…or, Why I Have Gained 35 Pounds Since Returning to The City. Part 1.
Everyone has their food touchstones from growing up wherever they grew up. It might be something as simple as Hostess Sno-Balls that mom put in their lunch or a chocolatey Yoo-Hoo that they spent allowance on at the corner store. A friend from New York waxes eloquent about bagels, and makes the argument that “no where on earth can you find a bagel the likes of a New York City bagel.” Texans brag about their barbecue. You should hear the arguments over their German-influenced sausage. I mean, Elgin vs. Lockhart? It’s a war, y’all! It seems everyone gets downright defensive over their hometown pizza. And growing up in San Francisco, there are foods that bring back memories (and add the pounds, when I don’t check myself, which, if you know me, I most don’t.). Here are a few of the iconic foods that beckoned me home, to savor the flavor, and to pack on the LBS.
Focaccia from Liguria Bakery
1700 Stockton St. at Filbert, North Beach
1700 Stockton St. at Filbert, North Beach
If you’ve ever seen a long line of people standing outside this little bakery at holiday time, know that they’re waiting for the best focaccia ever made. Liguria Bakery is one of the oldest businesses in North Beach. The Soracco Family has been making basically one item for generations (yes, the ladies that help you- Mary and Josephine- are part of the family.) They have several versions- plain, garlic, rosemary, raisin, all of them delicious. But the best? Go in, ask them to cut up a pizza. They’ll put the oily, tomato-y, onion-y, caramelized-edged slices of heaven on a sheet of waxed paper, and into a paper bag for you. I defy you to get home without having a piece or two.
The sign on the window says that Tadich Grill is the “The Original Cold Day Restaurant”. Not exactly sure what that means, but despite the weather, any day is a good day to eat at this San Francisco classic if you’re in search of tasty seafood selections. My favorite is a not-as-well-known tiny little flatfish called a sand dab. Silly name, delectable dish. Mildly flavored, accented with simple seasonings (salt, pepper, dust of flour) sautéed and served up fresh. You can have your tilapia and ahi. Sand dabs at Tadich? Perfection! even on a hot day.
Cheeseburger on French from Original Joe’s
601 Union Street at Stockton, North Beach
We constantly get bombarded with “Best Burger” lists. But the one constant omission is my favorite- a perfectly char-broiled ground chuck burger laced with diced onions, topped with swiss cheese or provolone, on a Sourdough roll grilled in garlic butter. Let me quote George “Mr. Sulu” Takai- “Oh my!” You don’t need extras or condiments, it’s just that good! Whether were at Original Joe’s- North Beach or San Jose, Marin Joe’s, the old Joe’s of Westlake or even Val’s in Daly City- a Joe’s cheeseburger makes the top of my “Best Burger” list everytime!
Italian Dry Salami from Molinari
373 Columbus Avenue at Vallejo, North Beach
Fun Fact: Most people outside of San Francisco and the Bay Area have little idea about the delicious cured meat known as Italian Dry Salami. Try ordering a salami sandwich elsewhere and you’ll get Genoa-style (larger grind and fattier), Cotto (softer, less cured), Kosher (very Baloney-esque in my opinion), even “salami” that is more like Summer Sausage (think Hillshire Farms). OUR Italian Dry Salami is best represented by Molinari. Custom spiced pork, jammed into natural casings, is then dry cured for around 4 weeks. A white mold forms on the casing during this process. (Each salami gets hairier than Tom Selleck’s chest! You don’t want to see them during this phase.) I know that sounds nasty, but that mold what makes our salami the tastiest! Spicy, salty, amazing. We have sent Molinari salami to friends around the country, and they beg for more. Uniquely delicious.
Joe’s Special from Marin Joe’s
1585 Casa Buena Dr, Corte Madera
A simple dish that is simply mouthwateringly tasty, legend (arguably) has it that the Joe’s Special was invented at the long-gone New’s Joe’s on Columbus when hungry Prohibition-era Jazzmen wanted a filling dish after jamming at Barbary Coast nightclubs. Ground chuck, onion, spinach and eggs in a taste-tempting scramble of delight! Whether late-night or for breakfast, a Joe’s Special works any time of day. Marin Joe’s, on the frontage road next to the 101 in Corte Madera, has been serving a perfect version of this dish since the 50’s. A Joe’s Special gives the word “special” a savory meaning.
I know this one is out of The City, but it’s definitely worth the drive down Highway 1 to Pacifica for the best Dungeness crab sandwich served anywhere. Period. Sliced, butter-grilled sourdough (again!) piled with a heaping helping of lump Dungeness crab meat, just moistened with mayo. The sandwich is not cheap, but it’s absolutely worth the price. Have you ever ordered a crab sandwich and been disappointed with how little crab is in it? I assure you, Nick’s does not skimp. You will not be disappointed.
Sourdough Bread from Boudin Bakery
399 10th Avenue at Geary, Inner Richmond
Sourdough French bread is as San Francisco as the Golden Gate Bridge, Cable Cars and Liberal politics. French bakers brought their techniques here during the Gold Rush and the best versions of these deliciosly sour loaves have been made here ever since. Remember Parisian? Larrabaru? Toscana? Venetian? All gone. Thankfully, the earliest Sourdough bakery is still alive and thrives. Boudin started in the original settlement and moved to it’s current location in the Richmond after the 1906 Quake and Fire, and the “mother dough” starter went with them. No respectable restaurant in The City does not start your meal off without a basket of fresh, delicious Sourdough. The best thing to ever come out of France (Catherine Deneuve excepted.) Viva le pain de Boudin!
Carnitas Super Burrito from Gordo’s Taqueria
2252 Clement Street at 24th Avenue, Outer Richmond (and other locations)
There is no style of burrito better than the Over-Stuffed Tortilla Bomb of Goodness invented in our own Mission District. A multi-pound meal in itself, a Super Burrito is a large tortilla stuffed with meat, cheese, salsa, rice, beans, and more. Ay Dios mio! People spend hours arguing the merits of Mission burritos on a daily basis. La Taqueria (delicious) vs. El Farolito (equally as delicious). La Cumbre (delicious) at 16th and Valencia claims to have invented it in 1969. An odd claim, since I remember my first Super Burrito at El Faro at 20th and Folsom before then. But who gives a s**t? I’m just glad it was invented. And (here comes my shocking choice) the best version of a Carnitas Super Burrito is not found in the Mission. Head West to the Richmond and make a stop on Clement to get the primo SB at Gordo. Their carnitas is the most delectable. Their pico de gallo and hot green salsa- untouchable. Sure, you can scour the Mission and find delicious SB everywhere. Or venture out West and get the mostest deliciousest of all! [and 3, 2, 1…commence cursing me]
Hangtown Fry from John’s Grill
63 Ellis Street at Powell, Downtown/Union Square
Do you know about the Hangtown Fry? This is a dish with a bit of mythic history behind it, one story claiming that it was created during the Gold Rush at a hotel restaurant in Placerville (a.k.a Hangtown) when a prospector hit the Mother Lode and, big shotting it, demanded the most expensive dish that the kitchen could make. So the chef combined eggs (a prized perishable), bacon (from the East Coast) and oysters (transported, on ice, from the Bay). Tadich has had an excellent version on it’s menu for over a century and a half. But I like the one served at John’s Grill (made famous in “The Maltese Falcon”). A scrumptious omelette with fried oysters and bacon. Nothing like a classic dish prepared in a classic style at a classic San Francisco institution. If it was good enough for Sam Spade, it’s good enough for me.
Al Pastor Tacos from El Tonayense
Trucks along Harrison Street, Mission District
As far as taco fillings are concerned, I’m not especially picky. Carnitas, Carne Asada, chicken, Baja-style fish, all good in my book. Okay, I’m not a big fan of sesos (brains), tripas (intestines) or buche (fried pork stomach). Hey, I’m not Andrew Zimmern, so Bizarre Foods aren’t always my thing! But my favorite taco filling of all is Al Pastor. Marinated pork, roasted on a spit, then carved so that each morsel has spice and caramelization, is the tastiest of the tasty! The best version I ever had is at a small taco shack in Tijuana, just over the border, near the cab stands. Small, quickly fried corn tortillas filled with Al Pastor and a great guacamole. Simple, and crazy good! And the next best thing when I’m not in Mexico are the Al Pastor tacos on the El Tonayense trucks that can be found on Harrison Street in The Mission. There’s one near Best Buy, more scattered towards Bernal Heights. Get 2, or 3, or more. So very good!
Lazy Man’s Cioppino from Scoma’s
Al Scoma Way, off Jefferson Street, Fisherman’s Wharf
Whenever we went to Fisherman’s Wharf, my parents would walk us down the pier at Jefferson and Taylor, past the fishing boats, and take us to dinner at “the local’s favorite”, Scoma’s. The Scoma Family has been hosting San Franciscans and visitors to The City since the 60’s. And with the extensive list of seafood dishes on their menu, another San Francisco classic stands out: Cioppino. Created by the Italian fishermen from North Beach, Cioppino is a spicy, tomato and wine based fish stew, filled with shrimp, clams, Dungeness crab legs, scallops, and cod. And for messy bastahds like me, Scoma’s is a “lazy man’s” version, everything is pre-cracked or shelled. A big bowl of cioppino, a glass of vino and some Sourdough- my mouth is watering as I type.
Meat Eaters, rejoice! This beautiful, club atmosphered temple of beef has been dispensing delicious cuts of hand-carved prime rib roast since 1949. They have a (not extensive) menu (it has a few other offerings), but the reason to come here is on the name above the door. Prime rib. The carver wheels a large silver-domed cart to your table (what I call “The Rolling Casket of Beef), opens the top, unveiling roast beefs and asking what cut you prefer. Here is the most amazing aspect of a prime rib dinner at HoPR: they will serve you seconds if you ask them! What?! It’s true. If you want another cut of beef once you’ve finished your first serving, they’ll gladly carve it for you. Prime rib done in prime fashion. If you haven’t been there (or you’re leaning towards a Vegan diet) don’t miss it!
To be continued…another Baker’s Dozen next week.