Five Days in San Francisco

July 8, 2012

Steamers at the Hog Island Oyster Co.

Birthdays. Everyone has his own way of approaching them. Some revel in the attention and others rail at the injustice of the day’s annual assault. Not J, not this year. This June 26 we made plans to escape to San Francisco, a city we’d both spent time in but had never visited together.

Our goal was simple. We would hike the hills by day, reward ourselves with a memorable midday meal, nap in the afternoon, then eat some more.

Before I get into details, a bit of context is necessary. First, we stayed at the Westin St. Francis on Union Square, and I was skeptical that we’d find good restaurants nearby that weren’t tourist traps. The second point is that we walked everywhere. We took a cab only once, and that was on J’s birthday night. This somewhat limited where we explored, and had we had more time, we would have gone further afield.

With that said and without further adieu, here are my favorite dining experiences in order of appearance.

Rouge et Blanc and Cafe de la Presse

Quiche and croque at Rouge et Blanc.

I am cheating a little by grouping these together because they are separate places and we went on separate occasions. But they are part of the same business, so the food is similar. The first occasion was on our first day in SF. We’d traveled all night by train and were exhausted from lack of sleep. After the unavailability of our hotel room forced us to wander for several hours, we finally landed at Rouge et Blanc, a little wine bar a few steps from Chinatown. Our fatigue was nothing that a bottle of wine and some delectable nibbles couldn’t relieve. Ham and cheese croque cut into bite-sized cubes, and mini quiche provided sustenance, while the view from our shaded sidewalk table made for irresistible people-watching.

Croque madame at Cafe de la Presse.

The second occasion was the next afternoon. We’d spent the morning taking in the feather- and balloon-festooned, clothing-optional spectacle of the San Francisco Pride Parade. Afterward we continued on our daily trek until we landed back in Union Square where hunger overtook us, and Cafe de la Presse, a quaint corner cafe, beckoned. We snagged a window table inside, out of the sun, and enjoyed oysters, a burger for J and a luscious egg-topped croque madame pour moi.  The cafe’s Francophile design — from the newsstand stocked with French magazines to the closely set tables — set a comfortable tone and the food was good. These two simple meals were among my favorites.

Little Delhi

Butter chicken.

Good to the last drop.

Sunday night and Market Street still hummed with energy from the parade and more than a few of those who may have over-imbibed. Our first dinner choice, Ajisen Ramen, had just closed and we were left to wing it, but luck was on our side when we stumbled upon Little Delhi. The place was packed and there was a waiting list, but the aroma of curry spices tickled our noses and persuaded us to wait.

We eventually got a table and ordered our perennial favorites (lamb rogan josh and saag paneer) plus one of the house specialties, butter chicken in a red curry reminiscent of a deeply smoky barbecue sauce. That sauce left us craving more — or at least more naan for cleaning the bowl.

Ajisen Ramen

Ramen for breakfast.

Thwarted the previous night, we set out first thing on Monday morning for a true noodles-for-breakfast experience. Located next to Panda Express on the lower-level food court of the Westfield mall on Market Street, Ajisen Ramen was an unexpected find. We arrived early and had to wait for the business to open, so we did not have the full dining experience. But if the clipboard near the entrance for first-come first-served seating is an indication, this is a local lunchtime favorite. The morning menu is limited to ramen, but that’s what we came for, so that’s what we had. J had the Premium Pork Ramen with tender pork belly bites. I had the Ajisen Spicy Pork Ramen, a warming bowl of delicious soup that made the lips tingle. The friendly, soft-spoken waiter also sold me. This was another of the trip’s standout meals.

The Alembic

Beer-battered fish sammy.

Our morning carb load propelled us westward to Golden Gate Park where we wandered the Japanese garden and the science museum until our stomachs rumbled. Nearby Alembic was recommended by a trusted source for its artisan cocktails and gastropub fare. Of course, it being Monday afternoon, we couldn’t possibly indulge in a cocktail. (Cough.) But after running the nouveau-hippie gauntlet currently occupying Haight Street … well, we were swayed. That, and we needed something to accompany the plump kraut dog with chicharrones, the jerk-spiced duck hearts and beer-battered rockfish sandwich. Free hugs!

Scala’s Bistro

Monday’s trek was long, and my only requirement for dinner was that it be nearby. Rather than stop at the restaurant in our hotel lobby, we went the extra half block up to the Sir Francis Drake and Scala’s Bistro. At 9 pm, the dining room was boisterous and the noise level difficult to shout over, but Italian food was just what we needed. Caesar salad, asparagus salad, pappardelle with sugo, and a salty prosciutto pizza hit the spot. And the service was impeccable. Sadly, it was too dark for photos.

Hog Island Oyster Co.

Words cannot do justice.

J’s birthday. We spent the morning climbing Powell and California streets, dropping down Lombard, scaling the stairs of Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower and from there cutting over to the Ferry Building for lunch. The arduous morning expedition demanded some reward, so we directed our buns of steel toward oysters.

Melted bliss.

As it was with most worthwhile places we encountered, there was a line to get into Hog Island Oyster Co., but it was worth the wait. We sat at the counter with the perfect vantage point for all the shucking and cooking. We shared a dozen oysters drizzled with the most balanced, delicious mignonette I’ve tasted. J had the clam chowder and I the steamers, both laden with in-shell little gems in rich, delectable broths. And of course we could not resist the grilled cheese sandwich oozing with melted Gruyere. By far, Hog Island gave us the most memorable meal of the week.

The Slanted Door

Yellowtail sashimi.

We had talked for a few years about taking a trip to San Francisco, and this restaurant had long been on our radar. Rave reviews and write-ups as one of SF’s most beloved restaurants had piqued our interest, and when I made dinner reservations for J’s birthday here, expectations were high. I won’t say we were disappointed, but it’s not the destination I had anticipated. It’s definitely a scene and was brimming with locals, tourists and young tech professionals. The new spin on Vietnamese classics resulted in well-seasoned, tasty dishes, and we chose based on recommendations from our waiter. The highlight of the meal was the four delicate slices of yellowtail sashimi we had as a starter. Grilled pork belly lettuce wraps garnished with delicately floral shiso leaves was a lovely first course. The Shaking Beef, cubed filet mignon on a bed of wilted watercress and red onion had nice flavors, but the meat was chewy. We were not agape. It didn’t help that the two young product developers seated next to us talked shop nonstop. Maybe that just made it all too workaday. Maybe our standards have changed after living in Chicago, L.A. and now Portland. Maybe we should have ordered more items to give it more of a chance. But we move on.

Gott’s Roadside

Paper-wrapped burgers, onion rings and fries.

Our last full day in San Francisco started with the all-too-familiar hills, and this time we headed toward the marina and the Presidio for a better view of the bridge. A harshly sunny day, the trek back to the Ferry Building seemed to take forever. Our intended destination was a ramen cart at the farmers’ market, but alas, the market was not there this day, nor was the ramen. The daily queue at Gott’s Roadside had been a favorable sign, so we grabbed a menu and took our place in line. Gott’s specialty is burgers wrapped in paper and fries served in paper baskets. J had the straightforward bacon cheeseburger (highly recommended). Of the skinny patty variety, Gott’s burgers are tasty and juicy on a toasted egg bun, with the toppings perfectly complementing one another — a delicious complete package. I had the blue cheese burger — good, but the cheese overpowered the flavor of the burger. I wished I’d kept it simple and had the cheeseburger as well. One surprisingly nice note about Gott’s: In addition to the sodas and shakes, there’s also beer and wine. By the bottle, even. So our late lunch was accompanied by a refreshing French rosé.

Bangkok Noodles

Spicy red curry noodles.

Our last night. How did it go so quickly? We noticed Bangkok Noodles down the street from our hotel, and noted the ever-present line out the door. So on our final night, we assessed the online menu and headed over to slurp last noodles of the trip. When we arrived, we were fortunate (?) enough to get a spot at the small counter — really just a wall with a narrow ledge attached and chairs for seating. Our knees jutting at awkward angles to avoid bumping into the wall or each other, we perused the noodle- and rice-centric menu. Unfortunately, we learned, the Powell Street location does not serve appetizers or beer or wine and we briefly contemplated going elsewhere for our final dinner. But the noodles were too tempting.

Beef noodle soup.

J had the combination sliced beef and meatballs in a spicy noodle soup. I had the sliced pork and egg in spicy coconut-milk curry. Creamy, warming, salty and sweet. For good measure, and to ensure a late-night snack or tomorrow’s breakfast, we ordered pad se lew to go: flat rice noodle with Chinese broccoli, egg and black bean sauce.

And poof, our trip was over. We’ve vowed to return soon when we feel the need for big-city fix, mountainous hills and another culinary adventure.

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3 Responses to “Five Days in San Francisco”

  1. lizbeth said

    Walk and eat – what a concept…I love it. thanks

  2. Julia said

    I felt like I was there with you. thanks for the writeup. can’t wait to see you and try some food in pdx!

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