Thursday, August 16, 2012

Eating San Francisco - 72 Hours in the City by the Bay

San Francisco.  I can’t say I wasn’t warned.  Cautionary tales abound in travel writing and in song.  And they all tell the same story: that of an unsuspecting traveler who visits San Francisco for the first time, only to end up falling deeply, madly love with the place, never wanting to go home.  I am no exception.  I visited San Francisco for the first time last week with intentions no grander than to run all 26.2 miles of the San Francisco marathon, and run them well.  Maybe I would eat.  Maybe I would drink.  But running an 8-minute mile for most of the race was all I had on my dance ticket.  Simple enough, right?  What happened instead was a break-neck 72-hour gastronomic thrill ride through what is easily North America’s best town for eating.  Call it the culinary love child of Seattle and New York, vibrant and vital, yet awash in drugs and urban filth.  Call it a two-fisted drinking town that looks eastward to Europe for its morning beer, before looking westward, to Asia, for its lunch and dinnertime gastronomic cues, for its frenetic pace, for the way it sprawls across its hills and around its bay.  Ride a city bus long enough and you’ll witness violence (good old fashioned fisticuffs, in my case) and be offered all manner of vice, from discount blow, to the strangely discounted blowjob (I can only imagine what manner of sexual thrill those six dollars would have bought me).  But you’ll also see things, hear things, smell things that are truly exotic to everyday American life points east and north of the bay.  San Francisco looks like nowhere else; it tastes like nowhere else.  It’s a culinary Brigadoon begotten in one of the most beautiful cities in the Western hemisphere.  My love for San Francisco, for its food, its people, was instant and unlike anything I’ve ever felt for an American city (with possible exception of my immortal beloved, New Orleans, but that story is for another day).  Seventy-two nearly sleepless hours in San Francisco was hardly time to sufficiently express for my ardor for the city, but it was time enough to fall forever in love.  Just nine meals in three days (there was a marathon in there, after all) and I knew with utter certainty that I’d finally found my favorite city in which to eat.  And eat is exactly what I did. 


Breakfast – Chipotle – Washington Dulles Airport (IAD)

I know what you’re thinking:  only a certified douchebag and culinary poser would embark on a gastronomic tour of the greatest restaurant town in America by eating breakfast in a fucking airport Chipotle.  No doubt you regard such an affront to all that is good and sacred in the food world as tantamount to standing at Robert Johnson’s culinary crossroads and making the absolutely wrong deal with the food devil.  I don’t blame you.  Really I don’t.  But before I lose what little street cred I have left, please understand why I would buy three perfectly edible (dare I say delicious?) barbacoa tacos (they’re cooked sous vide, yo) at Chipotle:  because I fucking could.  Because it was 6:30 in the morning.  Because I was hungover.  Because I was in an airport at sunrise and tacos were being served.  Hallelujah.  Tell me you wouldn’t do the same.  Be honest.  Tell me.  You know you would.  That’s what I thought.  Enough said.  On to San Francisco.  

Lunch – Cordon Bleu – Nob Hill, San Francisco

I chose this quirky little Vietnamese eatery for everything that it wasn’t.  It wasn’t Chinese, of course.  It wasn’t expensive.  It was most certainly not crowded.  Cordon Bleu couldn’t possibly be so.  It’s tiny.  More lunch counter than Asian diner, it seats roughly eight on swivel stools around an elbow-shaped counter of deeply worn Formica and offers a delightfully limited menu of protein (chicken, pork, and beef are your options), starch (white rice or meat-filled imperial roll), and vegetables (shredded raw cabbage, in my case).  All the real cooking at Cordon Bleu is done upstairs in someone’s apartment and brought down, as needed, to be held at temperature on the tiny range (as the rice and meat sauce were), or held (not at temperature) in a metal hotel pan beneath the counter or on the floor (as was the parboiled chicken).  But anyone who knows me at all well knows my attitudes toward immigrant home cooks and their third-world food-handling practices, and that those practices, however dicey-looking, will never, ever dissuade me from eating what’s offered me, and that only in the rarest, most freak-of-nature cases would a home-cooked meal distress the eater or remand him to freckling the home bowl.  That nineteen-year-old wake-and-bake line cook at TGI McFucksters will gladly poison you (jalapeno poppers, anyone?), but not immigrant cooks like this.  No way.  So I ordered what was advertised on the marquis outside; I ordered the 5-spice-rub chicken, a parboiled version of which was taken from under the counter by the lone proprietor and cook, rubbed with spice, and charred over open grill flame.  I was soon served perfectly carbonized chicken (half the bird, mind you), white rice, and cabbage slaw, all of which was topped was a strange “meat sauce,” which resembled a Vietnamese take on Campbell’s tomato soup avec an irregular, if ubiquitous, mince of mystery meat.  It was good, even epic, a truly staggering amount of food.  It was food befitting longshoreman and firefighters, the kind of lunch you’d want under your belt before embarking on a long, cold-water swim to Alcatraz.  It was also utterly delicious, and it spoke well of San Francisco that a place like Cordon Bleu would be allowed to exist at all, let alone well able to proffer some truly tasty fare.  Onward and upward, Cordon Bleu.  Your chicken is divine.  Cash only.

Link:  Cordon Bleu - San Francisco Restaurant - MenuPages Vietnamese Restaurant Search

Dinner – Bocce Cafe– North Beach/Telegraph Hill    

Dinner was a no-brainer.  It was decided for me the moment I decided to run the San Francisco marathon, all 26.2 miles of it, that my dinner before the race had to be pasta (runners jones for glucose around mile 17 the way junkies jones for smack, yo).  But in a culinary world rife with barely-mediocre Italian red-sauce joints, the question was whose pasta to eat.  As with most decisions in my life, I decided just to wing it and hope for the best.  So I took the city bus through Chinatown to the glorious (and crowded) neighborhood of North Beach, where really, really good Italian-American food can be had at any number spaghetti houses.  I chose Bocce for no other reason than I didn’t have to wait for a table; there was one for the taking and I took it.  Call it Kismet.  So I entered.  I sat.  I drank beer.  I felt good.  Bocce is, after all, kind of nice.  One might say it’s even pleasant.  Think wood tones and very non-sucky dinner jazz.  It’s secluded insofar as you leave the street and walk a short (and enclosed) distance to find Bocce and all that awaits you inside.  But let’s be clear about this:  our friends at Bocce are not trying to reinvent the gastronomic wheel.  Their menu is a veritable greatest hits playlist of Italian-American cuisine.  What Neal Diamond is to rock, Bocce is to Italian food.  No surprises there lurk, but it’s pleasant once you get into it, even fun.  Clearly Bocce’s approach is to offer food that is familiar (and good) to a public that wants, well, familiar and good.  What I went for, let the record show, was both:  I ordered the cioppino, a fish stew, and easily the city of San Francisco’s most celebrated dish.  Brought from Old World kitchens by Portuguese and Italian fisherman, who settled North Beach in the late-1800s, cioppino has amassed a cult-like following.  To order cioppino in San Francisco is like asking Tony Bennett to sing “I Left My Heart In…”  You get the idea.  It’s a culinary chest bump.  A way of saying, “hit me with your best shot.”  So Bocce did.  They brought me cioppino in a light tomato/wine sauce with a side of linguini, and the stew contained every manner of oceanic protein any marathoner would ever require:  crab, shrimp, calamari, clams, mussels, and salmon, all stewed in a tomato-and-wine based broth perfectly balanced between brininess and acidity.  It was delicious.  And I don’t mean merely good.  I mean Bocce’s cioppino was the kind of delicious wherein the eater grows hungrier the more he eats.  I remember being social, even chatty with my tablemates before my food arrived.  But half way into my bowl of fish stew, I had stopped talking.  Nearing the bottom of my bowl, were you yet inclined to watch me dismantle my meal, you would have heard nothing from me but primal grunting and the click of my teeth against empty shells.  I was fed, body and soul, and deeply satisfied in the reptilian part of my brain.  But more importantly than being merely satisfied, I was ready for the next morning's run.



Breakfast – Hotel Mayflower – Nob Hill

The ugly and twisted little truth about the gastronomic proclivities of long distance runners is this:  we don’t eat much before a race, and what we eat can hardly be called food.  What you see pictured left represents my paltry, even dismal, pre-race meal.  The hard-boiled eggs delivered protein and fat; the orange juice tweaked my blood sugar and nicely quelled those ubiquitous pre-marathon jitters.  As for the Gu Energy Gel, I hardly know what to say other than guilty as charged.  It’s not food.  But it is a magical elixir of sugar, amino acids, electrolytes, and caffeine conjoined in a gag-inducing pharmacological paste.  My flavor of choice:  Espresso Love.  And while it’s far from delicious, it’s something that runners consume like crack before and during a race.  It works.  It’s fuel for the fire, and it makes us faster.  And as every runner knows:  the faster you run, the faster you reach the post-race beer tent.  The beer served at the WiPro Marathon is not the seven ounces of weaker-than-water Michelob Ultra-Light swill served in D.C. race tents.  Oh no.  Not here.  In San Francisco, runners are rewarded with pints of Sierra Nevada Torpedo, Porter, and Pale Ale.  We drank four before ten o’clock in the morning because that’s what runners do after a race.  It’s why we run.  For the beer.  So the secret’s out.  Now you know.

Lunch – Golden Boy Pizza – North Beach/Telegraph Hill

Carbohydrates.  The race might have been over, and while my head might have been full of beer, my body was still screaming for sugar.  Pizza, greasy, protein-dense pizza, I knew, was the quickest path to feeling fully restored.  So I returned the Italian-heavy restaurant scene of North Beach and scored three slices (pictured left) at Golden Boy Pizza, then three more (of a very different style) slices at Tony’s Coal Fired Pizza and Slice House.  Competitive running does that to you.  It makes you a glutton.  So I took my pizza and repaired to the gloriously sunny, grassy knoll of the cathedral-like Saints Peter and Paul Church to tie into my slices and really chow down.  The good folks at Golden Boy offer a California-style square slice, in that the pizza is as much about the bread as it is the almost focaccia-like crust.  And when you’re in San Francisco, why not make it all about the bread.  But for my money and East Coast tastes, I’ll take the pizza offered by Tony’s any day.  Each slice Tony’s pizza was the kind of big, sloppy, glorious mess you’d find anywhere in New York’s Times Square, the holy land of truly thin crust, whose sole purpose is to deliver, with only minimal triangular interference, the greasy goodness of pizza cheese and essential toppings.  Tony’s Coal Fired Pizza did that for me.   It acted as dietary ballast and my physiological equilibrium was soon back on track.  And so was my thirst.  I looked at my watch.  Just what I thought:  time for libation, a potent potable, a stiff one, for in San Francisco, more than anyplace I’ve ever been, it’s always, always beer-thirty.

Link:  Golden Boy Pizza Home Page

Link:  Tony's Pizza Napoletana | San Francisco

Drinks – Toronado Pub – The Lower Haight   

You have to look no further than the miraculous Toronado Pub for proof positive that San Francisco is a two-fisted drinking town where midday drinking is not only tolerated, but, for many, a way of life.  I took the 6 bus.  Part bombed out punk-rock dive bar, part sacrosanct shrine where beer nerds worship before tap upon tap of the West Coast’s finest craft beers, the Toronado is the apotheosis of all that is right in the drinking world, a perfect collision of cultural zeitgeists both low and high, where drinking really rare craft beer in the middle of a summer afternoon is somehow made to feel like an act of subversion, and as if you’ve found a way to really stick it to the man.  I drank two pints total at the Toronado:  one pint of the Allagash White Ale (delightful), and one pint of the Death and Taxes Black Beer by Moonlight Brewing (even more so).  I played two songs on the no-Grateful Dead-allowed jukebox.  One song by Waylon Jennings; the other by his son, Shooter Jennings.  And no Grateful Dead.  The Toronado Pub is, surely and without question, one of the best bars in America.  It’s led by one of the best barman in America, our bartender that afternoon, and the incomparable don’t-bullshit-me, don’t-waste-my-fucking-time, know-what-you-want-before-you-order Tad (last name unknown), the high-priest of go-fuck-yourself craft beer authorities in the lower forty-eight.  If you drink anywhere in San Francisco, the Toronado it must be.  Go.  Drink.  Listen to music.  Be nice to Tad.  And bring cash.  It’s all they take.  You’ll thank me.  You know you will.

Link:  Toronado Pub, San Francisco

Dinner – House of Nanking – Chinatown

Like any food adventurer worth his salt, I always consult local wisdom when making a culinary choice as important as where to eat dinner in a new city, especially when that city is as gastronomically important as San Francisco.  So I asked every Bay area resident I could corner.  Where, dude, where?  One after another, they offered up the same name:  House of Nanking.  That was a problem.  For while I might delight in Chinese food, I am famously adverse to the corn-starched, MSG supercharged charms, as they are, of Chinese American restaurants.  My native San Francisco sources remained insistent:  House of Nanking, and then they would smile.  Why so?  I visited Nanking to find out why.  What I found was a line out the restaurant twenty deep.  I loathe restaurant lines and resolved to pull my ripcord and bail on the joint.  But this line of intrepid eaters was not your usual gathered tribe of slack-jawed tourists in Mom jeans and khakis.  All appeared to be locals; some were even—gasp—hipsters.  So we waited, my friends and I.  And waited.  And waited.  Every now and again, a scowling middle-aged Chinese lady would burst out of the restaurant and choose which patrons would be next.  The line, we quickly saw, was not so much a progression as a really good way to keep waiting patrons from blocking the sidewalk.  After thirty minutes, we were chosen to sit.  We followed the scowling, middle-aged woman through the crowded dining room to a long, bench-like family-style table.  We sat.  It was loud, very.  Our waiter appeared.  He was sweating and scowling.  He appeared…angry.  We attempted to order, but he shook his head, took our menus, and scowled some more.  You ordered two beef dishes, he said.  Not allowed.  We are famous for the chicken.  I bring you the chicken.  You have that instead.  We were astonished, even nonplussed.  No where in our collective dining experiences had our dietary wishes been trumped by those of a fucking waiter.  We would eat what they brought us.  Simple enough.  All we could do was laugh.  For now I suddenly understood why everyone who insisted I try House Nanking had smiled after making the recommendation:  the restaurant was Chinese food as performance art, a Cantonese riff on Seinfeld’s own “Soup Nazi” episode, hostility made hilarious by its own naked aggression.  I loved every minute of the performance, the highlight being when we were given our check and asked to pay just midway through our entrée course, which, alas, made it difficult to concentrate on the food (or now conjure its recollection).  Suffice it to say, the food of Nanking was decent, even flirting, at times, with kinda delicious in the precise way the General Tsou’s Chicken on the Whole Foods hot bar so nicely scratches that I-need-bad-Chinese-food itch that flares up in all of us all too rarely.  Perhaps not rarely enough, however, for the scowling hostess of Nanking.  Another blow-by Nanking on the way back to the hotel, hours later, saw her still at it, shrieking at patrons lined up like soldiers, evidently happy to stand in line.

Link:  House of Nanking Chinese Restaurant 南京小馆 - San Francisco, CA


Breakfast – La Boulange Bakery – Russian Hill

The plan was not to eat breakfast.  The plan was to starve ourselves and go crazy at lunch.  But we were hollowed out by the previous night’s drinking, and hung over on Nanking’s heavy dosing of MSG.  So we decided to breakfast on something light, on fare familiar to us, food unchallenging in every way.  A glorious morning walk through Russian Hill produced the equally delightful La Boulange Bakery, a low-key Bay area chain that manages to achieve Franco rustic without being too cute by half.  The bakery (in that early morning light) felt actually, well, kinda French and perfectly unchain-like.  The menu offered hot breakfast items and the bakery case boasted all manner of baked goods, but what caught my attention were the sandwiches.  I went with a perennial favorite:  prosciutto with arugula, Swiss cheese, and Dijon mustard on olive roll, all for $3.50.  But what made an already delicious sandwich experience special was the fact that La Boulange offers a free compliment of Occidental sides (arranged by themselves on a wall-hugging side table).  Fava beans.  Olives.  Cornichon.  They’re all there.  So what turned out to be a very reasonably priced breakfast turned out to be the best breakfast deal in all of San Francisco.  That much salt for breakfast, that much flavor, all for $3.50, and I was ready, body and mind, heart and soul, for what was about to happen to us.  And what might that have been?  In a word:  lunch.

Link:  La Boulange Bakery

Lunch – Swan Oyster Depot – Nob Hill

This is why I travel.  This is why I eat.  To find a place like this.  The restaurant of my dreams.  A place so absolutely perfect, so absolutely fucking good, that it makes me want to quit the food business and the business of writing about food altogether, because there's nothing more, or better, I can contribute, nothing more I can say.  Just walk away from it all, and leave it to the people who do it better than anyone else.  San Francisco has such a place.  It’s called the Swan Oyster Depot, and it’s easily the best of its kind in America.  So what kind of restaurant is it?  It’s twenty old-fashioned swivel stools strung along a narrow hallway and set against a marble diner counter, where you sit, simply enough, and eat some of the best seafood of your life.  It’s that simple.  There is no cooking.  There is just shucking.  And laughing.  And eating shellfish.  And drinking beer.  It’s also you thinking to yourself:  so this is what it feels like to be really and truly arrive.  It’s also to arrive at ten o’clock in the morning (with breakfast still in your teeth) and find yourself and your best friend nineteenth and twentieth in line for a restaurant that holds exactly twenty (or so, but who’s counting) at a time.  It’s also to be seated at exactly 10:30AM and have a frosty pint of Anchor Steam staring you in the face.  A basket of bread comes next.  Then comes the seafood:  a large cocktail glass stuffed with every conceivable variety of shellfish and seafood on the menu that morning (the Combination Cocktail, it’s called), followed by a dozen (in six amazing varieties) of the best oysters you’ll ever put in your mouth.  And just like that, gastronomic Nirvana is achieved on a culinary transaction as simple as cold beer and raw oysters eaten with your bare hands.  Swan Oyster Depot is, for this eater, at least, a slice of true culinary heaven, and one place you must, must go.  Cash only.  And go early.    

Dinner – Andale Mexican Restaurant – San Francisco International (SFO)

So where does the culinary explorer dine after one of the most glorious, most sublime eating experiences of his adult life?  He goes to the airport.  He eats tacos.  Then he flies home, precisely in that order.  But this is still San Francisco we’re talking about, and even in its most remote and transitory of outposts, the food is still really fucking good.  To bookend the trip, (and to atone for my transgression with Chipotle) I decided I must eat tacos.  But unlike Washington’s IAD airport, or any other American airport I've yet visited, San Francisco’s SFO boasted the really good Andale Mexican Bar and Restaurant, which felt like a real walk-up taco stand, airport be damned, and which served me three really good cooked-to-order tacos carnitas.  I sat by two pilots and ate.  All flavors represented (pig, cilantro, onion, lime) were fresh and vibrant.  In any place in America, these tacos would demand respect.  In an airport, they were nothing short of divine.  So with airport food this good, I was suddenly (even deeply) sad to have to leave what is clearly the best food town in America.  San Francisco is, without question, my new favorite place to be.  And like so many other travelers before me, I did indeed leave my heart in San Francisco.  But I left it for a reason.  For I now have excuse to return to the city by the bay and get it back. 

Link:  Andalé Mexican Restaurant. Always Fresh. Always Andalé.

Postscript - The Hotel Mayflower

Every successful expedition, culinary and otherwise, needs a good base camp.  Mine was this:  the Hotel Mayflower.  Built in the 1920s and last redecorated just after the crew of Dirty Harry wrapped up shooting, she’s still a gem of an old hotel.  She is what a San Francisco hotel should be:  formerly glamorous, now a bit down at the heels, a place where you could imagine Chet Baker holed up with an ounce of brown heroin, a hooker, and his beautiful golden horn.  It’s run by a lovely Irish lady, and it’s packed with budget-minded Europeans.  It feels European on foggy mornings.  I loved it.  And it’s where I’ll stay on my return.  

Link:  HOTEL MAYFLOWER, San Francisco