24 of the Most Deliciously Iconic Foods in San Francisco…(Part 2)
…or, Why I Have Gained 35 Pounds Since Returning to The City. 12 more excuses for weight gain and food-inspired happiness from the City By the Bay.
Pepperoni Pizza at Tommaso’s
1042 Kearny near Broadway, North Beach
Amidst all of the change and turmoil in The City these days, it’s so refreshing when an older eating establishment survives and thrives. That’s what’s happening at the small Italian restaurant on Kearny Street called Tomasso’s. Opened in the 1930’s as Lupo’s, the Crotti Family has owned the place since 1973 (they bought it from cook/owner Tommy Chin, hence the name Tommaso’s- an Italian version of his name!) They still make pizza the way it was made in the 30’s- in a wood-fired brick oven. This place is so special to my family that my Canadian daughter-in-law chose it for her post wedding banquet. They do pizza perfectly, the crust slightly charred from the oven, toppings are so delicious! My wife adores the fresh spinach and garlic. But my favorite is the pepperoni (I know, not a very creative choice. But at Tommaso’s, the slices of pepperoni slightly curl up during the bake, making each bite that includes these little oily spicy delights at treat. There’s reason that I use the stupid-looking photo of me devouring a Tommaso’s slice as the header photo on the AAHour Facebook page. I love Tommaso’s! Thanks Augie and Carmen!
Dungeness Crab Feed at Italian American Social Club (or Charity Functions all over the Bay Area)
25 Russia Avenue at Mission, Excelsior District
New England has it’s clambakes. Minnesotans have their fish fries. Louisiana has their crawfish boils. But when it’s Dungeness crab season in Northern California, it’s Crab Feed Time! High schools and charitable organizations put out the call to all hungry crab lovers to come and feast on all-you-can-eat cracked crab. Oh sure, they all try to get you full on Sourdough bread and salad and pasta. But any crab feeder worth their claw cracker knows you don’t fill up on the prelims when the main course is on it’s way. One of my favorite crab feeds in my old neighborhood, the Excelsior District, at the venerable Italian-American Social Club. Family and old friends plop down at communal tables as the bring out bowl after bowl of marinated cracked crab. Feast ’til you can’t look at another crab leg. IASC you there! (bad pun) Then get primed for the next feed at the church in the next neighborhood.
Sandwiches with Garlic Sauce and Hot Pepper Sauce on a Dutch Crunch Roll from Little Lucca
724 El Camino Real, South San Francisco
Yes, we’ve left San Francisco proper again. But, hey, I need to branch out to the other 6 Bay Area counties occasionally (where I have some favorite bars and restaurants). And a ride down El Camino Real to South City is well worth it when you’re heading for the “Little Sandwich Shack That Could” (my new Children’s book BTW)- I’m talking about Little Lucca. How can you find this tiny deli? Look for the lines that run out the door to the sidewalk. Everyone is waiting to place an order for the best sandwich around. Step aside, Ike’s. Little Lucca has been feeding folk since 1980. every kind of lunchmeat and cheese, ready to be piled on Sourdough hard or soft rolls, or a slightly-sweet, local creation called a Dutch Crunch roll. And the topper? Have them slather on some of their delectable garlic sauce and hot pepper sauce. Huge sandwiches, they don’t skimp on the fillings! You’ll have enough for two lunches (well, I personally don’t usually have leftovers, but you will.) Endure the wait, it’s worth it!
Oysters on the Half Shell at Le Central
453 Bush Street near Grant Avenue, Downtown/Financial District
We all know about San Francisco’s old Italian neighborhood, North Beach. And of course, the historic Chinese neighborhood, Chinatown. And contrary to newbie thinking, The Mission was actually an Irish-German ‘hood, which evolved into our Mexican/Central American community. (Seriously, do some research about your new digs. Jeez.) Anyways, did you know there was actually a French quarter in The City? There sure was, in the area surrounding Notre Dame des Victores Catholic Church, on Bush and Pine Streets, above Kearny, (some are actually calling little Belden Lane the “French Quarter” these days). And that’s where you’ll find my favorite bistro, Le Central. They serve French classics, including a duck confit, sausage, white bean cassoulet that was started when they opened. They proudly update their sign that claims the cassoulet has been cooking for over 14 thousand days. One of my favorite thing at Le Central is the raw oyster plate at Happy Hour. Fresh oysters on the half shell for a low price. And the pomme frites! Mon dieu! Dip them in the garlic aioli mayonnaise. Which is how the French eat fries (as we all learned in “Pulp Fiction”. No Le Big Mac here, though.)
1100 Valencia Street at 22nd, Mission District
Since I was a kid growing up in The Mission, and we lived at 20th and Lexington, I remember Mom taking us to the Italian Delicatessen with the red, green and white striped awning at 22nd and Valencia to get fresh ravioli. Talk about a place that has withstood the tests of time, Lucca still makes fresh ravs, and tortellini and other pastas. You can watch the daily process through the window on the Valencia sidewalk. Sold in flat boxes, the traditional meat filling brings back memories of bowls of ravioli topped with my Mother’s excellent Bolognese sauce. (Lucca makes sauce as well, and 4 other types of ravioli- cheese, spinach, pumpkin, and a special holiday rav with meat, spinach and turkey). I love the staff there, some of which have been at Lucca for decades. They’re all cool, funny and helpful! Old school, in the best of ways.
Herman’s Delicatessen, on Geary between 5th and 6th Avenues, was the Pride of the Richmond. The owner, Herman Voss, made a German-style potato salad that is revered to this day. Potatoes cut thin, not diced, with a creamy, sweet but not too sweet mayo/white vinegar base, shreds of carrot and that’s about it. Simple, but unique, the Herman’s potato salad (or San Francisco-style, as it is know today) was deemed the world’s best. No celery, no mustard, no pickle relish, no onion. Nothing else, but deliciousness. A company called Luciers made it for a while, as well as Bob Ostrow (“the maestro, the delicatessen man!” as my wife likes to sing their jingle). You can find a pretty tasty knock-off of it at Lucky Stores.
Meatball Sandwich on Focaccia at Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe
566 Columbus Avenue at Union Street, North Beach
How do you improve on the stupendous delectable focaccia from Liguria Bakery? Well, you don’t. BUT you can use that impeccable pizza bread to make an outstanding sandwich, and that’s what the folks at Marios’ Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe have done! Back in the day, Mario’s was the neighborhood cigar stand, where little old Italian retirees would sit outside and smoke their Toscanello “guinea stinkers” cigars in the afternoon. The original owner’s son has made the old tobacco shop into a cafe, and they make the most delicious oven-baked sandwich, with slices of Liguria pizza focaccia as the bread, stuffed with meatballs, Swiss Cheese and grilled onions. Grab a cold Peroni and mangiare! I will take the old Mounds candy bar motto and attribute it to Mario’s sandwich: Indescribably delicious.
Shrimp Chow Mein and Diana’s Meat Pie at Henry’s Hunan
924 Sansome between Broadway and Vallejo, Lower Telegraph Hill
San Francisco is at no shortage when it comes to choices for Chinese cuisine. From authentic Hong Kong-style fare to Americanized Cantonese-inspired “sweet and sour” offerings, we have it all at within our grasp. Henry Chung and his family have been serving Hunan style dishes for over 40 years. When I was working at CBS Radio on Battery, I would often stop at Henry’s Hunan on Sansom to grab some dinner for the family. Henry’s shrimp chow mein, with soft noodles, large shrimp and fresh vegetables, is as good as it gets. And his wife, Diana, has created one of the oddest, and most delicious, mashups ever- a Asian-influenced meat pie, a flaky deep-fried flour cake filled with savory ground beef. So weird, and so good!
Tortellini Carbonara at Sodini’s Green Valley
510 Green Street near Grant Avenue, North Beach
When we were kids growing up in San Francisco, my parents would occasionally take the family to dinner in North Beach. We went to family style Italian dinner houses like The Montclair, 622 Green, Capp’s Corner, Gold Spike and Sam Remo. As well as Caesar’s nearer to the Wharf. Most are gone, but one remains, thanks to the efforts of the Sodini Brothers, Peter and Mark: Green Valley Restaurant on Green near Grant. This was always a favorite, a place where you sat at communal tables and feasted on plates of hearty, home-cooked Italian classics. My dad likes to say “The service was so good that, sometimes, they pre-buttered your bread.” (No waste of table bread at the old GV!) No pre-buttering these days, Green Valley is loud and fantastic, with local angels like Linda and Rachel waiting your tables. Mark Sodini is the perfect host. And the food is delicious and plentiful. And the Tortellini Carbonara, with it’s rich, mushroom and pancetta cream sauce, is beyond compare. You’ll love Sodini’s, even if you do have to butter your own bread.
Cappuccino at Caffe Trieste (with a Macaroon)
601 Vallejo Street at Grant Avenue, North Beach
It would be hard to argue that Caffe Trieste is the most representative, iconic establishment in North Beach. (OK, maybe Vesuvio on Columbus, but who wants to argue?) Anyways, this Italian coffee house has been a hip hangout way before the current wave of Hipsters invaded our city. Opened in 1956 by Giovanni Giotta, coffee lovers can thank him- he brought Espresso and Cappuccino from his home in Trieste to the West Coast. Each cup is still made the way it was made back then. Caffe Trieste was a hit with the Beat Movement writers like Jack kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Francis Ford Coppola wrote most of the screenplay for “The Godfather” here. Stop in, order the perfect Cappuccino, accompanied by one of the delicious pastries available (the macaroon- damn!) Sit back, enjoy the Jazz and Opera music coming from the jukebox, and soak in some of The City’s living history.
Irish Coffee at The Gold Dust Lounge
165 Jefferson Street near Taylor, Fishermans Wharf
Legend has it that the Irish Coffee was brought from a Shannon Airport bar to America by a newspaper columnist back in the 50’s. Some argue that the claims are malarkey, saying the drink has been poured in San Francisco since the Gold Rush days. No matter what the true story is, the Irish Coffee is here to stay, a staple in pubs and taverns around The City. And my personal favorite version of this delicious drink can be found at the Gold Dust Lounge. The Bovis Family moved to the current Fisherman’s Wharf location after being unfairly evicted from their Union Square location of over a half century. They have recreated the same beloved vibe that that reigned over Powell Street imbibers since 1966. The great prices came with them over the hill, and you can’t find a more reasonably-priced cocktail in town. Open at 9am, you can get the perfect Irish Coffee made with Jamison’s Irish Whiskey for only 5 dollars! Unbeatable. And absolutely delicious!
If you’re reading from somewhere outside of the San Francisco Bay Area you may be asking yourself “A what’s what?” An It’s-It, a triple threat dessert with delicious ice-cream pressed between two oatmeal cookies and covered in chocolate. It was invented by George Whitney, the man who brought us the long-gone Ocean Beach amusement park Playland at the Beach. They had a stand that frowned the Great Highway, right next to the equally as iconic Hot House Tamale Stand. Thankfully, since Playland closed in 1972, the It’s-It is still around. Why do I love them? They had me at ice cream, cookies and chocolate.