…be sure to wear a heavy jacket, scarf, and major sunscreen because the idea that California is perennial sunshine on your shoulders does not apply to San Francisco which has its own little weather system. I got a burnt face on a foggy, chilly day and almost frozen on bright, sunny one.
This was our second visit, so we didn’t need to repeat some of the classic experiences: visiting Alcatraz and riding bikes over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito. This trip was about spending time in some of the city’s neighborhoods and, for my daughter’s eighteenth birthday, good seats with garlic fries and fireworks at a Giants game. Which means this essentially turned into a food trip with walking in between.
Arrival We take the BART into town. Maybe not the best arrival experience. There seems to be one incredibly stinky homeless person per car. I lived in NYC and I never, ever encountered a homeless person that smelled this bad. Maybe it was the upholstery seating. Who puts upholstery seating on mass transit? Yuk. Then I thought it would be cool to take the cable car down to our hotel— arrive in style. Why did I think this? The cable car is probably not the the way to go with luggage and it was also a chilly, windy, foggy day so we were almost popsicles by the time we got off; oh, and when we finally got to the front of the line, the next three cable cars that came along weren’t going where we needed to go, so it was like watching all those fast-pass people jump in front of you even though you’re there at the front and it’s your turn. At least we had some entertainment: a guy with a lot of craft jewelry singing a cappella. I wonder how much he makes doing this? He really has a captive audience just grateful for any sort of diversion and he’s pretty good, I think. Maybe not a bad way to make a living. I could do origami.
Our room at the Argonaut wouldn’t be ready for a few more hours so I suggested we head for some hot chowder and sourdough bread at nearby Boudin (where they put the hot chowder in the sourdough bread). A lot of reviews sneer at this as a tourist trap, but over the course of the week, we will try several other hand-crafted, artisanal sourdoughs at different bakeries and none will have the same distinctive sharp sourdough flavor and shatter-crisp crust. Well-fed and warmed up, we walked down to Fisherman’s Wharf. Now this is a tourist trap— it is almost a replica of every other waterfront development I’ve been to with the exception of the very noisy and very stinky sea lions. The Ferry Building would prove to be a more ‘unique to San Francisco’ experience. We end our day with Ghiradelli ice cream, thinking if the chocolate is good, the chocolate in ice cream will be even better, but it’s just ok.
Chinatown We skip breakfast and take the streetcar to an early lunch at Yank Sing. I am a little leery since the last dozen or so highly-rated Yelp eateries have been huge disappointments, because obviously I have no taste and would probably order toast for my last meal. But Yank Sing turns out to be the best dim sum (they call it deem sum) place I’ve ever been to— and the cleanest. We stuffed ourselves with steamed pork buns, Shanghai soup dumplings, stuffed lotus leaf, and a plate of something they call Chinese broccoli (I later find a source for this at home and it has become a staple vegetable). We finished it off with still-warm egg custard tarts. Stuffed beyond reason, we headed for the Dragon Gate and up Grant Avenue to look for a maneki-neko or lucky waving cat, stopping by the Red Blossom Tea Company to sniff some really interesting teas. When we found a few teas we liked, we were given a demonstration and tasting. I loved watching the whole process— no teabag in a mug on the go here: adding the water from the small teapot, gently moving the tea leaves around as they unfolded, seeing how it tastes at different steeping times in little, almost thimble sized cups— a ceremony to tea. It would be lovely to think I could recreate this at home, but in reality it probably wouldn’t happen very often— like bubble baths. But I did learn something: the water I was using for my green tea at home was way too hot, killing off the delicate flavor of the tea. I have been savoring my Pi Lo Chun green tea that I keep in my red tea canister ever since.
What could be better after tea than some fresh fortune cookies? Nothing. So we headed up to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company. We were here the last time we were in San Francisco and just had to come back. You get to watch them being made and they taste nothing like the yellowish ones that come with our Chinese take-out back home— these are worthy of cookie status on their own. Since the sampling of fortune cookies made us thirsty again, we set off to wander the area around Grant Avenue. Here you see more of the local markets and a lot of interesting things: live turtles, dried sea cucumbers, durian; I remember the durian because there was a sign at the front desk of our hotel in Chiang Mai that forbid even having it on the premises. But a lot of the fruits and vegetables looked really interesting and I wish I could find them at home to break up my vegetable monotony— things like huge bunches of beautiful chives that I can only guess become a dish in themselves but I’ve never had a chive dish at any of the Chinese restaurants I’ve been to. We finally found some awesome bubble tea at Cool Tea Bar in the Miriwa Shopping Center. Oh, and we did find our lucky cat and a solar powered one at that!
That night we head to Tacolicious in the Marina and we learn something about the limits of 2D maps in San Francisco: we pick the shortest route by far, but it involved a major quadriceps burn on the almost vertical Hyde Street. After our ascent, we are barely able to hold our tacos together; I order a Margarita and it was gone in two sips because it was 93% ice. I’m not sure what all the fuss is about Tacolicious. The chips were really greasy— I can see the take-out area from my seat and I watch a woman use two fingers to hand the waiter back chips that have completely saturated the bag they’re in with the expression ‘yuck’ on her face, the waiter shrugs like ‘so what’ and takes them back— the fish on my fish taco was really greasy too and by the time I pulled the coating off I had a piece of fish smaller than a chicken nugget. I know street-style tacos are not super stuffed, but they usually have a nice sized chunk of fish and they usually have the oil hot enough to keep everything from absorbing it’s weight in grease. I thought maybe we hit them on a rare bad night but everything was the same when we stopped by their Mission outlet a few days later. I know, it’s just me; everyone else loves it; I have no taste, no sense of humor, no intellectual discernment: ‘What? You don’t know the story of the two-sip Margarita and the greasy chips? Everybody knows this one!’
Alamo Square & Japantown Today we head out to Alamo Square with a plan to make our way through Japantown and then down to the Marina. Today’s map challenge is that these places looked much closer than they are in reality. By a lot. On the way to Alamo Square we pass the San Francisco Schools Administration Building and I remark on how older buildings had all these elaborate architectural flourishes and now we have all these boring boxes. That is until I take a closer look:
Good grief! Is it just me again? Did I miss some tale about the founders of education and their journey from Middle-earth? These education icons are super weird, no? We make our way towards Alamo Square amazed at the paint schemes the busyness of Victorian architecture makes possible. We head to the top of the square, looking for the classic Full House view and find: a construction site!
So that’s that; we head towards Japantown. My daughter thinks she knows where the Full House house was, but all the Victorian homes start to look alike. Then they blur together because we’re getting hungry. Oh, whatever, it’s some Victorian house in San Francisco. This is called tourist daze: it’s something that happens when you can no longer process all the awesomeness of every single little detail pointed out to you in your guidebook.
Unless I missed something, Japantown is not quite the Japanese equivalent of Chinatown. It is basically a shopping center and a few surrounding places. It doesn’t appear to be a Japanese neighborhood. We look around the mall a bit. I love all the little tea sets, chopsticks, stationary, rice cookers and stuff, but I don’t see anything that I really have to have or can’t get back home except Green Tea Kit Kats. These are part of an evil candy plot. And there is a whole store of just mochi. We look at some of the sushi places. Many of them don’t open until dinnertime. One has a water moat with little sushi boats going around. It’s really cute but since there are only two people there during lunch hour, our sanitation sensors go off. We have candy for lunch.
We eventually made it back to Chestnut Street in the Marina area after meandering through a super expensive shopping area around Pacific Heights. By then, we’re hungry, of course. I don’t want to eat at Tacoliscious again; luckily we score seats facing the kitchen at A16. It’s really fun to watch the food being prepared— the chef’s are super serious like they’re on Chopped! or something; the diversion makes up for decibel level in the restaurant. The server mistakes me for a sophisticated wine person— she suggests a split between two wines so I can try them both. I can barely hear her except that one of the grapes is grown on a volcano. Artisanal provenance, yes, of course. I’ve never been able to get a taste for wine or any other drinks save for Margaritas, and even then I don’t like them strong— although it seems some of the more expensive tequilas are so smooth that they can trick you into thinking you’re not drinking very much. But the wines just make me wish I had a Coke instead. Someday I will take a wine course and gain appreciation through the wonders of knowledge. But the real reason we’re here is because they have pizza marinara. Once I discovered this in Italy, it was basically all I ate for the rest of our month there. We order this and our server wants to make sure we know there is no cheese on this pizza. Yes, we do. There is a place near DC that has this pizza too and the server there also felt the need to forewarn us about the cheese. Is pizza without cheese that scandalous? If you don’t already know, pizza marinara is tomato sauce, garlic (sometimes minced, sometimes sliced), basil leaves (sometimes whole, sometimes chiffonade), and olive oil. And it is delicious.
We stop by Super Duper Burgers on our way back to the hotel because they have a sign out with an enticing drawing and description of their Straus organic chocolate dipped soft-serve ice-cream cone. This was beyond. I don’t usually go in for dessert or even really ice cream but this was, I can’t even describe it, except to say it was rich, creamy vanilla ice cream dipped in what tasted like real chocolate, not the usual kind of wax tasting stuff. We went back to the hotel and died.
Game Day Today is my daughter’s birthday. I let her sleep in a little before we head out for her first treat: a facial. I talk her into trying a different taco place in Cow Hollow. Tacko was much less pretentious and they have horchata— a very tasty Mexican rice drink that I sought out in almost every plaza and mercado throughout the Yucatán. It became the only Spanish word I could say clearly. Then we celebrated her birthday with cupcakes at Kara’s Cupcakes. I’m always dubious about these places since so, so many have had such bad cupcakes— dry, off-flavors, icing that tastes like a stick of butter or a straight sugar pour— and you wonder who encouraged them to open up a shop— someone was untruthful with them. But what we had at Kara’s was obviously pretty good since we made an excuse to stop there again a few days later. We concentrated on the mini cupcakes so we could try different ones. In a feat of delusional math, we estimated that three mini cupcakes were equal to one regular size cupcake. I had fleur de sel, vanilla, and chocolate velvet; my daughter had red velvet, vanilla, and chocolate coconut. Yum. Much better than that volcanic wine.
Now we had to save our appetites and rest up for the Giants game. My daughter’s favorite pitcher Tim Lincecum would be pitching and we caught a lucky break walking around before the game and found ourselves only a few feet away as he practiced. She froze, I took photos. That was the end of my 32mb memory card. Although I’m not really a baseball fan, I do have to admit that the Giants stadium really has an intimate feel to it compared to other major league stadiums I’ve been to. And then the food— it goes way beyond hot dogs and beer but unfortunately I only have room for one order of garlic fries. If these ever get out, no one will need drugs or alcohol. The game ended with some pretty cool fireworks which got us jazzed up for the hour-long walk back to the hotel along the deserted waterfront; you San Francisco people sure go to bed early (or maybe the waterfront is a place you shouldn’t go to at night?). But this was after we stood at the bus stop for a half-hour waiting for a bus that never came— reading and rereading the cryptic schedule sign which seemed to indicate that, yes, the buses were still running; some folks gave up and got pedicabs, but we decided to walk. Maybe that’s how they do it in San Francisco: if you eat a lot of garlic fries, they make you walk home. Cause your breath stinks. Who wants to drive a bus full of people loaded with garlic? I thought the exercise would do us good but it only made things worse: when we got back to the room, we inhaled the remains of our sourdough crocodile.
Ferry Building Farmers Market and the Haight Today we headed for the Ferry Building for the Saturday morning farmer’s market. We filled ourselves up on samples and blackberries while we gazed longingly at all the beautiful, perishable foods we can’t take with us; bright purple artichoke flowers were everywhere. We try to get some lunch and ice cream inside, but it’s solid people; we make a plan to come back Tuesday morning before we leave. Heading out to catch the streetcar up Market Street and we see something that I think is exclusive to San Francisco: it was either naked people day or naked people biking day. I take pictures. These are my first nude scenes:
We set out for the Haight taking the streetcar to Castro Street where we watch a small food truck open up at the gas station on the corner— but it’s not a food truck, it’s a creme brûlée truck! We order two vanilla beans; we decide this qualifies as lunch. We head down Castro Street to Haight. I’m not sure what we’re hoping to see; we had watched a documentary about the Summer of Love and this was the epicenter. Maybe I thought I would see a lot of aging and would-be hippies trying to keep the candle burning. I don’t know. There are some murals, a few mystical shops, a head shop, a second-hand store, the Grateful Dead house (which is a really beautiful Victorian), a cavernous music store, and a Whole Foods at the end. Oh, and some grungy dude tucked between two shops offers my daughter some weed. Whatever it was that happened here, the scene has moved on. And that’s probably a good thing. But why didn’t he offer me any weed? I’m bummed.
Mission and Castro Sunday was probably not a good day for this since a lot of things were closed. We walked through the Mission area first, spending time in different markets. We have a large Hispanic community where I live, so this wasn’t quite as strange as some of the Asian markets. Almost every market had these really cute little palm-size avocados. Wildly creative murals pop up in the area around Balmy Alley. We sample some Concha Pan Dulce at La Victoria Bakery— it isn’t reminiscent of Challah like the card says but just as good in its own way with a crunchy, almost caramel tasting crust and a cake bread center. We headed over to Mission Dolores and debated about whether to go in since we were pretty tired by then, but we’re glad we did. The church feels very low-key despite the painted ceiling and the ornate carvings. They have a small museum and a scene of the mission in its early days that shows this was an unbelievably rural area with livestock running around and everything. The tree-root twisted graveyard reveals that life back then was indeed short— many of the grave stones are for children and teenagers. We finished up our walk heading through the Castro area on our way back to Market Street. It was getting late and all the shops in the area had closed. This is not like New York at all. I was hoping to score a rainbow flag— that would really liven things up in my neighborhood. Of course everyone would probably think I just like rainbows and unicorns and glitter.
Land’s End and Coastal Trail Because we had biked over the Golden Gate Bridge the last time we were here, I thought this would be an interesting and less crowded perspective— and we did pretty much have the trail to ourselves (biking over the bridge last time was like going through a massive obstacle course with moving targets). We started out taking the bus to the end of Geary where it becomes Point Lobos and having an early lunch at the Cliff House. The view is spectacular but the food is just ok. With all the talent in San Francisco, this should be a standout. The popovers were okish, but my salmon looked like a previously frozen farm-raised portion— tasted like it too. We start out on the Land’s End Trail, taking in the ruins of the Sutro Baths and hoping to get out of the fierce wind that is whipping the water into an almost solid whitecap. A commercial ship heading against the wind into San Francisco appears to have barely moved since we spotted it before lunch. The signs show the Land’s End Trail meeting up with the Coastal Trail, but when the Land’s End Trail ends, we suddenly find ourselves in a neighborhood of incredibly lavish homes with insanely overflowing gardens and no signs for the trail. We had almost given up; we were sticking close to the water— where could it be? And then we spotted a trail below the road. This was one of those Tantalus trails— shortly after we started on the Land’s End part, we had the Golden Gate Bridge in our sites and here, some two hours later, it appeared no closer. We went out for the view points along the way but skipped the beaches. We have to save something for next time.
In San Francisco, there is one where you need it. Construction site potties are everywhere.
The plan was to roll into the Marina area by dinner time for a farewell tour of marinara pizza at A16 and chocolate-dipped ice cream at Super Duper. They recognize us at A16 (because my daughter has blue hair) and gift us with a tomato and burrata salad— I guess they wanted us to get cheese somehow. It was good. I probably would never have ordered it because of the way the word burrata sounds. They could call it creama mozzarella. Or I could be a little more adventurous when it comes to food. Pass me the basket of fried spiders!
Departure We head out for the Ferry Building early in the morning. I do score a very good cappuccino at Blue Bottle with a beautiful leaf embroidered in the foam, but pretty much everything else here will open too late for us. My daughter tries some strange concoction from Pressed Juicery while we watch the staff assist a reed-thin woman with the accoutrements for a juice cleanse. Sounds like fun. In a non-fun kind of way. Something we say we should do, but why? There is no scientific proof that juice fasts are in any way beneficial. But we have to press on for our final farewell stop: one last meal at Yank Sing.
Now all we we had to do was get two bags of fortune cookies home without having them searched by security, crushed on the plane, or accidentally eaten en route. One bag made it.
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