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To the Oasis with Khalid

SAN FRANCISCO – As in any major metropolis, the dining scene in the city by the Bay changes faster than George Bush can make a grammatical error. Two years out of that gastronomic loop, I am home for the holidays, hungry without a clue as to where to eat lunch.

I know that many of my old favorites remain: the super quesadilla suiza with carne asada at El Farolito, the pumpkin curry at Suriya, the thin crust pizza at the Cheese Board, the fried artichoke hearts at Thirstybear. All indisputably delicious. All predictably sublime.

Jonesing for something new, I take BART to the financial district and decide to embark on a taxi/food quest. Just outside the Pacific Stock Exchange, I watch the suits and boots dodge people begging for help on the sidewalk. I shiver in the shadows of the skyscrapers that deflect the winter wind. I wonder if my experiment will fall flat here.

It’s one thing to go where the taxista takes you in Buenos Aires, a city famous for its openness and curiosity about strangers. But how would a cabbie in San Francisco, a place so reserved and pristine by comparison, respond?

I hail the first yellow cab for hire and climb in, noting the laminated rate card hanging from the passenger seat, praying that the driver doesn’t take me in circles.

“I have sort of a weird request,” I begin, “I’m wondering if you could take me someplace good to eat.”

“Excuse me?” The balding cabbie turns and stares, scratching the olive skin beside his grey mustache. His accent is thick and unrecognizable to me.

“I’d like to go someplace you would normally eat. Someplace good…and cheap.”

He laughs a deep belly laugh. The cars on Sansome Street swerve around us. He leaves the meter off.

“You want to go to Boudin in Fisherman’s Wharf?”

“Ummmm, no.” Despite feeling like a foreigner, I have no interest in venturing to the tourist wonderland that is the Wharf and slurping clam chowder from a sourdough bowl (color me snobby if you haven’t already).

“How about In-n-Out?”

“Is that where you usually eat?”

“Yep,” he answers, “I like to eat fast. If there’s no food on the table in ten minutes, I get up and leave. What do you think? Do you want to go to In-n-Out?”

“OK…sure.”

I adore everything about In-n-Out burgers, but we already have a passionate, if intermittent, relationship.

“In-n-Out, then,” he says, activating the meter.

We cruise toward Twin Peaks on Market Street and turn right onto Montgomery. His driving, like the city itself, lulls me into a state of calm (so unlike the violent fits and starts of Buenos Aires taxistas that often inspire prayers of salvation).

“How long have you been driving a cab?” I ask him.

“Fifteen years.”

“And before that?”

“I used to have a grocery store downtown until the lease expired. I’ve been in the U.S. for 30 years,” Khalid explains.

“Where did you come from?”

Palestine.”

Palestine?!” I lean forward and grab the back of the passenger seat, “You must know where to find good falafel.”

“I actually eat falafel at home,” he says.

Of course you do. And how good that falafel must be…Much as I’m looking forward to my burger, I’m craving something closer to Khalid’s history.

We coast into Chinatown, and he slaps his hand to his forehead.

“Hey, I just remembered this Lebanese place that’s right across from the Hyatt. They make good shawerma. What do you think? Would you like to go there? It’s not far.”

And how! Shawerma — a sandwich made with pita or lavash, hummus, tomato, cucumber, and chicken, lamb, or beef – happens to be one of my latest culinary obsessions. To be taken to this Middle Eastern fast food by One Who Knows would be a fantasy made real.

“Let’s go,” I say, my mouth watering.

A few minutes later, Khalid pulls up to the Oasis Grill. A lunchtime crowd spills onto the sidewalk from the neon-lit storefront.

“See?” he points triumphantly.

“What should I get?” I ask him.

“Chicken or beef shawerma. Actually, try them both.”

I thank him for the ride, and he turns to shake my hand, “Good luck. And enjoy.”

I duck under the shade of Oasis Grill’s green awning and study the wall-mounted menu and food photos. Surrendering to my hunger, I take Khalid’s suggestion and order both a chicken and a beef/lamb shawerma from the grill master. Beside him, an assembly line of cooks spoons tahini and hot sauce, chops tomato and cucumber, and wraps lavash with lightening precision.

“You want them spicy?”

I nod enthusiastically.

Five minutes later, the grill master hands me a plastic grocery bag with my two shawermas. Cradling the goods, I squeeze through the crowd, scan the sidewalk for a place to eat, and cross the street to the Embarcadero Center, where a single park bench sits empty in the winter sun.

I slide onto the bench and tear into the first shawerma. The heat from the harissa (smoked chili sauce) slathered on the soft lavash shocks my taste buds awake, and from there the richness of the tahini commingles with crunchy tomato and cucumber and uncharacteristically lean beef and lamb (This is, I realize, a sandwich for a health-conscious San Francisco public). Although this shawerma might not pass muster in the backstreet doner kebabs of Turkey or Lebanon, its bright flavors and freshness still make me swoon with pleasure.

A well-dressed man on the bench next door sips a Starbucks from a paper cup and glances at me with what I assume must be envious hunger.

“Is that a burrito?”

“Nope, it’s shawerma. I got it right over there,” I point across the street to Oasis.

“Thanks,” he says, tossing his coffee cup into a trash bin and following the direction of my finger.

I wipe the tahini off my scarf and unwrap shawerma number two.

Oasis Grill
91 Drumm St.
San Francisco, CA 94111
Tel: 415-781-0313
www.sfoasisgrill.com

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2 comments

  1. A bueeeeee, so, make a comparation and an international comparation about cab´s feeding places!

  2. If you are in the Hopland area, stop by Nelson Family Vineyards and ask for Chris or Amy. We will be around until December 17, then we are off to BA for our honeymoon!

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