By the time we got a table at Alba Ray’s, Julian — a trans man from New York — was frustrated and disappointed by his perception that San Francisco has been misgendering him for most of his stay.
Julian normally prefers to straddle the gender binary, to mix and match the feminine and masculine in his appearance. And in New York, he feels like it works. But here, he’s discovered — at least among the corners of San Francisco that I’ve been able to show him — that any trace of femininity in his appearance is enough to get him called “ma’m” or “miss” every single time. It has confused and upset him more than he thought it would, so tonight he’s gone full-court masculine: a dapper gay gentleman in a stylish suit, with cufflinks and tie. Everything womanly suppressed.
“If this doesn’t work, I don’t know what to do,” he said. “It’s strange: It’s like despite your reputation as a queer metropolis, anything remotely female is supposed to be a woman, and anything that’s a woman is supposed to be sexy.”
“Kind of the sexual equivalent of the one-drop rule?” I asked.
Alba Ray’s is a Cajun joint in the heart of the Mission, with about half the space used for a single long bar and the other half for booths and tables. I started with a Absinthe Suissesse from their house cocktail menu (Herbsaint and St. George Spirits absinthe, crème de menthe, orgeat) I am impressed — maybe too impressed. I could easily sit at that bar, with one of these after another, for hours. That sounds like a very good time to me. I think I want to do that later. Julian got a Ward Eight (Buffalo Trace bourbon, orange, lemon, grenadine), and raved about it.
I let out a little sigh of relief. I kind of needed a win here, to be honest. We had a whole “SF vs. NYC bohemianism” subtext going, and nothing about San Francisco had been feeling right to Julian. Not even the food: When I brought him to the Tartine manufactory he was actually traumatized. “I mean, I love overwrought food, and I thought I’d seen pretentious bakeries in Paris and Brooklyn, but … come on … do they actually expect anyone to read this menu without laughing? HOW? Their pretension is like a croissant, and each layer takes itself more seriously than the last!”
But he liked the drink, and so far nobody here had assumed he was a woman, and he was excited enough by the menu that I let him order for the table. Much of the food is best thought of as southern tapas, along with a selection of larger entrees. Only the use of musical instruments on the walls as decoration pained him. Julian is a classically trained musician — fancy degrees and everything — “and that just hurts,” he said. “They’re meant to be played.”
I knew Julian before the idea of consciously choosing a gender was ever something he could acknowledge to himself … though he knew he’d never been comfortable with his own “femaleness,” for lack of a better term. I was there, I was a confidant, as he started testing the idea out … and I was completely unqualified and utterly out of my depth. All I could do was listen, and acknowledge when he seemed to be happy and when he seemed to be miserable.
But that, apparently, was something he desperately needed; and the more he began to abandon any responsibility to be feminine, the more he embraced the aesthetics and style of masculinity, the more happy and functional he became. I’m not a psychologist, I don’t have a theory for it, I just saw it, and recognized it, and observed it out loud. I do not care about any moral theory which cannot recognize the value in my friend no longer being suicidal. That matters, damn it. And it distressed me deeply that in my corner of San Francisco, he felt pushed to be less colorful and flashy, and more conventionally masculine, because it was the only way he felt he could be accepted on his terms.
“I love being fabulous,” he told me. “And it really disturbs me that men aren’t supposed to be. I actually forget about that, a lot of the time, until somebody tries to use that against me.”
“We all walk tightropes in our lives,” I agreed.
“Yes, but my tightrope has feathers and sequins. Which is fabulous.”
The fried okra came, and Julian nearly leaped out of his seat to praise it. “Oh, that’s delightful on many levels!” he said. “Most places in the North just try dipping it in batter … that gets the flavor all wrong.” Julian has strong opinions about Northern attempts at Southern cooking; he grew up on a farm in the rural South, and his mother’s people are from Louisiana. What the hell is it about foodie culture, he has long wondered, that takes Southern cuisine and throws sugar all over it? When he realized that Alba Ray’s doesn’t do that, he started to feel at home.
We ordered more drinks — I got their take on a Hurricane (Plantation rum, passion fruit, lemon), which was as strong and tart as you could want it, and he got an Alligator Strut (Ketel One, yellow chartreuse, basil, lime, egg white), which Julian would spend the entire rest of the night praising it as a perfect blend of basil and bitter flavors.
The mirliton and cucumber slaw also got raves — “fucking superb” — as did the black-eyed-pea cake.
“Really?” he said to me. “Really? You’ve never had good black eyed peas before? I keep forgetting we’re from different worlds.” Suddenly he pulled a fan out of his sleeve, flipped it open, and was fanning himself. “I am shocked,” he said, grinning. “Truly shocked.”
“Damn,” I said. “That fan … that is a fucking power move.”
“Yes.” He arched his eyebrows. “And lewd as hell.”
Oh, it was on now. This is what happens when my friends feel comfortable.
The bar was weirdly slow getting us our drinks, and the kitchen actually forgot about our order of mac and cheese — I don’t know what was going on there; the restaurant portion was pretty calm. We discussed whether they were understaffed … it seemed like they were, but also like they were wearing it exceptionally well … until the braised pork shank was brought over. It was a platter of dripping rendered meet with a knife stuck in it, a moment that took everything over. We gasped. “I’m so glad you ordered that,” the server said. “Not enough people do.”
We dug in. “Oh my God, tender doesn’t even begin to cover this,” Julian gaped as we tasted. “Oh my goodness.”
We ended the night with beignets … for which Julian felt didn’t need the accompanying salted caramel sauce but I vacuumed up like a, well, vacuum. I tried pairing it with an End of the Road (Glenmorangie, green chartreuse, Campari) … which was a mistake. Though delicate and lovely, the combination of the Glenmorangie and Campari was much more bitter than I’d expected, and the wrong counterpart to the pastries. I’d put the wrong elements next to each other.
Julian, however, was finally relaxing for the first time. He’d flirted with the waiter, and it had gone well.
“How does it feel,” he asked me, leaning forward, “to know that everybody here thinks you’re on a date with a gay man? Because that’s what’s happening, you know.”
I shrugged. “It feels like everyone will be thinking you’re lowering your standards.”
Julian laughed. Then the fan came out again.