Saturday 1 August 2009

San Francisco Gastronome

Mission District

After 15 amazing, action-packed days in New York, I had five days in San Francisco to decompress and relax prior to heading home. I parted ways with best-friend-K at LAX, and flew up to SFO to stay with my dear dear friend, the very gorgeous Em.

I've stayed with Em in San Francisco three times over the last five years, and with each visit I fall more and more in love with the Bay Area. San Francisco is my kind of town! I'm afraid to say though that I was having such a great time just chilling out with Em that my long list of foodie recommendations went largely unnoticed... but here are a few highlights from my stay.

Nihon Whisky Lounge

On my first night in town, Em and friends took me to Nihon Whisky Lounge down on Folsom Street. As well as being a whisky lounge of some renown (the largest single malt collection on the west coast, apparently), NWL doubles as an izakaya. Apparently the must-have here is the tempura shiitake mushrooms stuffed with hamachi - if we'd ordered food I'd've been in like Flynn on that dish.

Nihon Whisky Lounge

Instead, we just drank a whole lotta whiskies.

Nihon Whisky Lounge

One place I'd been to in the past that I was really keen to head back to was Nick's Crispy Tacos, which is only a block from Em's apartment on Russian Hill. Although they're not as strictly traditional as the tacos you can get down in the Mission District, Nick's Baja-style fish tacos are just sensational.

Nick's Crispy TacosNick's Crispy Tacos

Nick's Crispy Tacos shares the same space as Rouge nightclub, which can make for a slightly surreal Mexican dining experience!

Nick's Crispy Tacos / Rouge nightclub

Far, far less glamorous in terms of decor but more authentic in terms of cuisine is Pancho Villa, a taqueria in the heart of the Mission. We headed down to the Mission one sunny afternoon with Em's friend D and wandered around, getting a decent coffee and listening to live music at The Revolution Cafe then checking out a couple of bookstores before going to Pancho Villa for a burrito.

Pancho Villa Tacqueria

Pancho Villa burritos are cheap and delicious, but extremely unphotogenic. So here are some shots of Em and D and Pacifico beer instead.

Pancho Villa TacqueriaPancho Villa Tacqueria

Love how colourful the Mission is! More photos of Mission murals (from my last trip to SF) can be seen here.

Mission DistrictMission District

After Em had read me twittering lyrical a few months ago about the salted caramel at Cutler & Co, she had promised to take me to Bi Rite Creamery when I came to San Francisco, so that I could try their amazing salted caramel ice cream. After Pancho Villa the three of us walked a circuitous route to Bi Rite Creamery, trying to walk off enough of the burrito so that we'd have room for ice cream. Such is the popularity of the ice cream here that there was at least a ten minute queue out the door.

Bi Rite Creamery

Of course I was determined to try the salted caramel, but it took me ages to choose my other flavour. I mean: roasted banana... balsamic strawberry... crème fraîche... pineapple raspberry sorbet... chocolate coconut... brown sugar with ginger caramel swirl... they all sounded amazing. In the end I chose the most unusual-sounding of the lot, honey lavender. Definitely unlike any ice cream I'd had before, though in retrospect I probably should have chosen a different one. But oh how I loved the salted caramel!

Bi Rite Creamery ice cream

I also really love San Francisco's Chinatown. Did you know it's the biggest Chinatown outside of Asia and the oldest in North America? It's just down the hill from Em's place, so we walked through it on the 4th of July after exploring some sunny pockets of North Beach.

San Francisco Chinatown

We were about to walk back up to Russian Hill when Em suddenly grabbed by arm: "Oh my god, you HAVE to try the daan tat at Golden Gate Bakery. They're the best!". Em was quite clearly not the only one who thought so, as there was a HUGE queue (probably somewhat exacerbated by people buying up big batches to take to Independence Day barbeques, but still) with a velvet rope keeping part of the sidewalk clear for pedestrians as the queue snaked down the street and then double-backed upon itself. I took the photo below as we were standing in line: everyone else you can see in the photo was also in the queue!

The queue at Golden Gate BakeryGolden Gate Bakery

It ended up being a 30 minute wait but OMFG SO WORTH IT. Hands down the best egg custard tarts I have ever consumed. The buttery pastry was wondrously flaky and the filling was so fresh and warm and silky, it felt practically illicit. Because the turnover for egg custard tarts at GGB is so high, they're always fresh straight out of the oven. LOVE!

Egg custard tart from Golden Gate Bakery

Later that night Em and I went to see the 1939 camp-bitchy classic The Women at the Castro Theatre. We had a fabulous time: the lively, mostly gay audience laughed at and applauded every especially catty one-liner, and hissed every time Joan Crawford (playing The Other Woman) was onscreen. :)

The Castro Theater

It was like being at my beloved Astor, only on a slightly grander scale. Oh, and there was a real live organist playing old tunes before the movie on a Wurlitzer organ, which was slowly lowered underground as the movie was about to begin. He got a big round of applause!

The Castro Theater

It was only on my last day in San Francisco that I went down to the Ferry Building. Unfortunately I didn't have time to visit it on a day the Farmers Market is held, but I still had a lovely time checking out the permanent shops. It's a foodie paradise, but it ain't cheap.

The Ferry Building

Stunning organic heirloom tomatoes.

Organic heirloom tomatoes

An amazing range of mushrooms at Far West Fungi. I'd never even heard of some of the varieties! I really wish I hadn't been booked on a flight home that evening - would have loved to buy some to cook up with Em.

Mushrooms in The Ferry BuildingMushrooms in The Ferry Building

I especially liked the look of the maitake mushrooms. A few doors down, at the Boccalone Salumeria, they were selling little cones of mixed salumi (or, as the sign above the door said, "tasty salted pig parts") for a few dollars. Great idea!

Maitake mushroomsMixed salumi cone

Oh, and I almost died when I walked into Culinaire, an antique shop specialising in food and wine-related antiques from nineteenth century France, England and America. Gorgeous.

Antique kitchenware in The Ferry BuildingAntique kitchenware in The Ferry Building
Antique kitchenware in The Ferry BuildingAntique kitchenware in The Ferry Building

For lunch, I treated myself to a meal at Slanted Door, Charles Phan's modern Vietnamese restaurant that came highly recommended. Loved the view out over the water and the Bay Bridge.

The Slanted Door
1 Ferry Building #3, San Francisco (map)
415 861 8032

The Ferry Building

My waiter was extremely helpful, suggesting I try a few half dishes so that I could sample a range of dishes from the menu. I started with a half serve of exquisite Kona kampachi with English cucumber, mint and Thai chillies ($15 regular serve, $7.50 half serve).

Kona kampachi with English cucumber, mint and Thai chilli

This was followed by a half serve of the Slanted Door rolls with shrimp, pork, mint and peanut sauce ($9 regular serve, $4.50 half serve). I must confess to not being much of a fan of rice paper rolls, but this one was a cut above the usual, with proper fresh prawn.

Slanted Door spring rolls with shrimp, pork, mint and peanut sauce

For my main course I ordered the caramelised catfish with coriander, ginger and Thai chillies ($15). Looove catfish! It was quite spicy and nicely sticky. I accompanied it with a half serve of vegetables - given I'd been ogling the maitake mushrooms only half an hour ago, I couldn't go past them combined with Chue Farm sugar snap peas ($10 regular serve, $5 half serve). They had a rich, woodsy flavour which went beautifully with the sweetness of the snap peas.

Caramelized catfish claypot with cilantro, ginger and Thai chilliesChue Farm sugar snap peas with maitake mushrooms

After lunch I bought Em a Mad Men DVD then jumped on a cable car to head back up to her place, so that I could get my suitcase and get a cab to the airport.

San Francisco, I miss you!

Cable carCable car


Esz said...

Wonderful stuff! Probably the only city I am super keen on visiting in the US would be San Fran. Looks like my kind of city too ;-)

Those icecream flavours look incredible!

Oh and I'm totally spewing I can't do your letterpress cards for you :-( The business set up thing has taken a slow turn lately. *sigh* I hope the other printers I mentioned manage to help you out :-D

hannah said...

Oh my - that ice cream place looks so amazing! Roasted banana? yes please!

Miles said...

Oh man, I love San Fran so much... I will have to keep this post bookmarked for next time I go back. I just realized I actually could have given you some really good food recommendations for your trip, d'oh... next time you go over I'll make sure to send them across :)

PJ said...

Oh my goodness I took one look at those heirloom tomatoes and almost head a heart attack of glee. Then again all the photos look amazing. Love San Fran

Anonymous said...

wow i agree that san francisco is amazing. I went there for easter this year and oh mine I'm already missing the place already. walking down the piers, seeing the golden gate bridge...

My buddies told me there was a really nice American diner at washington square called mammas. pity I didnt go there.

I bet you would love to go there again. :)

claire said...

Hey Esz - no worries about the letterpress cards - and thanks heaps for sending me the details of those other printers, will contact one of them soon. Keen to get some proper Melbourne Gastronome business cards. :)

Hi hannah! I know, roasted banana - how good?!? Wish I'd been there more than once...

Thanks Miles! I'll hold you to that offer. No doubt will be heading back to SF again in the next couple of years.

Glad the heirloom tomatoes provoked a similar emotion in you as they did in me, Prue! :)

Hi Cruxiefaye - yep, you're right. Would love to head back there. Am thinking seriously about moving there for a year or two at some stage - think I'll make it part of my five year plan...


I miss the bay so much... I was East Bay for a year... Cheeseboard Pizza, Pastries, Bread. Bluebottle coffee at farmers market. Ritual Coffee. Alice Waters. Thomas Keller up in Napa. Shopping at Berkeley Bowl. The weirdest and best and most authentic schezuan food in a massive mall full of big box stores in the south bay... oh dear... I need an airfare...


Oh yeah... and you have to check out Taqueria La Famillia (rundown... mexican family run... cali mex) and Cancun (a little more upscale, mole's, many different salsas, etc, oh my...) for mexican if you're ever in the East Bay.

claire said...

Thanks for the tips, C-MAC! Will hopefully be back in SF in another year or two, so will bear your suggestions in mind. :)

Matt C said...

Pancho Villa gets the big thumbs up from me, as does the Slanted Door.

If you're ever in SF again, please promise me you'll go to Nopalito (best Mexican ever) and Nopa (best... something something).

Ad said...

Hi Claire, thanks for receommending The Slanted Door - I recently returned from 5 weeks in the US and on your recommendation, I also treated myself to lunch there on mmy last day in San Fran. Unfortunately, I arrived too late and I missed lunch - had to make do with a limited bar menu, which was good, but the lunch menu looked much better!