San Francisco: the golden gate to foodie heaven
Speak to anyone who has been to San Francisco and you will almost certainly find it on their shortlist of favourite cities in the world. But there’s more to the San Francisco’s charm than its timeless cable cars, dramatic hills and panoramic views across the bay area. The food scene here is one of the most diverse, thriving and inspiring I’ve come across over my travels of late. From cutting edge Modern Californian cuisine to ethnic Latin American fare… mouthwatering Chinese food to the most epic of brunches – there’s restaurants and cafes pouring out of the sidewalks in every neighbourhood. For beer enthusiasts and oenophiles, there’s craft beers galore and a glut of world class wines from neighbouring Napa, Sonoma & Russian River. Add to that some of the friendliest and enthusiastic locals on the planet and it’s no wonder why everybody leaves their heart in this most unique of cities by the bay.
In no particular order, here’s a round up of SF’s best eats from our recent trip!
For those of you after innovative Californian fusion cuisine, few chefs rock it better than husband-and-wife team Evan and Sarah Rich of the eponymous Rich Table. Unlike several of the other Modern Californian restaurants we tried where the dishes were so often hit-and-miss, every dish at Rich Table from start to finish was a breath of fresh air and completely on the money.
Expect unusual flavour combinations and playful dish concepts throughout. Crispy ‘Porcini Donuts’, rustically shaped to resemble the mushrooms themselves were a real treat – the deep, earthy flavour of the donuts paired off with the raclette cheese dipping sauce beautifully. Thick slices of fresh, sashimi-grade halibut served with juicy plums and a subtle truffle vinaigrette were delectable, as was their salmon collar dish with watermelon, quinoa and chamomile dressing. Make sure to book several weeks ahead though – it gets very busy for dinner.
We were looking to get a big breakfast in before our day trip to Napa and several locals we spoke to, including our own Air BnB host, pointed us resoundingly in the direction of Plow, a breakfast institution in Potrero Hill. They do the most amazing of Buttermilk biscuits here. Light, buttery and slightly crumbly, enjoy it simply with their house honey butter or add on the full works as we did with home-made sausage, artisan Toma cheese & scallions.
The star of the show however was ‘The Plow‘ – their signature breakfast platter which consisted of the fluffiest of lemon ricotta pancakes, perfectly poached eggs, home-made sausages and crispy roast potatoes. Freshly squeezed juices, bottomless filter coffee and immaculate service make this a breakfast spot not to be missed.
If you’re in San Francisco on a Monday evening and looking to fine dine without breaking the bank, Jardiniere’s $55 3-course set menu with matching wines is real steal. With Iron Chef and James Beard Award winning Traci de Jardin at the helm here, expect Michelin star quality French-influenced food using the best of Californian produce. The theme of every Monday’s set menu is decided through an internal brainstorming competition run amongst their staff. The winner, who happen to sit in the table beside us, was treated to the night off to savour the dishes which she helped design in concept. Restaurants looking to get the creative juices flowing amongst their staff should certainly take a page out from what the Jardiniere team are doing here! It’s a brilliant idea if you ask me.
The theme that Monday was ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and the menu featured a number of key motifs in the novel from Mushrooms to Rabbit to Tea Cakes. The Rabbit Blanquette main course was particularly worth a mention. Blanquette, so often bland, heavy and uninteresting was given a fresh, summery make over. Rabbit loin was cooked to perfection whilst the sweet carrot jus, slightly crunchy quinoa and endive all came together to create a balanced and accomplished dish on the whole. And what amazing paired wines we were treated to as well. Bearing in mind a good glass of wine can set you back by $10-$15 alone, their Monday night menu has got to be one of the best value deals in town.
Home to the largest Chinese community outside of Asia, San Francisco’s Chinatown is the US’ largest and most historic. Hence, it’s safe to say that there’s some proper Chinese food to be had if you know where to go. But forget Dim Sum, noodles or the usual dishes with rice. If you have one meal in Chinatown, make sure it’s at R&G Lounge for their signature salt & pepper Dungeness crab.
Frankly, I’m not usually the biggest fan of crab. My pet hate are those smaller varieties where the sheer effort to get a smidgen of crabmeat out often leaves me more hungry than satiated. R&G’s Dungeness crab however is my kind of crab. Popularised by Bourdain on his No Reservations series and much raved about by friends alike, its elephant-sized legs and claws pack more meat in them than any other crab variety I’ve eaten across Asia & Europe. The relatively soft shell means you can chomp away at the batter to your heart’s content without the risk of fracturing any of your teeth. And what lies beneath the shell is some of the sweetest and chunkiest crab meat money can buy. What’s more, for a dish which is essentially deep-fried central, the salt & pepper batter here is surprisingly light and non-greasy.
At $45 a crab however, it’s not the cheapest of dishes by any means. If it’s any consolation though, there’s easily enough meat on these jumbo crab legs to feed 3 to 4 people. After devouring the whole crab amongst the 2 of us, we seriously struggled to finish off the other dishes we ordered!
5. The Mission District
No foodie trip to San Francisco would be complete without a food crawl round the Mission District. With a big Latino community in and around Mission, there are no shortage of tacquerias, pupuserias and street vendors dishing out some of the most authentic food you will find outside of Latin America. Many of the city’s trendiest restaurants, cafes and eateries are also located here, serving up everything from Modern Californian food to award-winning pastries, chocolate and ice-cream. With stunning street art and independent shops at every turn, you could easily spend several days exploring the many delights around the neighbourhood. Luckily for us, our Air BnB accommodation was based smack in the middle of Mission. Armed with insider tips from our local hosts, we took our time combing through the incredibly diverse food and vibrant cultural scene. However, If you are on a 1 day Mission, here’s my pick of the highlights that are not to be missed.
Start your crawl off at the award-winning Tartine Bakery over pastries and coffee (if you are a fan of artisan sourdough, come back again at 430pm when they come fresh out of the oven… you may have to brave queues that snake round the corner though!). Next, pop into every San Franciscan’s favourite independent grocer Bi-rite to browse for local delicacies and fresh produce. Bi-rite also run a dedicated creamery located opposite the grocer, selling ice-creams, popsicles and baked goods. While you are in the area, make sure you check out Mission Dolores Park as well as the gorgeous mural at the nearby Women’s Building.
For lunch, head over to Mission Street Chinese, the infamous pop-up serving Chinese food with a twist. Tea-smoked eel rolls, Kung Pao Pastrami and Thrice Cooked Szechuan Bacon are just some of the modern American-Chinese concoctions being served up here. Burn off the calories from lunch by exploring the stunning street art along Balmy Alley in South Mission. Alternatively there’s the myriad of independent shops on Valencia Street to keep you busy, selling everything from vintage clothing to pirate supplies. Chocoholics must pay a visit to Dandelion where there’s chocolate tours, truffles and amazing hot chocolate on offer.
For dinner, head over to Pancho Villa on 16th street for some of the best tacos, burritos and tamales outside of Mexico, all freshly cooked to order. Help yourself to their splendid salsa bar, which features upwards of 30 different salsas, sauces and pickles. For those who fancy a night cap, Monk’s Kettle just a few doors down from Pancho Villa have hundreds of craft beers on tap and by the bottle from California, Europe and beyond.
All this eating and we’ve still barely scratched the surface of this amazing city. We will be back again soon for more San Francisco!