Friday, February 24, 2012

San Francisco: The Tastes

When I was planning my trip to San Francisco, what immediately came to mind was my perception of the SF food scene as being more culturally diverse than Boston.  While I certainly have a few hole-in-the-wall gems in Boston that I deeply treasure, there really are not that many options for obscure regional cuisines.  Therefore, the list of restaurants I compiled reflected my desire to explore some more unusual culinary traditions that I are few and far between in Boston.  The Chowhound boards and other internet food blogs/reviews were immensely helpful.

Dinner at Poc Chuc: taco with chimole de pavo and cochinita pibil
Immediately after arriving at the airport, my friends picked me up, and we went straightaway to get dinner.  I had picked this Yucatan/Mayan-style Mexican restaurant in the Mission as it was on the way from the airport to the bar to which we were planning to go.  While I did not get a chance to sample the more popular taquerias in the Mission, I was quite pleased with this dinner.  We started with an appetizer order of platanos fritos, which were wonderfully sweet and served with crema alongside.  As I had not eaten since lunch in Boston at this point, my eyes were bigger than my stomach, and I ordered both a taco with chimole de pavo and the cochinita pibil entrée.  The chimole de pavo was a shredded turkey stewed in some kind of black sauce, the exact composition of which I cannot say, but it was an absolutely unique flavor.  I literally tried to mop up the sauce that spilled onto the plate with whatever scraps of tortilla I could find.  The other dish I ordered, the cochinita pibil, was a stewed pulled pork served in a brick colored sauce and with accompaniments of tortillas, rice, pickled onions, and limes.  As I had scarcely a clue as to how to eat it, I tried making tacos at first, but that quickly grew to be a messy affair.  I then decided to eat it in typical Asian fashion by spooning the pork over the rice, which yielded a more satisfactory experience.  Again, the flavors were immense and complex, and I had a difficult time picking out precise descriptors.  None of the dishes were spicy, but they were all very nicely spiced.  It was an excellent beginning to my sojourn.

Lunch at Wooly Pig: Red coconut curry pork bánh mì
The next day, we met some friends for lunch at a small sandwich shop around the corner from UCSF's Parnassus campus.  Described to me as an Asian-inspired sandwich shop, my thoughts instantly turned to bánh mì.  My initial instincts proved to be largely correct, as bánh mì was certainly on the menu.  However, their special that day was a red coconut curry pork bánh mì, in addition to their regular roasted pork offering.  Although the bread was not the baguette that I associate with bánh mì, the curried pork and other accoutrements worked very well together.  The tartness of the pickled carrots and daikon cut the richness of the pork; the whole composition was a bit of the sweet side, but I did not mind.  Also, I had a bowl of roasted shiitake soup with truffle oil, which was full of earthy and umami goodness, though also a bit heavy on the salt.

After an afternoon in Golden Gate Park and the de Young Museum, we went to dinner at The Pot's, a hot pot restaurant in the Inner Sunset. While an all-you-can-eat option was available, we opted for à la carte, since two of our group were not big eaters.  The variety was certainly far greater than what is available in any of the hot pot restaurants I have been to in Boston.  We had a split pot with half ma la broth and half black chicken and herbs; the broths were flavorful and better than most.  Our choices were not too unusual and included lamb, beef sirloin, beef tongue, shrimp, pork loin, frozen tofu, fresh tofu, enoki and oyster mushrooms, watercress, cabbage, fish balls, rice vermicelli, and more.

Lunch at Barndiva in Healdsburg: Croque madame
On Saturday, we drove up to Healdsburg for a taste of wine country.  After first stopping in Sausalito for a quick peak at some house boats and an iced coffee at a cafe called Taste of Rome.  Despite the rather uninspiring name, the place was full of locals and made a rather good cup of coffee.  Once in Healdsburg, we headed to Barndiva for lunch, having read a fairly good SF Chronicle review of the place.  While it completely baffled me that the hostess asked us to wait at the bar for a good 15 minutes despite the restaurant being half empty, the food ended up being decently good.  My croque madame came as a set of three mini sandwiches, each topped with a fried quail egg.  Slathered in butter with good quality ham, I felt like it did not have enough Mornay sauce.  This complaint is certainly not restricted to this particular experience, as I feel like most croque madames I have had of late have the same problem.  At least this time, the Mornay was not a congealed, lumpy mess, which was my latest croque experience in Boston.  The "chips" were closer to Chick-fil-A waffle fries in texture, as they lacked crunch.  My friends' salads, as well as the smattering of endive, beets and other produce on my plate were all very fresh.

Dinner at Angkor Borei
On our way to dinner back in the city, we got mixed up with all the celebratory Niners fans after their last minute win over the Saints in this year's playoff.  We finally made it to the restaurant, Angkor Borei and were lucky enough to be seated almost immediately.  The five of us decided to eat family-style and ask for the owner to order for us.  As the ordering happened while I was away from the table, I do not know what exactly was ordered.  There were a couple stir-fried dishes: one with chicken and the other with beef. The chicken dish was nicely seasoned, but in both cases, the meat was a touch overcooked. We also had a shrimp curry served in a clay pot and a pan-fried fish in a sauce akin to sweet and sour with a hint of spice.  I was hoping to like Cambodian food a little more, but it did not stand out very much from Vietnamese or Thai cuisine as much as I had hoped.

For lunch the next day, we went to Burma Superstar on the recommendation of a friend, and it ended up being a delightful exercise in atypical Southeast Asian fare that the previous night had been unable to deliver. We started with the vegetarian samusa soup, which contained an amazing diversity of ingredients. The soup was followed by the rainbow salad, superstar shrimp, bun tay kauswer noodles, and pork curry with potatoes and pickled mangos. We had ordered the pumpkin pork stew, but that order got switched for the curry. I certainly didn't complain though as the curry we did get was delicious as well. What stood out to me was that the soup, salad, and noodles all were notable for the variety of flavors and textures involved: crunchy, crispy, soft, chewy, they were all present. The playful textural interplay was matched by the surprising gustatory influence of each component. Of all the dishes, the shrimp seemed to be the most quotidian, tasting good, but very much like what I've had at many Chinese restaurants in the past. All of this was accompanied by rich coconut rice, which has become a hallmark of Burmese cuisine to me.

Burma Superstar: Rainbow Salad and SuperStar Shrimp

Burma Superstar: Pork Curry and Bun Tay Kauswer
After such a lovely lunch, it was unfortunate that the day's last meal was to be the most unremarkable Chinese-American takeout. I have no recollection of what we ate or from where it was ordered. You may be assured that me sitting at a dive bar and eating takeout was for the sake of good company and friendship.

Yes, we ate with plastic sword drink picks
As a friend wanted to do a few touristy things in town, we headed to Fisherman's Wharf the next day. In anticipation, I had picked out lunch at an Argentinean food truck called Tanguito, but sadly it was closed as the owner was on vacation. Instead, we decided to pick up lunch at a fish and chips truck next door. Admittedly, the fish was pretty good, and the fried twinkie at the end was fun, and this fare was certainly better than the tourist trap options in the vicinity, but I have to say that I remained disappointed given the frequency with which I already get fish and chips in Boston.
Fish and chips at the Codmother, Fisherman's Wharf
On the way to the airport to drop off a friend, we decided to take advantage of being in the area and swing by Ramen Dojo in San Mateo. Despite the substantial line and wait, I was quite pleased with the outcome: one of the best bowls of ramen I have had to date. Sadly, the wait had meant that they had run out of the tonkatsu broth by the time we were seated, but the shoyu was still decent. This ramen-ya specializes in sutamina, or spicy, broths, and the spice certainly gave the whole bowl a big kick. I also added extra toppings: napa cabbage, mushrooms, quail eggs, and extra noodles. The result was nothing less than absolutely filling. The charsiu was a rich piece of tender and flavorful pork, and the noodles had great pliability and resistance. In hindsight, I should have added extra fried garlic, as these dark gold nuggets were wonderful. My only complaint is that the quail eggs were overcooked. As I left, I rued not having such a ramen-ya in the Boston area.
Ramen Dojo, San Mateo
On my last day in the Bay before my red-eye home, I had to visit a former lab colleague who had moved to Berkeley for her post-doc, so we made plans to meet for lunch. She picked me up from BART station and drove me to Café Fanny for a light lunch. I got the croque monsieur, which came with a sprinkling of greens and pickled carrot slices. We sat by the small pergola despite it being a relatively cool day. For being Alice Waters in name, though, I was not terribly impressed. The sandwich was good, to be sure, but it does not stand out in my mind in any way. It was great to catch up with a friend though! I did pick up a nice baguette at Acme Bakery next door too.
Croque Monsieur at Café Fanny, Berkeley
I had a bit of downtime in the afternoon, so I stopped by the Ferry Building marketplace on my way back. Having great memories of the place from when I visited as a kid with my mom, the return trip did not disappoint. It felt smaller than I remembered it, but the nibbles were just as good. First off, I picked up a roll of nduja for later and a cone of charcuterie from Boccalone salumeria. I probably grinned with whimsy as I set off perusing the other shops. I loved browsing the mushrooms at Far West Fungi and rued the fact that I couldn't buy any or cook some up before I left. The Cowgirl Creamery was a necessary stop where I got a wheel of Red Hawk and a wedge of Midnight Moon. Next time I'm out there, I would love to go to the actual creamery.
Charcuterie "cone" from Boccalone

Cheeses at Cowgirl Creamery
My last meal in the Bay was a truly informal and intimate affair with old college friends. Takeout tacos picked up en route to my friend's apartment in Parnassus and the baguette, nduja, and Red Hawk from my afternoon jaunt were on the menu as we gathered in her small kitchen. Though some great bites were had, it was a momentary reminder that in the end, the companionship of good friends is the key to a pleasurable sojourn.
Breakfast in O'Hare: Pain au Chocolate from Acme

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