We killed it–and almost ourselves– in San Francisco. With food.
San Francisco cemented itself as a food destination on an extended weekend vacation to the lovely city in late May. Lines queuing outside the door seemed to be the norm around the tech- forward city at several “hotspot” restaurants ripe with phone-engrossed Millennials eager to file into newly-opened ramen shops, celebrated bakeries and the new Union Square Apple flagship store.
With my husband and mother-in-law in tow, we took an admirable fork stab at what the city had to offer over the course of three epicurious days and even took a short jaunt up north to Napa Valley on a lazy wino Sunday. Here’s a list of some of the places we visited:
I had done my due diligence in regards to my Mission burrito homework. La Taqueria, according to multiple reliable sources like FiveThirtyEight, in the Mission District had the best burritos in town. I had to check it out for myself. It certainly wasn’t cheap for a no-frills type of eatery at $40 for three burritos, but it was pretty good. My burrito–a pillowcase of a tortilla smushed with a healthy dose of carne asada, pinto beans, salsa, avocado, sour cream–and then grilled to a slight crisp el dorado-style was sufficiently satisfying after a long day of flying and no eating. Was it the best burrito in America like some ‘rito aficionados have declared? Nah, bro. Truth be told, I missed the presence of rice in the burrito that could have doubled as a pillow (but I’m Asian).
We showed up at Mensho Tokyo by happenstance. It was close in proximity to our Airbnb and we were in the mood for a steaming bowl of something on the 50-degree day. The line spilled out the door of the tiny no-reservations (how hip!) ramen-ya; we knew we had stumbled upon something special. The bowl of shio ramen, gilded with kale, menma, fried garlic, and nori, was worth the 40-minute wait out in the cold streets of San Francisco. The chicken and pork broth was balanced in its salinity, robust in flavor yet perfectly restrained, and immensely satisfying on the brisk evening with the bouncy island of noodles sunken underneath. The round of buttery char-siu was so delectably tender that it nearly dissolved when it hit the tongue. Forget a bowl of chicken noodle soup on a sick day, if there was only Mensho Tokyo around in North Carolina, I’d be happy to come down with a common cold if it meant a bowl of ramen (coincidently, the owners at Mensho are looking for investors to expand in California and elsewhere in the U.S.). The ramen was a great palliative to the evening.
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Our dim sum choice was validated later that Saturday afternoon when the Camper shoe store employee in Union Square nearly squealed with excitement when we said we had visited Hong Kong Lounge II, “Wait, you visited “II” and not “I” right?” he asked quizzically like he was testing our a priori knowledge of the food scene in town. We confirmed and he nodded with approval. It felt so, so good to be confirmed by a local. We were in fact early to Hong Kong Lounge II on Friday morning, having worked up an appetite by an impromptu stroll through the Golden Gate Park. HK II is not nearly as expensive at some of the other dim sum restaurants in the vicinity, but we did lose some of the pomp-and-circumstance–i.e., no carts roving through the dining space. Ordering to your heart’s delight meant ordering off a sheet of paper at HK II, ticking off the dishes that sounded interesting. An order of steaming pork buns and shu mai; a platter of spicy tinged salt-and-pepper pi pa tofu; two discs of crispy scallion pancakes; a plate of sticky rice fried with aromatic dried shrimp. Coming from North Carolina, a land sadly bereft with any decent dim sum options, I felt like I was in the mecca of good Chinese food in the United States, outside of New York City and other parts of Southern California. But, alas, we had to depart from the restaurant, where outside a line had already started to form for the Friday lunch rush.
I sifted through Chowhound boards earlier in 2016, looking for the answer to one question: what’s the best restaurant to visit in San Francisco? And, over and over, the name of one James Beard Award-winning restaurant in particular kept popping up: State Bird Provisions. So, I stayed up one early morning–3:00 a.m. EST to be exact– to snag one of the coveted reservations two months to the date we were to visit. At 5:30 p.m., and a brief Uber ride later, we were at the doorstep and encountered yet another line queued down Fillmore street. But this time, luckily, we were armed with reservations. The doors opened promptly at half past five and we were ushered quickly to a table. It was the first seating of the night.
Servers quickly swirled through the dining room, carrying trays and pushing carts offering guests New American-inspired small bites (indeed, quail, San Francisco’s state bird is offered) dim-sum style as quickly as the kitchen staff fired them off. Hog Island Oysters? Yes, bring them on. Duck Liver Mousse with tiny almond biscuits. Why not? Steak tartare? Okay! Octopus? Yep. A seafood mix in a dashi broth? Yum. Crispy garlic bread with burrata? We probably could manage to probably stuff it down our gullets.
Totaled by the food, we couldn’t pass down the opportunity to order dessert. The result? A beautifully-displayed row of mini horchata ice cream sandwiches and an orange blossom tres leches cake to split. We walked out of State Bird feeling satisfied that we had done our dim-sum damage to the city that day.
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I had read a few features about San Francisco’s Tartine Bakery in Lucky Peach and I knew it was a must-visit. So, we carted over back to the Mission District over to Tartine Bakery on a Saturday morning. After standing in the long line filled with people, many whom were foreign visitors with selfie sticks in tow, who asked around to each other, “Do you know long this line takes?” as wafts of buttery fumes from the kitchen pierced through the open window screens, I realized that locals probably didn’t even bother with Tartine on the weekends.
But, we were committed–nay determined–to make it through the line (plus we had paid SF prices for street parking).
The biggest pang of anxiety hit when you reached the counters inside Tartine’s cramped quarters. Savory or sweet? How do you choose from literal stacks of tarts, cookies, croissants and scones? I made a split-second decision: plain croissant, morning bun and the ham-and-Gruyere quiche, and a Counter Culture (NC represent!) pour over coffee. Done…at $30.
The towering slice of ham-and-Gruyere cheese quiche was worth its weight in lactose gold and the croissant–a massive, laminated buttery pastry was almost too much. Almost. Though, it cost a pretty penny and was quite comparable to the croissant from Raleigh’s own Boulted Bread. I later had a bite out of my husband’s chocolate souffle cake and I nearly gasped with ecstasy–its silkiness and robust, deep chocolate flavor was unrivaled by any other dessert in my 33 years on earth. As we discovered, a perfect day in San Francisco might consist of a cup of Counter Culture coffee, a croissant from Tartine and a stroll through nearby Mission Delores Park through the off-leash dog park. I’m just sayin’.
A California Chipotle exists and it’s in Napa Valley. The mix-and-match, fast-casual, locavore-friendly concept comes to life in wine country at Heritage Eats, and I was totally envious of this West Coast eatery. Instead of tortillas, the comestible vehicle came in an assortment of worldly options at Heritage Eats: Vietnamese bahn mi, bao, tacos, rice bowl, pita or wrap. Proteins range from lemongrass pork to Jamaican jerk chicken. Toppings also ran the global gamut: quinoa tabbouleh, Asian pickled vegetables, and roasted corn and edamame. The chicken tikka masala wrap, a wonderful amalgamation of flavors, though plenty ambitious in concept fell apart literally in execution. The spiced sauce that the chicken was stewed in proved too wet for the tortilla wrap and tore through it like two-ply tissue paper. Still, I wanted this option in North Carolina.
Our finale to the extended weekend in San Francisco and Napa Valley ended at at the Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch, a true farm-to-table eatery in St. Helena. The outdoor bar area, outfitted with a fireplace, and plenty of seating to sprawl out, provided a cozy space to unwind with a glass of Long Meadow Ranch’s own Sauvignon Blanc.
Inside, we continued the assault on our waistlines with cheddar biscuits and honey butter and a oozing cast iron skillet of cheddar macaroni and cheese. My husband’s grassfed burger was a skyscraper creation, a hefty patty topped with crispy potatoes, cheddar and arugula capped by a soft bun. My brick-cooked chicken came beautifully stacked, splayed over a moat of beans. The chicken itself, tender and juicy, was almost a spoiler to the bed of over-salted beans. But, the clear winner from the trio of entrees was the wood-grilled pork chop–equally as tender and juicy as the chicken– and served without the lackluster beans.
The parade of food concluded with a formation of beignets–fried spiced dough sprinkled with powdered sugar and served with a side of bourbon caramel sauce, ya know, for fun-sies.
I think my thighs whimpered a little that Sunday night when returned to the Marriott. We had done our damage to the city of San Francisco and Napa Valley and were indeed ready to return to normalcy until next time.