I spent 6 days in the Bay Area this past week, and ate some fantastic food. This was my first time back in SF since moving away in 2009, so I went back to several old favorites, but also tried some new places. I've organized my report with numbers, so you (the reader) can feel free to skip over the boring parts. Here's the outline:
1. Hawker Fare – Oakland
2. Poc Chuc – Mission
3. Yum Yum – Inner Sunset
4. Shanghai Dumpling King – Outer Richmond
5. Mission Chinese - Mission
6. Kate's Kitchen – Lower Haight
7. Sahn Maru – Oakland
8. Haven – Oakland
Smaller Snacks and Drinks
9. Alemany Farmer's Market
10. Taqueria San Jose – Mission
11. Tartine Bread, Mission Cheese, El Rio – Mission
12. SiamSaigon – Bernal Heights
13. Blackbird – Castro
14. Make Westing – Oakland
15. Taqueria Vallarta – Mission
16. Mission Pie – Mission
1. Hawker Fare – Oakland – I ate here on Thursday for lunch, with one dining companion, and things were hopping! We had to wait a bit for a table, but once we were seated, service was good and I liked the lively atmosphere. I was in a particularly good mood, thanks to great weather and seeing an old friend, so maybe this impacted my opinion of the place, but I thought it was really fantastic. Boston doesn't really have anything like this, in terms of menu-style, price point or quality, so I had some Bay Area envy. We started with an order of blistered green beans, which were very good. Nice blistered outside, but still crisp on the inside, the beans were quite sweet and also tasted strongly of dried shrimp. The sauce was intense, and I was glad to have rice with my lunch to balance this out. But overall, a really nice side dish and a generous serving. We next had two rice bowls: "Satay" beef short-ribs and the pork belly. The pork belly dish, served with preserved mustard greens, was really good – pork belly had amazing sweet flavor, and was a generous serving. Dipping sauce with some five-spice and heavy on mustard came on the side. Rice was cooked well, and it was a nice presentation. Our waiter suggested I add an egg to this dish, which we did for $1.50….I actually didn't think it really added very much, possibly because by the time we ate the egg, it was cooked to medium-well (a runny yolk might have been better)….but I don't think it really needed the egg. The short-ribs, meanwhile, were pretty tasty. Not a whole lot of flavor on the meat itself, but it was served with rice and vegetables (bok choi) which was good…but the peanut sauce served with it was fantastic. I really really liked that peanut sauce, which contained coconut among other things. I wish I could get the recipe. So, overall, I was very pleased with the experience, and I wish a restaurant like this could open in Boston too.
2. Poc Choc – Mission – I ate here a few times in 2008 and 2009, and I remember liking it, particularly the tortillas. This time, it was only OK. The fried plantains were great – sweet and soft. The appetizer platter was decent, but not as flavorful as I remembered. Nice spicy salsas come with the appetizer platter, as well as with the chips, but I thought some of the small bites were lacking in flavor. Nice presentation, however. Finally, the poc chuc (grilled pork) was pretty boring, and was served with some somewhat boring rice and beans and fried onions. In my opinion, somewhat like fajitas, but not quite as good. Service was good, and the agua de tamarindo was great, so it was still a decent experience overall, but I probably wouldn't rush back.
3. Yum Yum – Vietnamese in Inner Sunset – This was one of my favorites from when I lived in SF, and I am happy to report that it's just as good as ever. The table next to us ordered crab, which looked fantastic, but we didn't get any. We had the chicken salad, which was very good, but was lacking in the chicken department! Flavorwise, just as good as I remembered, but with much less chicken. Maybe they were running out in the kitchen? I would estimate it was 5% chicken and 95% cabbage, and I remember it being more like 20%/80% before. The banh khot were as fantastic as I remembered, served with lettuce to wrap and a dipping sauce – mild coconut flavor, tender shrimp, really good. Finally, we tried the catfish in claypot, which I am sometime reluctant to order…but this was the best version I've ever had. Very generous serving of catfish, which was flaky and mostly boneless and had almost no swampy taste at all. Caramel sauce was bubbling when it arrived at the table, and was great on top of some rice. A great meal, these three dishes were more than enough food for 2 people.
4. Shanghai Dumpling King – Outer Richmond – Another old favorite of mine, this place was still fantastic. I actually went here immediately before going to Mission Chinese (as a pre-dinner), which may have been a tactical error because I like SDK much better. We mainly went for the pork XLB, which were really good (again, better than any version in Boston) and the donuts (which are also still fantastic). We got there at 5:30 PM on a Sunday, and I expected the place to still be quiet, but it was packed! Apparently it was just featured on Check Please, so there were big crowds. We shared a table with some other folks, who shared their food, too – pea pod stems with garlic were great, scallion pancake was meh. Stick to dumplings in the appetizer department.
5. Mission Chinese – Mission – Like I said, we ate here after a pre-dinner snack at Shanghai Dumpling King, and it was an interesting contrast. Overall, I didn't really like Mission Chinese, although everything we tried was decent, if not good. Perhaps we ordered poorly, but I felt that everything was spicy and/or very bold tasting – I guess my big problem with Mission Chinese was an overall lack of subtlety. It's like they took Chinese cuisine (which I love) and extracted all of the big, bold flavors and emphasized only those, adding in lots of hipsters and loud blaring music (at one point, as our waitress cleared the table, she was actually dancing to this music, and I exchanged a glance with my DC – we were both worried she would drop everything). So anyway, we shared several things. Tea Smoked Eel was one of my favorite dishes – served sort of like a sushi roll in tender rice noodles. Good flavor, but tasted sort of like hoisin sauce, even though this is not listed as an ingredient on the menu. Li Bao Dry Braised Noodles were my other favorite – I really liked the ground turnip in this dish, and for a mainly veggie noodle dish, there were lots of great flavors (although I guess it's not veggie with the XO sauce, and a noticeable dried shrimp taste). Mouth Watering Chicken had lots of chili and Sichuan peppercorn, but to me, it lacked salt. I added a bit of soy sauce and I thought that made it better, but this version was different from the Sichuan version I am used to, which is sweeter and saltier. Also, the chicken hearts on top of it really didn’t add very much for me, especially since they were cold. Thrice cooked bacon was good in theory, but I thought the ingredients were out of proportion. Lots of rice cakes, which were great, but actually hard to distinguish from the thin sliced bacon, which was a bit sparse. Not as sparse as the bitter melon, though – there were probably 6 small (quarter sized) pieces in the whole dish, but it could have used more. I don't remember seeing any tofu skin at all. Flavors were good though, but again, intensely flavored. Sizzling cumin lamb was OK, with lamb chops on the bone. I liked the lamb itself, but most of the rest of the plate was filled with white onions which weren't very cooked. I thought this was too bad. This reminds me that there were onions in the bacon dish as well, which didn't add much except volume on the plate. Finally, we had the wild pepper leaves – definitely accurate that they were served in salted (i.e. salty) chili broth. The leaves were fine, the broth was nice but not really drinkable for me (too salty and spicy), so I am not sure what the point was. Another problem I had with this meal was that we were not served any rice, nor were we offered any. In retrospect, I should have ordered some, but it's kind of funny that they don't encourage that or offer it. I dunno, I guess this place sort of rubbed me the wrong way, even if each individual dish was fine on its own.
6. Kate's Kitchen – Lower Haight – Ate here for breakfast. It was fine. Homemade breakfast sausage was good, as was my biscuit. Good prices, but nothing very special about this place. Homefries were decent. Probably wouldn't rush to eat here again, but not bad for what it is.
7. Sahn Maru – Oakland – Ate here on Monday thanks to advice from this thread http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/828575. It's right next door to Casserole House, where I had been before, and I think next time I'd return to Casserole House. Sahn Maru was OK but not great – the biggest problem for me was the panchan, which I thought were all sort of boring/watery. The kimchee especially was served in a very small serving (we had to ask for more) and it was pretty mild. We had bulgogi which was pretty good, although some of the onions could have been more caramelized – this was served with bean sauce and lettuce wraps, which I liked. Also had dolsot bibimbap, which was fine. We were served a complimentary dessert of cinnamon ginger tea which was new to me, and actually quite nice. So, certainly not bad, but I wasn't wowed by this meal, either.
8. Haven – Oakland – I thought this was a great meal, and I wrote my review of it in a different thread, which can be found here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/828935
9. Alemany Farmer's Market – This market is still great, even in the winter, and was bigger than I remembered. Had a Chilean empanada, which was excellent as always, and an alfajor, which was also great. Also had some pupusas, which weren't as amazing as I remembered, but still pretty good. Sampled lots of great citrus (sweet lemons, blood oranges, pomelos), as well as Asian pears and persimmons. I really miss this market.
10. Taqueria San Jose – Mission – Stopped in for a single taco al pastor, and a strawberry juice. Both as great as I remembered, and it comes with chips and access to the salsa bar, making it one of the better snacks available in SF for less than $5.
11. El Rio/Tartine Bread/Mission Cheese - I was meeting several friends for drinks at El Rio, so I wanted to bring some snacks in to share….I went to Tartine at 4:30, waited in line for about 15 minutes, but walked out with a hot-out-of-the-oven bread. Then stopped by the new Mission Cheese, and bought three cheeses to eat with the bread. One of them was "Sofia" a soft goat milk cheese, which was pretty fantastic with the bread, but really pretty much any cheese would be good with that bread, which I had been dreaming about for weeks. I liked our server at Mission Cheese, and it seems like a cute place, even though all I bought was cheese-to-go. Bringing warm bread to El Rio was a very good idea. I will probably repeat this tactic on every visit from now on.
12. SiamSaigon – Bernal Heights – Got some food to go from here. I had a very boring chicken noodle soup. One of my friends got a duck kee mao, which was better. This is a relatively new place, and seems fine, but not that special.
13. Blackbird – Castro – I got drinks here twice during my visit. The happy hour is a good deal, although on my second visit I opted for an Old Fashioned, which is not included in Happy Hour. Drinks are well made, syrups seem to be homemade, and nice amount of care put into things. I liked this bar, especially on my second visit when it was less crowded.
14. Make Westing – Another fun bar – not very crowded when I went on Monday, so we got to play a nice round of bocce. I had the Carolac – Rye, St. George Absinthe, Averna, Orange Bitters, Brown Sugar – and it was potent but delicious. Lots of bitters, which I really liked.
15. Taqueria Vallarta – Mission (24th St. location) – Stopped by for a snack, another taco favorite for me – I had a taco de suadero, which was also as great as I remembered. Still the same great salsas, too. I really miss this.
16. Mission Pie – Had a slice of the raspberry pear pie, and a cup of tea. Very good pie, and especially nice since I had it warmed up.
There were some other snacks here and there, not to mention several excellent homemade meals by my friends, so it was a very good trip overall. I hope to make it back soon, since there's lots more I'd like to try on my next visit!