Rice-A-Roni, The San Francisco Treat!

C’mon, ya’ll knew I couldn’t leave this one out right? Well, I know enough about advertising that sometimes they aren’t always telling the truth so I had to do a little research to see if Rice-A-Roni really was a San Francisco Treat.

It turns out they weren’t lying. It all started in 1958 when Vince DeDomenico and his wife enjoyed an old Armenian dish consisting of rice, vermicelli pasta and chicken broth. The rice and pasta were sauteed in butter before the liquid was added, giving the dish its distinctive taste. We call it rice pilaf today, but back then they needed a catchier name that was more American sounding. This was a time when spaghetti was considered an ethnic food remember.

They made a commercial with the cable car coming up the hill and the jingle, Rice-A-Roni, the San Francisco Treat! It was an instant hit. To top that off in 1964 after a trip to Rome and tasting fettucine alfredo they came back and invented Noddle Roni. And by invented, I mean they stole a traditional Italian recipe and changed the name to Noddle Roni Parmesano [it’s now called Pasta Roni].

By 1962 it was available all over the US and was catching on big time and soon because one of the top brands of side dish in the US. Oddly the San Francisco treat didn’t get it’s start in North Beach where most of the Italian families collected, but actually the Gragnano Products Co. which later changed it’s name to Golden Grain Macaroni Company started it’s life in the Mission District in 1912. Sadly, the Golden Grain Macaroni Company that started Rice-A-Roni is no longer a San Francisco treat. They have moved to Chicago where they do business, but the cable car is still a part of the product. They even have a history of the association of cable cars with their product on their website.

The funny part about all this for me was that when I was growing up we had Armenian Neighbors and my Mom being the food snob and cheap wouldn’t make something out of the box, but she’d make her own rice pilaf. I never ate Rice-A-Roni until I was somewhere around 30 living on my own and was a bit lazy at times. I never watched my Mom make rice pilaf so I didn’t know that if you sauteed rice and vermicelli in butter before boiling it in chicken broth you could make this very easily yourself. When my wife and I got married Rice-A-Roni became a staple in our house. Back then, my wife didn’t really cook and I never thought of taking the little extra time to make it. Now things have changed and we make our own, but there are those days when it’s just easier to pull out the box.

For those of you who like the good ole days here’s their first ad which I managed to find on You Tube:


Buena Vista Cafe: The San Francisco Treat

The Buena Vista and Irish Coffee have become an icon of San Francisco history. While Irish Coffee originated in Ireland, it was refined to perfection at the Buena Vista on the Wharf which is still the best place to sit and enjoy a glass looking out over the bay.

The trick in making a proper Irish Coffee starts with the glass. It is a 6 oz glass as you see in the picture. 6 oz being the optimal amount to perfectly mix all of the ingredients and the Buena Vista seems to have a lock on these glasses. I luckily have a few from the 50’s that my parents picked up when they were all the rage.

You start by pouring hot water into the glass to heat it up to a proper temperature then pour the water out and fill the glass with coffee to about 3/4’s full. Add two cubes of sugar and a shot of Jameson’s Irish whiskey, no other whiskey will do. The secret technique which took a few years for Jack Koeppler and Stanton Delaplane to figure out was how to keep the cream from sinking to the bottom. It turns out that aging the cream for about 48 hours and briskly frothing it made it float. You would then pour it over the back of a spoon to neatly let it float on top creating a drink of Ireland that was inherently native to San Francisco.

While the Buena Vista sell’s Irish Coffee glasses to the public for $5.95 each, those aren’t the real Irish Coffee glasses of legend. There is no handle on them and they appear more goblet-like than the originals. Apparently what makes this drink taste so good is the glass. At least that’s what people have been saying recently. I’m not sure if that’s true or not which means I’ll have have to pull out a bottle of Jameson’s and brew up some coffee and do a taste test.

Probably the two people who helped make the Buena Vista and Irish Coffee well known as the “San Francisco Drink” were Stanton Delaplane and Herb Caen, though Herb often ordered, “Irish Coffee, hold the coffee”. For those who don’t recognize the name Stanton Delaplane, he was one of Herb Caen’s co-horts at the S.F. Chronicle and if I remember correctly Herb’s column was on one side and Stanton’s was on the other.

As a kid I looked up to these two because they made San Francisco more than it was. They were old school, kind of like Sean Connery was old school Bond compared to Timothy Dalton who’s now old without the school. That’s probably why I liked things like scotch and vodka martini’s before I was old enough for people to think I should be drinking them. Irish Coffee is one of those old school drinks that I think needs to make a comeback with the vodka and redbull crowd. Irish Coffee was the vodka and redbull of the old days. It turned you into a wide awake drunk so that maybe you’d remember how stupid you acted the night before.

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