I'm pretty sure San Francisco is my soul city. I'm almost positive that we are supposed to be together. I knew it before I even arrived that SF and I would get along famously. And, we did.
San Francisco is a place where you can have your cake and eat it too. You like city living? Dive right into SF's hip little neighborhoods and find people getting their weird on in broad daylight. I saw folks with pet rabbits, a young girl with a cat on her shoulder, and the diverse citizens of SF making self expression their bitch. I love that.
You like nature? You can have that too. San Francisco sits right on the Pacific and a quick jaunt to the left of the city will have you at the beach or at Land's End with stunning views off the gorgeous bluffs. Cross over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito, concurrently bougie and quaint with its sailboats and seaside charm. Just a little further up, you can visit the majestic Muir Woods and rendezvous with big nature. And, we haven't even talked about the food yet.
The city itself is small, seven miles by seven miles, but incredibly dense. I spent four whole days there and hardly put a dent in the place. If I wasn't eating, I was ogling at the colorful Victorian row houses lining the steep hills, or watching all the lovely people, or marveling at the brightly colored street art that seemed to permeate the entire city.
My hosts and best friend (now new resident of the city), live in the Outer Sunset about a two block walk from Ocean Beach. The neighborhood is quiet, residential and a nice break from the hustle and bustle of the city which is never more than 10-15 minutes away.
The Outer Sunset is a great example of the finicky Northern California weather. My hosts would wake each morning and gauge the day by looking out the window toward the beach. If they could see the beach through the fog, chances were it was going to be a good day. But, it's hard to tell. It's nearly always foggy in the Outer Sunset. A short drive to the Mission would find the sun shining its beautiful beams in warm, generous rays. SF people are constantly chasing the sun, which they say you can always find somewhere in the city. The fog, however, is the great decider, coming and going as it pleases. Bring layers.
Okay, food. We landed in SF on a Friday night after dark and had our first official meal at Toyose, a neighborhood spot right around the corner from my hosts. Toyose is a late night gem, serving Korean comfort food and drink until 2 a.m. We sat down around 10:30 and there was still a line of patrons near midnight.
In the morning, breakfast in the neighborhood is an easy choice- Devil's Teeth Baking Company. This small bakery is cranking out amazing pastries and monstrous breakfast sandwiches. I had both. Because I was ON VACATION, duh?! Of course, there was coffee although they only offered one size instead of the Big Gulp I need to make mornings happen.
The donut muffin was delightful. Yes, it's a muffin that tastes like a donut and it's covered in cinnamon sugar for a finger licking good time. The tiny place fills up and the sandwich orders typically require a short wait as the staff makes each one by hand. Not to worry, it's totally worth it. Big, fluffy biscuits stuffed to capacity with eggs, bacon and melted cheddar cheese.
A few blocks away is another Outer Sunset favorite- Trouble Coffee. All I heard was get the toast at Trouble. I was given a lengthy diatribe about this toast on the drive up, that it was potentially life-changing. I mean, c'mon, it's toast, I thought. Then I had the toast, one thick slice of bread slathered with butter and cinnamon sugar or peanut butter and honey (an insider tip) with a big swallow of espresso and it was just like the vintage display said on their tiny wall. Epic.
The apex of cooling out in SF is a Sunday afternoon in Dolores Park or Dolo, as it's referred to by the locals. Claiming a sunny spot on the grassy knoll is a Sunday activity that is pretty hard to beat. The city's residents flock to the park with a blanket, friends and "whathaveyou" to enjoy the weather amidst hundreds of folks doing the same. It's feel good harmony at its best. Keep an eye out for the Robot Dance Party breakouts.
Activities along the way included a visit to the Conservatory of Flowers, an evening of Bawdy Storytelling and, you guessed it, more food. I believe it to be one of the hallmarks of a city to walk into a no-name place and receive satisfying food for cheap. This happened one night in a Latin joint in the Mission. The menu was massive, almost overwhelming, but authentic. I ordered the barbacoa and received a plate full of lamb accompanied with the saltiest broth made of drippings and fat. The plate came with handmade tortillas, lime and trinity of onions, cilantro and jalapeño. That broth, man. Everyone got themselves a soak.
It's safe to say that I was on the hunt for Asian foodstuffs in SF because it's amazing and abundant there. I relished in the vast selection- Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Burmese. I'm sure I'm missing some.
You want to see an SF citizen perk up? Mention Burma Superstar. This is a city staple and my cohorts were just as excited to take me there for my first time. I let them do the ordering.
We had fried yellow bean tofu, incredible samusa soup and the infamous tea leaf salad prepared tableside. Burma Supertar's claim to fame is that they get the tea leaves for the salad straight from Burma. It's so simple- lettuce, tangy tea leaves, sunflowers seeds, sesame seeds, tomatoes, fried peanuts, crispy garlic and fresh lemon and cilantro tossed together so that every bite is the perfect bite.
On my hit list of restaurants was Mission Chinese Food. It's a culinary bucket list item of mine. In my incessant reading of food blogs and issues of Bon Appetit, Mission Chinese was a rite of passage during my visit to food mecca. Housed inside the Lung Shan Chinese Restaurant, Mission Chinese is cranking out bold dishes with epic twists- Kung Pao Pastrami? Dope.
I was attracted instantly to the squid ink noodles with braised lamb, chickpeas, mint, cumin and fennel. This was probably one of the best, if not the best thing, I ate during my entire trip. Served with a beautiful lamb broth for dipping, the unctious lamb paired with fat squid ink noodles damn near seduced my palate. The fennel, cumin and mint were perfectly present- it was bold, balanced and breathtaking. Not even kidding. This dish solicited looks of disbelief from my tablemates. Was this really happening? Are we seriously tasting this right now?!
Did I mention one of the best things about eating at Mission Chinese? The banging sound system bumping Wu-Tang, ODB and hip-hop for folks who know!
My last meal in SF came highly recommended from a former SF resident, Chef Mike Moore of Seven Sows Bourbon and Larder in Asheville who attended culinary school out there. He, along with several others, loaded me up with a list of places, to visit, most of which didn't happen. Thankfully, we made it to Namu Gaji for an amazing meal.
I got a taste of Namu at the San Francisco Street Food Festival when I sampled the Okonomiyaki. The restaurant is family-owned by brothers Dennis, Daniel and David Lee. Namu is serving up stunningly fresh New Korean cuisine. Located in the Presidio, Namu Gaji, is the second location for the Lee brothers, The first location (their baby) is closed and the new space has the full attention of the food world in SF and beyond.
Everything from Namu is fresh and vibrant, with much of the produce coming directly from the Namu Farm located in Sunol.
For starters we had the trio of peas- english peas, heirloom dragon tongue and sugar snaps served over a verdant puree with avocado, cured yolk and citrus overtones that epitomized the essence of fresh. Next were the dumplings, delicately stuffed with shiitakes and bathed in a dashi broth. From what I understand, the umami of those dumplings lies at the center of Namu's philosophy. Most everything there is created with that in mind.
The best dish of the night, by far, was the Ramyun Bowl, a fiery dish of handmade noodles, 4505 hot dogs, panko crusted egg and kimchee broth. Have mercy! There was comfort in that bowl and an insatiable spice that I chased and slurped all the way to the bottom. Dessert was a black sesame pudding, a perfect, not-too-sweet send off back to the East Coast.
Honorable mentions in SF were the Ferry Building where we ate meat cones from Boccolone and cheese plates from Cowgirl Creamery. We indulged in banana cream pie at Tartine Bakery and drank Blue Bottle Coffee. I had pupusas from a non-descript Dominican restaurant just up the street from Mission Chinese. Actually, while I waited for my table. We ate bomb fish tacos in Sausalito and I left a little piece of my heart inside the Bi-Rite market.
I mean, I'm getting nostalgic just writing about it. San Francisco showed this girl one helluva time. I feel changed and inspired by my food experiences there and cannot wait to get back. This time, with the Mister in tow.