The Dish Whisperer
I ignore their drooling, their irritating musings about the menu. I ignore the menu. Instead, I sit with folded hands at my back corner table and wait for Chef Anthony Strong to send out a delectable feast that’s undoubtedly unique to my table.
I have a secret.
If you’re a regular at a neighborhood bistro, an In-N-Out Burger aficionado, or just know a guy who knows the chef, you’re probably hip to the joys of the hidden menu. I’m talking about the special dishes that a restaurant can make but doesn’t advertise.
Ever since I was a chubby kid, I’ve gotten a thrill from ordering “off menu.” Back then, my parents were regulars at a tiny Italian mom-and-pop place near our house, and they were on a first-name basis with the waitress, Sandy. She would always bring out little treats from the kitchen for me and my brother. I felt like a princess when I could order whatever I wanted from Sandy – like, say, a grilled cheese with pickles – and she would magically make it happen.
This hunger for covert dishes carried into adulthood. I still remember how cool I felt the first time I ordered a burger, animal style, at In-N-Out. Before it became mainstream knowledge, its “secret” recipe of mustard-cooked beef patties layered with pickles and grilled onions was a special treat for in-the-know customers. Ordering a burger or fries “animal style” became the hallmark of a loyal In-N-Out devotee.
Like me, Kathrina Manalac, Daniel Dumas, and Jon Snyder are addicted to that singsong-y “I know something you don’t know!” dining style, and their passion fuels HiddenMenu.com. The trio met while working at Wired, and they soon discovered that their tech and gadget nerdery spilled over into eating. They yearned to understand the inner workings of a restaurant. They wanted to pick kitchens apart and build a better dining experience by detailing the covert dishes and drinks they’ve enjoyed.
HiddenMenu.com was born, the lovechild of foodie lifestyle and scientific method.
While I relish the insider meal, I’ll admit I’m also a skittish diner. Seven years of working in the restaurant industry has instilled in me a healthy fear of being a pain in the ass – I’m the kind of patron who will ask a server for a glass of water “when you get a chance” or a side of guacamole “if it’s not too much trouble.” I remember too well the days of sullenly sucking down a cigarette by the dumpster behind the kitchen, bitching about the asshole who wouldn’t stop flagging me down for some trivial accoutrement that, in hindsight, wasn’t that unreasonable of a request.
I tend to order off-menu either when it’s already socially acceptable (for example, from In-N-Out) or when dining at a place where I’m a friend of the chef’s. I’m terrified of rocking the boat. Or maybe the galley kitchen that’s on the boat.
Kat, Danny, and Jon don’t share this fear. Instead, they look at hidden menu dining as a “culinary treasure hunt,” a way to get a true taste of what a restaurant is all about. They aspire to eat like regulars, or to be a friend of the chef who gets that little something extra. I want to eat with them. I want to be them. I decide to tag along on a Hidden Menu venture and taste the secrets of San Francisco kitchens for myself.
At Pizzeria Delfina, my eyes are bulging out of my head as the waitress presents us with plate after plate of off-menu dishes. We start with the Purgatorio pizza, wafer-thin crust that’s sprinkled with pecorino Romano cheese and slathered with spicy tomato sauce before being crowned with two quivering eggs. Cue the record scratch. Eggs? On pizza? Egg on pizza is fantastic, people. If this is “purgatorio,” fuck the afterlife. I’ll stay right here in limbo, stuffing my face with this breakfast-in-Italy concoction.
I’m so intent on scraping every last drop of eggy tomato sauce from my plate that I barely notice the deep-fried meatball calzone that the waitress has dropped off.
Thank god I look up, because I almost miss out on spearing a hunk of this beauty for myself. These Hidden Menu people are like ninjas. Dirty, rotten, calzone-stealing ninjas.
We don’t talk, just eat, with Jon getting up to snap pictures every once in a while. For a second, I hope he doesn’t catch my face – which I vaguely suspect is covered in meatball remnants. Time and contact sheets will tell if I’m caught in the oink-ity act.
While I inhale three days’ worth of calories, Kat tells me that besides the food, her favorite part of the Hidden Menu project is the relationships she’s developed with chefs. Show an interest in the menu methodology, she says, and chefs will light up, their own passions for food ignited.
Her point is emphasized when Chef Strong swings by our table to chat about our meal. He and Kat talk for a few minutes about the egg pizza, about the kiddie pasta we’re also snarfing down (a simple but hearty dish of tender pasta with a choice of tomato sauce or butter and freshly grated cheese), and about the forthcoming Delfina restaurant Locanda, for which Chef Strong is in the process of testing dishes.
The combination of the chef’s presence and the spread of off-menu items make me feel like a guest of honor. And this is the spirit of HiddenMenu.com – developing a close relationship with the people behind what’s on your dinner plate.
The real test, though, is hitting up a restaurant with all the confidence of a regular, and none of the pomp and circumstance. Sure, a chef can whip up a “hidden menu” item when they know they’re being featured on a website dedicated to such secrecy, but is it all for show (and PR) or will they follow through?
Since I am such a curious but nervous diner, I decide to ease into the concept and hit up a spot that’s known for its “secret”items. I don’t want to look like a jackass. What happens if I ask for something and the server has no idea what I’m talking about? What if she has to get the manager involved? WHAT IF EVERYONE STARES AT ME?!
In 2009, 7x7 magazine listed the Brass Monkey pizza at Little Star as #60 on its annual list of “100 Things to Try Before You Die.” Though it isn’t officially advertised, the Brass Monkey now enjoys a sort of cult following. It’s a good starting point for an off-menu newbie.
As I’d hoped, all goes smoothly. I order a Brass Monkey at Little Star in the Mission as nonchalantly as possible, and the waitress doesn’t bat a heavily mascaraed eyelash. When it arrives – a glorious deep-dish masterpiece of spinach, ricotta, feta, onions, garlic, and sausage cradled in a cornmeal crust – I dig in triumphantly. Check me out, suckas! I can practically feel the jealous glares boring into the side of my head.
The next morning, my stomach is heavy with pizza and my brain is giddy with power. I can do this! I can successfully order off menu with delicious results! Still, I tell myself, the Brass Monkey is an unofficial Little Star classic. I have to go deeper.
It’s time to chase the dragon.
Kat and Danny tell me that one of their favorite hidden menu destinations is Weird Fish because of its secret vegan menu and the pass phrase you need to utter to unlock it.
A secret pass phrase!!!
I slip into Weird Fish on a drizzling afternoon. The place is empty, save for the kitchen staff and an adorable pixie waitress. I refuse the menu she offers me. I know what I want.
“I want to chase the dragon,” I tell her.
She looks confused.
Shit. It’s happening! I’m trying to order off the hidden menu and the waitress doesn’t know what I’m talking about! Oh god, maybe she thinks I’m trying to buy drugs!
“Um,” I stammer, “I heard that, um, you have a, um, hidden menu? And if I tell you that I, um, want to chase the dragon that, um, you’d know what I was talking about?”
She doesn’t. Neither does the kitchen. But, they are very kind.
Turns out that Weird Fish has recently undergone a pretty massive menu change, but if the kitchen happens to have the right ingredients, the staff will happily make any of the vegan (or other) dishes that were on the old menu.
Determined to get one more hidden fix, I try again at a different spot. I hit The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen in SOMA and order “the works.” According to HiddenMenu.com, it’s artisan sourdough bookending three kinds of cheese, applewood-smoked bacon, roasted tomatoes, and pickles. The combo is bathed in butter and grilled to crunchy, gooey perfection.
I pretend like I know exactly what I’m talking about, even though I’m terrified that my off-menu advances will again be rejected.
The order goes off without a hitch. Cha cha cha! Soon that gorgeous sandwich is making friends with the homemade blueberry lemon soda in my belly. My hands are dripping with cheese, my heart with secret-savvy glory.
My confidence renewed, my stomach refilled, I resolve to be more proactive about my quest for kitchen secrets. Hidden Menu has inspired me to at least ask about unadvertised menu items from now on. I will be exuberant when they’re an option, and handle it gracefully when I’m denied.
I think Sandy would be proud.
Check out www.hiddenmenu.com for tips about San Francisco dining secrets, then show no fear, take no prisoners, leave no kitchen unturned.