It’s No Hanging Offence to Crave This Signature San Francisco Dish

Crispy oysters are at the heart of the hangtown fry, a delightful dish at Brenda's French Soul Food

Crispy oysters are at the heart of the hangtown fry, a delightful dish at Brenda’s French Soul Food


It’s a signature San Francisco breakfast I’ve been dying to try. Called the hangtown fry—a mixture of oysters, eggs and bacons cooked in a skillet—it was a celebratory dish for gold miners who hit payday in the late 1800s. The Tadich Grill is said to cook up a mean version, but at more than $20, it expands my road-trip warrior’s budget more than my belly.

So I plug a downtown-area meter with a slug of quarters and head to *Brenda’s French Soul Food, where I avoid the short 9 am weekday lineup by taking a counter seat. This is one great $13 “omelette”, the crispy oysters blending wonderfully with the other ingredients. The waitress’s t-shirt says “Kiss My Grits,” so I naturally go with that creamy side, instead of hash browns. And the biscuit is a feathery accompaniment, unlike the leaden versions I’ve choked on elsewhere.

I’ve struck it rich.

The shrimp and grits aren't too shabby, either

The shrimp and grits aren’t too shabby, either

Brenda’s French Soul Food
652 Polk Street, San Francisco
Monday-Tuesday 8 am-3 pm, Wednesday to Saturday 8 am-10 pm, Sunday 8 am-8 pm
Brenda's French Soul Food on Urbanspoon

San Francisco’s Coffee Scene

Blue Bottle Coffee's elegant kiosk in the historic Heath Ceramics building in San Francisco's Mission district

Blue Bottle Coffee’s elegant kiosk in the historic Heath Ceramics building in San Francisco’s Mission district

San Francisco’s coffee scene may not have the notoriety of Seattle’s or Portland’s. But you know Bay Area hipsters aren’t going to take a back seat to those wet coasters to the north. So there’s a solid lineup of third-wave roasters and coffeehouses, concentrated in the increasingly gentrified Mission district.

One thing I don’t think much about at a coffee shop is the mug the java is served in. But at Blue Bottle Coffee‘s Heath location, it’s an essential part of the experience. The reason is the mugs they use are from the attached Heath Ceramics (established in 1948), which produces high-end pottery, fired low and slow, in an airy old building topped by two high chimneys.

The mug that my nice drip coffee is served in is classically simple but elegant. Its silky, slightly pebbled surface is something I just want to cradle warmly in my hands as the morning slips away.

It's all about the satiny Heath mug at this Blue Bottle Coffee location

It’s all about the satiny Heath mug at this Blue Bottle Coffee location

When I ask about the potential for pilfering, someone replies: “The type of people who come here wouldn’t walk off with these mugs.” I mean, you can just wander over to the Heath store and buy your own.

Blue Bottle Coffee
2900 18 Street (four other San Francisco locations)
Monday to Saturday 7 am-6 pm, Sunday 8 am-6 pm
Blue Bottle Coffee on Urbanspoon

The barista at Four Barrel (“slow coffee”) is doing some lovely foam art on the capos and lattes. “What does ‘barista milk’ mean?” I ask, referring to the name on the plastic milk bottles. “I don’t know. Marketing? Maybe it produces a better texture.”

Whatever, it helps bring in the young, laid-back crowd, who in mid-afternoon are filling the little wooden tables that line one long wall. The place is a pleasant, slightly dim place to hang out, with old wood floor planks on the ceiling all the way back to the industrial-sized roasting equipment. Oh, the espressos and single-origin pour-overs are pretty sweet, too.

The flagship Four Barrel Coffee shop and roaster is a laid-back place to savour a java

The flagship Four Barrel Coffee shop and roaster is a laid-back place to savour a java

Four Barrel Coffee
375 Valencia Street (two other San Francisco locations)
Daily 7 am-8 pm
Four Barrel Coffee on Urbanspoon

It’s easy to make a wry observation about how Ritual Coffee Roaster’s clever logo—which bears an uncanny resemblance to the old Soviet hammer and sickle—is appropriate for a young class of cafe dwellers chained to their industrial machines. In this case, the bondage is to another logo: the glowing Apple on a long row of Mac Airs.

Lining up for the morning fix at Ritual Coffee

Lining up for the morning fix at Ritual Coffee

Indeed, other than some hip-hop background music, there is precious little conversation going on, just the quiet sound of sipping and clicking. Don’t these people talk to each other?

These coffee sippers have their own "Ritual"

These coffee sippers have their own “Ritual”

By the way, Ritual makes some nice single-origin espressos and pour overs. Expect to pay $3 to $5 depending on the style and bean you choose.

Ritual Coffee Roasters
1026 Valencia Street (and two other San Francisco locations)
Monday to Thursday 6 am-8 pm, Friday 6 am-10 pm, Saturday 7 am-10 pm, Sunday 7 am-8 pm
Ritual Coffee Roasters on Urbanspoon

Overshadowed by these S.F. heavyweights, Linea Caffe is a year-old coffeehouse that’s got a few things going for it. It has a nice little, open-air corner space. On a warm day, it’s a fine place to enjoy a sidewalk coffee of their own roast, served in an elegant Heath ceramic mug.

Linea Caffe is an independent SF coffeehouse serving up creative waffles

Linea Caffe is an independent SF coffeehouse serving up creative waffles

Where Linea really distinguishes itself is the food menu, specifically the list of waffles produced in a tiny kitchen. There’s a classic Belgian waffle with mead, a pastrami and potato or an egg “sandwich” with marmalade butter. If you really want to go crazy, just add some fresh figs to the mix.

Linea Caffe
3417 18 Street
Weekdays 7 am-3 pm, weekends 8 am-4 pm
Linea Cafe on Urbanspoon

Brew U: Olds College Brewery

Lisa with all the gleaming new beer-making tanks at Olds College Brewery

Lisa with all the gleaming new beer-making tanks at Olds College Brewery

For time immemorial, university students and the swilling of suds have been inextricably linked. So to actually get educational certification for sampling and making beer, well, who wouldn’t want to enroll?

Since 2013, Olds College, in central Alberta, has been making this student dream a reality with its two-year brewmaster program. Can you imagine sitting in a campus bar and someone asking what you’re studying? “Making beer, man.” “Yeah, right.”

Yet when you think about it, it may be the perfect program for turning out freshly-minted brewmasters, or apprentices, for all these microbreweries that keep popping up across North America. And what better place to do it than at a long-standing agricultural college surrounded by some of the world’s finest barley fields?

The program was nirvana for student Lisa, who had taken her love for microbrews on a cross-country beer-sampling tour, paired with her Littlest Beer Blog on the Prairie. In honour of International Women’s Day, she and other female students in the program have developed a hopped-up Calamity Jane Pale Ale.

It’s just one of half a dozen standard and seasonal beers that Olds College Brewery sells (in bottles, cans and growlers) in its little retail outlet, a few minutes west of the frenetic Highway 2 (QE 2), an hour north of Calgary. You can also find its products in some Alberta liquor stores, pubs and restaurants. My early verdict: Some decent beers but not yet threatening the best micro-brewmasters.

A growler of oatmeal stout and a six pack of mix-and-match bottles

A growler of oatmeal stout and a six pack of mix-and-match bottles

I just have one question. Is it too late for me to go back to school?

Olds College Brewery
Corner of Highways 27 and 2A, Olds, Alberta
Monday to Saturday noon-6 pm. Closed Sunday

On a Mission to Find San Francisco’s Strangest Chinese Food

Strange but delicious dishes like squid-ink noodles and chick peas at Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco

Strange but delicious dishes like squid-ink noodles and chick peas at Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco

This can’t be the right place, I’m thinking, as I walk up a particularly dodgy stretch of Mission Street at night. But then I see the telltale signs: A small lineup on the sidewalk and, inside, some casually dressed couples hunched over bowls and plates of unusual-looking food.

Maybe it’s appropriate that Korean-born star chef Danny Bowien is taking Asian fusion cuisine to the outer limits not at an upscale location but in the dingy cacophony of San Francisco’s Mission district, where the prices for this kind of experimentation are much cheaper. Mission Chinese Food, or Lung Shan Restaurant, as the sign over the door says, is one of the darkest restaurants I’ve frequented, with little Christmas lights masking a spartan interior of plain walls and tables and, overhead, a long, red Chinese dragon.

There's a reason these photos are so dark; it's the dim lighting

There’s a reason these photos are so dark; it’s the dim lighting

But one is not here for the atmosphere but for the strange food experiments. Like a “I don’t know how this dish works but it does” plate of wonderfully chewy squid-ink noodles with chickpeas, fennel, mint and a lamb dipping sauce. Or slightly sour lamb dumplings or thrice-cooked bacon and rice cakes with bitter melon ($12). How does he think these things up?

Vegetables Mission Chinese Food style

Vegetables Mission Chinese Food style

Mission Chinese Food
2234 Mission Street, San Francisco
Daily 11:30 am-3 pm and 5 pm-10:30 pm, except closed Wednesday
Mission Chinese Food on Urbanspoon

Raising the Bakery Bar in San Francisco

Gorgeous, gooey gougere at glorious Tartine Bakery & Cafe in San Francisco

Gorgeous, gooey gougere at glorious Tartine Bakery & Cafe in San Francisco

Tartine Bakery & Cafe, in San Francisco’s Mission district, has 5,600 Yelp reviews and counting. So it doesn’t need any help from me. Still, that many people can’t be wrong, and a Canadian coffee roaster I respect suggested it as the one place I should visit on my road trip down the U.S. west coast.

Lots of tempting treats at Tartine

Lots of tempting treats at Tartine

The line, in mid-morning, is short and fast moving, and I scarcely have time to decide whether to get a buttermilk currant scone or a decadent brioche bread pudding brimming with fresh fruit. Instead, I go with a gorgeous gougere, the light, flaky pastry encasing a soft, croissant-like filling of Gruyere cheese.

I might have to add a 5,601th review.

A perfect breakfast

A perfect breakfast

Tartine co-owner and baker extraordinaire Chad Robertson also has a restaurant, Bar Tartine, and is opening a second bakery, The Manufactory, in the exquisite, historic Heath Ceramic building in San Francisco’s Mission district. It will go well with the funky Blue Bottle coffee kiosk in the same space.

Tartine Bakery & Cafe
600 Guerrero Street, San Francisco
Opens at 7:30 am Tuesday to Friday, 8 am Monday and Saturday, 9 am Sunday. Closes at 7 or 8 pm, depending on whether the moon is full and the mood strikes them. Restaurateurs of the world, can you please think of your poor customers and simplify your hours? Is that too much to ask?
Tartine Bakery on Urbanspoon

Befitting San Francisco’s socially conscious nature, Arizmendi Bakery is a cooperative. Not content just to produce good scones, muffins and breads (try the cheddar jalapeño breadsticks), Arizmendi, a loose affiliation of various local bakeries under the same name, has a mandate to create a positive workforce and develop skills.

I’m here for the $2.50 slice of the day’s thin-crust lunchtime pizza, which today comprises just three toppings: house-made tomato sauce, tangy goat cheese and fresh basil. There may be fancier creations of chef-driven pizza palaces in San Francisco, but this humble pie hits the spot, and does a world of good.

Pizza slice of the day at Arizmendi Bakery

Pizza slice of the day at Arizmendi Bakery

Arizmendi Bakery
1286 Valencia Street (and several other area locations)
Weekdays 7 am-7 pm (except closed Tuesday), weekends 8 am-7 pm
Arizmendi on Urbanspoon

Wake Me Up When the Game’s Over

We live in a world of ever-increasing impatience.

To a large extent, this is the result of technological “improvements”. It takes a long time to huff and puff up 30 flights of stairs in an office building. Yet how often do you see people in a high-speed elevator jabbing the “door closed” button if said doors stay open two seconds longer than expected?

Similarly, with the advent of turbo-charged hand dryers, who has time for those quaint low-powered models that take twice as long to dry your paws? And if Google takes more than a nanosecond to complete a search, we figure there’s something wrong with the Internet.

Indeed, you’re probably getting impatient with how long it’s taking me to make my point. Which is this: I figure a number of professional sports take so long to conduct their business that they’re bound to lose, or never attract, the attention of a younger generation accustomed to fast-paced action (think video games) and instant results.

I could pick any number of American-based pro sports leagues, which are collectively beholden to massive TV contracts and all the commercial interruptions they demand. Is there anything more maddening or interest deadening than the commercial breaks following a National Football League touchdown and then another TV timeout following the ensuing kickoff? I’ll tell you, the Netflix generation ain’t going to like that.

And with the growing American interest in world soccer, aren’t stateside fans going to notice there’s 45-plus minutes of commercial-free action per half? That is if you ignore the minute-long writhing on the ground from fake injuries or all the posturing that goes on before free kicks.

I always figured you only needed to watch the last two minutes of a National Basketball Association game, which in real time routinely takes 15 minutes to complete, given all the timeouts, intentional fouls and excruciatingly slow foul shots. Just put me out of my misery.

Given their low status on the totem pole, National Hockey League games do move along with greater dispatch. There’s nothing finer in pro sports, I contend, than playoff overtime, with virtually no stoppages for up to 20 heart-pounding, sudden-death minutes.

There are two professional sports which I figure are in particular peril for their tortoise-like state of play and potential risk of becoming irrelevant to younger would-be fans. One is Major League Baseball, where the average game in 2014 took three hours and 14 minutes to complete, with 23 seconds between pitches. Who needs a sleeping pill when you’re watching that on the couch?

A committee has been struck to speed up play, but we know what happens with committees. They spawn other committees. Expect a result in three years and 14 weeks.

The other slow-as-molasses game is professional golf. I know these guys are putting for a lot of dough. But they would do well to take one less practice swing, forgo plotting every swale on a green and, especially, heed my father’s sage advice: Miss ‘em quick.

Just yesterday, I watched in amazement as an impending playoff was held up by 1) the disappearance of the players for the obligatory signing of scorecards (does any other sport in the world depend on the participants to keep score?) 2) the long cart ride to the start of the first playoff hole, on the 18th tee, and 3) the drawing of who-hits-first numbers and then hand shaking all around.

I know the biggest gallery is surrounding the 18th green, but there are millions more watching on television who would no doubt appreciate a much quicker dash to the nearby first tee. On this particular Sunday, the playoff went to a second hole, which involved an even longer cart ride from the 18th green back to the 16th tee.

At that moment—after all the dicking around of generally glacial play and riding around in carts to unconnected playoff holes—the play-by-play guy announced that TV coverage would be terminated for all viewers except on the west coast. Thanks for watching for four hours! Too bad we couldn’t show you the conclusion. Can you imagine the latest Super Bowl coverage ending 30 seconds before that fateful interception?

After all that golf inaction, I’m sure 18 year olds are signing up en masse for the Golf Channel. As for those of you who say these waste-of-a-day sports will never lose their popularity, I have two words: Horse racing.