mind of a dead elephant with its tusks ripped out—how could I ever have planned to eat with its desecrated remains? I called up the store in near-hysterics and demanded to know whether the ivory was elephant-safe. They broke it to me that the forks are PLASTIC. Which just goes to show you that I'm a sucker for cheap artifical things, and that goes for flatware as well as men.

Monday, after work, I returned most of the expensive stuff I'd bought the day before. I kept the forks, and the skillets. Lord knows why I need three of them, but they were a set and they were on sale. Then I went to Rite Aid and bought a hairbrush, a toothbrush and some toothpaste.

I meant to not eat Indian food on Monday night, but when I got home my apartment was full of good warm curry-smell, and I thought—well, I could go to them all and write a review.

Naan 'N Curry
478 O'Farrell

clue card
My ex hasn't got this.

I'd been to Naan 'N Curry before, with my ex, who doesn't love me anymore. He thought it was great, but then he's pretty clueless; he likes to make fun of guys who are selfish in bed, but in a year together he only went down on me once. Whereas I am a top-notch, enthusiastic cocksucker, and you can ask anyone. So, then, Naan 'N Curry on Irving is fine, but definitely not great. But that was in the Sunset, and this was downtown—Naan 'N Curry is a local chain, with four restaurants in the city. And it's certainly the cheapest of the Indian joints: many of the curries are $3.99. So I gave it another try.

The downtown location is a little better than the one in the Sunset; out west, the naan tends to be crispy-thin, but here it was decently soft. The rice was still pallid though, with none of the saffrony goodness that I look forward to, and it made me wish for a salt shaker. The palak paneer itself was yummy; I ate it all with no complaints. If you just want a cheap plate of Indian food, Naan 'N Curry is your destination. If you want all the trimmings, look elsewhere.

Tuesday was picture hanging day. Athena, Nora Charles and Robin Hood went on the walls, because that's how I want to live: with wisdom and moxie and saeva indignatio. And I put some real people up there too. There's a black and white picture of my mom when she was in college, a dark little pixie of a girl wearing a trenchcoat and staring up into the camera with huge enigmatic eyes. Another black and white picture of my dad as a young athlete, terribly handsome and terribly arrogant, looking like a Greek statue come to life. And an old sepia-colored photo of my great-grandmother when she was a young woman in Mexico, dimpled and dusky, her hair swept up in a dishevelled Gibson-girl pile.

With my family on the walls, I started feeling guilty about not returning phone calls from my mom or dad. I really didn't want to talk to anyone, because they were sure to ask thorny questions, like "How are you doing?" and "Are you drunk?" Still, I know better than to go too long without calling my mom. One time during exams in college, when I had gone completely nocturnal and couldn't find time to call home, I got woken up by an armed campus security guard knocking on my dorm room. "Are you all right?" he demanded. "Well then, call your mother."

green slimy blotches

So I called on Tuesday, and we talked about the apartment, and my job, and inevitably a little bit about my ex, who doesn't love me anymore. Mom says she never really liked him at all, and that I'm her sweet girl who anybody would love, and that men are slime, "though some grow up to be decent eventually."

And then I went out to Little Deli.

Little Deli Indian Cuisine
552 Jones St.

It really is little. It's an itty-bitty kitchen with a counter around it, and four tables squeezed in between the counter and the walls. An Indian couple run the place; the woman takes the orders and handles the money, while the guy devotes himself to cooking. The hostess is round and motherly; while I was there she greeted everybody as they came in, many of them by name. Most of the business seems to be to-go orders, since the seating is so cramped, but the place clearly has many regulars.

The saag paneer is $6.99—the most expensive of all the restaurants I ate at. It was also a long time in arriving, but I could see that everything was being prepared from scratch and to my custom specifications, and I was glad for the opportunity to say "not very" when asked how spicy I'd like my saag. When it came, the portions were huge, and the saag itself the most nuanced that I've tasted. Usually saag is an undifferentiated green mass of spinach and whatnot. This saag had lots of spinach, but the sauce itself was of a golden cast, and the tastes were deep and rich. The paneer was finely diced, but there was a lot of it. The rice was fluffy and well-spiced. The onion kulcha was thick and hearty, if a bit dry. I ate as much as I could, and then on Wednesday I ate the rest of it, and was satisfied all over again.

The rest of the menu looks intriguing too, especially the house specialties—I'm looking forward to trying out the Lamb Rasala, and the Raj Shahi Paneer. I want to be one of the regulars, greeted with happy recognition when I stop in. But in the future I'll order take-out. The food is excellent, but eating in the restaurant itself isn't as relaxing as it could be: wherever you sit, people will constantly be needing to squeeze past you.

Mela Tandoori Kitchen
417 O'Farrell

Mela used to be called Shalimar Garden until, I assume, the boys from the real Shalimar came around to have a little chat. It's right next door to Marrakech, a fun-looking Moroccan restaurant with camels and palm trees and dancing girls painted on the facade. Apparently there are real dancing girls inside as well, and there might be palms of some variety, but I doubt that they actually have camels.

Mela, in contrast, is unprepossessing on the outside, but the red stairs lead down to a marbled archway and a big fancy door, which, if you have the courage to open it, will lead you into a little jewel of an antechamber, with a fountain and everything. The cute, attentive waiters (oh yes—you get waiters here) will seat you at a low silver table on cushioned stools; I also glimpsed western-style tables and chairs in a darkened side room. Candles, drapes, wall sconces and ululating music complete the atmosphere. It's like a secret, underground palace, and little touches contribute to the charm. The plates, for instance, are pretty earthenware pieces that are brought to the table warmed.

The fantastic setting, unfortunately, isn't matched by the quality of the food. I ordered palak paneer, cheese kulcha, and rice, and I sipped a mango lassi while waiting for the food. The lassi was good. The rice was fragrant and nicely colored but a bit dry; and it cost $3, for crying out loud, just for a side of rice. (Shalimar only charges $2, and Little Deli only $1.) The palak paneer had the texture of a thawed package of frozen spinach. Now, I've noticed that one difference between palak and saag may be the texture—palak often seems chunkier, and saag more of a puree. I prefer the creamy saag. Still, I've had plenty of palak that didn't come to the table as a dry mound of warm shredded spinach.

As for flavor, it was the second-hottest incarnation of palak paneer I've ever had, second only to Pakwan. I could eat it, with help from the soothing mango lassi, but it was painful. And whereas at Pakwan I bitterly regretted the spice-wimpiness that forced me to give up on the intense and delicious taste of the food itself, in Mela's palak paneer I suspected that hotness was used as a substitute for flavor. The only other strong taste to the palak was a not-particularly-pleasing vinegary note.

I will give two thumbs up for the cheese kulcha, and the menu featured other varieties of bread that look enticing as well, such as the paratha: naan baked with butter inside, croissant-style. And they do give you a lot of rice for your three bucks. With its lovely atmosphere and inexpensive prices (the palak paneer was $5.95, same as Shalimar), Mela would probably be a great date restaurant. And it's likely that the dish I had doesn't fairly represent the overall menu quality. Mela's a "Tandoori Kitchen," after all—probably I should have tried the tandoori.

So, that's that. Six days of saag paneer, and six days since the last time I was really unhappy. Coincidence? I think not.

Tomorrow's Friday, and I'm going to see a kung fu movie with some friends, who love me. We'll get dinner beforehand, along with a flask of vodka to smuggle into the theater. If they want to eat in my neighborhood, I'm going to suggest getting pizza; I admire Pompeii Pizza (across from Naan 'n Curry) for its obstreperous refusal to join the tandoori troops. And if they ask me where to get the best saag paneer in San Francisco, I'll tell them about Raja on Haight, where the light, silky saag has never failed to astound me, and the rice is lavish with saffron and peas, and the naan is so tasty that it just seems to vanish into my belly. But then I'll tell them that if they're ever in the Tenderloin, alone and cold and feeling hollow, they should go to Shalimar and be warmed inside.

My ex, who doesn't love me anymore, is somewhere in this same city; but it's my city, and not his. He doesn't know where to go for Indian food, or the best burrito in the Mission. He's never spent all day and night in the bars of Chinatown. He doesn't love San Francisco. He doesn't love much. He can keep the silence of the avenues and the paucity of his stunted heart. I'll take red wine and spicy food, cab drivers yelling out their windows, the smell of cardamom and cloves, the passions that endure.

RedFeather, by

The Frisco Kid is generally to be found all likkered up and spoiling for a fight. She's a sexy Wild West gunslinger in the great tradition of Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane, only a little less with the sharpshooting and a little more with the booze-fueled marathons of Star Trek and sodomy.

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