The Q Factor

by Patricia Unterman

Friday, December 14, 2001
San Francisco Examiner

Homey, hearty fare in a quirky hangout

How did Q elude me? The Inner Richmond hot spot has been open for three years and I didn’t discover it until last week when my 30-year-old, environmental engineer, bicycle- and Muni-riding cousin suggested we meet there. I could kick myself. I figure I missed out on about two-and-a-half years of superlative grilled meatloaf and Baja fish tacos.

But then Q doesn’t exactly show up on the radar screen of fiftysomething, food-and-wine society, truffle-gorging gourmands. This exuberant, loud, trashy, Inner Richmond hangout beckons those who appreciate good value, hearty and delicious eats and amusing decor (if it can be called decor).

Cousin Jenn hoofed it to Q after her yoga class while her still-gainfully employed software-engineer boyfriend rode over early on his motorcycle to put his name on the waiting list, bless his heart. Q doesn’t take reservations.

My cousin, environmentally attuned as she is, prefers to eat low on the food chain, climbing only as high as fish. Given her druthers, she sticks to vegetable matter. Her boyfriend Josh is a protein (he prefers bird or lower I think) and potatoes guy who leaves his vegetables on the plate.

I am ferociously omnivorous, a democratic devourer of the widest range of living things. Q caters to all of us.

Jenn ordered a thick hunk of fresh swordfish – checking first to make sure it was a sustainably fished Pacific specimen instead of a threatened member of the depleted Atlantic stock.

Great Prices

Having cleared that concern away, she happily worked her way through a thick hunk of buttery-textured swordfish, crisscrossed with golden grill marks and a mountain of compatible sides: crispy fennel salad, braised kale and spicy jambalaya rice. For $13, it was one of the biggest and best plates for the price, anywhere.

Josh’s Southern-fried chicken ($9.50) crunched with each bite. Hot and juicy inside, this chicken riffed with texture. The craggy, golden boulders rested against a volcano of mashed potatoes with sweet brown county gravy pooled in its crater, surrounded by foliage – a buttery braise of peppers, spinach and zucchini.

I like my dish – thick slices of dense, spicy meatloaf ($9), reheated on the grill – best. The loaf was infused with smoky barbecue sauce, overtones of which were intensified by the fire. The meatloaf came with those surprisingly delicious braised vegetables, mashed potatoes and country gravy.

We started the meal with a carbohydrate festival: macaroni and cheese with Tator Tots. The macaroni and cheese, made with thinly sauced soft pasta, was certainly comforting but those nuggets of crunchy, golden, potato-like substance made the dish. I couldn’t stop eating them, and they actually complemented each bite of blessedly restrained macaroni.

Josh assumed that these Tots came straight from the food-service freezer. “Of course they didn’t,” I told him as I popped one after another into my mouth. “They’re divine.” The waitress confirmed that the Tots were the only item on the menu that wasn’t made from scratch. In my defense these Q Tator Tots were deep-friend instead of baked on a cookie sheet, a cooking method that kicks them up a notch. What have I been missing in my disdain for processed food?

Arty Interior

Just to complete the carb fest, we ate ears or corn, blackened and smokey from the grill, dripping with jalapeno-lime butter ($3.50). The big, horsey, chewy ears reminded me of street food in Mexico. My norteamericano taste buds made me imagine how sublime this dish could be if made with more delicate corn.

For dessert, have roasted bananas, split and grilled in their skin, scattered with toasted walnuts, softly whipped cream and caramel-fudge sauce ($4.50). The warm smokey banana becomes creamy; the whole things an ingenious turn on both bananas Foster and a banana split.

The Q ambiance is as original and soulful as the cooking. The space is one big collage of collected materials; lots of sheet metal of one sort or another, including many invented objects. Banquettes and booths have gold and silver-flecked polyurethane sparkle gaily in light bouncing off the corrugated tin ceiling. Magnetic letters adhere to sheet-metal-covered walls. Tables are actually wooden boxes on pedestals with one glass side.

A panorama inside might be a papier-mache snake in a purple desert or crinkled silvery mylar with a photo of sky and clouds positioned in the middle. Candles in little glasses glow through metal cylinders with cut-out designs. Distressed cement floor, industrial sheet-metal bar and proudly open kithcen are softened some-how by these layers of wacky, abstract object d’art.

Q is deafening with hard surfaces, loud talk, clanking kitchen and the sound system always cranked up to full volume with the likes of raspy-voiced 60-year-old Bob Dylan.

Not a place to find wine, you might think. Wrong. The icono-clastic list, compiled by the chef himself, Andrew Gillen, is as quirky and innovative as everything else about this place. Dominated by reds in the $20 range the list covers the globe.

Each entry gets a description and a few suggested dishes to drink with it.

I could hardly decide what to choose, there were so many appealing choices. I settled on a Pairaiso Springs Syrah, 1996 ($29), “structured and balanced, a very smooth wine,” because I’m a fan of Monterey County Pinot Blanc. The wine worked with everything on the table. I suspect that most of the full, fruity, spicy wines on this list do, Gillen has a fail-safe palate.

No newcomer, he has been the chef at Bitterroot in the Mission when it was good, and at Cha Cha Cha before that. He has cooked for rock ‘n’ roll bands (the Grateful Dead among them), on yachts in Florida, at summer resorts in Michigan, at winter resorts on Colorado, at restaurants in New Mexico. He grew up in upstate Michigan, one of the younger children in a family of six kids. The family fished and hunted, and canned vegetables for the winter. He learned to cook from his mother and never stopped. He must have been born with the gift and a calling to feed people because one rarely comes across a more expressive or more honest restaurant.

Multiculti clientele

Q is the ultimate neighborhood restaurant. People come every day for brunch through dinner and eat at comfortable price levels. They can be vegetarians or meat lovers. They can drink beer or wine or lemonade. They can read a newspaper or chat up a date. Q is one of the generalists fulfilling the role of the small-town Main Street cafe with a hip big-city demeanor.

What about that name? Q does stand for barbecue and it’s true that Smilin’ Andy’s BBQ Pork Spareribs with Mom’s Baked Beans, Spicy Slaw and Garlic Fries ($9.50) transcends any plate of ribs anywhere. Two thick, meaty, fat-laced, melt-in-your-mouth ribs – smokey and spicy with chunky barbecue sauce resonant with dried red chilies – are well worth the price alone, though I’ve never tasted better baked beans. Andrew Gillen was lucky when it came to moms. Ands so are we to have him and his edgy, soulful Q.

Q – A great neighborhood eatery

By Edward “Ace” Annese
Bay Arts and Music

It is a rare occasion when one can find a restaurant that has all the following qualities:
-Good Location
-Good atmosphere
-Pleasant and efficient staff
-Reasonable prices
-Decent portions
-And most important of all: Great Food!

As a former restaurant worker, this reviewer has a keen appreciation of all the above. So, when it does happen, it deserves to be praised, encouraged and publicized. Such is the case with Q, a funky little bistro in SF’s Richmond District.
First and foremost, Q is about awesome food. That it comes in hefty portions and a fair price is a double bonus. Plus the diner gets the vittles in a prompt courteous manner in a groovy atmosphere heavy on galvanized metal and fascinating metalwork, not to mention a large scale model of a quarter moon. Plus there’s some cool letter magnets to create naughty messages and such, depending on the booth. What more can one ask for?
How about an eclectic menu to satisfy virtually any palette, not to mention budget. Appetizers range from $4-6, with the grilled wings in a tropical fruit habanero dipping sauce, or the crispy baja fish tacos in a papaya salsa, as well as the vegetarian potato croquettes with asiago, rosemary and smoked tomato salsa all being particular faves.
Salads range from 4-9 bucks with the delicious grilled salmon in a pepper-dijon vinaigrette coming with roasted beets and marinated cucumber, or the simply scrumptious chicken Caesar salad that comes in 2 different sizes, depending on the patron’s appetite. The latter can also be ordered without chicken and is just as yummy, as the tangy dressing is addictive. There’s also a mixed greens salad in balsamic for a lighter touch for a mere $3.50. Side dishes like the awesome mashed potatoes, garlic fries or braised veggies can augment a salad or appetizer choice.
Main courses are a treat as well, and go for a paltry 7-11 smackers. There is a rotating cast of nightly specials that might be a ducat or two more, but well worth it. One that sticks out is “Smilin’ Andy’s” BBQ Ribs with beans and spicy slaw. A must for all rib fans! As far as regular menu choices, the NY steak with tarragon-zinfandel butter, and garlic spinach is divine; the Southern fried chicken with mashed taters ’n’ gravy and braised veggies is not to be missed; the beer-battered catfish with corn relish, garlic fries and chili-lime aioli is top-notch; and a fine vegetarian course is the Portobello risotto with sherry, shallots, asiago cheese and sautéed spinach.
But wait there’s more: A chance to customize the dining experience via ‘The Journey Grill.’ For only $9.50, one can choose a main course, a sauce and a side dish from a short list of each. Recommended is the Salmon filet with smoked tomato salsa or pepper-dijon vinaigrette and mashed potatoes or rice pilaf. The salmon can be replaced with Portobello mushroom, or chicken breast; other sauces include country gravy or papaya salsa, and black beans or garlic fries are other tasty side dishes. All the above are served with the ubiquitous braised veggies which are always done to perfection. Mix and match for a different “Journey” every time! All the above can be washed down with the usual soft drinks or a fine array of tap beers and excellent wine list. The latter can sometimes be a bit pricy, but splurge a bit and it’ll be all good. Master Chef (and former runway model?) Smilin’ Andy Gilled tests ‘em all personally and he’s got good instincts, as well as an easy, affable manner that sets the tone for the entire staff. Credit him and his lovely wife for picking a fine support crew. Oh, there’s excellent desserts as well: The NY cheesecake is exquisite, and the chocolate mousse is to die for. Both are worthy to top off a fine dining experience. Beware, as the word has spread on this place, the prime time hours of 8-10p are often busy.
Perhaps then it might be good to stop in for lunch, which begins at 11 am and runs ‘til 3 pm from Mon. to Fri.
Recommended is the BBQ burger on a brioche bun, which is light and airy. It’s pretty darn groovy. Many of the same entrees from the dinner menu can be ordered as well, with a bit mellower atmosphere. Naturally, all food can be ordered to go, or called in, which is especially good for those who have short lunch times but want a decent meal to take on the rest of the day. Weekend feature a terrific brunch that starts around 10 am, featuring a variety of excellent scrambles, benedicts, or personal faves like the bacon ‘n’ eggs with home fries, French toast or Banana pancakes. Bes of all is the Big bowl ‘o’ fruit, yogurt and granola for a measly 5 bones. Now if only served breakfast during the week…
All in all, there’s little not to like about Q. Stop in and see ’em sometime, y’hear?

Tip: Q

By Paul Reidinger
The San Francisco Bay Guardian
November 28, 2001
Take a stroll west along Clement Street, starting at Arguello out to about 10th Avenue, and you might come away with the sense that you’ve just toured some kind of international food and restaurant exposition.  There are tons of Asian places, of course – Chinese (including several Chinese bakeries), Thai, Vietnamese, Burmese – a sweet French place (Clementine), a low-key British-and-Middle Eastern-foods shop (Haig’s), a German bakery, a doughnut shop, a Starbucks, all those Asian food markets.  Practically anything your heart desires.
But what if your heart desires American?  What do you tell your keening heart then?  That there is no such thing as American food, that this welter of cuisines from around the globe is American food?  Of course it all is, in a way.  But there still is a kind of cooking that is uniquely homegrown, the kind you find in little diners and coffee shops all around the huge country.  It’s (naturally) big cooking: big flavors, big portions.
It’s the kind of cooking you’ll find at Q, a three-year-old joint near the eastern end of Clement.  Q isn’t physically big; in fact, it’s reminiscent of a slightly funked-up Universal Café: deep and narrow, with a sizeable counter for those who seek the true diner experience.  But the portions! The flavors!  Huge, epic, totally American.
And while I have to say I have problems with the classic and unthinking American equation – big = good – big portions of big American flavors in a slightly wild dinerish setting was exactly what chef-owner Andrew Gillen set out to serve when he opened Q.  If you ate his food at Bitterroot or Cha Cha Cha, you’ll know just what I mean.
Ribs.  Need I say more?  Gillen’s ($7) are poignantly tender and very spicy – a true symbiosis.  And served with crusty, bratty garlic fries, a slathering of baked beans, and a small ceramic pot of weirdly pink, pleasantly acidic pickled cabbage.  If you clean that particular plate, you won’t be hungry for another meal or two.
Baja fish tacos ($6) would seem to be a carry-over from Gillen’s Cha Cha Cha days.  You might also expect they’d be a lighter counterpoint to the bruisingly rich ribs; if they are, it’s in a relative sense only.  For one thing, the pieces of fish are encased in what my friend described as “extreme breading,” on a scale you might expect to find in a plate of fish and chips at a London pub.  Is this bad?  No, delicious.  Just not for the weight watchers.  As for the California flourish, that would be the papaya salsa.
Some of the portions are not overwhelmingly vast.  A large Caesar salad ($8), with chunks of grilled chicken breast and a heavy accumulation of grated Asiago cheese, makes the perfect lunch.  And a place of batter-fried clamari ($6), served with a sizeable dollop of lime-chili aioli, makes a nicely splittable starter.
But other appetizers are bigger than main dishes elsewhere.  Potato croquettes ($5), stuffed with Asiago and rosemary and served with smoked-tomato salsa on the side, turned out to be corn-dog size, and there were three of them!  We were still gnawing and nibbling away when the main dishes arrived.
And, since one of those dishes was the batter-fried catfish ($9), we knew something like despair.  How could we hope to eat all this food?  And, needless to say, it wasn’t as if the massive chink of deep-fried fish was sitting all by its lonesome on that roomy plate.  No, there was also a sweet-tart corn relish, a rubble field of handsomely bronzed garlic steak fries, and (in an artful reprise) the lime-chili aioli.
When you’ve surprised yourself by eating all that (as we did), you might well find yourself sitting there in a stupor.  Except you won’t, because Q’s energy and noise levels turn out to be an effective remedy for stupor.  If you’re not in a stupor, in fact, and you’re older than 30, you might even find the restaurant’s cheerfulness a bit aggressive, a bit intrusive.  Like a party, really, with the usual throbbing music that rather harassingly asks you to get up and dance.
It’s the kind of environment in which having a sustained conversation becomes something of a struggle.  Even retreating to one of the alcoves on either side of the entryway doesn’t entirely solve the problem of din, but it does reduce it while also affording and intimate view of the endless food traffic along Clement: people hurrying to or from banks, food markets, coffee bars, book stores, restaurants – one of which might or might not be Q.  Or maybe doughnuts. That was us: Americans, filled up American style, seeking that last taste of Americana before hurrying on ourselves.

Wine Spectator

Award of Excellence

2006 – 2010