San Francisco Strikes Back – Day One
March 29, 2011
WonderCon and a host of new food experiences have beckoned us back to San Francisco. Among the experiences: we’re new parents, our daughter Ainsley having joined the family in October. So we not only attend a bit of the convention, but had our first family vacation.
Ainsley was her usual sweet self on the plane trip, so much so that I launched into the ambitious version of the first day’s eating: we checked into the hotel, dropped the bags, and hit BART to visit
Mr. Pollo – $15 Chef’s Tasting Menu
We left the hotel around 2pm, and I was worried that we may not arrive in time. Not only did we make it, but we’re rather lucky to have gotten there so late after lunch. Two of the four tables were already taken; a couple on what appears to be a first date had to slide over to another table to accommodate us. This place is tiny. The draw of a four-course tasting menu for $15 seemed worth a try, though. And chef Manny Torres Gimenez didn’t disappoint. Even considering how veggie-heavy the menu ended up being, it was high entertainment watching him through the lexan screen as he prepared labor-intensive food for six people simultaneously. All of the dishes were very much hands on. The couple next to us were also eating the chef’s menu, and they didn’t appear to get the same dishes, so I’m under the impression that Manny might just have been making this all up as he went.
Every dish was absolutely delicious. And, while there is only a touch of animal protein here and there, it’s clear that ingredients are important to the chef. I think in the dish descriptions we hear the phrase “farmers market” paired with “this morning” at least five times. We were served an empanada to start, followed by a soup, fish, and main course.
I officially declare this the closest I’m likely to come to enjoying vegetarian food.
Great start to the trip, and Ainsley had managed to charm both of the couples in the small dining area as well as the chef. We paid, left, and decided that we were still pretty hungry. I pulled up my SF Food map on the Droid X and we started a very long walk to a very tasty street that contains both ice cream and a bakery.
Tartine Bakery & Cafe – various baked goods
We stopped in here to quickly grab some cookies and other treats for dessert later that night. The place was absolutely packed to the rafters, with every table being taken and a long line going from the register along the display case and almost to the door. It was so long that rather than try to angle the stroller in, Loria sent me in on a solo mission and hung back by the door to entertain the baby. Having arrived in the later afternoon, I tried to peek through the line to see what is left. The cases were full of cookies, tarts, and breads, and each looked very inviting. For some reason I was feeling rushed, so I started pointing at random cookies without really getting a good sense of what looked best. I decided to skip the $6.50 miniature banana cream tart and ended up with a variety of cookies. As the line moved along the case, I inevitably saw this chocolate chip doodad or that walnut butter whatever, eventually requiring the patient woman helping me to bag my selections three separate times.
Later that night, we dug in and are fairly disappointed. Nothing tasted bad, per se, but it all felt like pretty standard bakery fare. It all looked much better than it tasted, unfortunately, and a few of the cookies went unfinished. It’s only later that I remembered that the place is renowned for its double pain au chocolat, but given how the rest of the cookies ended up, I didn’t feel terrible that we missed out.
Just up the street from Tartine was our real destination.
Bi-Rite Creamery – Roasted Banana, Orange Cardamom, Salted Caramel, and Brown Butter Pecan Ice Cream
This was high on my list of places we missed last year, so I was rather excited on arriving here. It’s doubly exciting because this was to be Ainsley’s first taste of ice cream.
I started with Roasted Banana. Intense banana flavor, dark brown flavor, and it is just beautiful. It’s one note played perfectly. Next was Brown Butter Pecan. I love butter pecan ice cream in general. I’ve been anticipating what nice dark notes browning the butter might accomplish. I was slightly disappointed on that front: if the butter was browned much before this batch was made, it doesn’t appear to change the taste of the ice cream much from what I expected. Still, it’s a really good incarnation of butter pecan.
Next up, Orange Cardamom. There are floral notes to the orange flavor that pair very nicely with the cardamom, which is fairly understated by comparison. I would absolutely order this again, though, as it’s a lovely counterpoint to the fourth flavor, Salted Caramel. The first bite of this flavor had me hooked. It is intensely burned sugar with some surprising and welcome bitter notes. In fact, this is probably the most intense caramel flavor I’ve had, bar none. Some of that is likely due to the salt, but it’s seems mostly intended. That they get a flavor that strong to show up in a frozen dessert is impressive enough, but it showing up in a dairy dessert, which has a tendency to dampen the intensity of most flavors, is absolutely noteworthy. And, although Ainsley clearly enjoyed the banana and orange cardamom flavors, she really seemed to enjoy the caramel. Mom and I agreed.
After a return to the hotel for some rest, we take a trolley up Market to First Street and then walk the rest of the way to
Spice Kit – Bánh mì Sandwich
With names like Thomas Keller and Ron Siegel on their resumes, Will Pacio and Fred Tang present well-cooked and easily understood Asian fast food at Spice Kit. I’m glad we hit this place our first night, as it would become a go-to choice from the rest of the trip. The concept is simple: choose a sandwich, wrap, or salad as the platform and then choose a protein. We had two bánh mì sandwiches, one with roasted pork and one with beef shortribs. This was my first foray into bánh mì territory. It’s a Vietnamese sandwich traditionally garnished with liver pate, mayonnaise, a slaw of pickled carrot and daikon, cucumber, and cilantro. The shortribs weren’t bad, but the roasted pork was perfect. The acid in the slaw cuts through the fat of the pate and pork and adds a nice, bright note. I have had dreams about that pork bánh mì since then, and have already located a recipe for pate that I want to try making soon. If Out the Door didn’t have proximity going for it, I suspect Spice Kit would have become our default choice for a quick meal.
We also ordered some steamed pork buns. My experience with the dish in the past has been a soft, pillowy dough which completely surrounded a chopped pork filling similar to what you might find in an egg roll, only a bit sweeter. The Spice Kit take on them is a grilled slab of pork belly basted with hoisin and some veggies. They were delicious, but I’ll admit that I was far too enamored with the bánh mì to get terribly excited about them. For those keeping score at home, roasted pork + pate > pork belly alone.
We also got an order of the ginger peanut slaw to share. It was fine, though barely registered compared to pork buns and other porky goodness.
Next up: a walk through Thomas’ garden.