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.
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?
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.
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.