Tray Chic

Posted on September 30, 2010 – 7:59 AM | by OldManFoster
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By Becky Grunewald  Photos by Scott Duncan and Becky Grunewald

Is there a public servant more maligned than the California state worker?  Police and fire personnel are viewed as heroes who serve and protect.  Even politicians get some grudging validation every few years when election day rolls around.  But the state worker just toils on in obscurity, assailed from all sides. If they’re not being mocked by the Governor, who furloughs them and then laughs at the idea it causes any hardship, they’re having their chops soundly busted by the Bee, which prints their salaries for all to peruse and pettily monitors their websurfing habits like a scolding schoolmarm.

In trying times like these, comforting, familiar, and – above all – affordable food is a necessity for these beleaguered civil servants, and luckily, there are a plethora of tucked-away spots that serve a utilitarian purpose with a modicum of charm.  Frequent MidMo contributor (and proud state worker) William Burg quipped that the theme of this month’s column could be “places you have to pass through a metal detector to get to.”

Certainly that’s how any visit to The Lob Café (1020 N St.) begins.  “Lob” stands for Legislative Office Building, which houses the café on the 6th floor.  It’s a drably pastel, cafeteria-style place, complete with salad bar, and I had heard tell that Korean food is sometimes on offer.  On the day I visited there was, unfortunately, none to be had, although there were a few pan-Asian dishes such as potstickers and sunomono.  The former had a tasty pork filling (studded with fresh ginger) inside a crusty wrapper and the latter was crisp and sweet.  The real treat was the “Lob chicken,” fall-off-the-bone chicken thighs in a teriyaki-like sauce flecked with black pepper.  I went back for a second helping. All that and a trip to the serviceable salad bar came to a bit more than five dollars by weight.  That’s affordable even if your paycheck has been cut by 15 percent.

Also affordable, although quite a bit more polished, is the CalPers cafeteria (400 Q St.).  It’s not housed in the flashy new glass-and-metal CalPers headquarters, though; you reach it through a narrow, unmarked passage to the right of Chocolate Fish Coffee.  The space inside is surprisingly large, with tall padded banquettes and an adjoining atrium for dining al fresco.  Fun fact: this cafeteria is part-owned by Magic Johnson, in a partnership with the giant food service conglomerate Sodexo.

Unfortunately, the food was no slam dunk.  I dribbled past the obvious salad and make-your-own sandwich bar and went right for the carved entree special of brisket.  It’s hard to eff up a brisket, and this one was OK.  It was a little dry, but the tasty brown gravy moistened it up.  The side of steamed lima beans, zucchini, and tomato would have been cut from any team, and my roasted red potatoes were undercooked.  The sauce on my dining companion’s salmon was made with sweetened vanilla yogurt, rather than plain – a truly disgusting combination.  The wheat crust on the veggie pizza was nicely yeasty-tasting, but the slice was soggy and overloaded with cheese.  Still, it was better than Pieces.  I concluded that I would have been wise to stick to the simpler (and very cheap) options, such as turkey burgers and sandwiches.  You win some, you lose some.

In contrast, at The House of Seven Tables (810 I street, inside the Post Office) everything tastes like victory.  It’s made with love by Jeannie Fong, and served with a smile.  She makes the sandwiches to order, and makes the soups – and many of the cakes and pies – from scratch.  The small space with – yes, exactly seven tables – is cutely seasonally decorated and comfortable.

I sampled the Reuben sandwich.  It was served on toasted rye, piled high with peppery, smoky pastrami and topped with a pile of tangy kraut and melted Swiss cheese.  For dessert I dug into (and dug) black cherry jello with fresh peach slices.  The whole meal came to around seven bucks.

The House of Seven Tables has daily specials, plus a trip there is an excuse to ogle the gorgeous 1930s-era interior of the downtown post office without suffering through the excruciatingly long lines and bad service.  But I can make that crack because postal workers are federal, not state.

They deserve it.

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