A year ago the Wall Street Journal declared Temescal "a new Gourmet Ghetto." That capped a year and a half of glowing local-ish praise, from Sunset to Via, about the neighborhood's glittering edible schwag.
Strict disclosure: I'm a Temescalian. Mortgaged to a bungalow of sinking value. Faithful reader of the odd smash and grab on the neighborhood Yahoo message board. But I wonder, kind of embarrassedly, how many gastro tourists have steered their rental Fiestas to Telegraph and 51st, only to think: What the hell?
Truth is, despite the lovable squashy scones at Bakesale Betty's, the blistery thin crusts at Pizzaiolo, and the lush margaritas at Doña Tomás, Temescal is a food destination still emerging. Just as some residents are locked in a tussle over density, development, and gentrification, the dining scene is waffling between the everyday and the extraordinary.
Recently a Peet's opened. Before that, Telegraph saw the launch of a raft of unpretentious eateries: Horseshoe, Marc 49, and the Mixing Bowl. Restaurants pretty much designed for the needs of local bungalow dwellers, without the through-the-Caldecott appeal, of, say, Pizzaiolo. Still, you get the feeling the neighborhood's largely premature reputation as an eater's all-day destination has made the owners of these new places a tad self-conscious.
The latest is Aunt Mary's Cafe. Its location stretches the limit of the Temescal food ghetto, merging with the upper range of Koreatown. In fact, the former cabinet shop was an almost-Korean, until, partially renovated, Jack Stewart and his wife, Nu Ho, took it over and turned it into a breakfast-and-lunch cafe.
The space they ended up with tries to turn the limitations of a cavernous workshop. Windowless except on the street side, the room is dim; the pistachio green of the walls doesn't help. There's a kind of courtyard bordering the sidewalk, under the building's deep overhang, next to a narrow enclosed lounge — a wait space furnished with a couple of old radio consoles, but also a kiddie play corner.
Stewart is from Dallas. Both his mom and her sister, Mary Scull (the cafe's namesake), grew up in Georgia. Stewart himself spent twenty years in restaurant kitchens. "Long enough to know better," he says sardonically. He cooked in Dallas and Seattle, and in San Francisco at Aqua, briefly, and Rose Pistola.
The menu is an amalgam of Stewart's experience: cornbread south, chili-spiked Tex-Mex, and goat-cheese Cali. Lots of stuff is deep-fried, the coffee is dark, strong, and roasted locally (Emeryville's McLaughlin), the jam is Blue Chair, and Stewart employs a baker, Olive Bureker, who makes everything from sandwich rolls to bread for toast.
In other words, Aunt Mary's feels more like a labor of love than a profit center. Combine that with Temescal's uncertainty about whether to appeal strictly to locals, or become hawkers of gastronomy to readers of the WSJ, and you end up with a place where the food is fresh and generally well cooked, but occasionally concept-heavy.
From the breakfast menu, which is available till closing, Southern Bubble and Squeak is a concept that works. Don't let the name give you ideas — there's nothing remotely like the Anglo-Irish fry-up of spuds and cabbage about it. Instead, it's a couple of mashed potato cakes topped with eggs any style, next to a heap of long-cooked collards and a hefty buttermilk biscuit. The greens' cooking liquid — what Southerners call "pot likker" — gets reduced, thickened, and turns up as sauce for the eggs. It's all rib-sticking, and pretty good, except for wayward details like chunks of undercooked potato in the cakes, or the sugar in the pot likker, which turned the eggs oddly saccharine.
Migas are just as filling. Stewed black beans circle a mound of eggs scrambled with tortilla strips and squares of peppers. Buttermilk pancakes are big, and thick as oven mitts.
The kitchen does well by the deep-fryer. Calas are beignet-like fritters whose batter contains rice, traditional New Orleans street food. They're fantastic: soft, crisp, and undersweetened beneath a dusting of powdered sugar. All they needed was a spoonful of luscious Blue Chair jam, which you have to ask for.
Lunch is where the menu's Southern conceit can start to feel strained. The Brutus — an archly named reworking of a Caesar salad — made me wish the kitchen would scrap its concept and just focus on making food that tasted good. In theory, the dressing gets fishy grounding from smoked oysters rather than anchovies, but I could barely taste them. Anyway, oysters haven't the salty snarl that gives a proper Caesar its teeth. Likewise, the Brutus's crouton substitute — crisp nuggets of deep-fried cornmeal batter (no sign of the fried okra the menu had promised) — hadn't the texture that gives a proper Ceasar its tooth.
Better to satisfy your deep-fry tooth with the Po' Boyster, a house-baked torpedo roll crammed with cornmeal-crusted oysters and impossibly chunky fennel remoulade. All it needed was hot sauce, a stack of napkins, and a willing suspension of dignity since, to get it into my mouth, I had to put up with oyster trails and mayo smears all over my face. Jalapeno Puppies, an appetizer of blistered chilies filled with cheddar and goat cheese and with a cornmeal crust, had all of the deep-fried goodness, with none of the mess.
Named for the bison meat it contains and not the dubious home of the spicy chicken wing, the chunky Buffalo Chili was perfectly delicious; an accompanying hunk of skillet cornbread tasted satisfyingly salty and buttery. Too bad the Pulled Pork — a huge nest of tender meat shreds on a fat bun — comes with a shockingly sweet sauce, chunky with onion and tomato pieces. The chow-chow relish that comes with it offers little relief.
Though much of what this place serves up is tasty — and all of it is bargain priced — you wonder if the menu is supple enough to maintain a steady neighborhood business. Not quite a destination, and not quite a local diner, Aunt Mary's has yet to find its way into the Ghetto.