SF food
December 24, 2009 5:22 PM   Subscribe

What to eat in San Francisco/the Bay Area that I can't find in Chicago?

Going to be there for a few days. Looking for some great food recs. What does San Francisco do better than Chicago? What is available there that I can't get in the Windy City?

Mostly looking for restaurants, but I'll have access to a kitchen for a few days, so any can't-miss-food-shopping experiences would be cool too.

posted by AceRock to Food & Drink (40 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Burrito or taco. Go to El Farlito in the Mission.
posted by Duffington at 5:31 PM on December 24, 2009

In Chicago you get Alinea, but in Berkeley you get Alice Waters.
posted by thejoshu at 5:32 PM on December 24, 2009

Seconding a burrito. Burritoeater.com is my go-to resource for finding places. El Farolito and Taqueria Can-Cun are popular, and justly so.

The Ferry Building houses a food-oriented marketplace. Lots of good stuff there.

Blue Bottle makes a very, very good cup of coffee.
posted by tellumo at 5:42 PM on December 24, 2009

Pizza. Just kidding. Burritos and chocolate.
posted by iamkimiam at 5:42 PM on December 24, 2009

Good God, it's Dungeness crab season. If you can eat shellfish and you like it, eat it!

Yes to a good burrito from the Mission.
posted by rtha at 5:44 PM on December 24, 2009

Oh, restaurants. Right.

nopa is excellent - local, seasonal, delicious. Great wine list and fantastic cocktails.
posted by rtha at 5:47 PM on December 24, 2009

I also came in here to recommend dungeness crab.
posted by Burhanistan at 6:06 PM on December 24, 2009

Burrito, of course. But also, since you'll have a kitchen and come from a place with real winters, check out the farmer's markets to see fresh fruits and vegetables in December. Tuesdays (and Saturdays, I think) at the Ferry Plaza, Wednesdays and Sundays at UN Plaza/Civic Center. (The biggest market is on Saturdays on Alemany Blvd but it's hard to get to by public transit.) Currently in season: persimmons, citrus fruits, almonds, dates, and tons of less glamorous squash, vegetables and greens.

Although liquids are a problem for air travel, try to get your hands on some olive oil and balsamic vinegar from the Bariani stand. I know they're at Civic Center every week, dunno where else they show up. Their stuff is my favorite for best quality/best price. Maybe get a bottle of each as a gift for your hosts?

Note: the Civic Center farmer's market will be closed this Sunday, Dec 27th, but I think it will be open on Wednesday the 30th.

SF is also known for its Chinese food, but I don't know what you have in Chicago so it may not be a big deal for you. Dim sum in a restaurant where they bring a constant stream of goodies around on trolleys can be fun with friends (but dismal and lonely by yourself). Cantonese food pretty much rules here, since the oldest Chinese families in SF are Cantonese and they more or less set the standards. Other types of Chinese food here tend to be not as good, in my experience (kung pao chicken = Cantonese stir-fried chicken + 4 dried peppers + handful of peanuts).

To find a good Chinese restaurant I recommend you go out to New Chinatown (Clement Ave between about 5th - 10th Ave), wander around at dinnertime and look in the windows. The crowded places are the ones you want to go to, especially if the crowd seems to be mostly Chinese-American families. There are also some Vietnamese and Thai restaurants in that neighborhood and it's hard to go wrong no matter where you end up.

That's for good food at modest prices with negligible ambience. If you're looking for fine dining recommendations, sorry, I got nothin'. But really, this is a good eating town and you'd have to be super unlucky to get a bad meal just about anywhere. (Just avoid the pizza here - for some unfathomable reason, it sucks. Nobody can figure out why, but it does.)
posted by Quietgal at 6:24 PM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sushi, and great seafood generally. My favorite casual place for sushi is Kabuto, in the Richmond (15th and geary-ish).

There's also more emphasis on fresh, local ingredients than there generally is elsewhere.

(I've lived in both Chicago and the bay area. The Mexican food in SF is great, but no better than what you can find some places in Chicago. Maybe you should still get a mission-style burrito though.)
posted by chalkbored at 6:25 PM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding Taqueria Cancun in the Mission. I generally go straight there from SFO when I land. Make sure you get a Burrito Mojado!
posted by AaRdVarK at 6:28 PM on December 24, 2009

Ton Kiang
Carnitas Tacos (get them dorado (crispy) if you like) at La Taqueria @ 25th/Mission
Thanh Long
R&G Lounge
posted by rhizome at 6:42 PM on December 24, 2009

Burmese food? Head to the Richmond District, there's a couple spots there, Burma Superstar being the foremost.
posted by gnutron at 6:45 PM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was also going to say Dim Sum.
posted by kickingtheground at 7:31 PM on December 24, 2009

Note that the Ferry Building Farmer's Market is closed Dec 26. The shops inside are still open, however.
posted by soleiluna at 7:54 PM on December 24, 2009

The Stinking Rose Restaurant!!

MMmmmm, garlic....
posted by Jinx of the 2nd Law at 8:36 PM on December 24, 2009

The Mexican suggestions puzzle the hell out of me. You all do know that Chicago has more Mexican immigrants than any other city aside from Los Angeles, right? I mean, we (yes, I've moved, but I reserve the right to use "we" here) use "we have good Mexican" as one of our few blunt objects against the snobby New Yorkers who don't even know what horchata is.
posted by sachinag at 8:49 PM on December 24, 2009

Have the sea urchin appetizer at the Anchor and Hope! The chevre cheesecake with basil sauce is also great!
posted by jgirl at 9:04 PM on December 24, 2009

Burritos, yes but also possibly sushi or Indian food. I never had any of that when I lived in Chicago but that was a long, long time ago. Any Pacific Rim nation should have excellent representation out here, so also Thai, Vietnamese, Korean... er... I don't have any specific restaurant recommendations in that arena though.

Grand Cafe is worth a visit for good grill/French food and great decor. Greens is a vegetarian restaurant with a great location, right off the bay, looking up at the Golden Gate.
posted by chairface at 9:17 PM on December 24, 2009

How far are you willing to drive around the Bay Area? The south bay has stellar Indian and Korean food, and it's often overlooked. Amber India should have at least one location in the city now, but the one in Mountain View is excellent.
posted by base_16 at 9:21 PM on December 24, 2009

And, of course Chez Panisse is one of the classic Bay Area dining destinations. The wikipedia page has some nice background.
posted by base_16 at 9:27 PM on December 24, 2009

Philz coffee
posted by gingerbeer at 9:42 PM on December 24, 2009

Not so much Mexican in general as burritos in particular, sachinag. The Mission-style burrito was invented in San Francisco. I'm sure you can get them elsewhere, but I've never had a decent one outside of California.
posted by lore at 9:48 PM on December 24, 2009

Oh, and if you want a very different, very California take on pizza, check out the Cheese Board Pizza Collective in Berkeley. Even if you don't consider curried potatoes and cilantro -- or whatever they're serving the day you're there -- real pizza toppings, it's worth checking out. Just think of it as a quaint local flatbread.
posted by lore at 9:52 PM on December 24, 2009

Yes, Mission burrito. I prefer Pancho Villa Taqueria, at 16th and Valencia in SF. Taqueria Cancun is a close second, but I think Pancho Villa uses fresher ingredients and is better overall. Plus, Beck has been known to make a cameo.

The California Burrito is not really Mexican food, in that you'll never find something like it in Oaxaca, Mazatlán or Juarez. Chicago may have great Mexican food, prepared by real Mexicans, but it doesn't have this.

Drake or Tomales Bay oysters (including Kumamoto, if they're available). These don't travel very well, and are grown/farmed north of Point Reyes in Marin. They're delightful, and they're in season.

Asian Noodles? I hate to give away a secret (or lead a tourist to a dive in a part of town that looks less savory than it actually is), but Katana Ya has the best ramen in SF (I linked to yelp... notice that the only common complaint is the wait to get in the door). Ramen is not the freeze-dried stuff you ate in college. Tanpopo noodles (on the pedestrian part of Buchanan street, near Post street) is a very close second, in a less gritty part of town.

Chocolate fan? Tcho.

Beer Drinker? Anchor Steam on tap. Available lots of places, and decidedly different than what's in the bottle. Again, it doesn't travel all that well. In the early 1980s, Anchor (in bottles) started to become regularly available all over the US, and while it's not a craft or micro-brew, it's success in those times opened a lot of people's minds, and probably made it possible for small American brewers to create (and sell!) beer that was darker than the typical ballgame swill.

Wine drinker? Try a real zinfandel. It's not that pink shit that gives both Zin and rosé a bad name. A good glass should be 10-12 bucks and available in most bars that have an wine list. Look especially for ones from the Dry Creek or Alexander Valleys, or maybe from Lodi -- those regions tend to grow the sorts of grapes that make the most definitive Zin.

If you're really a wine drinker and have a car, consider a visit to the Wine Garage. Nothing in there is more than $25 a bottle. You'll see a lot of it on wine lists for $100 and more. You'll see even more that's generally unavailable unless you're buying cases at wholesale auctions. The proprietors tend to buy up the end runs for pennies on the dollar. (so, a winery makes 500 cases, sells 475 at auction for $40 a bottle, and reserves 25 to replace bottles that are broken or corked -- but only uses 15 of those leftover cases. At the end of the year, the ten left will go the garage, and you can buy them for $18.)

The world famous Greens Restaurant operates Greens To-Go, which is their takeaway lunch counter -- you can take your container and eat top-notch food while hanging your feet off the pier. The views of the bay are better from outside, anyway.
posted by toxic at 10:01 PM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Okay, so I came to suggest pizza.

No, really, stop laughing.

Pizza in Chicago sucks.

Ah, okay, now you've stopped laughing. Hear me out.

I've spent weeks all over the Chicagoland area. During these weeks, it became a mission to find the perfect pizza. I asked the locals. I travelled around. I ate at Lou Malnati's. I ate at Giordino's. I hate at Gino's. I ate at countless other places, both corporate and local. I never found it. Good pizza in Chicago doesn't exist.

It does, however, exist at Zachary's. You are doing yourself a serious disservice if you don't eat there.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 7:04 AM on December 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Tartine bakery may very well be the best French bakery in the U.S.A. Very much worth a visit and a long line!
posted by clango at 7:10 AM on December 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just popping back in here to a) reiterate that you really ought to have great sushi -- it is the one thing I consistently missed in Chicago, after having moved there from the Bay area (although I will also admit to having the occasional Mission burrito -- I crave La Corneta, 23rd and Mission) and b) to mention that although the food scene in SF is not wildly better or even all that different from that in Chicago, the drinking scene in SF is (imho) significantly more awesome.

I know you didn't ask for bar recommendations, but if you are into that sort of thing, San Francisco is a great town for you. I was back in town a couple weeks ago and was reminded of just how good some of the bars in the City are. Make a reservation at Bourbon & Branch while you're in town -- it really is fantastic. (The only place I can think of in Chicago that is vaguely similar is The Violet Hour.) Several other bars in the same area take their ingredients and recipes seriously (Rickhouse, Clock bar, etc), though the crowd at those places can get annoying. Try the tiki bar that opened a week or two ago -- Smuggler's Cove -- if you like that sort of thing. Go to Tommy's -- out in the Richmond -- for the best selection of 100% agave tequila you are ever likely to see. (Want to know more about tequila? Talk to Julio there.)

misc. other points, called to mind by other posts here: 1) Zachary's really is quite good, but I don't think someone from Chicago really needs to make the trek to the east bay to try it, 2) walking through the Ferry Building farmer's market (and, heck, just the ferry building itself) always makes me want to cook, 3) seconding Blue Bottle coffee (and note that TCHO actually serves Blue Bottle at their tasting room, so you can dodge the line at the Ferry Building), 4) try lots of local-ish beers on tap (Bear Republic's "Racer 5", or Russian River's "Pliny the Elder" are both great if you like hoppy IPAs). There is so much more to say, but that's a start. Have fun!
posted by chalkbored at 11:29 AM on December 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yelp.com is fully populated with helpful reviews of SF restaurants. I know it's not that popular in Chicago, but in SF, everyone lives by the rule of Yelp.
posted by samthemander at 12:46 PM on December 25, 2009

How is it possible that San Francisco sourdough has not yet been mentioned? Unique strains of wild yeast and lactobacilli in the air here bring a distinctive flavor. When I lived back east, family were on orders to air ship the stuff anytime they felt an urge to give presents. If you need a touristy restraurant experience to go with it, Fisherrman's Wharf is a safe bet.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 12:56 PM on December 25, 2009

Check out the Filipino restaurants. They are scattered all over the place, but there are a lot of decent ones in Daly City. Others that spring to mind are Alimango and Bistro Luneta in San Mateo.
posted by benzenedream at 1:16 PM on December 25, 2009

It's been decades since I traveled to SF from Chicago-land, but the one dish I found there that was nowhere to be found in the Midwest was authentic Fish and Chips.

Check Yelp, Chowhound, Boorah, SFWeekly, etc for recommendations.
posted by torquemaniac at 1:34 PM on December 25, 2009

Anything that would benefit from extremely fresh produce. Not being flip here - as an east coaster, I was stunned to find that lemons at supermarkets actually smelled like lemons.

Burritos and tacos are, in general, pretty good here. I find taco trucks too often be better than restaurants, no idea why.

Most asian cuisines are well represented here too: Thai, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese.
posted by zippy at 2:10 PM on December 25, 2009

Here's what you can get that is not in Chicago:

1. You're very close to wine country. Take a day trip out to Napa, and you can try lots of very good wines for very little money. There are also some very high end restaurants out there (including French Laundry, though there's no way you could eat there on this short notice, but there are also plenty of others).

2. The pizza suggestions are good, but for the wrong reason. No need to insult Chicago pizza. It's a wonderful thing and completely unlike anything I've ever had anywhere else. But do check out the Cheese Board for a completely different concept of what pizza is. Ignore the suggestion for Zachary's. It's poor man's Chicago. You will scoff.

3. Boudin Sourdough is one of those things that's very famous and mass made, but deservedly so. Like Heinz ketchup. Worth making sure you get some while you're there.

Chocolate used to be true back when Scharffenberger was still around. There's still Ghirardelli, but eh. There's some good beer around here, but don't know what it's like in Chicago, may very well be better.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 2:58 PM on December 25, 2009

I also came to suggest cheeseboard pizza, and the cheeseboard's sourdough baguette.

Oh, and while I dont think a trip to Zachary's makes sense for you, it's nonsense that you would "scoff." I've known many Chicagoans to praise Zachary's and never had one scoff.
posted by ORthey at 3:29 PM on December 25, 2009

Seconding NOPA - one of my favorite restaurants in the country.
Adding (didn't see it up thread, sorry if I missed it) - First Crush. Great for a date or small party, also a fav.

I'm a huge sourdough fan and agree that it's silly it took so long to mention.

I did not find the Mexican to be particularly worthwhile as compared to places in Chicago.
posted by FlamingBore at 4:03 PM on December 25, 2009

I'd also recommend Cheese Board pizza, and all of their breads.

While you're in the neighborhood, you might also consider Chez Panisse which is only a block or two down the street. Also the original Peet's Coffee store (albeit recently remodeled) is one block up Vine St.
posted by zippy at 4:53 PM on December 25, 2009

Swann's Oyster Depot
posted by jindc at 5:32 PM on December 25, 2009

Another vote for Tartine bakery.
posted by bookshelves at 8:03 PM on December 25, 2009

Burritos, yes but also possibly sushi or Indian food. I never had any of that when I lived in Chicago but that was a long, long time ago. Any Pacific Rim nation should have excellent representation out here, so also Thai, Vietnamese, Korean... er... I don't have any specific restaurant recommendations in that arena though.

Chicago is awash with Korean (Bryn Mawr), Vietnamese (Argyle), Indian (Devon), and Mexican (Pilsen) food. Those place names just represent the biggest concentrations of those cuisines, but, honestly, Chicago does ethnic cuisine amazingly well. Oh, and Thai is freaking everywhere here. You can get all of that in Chicago.

I'm going to nth seafood, specifically crab or sushi, because of the freshness factor. And wine from a small, local vineyard. And sourdough. Mmmmmm.
posted by jeanmari at 8:10 PM on December 25, 2009

Nthing (extra)sourdough bread! Oh God, I miss it! Trader Joe's Cracked Wheat, Pioneer or San Luis Obispo.

If by any chance Joe's has reopened when you're there, get a Joe's special.
posted by brujita at 11:51 PM on December 25, 2009

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