Welcome to a new chapter of Urbane Studies, in which our agents suss out the finer points of city lore by scrutinizing its individual street corners. This week: respectable noodles, women of ill repute and other leggy creatures at Larkin & Ellis.
The parlor-house, knocking shop, the bagnio, sporting house, bawdy place, the den of vice: just as the requisite joke regarding Inuit names for snow may be rooted in fact, so the particular delicacies of language tell a reader all they need to know about brothels. This week, we finally hit upon the meat of San Francisco history, which is to say one of our corners is going to show up the others.
Given the legality of the trade and the inability of paper to withstand fire, there are no true numbers concerning brothels in pre-1906 San Francisco. Still, we can trust accounts of visitors who claimed that the presence of women was said to have had a "civilizing effect" on San Francisco, and that eventually its male population was so civilized that the effects required City Hall's regulation.
In 1898, resolutions passed by the Board of Supervisors "prohibited persons from keeping, maintaining or becoming an intimate of or visiting any house of ill fame...within a district bounded by California, Powell, Kearny and Broadway Streets." As surely as the frontier town tested the mettle of harder men, so the madams and their ladies were used to struggle, and simply moved their sumptuous houses elsewhere.
City Hall killjoys could be gotten around, but cataclysm was a matter demanding of greater resourcefulness. As mentioned in previous columns, most of the Tenderloin was residential, consisting almost entirely of unreinforced wood-framed structures. Still, downtown density meant hotels--residence or otherwise--had begun populating the neighborhood. The madams of San Francisco were shrewd businesswomen, and one of the city’s chief operators knew that eagerness for reconstruction would both increase her custom and keep her on the right side of the law.
Having owned several successful houses in the city, veteran madam and native daughter Tessie Wall plied her soft wares at 664-684 Larkin Street beginning in 1907. The corner storefront is occupied by the Uptown Market, where today a patient man withstands insults from the local population, most of whom try to barter for candy with stolen or found goods. Reassure him that not everyone's bad by paying for your Milk Duds with cash, not lighter fluid.
A contemporary of Tessie Wall said of her that she treated the Barbary Coast "with the disdain of an aristocrat. There were distinct divisions of caste among the vestals who kept the flame burning in the Temple of Venus and Tessie was probably the most class conscious of them all."
Don't try telling this to the devout Muslim behind the counter at the Uptown Market. But do try to track down a copy of Curt Gentry's 1964 classic, The Madams of San Francisco, which combines the best of business and pleasure.
Of note: Tessie Wall’s first bordello was located at 211 O’Farrell Street, where the cupcake dispensary Cako is currently located. Some of us would rather have sex than cake, but we don’t suggest you try to get anything but profligately frosted goods at the current establishment. Fitting, given that cupcakes are the whores of the pastry world. Tessie's grand townhouse, further up Powell Street--where she lived with husband/Republican boss/gaming den operator Frank Daroux--currently houses the non-profit Meridian Gallery.
Having worked up an appetite, cross west to the corner just opposite. Six months ago, Sao Bien was Vietnam II. Now it’s an earth-toned oasis of a burbling, be-ferned, fish-filled fountain. Bún chay (noodle salad) was topped with the kind of tofu that turns meatatarians to the dark side: micro-crisp outside, tender inside, best dredged in soy vinegar. But this isn’t a tofu salad, it’s a noodle salad, and importantly, the noodles are the sort that don’t bounce back and slap you in the face. A good noodle, a respectable noodle. You’ll want a sharp but sweet soda chành (lemon soda). Even if you think it'd be a swell idea to try every Vietnamese iced coffee in Little Saigon, no, it's not.
Indigo’s Designs was closed, but there were some nice Whitney shirts in the window a few weeks back. The storefront is housed in the elegant Hotel Essex, built in 1912 and renovated from 2006-2008.
And then there's Hai Ky Mi Gia, on the southwest corner of Ellis & Larkin. Readers, whether a failure of will or lack of an iron gut forces defeat, The Society remains squeamish where leggy creatures are concerned, and that’s all that this noodle joint serves. Leg of duck in soup noodles is what they're known for, and we're not going to be the ones who ask for a bowl of plain noodles. How do you say crazy white vegetarian in every language?
Of note: the sign on Ellis proclaims Chinese food, but the name is Vietnamese. No paradox, this: the cuisine is that of the Teochew, a group native to the southern part of China. However, most of the Teochew people live in parts of Southeast Asia because borders are like soup, everything gets mixed up. Anyhow, do try the ducky noodles and report back.