Eating Through San Francisco

I knew I was back in Paris this morning when I got on the metro. At 7:30, the cars on line 6 aren’t the sweaty, crowded bunkers you encounter later in the day. Actually, this morning, still caught somewhere between sleep and awake, I had to remind myself I was in public transportation on my way to work and not in a library. That’s the atmosphere that reigns on a sulky Monday morning. My fellow travelers are about a dozen students on their way to school- lectures, exams, orals- there’s always something. A shy handful might be high schoolers, but most are university students, deep in their hand-written notes. The guy to the left of me was focused on long math equations; the girl en face was lost in Spanish; the skinny man to the right was highlighting something that looked like economics; even the curly red-haired woman near the door (who didn’t look like she was stressed about a test) was reading some thick French novel. I’m wondering what they’re all doing now- at 7 in the evening. I’m sure their day of classes at la fac is finished. Maybe they’re at café terraces, under outdoor heaters and bundled up in thick winter scarves. Maybe they’re buying cheap spaghetti and tomato sauce for dinner. Maybe they’re in a real library. Or, maybe they’re on their way back home.

That’s where I am- home. Sipping a cup of tea and gathering up my notes from San Francisco. I’m going to jump right in and tell you about the very best foodie find ever: Bi-Rite Creamery and Bakeshop. I’d been hearing about this spot for a couple years and, finally, got to go. Located near Dolores Park in the Mission District, Bi-Rite has (I’m being very truthful here) some of THE BEST ICE CREAM I HAVE EVER HAD. The unique flavors will reel you in: orange cardamom, brown sugar with ginger caramel swirls, salted caramel (I get this wherever I go), roasted banana, cinnamon with snicker doodles (I learned these where little sugar cookies rolled in cinnamon), earl grey, Meyer lemon… Oh yes, I tried every one of these! To top it off, I’m giving Bi-Rite some of my “sustainability kudos”: compostable cups and tiny wooden spoons.

In addition to ice cream, this was the second time I went back to Kara’s Cupcakes in Ghirardelli Square. Started as a small catering business, Kara’s now has five stores in the Bay area (the first of which was in San Francisco). Some people seem to think the whole cupcake craze is coming to an end, but I don’t think so. It seems to just be starting here in France- though I haven’t found any as good as these. Kara’s has good old-fashioned ones (vanilla chocolate, gluten free vanilla, carrot…) as well as “filled” ones. I recommend the Meyer lemony lemon, with a tangy filling inside and buttery frosting on top.

I also strolled through China Town where I visited some traditional grocery stores (live frogs and turtles for sale) and the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. Here, you can watch women folding fortune after fortune into cookie after cookie. It’s a tiny little place, hidden away on Ross Alley. The streets in China Town are so colorful, especially at Chinese New Year. My favorite buildings are on Waverly Place – thanks in part to my early introduction to Amy Tan (we’d listen to The Joy Luck Club and stories about Waverly Jong  as a family in the car) and part to a family visit to the Tin How Temple (#125 Waverly Place) on my first trip to San Francisco in 1996. I always enjoy wondering around the streets, smelling the herbs seeping into the air from the pharmacies and looking into the all-knowing eyes of the old women coming up the sidewalks.

A few more places I should mention are the coffee shops (slash bakeries). It’s not easy to find a satisfying cup of coffee in the US, not when you’ve been spoiled with strong European espressos. I didn’t actually discover Blue Bottle Coffee until the morning I was leaving, but it was by far the best coffee I tried (and I tried every day for two weeks). Since it was the last shebang, I opted for a moka. Not too sweet and nice rich coffee flavor. The reason it took me so long to find this place is because the address I’d been told about looked pretty much like a little shack on Linden Street (more or less an alley way). Blue Bottle calls this location a “coffee kiosk”. During open-hours there is quite a line for such a hidden place. I’d also recommend Frogs Hollow Farm in the Ferry Plaza Building and La Boulange in Hayes Valley for breakfast. The coffee’s decent and the pastries are quite nice. At Frogs Hollow I’d go for the granola, yogurt and seasonal fruit (the scones, unfortunately, seemed small compared to what I remembered from last year). At La Boulange, try to raspberry financié.

Since I’m on a bit of a French run (talking about bakeries and all), I’ll mention Bistro Central Parc for a special dinner. Located near the Panhandle, this is a “neighborhood” restaurant that offers traditional French cuisine. I didn’t know this “bistro” beforehand, but was lucky to be introduced to it by friends. The atmosphere was relaxed and modern, yet reminiscent of Europe. The food was excellent. For vegetarians, they propose a “Chef’s vegetarian special”, but I chose the special fish of the day: trout with slivered almonds. I was happy to see this dish on the menu because that’s exactly how the fishmonger here in Paris told me to prepare my trout (grill it with almonds). That was a hint that even in San Francisco, French tradition abounds.

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