We’re just back from five fantastic days in San Francisco. Obviously, we ate as many meals as we could stomach and here are some of the highlights. I’m going to spread this over two posts. Post one will be all the food we ate from establishments with walls and a roof and the rest (trucks, carts, and market vendors) will go into the second post.
San Francisco is one of the best food cities in North America and therefore one of the most visited and written about. Not much of what I have to say here is new ground, I know, and we’re very grateful for all the suggestions we got through Twitter friends Eric, Lauren, Renée, Natalie, and so many others. Thanks, guys.
Our first port of call was The Monk’s Kettle on 16th for a Mexican Coke, some good salami and cheese, and some great beer. Most of all we were given a sterling demonstration of perfect service. Staff were friendly and did a seamless job of seating us at the bar and stowing our bags, glasses of unasked for tap water hit the bar with the menus, and things only got better from there. I was treated to a top-up of my beer flight with a fourth sample, Marin Brewing Company’s Half Nelson, and an interesting discussion about the Nelson Sauvin hops that it features.
Settled by our snack and beer we headed closer to our lodgings and stopped at Pizzeria Delfina. We had a very nice ricotta (made from whole milk instead of just the whey left from mozzarella production) and artichoke salad, and an excellent Margherita pizza. Our only complaint: For some reason they had their hockey arena style heaters blasting on the patio despite the temperature making a move towards 20°C and that did absolutely nothing to help my jet lag headache.
After Delfina we checked in with our airbnb hosts, dropped our bags, and headed out to buy a San Francisco CityPass (nine days of free Muni transit plus entry to five good attractions). There are a few places around the city that sell these but we naively walked to SFMTA customer service headquarters to get ours. This is a sort of DMV-like operation (thankfully without the driver’s license function) where San Franciscans go to complain about traffic tickets, parking permits, and road crew time sheets.
You’d think they’d just sell visitors the CityPass in the time that it took to give us a number and direct us to the standard-issue folding chairs but then we wouldn’t have seen the spectacle of a local community college instructor (I’m guessing based on his ill-fitting suit and messenger bag outfit) absolutely blowing his lid. This guy was one of that special breed of customers who think they can yell loudly enough and lead a popular revolt. By the time they granted him a glass-front “Complaint Resolution Room” most of our seated neighbours were openly snickering at him.
With all due modesty, one of the our planning (lucky) strokes of brilliance was mine. We’d decided that we were going to try the airbnb thing and I semi-insisted we choose a certain host couple from our short list because in their profile pic they were wearing a tuqoue and a trapper hat and who does that in San Francisco other than transplanted Canadians? Turns out they’re not Canadian they do live in a foodster Mecca across the street from Tartine, the best bakery I have ever visited.
We went there for pre-breakfast (it’s a thing) three times. I had the best croissants (plain, double pain au chocolat, and frangipane) of my life. All pushed the bounds of the physical relationship between butter and flakiness like the Victorian Crystal Palace did for light and building materials.
The famous morning bun is also great with a lemon-zest citrus note that cuts the sweetness and theirs is by far the best orange juice I’ve tasted. We also returned for some of their excellent country levain bread on our last full day. The secrets to the bread: Order at least three days in advance or be in line by 4:15 PM the day you want to eat it; and it’s available by the (still giant) half loaf for $4.50.
Day one of eating was capped off with a visit to La Taqueria. This is the sort of place where two people can eat well for $25. By this point it would definitely have been made into a crappy chain in Toronto. Our favourites were the carne asada, chorizo, and tongue tacos.
After our Tartine fix Thursday morning we moved on to brunch at Mission Beach Cafe. I had my first Gibraltar which was described to me as halfway between a capuccino and a latte. According to this article the distinction is more controversial than that. For what it’s worth, and I’m not a great coffee aficianado, it was good and served in a ceramic cup. My egg sandwich with bacon and a really good side of potatoes was stellar. The french toast with pears was good but had gone soggy by the time we made it through the generous serving.
We clocked in some standard-issue touristing featuring a certain bridge and a prison on an island and made our way to In-n-Out for my first Double Double. In ‘merica that means a pretty decent cheeseburger not a super-sweet, milky coffee. Clean, fast, free wifi and burgers two steps up from the fast food standard. I was disappointed by the fries.
Our dinner on Thursday at Incanto was actually the only one for which we made reservations. Be sure to wait for the specials before deciding as they seem to be where Chef Cosentino (who was in the kitchen when we there) expresses his creativity with offal and unusual dishes. We tried the sanguinaccio but not the Scottish pheasant that came with a warning that we need to be careful to avoid shot pellets.
The Italian blood sausage from the specials was joined on the table by a pommegranate and chicory salad, an extremely generous salumi plate (featuring Boccalone product), hankerchief pasta with a rust pork ragu, and massive slab of pork belly on yellow chard and lentils.
On Friday after seeing a bit of the (appropriately eclectic and diverse) Veteran’s Day Parade, we walked down to Chinatown for lunch at House of Nanking. It was good in a Rol San kind of way but for a less-westernised eating experience I’d prefer randomly selecting one of the places walked past on Stockton (between Broadway and California).
Both the house noodles (lightened with pea shoots) and the “world-famous” chicken are worth ordering and the flower tea in a giant, clear glass beer stein hit the spot.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to try to avoid eating lunch here at 1 PM. When we left there was a very an anxious line of forty or so tourists and local office workers standing in the drizzle. If you’re visiting a city and unconstrained by a lunch hour eat at 12 or 2 (or both) and avoid lining up. This seems like it should be obvious.
On Sunday, our last day in San Francisco, we decided to skip Tartine–it opens at nine that day and we estimate that there were nearly a hundred people in line by then–and check off a couple places west and south of us. Humprhey Slocombe hadn’t opened when we walked by so we had to take our morning sugar in donut form. The maple glazed bacon apple was good but paled in comparison to the caramel de sel and ginger orange.
We enjoyed our final meal in San Francisco at Mission Street Chinese Food. This business has gone from an occasional food truck, to an occasional restaurant serving food truck food, to a permanent restaurant with riffs on Chinese food. The whole story can be read in their (cook)book, Mission Street Food.
Obvious care has been taken to maintain the gritty ambiance of Lung Shan (the Chinese restaurant that used to be a temporary host for the Mission Streeters. For instance, diners still walk right through the kitchen, through the back-alley loading dock (that features a “Don’t ask questions of anyone working here” sign) to get to the washrooms.
The food is absolutely delicious, in fact this is the meal that I’ve been fantasizing about recreating since we got back, but be sure to respect the dragons on the menu. Both the Thrice Cooked Bacon (one dragon) and Kung Pao Pastrami (two) were ferociously spicy. I reached a state, awash in sweat and low-level hallucinations, where once I figured out the right amount of steamed rice to cut the heat I couldn’t get enough of the salty-smoky meat and veg.
When we’re back in San Francisco the places that we’ll be sure to hit include Foreign Cinema for brunch, Plum (and others) in Oakland, Humprey Slocombe, Bar Crudo, Frances, and some of the fancier places.
Stay tuned for part two and updates on the details (address etc.) for all the establishments we visited.