Sep
01
2013

Featured Neighborhood

British horse riding-fox hunting themes permeate at elegant new Cavalier

British horse riding-fox hunting themes permeate at elegant new Cavalier

UNION SQUARE: What to Eat Downtown

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

So you have to meet up downtown. Whether dining with a visiting friend or colleague or needing a meal pre or post downtown event, here are five newcomers and longtimers serving worthwhile dishes near meetup central, Union Square.

THE CAVALIER, SoMa (360 Jessie Street between 5th & 4th, 415-321-6000)

Pimm's Cup

Pimm’s Cup

A fox hunting mural, riding artwork, red and black banquettes, taxidermied animal heads, a sleek, 27-seat zinc bar. The latest London hotspot? That’s rather how The Cavalier, new restaurant from the crew behind Marlowe and Park Tavern, feels: as if a modern-day London lodge was transported to funky Hotel Zetta, a short jaunt from Union Square.

Taxidermy line the walls

Taxidermy line the walls

British influences become apparent in a classics-driven cocktail menu featuring gin, a lovely Pimm’s Cup ($11), and cocktails originating in legendary London bars like The Savoy. Even American rye whiskey gets the Queen’s treatment in cocktails such as The Victorian ($12) where George Dickel Rye intermingles with Earl Grey tea, sweet vermouth and a rinse of Madeira (fortified Portuguese wine).

Steak & oyster pie

Steak & oyster pie

It’s a meal fit for a fox hunt when dining on wild mushroom pie ($14) with a side of minted peas and beans ($8), fish and chips ($19) or venison tartare ($16). But this traditionally-inspired British fare with a light, New American touch and gourmet delicacy. Case in point: Welsh rarebit, that beautiful mélange of melted, fondue-like cheese and brown sauce (often mixing ale/beer, mustard, Worcestershire, and cayenne) over toasted bread. Here it’s in the form of a fluffy, mini-souffle ($13), warm with ale and cheese, topped with a cheddar crisp. As one of my favorite bar food options, I delight in rarebit reinterpreted here.

Welsh rarebit souffle

Welsh rarebit souffle

Another reinterpretation: a Scotch egg, that blessed tradition of a hard-boiled egg wrapped in sausage and coated in bread crumbs, is here expressed as a Duck Duck Scotch egg ($12), a duck egg encased in duck confit, breaded, then baked, atop plum chutney.

The Barrister

The Barrister

Here small plates are quite small, so a more filling option is steak & oyster pie ($19), a generous cut of beef cheek simmering with carrots, onions and other vegetables, one oyster on the shell, and the flaky, pot pie-like crust standing dramatically  atop the pot instead of crusted over it.

For the cocktail lover, dessert could easily be The Barrister ($13), a bracing blend of Buffalo Trace bourbon, Nardini Amaro, white/dry vermouth, Benedictine, which as a whole evokes sweet, dark chocolate-orange notes.

LOUIE’S BAR & GRILL, SoMa (55 Stevenson St. near 1st St., 415-543-3540)

Lou

Sweet Lou’s Bangkok wings

Since the Pour Guys of Tempest Bar took over Louie’s Bar & Grill this Spring, it’s been one of my husband’s favorite lunch stops downtown. Lighthearted bar bites, like spicy miso calamari ($10) in miso sauce, spicy with Thai bird chilis, or sweet potato fries ($6) seasoned with li hing mui (salted plum) and dipped in Sriracha ketchup, typify the new menu.

Chef Stephen Crawford (formerly of Michael Mina) is having fun with these dishes and lunch sandwiches or sliders of cornmeal-crusted flounder ($12) flecked with Old Bay aioli and tomato relish. I am hooked on Sweet Lou’s Bangkok wings ($10), lively with Chinese black vinegar, Thai bird chilies and sesame seeds. This is sweet-savory, umami-laden chicken, tender and begging for a cold beer.

Jasper's Deviled Eggs

Jasper’s Deviled Eggs

JASPER’S CORNER TAP, Downtown/Union Square (401 Taylor at O’Farrell, 415-775-7979)

Pork chop

Pork chop

It’s been easy to sing Jasper’s Corner Tap’s praises since it opened in 2011. Conveniently located a couple blocks from Union Square and the Theater District, with a bar run by one of the country’s great bartenders, Kevin Diedrich, it’s the kind of place one can drink a fantastic cocktail, beer or wine with a good meal… all day long.

Since Traverse City, MI, native, Chef Mike Ransom came on board earlier this year, the food remains consistent: elevated pub food offering a little something for everyone. Deviled eggs win for prettiest dish, available individually flavored ($5) or as a trio of all three flavors ($9) – green goddess, asparagus salmon, and pickled beet. Ransom’s crispy piggy ($8) is proper drinking food: pepper roasted pig shoulder in fritter-like form, accented by pickled apples and cider mustard.

Crispy piggy

Crispy piggy

Unexpectedly, at a restaurant where I crave the Chicago dog, burgers, pretzels (“drinking food”), my favorite new addition from Chef Ransom is the pork chop entree ($21). The coffee-brined pork chop is tender over baby kale, ratcheting up “the meaty” with bits of chorizo, sweet with pressed apple in a cider mustard jus.

On September 14, Jasper’s launches a weekend “Bad Ass Brunch” (11am-2:30pm) serving dishes like poblano relleno, chicken fried quail & waffle, seasonal “pop-tarts”, while Diedrich has created cocktail sections of Bloody Mary’s, Fizzes (Ramos Gin Fizz, Silver Rye Fizz, Anejo Fizz) & Royales (Champagne Julep, Sparkling Paloma, Black Velvet).

Bluestem table viewable from the bar

Bluestem table viewable from the bar

BLUESTEM BRASSERIE, Downtown/Union Square

Mushroom Caramelized Onion Cake

Mushroom Caramelized Onion Cake

Bluestem Brasserie utilizes whole animal practices, using as many parts as possible in multiple dishes, and also sourcing from local farms, the Bay Area standard. Chef Francis Hogan keeps things interesting with specials like Wednesday’s lobster bake or Thursday’s American Road Trip, like a recent focus on NJ (Chef Hogan’s home state and one of mine), offering five dishes ($10 each or $25 for 3) inspired by the region. He highlighted unsung areas like Trenton with Trenton-style tomato pie using Early Girl tomatoes or a Trenton pork roll, a beloved breakfast ham on a roll with egg, cheese, salt & pepper ketchup.

Trenton pork roll

Trenton pork roll

Amid meaty entrees like apple-fed pork ($25) accompanied by shishito pepper-Napa cabbage slaw, watermelon rind pickles, and whiskey-grilled peaches, a surprising highlight is a vegetarian entree of wild mushroom-caramelized onion cakes ($19). Sweet and meaty simultaneously, the tender cakes are accompanied by a seared brandywine tomato and garbanzo pistou punctuated by a light crumble of goat cheese.

Pair dishes with thoughtful wines on tap, like 2012 Saintsbury Rose from Carneros ($9 glass).

E&O ASIAN KITCHEN, Downtown/Union Square

Lamb

Lamb sirloin

E&O Asian Kitchen’s “traveling the Spice Route” series is a monthly-changing food and cocktail romp through a range of exotic spices from star anise to sichuan pepper (the latter being November’s featured spice). Though I miss the restaurant’s touch of Polynesian kitsch before its redesign, Chef Sharon Nahm is doing some good things in the kitchen.

Indonesian fritters

Indonesian fritters

In June, cardamom was the featured spice, a tender, medium rare lamb sirloin ($24) being the spice route entree, partnered with cardamom-scented curry sauce and mango relish.

Pair with a boozy Mai Tai ($12) and vbegin a meal with E&O’s beloved Indonesian corn fritters ($13), dipped in sweet tangy chili soy sauce, which has been a favorite for over a decade.

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Written by in: Featured Neighborhood |
May
15
2012

Featured Neighborhood

Pristine sushi at neighborhood favorite, Hama-Ko

The Best of UPPER HAIGHT & COLE VALLEY

Walking Cole Street, connecting Haight & Cole Valley

I’m constantly asked what my favorite restaurant is. It’s an impossible question. Inquire about my favorite taqueria, German, tea house, French bistro, and I’m ready to talk. There’s a favorite for every style and mood in a metropolitan, dense city such as ours. My current home is on the cusp of Haight-Ashbury and Cole Valley, which, like every neighborhood in our food-rich city, has its treasures. We’ll explore it’s best here.

I’m ever making a plea for quality spots to replace much of the touristy swill that lines Haight Street (FYI: the El Balazo space is up for grabs; Papazote will open in the former Eos space from the Mamacita folks). Funny enough, it’s the expanded Haight Street Market, new Whole Foods and Off the Grid Upper Haight that have improved the food tenor of the ‘hood. It’s understandable why Upper Haight rarely places on budding restaurateurs’ horizon: uber-high rents and less-than-food-saavy tourist crowds. But it only takes a few to turn a neighborhood’s tide (note: Western Addition, Dogpatch, et. al.), and we already have pioneers like Dave McLean who’ve made this a better eating and drinking neighborhood for all.

Alembic cocktails

1. ALEMBIC
Thank God for The Alembic. The bar has been one of SF’s best since it opened, thanks to bar manager Daniel Hyatt, whose expertise on American whiskey equates an ahead-of-the-curve selection. Alembic claims many gifted bartenders, like Danny Louie and Janiece Gonzalez, and I’m never disappointed when asking for an off-menu cocktail creation. The food is destination-worthy in its own right – maybe the best in the Haight. Whether at the bar with jerk-spiced duck hearts and a bowl of shishito peppers, or dining on caramelized scallops and sweetbreads over kabocha squash spaetzle, I continue to leave satisfied.

2. MAGNOLIA PUB & BREWERY

Beer flights at Magnolia

Owner/brewmaster Dave McLean opened Magnolia Brewery over 14 years ago, brewing the best beers in SF (in my humble opinion). Magnolia’s space has old world, gastropub charm in black leather and wood booths and antique floor tiles. They serve the best brunch in the area (sorry, Zazie and Pork Store), like decadent BBQ belly over Anson Mills cheddar grits, or quinoa hash and eggs if you want to cut down the fat quotient. For lunch and dinner, house sausages delight (rabbit currywurst!) as does savory mushroom bread pudding or a near-perfect Magnolia pub burger.

3. GIOVANNI’S PIZZA at CLUB DELUXE

Retro gem: Club Deluxe

Upper Haight’s best hidden gem is Giovanni’s, a pizza kitchen in the back of Club Deluxe (eat in the bar or take-out). Giovanni’s pies aren’t so much Neapolitan perfection as a mix between Italian and East Coast styles, with classic margherita and pesto pizzas. Diavola is spicy fun, laden with pepperoncino, salami, Parmigiano and a Belizean hot sauce, while Friggin’ Meatball is dotted with meatballs, smoked provolone and caramelized onions. Save room for a West Coast rarity: a fresh cannoli, sweet ricotta stuffing brightened with orange blossom oil.

Retro Ice Cream Bar

Club Deluxe’s drinks are of the Mojito, Greyhound kind. Not exactly a cocktailians destination. What makes Deluxe special? Nightly live jazz in a well-loved bar that thankfully hasn’t changed decor for decades, with 1950′s, cozy bar feel. Bands rotate: trios, duos, quartets, even organ, providing some of the best jazz in the city – generally free. If only, like New Orleans, our neighborhoods were lined with such clubs.

4. ICE CREAM BAR & SODA FOUNTAIN
I’ve written much of Ice Cream Bar here and in the Guardian, so I’ll send you there for fascinating details of this truly unique, 1930′s era soda fountain. It’s my top pick for dessert.

5. PARADA 22

Cheery Parada 22

Parada 22 is a vibrant little space with aquamarine walls and vintage South American food products lining the shelves. The casual eatery feels vacation-like, offering Puerto Rican food. My favorite dish here is Camarones a la Criolla: sauteed shrimp, tomato and onions in a dreamy-light cream sauce. Sides like plantains and red or white beans in sofrito-based sauces, are fresh and appealing. They’ve recently joined forces with sister restaurant Boogaloos serving their brunch every weekend.

5. THAI DUO

Inside Ploy II

PLOY II and SIAM LOTUS – While maybe not worth crossing town for, Haight-Ashbury has two unexpectedly strong Thai spots serving authentic dishes. Ploy II is upstairs in an old Victorian space, with dingy carpet and decor (elephants, tapestries) straight out of Chang Mai’s Night Bazaar. They do standards well, while I crave their mango panang curry: spicy, creamy with coconut milk AND peanut sauce. Siam Lotus also is reliable on Thai classics, though it’s their daily changing chef’s special board that sets them apart. Thankfully on the permanent menu, their Thai tacos are a must. Though the paper thin crepes fall apart to the touch, a filling of ground chicken, shredded coconut, mini-shrimp, peanuts and bean sprouts make for one of the more fun Thai dishes anywhere. When available, they rock a mango sticky rice.

6. HAMA-KO

Hama-Ko’s simple interior

Hama-Ko husband-wife owners, Tetsuo and Junko Kashiyama, may open when they are ready to open (vs. dependable hours), they may treat regulars best, service is slow, and certainly there are no California rolls. It’s straightforward sushi: silky scallops, bright-as-the-sea tai (red snapper), melt-in-your-mouth unagi and avocado maki.

This nearly 30 year classic is one of those neighborhood secrets that locals return to and fish devotees enjoy. You won’t find the rare fish found at Zushi Puzzle, but you will find impeccable freshness (Tetsuo sources his fish from the same place The French Laundry and Chez Panisse gets theirs, he proudly tells me) from a couple who cares.

The Rest

COFFEE

Brand new Flywheel Coffee

Coffee has long been rough in the Haight. Until Haight Street Market opened a Blue Bottle kiosk in their store, one couldn’t get a proper cup. While appealing cafes like Reverie boast a welcome back patio, and the La Boulange chain on Cole serves substantial pastries, none offers a cappuccino or espresso to satisfy coffee snobs. But just in the last week or so, there’s a quiet coffee revolution afoot with two new cafes. Flywheel Coffee Roasters looks like a hipster Mission coffee spot with a handful of laptops and industrial-stark interior. Though they aren’t going the foam art/microfoam route at this point and they have not begun roasting their own beans in-house as they plan to, initial cups are promising. The other new spot is Stanza in the Coco Luxe space. They’ll be doing coffee cuppings on the first Thursday of each month (7pm) and have their coffee roasted by Augies in Southern California. They DO have foam art and proper cappuccinos. A welcome neighborhood addition.

BRUNCH

Pork belly grits at Magnolia

I’ve never gotten Zazie‘s endless brunch waits. Sure, it’s a charming, little Parisian space, though I’ve had better luck with non-brunch meals. But for 1-2 hour waits (they do have a nice system now that alerts you when your table is ready), it’s amazingly mediocre. Personally, I wouldn’t wait any amount of time for mediocre. There are so many delicious brunches in the city, I am flummoxed as to why, after all these years, this remains many local’s favorite. The original Pork Store Cafe likewise has waits (though not as painful as Zazie’s) which I likewise don’t find worth it. I once had a “sausage” scramble here that was hot dog slices. Yuck. What it does have is quirky, old school diner charm and clientele. My brunch recommend in the ‘hood, though, is always Magnolia. Arriving before noon, I’ve never had a wait and the food is quality (plus there’s Blue Bottle coffee and beers).

FOOD 

The original Cha Cha Cha

Kezar Bar (the one on Cole, not the pub on Stanyan) can occasionally surprise with above-average bar food, like giant potato pancakes with Andouille sausage, applesauce, sour cream – in a cozy, pub atmosphere. Despite the crowds and its faded glory, there’s still something appealing about the original Cha Cha Cha. Maybe it’s Mother Mary presiding over the bar, plants surrounding tables for that tropical effect, the festive atmosphere, plantains and black beans, or that damn tasty sangria. Citrus Club’s food is pretty hit and miss – downright average, really (who has time for that in this city?) – but many adore it because it’s cheap and easy Asian “fusion” (they mix and match Asian cuisines with abandon).

Burgermeister

For burgers, if you’re not eating Magnolia‘s fab burger, local chain Burgermeister is the best bet as Burger Urge just doesn’t cut it. Since the ’70′s, Say Cheese is a tiny Cole Valley gem of a market. Their small selection of cheeses, meats, wines, chocolates, is well curated, the staff are responsive and they make worthy deli sandwiches (like Cajun turkey, creole mustard, pepperoncini, pepper havarti), ideal to take to nearby parks.

DRINK

Classic Aub Zam Zam

Us spirits and cocktail lovers have a soft spot for Aub Zam Zam. These are not cutting edge cocktails.

Rather, it’s a slice of SF history, with a strong spirits selection and older, seasoned bartenders who are knowledgeable and sweet (since lovably cantankerous Bruno passed away, God rest his soul, there’s no kicking people out on a whim anymore).

They make a mean gin martini, boozy and bright. The space evokes the Art Deco era with an exotic, Moroccan slant. Divey and dingy, it’s a classic I hope we’ll never lose.

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Dec
01
2011

Featured Neighborhood

Suppenkuche's Biergarten is magical under white lights

Hayes Valley Rising

Hayes Valley has gone through multiple rebirths, from its pre-’89 quake days under the shadow of freeway ramps, to its age as shoe and boutique shopping destination. The addition of Patricia’s Green in recent years brought a communal gathering place to the neighborhood, tying together north and south of Hayes Street in a cohesive strip of green.

For years, Hayes has been a strong dining neighborhood. Absinthe, Arlequin, Suppenkuche, the Blue Bottle garage, are stalwarts. Recent additions, Boxing Room and Nojo, beautifully diversify Hayes’ cuisine (both just launched brunch menus worth checking out). In the last two months alone, there’s a slew of new eateries, including the lot known as the Proxy Project, an open air setting

Smitten Ice Cream: liquid nitrogen machines make a fresh batch

for the new Biergarten, Smitten Ice Cream and Ritual Coffee. I am into the funky, industrial areas sectioned off by chain-link fences. However, I don’t find the waits often associated with Biergarten worth it, nor Smitten’s ice cream near as delicious as the fun of watching it being made in liquid nitrogen machines.

Gourmet & More's vintage signs

One of the best shops I’ve seen in years is Gourmet & More, which just opened in the last two weeks on Gough. French owners stock the store predominantly with French grocery goods, from ciders to foie gras (the latter at least for now). There’s a charcuterie station with meat slicer, and an enchanting, little cheese room, refrigerated and filled with French cheeses plus a few other European selections. There’s gems like a camembert from Calvados (a region in Normandy), soaked in, you guessed it, calvados (apple brandy from the region).

Enchanting cheese room in Gourmet & More

A local Frenchman makes L’Artisan Macarons, and besides his website, only selling them here (individually or by the box – I tried eggnog and pumpkin macarons). The narrow shop is aesthetically and efficiently laid out with vintage signage (like “La Fromagerie”) direct from France marking each section of the store.

Attempting to visit the new kiddie studio/cafe, Seesaw, a couple times, I’ve just about given up. With already minimal hours (Fri-Sun), they seem to be closed or booked with a private party each time I’ve come by to try their

Seesaw's friendly frog

unusual offering of Danish Smørrebrød (“butter and bread”): open-faced pumpernickel rye with topping choices like egg salad or herring. Kids, or rather, their parents, sure seem to like the place.

I’ve visited each of Hayes Valley new spots, and rising to the top are a few early highlights from three of the newest in this ever evolving ‘hood.

PEACEFUL TEA RETREAT with SURPRISING DIM SUM: Taste
535 Octavia St. (between Ivy and Grove), 415-552-5668

Taste's tea pairing

What: Taste is an Asian tea house with soothing atmosphere serving impeccable teas in a gaiwan (personal covered bowl) with housemade baked goods. Run by husband and wife team (she’s the baker).
Early stand-outs: Soft, grassy Misty Mountain tea from Jiangxi, China ($5 gaiwan, or $8 gong fu cha for sharing). The food surprises: while dim sum staples like pork buns ($2.50) are ok, unusual items shine. A red bean wheat bun ($2.75) and veggie curry wheat bun filled with potato, carrot, cabbage ($2.75) taste both healthy and comforting, warm with a dreamy, doughy texture. The red bean bun is my first choice: subtle sweet melds with earthy bean and soft wheat.

Whole wheat dim sum buns

Tea plays prominent in pu-er macarons ($1.75), while scones are made with fresh tea leaves ($2.50). There’s a green tea version, but I like the earthy oolong scone.

How: To sample more for less than it costs individually, there’s tea pairings for 1 ($18), 2 ($38), 3 ($58) people. Order for 1 includes gaiwan tea, 3 steamed buns, 1 scone, 2 macarons, 1 sesame ball (black or white), and an exotic fruit bowl.
When: A peaceful respite for writing, reading, working, or mellow afternoon tea with a friend. Also works for take-out. Bonus points for unique, dim sum eats.

SEXY EURO-STYLE CAFE with APERITIFS & BOOKS: Two Sisters Bar & Books, 579 Hayes St. (between Octavia & Laguna), 415-863-3655

Two Sisters Euro cafe vibe

What: One of the charming sisters behind Two Sisters Bar & Books greets you as you enter this narrow strip of a cafe lined in classic wallpaper, with cozy window seat, a handful of small tables and a tiny bar, soothed by 1930′s jazz playing softly in the background. Inspired by their European travels (a bookstore in Krakow, cafe in Vienna and bar in Paris), mixed with Brooklyn funk and Nor. Cal. roots, the sisters envisioned a place that could be all those things. I share with the sisters a desire for a place one can savor a classic cocktail, coffee or quality food and a good book. This little haven is the kind of neighborhood cafe I’ve been waiting for.

Port of SF: Pilsner & Portuguese wine with lime & ginger

Early stand-outs – drink: Sans full liquor license, it’s beer (three on draft), a few affordable wines ($6-8 a glass/$15-22 half a liter), and classically-inspired amaro, beer and wine-based cocktails. My appetite was piqued by Iggy ($7), a salty aperitif of silky Punt e Mes vermouth and grapefruit juice with salt rim. Port of SF ($7) is likewise refreshing with Madeira (fortified Portuguese wine), lime, ginger and Pilsner beer. For a husky Manhattan stand-in, go with The Duke’s Son ($9): Amontillado sherry, Carpano Antica vermouth and bitters.
Early stand-outs – food: Food (all $9 or less) is made with care in a tiny kitchen. A blanched brussel leaf salad

Bread pudding

($8) is my dish of choice. Freshly laden with creamy French feta, cherry tomatoes, and roasted corn, it sings in lemon vinaigrette. Savory bread pudding ($6) is made with fennel, tomato, Manchego cheese, roasted garlic, and black truffle oil. A crowd-pleaser.
When: An intimate date, close conversation with a trusted friend, or alone with a book. Whatever you need it to be: afternoon coffee respite, aperitif hour, interlude between meals for wine, or comfy, casual dinner.

EAST COAST SPIRIT in a CALIFORNIA BISTRO: Dobbs Ferry
409 Gough St. (near Hayes), 415-551-7700

What: Debuting two weeks ago, Dobbs Ferry comes from restaurateurs with an East Coast background (hence the name Dobbs Ferry, the hometown of two of the owners in Westchester County, NY). With a kitchen helmed by executive chef Mike Yakura (formerly of Ozumo Restaurant Group), they’re dubbing the place a “California bistro” with “small town”, New York cooking. With three rooms, the space is decorated in muted browns and black with white walls.
Early stand-outs: Though one could be thrown off by ingredients like black olives and peperoncinis,

Eggplant parm pizza

old school touches don’t mean it’s exactly old school. Salads are crisp and straightforward. Eggplant parm pizza ($14) is pleasurable pie of breaded eggplant and basil. Kudos to my waiter for offering extra red sauce. Not only is it a lovely red sauce, more is just what was needed to make the slices sing, otherwise the breading soaks up a bit too much of the sauce. Crispy sweetbreads ($12) over mustard sauce with bacon are unexpectedly satisfying, while a half ($22) or whole ($35) chicken scarpariello somehow evoked childhood… but with juicy, expertly cooked chicken. A half is enough chicken for two,

Crispy sweetbreads

with gently fried potato cubes, like elevated tator tots, Molinari Italian sausage, sweet peppers and a peperoncini for good measure. The broth is the clincher: tart, zingy, savory, it ties the whole uniquely comforting dish together.
Drink: Trying just one cocktail, I’m afraid I wasn’t keen on sampling more. Balance was off and preparation felt a bit like stepping back 20 years. There were a couple commonly revived classics like a Ward Eight, alongside an excessive amount of vodka. There are a few beers on tap (like Goose Island Matilda) and a number of wines by the glass or bottle.
When: Family and friend gatherings for filling, generous dishes with a touch of home comfort.

Chicken Scarpariello

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Written by in: Featured Neighborhood |
Oct
01
2008

Featured Neighborhood

OUTER RICHMOND, Part Two

Here’s a link to Outer Richmond, Part One (in case you missed it or need a refresher). Now let’s hit more of my favorites in the wealth of cheap, tasty Outer Richmond food:

BRUNCH

Cliff House Bistro

Cliff House Bistro

Cliff House Bistro: This one isn’t cheap and the location is notoriously touristy as it is historical, perched on the edge of the sea. But since the remodel a couple years ago, when faced with the need for a breakfast spot overlooking those gorgeous Pacific waves, I find the Bistro surprisingly satisfying, albeit costly. The free Swedish popovers and jam they start you off with fill me up fast. I like the Johnson Omelet (Dungeness Crab Meat, avocado and sour cream – how could you not? $16.95), and theSourdough French Toast (with crisp bacon and an apple compote; $12.95) is not half bad. They don’t take reservations and waits are loooong on weekends so go early.

DINER/BURGERS

Bill's Place

Bill's Place

Bill’s Place: Greasy spoon diner, it is. But a darn charming one. With the requisite white countertop and red chairs comes the startling placement of chandeliers along the ceiling. That way you can have your chili burgers (smothered in chili and cheese) or a big Dreyer’s milkshake with a touch of class.

SEAFOOD

Pacific Cafe

Pacific Cafe

Pacific Cafe: This long-timer is seafood ala 1970 with cheap wood paneling, booths and the feel of an old school Boston seafood house. Since I first moved to SF eight years ago, it has been a favorite. The FREE, all-you-can-drink (or as often as they come out and pour) house white or red wine is certainly a crowd-pleasing draw. I’ve made many a friend waiting for a table in the chilly ocean air, sometimes well over an hour, as they don’t take reservations. But it’s all part of the unique experience. The food is far from exquisite: think fat steak fries, iceberg lettuce and slightly unappetizing sides of boiled vegetables. But the fish is fresh and dishes heartwarming and tasty. You won’t get the inventive here (no fish in mango salsas or coconut broth), just traditional goodness: I like the clam chowder and my fave entrée, Parmesan encrusted fish of the day (the upper teens cost of this dish has risen to mid-twenties over the years).

ASIAN

Mayflower

Mayflower

Mayflower6255 Geary Boulevard at 27th Ave; 415-387-8338; A cheap, clean spot serving unique additions to the usual dumplings and buns Dim Sum (though they do these well, too), such as Shrimp Banana Rolls or sweet Pan-fried Water Chestnut Cakes. Eat your fill for not much more than ten dollars in the relaxed (or at prime meal times, bustling) dining room.

Shanghai Dumpling King

Shanghai Dumpling King

Shanghai Dumpling King3319 Balboa Street between 34th & 35th Ave; 415-387-2088; Mon, Wed-Fri 11am-9pm, Sat-Sun 10am-9pm; On a rather desolate block in a dingy dining room sits a spot with Shanghai specialties rarely seen in the US. Their wontons, buns and steamed soup-filled dumplings, Xiao Long Bao (watch out as they explode in your mouth), taste freshly homemade and at $4.25 for 10 spicy wontons, 10 dumplings or 8 mini-pork buns, it’s beyond a steal. You’ll be hooked.

Shanghai House

Shanghai House

Shanghai House3641 Balboa Street between 37th & 38th Ave; 415-831-9288; Some of the most delicately homemade soup dumplings (Xiao Long Bao) you’ll ever taste come from this quiet little haven on Balboa. Clean and fresh, this peaceful, slow-paced restaurant is a preferred lunch spot for me with a good book on a foggy, moody day. Much of the menu is equally delicious and authentic (cash only so prepare accordingly).

Oyaji

Oyaji

Oyaji: I’ve heard mixed reviews on whether sushi is the reason to come here. With so many fave sushi joints already, I came to Oyaji for what I heard was great Izakaya (Japanese snacks/small plates served with drink) and was not disappointed. I like the grilled cod, yakitori skewers and the changing menu of ryori (“tavern food”) specials. There’s a good number of vegetarian plates and ramen along with the sushi, which I’ll have to try next time.

Khan Toke Thai

Khan Toke Thai

Khan Toke Thai5937 Geary Blvd, between 23rd & 24th Ave; 415-668-6654; Usually I’m all about food first so I have to warn you: the food alone would never bring me to Khan Toke. There’s much better Thai around and though decent, nothing here has ever overwhelmed or taken me back to months spent in Thailand. But what does transport me and makes the place worthy of mention, is the playful layout and décor. Take your shoes off as you enter and get seated on the floor in one of a network of rooms. You’ll feel like you’re in a Thai home, either in one of the small spaces or the larger room looking out at the back garden.

La Vie

La Vie

La Vie5380 Geary Blvd, between 22nd & 23rd Ave; 415-933-6232; An unassuming but clean little dining room on Geary is the setting for authentic Vietnamese food I’ve liked for years. Fresh standards like pork vermicelli bowls are under $10 and often big enough for two. A real deal and one of the better Vietnamese joints on this side of the Avenues.

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Written by in: Featured Neighborhood |
Sep
01
2008

Featured Neighborhood

Outer Richmond, Part One

You’re out in the ‘wilds’ of the Richmond, near the ocean or the Presidio… in the midst of housing grids where restaurants seem infrequent and predominantly Asian. But there’s way more to the Richmond than its fabulous array of authentic, cheap Asian food. Like just about every neighborhood in the city, Outer Richmond holds treasures aplenty, varied and affordable, if you know where to look.

CAFES/TEA & COFFEE

Bazaar Cafe

Bazaar Cafe

Bazaar Café: One of my favorite quirky, personality-filled cafes, it’s too bad the drinks are just ok. Decent coffee, tea, and pastries warm up a morning or evening. But come for the idyllic neighborhood café setting, to linger over conversation, a good book, or to write. Inside it’s eclectic and homey, with storytelling nights or sing-a-long/open mics around the piano. The back patio is a magic secret garden that makes you wish it was your own backyard. It almost feels like it is…

Tal-y-Tara

Tal-y-Tara

Tal-y-tara: With another delightful back garden and impeccable British tea, this Polo Shop/Tea Haven is a unique place you cannot find the equal to anywhere. The owners of this family run shop are amazing people who will make you feel like old friends stopping in for a ‘spot of tea’.

BBQ

Ironwood BBQ

Ironwood BBQ

Ironwood BBQ: Randomly situated on a golf course in Golden Gate Park, next to the Archery Field (with parking!) this unexpected BBQ mecca offers some of SF’s best Pulled Pork, Brisket and homemade BBQ Sauce. Using a rare Wham Turbo BBQ Pit from Memphis, meats are 100% oak-wood fired. You can order juicy Ribs or Chicken but I’m a Pulled Pork girl first, and theirs does not disappoint. Sit outside overlooking the golfing green, whether foggy or sunny, for a unique experience of down home BBQ by the ocean in GG Park. I’ve been happily going since they opened, as this is one of SF’s lesser-known food havens.

MOROCCAN & MIDDLE EASTERN

Aziza

Aziza

Aziza: Pricey for the Richmond, Aziza, with finely subdued Moroccan décor, is recognized citywide for its Moroccan cuisine and well-crafted cocktails. Chicken & Almond Bastilla (they call it Basteeya; $18) is exquisitely flaky, sweet, savory. They haveFig Lamb Chops ($26), Rabbit with Dried Cherries ($24), Vegetarian ($17) or Meat ($21) Couscous platters and a range of intriguing small plates, such asWatermelon with Honey, Feta, Rosemary, Honeydew ($9). Cocktails ($10) explore the herbal and exotic with The Tarragon (made with Cachaca and aromatic, floating Cardamom Pods), or The Kumquat balanced with Rum and Thyme. There’s also extensive wines, beers and teas for the cocktail-averse.

El Mansour

El Mansour

El Mansour: Not as experimental as Aziza, I almost prefer that it’s a more traditional Moroccan meal, though by no means staid. Reminiscent of feasts I actually had in Morocco (note: you’ll be eating every course with your hands), sink into low, pillow-drenched couches in a vibrantly colorful, tent-like draped room, until first course (and belly dancer) appears. The whole experience is transporting. Prix Fixe menus are the only option so come prepared for a multi-course event – a fabulous place to bring a group. My full review: www.theperfectspotsf.com/archive/sep_07/established.html.

Layaly

Layaly

Layaly(2435 Clement Street at 25th Ave; 415-668-1676; Lunch/Dinner) – Another Outer Richmond surprise, this affordable mid-range Middle Eastern/ Mediterranean café serves classic hummus, Mezze platters, Kabobs and beyond in a crisply clean setting, with affordable and generous service. The price to quality/taste ratio makes this a real neighborhood find.

PIZZA

Gaspare's

Gaspare's

Gaspare’s: Gaspare himself is from Sicily (my heritage, thank you very much!), serving up authentic thin crust pizzas ($10.50-$22.50, depending on size) since the ‘80’s on Geary Blvd. It’s Old School in all the right ways… though maybe not the best pizza in the city, it’s some of the most comforting. Put some coins in the table jukeboxes while you chow down on a hearty Pepperoni, a “Gaspare’s Special” with fresh tomatoes, roasted bell pepper, feta and mozzarella, or a spicy Enrico’s Pizza Caliente, loaded with jalapeno, sausage and onions.

Pizzetta 211

Pizzetta 211

Pizzetta 211: A long time favorite for “creative” (I hate to say Californian) thin crust pizza ($9-14; serves 1-2), their pizzas actually remind me of great pizzas in Italy – not Neopolitan-style, but simple, with uber-quality meats and vegetables, crispy crust, olive oil drizzle or an egg on top. I’ve been going here years before Pizzeria Delfina even opened and I think this place is way better (as are many!) Pizzetta’s lackluster service can leave something to be desired – and the space is not much bigger than a closet, so get it to go, or come early/late to sit at one of few indoor or outdoor tables. It’s all about the food here… even the daily changing baked goods and desserts are mouth-watering.

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Written by in: Featured Neighborhood |
Apr
01
2008

Featured Neighborhood

PORTOLA

When I mention Portola as an SF neighborhood, most locals look confused. Like me, you probably don’t spend a lot of time eating south of Bernal Heights. But I’ve kept quiet for too long about two gems full of dingy charm on San Bruno Avenue. In the midst of Asian food hole-in-the-walls, fast food joints, banks and ethnic markets, lies these two delicious, thankfully unhip food havens:

Breakfast at Tiffany's

Breakfast at Tiffany's

Breakfast at Tiffany’s
2499 San Bruno Avenue (between Felton St & Thornton Ave) 415-468-0977

When I want sheer comfort with a side of 1970′s blue collar camaraderie (and Audrey Hepburn looking on from a faded poster), I head to Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Did I mention it’s cheap, hearty and unpretentious? Servers call you “hon” as Beach Boys play on cassette tape (no lie!) I sip coffee under Audrey’s watchful eye. Leave it to Ms. Hepburn to brighten up cheap wood paneling. But this dingy dive is not merely ironic.

There’s massive plates of French toast and egg scrambles, though I particularly love Tiffany’s pancakes loaded with fresh blueberries. They taste even better after you’ve sat at the counter, watching them transform on the griddle from batter to fluffy cakes. For savory contrast (if you have room), I go for hash brown “sandwiches” stuffed with ham, cheese, onions. Layered between a massive of crispy shredded potatoes, it defines bad-for-you-goodness. The setting feels straight out a movie: the classic diner or truck stop where everyone seems to know each other, treating you as if you’re regular… even if it’s your first visit.

Johnson's BBQ

Johnson's BBQ

Johnson’s Barbecue
2646 San Bruno Avenue (between Bacon & Burrows Streets) 415-468-0977

For this avowed BBQ lover, I have to admit SF isn’t exactly swimming in BBQ joints reminiscent of the Deep South. I’ve yet to find much that resembles the joys found in my two week road trip through four Southern states eating BBQ in each. There are a few gems here, of course, the best outside the city: Uncle Frank’s in Mountain View.

One of my city favorites is Johnson’s, also on San Bruno Ave right by Breakfast at Tiffany’s. This is Arkansas style BBQ… when they say their sauce is hot, they mean it.

Lunch is a deal: for $6.75, I get a half order of the “pork sandwich” plus two sides (coleslaw, baked beans, yams, etc…), which is actually a huge heaping of BBQ pulled pork over a slice of bread (worth it even if you don’t want the bread!) They serve ribs, catfish, oxtails, links and more. I have to say the dingy environment is not appealing, though authentically like many of the best BBQ joints in the South.

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Written by in: Featured Neighborhood |
Nov
01
2007

Featured Neighborhood

Bursa Kabob

Bursa Kabob

The October issue of San Francisco Magazine dubbed West Portal the “Noe West” of San Francisco.  I do not see the similarity other than a high family quotient, finding my home of Noe more charming and intimate (biased, I know).  West Portal has a somewhat dated, suburban main street feel.  It’s also unpretentious, offering reasonably priced dining and shopping, a small three-screen movie theater showing a nice selection of films, and easy access around its Muni train hub.

There is a time-warp feeling here with a number of structures unchanged since the 1950’s, giving it a less than trendy, refreshingly real feel. I don’t recommend overpriced, circa-1980’s spots like Café for All Seasons, which are very popular with elderly, ladies-who-lunch crowds, but serve overpriced food (for example, salads are bland at around $15).  Here are a few spots of interest on the main drag of West Portal Avenue:

Bursa Kebab, 60 West Portal Ave (between Claremont Blvd & Portola Dr), 415-564-4006 – Though not the best Turkish food in SF, this restaurant offers fresh Middle Eastern food in a relaxed, chic dining room, though some dishes are bland compared to better citywide spots.

El Toreador

El Toreador

El Toreador, 50 West Portal Ave (between Claremont Blvd & Portola Dr), 415-566-8104 -  Don’t go here for the generic, greasy Mexican food unless you care little for quality or taste, but do go for the bright, colorful interior with Day of the Dead dolls and festive décor making it a welcome, unique environment for margaritas.

Fresca – Though I cringe as their prices continue to rise rather rapidly, making it less worth dining here all the time, the food (especially their ceviches, entrees and cocktails) is quite tasty at this local Peruvian chain, this being the original location.

Old Krakow – My pick for West Portal’s best food adventure is this rare Polish haven.  The décor is, in keeping with the area, dated, but cozily so.  It’s like dining in Grandpa & Grandma’s living room (Polish grandparents, naturally!)  Hearty, filling food tastes homemade but not amateur. I like traditional dishes such as the Herring, Garlic Soup or Stuffed (with rice, pork, ground beef) Cabbage Rolls in Tomato Sauce.  Polish beers (like the refreshing Zywiec) are also a highlight.

Old Krakow

Old Krakow

Que Syrah – A comfy neighborhood wine bar offering weekly wine flights along with the usual by-the-glass or bottle selections.

Roti – On food alone, I can’t recommend Roti, whose high-priced dishes are definitely good, but offer no taste improvement over many of SF’s hole-in-the-wall Indian spots at half the price.  But if you are looking for a classier place to have your naan and curries, this original location of a local chain (the other is in Burlingame) fits the bill perfectly. Just be prepared for $4 Garlic Naan (double the price of many city locations) or $14 for standards like Chicken Tikki Masala.

Que Syrah

Que Syrah

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Written by in: Featured Neighborhood |

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