Just the Two of Us
I remember the worn Formica table, and not much else.
It was one of many such tables at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the kind with bare wooden chairs beside it, and brusque, Chinese-speaking waiters in white shirts and black vests who came by to take your order in a snap.
I was barely grammar school age then, possibly even younger.
I remember that place because my Dad would take me there. Just the two of us.
I’m not sure why my Mom and older brothers are absent from these memories. Maybe these father-daughter excursions happened when my Dad had days off from work. Maybe we’d end up picking up take-out for the rest of the family afterward. I wish I could recall.
What I do remember is how excited I always was whenever he brought me to this particular restaurant. You see, it wasn’t like any other restaurant in Chinatown. You could enjoy your standard Chinese food there, of course, but you also could order “American” food. At that age, that was a real treat to me then. And apparently to my Dad, as well.
My Dad would sometimes order a plate of Chinese beef stew, savoring the chewy tendon pieces most of all. Or he would sometimes have the same thing that I did. A creature of habit at that young age, I always went for the same dish: veal cutlet. It came with a gob of mashed potatoes, and a pile of those heated up, homogeneous looking frozen peas and carrots.
It was the cutlet I was most thrilled by, of course. There was just something special about that thin, tender slab, all perfectly crispy and golden brown sitting in the spotlight on that plate. I happily ate one fork-full after another, until it was all gone, and I’d have to wait until my Dad brought me back to that restaurant to enjoy it again. You see, it was the only place I ever ate that dish. My parents never cooked it at home. And I never ordered it anywhere else. Not even as an adult.
Then, a copy of “Relaxed Cooking with Curtis Stone” (Clarkson Potter) arrived in my mail. As I leafed through the cookbook by the host of TLC’s “Take Home Chef,” one photo in particular stopped me. There it was — a veal cutlet all crispy and golden looking like yesteryear.
Granted, this was a far fancier version — gussied up with grated aged Jack cheese in the breading, and served atop a mound of baby spinach leaves dressed with a zippy honey-mustard vinaigrette.
Still, I couldn’t resist making it for old time’s sake.
Instead of fresh breadcrumbs, I used Japanese panko crumbs because I had a box handy in the pantry. Although you do get your hands messy dredging the cutlets in flour, then eggs, and finally into the breadcrumbs, you really couldn’t ask for an easier dish. The meat cooks up in a hot frying pan in a quick six minutes.
The cutlets emerged super crispy, and tasting a little like a favorite guilty pleasure — fried cheese sticks, because of the savory grated Jack in the breading. The sweet-sharp-tangy dressing proved a wonderful complement. It’s a dish that sang with flavors both old and new.
Unfortunately, I don’t remember the name of that timeworn Chinese restaurant that provided my first happy bite of veal cutlet. Nor do I remember all the little details about my times eating there beside my Dad. Just the two of us.
But I remember.
And I hope I always will.
Veal Cutlet Coated In An Aged Jack Cheese Crust
Aged Jack cheese, also called Dry Jack, has a firm texture, and a sharp, slightly nutty flavor much like Parmesan cheese, which makes a good substitute. When you gently pan-fry this thin piece of veal, the cheese melts and forms a delicious crust.
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh chives
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 1/4 cups fresh breadcrumbs
1 1/3 cup finely grated aged Jack cheese
2 large eggs
All-purpose flour, for dredging
4 veal cutlets (about 5 ounces each)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 cups (lightly packed) fresh baby spinach leaves
Whisk honey, vinegar, chives, and Dijon mustard in a medium bowl to blend. Slowly add oil while constantly whisking. Season vinaigrette to taste with salt and pepper, and set it aside.
To prepare the veal: Mix breadcrumbs and Jack cheese together in a pie plate. Lightly whisk eggs in another pie plate to blend. Place flour in a third pie plate. Sprinkle veal cutlets generously with salt and pepper on both sides. Dip veal cutlets into the flour to coat lightly, then into the eggs, and finally into breadcrumb mixture, patting crumb mixture to make it adhere.
Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter with 1 tablespoon of the oil in each of 2 large nonstick frying pans over medium-high heat. Add 2 veal cutlets to each pan and cook for 3 minutes on each side, or until golden brown and just cooked through. Transfer cooked veal to a paper-towel-lined plate to absorb any excess oil and butter. Cut veal pieces in half.
In a large bowl, toss spinach leaves with enough vinaigrette to coat. Mound spinach on 4 plates. Arrange veal on the spinach, and serve.
Note: To make breadcrumbs, just tear sourdough into large chunks and grind them in a food processor until crumbs form.
From “Relaxed Cooking With Curtis Stone”
What a great memory! The cutlet looks great sitting on the spinach, and the cheese with the breadcrumbs sounds amazing.
Very touching story behind this meal. There’s always a story behind food. It’s nice to hear.
Well, did he treat you to one of those wooden pop guns with the cork hanging by the string that are ubiquitous in C-Town?
Very nice story!
Any suggestions on where we can get humane veal here in the Bay Area?
Smarty pants: I think my brothers got those wooden pop guns. I always got dolls, stuffed animals, and Snoopy stuff when I was a kid. My aunt worked for the company that distributed Peanuts character items, so we always had a lot of Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and Woodstuck figurines in the house. 😉
Nate: Whole Foods sells humanely raised veal. Check this out:
A lovely memory and how interesting, at least for me, are food backgrounds …the veal with the cheese crust must be a gorgeous flavor 🙂
Every time you write about your Dad, it touches me. What sweet memories.
aww such a sweet memory! ABC cafe on Jackson serves those funny rice plates… This recipe sounds super, I have some veal in the freezer that I needed inspiration for and this sounds perfect.
great story and the veal looks amazing. My hubby ordered one recently on Clement Street, not what he was expecting but I got to help him polish off the plate.
You had me with the photo and then the writing was beautiful as always and the recipe even more delicious. I love the stories you always tell. They bring so much context and dimension to whatever you’re making.
What a wonderful memory and the veal cutlet looks really delicious! I love this recipe!
Wow. I get nostalgic when I read your stories. My parents immigrated from Toi San, China, and I grew up primarily in SF’s Richmond (I can still hear my mom pronounce it “Litch-ee-moon”) district. I remember getting weepy after reading about how you wrapped won ton with your mom after her stroke. Now this story. My dad used to make veal cutlets using Cracker Meal. It was pancake thin, crispy on the outside, moist and tender on the inside. He’d make his own sweet and sour sauce to go on top. His signature dish was deep fried stuffed chicken wings, with sweet and sour sauce, of course. Thank you for stoking my fading memories.
What a sweet story! Veal was always one of those things I’ve been leery about, but I’m going to investigate ethically raised veal in my area and I will have to give this a try!
Beautiful story, Carolyn. Your dad was lucky to get alone time with you like that, as you were with him. Sometimes it’s these humble food memories that are the richest and longest lasting.
I can only hope my daughter will cherish her memories with me the way you do with your late father.
Henry: I’m sure your daughter will have just as many wonderful memories about you. It’s amazing the things kids end up remembering. It’s like what Cheryl says above: Sometimes the simplest and littlest things can leave the biggest impressions.
JC: Your Dad’s take on veal cutlet with the sweet and sour sauce sounds scrumptious! And your Mom reminds me of my late-Mom in the way she sometimes pronounced things. For the longest time, my Mom could not pronounce my Japanese-American husband’s first name. The way she said it made it sound humorously like the name of a certain popular Swedish furniture store that’s also known for its meatballs. My husband used to get the biggest kick out of hearing her mispronounce it that way. 😉
Your beautifully written piece, Carolyn, begat similarly vague memories of my youth with Dad. On spur-of-the-moment stops while “in the neighborhood” on US 101, he’d pull in and take us to the only Chinese restaurant on Main Street in Redwood City. Unlike you, there was no favorite dish ordered each time that triggered a memory but instead, the simple act of getting seated! The counter, where Dad invariably sat us, had diner-style rotating chairs. The spinning made me slip off many times before I managed to grab the counter but my hold’d slip while climbing, the chair would again spin and I’d have to start anew. Nonetheless it was an adventure I had with Dad and like you, thoroughly enjoyed those times — just the two of us. Thanks for sharing, C.
Okay–YUM! And what a beautiful Father’s Day memory.
Such a special memory connected to this dish! It truly demonstrates how our enjoyment of food is often not about ingredients or flavors but is instead so uniquely tied to specific circumstances – place, time, people. As you noted, this veal cutlet wasn’t exactly the same but it was enough to transport you to those wonderful interludes with your father. Even without that memory, this dish looks amazing – I can see why it stopped you in your tracks as you perused the book!
I have similar memories of a Salsbury Steak dish. I have no idea where it was, but it was never made at home (until those frozen dinners came around and Salsbury steak was eaten at home).
Could it be Jackson Cafe next to Great Star Theater? I’ve been searching for a copy cat recipe for their veal and gravy. Miss it so much!
Hi C: Your memory is better than mine. It might very well have been Jackson Cafe. I hope you find that replica veal and gravy recipe, and that it brings up warm memories.