Monday, August 26, 2013

Follow the Crumbs: San Francisco

San Francisco is easily one of my personal favorite cities in America.  Stand on the back of a moving cable car and you will see why.  (For an even more extraordinary experience, catch the last car from the wharf, around midnight, and watch the city shut down while the Bay Bridge glows sleepily on the east.)  There’s the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, the cable cars, bicycles, daunting hills, bicycles on daunting hills, the beach, trees (the scent of eucalyptus in Golden Gate Park is intoxicating), museums, ballet, opera, music, nightlife.  If hipster is your thing, then you must already know that Jack Kerouac spent a significant amount of time in San Francisco, spawning the Beat Movement in the 50’s. 

Fog shrouds the city a lot and supposedly, it rains 65% of the time in June when it’s summer everywhere else in the States.  Mark Twain purportedly said that the coldest winter he’s ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.  Disputable, but I find even the unpredictable weather charming and romantic. 

The people in San Francisco are one of the friendliest in America I have met.  They are a fascinating amalgamation of liberal, quirky, trendy, intellectual, vibrant, fit, successful, romantic, brilliant, down-to-earth, artsy, healthy, biophiliac, uncomplicated, and beautiful.  SF is one of those places where striking a lengthy, personal conversation with a total stranger is de facto. 

And incredible food?  Sine qua non.    

Picnic at the Presidio (www.

This is testament of how biophiliac San Francisco is.  Even on a soggy, gloomy Sunday, the locals are outside, having a picnic.  You have to admire that tenacity.  

The Presidio is a massive park that lies in the northern cusp of the San Francisco peninsula.  On a really good day, you can see the top of the Golden Gate Bridge jutting out in the sky from there.  Roll your windows down as you drive through the park entrance and accept the welcome of the thick thatch of eucalyptus.  Beware that the transition from big city to big forest will be sudden. 

“Picnic at the Presidio” is a degustation event where dozens of local food vendors park and provide an eclectic mix of eats to the hungry (and in this case, wet) picnic-goers.  The Picnic is held every Sunday through the summer with a gamut of food ranging from cheese, chocolate, farmers, fish, ethnic food, sandwiches, pizza, dessert, wine, and libations.  Yes, you can get all these and more at any grocery, but the difference is, at an event like the Picnic, you’re putting a face, a voice, a personality to the genius behind your food.  It is a shift from buying chocolate from a faceless mega-corporation whose highest purpose of existence is to make money, to a thirty-something hipster in a Patagonia vest who could navigate you on how they carefully source their cacao, tune you into the surprising notes in each variety they used, and clue you in the volume of tweaks they did to come up with just the right blend.  It is an alternative to buying a box of strawberries from big agriculture to shaking the hand of the farmer who actually grew those strawberries.  It is a very intimate experience.  And an even better story to tell.  

As I prowl the other food stalls and trucks that day, I had the fleeting desire to have a bottomless pit for a stomach.  There were so many things to try!  In under an hour, I devoured an Argentine empanada filled with prosciutto, fontina, and mozzarella, two oysters, a mimosa, a crème brulee, some cheese, strawberries, and chocolate.  I wanted to sample other local hits like pizza from Del Popolo, oxtail and grits from Streatery, ice cream from Humphry Slocombe, and a Rituals cappuccino, but sometimes, a girl needs to know when to throw the towel in.  After all, I still had an appointment for wine and a big dinner ahead.  I was ready though to be cajoled for some sisig or adobo, but I guess the Filipino food trucks Hapa and Senor Sisig were parked elsewhere that day.   

Spare for the unavailability of a dry patch of grass to sit on on a rainy day, the Picnic at the Presidio is not only an amazing milieu for a smorgasbord, it is also a great way to tap into the local food culture built around artisans.  This attention to detail to yield the highest quality output does exist in America and it is what makes American food great.  I was afraid that getting soaked would ruin my picnic experience, but instead, I felt as though I’ve been initiated into a secret society of (sodden) die-hards.  And with that thought, I strolled back to the car cradling my precious loot of Achadinha aged goat’s cheese and Dandelion Madagascar chocolate under my sweater to shield them from the drizzle.  

If you are still in doubt that you may have gremlin in your DNA and that you can’t get wet lest you multiply, the Ferry Market Building on Embarcadero is an amazing place for gourmands who like to seek both shelter and local food indoors.  The Ferry Market Building is an historic building on the waterfront that was first opened in 1898.  It has been restored just in the last few years and has since been the go-to for those in search for fresh regional specialty food and produce.

The interior of the Ferry Market Building is very illustrious, reminiscent of an old European train station.  As you walk the wide corridor lined with food stalls and specialty food shops, prepare your olfactory senses to be arrested by the most primitive of aromas to a food lover - baking bread and roasting coffee.  

Here are my favorite Ferry Market Building picks:

  • Blue Bottle for exceptional coffee.  They are known for their long-lines – everyone wants a piece of that slow-drip coffee.  Stand in line anyway.  Make friends.  You’re in San Francisco!
  • Acme bread for European-style artisanal bread baked fresh onsite.
  • Cowgirl Creamery for a dizzying slew of cheese.  Don’t be bashful.  Ask to try samples! They would love to indulge you.
  • Cowgirl Creamery Sidekick for cheesy everything.  Try their cheese toasties – melted Cabot cheddar on toasted wheat bread with caramelized onions and maple mustard.  Your life will never be the same again.  Or for something different, why not go for the poached egg with pancetta topped over cheese grits (I did!).  And if you sit at the sushi-bar-style-eatery, the chatty cooks will let you in on the best local spots.  I hope you write fast.  

  • Hog Island for oysters and champagne.  On a nice day, snag an outside table.  The Bay Bridge looks gorgeous from there. 
  • Slanted Door for French-Vietnamese sit-down
  • Frog Hollow Farm for a healthy breakfast of fresh juices, pastry, granola.
  • Boccalone Salumeria for “tasty salted pig parts” (read: salumi).  These are good unrefrigerated for about five weeks so take one home!    
  • On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, there is an outdoor farmer’s market and some kitschy street art on Market Street
  • For history and architecture lessons, join the free guided walking tour led by San Francisco City Guides (  They do these on Saturdays at noon, but check the website for disruptions. 
  • While you’re in the Embarcadero, walk off those calories and step outside and stroll northwest to TCHO, a local gourmet chocolate maker.  They run free tours where you can see how they make their chocolate in-house.  Tours run twice daily, but check the website - you need reservations.  

Also Noteworthy

  • It would just be utterly deplorable to end up at a Starbucks or Coffee Bean while in San Francisco.  For an amazing cup of joe, Sightglass on 7th Street is coffee heaven.  Seriously.  As you sip your coffee in the mezzanine of this industrial chic converted warehouse, standby and watch your head swell up before it explodes.  Their coffee is that good.  It has a rich buttery after-taste and I wonder if that’s because they source their own beans and roast them in-house.  Leave the iPad – they don’t have wi-fi, but bring your bicycle in – it’s welcome here.

  • Flour + Water on 2401 Harrison (cross street is 20th) has amazing American-Italian grub with choices ranging from squid ink pasta (I had a bowl of that) and chervil tagliarini with shellfish (I had a bowl of that, too – hey, no judgments!)  If you come here hungry (which you should) why not go for the housemade fresh pasta tasting, a mosaic of seasonal creations of about five pasta plates?   
  • And actually, this neighborhood that is called “20th Street Corridor” is an excellent pocket obscure restaurants.  It’s away from the tourist crowd and there’s a handful other high quality establishments such as Central Kitchen, Salumeria, and a nondescript speakeasy-esque bar called Trick Dog (there’s no sign outside, but if you walk by and see this crowded room with people hanging outside, just walk in).  

  • Can’t scratch off that ramen itch?  Then give in!  Katana-ya on 430 Geary by Union Square is my favorite hole-in-the-wall for fatty broth and noodles.  Better than the ones I had in Japan town, honestly. 
  • Tartine on 561 Valencia is most likely where the locals will steer you to lunch on fresh baked breads and great sandwiches.  They also serve dinner.
  • The type to brunch?  Outerlands on 4001 Judah Street has organic, local, delicious food.  Also open for lunch and dinner.
  • Jonesing for the San Francisco artsy flavor?  Foreign Cinema on 2534 Mission has outdoor film screenings of classics with dinner, string lights, wine and.. okay, you get the drift. 

A Digestif
  • The best digs is crashing at a friend’s/family’s couch for free (well, maybe that’s debatable).  Absent of that or any affordable hotel rooms, try where you can rent a room from a local for a fee lower than that of a hotel’s.  There is that potential for shared bathrooms, but so what?  I stayed at the house of two established painters and the conversations about art, inspiration, San Francisco, and rain over tea is an experience the Hilton will never be able to replicate.
  • San Francisco is rich in art and culture, so don’t miss out.  I will not name all the museums but my favorites are De Young (where I saw Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” on exhibit and on loan from Musee d’Orsay in Paris – drove me to tears) and Legion of Honor.  My artist AirBnB hosts also recommended Stanford Museum (a short drive outside of SF) for their Rodin collection.
  • The best way to immerse yourself in the rhythm of San Francisco is to take public transportation.  Buy multi day passes from (they will give you a free map) or try SideCar, a ride sharing system with locals and an alternative to taxi cabs.  

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