eating san francisco

When I travel, I'm much less concerned with the must-see tourist sites than I am with I'm about to eat.  I figure that the best way to see and really experience a place is to zig-zag across town to get from one meal to another.  In preparation, I spend way more time than is normal poring over Chowhound message boards, digging up old bookmarked Serious Eats posts, and looking up any old friends in the area to mooch off their expertise.  

We spent four glorious days in San Francisco last week.  All this time I thought I was an angry tense New Yorker who thrived on that certain cynical edge you can't find anywhere else.  Now I'm not sure who I am anymore.  Maybe what I really need is a bike, a puppy, and a good Acme baguette.

Anyways, while I deal with this inner turmoil, allow me to share the fruits of my researching labor.  By no means is this an exhaustive list -  I just couldn't physically eat any more.

Let's start with the obvious: In-N-Out.  We may or may not gone there three times during our stay.  The first two times - a double double, animal style (pickles, extra spread, grilled onions, and mustard fried onto each patty) with an extra toasted bun and extra well-done fries.  I couldn't swing the double double the third time, so here is one sad patty as my final farewell to one of the finest chain burgers in the country.  (Shake Shack still holds the key to my heart.)

We picked up these tasty Italian sandwiches before eating them in one of the five thousand parks dotting the city, where we witnessed lots of dog running and a couple of drug deals. Molinari Deli in the North Beach area, 373 Columbus Ave (between Grant Ave and Vallejo St).

Left: Molinari Italian Special with the works. Right: fresh mozzarella, prosciutto, coppa, sun-dried tomatoes.
Tartine Bakery gets a lot of hype and I have to admit that although none of the flavors were particularly novel, the execution of these pastries is damn impressive.  We did our best to eat three of them (they're huge), and got some pretty incredulous stares while we stuffed our faces at one of the few sidewalk tables outside.  The famous morning bun was scented with cinnamon, sugar and orange zest, and was a beautiful play in textures with caramelized crunchy bits and pillowy insides.  The frangipane tart tasted just as we thought it would, but what really blew my mind was the pastry shell, which remained impossibly crisp and flakey beneath the moist almond paste.  The shell was also the star of the banana cream tart, the bottom of which was cleverly coated in dark chocolate and caramel.  Tartine Bakery, 600 Guerrero Street, Mission District. 


Top: morning bun. Middle: almond frangipane tart. Bottom: banana cream tart.
I had a hard time figuring out where we should go for Mexican, but I finally settled on a dive in the Mission called Taqueria Vallarta.  And by dive, I mean discovered by mustached hipsters but also populated with locals in the area.  It's a full restaurant with a taco cart tucked into the front corner; we never made it past that little cart.  The man behind it valiantly dipped corn tortillas in a bit of water to order, steamed them quickly on a flat top, and scooped up stewed meat from a glorious meat wheel.  We ordered a cabeza (head), lengua (tongue), buche (pork neck), carnitas, al pastor, and suadero (tender beef).  We couldn't tell which was which, but does that ever matter when you're eating the best tacos of your life?  Taqueria Vallarta, 3033 24th Street (between Balmy St. and Treat Ave.), Mission District. 

I had heard and read some good things about Pizzeria Delfina, but secretly, I was highly doubtful.  After all, I studied in Rome for six months, and then lived in New York where I gorged regularly on Motorino, Co., Fornino, and the like.  But this was some majorly good Neapolitan pizza; so good, in fact, that we managed to eat two of them within a mere hour after those tacos (the other one - a broccoli rabe pie with caciocavallo cheese and olives).  Yet again, I was knocked over on my skeptical elitist ass.  Pizzeria Delfina, 3611 18th St. (between Guerrero & Oakwood St.), Mission District. 

Napoletana pizza: tomato, anchovies, capers, olives, hot peppers, oregano, and added cheese
During his layover in SF, Anthony Bourdain made a stop at a tiny fifteen-stooled place called Swan Oyster Depot where he ordered crab back off the menu.  I drooled as I watched him dip his crusty sourdough into that pool of murky yellow liquid, a buttery complex mixture of crab guts euphemistically known as the "mustard."  After waiting in line for half an hour, I planted myself on one of those coveted stools and ordered the same.  I threw in a combination seafood salad for good measure, since that seemed to be the popular choice among the locals.  Who knew a sloppy pile of seafood smothered with a creamy Thousand Island-like condiment (dubbed "Louie" sauce) on a big mound of shredded iceberg lettuce could be so comforting and delicious? Swan Oyster Depot, 1517 Polk St. (between California St. and Sacramento St.), Nob Hill.

The Ferry Market certainly doesn't need any more publicity, but I feel compelled to mention the amazing lunch we cobbled up there.  First, an ode to the Acme baguette - the perfect (and I mean perfect) vehicle for the two small squares of goat's milk cheese the staff at Cowgirl Creamery curated for us, and the sexy meat cone lined with mortadella, salami, and coppa from Boccalone.  Added a steaming container of mac and cheese and a fizzy vanilla egg cream from Cowgirl to make it a balanced meal. Ferry Market, One Ferry Building.

We had a positively earth-shattering meal at Mission Chinese, a ridiculous hipster scene in an unassuming storefront with a broke-ass yellow awning.  We arrived at eight o'clock on a Thursday night and joined the mustached crowd, who had scribbled their names on a clipboard attached to the front window and all seemed to be brown-bagging it outside on the sidewalk.  An anxious hour went by before we were summoned inside to a dimly lit room with a red paper dragon snaking along the ceiling, which accounts for the poor phone pictures.  In typical fashion, we ordered way too much (our waitress kind of rolled her eyes), but I REGRET NOTHING.  If I lived near this place, I'd be there once a week.  By the end, our eyes were watering and we felt high on spice and exhilaration.  Mission Chinese (Lung Shan Chinese Restaurant), 2234 Mission St., Mission.

savory egg custard with sea urchin, scallops, winter melon, and citron

cold poached chicken breast, seared chicken hearts, and szechuan pepper

kung pao pastrami with chili, potato, celery, and peanuts. amazing... 
smoked beef brisket noodle soup with cheung fun, bok choy, and cardamom broth.
not pictured: thrice cooked bacon with rice cakes, bitter melon, tofu skin, scallion, black bean, chili oil.
We left on a Saturday night, so our last hurrah was another trip to Ferry Market for their famed Saturday farmer's market.  As we browsed the row of white tents in the front of the building, I think I turned to Rob and snidely said something like, "Well, I feel good about the fact that the Union Square Green Market in New York is way bigger than this."  We turned the corner and realized that we hadn't even really entered the market yet.  There were stands and stands of produce, salts, spices, olive oils, jams, heirloom beans, dried tomatoes, and pickled everything.  The sting of humility was quickly extinguished by a mouthful of kimchi-laced hot dog blanketed in crispy chicharrones and a killer burger from 4505 Meats.  

I was further humiliated by this open-faced lox sandwich from Cap'n Mike's.  Surely this cheerful, long-haired non-Jewish hippie couldn't make passable lox - smoked fish is firmly in New York territory.  Each bite was joyous and painful; It really wasn't supposed to be that good, but it was - an apt analogy for our entire stay in San Francisco.   


Christopher said...

I think I will just follow you guys around from now on.