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By Heidi Anderson
Store Trek is a Voice feature profiling new shops and restaurants in the neighborhood. This month we introduce a European-style coffeehouse located at the end of Church Street, and a restaurant on 24th Street specializing in spicy, almost light New Orleans cooking.
1799 Church Street (at 30th Street)
Owner Adam Bousiakis says he is already getting hugs and kisses for his Café XO, which opened in late January at the corner of Church and 30th, in the spot occupied by Akropolis Travel for 20 years.
He estimates that since Valentine's Day, Café XO has served about 400 customers a day. "I didn't really expect this-- the customers tell me they love the place!"
To give his coffeehouse a romantic feel, Bousiakis, with the help of friend and architect Robert Sauvageau, painted the walls a warm merlot red, put in a fireplace surrounded by overstuffed chairs, and decorated with accents such as the beautiful oil painting of Venice's Grand Canal, by Novato artist George Gepaige.
He also added classical music, little marble-top tables, and a statue of the Emperor Anthony. "He was the emperor of love because he loved poor people and loved helping people," says Bousiakis, who was born and raised in Greece.
Because the café sits on one of Noe Valley's busiest corners -- the J-Church and the No. 24 and 26 bus lines intersect there -- customers can watch the streetcar turn while sipping their lattés and dreaming of an Italian vacation.
"This is exactly what I wanted XO to be," says Bousiakis, "like a Venetian bistro. It's warm and cozy, and we have lots of good things to eat and drink."
In the morning, XO serves pastries and croissants from DeLessio (starting at $2), bagels from Manhattan Bagel (with cream cheese, $2), and of course coffee. "I have a dozen blends of coffee, including our own organic one, roasted here in San Francisco. I also have eight kinds of organic teas, plus all the regular teas." A cup of house coffee sells for $1.10, a latte for $2, and a mocha for $2.30.
At 11:30, Bousiakis and staff roll out the soup of the day ($3.75, with focaccia bread) and a menu of lunch specials including sandwiches, quiches, frittatas, and salads. A ham and swiss cheese sandwich with mixed-green salad goes for $5.95, or a pear salad with Brie cheese and champagne vinaigrette for $6.95. "Lunchtime ends when we sell out of sandwiches!" Bousiakis laughs.
XO also whips up a Smoothie of the Day ($3.75), with fresh fruit from Church Produce across the street.
If you crave desserts, XO will tempt you with sweets such as the lemon polenta cake with berries and crème fraîche, carrot cake by Mervyn Mark (of What's for Dessert fame), a triple-chocolate layer cake, and Bousiakis' trademark tiramisu (all $4.75). "It's all in the presentation," the proprietor says. "I put the dessert on a big square plate and drizzle 'XO' on the side with raspberry, mango, or kiwi sauce."
The café also offers cheesecake, cookies, brownies, and -- a house specialty -- fruit or chocolate fondue, $10.75 for one to four people.
Before launching his new venture, Bousiakis worked as a manager for many years at Noe Valley Pizza on 24th Street. He also lives at Dolores and San Jose, a couple of blocks from XO. "I've been around Noe Valley for about eight years. I know all my customers."
XO's patrons will get a lot of little extras, he says, such as free coffee refills and biscuits for their canine companions. Each evening, the candles on the Roman pillars are lit, to enhance the atmosphere. "I really want you to be comfortable here."
Hours are from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and Sundays, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
4042 24th Street (between Noe and Castro)
No, Alcatraces is not dishing out food from the prison mess hall at Alcatraz. Rather, this popular new addition to the 24th Street restaurant scene is serving California Creole, an original cuisine created by Chef Glenn "Gator" Thompson.
"Creole cooking tends to be very heavy, with the French influence of heavy sauces," Thompson explains. "My take is lighter, but with every bit of the flavor still there. I call it 'New Orleans meets California.'"
Alcatraces, pronounced Al-cah-TRAH-sez, opened in mid-January in Legume's former location, next to Zephyr Real Estate. Thompson co-owns the restaurant with Hal Russek, who is also the general manager at Enrico's in North Beach. The two met several years ago while Thompson was working at the jazz club Storyville on Fulton Street.
According to Thompson, the partners named their new café Alcatraces, which is Mexican Spanish for Cala lilies, "because of the flowers' welcoming look." By mid-March, they were welcoming so many diners, they had to send the overflow to Bliss Bar down the street.
The restaurant is small -- it only seats 25 -- and is decorated to feel like a Mardi Gras party. "You check your bad mood when you walk in," Thompson says, "and with all the good juju and good feeling here, you'll walk out smiling."
Colorful beads, masks, and genie dolls adorn the walls. Thompson points to "the father of the house," a huge African mask done up with good luck charms. "The father is our protector, what with his arms wide open and all."
Thompson grew up in Oakland and has been cooking professionally since he was 14. "I got a job at the Hungry Hunter in Oakland. Later on, I guess I was good, so I got a position at the Beverly Hills Hotel on Wilshire." After immersing himself in northern Italian cooking, he worked at a Cajun restaurant in St. Louis, Mo. "That's where I started thinking about Creole."
He's been perfecting his style of Creole cooking for 10 years. "It's taken that long to clean it up and refine it, and present it from a California point of view."
For a true taste of cuisine à la Gator, Thompson suggests you start out with a "Gator Bait" appetizer such as barbecued shrimp ($9) or crawfish bisque (crawfish tails, chopped veggies, and cayenne pepper, $7), and then dig into entrees such as the garlic crab ravioli (Dungeness crab in a spicy tomato sauce, $15), sweet potato catfish (served with spinach and hot-link gravy, $15), or cypress bayou stuffed chicken (breast of chicken with crawfish stuffing and spicy cabbage, $14). The dinner menu also features filet mignon, "Gator's Gumbo," jambalaya, and a bouillabaisse with a mix of seafood, vegetables, and new potatoes.
For lunch, you can order gumbo, crawfish étouffée, jambalaya, and other Creole dishes, in smaller portions and at lower prices (up to $9). You can also choose from nine kinds of "Rollie Pollie Boys," sandwiches or wraps filled with things like chicken, shrimp, or even alligator. The po' boys go for $6 to $8.
Beer is $4 a bottle. Wines run from $3.50 for a half glass, to $26 for a bottle.
Alcatraces is open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sorry, no reservations at this point ("we're so small, we even have trouble with parties over four," laments manager Lauri Balog). But starting March 31, Alcatraces will be open for brunch on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.