After a chilling winter in the East Coast (it snowed in DC on the second day of my SF trip) and a two-year hiatus, I decided to spend my Spring Break holiday in one of my favorite cities, San Francisco. It is definitely a big change of locale for me as its energy is totally different and refreshing from the East Coast vibe, who tends to get suffocating after a while. Besides the nicer weather and change of scenery, one thing I enjoy and look forward to is a wide variety of restaurants that can be attributed to the cosmopolitan feel of the city and the different culinary influences stemming from the various immigration groups that have landed in the Bay Area. Without much further ado, here is a quick run down of places that I visited in one week.
Since I was visiting my college buddy dating back to the first day of Graduate school in Maryland 24 years ago, he chose our first meal to celebrate his birthday at Cha Cha Cha in the Haight neighborhood. This local chain has a few branches in the area and it serves up a menu that represents various Latino culinary traditions, or Pan Latino. Our opener was the popular pickled seafood, Ceviche, that was brimming with small shrimp, bay scallops (the smaller ones), and squid. The seafood morsels were sweet and tender, well pickled by the lime juice, and fragrant with some jalapeño pepper and cilantro. A side of sweet plantains were as good as they get, accompanied by a smooth paste of refried black beans. The seafood paella was rather decent with pieces of shrimp, tender pieces of fish and some mussels, embedded in some aromatic rice made yellow sans the pricey saffron threads. However the Jerk Chicken was not close to any authentic version that I have savored – it was tasty but the name was a total misnomer. Despite the last dish, this meal was a pretty good start to my gastronomic week.
For his birthday dinner, my buddy chose Cafe Ethiopia in the Mission District. Our orders arrived on a large enameled platter covered with the sourdough injera bread, topped by the various protein and vegetables. I was quite impressed by the dishes since each was very tasty and held its distinctive flavor and character while setting themselves apart from each other. The orders that impressed me most were the collard greens, the lentils, and the salmon dish that had moist chunks of the seafood covered by a tasty but not overpowering sauce. An order of goat was a bit unfortunate as a bit more cooking would have made them less tough. The extra pieces of injera bread were the perfect vehicle to scoop up the food and the accompanying sauces. One of the guests exclaimed that this was the best Ethiopian food he has tasted in the Bay Area. and I must agree that it was as good as the ones found in the DC area replete with restaurants of this East African cuisine.
Staying at the Haight district, I stumbled across this little dive serving Thai food – The Best of Thai Noodle. I must say that such name tends to conjure up some suspicion, but I decided to give them a try for lunch. I ordered the Combination Of Sliced Rare Beef, Beef Stew, And Beef Meatballs Noodle Soup since I was in the mood for such a noodle soup dish on a cool day. The bowl arrived with strands of wide rice noodles swimming in a very rich fragrant soup filled with pieces of stewed beef pieces and beef meatballs. With my first bite, I recognized the dish that I have had recently – Boat Market Noodle Soup. Upon enquiring, the waitress confirmed my observation. This bowl was as good as the one I had a few months back in Thai Square with the heady cassia and star-anise laced soup, the tender pieces of beef and meatballs, and the fresh noodles. Looking at the menu, this small joint offers an amazing array of authentic dishes from this Southeast Asian tradition. This establishment is definitely worth checking out despite its rather dingy appearance.
For lunch the next day, I decided to go Vietnamese, and I stopped by the most reputed Vietnamese restaurant in the area located in the Embarcadero Ferry Terminal – The Slanted Door. I had eaten at this establishment a few years back and I was looking forward to it again after the absence. For the starter, I ordered some Chilled Wild Louisiana Gulf Shrimp. Large pieces of shrimp came with sides of chili spiced cocktail sauce and a Thai basil aioli. The shellfish were perfectly cooked and their sweetness in each bite was indicative of the freshness and quality, complemented by the irresistible sauces. For the main course, I ordered the Grilled Pork Belly and Meatball Rice Vermicelli Noodles. Basically this is the supped up version of the Bun Noodle Salad enhanced by large pieces of moist savory grilled meatballs, tender pieces of tasty pork belly, and pieces of the house Imperial Roll made with chunks of shrimp and ground pork- this was a hearty, satisfactory and flavor-packed bowl.
For dessert, I couldn’t help but hone in on something whimsical listed on the menu despite feeling rather full after the above dishes - Lemongrass Cotton Candy. A big cloud of this spun sugar arrived at my table that left me bug-eyed by the unexpected size – I guess I have not been to the local fair in a number of years. When the dessert arrived, I slowly tore pieces away from it, with a bigger amount each time. It is basically your typical cotton candy with a citrusy and slightly grassy lemongrass flavor that made this childhood favorite as irresistible to the now adult. I literally had to stop myself from finishing the whole mass and I got the rest packed for home. The meal at this Modern Vietnamese restaurant was worth every dollar spent with the high level of cooking, the artful presentation, and the authentic flavors that left me satisfied and dreaming of this gastronomic experience. Btw, don’t forget the Lychee Ice Tea that made the perfect thirst quencher with the above dishes – exotic and refreshing at the same time.
No where is better to try Vegan/Vegetarian cuisine than in the West Coast, and I returned to my and BFF’s favorite establishment- Golden Era Vegan Restaurant. A vegetable dish that we have enjoyed and always ordered is Spicy Eggplant Mushroom. Pieces of purple skinned Asian eggplant are paired with fresh button mushrooms, crunchy carrots, slivers of onion, and large pieces of green onions, all coated in a slightly sweet spicy sauce that brings all the different elements together harmoniously. A must order is the house’s most popular dish, and rightfully so – Lemongrass Deluxe. Pieces of mock chicken have been spiced up by a heady amount of shaved lemongrass and a dry spicy sauce, ringed by crispy bright green broccoli florets that make the perfect mild foil to the herbacious spicy “chicken” bits. The platter comes with a generous amount of the protein, and this dish always delivers. I have spent days dreaming before coming to the West to savor this vegan delight. Word of warning: it is located in the seedy Tenderloin neighborhood but walking distance from downtown, hence the importance of having a dining companion with you for the walk.
With a large population of Japanese descent, it would be amiss to not savor authentic Japanese cuisine in Japantown, located in the Fillmore neighborhood. That is where I headed to for lunch one day to savor some Japanese Ramen noodles in Suzu Japanese Noodle House recommended by my college buddy. Agedashi was the first order, consisting of tofu chunks that have been fried in a light batter, sitting on a pool of dashi sauce and topped with a piece of eggplant tempura, grated daikon and fresh ginger, and slivers of bonito flakes and dried seaweed. This was a bowl of clean pure flavors that just left a serene contentment within. For the main course, I ordered Spicy Pork and Egg in Spicy Broth Ramen. The bowl came with a mound of al dente egg Ramen noodles topped by a single sliver of roast pork (meat as a garnish, not main course), half a boiled egg, pieces of bamboo shoot pickle, raw spinach leaves, and topped by a mound of white leek strips. The soup was a fairly rich meat stock spiced up by some slightly smoky chili paste. The bamboo spoon to help slurp the soup added a level of authenticity in addition to the small diner that whisked me away to a cramped eatery in the Far East. Be prepared to be patient for a table in this small establishment, but it is worth the wait.
One of my favorite parts of the city is North Beach where many Italian eateries can be found. Caffe Greco is a spacious deli that serves Paninis, and my order made with Prosciutto ham, Mozzarella cheese, and Red Pepper was the perfect afternoon bite with the salty meat, mild and slightly creamy cheese, and the pickled red pepper slivers that added the acid touch and herbal oregano flavors to the airy pieces of pressed Foccacia bread that held the fillings together. My companion’s sandwich made with turkey and large ribbons of zucchini was equally successful, albeit milder in flavor. The accompanying side salad was well-made with the right amount of balsamic vinaigrette coating the healthy mix of a variety of lettuces, making the lunch complete. To chase the bites down, we ordered the house special, Grecco Sunrise. A tall glass of Orangina is spiked with a shot of cherry syrup which turned it orangey red at the lower half, hence its name. It was the perfect sip with our sandwiches in this part of town that evokes the Mediterranean.
For dinner, my college mate invited me for some raw seafood at Sushi Time in the Castro area. Located in a small mall, this cramped space has only a few tables along with the sushi bar, and when we got there, a line was waiting for a table. An opener of a Seaweed Salad and a Cooked Spinach Salad were simple but tasty appetizers. The Avocado Tuna Tartar was delectable with pieces of spicy tune paired with creamy avocado punctuated by pieces of fresh asparagus. The pieces of sushi tasted clean and fresh, as good as most good sushi joints, and there was a good variety for the diner. What stood out for us was a serving of Butterfish sashimi which exuded clean yet a rich unctuous texture and flavor. The set menus are reasonable and priced competitively. Like the ramen eatery, it is worth the wait and the cramp space has that Japanese urban feel.
I was the honored guest of a brunch hosted by a Facebook social group that I am a member of, and we met at Catch in the Castro neighborhood. This spacious space serves American fare with a heavy emphasis on seafood. What caught my attention was the Salmon BLT which came with an option of a simple salad, Ceaser salad, or french fries – where else can you find a seafood BLT but in Cali! My sandwich came with perfect sautéed salmon fillets with a crispy exterior but moist inside, topped by crispy bacon and spicy arugula leaves, moistened by a citrus aioli, enclosed by pieces of crispy french baguette. I really enjoyed this sandwich with the well cooked and well matched ingredients. The side Caesar salad was creamy with the rich tangy dressing and shards of Parmesan cheese. Everyone in the group seemed to enjoy their pasta or seafood dishes. If only I could have tasted someone’s seafood soup that looked very temptingly rich and brimming with pieces of the sea.
For my last meal before heading to the airport, we walked up to Cole Valley to La Boulange (not Le Boulanger). This is a local chain that has branches in many parts of town, serving up French pastries, meals, and drinks. My mini sandwich of Smoked Salmon was excellent with the quality fish paired with a slathering of cream cheese and bits of red onion and green chives sandwiched by the well-made roll. An order of Almond Croissant hit the right spot with the short flakiness of its dough (not stretchy elastic) sweetened by the rich almond paste filling and accentuated by a plethora of toasted almond slivers on top – it is one of the best almond croissants I have tasted in a long time. My friend’s French Toast was decadent, consisting of a round sponge cake dipped in an eggy custard (real eggs) and cooked gently to produce a light ethereal version of this breakfast staple, washed down by a decent “bol” of roasted Cafe au Lait. For my flight home, I took out a Walnut Baguette with Prosciutto and Figs, which was an interesting tasty combination. A dessert of Lemon Custard Turnover was the perfect flaky pastry with the rich sweet lemony filling that made me wish I had another order – it definitely sweetened the long-haul home. Now, I see why reviewers give this chain an overwhelming thumbs-up, and deserving so.
Ah, San Francisco – The city of Beauty and Great Eats! Here is my photo essay of the city: San Francisco