Category Archives: San Francisco

Citizen’s Band an Upscale, Down-and-Dirty Diner

Citizen's Band ups the burger ante with a medium-rare Kobe patty, tomato marmalade and challah bun

Citizen’s Band ups the burger ante with a medium-rare Kobe patty, tomato marmalade and challah bun

I can’t quite tell if Citizen’s Band, in San Francisco’s South of Market neighbourhood, is a grunge bar or an upscale diner. Maybe a bit of both.

Definitely the former with its industrial soundtrack and darkened interior. Though they throw me off with a selection of wines, craft beers and especially lemonades tinged with basil, strawberry or mint.

The short menu is also a mixed grill, ranging from poutine to hash and eggs emerging from chef/co-owner Chris Beerman’s small, open kitchen. Unexpected little details also make their mark, like the 12-hour-cooked pork belly in the ramen to the Idaho-raised kobe beef in my medium-rare burger, served with tomato marmalade in a challah bun from Pinkie’s Bakery next door.

When it comes down to food this flavourful, I don’t really care what kind of place they call it.

Citizen’s Band
1198 Folsom Street, San Francisco
Weekdays 11:30 am-2 pm and 5 pm onwards, weekends 10 am-2 pm and 5:30 pm onwards
Citizen's Band on Urbanspoon

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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

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

On a Mission to Find San Francisco’s Best Burrito

 

Reflection of Taqueria El Farolito on San Francisco's colourful Mission Street

Reflection of Taqueria El Farolito on San Francisco’s colourful Mission Street

According to those who study such things, San Francisco’s Mission district is the epicentre of North America’s burrito scene, at least north of the Rio Grande. There’s a reason it’s called the Burrito Belt, with countless taquerias doing their take on this Mexican torpedo classic.

But which is the best to visit on perhaps your only foray into this colourful SF district? Wars have been fought over less, with loyalty and personal taste weighing heavily on the outcome. Some folks, for instance, won’t touch burritos containing rice and beans; others insist on it.

After an exhaustive, nationwide search, the Mission’s La Taqueria was recently named the best burrito maker in the U.S. Phooey, say some. It’s long-standing Taqueria El Farolito. Others prefer Taqueria Cancun or maybe El Metate. You can sift through thousands of Yelp reviews should you care to do your own online research.

To me, it’s as much about the experience as the actual burrito composition and taste. The main character in this drama is faded, dirty Mission Street itself, with no wish to become gentrified.

Faded Mission Street is home to many burrito palaces

Faded Mission Street is home to many burrito palaces

Fitting exquisitely into this unvarnished aesthetic is Taqueria El Farolito. The outside sign has faded towards illegibility, the order line a narrow row skirting plastic tables. I look over the counter and watch a guy attacking a huge pile of cooked steak with a menacing chopping knife.

Preparing the meats for the lunch burrito crowd at El Farolito

Preparing the meats for the lunch burrito crowd at El Farolito

But the real theatre is at the front, where through grease-stained glass, I observe a whirling-dervish cook working the blacktop. Wielding two long metal spatulas, this pro lightly singes oversized tortillas, tosses sizzling, marinated meat and then rolls everything up into two-pound logs, which he might sever in half with a decisive thwack of said spatula.

Decades of grease cloud the glass overlooking the grill at El Farolito

Decades of grease cloud the glass overlooking the grill at El Farolito

Make sure you order a super burrito, which includes all the fixings, including avocado, and your choice and style of grilled meat. And don’t forget to throw some good, house-made guacamole, salsa and pico de gallo into little plastic cups, and keep splashing them on as you work through the layers.

If you’ve got the time and stomach space, consider organizing your own burrito crawl up Mission Street. A warning: After just a couple of stops, you might be reduced to a crawl.

Taqueria El Farolito
2779 Mission Street (several other area locations)
Daily 10 am-2:45 am
El Farolito on Urbanspoon