Leaving Your Culinary Heart in San Francisco
Some places you just never plan to see. No matter how much you’ve heard about them, they just never seem to make it onto you “must go there someday” list. Too many other destinations beckon more loudly, more forcibly, for your attention. For me San Francisco was one of those places, and it was definitely somewhere that I would have never made a conscious effort to see. So it was only by chance and through a business trip that I ever made it to the city at all. Now, the problem with business trips is you never have enough time to do and see everything you want to. Your schedule is rarely your own, so the best you can hope to do is cram in as much as possible before, after or in the free moments between your “official” reasons for being there. That was how I came to San Francisco and those were the circumstances under which I would have to operate. I was determined to make the best of it I could.
Truthfully, I had mixed feelings going in. If ever a city invoked strong emotions among warring factions, it was San Francisco. Whether my biases came from the East Coast or the right-wing, I came to town – fully prepared by my own prejudices – to hate the place. Despite that, everyone I talked to was confident my experience would be the opposite of what I expected. So it was with some guilty sense of prejudging a destination that I set about making the best of what I was sure would be a mediocre trip.
With limited time to do and see an entire city, I had to make some decisions on what I would intentionally leave off my “to-do” list. First thing to go: The Golden Gate Bridge. My focus was, not surprisingly, going to be on San Francisco’s culinary and whiskey scene (the latter warrants its own treatment in a separate blog post). The downside, I had a very busy schedule while in town and thus would be held – somewhat hostage – to the area immediately around the Moscone Center. In short, if I couldnt’ walk to it during my breaks and brief free time in the evening, I wasn’t going to see it.
First thing on my list was the one destination I was actually excited about. My whole life I’ve heard about Chinatown. The people, the culture, the flavors, the smells, all of it I had perfectly envisioned in my mind from a very young age. Straight off the plane, quick cab ride to the hotel, then a 15 minute walk up Grant Street to the gates. I planned to have lunch in Chinatown from the moment I booked the trip.
Word to the wise, or the hungry: from experience I can tell you that 3 o’clock on a Monday afternoon is not the best time to experience the culinary delights that I am sure exist – somewhere – in Chinatown. Again, I may have let my biases get ahead of me. I didn’t know what kind of place I was looking for, but in my mind it existed down an alley, away from the tourists. It would be small, even cramped inside. The menu would have nothing translated into English, nor any of that ridiculous numbering system so many “authentic” Chinese restaurants descend to (“I’ll have the number 7 with snow peas…”). I didn’t know what I was looking for, so I probably shouldn’t be surprised that I failed to find it, in a rather remarkable fashion. There were many, and I mean many, shuttered doorways, closed off staircases, dark hallways, all of which I was sure led to the culinary destination I desired. I don’t know what the Chinese word for “siesta” is but apparently all the cooks were having one that afternoon. The only places I saw serving food were universally awash in Caucasian tourists. Some were American, many were French or German. Most were, I was sure, ordering the number 7 with snow peas.
After a couple of hours wandering up one street and down another I wandered back to the hotel: deflated, dejected and hungry. My sole take-away from my life long desire to visit Chinatown was it was really a grand place to buy a Bruce Lee tee-shirt. However, I came away wanting so much more. Starving, Delta’s in flight bag of peanuts (two if you’re flying coast to coast) having failed to satiate me so far, I settled for a tourist lunch at The Grand Cafe in the lobby of the Hotel Monaco, next door to the Clift Hotel where I was staying. I ordered a very expensive if still quite good pair of Kobe beef sliders and a Sazerac, my first libation in the city. I ended the meal more excited about the drink.
California Greek at Kokkari Estiatorio
Dinner on Day 1 was a more satisfying, and more memorable, experience. Over the years my friends have scattered to the four winds, as will happen at this age. Though the social media of the internet, many of us are gradually reconnecting after years – and in some cases – decades apart. I was to have dinner that night with one such friend, a Kentucky ex-pat now firmly entrenched in California. Best of all, she was picking the place. But first, I had some unfinished business with a bridge.
“How can you come to San Francisco and not see the Golden Gate bridge?” was the text message I received a few days before my arrival. “Easy”, was my reply, “I’m just not going to go”. Few things are formidable as a determined woman in a minivan, so as I soon as I climbed in I was fully, and completely, helpless as to our ultimate destination. I was told by my would be kidnapper that we had a pit stop to make on the way to dinner. After the letdown of Chinatown, I wasn’t expecting our bridge-scapade to be any more rewarding.
I was wrong. There, I said it. Everyone who’s waited for years to hear me admit that – on occasion – I’m not always right now can rest assured that my confession resides in whatever eternal longevity the internet gives. The Golden Gate Bridge, at sunset, with the breeze blowing off the water, is truly and spectacularly beautiful. I could have sat on a pier staring at the bridge all night, but my friend had dinner reservations waiting for us and aside from the pair of Kobe sliders, I hadn’t eaten since before my flight left Lexington. I tore my gaze away from the Golden Gate bridge and thought to myself, I’m batting .500 on the day, and I haven’t been right about anything yet. Clearly San Francisco was full of surprises.
We were dining Greek in California, which made about as much sense as anything else had that day. I was game, my mood was improving after the inspiring visit to the Golden Gate Bridge, and I was ravenously hungry. Kokkari Estiatorio was a huge restaurant, the kind that always holds different experiences for the diner depending on where your table in located. Large restaurants are usually a turn off to me because many times the food suffers from the scale of the operation. The smells inside of Kokkari however quickly pushed such thoughts from my mind. Our table, tucked comfortably in one corner of the divided main dining room, was close enough to the window to watch night start to descend on a San Francisco street that already was beginning to be bathed in fog and lamplight.
For starters we chose the Feta sto Fourno: Greek feta baked with tomatoes, capers and Metaxa brandy. I have a soft spot for baked cheese, in truth, cheese of any kind, and the feta was fantastic. Next course were wood roasted prawns with tomatoes and feta (Garides sto Fourno). Don’t like feta? Don’t go to a Greek restaurant would be my advice to you. Since I was there I figured I had little choice but to order that other staple of Greek cuisine – lamb. My Arnisia Paidakia consisted of grilled lamb chops (perfectly cooked) with lemon oregano vinaigrette and Kokkari potatoes. My friend order the Makaronia: hand-cut noodles with summer squash, sweet corn and myzithra cheese. I had a hard time passing on the baklava for dessert, but we ended up sharing the fruit tart off the specials menu. Our wine was a Sonoma produced Sauvignon Blanc from Matanzas Creek. After all, one must drink California wine while in California, correct, even when dining Greek? The meal was outstanding, and thanks to my abductor in a mini-van and her determination that I “see the bridge”, I realized I was starting to fall in love with San Francisco. Tomorrow, I was convinced, would be a truly great day.
Sears Fine Foods & 54 Mint
Breakfast is a meal I adore, though rarely indulge in when not traveling. However there is something about being on the road that’s makes me a crave a grand spread of food first thing in the morning. My first morning in San Francisco started with a 7am local time breakfast meeting at “Sears Fine Food”, which originally opened in 1938. One step inside and I knew I was back in the old San Francisco that I never had the chance to know. There were 20 of us getting together to talk shop (cloud computing and CRM) at what my stomach was telling me was 10 o’clock in the morning. I was starving. Sleep is never a problem for me when adjusting to different times zones, it’s my food intake reflex that throws me off, craving the wrong things at the wrong time. Back home my comrades in arms at work were already looking toward their lunch hour. I had been up an hour and was looking for protein, carbs and caffeine. You see I hadn’t exactly retired back to the hotel after dinner the night before, I went out exploring the San Francisco nightlife, mainly the whiskey bars I had heard so much about back in Kentucky (more on that in a future post). While Sears is famous for its pancakes, I simply couldn’t resist something called simply a “Meat Omelet”, served as any reasonable omelet should be, with a side of hash browns and plain white toast. Sears Fine Food I am proud to say, lives up to its name. In other words, it’s fine. As breakfast goes it rises way above the level of Cracker Barrel and Mc’D’s and other “traveling” breakfast joints, and given the crowd by the time we finished an hour later, was very popular with the going-to-work crowd in this part of the city.
Lunch was going to be more problematic. I was attending what would become by the end of the week the largest tech conference in the world. Salesforce.com’s annual Dreamforce conference was drawing a mind-boggling 45,000 people. Lunch was technically “on the house”, but trying to feed the crowd of hungry cloud computing geeks in a two-hour block of time resulted in longer lines than I was willing to endure. Besides, my breaks were my only time to explore and I had no desire to eat whatever passed for food at a crowded convention center. I headed out of the mammoth Moscone Center, picked a direction, and starting walking.
The old US mint building which survived the 1906 earthquake and fire, now anchors a block of restaurants and public space called – appropriately enough – Mint Plaza. It was about a three block walk, but in balmy 63 degrees temperatures on the first day of September, it was a perfect way to warm up my appetite. 54 Mint is a gorgeous little restaurant split between two levels, decked out in whitewashed brick and wine bottles. I have a rule on business lunches – no pasta or red sauce while wearing a white shirt. There have simply been too many “incidents” in the past. I did a quick wardrobe check – dammit, no pasta for me today. Turns out that was a good call. The Bistecca ai Ferri was fantastic and beautifully simple, nothing more than grilled skirt steak and an arugula salad. The salad was dressed in lemon, olive oil and a little Parmigiano. It was filling, delicious and paired perfectly with a glass of Italian white wine, whose heritage and vintage I completely failed to note. The wine was my server’s suggestion, and he nailed it. It was only after I returned to Kentucky and looked at the restaurant’s website that I realized that my server was, in fact, one of the owners. Guess that’s why he had such good suggestions on the wine.
The Land of Hanging Meat
One thing I noticed, and one thing my culinary inclined friends back home were noticing from the photos I had been texting to them, is there is a lot of hanging meat in San Francisco. Make up your own joke if you’d like. Personally, I took it as a sign on good eating inside. Kuleto’s, about one block off of Union Square, used to be a go-go bar. The small stage in the front window where dancers used to lure patrons inside is still in place. The counter between the dining room and the kitchen used to be the main stage, perhaps that was the inspiration for the brass poles above the bar which now supported – instead of scantily clad females – bundles of garlic, oregano, sage and more… ahem… more hanging meat.
Kuleto’s lunch special on the day I visited was just that – it was an entire lunch, not just random items spread across its menu. Primi, Secondi, Dolce. The salad was again simple (my favorite kind of salad), nothing more than lettuce, garlic, goat cheese and bread crumbs lightly dressed in a white balsamic vinaigrette. I’m not known for being a big salad eater but I was truthfully enjoying cleaning my plate at every meal I had this week. I would have to be careful upon returning to Kentucky, lest my veggie adoration became known to my friends. There had been a lot of vegan jokes made at my expense before I left town. It was thankfully a non white shirt day for me as the pasta was bucatini – thick and spaghetti like with a hole running through the middle, tomatoes, house pancetta, red pepper flakes and Pecorino Remano. It was magnificent. The sole letdown of the meal was the lemon ricotta pound cake. It was very good, but I’ve had my mother’s version and to me it didn’t hold a candle to Mom’s. I passed on wine with lunch and instead chose a bourbon. Nearly every restaurant I visited had a solid 20 bottle count or more of Kentucky Bourbons to offer, and it usually took only moments before I was engaged in exuberant conversation with the bartenders and servers on a subject near and dear to my heart. Kuleto’s is one of those restaurants that, if you visit it at lunchtime, you just can’t wait to come back for dinner. If I had such a place within walking distance of my office, I would become a regular.
In any city there will be more places you want to eat than meals you have time to consume. San Francisco is certainly no exception. Even confined as I was to one area of town in and around the convention district, I could easily spend a couple of weeks visiting every place that beckoned to me (and my stomach). Michael Mina’s Bourbon & Steak is a block north of Union Square, and if I had stayed for another night would have been my first choice. I walked past Colibri Mexican Bistro every day for a week – never went inside. To be honest the number of tequila bottles beckoning from the front window scared me a little. Tequila and I have a love/love/hate relationship. I love it; it loves me back. I hate myself the next day. I made a conscious decision to forgo the agave on this trip so I could better focus on the whiskey bars of San Francisco (more on that in a forthcoming post).
History abounds in the city, and the new boutique hotels in renovated old buildings exist side by side with restaurants that were in business long before I was born. Wherever I walked one thing was constant – many, many local restaurants seemed to stay busy during lunch and on into dinner. These weren’t just tourist hangouts waiting for the next tour bus to drop off out of towners. These were local business people grabbing a quick lunch, an early dinner or a late night cocktail. If there is one lesson I’ve learned from traveling, it’s wherever the locals hangout is where I want to hangout too. The restaurants of the city were a living, breathing part of the culture. Sitting by a window at lunchtime I could almost grow nostalgic for the cable cars running up and down Powell Street. Food was everywhere, and everything I ate I enjoyed. Most importantly, even though I was always by myself I rarely ever dined alone. Maybe it was the accent, the barely disguised southern drawl which seems to come out in me more when I’m outside of my native Kentucky. But everywhere when I ordered people wanted to strike up a conversation. This was one friendly place I quickly realized, and the locals were always ready to share a tip, a personal favorite or directions to someplace “you just have to go to before you leave”. In San Francisco I discovered you can do a lot worse than follow a native to their favorite restaurant. After all, there’s a reason these places have survived since the last century. On the way to airport on Friday morning I was a bit sad, knowing how much I had missed. I had only begun to scratch the surface, and as I boarded my plane I knew I had left both part of my heart – and my stomach – in San Francisco.