Santa Barbara is a city of fine restaurants. But as a college student in the 1960s, I entered town at the bottom of the food chain, in cheap, blue-collar eateries down on lower State Street.
Forty years ago I preferred joints with straightforward, possessive-form names like Leon’s, Mom’s, Jimmy’s, or Pascual’s. No one could have imagined a place called Blue Agave. My favorite was Frank’s Rice Bowl. The name said it all. Go there and Frank would sell you a bowl of rice. Maybe. If he let you in the door.
Frank’s Rice Bowl was a cramped storefront at 532 State Street jammed between a decrepit bowling alley and the Pacific Pawnshop. Within a block’s radius was the Spanish-language Mission Theater, a roller rink, half-dozen flea bag hotels, four thrift stores, a pool hall, several sleazy bars including Ali Baba’s #1 (which sometimes featured a fortyish, topless lady snake charmer), and two barbershops-Frank’s and Frankie’s (neither related to the Rice Bowl).
Lower State Street was a robust prototype of cheesy neon urban blight: Buildings and people were grimy, run-down, beaten up, and would never have passed a health inspection. It was a tawdry place more attuned to early Steinbeck than modern city planning. The only sidewalk diners were panhandlers and hippie hitchhikers who strayed up from the 101 stoplights. On the weekends, cruising Santa Barbara High Dons and San Marcos High Royals gridlocked traffic while middle-class folks dined in the district’s many low-rent restaurants, and civic leaders elbowed up to Joe’s Cafe. Everyone complained about the state of lower State and everyone went there regularly, except tourists.
Beyond neighborhood ambience, Frank’s Rice Bowl held two attractions. The first was cheap, tasty cuisine prepared and served by a distinctly unhappy looking Chinese family. Second, dinner at Frank’s was like improvisational theater. Everyone played a role and we all made up the script on the fly.
Act I was getting past Frank. The family patriarch manned the door looking older, wearier, and more annoyed each night. Not always a congenial host, on busy nights Frank routinely turned away people despite having empty booths in plain sight. Point them out and Frank would shuffle over in his Mandarin-style soft slippers, place reserved signs on the vacant tables, and announce, “Reserve. No room, you wait outside.”
This never daunted Rice Bowl veterans. I once saw three elegantly dressed ladies push by Frank and make a beeline for the velvet cord that perpetually blocked the stairwell. They unlatched it and headed up to the second floor while Frank waved his arms, yelling that the upstairs was closed, permanently. One lady called back down in a sweet, unyielding voice, “Frank, you know we always dine upstairs : send up your son with tea. He’ll take our order. We know where the lights are.”
A more common approach was to beg for a “reserved” table. It seemed inconceivable that people would really phone-in reservations to the Rice Bowl. We suspected that Frank simply did not want to be bothered by too many customers, or the wrong types. One rainy evening, my wife and I and Julie and Ron Benson tried a new gambit. Ron insisted that he had called earlier and one of the reserved tables must be ours. Young, long-haired, and bell-bottomed, we were only slightly less destitute than we looked. Frank slowly stared each one of us up and down, heaved a sigh, and said, “Okay, I take a chance.”
Rice Bowl Act II involved the staff. Frank stalked the dining room, impatiently barking orders to both family and patrons. His son-a dour, younger version of Frank senior-often took exception to his father’s directives and they would exchange harsh words. Non-Chinese speakers never knew the exact source of discord. We guessed it had something to do with all those empty “reserved” tables. Whatever the reasons, young Frank would storm through the swinging door into the kitchen and diners would hear muffled, incomprehensible expletives and the crashing of silverware against hard surfaces.
Wondering if the years had caused me to exaggerate the Rice Bowl dramatics, I recently asked a friend, Jackie, if she had known the place. “Oh, yeah,” she said immediately. “My dad would send me there for the ribs. Old Frank’s family, they’d really get into it!” Regular customers became inured to the family strife. The entertaining part was to watch the wide-eyed reactions of rookie patrons.
Act III-my personal grand finale-happened one winter night in the early 1970s while a group of us sat in a Rice Bowl booth. A metal grate was perched high on the wall and below it were the neatly painted words “AIRE CONDITION.” A cockroach emerged through the grating and began a zigzag trek down the wall toward our combination dinner for four with egg rolls. We called out to Frank, who walked over, leaned across the table, and squinted up at the bug. He picked up a paper napkin and handed it to me, saying, “You catch!”
After a couple errant swipes and a few screeching sounds from ladies seated nearby, I squashed the roach in the napkin and handed it to Frank. It left a tiny skid mark the color of a sweet potato on the wall. Frank took the napkin, held it up, and proclaimed, “Come from bowling alley next door.” He broke into a wide, close-lipped smile, wheeled around, and held open the kitchen door so we could watch him dispose of the trophy in the trash can.
That was the last time we ate at Frank’s Rice Bowl. Somehow Casa Blanca across the street began to look more attractive. A while later, Frank’s became Zia, an attractive spot that I avoided because I don’t know what a Zia is. Like the rest of lower State Street, Frank’s was unsophisticated, unhygienic, un-gentrified: averse to tourists, a genuine civic embarrassment.
Oddly, though, I’d trade every chi-chi coffee house in town for one more genuine dinner at Frank’s Rice Bowl.