Rehabbing the American Diner 

Rico's Diner straddles retro and modern culinary worlds with perfection.

Amazing how resilient the diner is. You can stack it with Rooty Tooty Fresh 'N Fruitys and corporate shift managers with safety-pin nametags and it won't die. You can blister Bisquick flapjacks on a crusty flattop reeking of onions, brew up watery Folgers in a wheezy percolator, and it won't die. Nope, we go on loving our diners, even as we demand so little from them, not noticing or caring that they've been remade with the impure products of big-box America: frozen choco-chip cheesecakes and chemical whip topping, butter-flavor griddle fat and machine-extruded fries.

And yet, despite all we've done to help destroy them, diners abide, like the smell of stale grease in rubber kitchen floor mats. So when a single, small diner somehow manages to get it right — respects the genre but throws in a bit of original flavor, without smacking of forced or fancy — it's a situation tangled up in awesomeness.

In early 2007, Rico Tiongco pulled the plug on mee krob and geared up to do what he'd always wanted: open a diner. Less than a year before, Tiongco opened Thai Corner in an elongated slot of a space in the heart of Oaksterdam. But running a Thai place kind of sucked; Tiongco's heart wasn't in it. "The first idea I had was a diner, but I didn't listen to myself," he says.

The 38-year-old self-taught chef has a knack for designing and making stuff. He'd already stripped the space down to a condition of slightly austere minimalism. With a buddy he tiled and welded cool glass-panel shelves. He commissioned mid-century-flavor chairs with square chrome legs and pebbly black nauga, chunky walnut tabletops, and mothball pendant lights. For the launch of Rico's Diner, he tweaked the look with elements that suggested the 1950s and '60s, the quintessential diner era: a wall of vintage-y auto license plates, and smart-aleck window graphics by San Francisco artist Brian Barneclo. There's the whistling wiener Hot Diggity, and Burgerman, a squat, mustachioed sandwich flexing a sailor's bicep to flaunt its "Mom" tat — Mad Men–era whimsy with a shot of skate-shop cool.

Barneclo, whose angular city-silhouette murals perk up the SF restaurant Nopa, creates the perfect frame for Tiongco's cooking, which straddles retro and modern without breaking a sweat. Rico's Diner manages to be classic without retreating behind self-conscious nostalgia in the style of Mel's and Johnny Rockets. Yup, there are shakes (milky, thick, and — in the case of the chocolate variety — aching with the corn-syrup sweetness of Hershey's). Yup, there's something called Mom's Meat Loaf — there's even an actual mom, Tiongco's mother, Gina, who works the order counter with soft-spoken niceness. And yup, there's Yankee Pot Roast, which is mouthwateringly salty and stringy, seeping dark, semi-gelid gravy.

And then there's vegan Vietnamese banh mi. Say what?

Tiongco says he has lots of friends averse to munching on animals and their secretions. His three-page menu comes with a page-long annex of cruelty-free eats: tofu scramble and a soy-protein pulled "pork" sammy, among others.

That gentle-karma banh mi is deliciously fierce. Yeah, its tofu "chicken" is best quarantined within quotation marks, where the unsuspecting won't stumble onto it by mistake. Wisely, the kitchen buries this stretchy, spongy protein under a stiff heap of tangy slaw, and (if you ask for it hot) searing slices of jalapeno that unleash a thrilling tide of cruelty on the tongue. The warm, toasted Acme torpedo roll makes it all feel comfortably diner, even more so if you opt for a side of Tater Tots. You end up thinking, How could a diner on a funky Oaksterdam corner not have a vegan banh mi?

The burgers evoke no such ambivalence about core proteins. The ground chuck is tasty without being doctrinaire (Niman Ranch beef is too lean for his uses, Tiongco says; if you're not grilling up rare burgers, it ends up dry). They're burgers you could make at home, if only you had the BTUs, a sack of Acme buns, and a heavy enough hand with the mustard and mayo to make anything tangy and unctuous. But sorry, dude: no way you could engineer fries as perfect as these in your countertop FryDaddy. The skin-on Idahos have sharply rendered edges that cook up crisp and greaseless. This is one meticulous kitchen.

Breakfast (which you can order till the place closes, at 3 in the afternoon) makes that meticulousness clear. Corned Beef Hash & Eggs is on the opposite end of the scale from the sticky, cat food cohesiveness of many a version. This one's an original, a kind of chunky griddle-fry where big strips of meat mingle with home fries, and everything's gilded with melted cheese — another example of Tiongco's fearlessness about shaking up the short-order canon. Mostly it works because of the potatoes: chunky red-skinned taters parboiled and — instead of a heat-through on the flattop, which is most home fries' downfall — crisped in the deep-fryer. In lesser hands that could mean a plate sweating Fryolator grease, but the kitchen here is a marvel of the steady temperature (which obviates greasiness) and the artful blot.

Hands down, bacon is the apotheosis of Rico's artfulness. I know, right? Diner bacon: sometimes chewy, with stubborn clots of rubbery fat that failed to render, sometimes brittle and burnt-tasting from over-rendering. But even badly cooked bacon is never really bad — I mean, it's bacon. Tiongco's technique is a marvel. He precooks it on the griddle, and then, to order, tosses it in the deep-fry. What emerges are strips so thin, so delicately crisp, you realize you've spent your entire life so far in love with something unrealized, and more or less shitty. Quite simply, Rico's bacon lifts anything it shares the plate with.

That might include thick and velvety French Toast Sticks (made with Acme levain and garnished, on the day I tried them, with crisp wedges of Fuyu persimmon). Or the Oaktowner, one of those eggs-and-pancake or French-toast-and-meat-of-your-choice combos.

It's the classic short-order matrix, in a restaurant where the owner's love for the format combines with local flavor in a way that suggests the possibility of rehabbing a tattered genre. Amazing.


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