I finally made it.
To San Francisco that is.
I had always wanted to check out the City by the Bay. And after years of listening to countless friends, unsightly strangers, misguided acquaintances, and just about any random person with a pulse tell me San Francisco is the culinary gem of the West Coast, and arguably, the entire country, I was finally going to find out for myself.
My knowledge of the San Francisco food scene over the years has been minimal at best. It was always my understanding that this Frontier-town, the culinary experience is almost exclusively dedicated to haute cuisine that caters to nouveau sensibilities. And then of course if you're not eating high-end French at Hubert Keller's much celebrated Fleur du Lys, you're probably at Whole Foods, Trader Joes, or even better, at a local Greenmarket buying uber-organic, hand-massaged fruits and vegetables from some anti-corporation, hemp-wearing hippie who hasn't showered (nor seen the need to) in at least a few days. And if you're not doing that, you're sucking down a vacuum cleaner bag-sized burrito in the Mission, celebrating the area's rich Mexican heritage.
I of course realize the hyperbole here is heavy, and given these opposite points of the spectrum, I can't seem to grasp why I maintain any preconceived notion of San Francisco food at all. What's more, the last time I checked shopping at Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and local greenmarkets happens to be a popular pastime in New York City - a way of life these days for most in fact.
So what the hell am I talking about?
Is San Francisco just some impish hotbed for Nancy Pelosi-loving, Prius-driving twenty-something snobs named "Chase" and "Rory" sniffing wine and eating cheese while debating environmental policy? Or is it a city with gastronomic chutzpah - the kind of culinary cojones that make a guy who calls himself the Ubereater, proud?
I can't accept the idea that this sprawling peninsular metropolis of calming sinusoidal hills rising up, in concert, against the choppy waters of the cranky Pacific, plays host to a bi-polar culinary community rife with poisonous snobbery and ultra-liberal intolerance.
It just can't be...and thankfully it isn't.
That said, I managed to squeeze in a slew of meals in the swift 48 hours I spent in SF, so here we go.
Mama's on Washington Square (North Beach): Hungry, stiff, and anxious to make the most of our short time in the City, we began our journey at Mama's. Located across from peaceful Washington Square in the Italo-centric North Beach neighborhood, this charming corner spot was hemorrhaging a line of would-be customers by the time we arrived on a balmy Wednesday morning. Known for its magnificent portions and killer homemade pastries, we bit the bullet and waited over 40 minutes to get a table at this bustling glorified diner. The Pancakes (below left) are a busty, skyscraping stack of thick, doughy, airy goodness, topped with a handsome medley of fresh berries. My omelet, (below right) a heaping specimen stuffed with Pancetta, Mushrooms, Tomatoes, fresh basil, and Garlic Jack Cheese, was soft, full of flavor and quite fond of the massive amounts of Tabasco under which it would fall victim. Though a satisfactory start to our trip, I can't help but feel as though Mama's popularity is as much, if not more so, a function of its large portions rather than the stand-alone execution of its food. Our food was good, but we were more impressed with the value than the actual food itself, thus leading me to conclude that Mama's is worth the trip, but not the wait - notwithstanding the pastries, which are undeniably delicious.
In-N-Out Burger (The Marina): After an afternoon in and around Fisherman's Wharf, the better part of which I spent watching the now famous Pier 19 Sea Lions rumble amongst themselves in a blubbery orgical mess, I found myself strangely in need of an IN-N-OUT burger. This famed and still family-owned regional chain may very well be the undisputed king of the West Coast burger world, and at the very least, one of my personal favorites. As always, I went for a Double Double Animal Style, which in IN-N-OUT-speak means a double cheeseburger with pickles, extra special sauce, and grilled onions. What I actually got was a Double Cheeseburger the regular way (with lettuce, tomatoes,onions and pickles), which was still as scrumptious as ever.
Aziza (Richmond District): You'd think after a full breakfast, and some mid-afternoon burgers, we would've filled our eating quota for the day - but that simply wasn't the case. Some aggresive research prior to the trip landed me at Aziza, a romantic, mysteriously-lit Moroccan restaurant in the predominantly residential westerly neighborhood known as the Richmond District. On the recommendation of a good friend, we embarked upon the 5 course Tasting Menu that would end up being one of the more memorable of its kind in quite a while. Starting with Soup and Ending with Dessert, the meal was remarkable from beginning to end, highlighted first by the chef's spreads with Pita (Below left), featuring a piquillo pepper almond paste, a classic Tzatziki, and a perfectly executed hummus. As enjoyable, but undoubtedly more unique was the Basteeya (below right), a classic Moroccan dish consisting of a not-too-dense mixture of ground chicken, almonds, and various North African spices wrapped in Phyllo dough and baked until golden brown and crispy on the outside. Served warmed, dusted with confectioner's sugar, and a bit of cherry compote, this was an amazing compilation of sweet, savory and everything in between. Meghan loved it - which says it all really.
Our entire Aziza experience was impeccable from beginning to end, having afforded us with the opportunity to delve into the vast world of Moroccan food from the vantage point of the highly revered chef-owern Mourad Lahlou, who has not only challeneged Cat Cora on Iron Chef America, but even better, allegedely turned down an offer to have his own show on the Food Network.
My kind of guy if you ask me.
Dottie's True Blue (Tenderloin): After an evening of revitalizing sleep, we were up and out early to beat the crowds at downtown Breakfast legend, Dottie's True Blue. Nestled tightly on the northern fringe of the "Tenderloin", San Fran's seediest of neighborhoods, we were greeted not only by a line that was already 10 deep with eager customers, but also a handful of street dwellers and other dubious characters milling around the entrance to the halfway house next door. Having recently been featured on the painfully pedantic food network show, Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, hosted by who has the be the most annoying person in the world, Guy Fieri, I was weary of what was to come. Needless to say, I would keep an open mind. Inside, Dottie's is a shoe-box - oddly shaped and familiarly cramped. We pounced on an opportunity to sit at the counter and watch the extremely dexterous line cook effortlessly process ticket after order. Our food was up in a jiffy and ridiculously delicious. Aside from the homemade cornbread, joined by a jalapeno jelly that was just insanely full of sweet hot pop, my scramble of chorizo and onions was just begging to be wrapped in the two giant tortillas that were provided. This was easily one of the best breakfast burritos I've ever had, and perhaps the most satisfying given the collection of hot sauces I used to dress it.
Dottie's is a long-standing institution in the Bay Area whose outwardly gritty surroundings and undeniably unrefined charm are perfect complements to food that is down-home, honest, and straight up full of flavor. Many had implored me to get to Dottie's, if nowhere else on my trip - now I know why.
Ours was a fruitful and educational, albeit short, journey through the hills of San Francisco, that allowed me to at the very least, gain an initial whiff of the overall food scene that governs this diverse metro area. Admittedly, I've only managed to nick the surface surrounding a deep and vast culinary world that would take years to navigate, but even so, I left San Francisco with a better idea of what makes this city tick, and its people eat.
It'd be cliche for me to say I left my heart in San Francisco, but let's just say, there is still unfinished business to tend to with regard to the culinary treats of the City by the Bay - and for that reason, I'll most certainly be back.
Friday, August 14, 2009
I finally made it.