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Restaurant review: Zuni Café, San Francisco

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I like to think that if I’d had lunch last Tuesday at “Yuni” Café, I would have marveled at the food anyway.

But this wasn’t Yuni Café, it was Zuni Cafe.  Now in its fortieth year in the mid-Market section of San Francisco, Zuni is internationally famous; somehow Chez Panisse overcame it in renown, but Zuni remains vital enough that the San Francisco Chronicle included them—again—in their Top 100 Restaurants this year.

I’ve lived here for 41 years (!!!) and due to my career had access to the greatest restaurants, but for some reason I never actually made it to Zuni. I always was aware of it; it was on my bucket list. So when my cousin Keith had his birthday, and it fell to me in our Northern California family to find a restaurant for lunch, there was no question in my mind.

Zuni.

The neighborhood is sketchy, even by San Francisco standards. The mid-Market area has been marginal for a half-century; even when I lived in the City in the late 1970s and 1980s, it was a scary, dirty district of drug dealers, prostitutes and derelicts. San Francisco passed a law known as the Twitter Tax years ago to reduce taxes on big companies that relocated to mid-Market, in the hope they’d revitalize the neighborhood; Twitter was among them and is still there. Other corporations followed, but mid-Market can still seem like a visit to the Star Wars bar.

Zuni itself is in an old building, a warren of formerly interconnected office spaces, each a mini-dining room. Our table looked out over the copper-plated bar, with street views; the nearest other diner was a good 12 feet away; don’t you hate those restaurants where you’re elbow-to-elbow with other tables?

We just had to order Zuni’s most famous dish: the broiled chicken. It’s supposedly the best broiled chicken in California, maybe America. It cost $63; we decided the four of us would share it, and each could order further appetizers or entrées. We eventually decided on another Zuni speciality: two Caesar Salads for the table. To this we added a prosciutto pizza. My family had various wines and cocktails; I had an IPA.

So what does a $63 chicken taste like? Very, very good—and very salty. Was it the greatest chicken I ever had? Pretty much—and I’ve had a lot of chicken! I’m a dark-meat guy, so I had the drumstick and thigh. Amazingly delicious, sweet, moist, tender and deeply, royally, sinfully flavorful. But salty. I guess the salt is needed to make it so delicious.

When I was in my twenties I was a sous-chef at an upscale restaurant and I used to prepare Caesar salad tableside, so I know something about it. It’s a very simple salad: not a whole lot going on ingredient-wise, easily replicable elsewhere. This Caesar was a marvel. I guess the romaine was first-class, and the croutons were a marvel, but it was the dressing that clinched it. So light and delicate, so subtle with that anchovy sea tang. I absolutely loved it.

And don’t even ask me about the pizza! Look, I love pizza in any form. Zuni’s is extremely thin-crust. This one, with the prosciutto, was so good, we couldn’t believe it. My family are all foodies; Keith and I just looked at each other in wonder. How can a pizza appetizer be this good?

So it was a simple meal: pizza, salad and broiled chicken. But somehow it will remain in my memory forever as one of the great meals of my life. I have dined in restaurants that people would die to eat in. Why was Zuni so memorable? For the same reason it’s remained at the top for forty years: excellence in all its parts, resulting that mysterious je ne sais qua that makes you adore it.

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