Portrait by Dorothy Hong
As teenagers in San Francisco, my friend Dan Nakamura and I bonded over hip-hop. And, more often than not, while listening to Mantronix or Ultramagnetic MCs, we’d argue or agree about things like El Farolito burritos and other types of food you could get in the Mission District.
Our tastes in food expanded, and Dan eventually became “Dan the Automator,” producing music in groups such as Handsome Boy Modeling School, Dr. Octagon, and The Gorillaz, and for artists such as Blues Explosion, Cornershop, and Cibo Matto. Although hip-hop continues to fuel our ongoing dialogue, the accompanying meals have broadened and become topics unto themselves. It is now common for our conversations to be totally about food. Here’s a taste, no pun intended.
Rio: Most people know you as a DJ, your food thing is less known.
Dan: I’ve always loved music and food, but music took a much bigger priority—and depleted most of my funds—in the earlier days. When you’re trying to do what I tried to do, it just takes all your disposable income with records and equipment, like when you’re trying to afford the next drum machine you’re not thinking about the next four-star meal, you know what I mean? [But eventually] I realized food is my true hobby and music is my other true hobby.
When you’re on the road, how do you know where the good spots to eat are?
Given the nature of what I do, I have the opportunity to be in a lot of different places and try a lot of different things. I’m not interested in one kind of food; I’m interested in all kinds of food. From the grimiest taco truck to the nicest, multi-star whatever…it doesn’t matter for me. In the US and Europe, I use a website called Chowhound [http://www.chowhound.com]. I also have friends who really like food a lot, and they’ve been to a lot of places, so I get recommendations from them.
What was your most memorable eating experience when on tour?
When we toured for the Lovage record a few years ago, I was with Mike Patton [ex-Faith No More lead singer and Lovage collaborator] who is also a big food guy. We tried to hit the top steakhouses in the country, starting at this place called Jar in LA, which was pretty decent. We went to the Metropolitan in Seattle, which has what is quite possibly one of the best porterhouse steaks in America, really tender. We went to Mamie’s in Minneapolis and ended up at Peter Luger in New York. The bacon there is great.
Photos by Dylan Griffin, Food Styling by Colin Flynn
Our hometown, San Francisco, is a pretty good town for food.
San Francisco is probably the greatest restaurant town I’ve ever been in for diversity. You’ve got the really cheap, really good Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Mexican. We suffer a little bit in Italian and Japanese, but it’s probably number three in the country behind New York and LA.
Remember the days when we were kids, eating El Farolito burritos and arguing about music?
We agree a lot on music! Burritos originated in Stockton, apparently. I’ve been to some pretty authentic restaurants deep in Mexico, and I can’t say they’re any better than San Francisco. There are different touches here and there, there are more sweet flavors in Mexico, and they use cactus much more. You don’t find too much cactus in your food in SF, but [in Mexico] cactus soup is really good, so is sliced or pickled cactus on tacos, which you see more of in Mexico.
Yeah, sliced up. It kind of looks like green peppers, but it’s obviously been in some kind of vinegar. Also, they tend to concentrate on hot sauces more in SF, and [in Mexico] the mole sauces are a bigger thing. We have a couple good places for mole up here, but down there they really specialize. They can’t even make a burrito in New York. I don’t understand.
Yeah, and in New York, the price for banh mis and burritos is always double!
Vitenamese food is generally disappointing in NY, but Nicky’s [in the East Village] makes a really good banh mi sandwich. All the ingredients are there, the carrots, the jalapenos, the cilantro, the pate, and the pork, but their sandwiches seem a little cleaner, like maybe they used less fish oil or something, so it doesn’t taste quite as Vietnamese, you know what I’m saying? Have you ever been to Tu Lan?
Oh my goodness! It’s a Chinese-Vietnamese place in San Francisco, and it’s the best Vietnamese restaurant in the world. Well, in America. I’ve never been to Vietnam, but this place is ridiculous! The food has a French influence too.
What do you think of Asian fusion stuff in general?
Well, there are so many different kinds. There’s the New York Chinese-Cuban. I love La Caridad and Flor de Mayo in New York. They have their own take on stuff. They have a pepper steak allegedly a Chinese dish, but they do it with a Latin flair, you know what I mean? It’s more about bell peppers, onions, and beef. It doesn’t taste Chinese, but there’s something really good about it. And of course they do all the Puerto Rican kinds of cutlets really well.
There’s a place out here [in SF] called Mariposa Cafeteria. It’s full-on Chinese, but they do the roast pork in a Latin manner. Heavier flavor and bigger pieces of meat. You don’t really get whole big pieces of meat in Chinese cooking, you know what I mean? And this is like slabs of pork.
There’s this Chinese-Peruvian thing they have out in my neighborhood in Jackson Heights [Queens]. They do lomo saltado which is pretty much the Peruvian national dish, but it’s actually Chinese stir-fry. It was invented by the Chinese that lived in Peru. All the Chinese restaurants in Peru are called chifas, from the Mandarin phrase chi fan (“eat rice”). Peru has an Asian thing going on. There is a real Peruvian-Japanese connection. I’ve never been to Peru, but a relative of mine was the Peruvian commerce ambassador to Japan, so the Japanese connection in Peru has been impressed in me.
My switch into high-end food happened at Nobu. Nobu’s education was in Japan, but he really blossomed when he went to Peru and discovered all these other ingredients.
My favorite high-end cuisine is Japanese! If you look at the Nobu menu, it’s a lot of jalapenos. It’s Japanese-style cooking with Peruvian ingredients—instead of a wasabi flavor, they’ll use peppers for a different kind of bite.
I really like Nobu Miami, but I had a really disappointing experience at Nobu in Vegas. The food was really good, but they only had three sakes on the menu, all milk sakes. Can you imagine if you went to a fancy French restaurant and they were like, we only have three wines: our red, our white, and our whatever? It’s crazy. You don’t go to a meal of that caliber and not have any selection, you know what I mean? It becomes a little too McDonald’s when you only sell your own sake. And it’s an insult to a diner, you know. That’s not fine dining.
Have you had any Chinese-Indian? They call it mirch.
I haven’t, but I’ve had the Indian-Italian-style stuff. We have this place out here [in SF] called Zante, and they do Italian food, Indian food, and Indian pizzas with lamb and all these Indian spices. It’s very interesting, and it’s actually really good. Nan looks a lot like how pizzas are laid out anyway, you know?
True. In fact, they have these pizza places in Jackson Heights and Elmhurst where they do regular pizzas, and this thing called Indopak, which is an Indian/Pakistani-flavored pizza.
That must be what it is!
Yeah, they have these sliced up onions, colorful spices, and these really hot peppers as the main flavoring for the pizza, and it’s incredible. Indopak along with the regular pepperoni and sausage.
It’s funny they call it Indopak, because of the friction between India and Pakistan.
I think the pizza joints have to cover all their customer bases out here. And luckily for us, because it’s a great pizza. Speaking of Italian, you’ve had uni (sea urchin) with Italian pasta, right?
Oh yeah. The Japanese, man, they’ll take stuff like crepes, pasta, or whatever and just work it to the nth degree, you know what I mean? Like every bit of science you can put to it. Like have you ever had French pastries in France? There are equal if not better versions in Japan.
Italian food is another thing they really delve into. It’s not so much cross-cultural, ’cause they’re not really trying to mix the cuisines—it’s almost like cultural appropriation. They’re more trying to perfect it. It’s the cultural attitude, to get really into it.
How often would you say you come across dishes that are actually new to you?
Well, that happens every week! OK, not every week—every month. This week I had squid cartilage at Sushi Yasuda [in New York]. I also recently had scallop livers—I didn’t know that scallops had livers, but it’s a small red piece and you put a few of them together for one serving. I had that four times in a month when I was in Hawai’i DJing the Hawai’ian Film Festival.
I love how the Hawai’ians use Spam!
Spam has a big influence in Hawai’i. They even have Spam in the McDonald’s there! Then there’s Zippy’s, a fast food place in Hawai’i with hamburgers and hot dogs, but the thing they do best are these rice plates with one piece of mahimahi, chicken teriyaki, beef teriyaki, and a piece of Spam. It’s called the Zip Pack. It’s my favorite fast food meal in the world.
The Hawai’ian breakfast buffet at the Sheraton Moana Surfrider is one of my favorite meals of all time. They serve a combination of the American and Asian breakfast, omelets, waffles, crepes, and hash, and then you have the soba and miso, dried fish, sushi and poke, dim sum, and curries. They even serve natto with eggs.
And the Portuguese sausages and stuff!
Is there anything you won’t eat?
I will eat anything that anyone else eats in a general sense, not in a [Fear Factor] sense. As a DJ/producer, you move from James Brown to jazz records to rock records. You’re digging for new stuff, while also trying to get to the source in its traditional form and finding the best, purest versions of it. I go after food in a similar way. The whole mashup thing is fun for about five minutes. The weird stuff tastes interesting, and it’s perfectly fun, but it’s more of an experiment. I understand the value of it, and I understand the invention of it, I just don’t want to be looking for it all the time. When you get down to it, I really love traditional meals.
Dan The Automator’s Annotated Guide To Good Eating:
El Farolito. 2779 Mission Street. San Francisco. Mexican.
Mi Lindo Yucatan. 401 Valencia Street. San Francisco. Mayan-Mexican. “It has homemade tortillas, but they’re really thin. That’s my favorite spot now. Their cochinita pibil is right up there. It’s a stewed pork dish with an orange flavor.”
Taqueria San Francisco. 2794 24th Street. San Francisco. Mexican. “The burritos are a little smaller, but what’s in there is amazing.”
El Tonayense taco truck. 22nd and Harrison. San Francisco. Mexican. “They rule the Harrison block.”
Delfina and Pizzeria Delfina. 3621 18th Street. San Francisco. Italian. “Californian cuisine mixed with Italian. They have really good pastas out there.”
Zante Pizza. 3489 Mission Street. San Francisco. Indian-Italian. “Indian pizzas with lamb and all these Indian spices. It’s really good.”
Mariposa Cafeteria. 1599 Tennessee Street. San Francisco. Chinese. “Full on Chinese, but they do the roast pork in a much more Latin manner. It’s a heavier flavor and bigger pieces of meat. You don’t really get whole big pieces of meat in Chinese cooking. This is like slabs of pork.”
Tu Lan. 8 6th Street. San Francisco. Vietnamese. “The best Vietnamese restaurant in the world! I’ve never been to Vietnam, but this place is ridiculous for America. They make a curry fried rice that’s really thick, but they also have regular curries. Tu Lan is Chinese-Vietnamese, but has a French influence too.”
Shalimar. 532 Jones Street. San Francisco. Pakistani.
Otafuku. 16525 S. Western Avenue. Gardena, CA. Japanese.
Nobu. 105 Hudson St. New York. Japanese-Peruvian.
Flor de Mayo. 2651 Broadway. New York. Chinese-Cuban.
La Caridad. 2199 Broadway. New York. Chinese-Cuban
Nicky’s Vietnamese Sandwiches. 150 E. 2nd St. New York. “Makes a really good Vietnamese sandwich. I mean, the pork pate and everything. The only real flaw to it I would say is that it seemed a little cleaner like maybe they used less fish oil or something which actually is a plus for me…”
Basta Pasta. 37 W. 17th Street. New York. Japanese-Italian. “Does a good rendition of [uni pasta].”
Pho Tau Bay. Several locations throughout the New Orleans area. Vietnamese. “Straight up Vietnamese like you’d see in San Francisco, but it has the French influence.”
The Metropolitan Grill. 820 2nd Avenue. Seattle. Steak. “Has what is quite possibly one of the best porterhouse steaks in America.”
Zippy’s. Hawai’ian fast food chain. “The thing they do best are these rice plates with one piece of mahimahi, chicken teriyaki, beef teriyaki, and a piece of Spam. It’s called the Zip Pack. It’s my favorite fast food meal in the world.”
Au Pied de Cochon. 536 Duluth East. Montreal. Vietnamese. “It’s Canadian French, so they have foie gras with poutine.”