Monday, July 10, 2006

I miss the Taco Nazi

For more than 80 years the Roosevelt Tamle Parlour at 2817 24th Street, between Bryant and York, and less than a block from my house, was an institution of the southeastern corner of the Mission. Having lived in the neighborhood for nearly a decade, I saw it go through minimal changes. Its lack of high end ambiance was as much of a draw as the food itself -- which was, by the way, consistently fresh, tasty, served within ten minutes and in huge portions at reasonable prices. As its menu stated, they served "treats for the hungry," and you certainly never left with an empty stomach. Reportedly it had been in the family of the owner Maria for generations, and you felt like you were coming into her living room. And she managed to make you feel they way you would were you to drop in unannounced at someone's house expecting a meal. You certainly weren't greeted with a big "Hello, how are you? So glad you are are here!" Save that for Chevy's. The place was usually packed, and you were expected to stand quietly and wait your turn. Were you to commit the cardinal sin of sitting down at a table just as a customer were leaving, you would hear Maria scream out "Don't sit at the dirty tables!"

The place was always very clean and tidy, and you certainly never feared getting food poisining there. Until its last couple of years, it had vinyl faux panelling, paintings on velvet, beer posters and pictures of Teddy Roosevelt. Even more memorable were the hand scrawled signed. "Do NOT bring in outside beverages." "Do NOT lean on the glass counter." "Do NOT touch or take the chips. If you want chips, you can order them from the menu." And, the ultimate rule "Do NOT sit at dirty tables." That one was usually underscored at least twice, often three or more times.

Maria was certainly never outright rude nor would she ever directly insult a customer, but customer service was certainly not her forte. When she brought you a plate, she'd say, "There you go." Or when you paid your bill, it was the same as she handed you your change: "There you go." Never, "And how was everything?" Or, "Please come again!" And in nearly a decade of going there at least three to four times a month, not once did I hear thank you, hello or how are you. Since I never made the faux pas of sitting at a dirty table, we never had a conflict. I think the extent of our conversations were "What will you have?" and "There you go."

All of this would lead you to believe that she had street people coming in and she needed to keep them in line. But 99% of her customers were slumming yuppies from Noe Valley or the Castro, and perhaps they came for the show and thrill of being put in their place as much as they did for the food.

Once, after she decided to paint over the panelling with white paint, I politely commented as I paid my bill that the place looked very nice, she said, without looking up, "Yeah, I thought I'd spruce of the place. There you go." Clunk, as the change went in my hand.

It's not even been a month, and time will tell, but I have to admit the new and remodeled Roosevelt was a bit of a disappointment on my first visit. While the decor is certainly spiffy compared to the old vinyl paneling, The only familiar decor item was a small portrait of Teddy Roosevelt. (The place's incongrous name supposedly comes from what was once the Roosevelt Theater in the next block that is now the Brava.)

The menu was extremely limited -- mainly the place's namesake tamales which is an expected offering, but honestly something I never ordered in the old days. The service set up was a little confusing as well. I couldn't figure if it was counter or table service, and the woman that helped me seemed equally confused. When I ordered, she told me how much the order would be, came back two minutes later and told me that it would be a good idea if I paid before the order came. The food, turkey tamales, was fine as tamales go, but it was not particularly memorable.

I am sure that I will go back and give it a second try, but I suspect nothing will ever equal the memory of the old place. Some of that is just realizing that someone familiar that you took for granted is gone and will never be back to serve "treats for the hungry." Sort of like the feeling when an annoying aunt passes on and you suddenly know how you miss her even more than her peach cobbler at holiday gatherings.

Maria has not left the neighborhood, as far as I know, since she pops up now and then on 24th Street, but the Roosevelt will never be the same without her. Maybe the next time I see her I’ll tell her “There you go,” just for old times sake.

UPDATE OF JULY 20: Tonight I went back for a second run at the place after seeing it packed over the course of the past couple of weeks. I was clearly to harsh on my first trip. There was very efficient and friendly table service. The menu, though not filled with the old standards such as the beloved "treats for the hungry," was as extensive as the old days. The chips were free (!!!!) and some of the best I've had, and the enchilladas espanolas that I ordered were good if not exactly memorable. I am sure that I'll go back, just not every week as in the old days if I want to stay the weight I am aiming for.

And who should I hear at the next table babbling away about the 1980s 49ers, Reba McIntyre, her mortgage and cats, SF politics and how she managed to keep off the pounds by not eating there twice a week. Yep, dear old Maria. She was her same old self, though I must say she has really trimmed down and looked good. It was sort of like having an ex-communicated relative inviting herself to a family reunion or taking pleasure in chilis so hot that one takes pleasure in the pain. I felt as if I'd come home again.

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