Adventures on El Camino: Joe's of Westlake

There seems to be a lot of controversy concerning Bay Area techies in the news this week. Willie Brown went off on a small tirade in the Chronicle yesterday, and the New York Times made it front page news today. There's a boiling frustration over the changes brought on in the city by the influx of wealth from internet success and it's quite an interesting conversation. Not having lived in San Francisco since 2005, I can't say that I have much of an educated opinion on the subject, so I'll leave that discussion to those who do, but I will tell you about a different conflict that does bother me. Not to get all Stephen Colbert on you, but there's a war going on against American values right now that I'm rather tiring of. This frustration of mine does not in any way stem from U.S. nationalism or pride on my end, but rather from the embarrassment I feel for others. It's an attempt by haughty Americans to escape what defines them, hoping to create a new identity that seems more interesting and exotic and cultured and everything that they wish they could be (although, I guess I could also needle Facebook for contributing to that, right?). Food culture in the Bay Area is ground zero for this behavior.

It used to be that American tourists abroad were stereotyped and laughed at for their complete and often-purposeful inability to integrate into a foreign culture. They would attempt to speak English where no English was spoken, they would expect McDonald's on the corner wherever they went, and they were loud, brash, and uncompromising in their demands. The backlash to that type of behavior created a new generation of travelers who wanted to integrate, to blend in, and to be seen as educated in the cultures they visited. They did not want to be seen as "typically American," so they went out of their way to do the opposite. Twenty years later there's a backlash forming against this generation's version of American obnoxiousness. The irony here is that, in an attempt to avoid being a stereotypical American, these people have created an entirely new version of the stereotypical American: the condescending I-can-speak-the-language, I-studied-abroad-in-France-so-I-get-it, never-be-caught-dead-in-an-American-style-restaurant, citizen-of-the-world who understands foreign cultures so well that they often lecture natives of those cultures about their own cultures. It's getting out of control.

Now that I've got that off my chest, let me tell you of an iconic American restaurant with incredible ambiance where you will never in your life run into one of these people: Joe's of Westlake in Daly City.

You will never run into a neo-stereotypical American at Joe's of Westlake because it's absolutely jam-packed with people who do not give a shit about what you think. Last night I walked into a bar at full capacity, brimming with silver foxes drinking vodka cocktails, singing "Volare" at the top of their lungs while dancing to the live Karaoke. The live music, by the way, is played by this man pictured above who must be at least eighty years old, but brushes those cymbals like Max Weinberg in his old Conan O'Brien days. Joe's is pure old-school peninsula: all ages, all cultures, all creeds, all types, sitting together, having a hearty meal, and enjoying themselves.

Joe's is also old-school American-Italian. You start with a cup of minestrone that tastes straight out of the 1980s (in a good way). If you order the filet mignon you don't choose a side salad, but rather a side pasta: spaghetti, ravioli, or rigatoni covered in a delicious, new-world meat sauce. All of the workers at Joe's are unionized. All of the prices are reasonable. All of the seats are full. Every space in the entry is consumed by the forty-five minute wait for a table. Old school martinis with a big fat olive are being whisked around the room by waiters in tuxedos and an old-fashioned line-cook caller sits at the middle of the counter yelling out orders to the chefs. Our server was a grey-haired, delightfully-sarcastic Italian man of about seventy-five. You could tell he loved his job. He definitely contributed to my enjoyment of the evening.

Everything happening around you at Joe's of Westlake in Daly City feels like the complete opposite of what's going on elsewhere at hip and happening new restaurants. Conversations are taking place between complete strangers. People are there to socialize and to exchange stories and ideas. There's no pressure to be authentically Italian, or French, or Vietnamese. There are no hipsters around you being ironic in their love for kitschy Americana either. The clientele at Joe's has been eating and drinking there for decades, some of them since the place opened in 1956. I told my wife, "We should come here every Sunday!" Upon hearing that, the guy next to us at the bar said, "You've only got a few Sundays left. They're closing in January." Sadly, having just discovered this incredible place, we learned it had been bought out by Original Joes in San Francisco and will be closed down until a re-opening in 2015 with new staff and a new menu.

For those looking for an American diner, a place so retro and old-school that you can't even make a joke out of it, then you need to visit Joe's of Westlake within the next few weeks before it's completely lost forever. My search for unpretentious, genuine, and truly unique experiences along the El Camino corridor will have to continue without the presence of what is (or was) my new favorite. Sorry to lose you Joe's. I just met you.

-David Driscoll


Last Two Casks of 2013 - IN STOCK NOW!

While the rest of the world is sleeping in, making breakfast, and leisurely sipping their coffee on a Saturday morning, I am stretching right now as I type this. Stretching, loosening up, getting my game face on for what is certain to be total annihilation. Today is one of the three busiest days of the year at K&L (this coming Wednesday will be the busiest), so I've got to be in peak physical performance. Before I head off for work, however, I wanted to let you know that the last two casks of the year have arrived (everything else due will arrive in Jan/Feb) and they're both spectacular.

The Benriach 19 year cask is here, but it tastes a bit differently than we remember. Our impression was of a slightly phenolic, peated single malt with lighter, Caol Ila-like fruit. What we have now is like Caol Ila unpeated -- yet another example of how whisky can change when it's left in the cask for an additional six months after the initial sampling. While I was completely caught off guard by the change, I can't say I'm disappointed ultimately. What we have now is like Oban 18 at 52.2%. It's a lighter, yet mature, style of Highland whisky with just the slightest bit of something. Remember the Banff 35 we bottled a few years back with Duncan Taylor? If you're lamenting the loss of that bottle, I'd grab one of these. This is the closest thing to that flavor I've tasted since that whisky. That oily wood flavor comes through right off the bat and the supple vanilla and stone fruit balance it out with a long, malty-sweet finish. It needs a few drops of water, nothing more, but those few drops make a huge difference.

1994 Benriach 19 Year Old K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $149.99

This guy, on the other hand, is exactly what you expect it to be. What's interesting about this particular Glendronach is how cakey it is. It's not so much super-rich and decadent, fat and supple, but rather it's like eating a big piece of Christmas cake. The spices, clove and nutmeg, run rampant and the texture is smooth as silk. At 52.5%, this is not the monster we've seen in holidays past. It's going to be the go-to bottle for our staff when in doubt for a nice recommendation because, let's get real here, if you don't like this whisky then you might as well not like puppies or kittens. It puts a smile on your face instantly and the PX note comes in on the finish, chewy toffee and caramel. YUM!

1995 Glendronach 18 Year Old K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $149.99

These are in-stock now in San Francisco and Redwood City. All the pre-orders and LA stock will be down as soon as we can load the truck!

-David Driscoll


More New Faces

A few more new faces to show you today. David OG sent out a notice about these yesterday, so I thought I'd get some cool photos up on the blog to help get the word out. I'll use David's notes since they're already typed up and well-written:

Bigallet Viriana China China Amer $37.99 - Well, I've only been waiting my entire life for this product to arrive. This is truly the quintessential bitter French liqueur. They start with high quality neutral spirit. Both bitter and sweet orange peels are macerated in the be spirit before being distilled. Then they do it again. Wait, then they do it one more time. Then they add more peels, spices, botanicals, etc. A small amount of sugar is used to balance the bitter and stabilize the color. This is the Franco-phonic answer to Amaro and it is so so good. Truly a special treat for anyone smart enough to include this in their shopping list. It can also be used as a substitute for bitter liqueurs in various cocktails, vermouth and amaro alike. Enjoy! (David OG)

Giffard Pamplemouse Rose Liqueur $26.99 - Giffard is one of France's highest quality liqueur producers. They're sourcing the highest quality fruits and spices for their liqueurs and have committed to using local ingredients where ever possible. Because Giffard liqueurs are truly designed specifically for use in cocktails, the aromatic profile is the most important aspect of this product. While the flavor on the palate is excellent, the depth of flavor on the nose is second to none. This is definitely your best bet when utilizing a liqueur in a cocktail. The grapefruit is snappy, tart, and fresh. Incredible.

Giffard Peche de Vigne Liqueur $26.99 - Soft fruited and pure in flavor. Lovely.

Giffard Violette Liqueur $26.99 - The violette is a deep, brooding, stark violet color and the flavors are delicate yet concentrated, without getting soapy. Lovely.

And if you want to hang this little guy on your Xmas tree this year, then check back with me later today. We're taking a large chunk of Anchor's newest, very, very limited product. Last year the San Francisco legend had a bit of the Christmas Ale left over and they weren't sure what to do with it. I'm a huge fan of the Christmas ale. My dad and I have been drinking it for more than a decade. Now it's been distilled into a bottle. Y-U-M.

-David Driscoll


New Faces

It's been a while since I've had the time to tell you about some of our newer, not-liable-to-sell-out-in-seconds, spirits additions here on the blog. Everything has been whiskey, whisky, whiskey to the extreme. Speaking of whisky, you heard correctly: Remy is indeed taking over the importation of Bruichladdich now to the United States. WineBow, their old importer, informed us this week that the Rocks will be discontinued (so load up now if that's your drink), and the Organic and Octomore selections will be travel retail/duty-free from now on. That leaves only the Laddie 10 and Port Charlotte 10, which I've also heard might take a price bump. We've got another drop of Octomore 6.2 coming, which if I understand it correctly will be the last Octomore for the U.S. Maybe I'm understanding that wrong, but that's how I interpreted the news.

Back to other non-whisky items. Actually--hold that thought--one more whisky arrival to tell you about: the new 2013 release of Lagavulin Distiller's Edition is here with brand new labeling. You can get one of those by clicking the link below. It's always a very popular whisky with the extra maturation bringing more richness.

Lagavulin Distiller's Edition Single Malt Whisky $109.99 -- (ignore the old photo of last year's bottle)

Ed Hamilton, who helped us secure the barrel of St. Lucia for our Faultline rum, now has his own series of rums from different Carribean islands. This Jamaican Black Pot Still edition is fabulous for mixing and comes in at a rock-bottom price of $24.99. Tough to beat that for your Dark & Stormy needs. Now just grab some ginger beer and get going.

Jake Lustig, the man behind ArteNOM tequila and the fabulous K&L Fuenteseca selection, has finally brought me the Pura Sangre stuff -- Enrique Fonseca's own label of all-estate tequila. Fonseca is the distiller for the top-selling tequila we sell--the ArteNOM anejo 1146--and these new bottles make welcome additions to the category. These are 100% natural anejos. I know you might be thinking, "But most of my tequilas are 100% agave," however, I can assure you that there is nothing natural in tequila that makes it creamy and taste like vanilla. But we'll tackle that subject later on an upcoming blog post. Fonseca's anejos are unbeatable. They're round and rich with wood spices and hints of clove, but they never taste manipulated. I think 1942 drinkers could get behind these no problem.

Pura Sangre 2 Year Old Anejo Tequila $35.99 - Very, very, very reasonably priced. Too low, perhaps.

Pura Sangre 5 Year Old Anejo Tequila $109.99 - Expensive, but one taste is enough to convince you. Only thing we have that competes with this is the Fuenteseca. No one can touch Enrique Fonseca's anejo tequilas. No one.

Jake also brought me these two inexpensive mezcales, which I think will make you all very happy. Mina is made at Jake's 300 year old distillery in Santa Catarina Minas. They use 100% Espadin agave that is grown at 4800 feet. The blanco is super clean and not heavy on the smoke. The reposado is aged at 100 proof in Pedro Domecq brandy casks. These are the mezcal versions of Jake's ArteNOM expressions: reasonably-priced, honest, and unmanipulated spirits that are transparent in their origins and of high-quality.

Mina Real Blanco Mezcal $26.99

Mina Real Reposado Mezcal $29.99

It's not often I'm on the lookout for a new cachaca, but my good friend Val brought me this absolutely delicious, strikingly-labeled liter bottle of pure bargain-priced booze. Velho Barreiro Cachaca is only $15.99 and is briefly aged in Brazilian wood (I think oak?). It's full of real rum character and should make killer drinks for those looking for a new mixer. And the God!

And our last new face of the day is yet another inexpensive, but delicious new South American mixer: the Pisco Ocucaje Quebranta Pisco for $22.99. They have another pisco we're getting from a grape varietal called Italia, but I've never heard of that grape. Nevertheless, their brand rep from Peru said it was a common, aromatic varietal native to the region. Whatever it is, it makes for a spectacular brandy. Floral, fruity, and pure. The Quebranta we have right now is also quite clean and fresh. Good stuff. Yum!

More new faces coming soon.

-David Driscoll


Gin Fever: Part V – Gin as Medicine

If botanicals and herbs can be used for medicinal purposes, what better way to preserve that medicine for year-round usage than by steeping those botanicals and herbs in pure alcohol? Ever wonder why Mary Poppins was so adamant that "a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down"? Because after you steep medicinal herbs into grain neutral spirit, bottling that healing power for usage long after the plants themselves would have expired, there's nothing like a little sweetness to make that highly-herbaceous formula go down smoothly. See Chartreuse, Zwack Unicum, and many other long-standing herbal liqueurs as examples of popular spirits whose roots are steeped (no pun intended) in medicinal origin.

Gin is like an herbal liqueur without the sugar–just the herbs and the booze. So where does it come from? There's no debate that the origins of gin, or jenever, begin in Holland, but who exactly came up with the idea? The above picture shows Dutch chemist and alchemist Franciscus Sylvius, often credited with discovering the medical merit of juniper-infused spirit, but there seems to be serious disagreement about whether this is or isn't the case. Whether or not Sylvius actually invented jenever, and whether he actually invented it as a type of medicine, is irrelevant at this point. Gin's history of medical usage is irrefutable–it simply does the trick in some instances.

Wikipedia's gin entry notes that: "By the mid 17th century, numerous small Dutch and Flemish distillers (some 400 in Amsterdam alone by 1663) had popularized the re-distillation of malt spirit or malt with juniper, anise, caraway, and coriander, which were sold in pharmacies and used to treat such medical problems as kidney ailments, lumbago, stomach ailments, gallstones, and gout." Regardless of whether it actually did work, it was prescribed as medicine it its early manifestation. Yet, we know that gin did function in one very serious situation. The combination of gin with quinine is one of the most famous examples of alcohol as medicine in the fight against malaria.

Returning to our friend Iain Gately and his fantastic book Drink, let's look at what happened when the British Empire expanded into India:

The Indian market also influenced the way in which Britons consumed their spirits. India was administed from Calcutta, where malaria, typhoid, hepatitus, and various other killers were endemic. The local water had a reputation for unwholesomeness worse than that of raw sewage. It was a time-honored maxim of the expatriate community that alcoholic beverages were the only safe drinks, and that they were consumed with vigor. Every evening, they would participate in the ritual of the 'chotaped,' during which they protected themselves against malaria with a dose of quinine, whose bitter, astringent flavors were made more palatable by mixing it with gin.

Ever wonder who Schweppes was named after?

The therapeutic part of the combination was improved by Jacob Schweppe, a manufacturer of aerated waters, which launched an Indian quinine Tonic in 1870 and exported it to its place of inspiration. It was immediately popular as the perfect partner for gin and a taste for this medicinal mixture was carried back to the UK by retiring empire builders, where the gin and tonic was added to the list of 'traditional' British drinks.

Quinine protected against mosquitoes, and nothing tasted better with quinine than gin. In this case, a shot of gin helped the medicine go down. There are many examples throughout history (including American Prohibition) where alcohol, or the addition of herbs to alcohol, has been seen as having medical efficacy. If you want living proof of gin's effectiveness as a health-related supplement to daily living, I give you no better example that my own grandmother.

This is Helen Felber. She is my mother's mother. She is 93 years old, still drinks a gin cocktail every day, and is still going strong today in Sandpoint, Idaho. She's still sharp as a tack, physically fit, and prolific in her activity. What's her secret? Gin, or at least that's what she claims. My grandmother was a bartender for many years and gin martinis were her specialty. I sat down for an interview with her yesterday to gain her insight into gin and its many medical qualities.

David: Hi Omi, I was wondering if you could tell me what your gin consumption is like now that you're in a retirement center with round-the-clock help.

Helen: Here we only have a libation maybe two or three times a year. Wine, you know? We had a party tonight to celebrate the new facility manager. It's not really something we do often. Maybe just a small glass here and there.

David: So how often are you drinking gin yourself?

Helen: Between you and me?

David: Yes.

Helen: Every day.

David: Oh good.

Helen: I believe gin is the elixir of life. Just recently I saw an old Charles Dickens movie and one of the things I read about these situations is that women in those days–you know how people were poverty stricken–and you had these bars in basements, and the women all drank gin. I'll stand corrected, but I think it was invented in Holland, and it told in these stories that a lot of these women lived practically on gin. I always remembered that. These prostitutes and such were in the bars, hanging around, and gin could be had for like five cents a glass–this was years ago, and I've never been a drinker myself–VO was my drink at the time–but I had one gin martini almost every day.

David: So if (Seagrams) VO was your drink why did you switch over to gin?

Helen: Well...I don't know. I guess it was because I had a great reputation behind the bar as being a great gin martini mixer and I felt I had to live up to that. I like gin better than I do anything else nowadays, but I never have more than one drink.

David: So you would make gin martinis, but you weren't necessarily drinking them?

Helen: No, I had a reputation for being a great martini mixer, but not a drinker of martinis. Still, I always keep a bottle of gin around. We get orange juice here in the home everyday, so I save my orange juice and then dump in some gin and have a gin and juice.

David: (laughs quietly)

Helen: I'm serious, however, when I say you shouldn't drink to excess. I think gin is healthy for you if you don't drink too much of it.

David: Well, it's supposed to be full of medicine.

Helen: Well, I'm 93 years old and I had the nurse here just the other day for my ear infection and he said, "For someone who's 93 years old I would never dream that you're that old." Because I'm still healthy and strong, you know? Maybe it's just my imagination, but that's what I think. You've been to my old home. For more than ten years I would go out on to my deck every evening and have my martini. I never had more than one, however. I never wanted to be drunk.

David: So when did you start in the bar business?

Helen: I came into Sandpoint around 1960 after coming from Spokane. My girlfriend owned a bar up here, but due to liquor laws I had to establish residency for one year in order to be a bar owner, so I took a job with Northern Lights–the electric company here. I had been coming up just to visit. In any case, I ended up buying into her bar–the 219 here in Sandpoint.

David: How long did you operate the 219 before selling out to new ownership?

Helen: I would say six or seven years.

David: Were you the bartender most of the time?

Helen: We had three shifts. There were three owners so we split that time up.

David: So who taught you how to make a martini?

Helen: I just had a knack for it. I was never a drinker. I never have been a drinker. But I do know how to make martinis and I do make a martini everyday.

David: So if people came to the 219 did they come just for you and to have your specially-made martinis?

Helen: Yes, they would come in on my shift to have a martini.

David: And if you weren't there?

Helen: Well, it wasn't a big deal, Barney and Augie made good martinis too. But most people thought I made a damn good martini.

David: What was the secret?

Helen: It's kind of crazy, but there is a knack to making a martini. You can't just pour one, you know. It's kind of like a painting. It's an art, in a way. The main thing was to have a good gin–not too strong. One of the gins we used for many years was Booth. I still think Booth is a damn good gin today. Most people didn't want a strong gin. They said, "Pour me that gin you usually pour." Do you know it?

David: Yes, it's still around.

Helen: I still think it's a damn good gin. With just a bit of vermouth. I just had the knack, however. A lot of people, no matter how hard they try, they can't pour a good martini and some people just have the knack. There's a secret something.

David: Did you shake or stir?

Helen: Definitely shaken not stirred. I always shook my martinis. I always had chilled glasses, too. There's nothing in my mind that can compete with a good gin martini.

David: How do you feel about olives? With olives?

Helen: Oh yeah. With olives. No matter where I went there would be big parties and people would ask me, "Helen, are you going to mix some martinis?" and I would say, "Yes, if you want me to." In fact, I still make a martini every day. But I'm a bit careless now. I still use Booth's gin, a bit of vermouth, and an olive (laughs). And I'm 93, and most people that are 93 are in wheelchairs.

David: Most people don't live to be 93. They're already dead!

Helen: Right! And I don't have arthritis or health issues the way other people do. I just can't see. I can't operate the stove or the thermostat, but I'm good otherwise. If there's one thing I can say about gin it's that people want a nice, easy-going gin that's not too harsh.

David: What is it about gin that people like, in your opinion?

Helen: For one thing–well, you know that old saying: you drink three you're under the table and four you're under the host. A lot of people are only going to have one drink before dinner, and if so, a martini is a nice drink to have.

David: But why not something else? Why not a shot of whiskey?

Helen: Well, because when you drink a martini you're really getting two shots. And to this day people still see it as something special. As something that's good for you, ultimately.

-David Driscoll