As much as I hate to admit this, I will concede that our neighbors up north do have a pretty
respectable vibrant food scene. During the week of Christmas, a few college friends and I drove up to San Francisco and crashed at Rosalie’s family home, which is nestled in Outer Sunset.
According to our meticulously maintained spreadsheet, we hit up 24 eateries, bakeries, and cafes in the span of 6 days, excluding a gracious Christmas dinner with Rosalie’s extended family.
I decided to map out all the food spots we visited during that trip. They include both old favorites as well as new places. As for my top picks (also featured below), they’re all starred in the map below.
Without further ado, here are 5 suggestions if you’re looking to grab a bite in SF (or more generally, the Bay Area)!
№ 1. Clam chowder at Hog Island Oyster Company
No trip to SF is complete without a bowl of clam chowder. So during our pre-trip research, we scouted out for the best clam chowder in the city. That’s how we stumbled across Hog Island Oyster Company, which is located at the back of the Ferry Building.
Hog Island, as the name implies, specializes in oysters, so we made sure to order some grilled oysters. I’m not a huge fan of oysters, but the oysters were quite delicious–each grilled in theatrical mix of sauces and herbs.
But I was really there for their clam chowder, and boy did it the spot. For $14, we were treated to a generous quantity of manila clams and potatoes, all simmered in a warm, creamy broth.
While others have complained by the chowder’s thinner consistency, I found it to be a refreshing change from the archetypal clam chowder, which tends to be chunky and dense, overly saturated with starch.
Hog Island Oyster Co.
1 Ferry Bldg Shop 11
San Francisco, CA 94111
Call it a gimmick, but I honestly think Eatsa embodies the future of fast food service in the United States. For one, Japan is almost there, where orders at many restaurants made on vending machines, and where contact with restaurant staff is minimal at best. Automated ordering, love it or hate it, I think it’s here to stay.
Eatsa kicks this system up a notch, using minimalistic aesthetics, LED screens, beautiful cubbies, and slick tablets to make orders. Basically, each customer customizes their quinoa bowl on tablets that transmit the order to the back kitchen.
As meals are being placed into the cubbies, the cubbies dim. When the order is ready, the customer’s name flashes on a huge LED panel, indicating which cubby from which to pick the meal up.
I selected the no worry curry, a quinoa bowl comprising egg, arugula, roasted potatoes, spaghetti squash, curried parsnip strips, pickled onions, red Thai curry, apple-cabbage slaw. (All of Eatsa’s meal options are vegetarian.)
Surprisingly, the quinoa bowl was quite hearty, especially for a price point below $10. While the bowl was especially ambitious in trying to pair cole slaw with Thai red curry, taken in its totality, the quinoa bowl was pretty darn delicious. The red curry had a nice spicy kick. Definitely worth a try, if not just for the experience. (According to the latest buzz, Eatsa recently opened up an outlet in Socal, namely Woodland Hills).
121 Spear St,
San Francisco, CA 94105
№ 3. Tofu salad at Kyain Kyain
Now Fremont doesn’t technically count as San Francisco, but Kyain Kyain merits a mention, because their tofu salad, one of the national delicacies of Burma, is on point. It has to be one of the best renditions I’ve had in the United States.
Coming from LA (with its paucity of decent Burmese restaurants), I was pleasantly surprised by Kyain Kyain’s selection of Burmese dishes. Given it was Clifford’s first time having Burmese food, I made a point to sample a number of quintessentially Burmese dishes, including chicken curry coconut milk noodle soup (ono khao swe အုန်းနို့းခေါက်ဆွဲ), paratha with goat curry (hseit tha palatha ဆိတ်ားပလာတာ), tea leaf salad (laphet thoke လက်ဖက်သုပ်) and noodle salad with curry chicken (khao swe thoke ခေါက်ဆွဲသုပ်)
The tea leaf salad, consisting of fermented tea leaves, julienned cabbage, cherry tomatoes, diced green chilis, twice fried beans, nuts and garlic), dried shrimp, sesame seeds, all seasoned in a fish sauce dressing, was absolutely refreshing. Traditional Burmese custom holds that tea leaf salad is eaten at the end of the meal, a savory refreshment in lieu of dessert. And it did exactly that.
But I could go on and on about Kyain Kyain’s tofu salad. We Burmese have our own form of so-called ‘tofu,’ which is really pureed chickpea flour, turmeric, and water that’s then pureed and then carefully gelatinized. It’s often the centerpiece of savory Burmese-style salads, or fried as a street snack.
With its signature tanginess and medley of textures: the crunch of the cabbage to the melt-in-your-mouth smoothness of the tofu slivers, the tofu salad was as close as you can get to legit tofu salad in this country. The only missing ingredient, in my humble opinion, were newly sprouted citrus leaves, which enhances the tender and tangy flavors of the salad.
Kyain Kyain ကြိုင်ကြိုင်
3649 Thornton Ave
Fremont, CA 94536
№ 4. Deep-fried pigeon at Hakka Restaurant
After the long drive up to SF our first night, we found our way to Hakka Restaurant, a humble neighborhood eatery. I was especially excited to try this place, not least because I grew up eating a profusion of Hakka dishes as a kid (my mom’s side is Hakka), and because restaurants specializing in Hakka dishes are quite uncommon in the United States.
For some context, the Hakka people traditionally live in the highlands of Southern China, far away from the abundant coastal regions. Consequently, because of geographic isolation and the hardship that comes from living in the hinterlands, Hakka dishes tend to be quite spartan in comparison to other regional Chinese cooking styles, with a preference for simmering and braising and usage of preserved vegetables. The Hakka also pride themselves on their distinct cultural identity. For instance, my grandma, in comparing her people to other Southern Chinese groups, would often proudly assert that the Hakka, unlike other Chinese groups, did not subject their women to traditional foot-binding, a cruel practice that was commonplace throughout the Chinese-speaking world until the last century.
But the main treat was deep-fried pigeon (紅燒乳鴿), which we ordered off the main menu, after spotting a paper sign reading “紅燒乳鴿” on the wall. More accurately called ‘squab,’ it’s a juvenile domesticated pigeon. Served with some salt, the squab meat was tender, with a crunchy but relatively fat-free skin.
To our surprise, our dinner also included the soup of the day, a Hakka-style lotus root soup with spare ribs (排骨蓮藕湯), immediately bringing back memories of my childhood fascination with the unusual pock-marked design of the lotus root (slicing the lotus root reveals its unusual circular holes).
Hakka Restaurant 客家山莊
4401 Cabrillo St
San Francisco, CA 94121
№ 5. Chicken mole at El Metate
Our second night in SF, we spent the evening taking a stroll in Mission District (there’s an awesome book shop, Alley Cat Books, a few blocks down), to build up our appetite for dinner at El Metate, one of SF’s most well known Mexican eateries.
The restaurant is tucked inside a flamboyantly yellow-stuccoed building. It’s quite hard to miss. And their mole is spectacularly good. If you blink, you may miss the mole at El Metate.
I was initially overwhelmed by the sheer selection of menu items up on the wall, given my natural tendency toward indecision when faced with the real dilemma of ordering a meal. As my eyes darted from one panel to the next, they came across a handwritten sign proclaiming the day’s special: “Chicken Mole – Award Winner Homemade Mole Sauce Served with Rice, Pinto Beans, and Salsa Fresca.” Then and there, my decision was made.
Anybody who knows me probably knows that my favorite Mexican dishes come served with mole sauce. The rice plate came with carefully cooked chicken (bones intact), doused in a velvety red mole sauce, with a side of beans, red rice, and a few tortillas. The sauce was balanced, neither too sweet nor too savory, and the fact that the bones were still intact meant that the chicken meat was still tender and juicy. A+.
2406 Bryant St
San Francisco, CA 94110