One Last Interruption Before #1

Just like they make you wait in TV shows, "The results of the [vote, weigh-in, judge's deliberations, etc.] are coming up, right after this...", I'm going to make you read one more post before I get to the #1 song of my lifetime.  But it's not because I'm trying to grease some money from a sponsor via commercials or build up some false anticipation for something.  It's because I'm in San Francisco for work, while also getting some time to visit my brother, Scott, who's probably the biggest fan of this blog.

Scott loves food.  He loves trying all different types of food and is constantly on the search for the hidden gems that you can find in the smaller restaurants that nobody knows about yet.  He likes to document his quest for great food by taking pictures of his meals.  He's a great photographer and the pictures he takes almost always make me jealous that I wasn't there to share in the meal - they all look so good.  If you give him a chance (i.e. just ask him), he'll talk your ear off about his meal in vivid detail, his enthusiasm making your mouth water.  I've always encouraged him to do his own blog where he breaks down the great meals he eats, complete with his amazing photography.  I, for one, would love to have my mouth water more often.  Hopefully for all of us, he'll be inspired and decide to share his culinary adventures with us all.

Scott lives here in San Francisco, which is, next to New York, the greatest American food city.  Especially when you consider that The City (which is what they call SF here) is only seven miles by seven miles, it's amazing how many different quality restaurants from so many ethnicities are available to you, often with only a block's walk.  So when I knew I was going to spend the weekend here, I knew good food was in my future.  In fact, that was my plan the whole time.  Scott worked 'till 10pm on Saturday, so the first part of my culinary adventure would be solo.  No problem, though, since I used to live here, too.

So on Saturday afternoon, right after I landed and picked up my rental car, I headed straight to the iconic Ferry Building, which is now the "Ferry Building Marketplace."  It's like a mall where the food court and the shops are flip flopped, Bizzaro style, and there are mostly restaurants and food places, while just a few non-food establishments.  So the Ferry Building is a great place if you love food. There are all sorts of specialty shops that sell things you can’t get anywhere else.

One place that was on my have-to list was Bocalone, chef Chris Cosentino’s salami shop. It’s not just salami, though. It’s pretty much every kind of cured pork product you can imagine. If you’re a fan of salami, and in case you didn’t notice, I am, you’ve got to stop by. They have a salumi (yes, that's how you spell it) cone that gives you a few slices each of three of the day’s meats. This fine day, the selection was salami pepato, mortadella with pistachios, and some smoked prosciutto. The salami was about the best I'd ever had.  It had enough fat to complement the meat, but not too much to make it really chewy.  The mortadella was smooth as silk, with the crunch of the pistachios adding a nice change in texture.  The prosciutto was milder and less salty than most I've had, really making it easier to focus on the taste of the pork. The cone only puts you back $3.50, and I snacked on it while I figured out what to have for lunch.

It took me a while to finally settle on what to eat, since there were so many options.  I was also distracted by the specialty food shops all around, where you could get everything from cheese to chocolate to an entire shop devoted to mushrooms.  After going down one of the hallways that criss-cross the marketplace, I smelled that wonderful smell of fresh corn tortillas.  I followed my nose to a place called Mijita, where I perused the board and made my choices:  carne asada taco, bowl of albondigas soup, chips and salsa.  I sat down with my agua fresca and dug in.

Whenever I go to a new Mexican restaurant, I want to try the carne asada.  It's one of the staples and if a place does it well, chances are they do everything else well.  This specific carne asada taco was probably the most expensive one I've ever ordered - $4.25 for a single taco!  I've been to upscale Mexican restaurants where I've spent $12 on three, but never this much for a single taco.  After finishing it, though, I have to say it was worth it.  The meat was excellent, and I loved the pickled vegetables they put on it as well.  But what did it for me (and why I'm now salivating a little) were the tortillas.  They were arguably the best corn tortillas I've ever had.  Since it's a Mexican style street taco, it's wrapped around two tortillas, so it doesn't disintegrate on you when you're walking down the street.  Since I was sitting comfortably at a table, after the first bite I removed the outer tortilla to enjoy as its own course.  Maybe I'm one for overstatement, maybe I'm not, but go get one of these tortillas as fast as you can!

The other parts of my meal were also excellent.  The chips were authentic chips that you'd get in any good place in the likes of Cozumel or Mazatlan, with salsa that had a nice kick, but not so much it detracted from the food.  But the highlight of the meal was the albondigas soup.

It's a Mexican meatball soup where they (generally) add rice to the meatballs and serve them in a flavorful broth, full of vegetables.  It's the lesser known sister of chicken tortilla soup, and in my mind the underrated one.  I'm kind of an albondigas snob, and order it whenever I can, testing each restaurant that has it by the taste of their albondigas.  It's my carne asada experiment taken to the obsessive level.  I've had dozens of different albondigas soups, and outside of The Burnt Tortilla in Gardena, CA, this was the best albondigas I'd ever had, and it may be even better.  The broth would have been enough for me on its own, so rich and complex was its flavor.  Some places have simpler broths, preferring to let the meatballs take center stage, but I think that's kind of a cop out.  On top of that, the meatballs were nice and tender, with not so much rice that they fell apart.  Crunchy vegetables were plentiful throughout, and they added warm (but not fried) strips of their amazing tortillas to complete the bowl of Mexican perfection.

After waddling out after lunch (yes, I ate more than I should have, but can you blame me?), I headed to check in to the Phoenix hotel, where Scott and I would stay for the weekend.  Since Scott was working late, I relaxed a little and then had a late dinner at a restaurant in the Castro district called Frances.  It's a restaurant that's just over a year old, but has received raves from critics all over town.  Chef Melissa Perello has put a nice, modern touch on some French favorites, as well as some favorites of her own.

My meal actually started with meeting a great guy named Jeff, who was in town for a chef convention.  He's a chef at an exclusive country club in Connecticut and he loves to try other chef's creations when he's on the road.  One item on my bucket list is to have dinner at Thomas Keller's The French Laundry in Napa.  Jeff has been lucky enough to have dined there seven times, and he agrees that it's indeed the finest restaurant in the United States.  Jeff and I were single diners who showed up at the same time and ended up sitting next to each other at the bar.  He was great company and we talked about food for the entire meal.

We both went with three courses.  His first course was an appetizer of frittes (above left), classic French fries, except these were made with chickpeas.  Jeff loved the lightness to them, while also complimented the crunchy/soft texture combination.  I had the applewood bacon beignets (above on the right), which came with a maple/chive creme fraiche dipping sauce.  These also had the crunchy/soft texture and the bacon didn't overwhelm the flavor of the dough.  The dipping sauce was so good, I was tempted to use my bread to sop the rest of it all up.  Speaking of bread, they only serve bread on request (to save on waste), so make sure that you ask for some.  The bread they were serving this evening was a wheat sourdough with a great thick crust on the outside.  I'm a big fan of the thick, crunchy crusts, so they must've known I was coming.

Both of us had the dungeness crab salad for our second course, which was absolutely lovely.  It had a light buttermilk dressing with a nice touch of lemon and tarragon.  I know buttermilk and light don't normally go together, but this wasn't your typical thick buttermilk ranch, it was a delicate dressing that didn't overwhelm the delicate crab, and that's a tough feat.  Also in the salad were some surprise mandarin oranges, that gave a nice extra shot of citrus when you wanted it.  The salads weren't all that big, so it made it easier for Jeff and I to eat all of them with no guilt.

Since I'd had a big lunch, I skipped the entree and headed straight towards desert.  I'd read that the Lumberjack cake was to die for, so that's what I zeroed in on.  Jeff, meanwhile, had the duck entree which he thoroughly enjoyed.  My cake was similar to a fruitcake (which I don't really like at all), but had a much lighter texture to it, with shredded coconut and apple in it, rather than the denser jellied fruit you find in a fruitcake.  Served alongside it was some housemade maple walnut ice cream, which went perfectly with the slightly warm cake.  When you took a bite, the cake started to melt the ice cream just a little as it hit your tongue.  The critics were right - Frances is not to be missed.

Brunch on Sunday was at a German restaurant called Suppenk├╝che. It's kind of a hangout place for Scott and his friends, but not, apparently, for the superheroes that the name led me to believe would be there for a meal.  I didn't know Germans really did brunch, but it was a tasty meal.  Both Scott and I got the chicken schnitzel, obviously made with chicken rather than the pork or veal that's normally used in weinerschnitzel.  Alongside were some great roasted potatoes and a simple butter lettuce salad with a tasty vinaigrette.  The chicken was perfectly cooked and they served it with a German mustard that was fantastic.  I'm a big mustard fan* and I ended up going through two little cups of it.  Scott's best friend Trey and his girlfriend Dana were delightful company for the meal, echoing one of my Mom's sayings, "Meals aren't really about the food, they're about the company."  Then she would pause, and add "Okay, well maybe it's about the food, too," with a smile.

After playing around the city for a while, Scott and I went to get him a new computer, since his five year-old Compaq had finally been taken off life support and passed away quietly in its sleep.  Outside of San Francisco's Best Buy (there's only one in the city), I spotted the El Tonayense taco truck, parked in its usual spot on Harrison.  Scott had been raving earlier about their food, so in the mood for a mid-afternoon snack, I went over to get a taco.  They had all the standards, but since Scott had said how good everything was, I decided to take a bit of a gamble and ordered a taco de lengua.  That's right, Spanish speakers, I went with the tongue taco.

I'd had a tongue taco before, but from a place that didn't prepare it well.  It was gamey and tough, while being so chewy that it took me two minutes to finish two bites.  And with those two bites, I was done.  I've always prided myself in being open to trying anything food related at least once, but I thought my beef tongue chapter had been open and closed.  But this taco was excellent.  It was perfectly tender, rich in flavor like most organ meat is.  If you hadn't told me what it was, I would've quickly (and happily) finished off the entire taco.  It was served street style as usual, with the two corn tortillas, cilantro, raw onions and the hot salsa I selected.  While the tortillas were nowhere near as good as the ones at Mijita, the tongue really was tasty.  So I'm back on the wagon again as far as tongue goes - I'll just make sure I get it at a place I can trust.

After getting Scott's new computer (and me helping him get it all set up), we went to the Walt Disney Family Museum, at The Presidio.  I'm a big Disney fan and had just finished Neal Gabler's fantastic biography of Walt a few months ago+, so it was great to be able to see so many of the things that I had read about.  If you ever went to Disneyland in the early 70's and loved it the way I did, you have to visit this museum.  There's one thing in particular that will blow your mind.  I don't want to ruin it for you, but you seriously should go there if you're anywhere remotely near San Francisco.  Okay, enough of that, back to the food.

The last stop on our culinary trip through San Francisco was at Memphis Minnie's barbecue in the Lower Haight district.  Both Scott and Trey had raved about the food, and they hadn't done me wrong yet.  After driving around for twenty minutes looking for a parking spot in the rain on a Sunday night in San Francisco in a residential neighborhood where everybody was probably already in for the night, I was really hoping they were right.

They were.  It was great barbecue.  I got the sampler plate, so I could try three different meats.  I couldn't finish them all (you're welcome, arteries), but the brisket was probably the best I've ever had.  The spareribs were excellent and extremely tender.  The only slight disappointment was the pulled pork.  Don't get me wrong, it was very good, but also very standard tasting.  It didn't differentiate itself from a dozen others I've had.  The sides, though, were a highlight.  Some barbecue places spend so much time getting the meat right that they let the sides suffer.  Not at Memphis Minnie's.  The mac and cheese was sumptuous and the baked beans were very tasty with chunks of meat in them.  The cornbread was so good I was tempted to go back and spend $1.25 for another muffin.  My stomach vetoed that idea.  Scott was nice enough to share a bite of the coleslaw with me and its slightly sweet vinegary marinade shined through with every crunchy bite.  I could've eaten a meal of just sides if I wasn't addicted to barbecued meats.

They have three different sauces to put on their meat.  I always try the meats first on their own to truly see how good they are, and the brisket was so tasty that I didn't need to put any sauce on it whatsoever.  There's South Carolina inspired mustard sauce, which was my favorite - probably not a surprise, huh?  The Texas Red is slightly sweet and was my second favorite.  The third, a North Carolina vinegar based sauce, was my least favorite.  After a quick try, it was far too vinegary with no additional balance of taste for me to put it on this great barbecue.  All in all, the meal (and the company) was fantastic.  I'd go to Memphis Minnie's again and again if I lived anywhere close - and by anywhere close, I mean Fresno.

So in just two days, Scott and I filled a weekend with all sorts of culinary treasures.  I ate more than I probably should have, but considering the quality of everything I ate, maybe I didn't eat enough.  If you ever find yourself in San Francisco in the Upper Haight with an adventurous spirit and an empty stomach, stop by Amoeba records on Haight street and track down Scott.  Hopefully, you can talk him into going to lunch or dinner with you, but at the very least, pry a restaurant recommendation out of him.  He won't steer you wrong, this post is living proof.

* I'm such a big mustard fan, in fact, that my wife, Jennifer has limited me to ten mustards in our fridge.  I tried in vain to argue that regular yellow mustard shouldn't count since it's a kitchen staple that should always be there.  Jennifer pointed out that yellow mustard is, in fact a mustard, and should absolutely count.  I hate it when she makes sense.  So when I found the mustard they use at New York's famous hot dog stand, Nathan's, I had to jettison my Trader Joe's wasabi mustard to make room.  It took a lot of resolve, but I held back the tears as I tossed it.  Did I happen to mention that I love mustard?

+ Gabler's biography tries to paint a realistic picture of Walt Disney, rather than the stylized one that we've all heard about and wish were true.  Walt Disney was much more complicated than the cherubic grandpa many of us remember from the Wonderful World of Disney shows, and Gabler prefers to show the complete Walt, warts and all.  Walt's life was an intricate blend of seeming contradictions - a fervent Republican and anti-communist, Walt was a passionate advocate for the arts - all arts.  While some of Disney's family clearly had issues with it (who wants to hear that their dad was a total asshole at times?), I highly recommend it.
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