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San Francisco Strikes Back – Day Six and Day Seven

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April 3, 2011

Slept in a bit and, as if the impending end of the vacation wasn’t enough inspiration for melancholy, did the final Dynamo run of the trip.

I decided I needed a bit more seafood, so we head to the wharf where we visit

Nick’s Lighthouse – Clam Chowder, Crab Cakes, and Crab Sandwich

We’d had good luck at Tarantino’s before, but I wanted to stop somewhere in that main glut of stands on Fisherman’s Wharf, figuring that the competition would mean better food and lots of turnout. And, while Nick’s was doing brisk business, it wasn’t a great meal by any stretch of the imagination.

The chowder was, unfortunately, fairly tasteless and watery. The crab cakes were far from fresh and were like a mouthful of sand in consistency. The crab sandwich was passable, if a bit heavy on the mayo, and suffered from the same bread overload that most sandwiches on the wharf do. We stumbled back to the trolley stop, defeated.

Nick's Lighthouse on Urbanspoon

It was only an hour or so before we were looking for a late lunch/early dinner. We took a leisurely stroll up Mission to

Yank Sing – Deem Sum

I’d grabbed a large takeout order from the Rincon Center incarnation of Yank Sing during our last trip and noticed the carts laden with bamboo trays wandering the dining area. We’d vowed to do that version of the dim sum experience on this trip. And it is quite the experience.

We arrived about an hour before closing, so there crowd was spare. Our table was literally descended upon by cart after cart filled with dumplings, fried items, and other food. Our only request during the meal, baked BBQ pork buns, had sold out earlier in the day, unfortunately. But there was plenty of other choices.

The meal was fast. It probably took us longer to walk to the restaurant than it did to eat. It’s easy to see how this kind of dining would be popular for a busy lunch crowd. It’s also easy to see how it could quickly become expensive for people interested in trying one of everything: our meal was no cheaper here than at Wayfare or any of the other higher end establishments we visited, and I certainly didn’t get the feeling like I’d been any more copiously fed than I had elsewhere.

And I have to admit that, having done both now, ordering off the menu is probably my preference. I felt like I got more of what I wanted that way, and didn’t feel as likely to make a $10 mistake like the shrimp balls we ended up with. It’s my fault, really, since I was blithely pointing at things that looked good without looking at a price list or asking. But having a menu in front of me to order from would have definitely avoided the issue.

My favorite dish was the Shanghai Dumpling which featured minced Kurobuta pork and a small splash of broth encased in a dumpling. The waitress was kind enough to walk us through the traditional way to eat it, and it was outstanding. Probably should have stuck with a plate full of those.

Yank Sing on Urbanspoon

April 4, 2011

Our flight left late in the afternoon, so I called the night before and asked for a late checkout, planning to sleep in.

My back had other plans. I was up at six and, after all attempts to calm it down failed once again, I was off to Dottie’s to see what baked goods they were offering. I remember buying several, but only the much beloved whiskey blueberry crumb cake stands out. It was every bit as good as I remembered.

As our thoughts turned to lunch, we agreed that it needed to be a return to Spice Kit. While Loria fed and clothed the baby, I nearly sprinted up the street to grab a couple of sandwiches to go. Thanks for the introduction to the bánh mì. We’ll be back.

It was a great trip for food. I’m quite appreciative of the many compliments we got about Ainsley, but I’m most proud of her restaurant manners. She was almost uniformly angelic, and it was a great first family vacation.

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April 21, 2011 at 8:26am

San Francisco Strikes Back – Day Five

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April 2, 2011

I did not sleep well in San Francisco. We had a very kind woman at the front desk who, on seeing that we had a baby with us, placed us in a room with some extra space in it. Unfortunately, the room in question also had a bed that did my back no favors. Ainsley was similarly unhappy with her bed, so there was a lot of interrupted sleep during the trip.

I woke up with my back in knots. After trying for an hour, I finally gave up at six and go grab a shower. My back would not let go, so around seven I finally decided that it’s time to try some walking. It occurs to me that an old friend wakes up at 7:30, so I head off to the Tenderloin.

Dottie’s True Blue Cafe – Lamb Merguez Sausage, Roasted Garlic, Tomato, Spinach, Goat Cheese Omelet with Toast and Potatoes

The trip from the Marriott to Dottie’s is a bit like the opening scenes of Little Shop of Horrors. It’s far too late to be heading to Dottie’s and expecting to be successful. Past experience tells me that the line already had several people in it and that by the time I made the 10-minute walk there, there would be enough people in line that all of the ten tables and five seats at the bar will be claimed, and maybe even the second seating as well. I make the turn onto Jones street and am shocked to see exactly zero people in line.

For a moment, I feared the worst and began to prepare myself for living life in a post-Dottie’s world, but I rolled up to the door and saw the usual flurry of pre-opening activity. When I started my walk over, I’d figured that I would take a look and maybe try to talk my way in to grab some pastry to go. With no line and 20 minutes to opening, though, I adjusted my plan and decide to eat. It turned out to be a solid plan as my concern that I’d left Loria high and dry is needless; when I finally go back to the room, the lights are still off and both ladies are sound asleep.

The doors opened and I claimed a table. By 7:30, the usual gaggle of diners are in line. I don’t know how I lucked out, but I decided to pay it forward by eating my meal as efficiently as possible so as to surrender the table to the next hungry person with their face pressed against the glass. I’m the first order in.

It’s the small things about Dottie’s that I love. The omelet is beautifully cooked with perfectly spiced meat and a great balance between the creamy goat cheese, the egg, and everything else. Those things are a given. It is the parts of the meal that would be a throwaway in most diners that really impresses me. On the marker board, my dish had “toast” as the final word. What arrived are two irregularly sliced pieces of lightly toasted, scratch-made bread that, on first bite, clearly have something else going on. I asked my server and he reports that it is buttermilk rosemary bread. I have a new standard for the phrase “under promise and over deliver.” “Toast” indeed.

They did not have, alas and alack, the whiskey berry crumb cake. I grabbed a scone for Loria and a chocolate chip coconut muffin for later. It turns out to be dense with chocolate and predictably delicious.

Dottie's True Blue Cafe on Urbanspoon

Loria forgave me for going to Dottie’s without her as soon as I describe the gauntlet of less-than-completely-housed people as being worse than last year. Stupid economy.

There was one WonderCon panel that I felt compelled to line up early for that doesn’t even start until 1pm. We decided to the night before that I will go do my time in line while Loria and Ainsley grab food from a new place at the mall.

‘Wichcraft – Slow-roasted Berkshire Pork, Red Cabbage, Jalapeno, and Mustard Sandwich and Mozzarella, Roasted Butternut Squash, and Hazelnut Browned Butter Sandwich

Mere days before the start of our trip, I discovered that Tom Colicchio’s ‘Wichcraft brand had opened its first location outside of his two home bases of New York and Las Vegas. Having never had a chance to sample his food, I was excited to sample the fare originated by the mind that I’d heard tear so many dishes apart on Top Chef. I needn’t have been.

I got seated in the panel near the front and Loria came rolling up with the stroller and lunch. We got her seated, I played with the baby for a bit, and we swapped halves of the sandwiches and dig in. The pork is dry. And bland. I took a quick glance at Loria to see if I can read her, hoping that maybe I blew out my palate at Dottie’s or something. She’s as disappointed as I am.

In fact, this might be one of the most boring sandwiches I’ve ever had and I’ve paid over $8 for it. Hoping that it’s a fluke, I finished up my half of the pork and move onto the mozzarella. The cheese is fine. The butternut squash is waterlogged. I cannot get even a hint of the hazelnut or browned butter. I flashed back to a couple of days prior when I stuck my head into the shop just after lunch time and found it nearly empty. It’s very clear that word has spread and done its damage. This ended up being the biggest food disappointment of the trip.

'Wichcraft on Urbanspoon

After the panel, we strolled up to the Ferry Building hoping to catch the tail end of the Farmer’s Market. We wandered around the closing booths, grabbed a couple bags of those 4505 Chicharrones, and headed inside.

El Porteno Argentinian Empanadas – Champioñes Empanada and Alfajores de Limon

Just inside the door there were fresh empanadas. Judging from the line and empty pans, they were popular. We tried the mushroom one and a small cookie filled with lemon curd. The empanada was heavenly. I’m a sucker for good mushrooms, and these are very well prepared with just a touch of shallot and some parmesan cheese. I very nearly got back into line to get a second one, but we had a lot of building cover and only so much stomach space. The cookie was tasty as well: soft cookies with velvety lemon curd nestled between them. What a great way to start our visit and wake up our palates!

El Porteno Agentinian Empanadas on Urbanspoon

Miette Cakes – Gingerbread Cupcake and Grapefruit Macaron

We’d window shopped Miette during our last trip to the Terminal. Having read a few reviews, including a report that their gingerbread cupcake had been named Best Beer-spiked Cupcake by none other than Alton Brown, I figured we’d best make a stop. We ordered the cupcake and a grapefruit macaron.

The cupcake we received was dense but surprisingly dry. Although it contains all of the usual gingerbread spices, the overwhelming flavor for me is that of savory bread, which I’m sure is a result of the beer, and of molasses. The cream cheese frosting is fine, but nothing special. All in all, it’s a fine cupcake but I’m not entirely sure what the fuss is about.

The macaron has a touch of grapefruit flavor. Honestly, it could have used much more. There is also a very grainy texture to the meringue portion of the macaron that is not pleasing. Since their own menu describes them as containing coarsely ground almonds, it seems reasonable to think the texture is intended, but it comes off feeling somewhat unfinished or poorly mixed.

What Miette lacked in the goods, it certainly makes up for in style. The shop looks like My Little Pony wooed an Easy Bake Oven, and each item is impeccably designed and beautiful.

Miette Cakes on Urbanspoon

Ciao Bella – Valrhona Chocolate and Honey Toasted Pecan Gelato

Approaching full but not quite there, I needed gelato. A single scoop of each flavor should do the trick.

The Valrhona Chocolate, in a word, outstanding. I was skeptical that the nuances of this very high-end chocolate would make it into a dairy-based product intact, but I was wrong. The full spectrum of the source cacao was here. I might be missing my guess, but it tasted like their Guanaja variety. If so, it’s a good choice that I’ve made before when cooking with the expensive stuff. It has some bold floral notes which tend to make it through all of the preparation. Regardless of the Valrhona variety used, this is a chocolate gelato that should not be missed.

The Honey Toasted Pecan was tasty as well. I tasted warm honey notes, though the pecan was mostly absent from my serving. Still, a nice gelato flavor.

Ciao Bella on Urbanspoon

Boccalone – Salumi Cone

We stopped by Boccalone and saw the business was hopping. I jumped in the express line and grabbed two salumi cones. I didn’t get a description of what was in there, but it was all just as delicious as last year. If the salumi cone isn’t the best bang for the buck when it comes to a quick, flavor-packed, meaty snack in San Francisco, I can’t imagine what beats it.

Boccalone on Urbanspoon

Out the Door – Green Papaya Salad and Spring Rolls

Our final stop of the afternoon was at the Ferry Terminal’s incarnation of Out the Door. On walking up, I realized that we’d made a critical error not visiting before: the menu at this location is roughly twice the size of the one at Westfield Centre. And, unfortunately, we’re mostly full so we’re not exactly going to be able to exploit the larger menu, but Loria wanted to grab another green papaya salad for dinner later. Our coaster buzzed, indicating that our order is ready to go, and I go up to pay and decide to be that obnoxious guy who tacks something on. Fortunately, I was just after some spring rolls, several orders of which were stacked next to the register ready to go.

Back at the room later, we tuck into the crisp, tasty salad. I’m almost glad Out the Door doesn’t exist at home because it isn’t cheap and I don’t possess the self-control necessary to stay away. So I would be destitute. So, lucky for me, right?

The spring rolls were beautiful: a great balance of rice noodles, vegetables, and shrimp with that beautiful mint leaf providing a nice, refreshing lift at the end. Buried in peanut sauce they’re even better.

Out the Door on Urbanspoon

I started to wonder about whether it would be feasible to live off Dottie’s, Dynamo, and Out the Door in perpetuity.

Next up: the trip winds down and we hit a few favorites and odds and ends.

San Francisco Strikes Back – Day Four

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April 1, 2011
We woke up late, had Starbucks oatmeal for breakfast, and took off walking for an early lunch.

Wayfare Tavern – Popovers, Poutine, Baked Macaroni and Cheese, Duck Gumbo, and a Triple Order of Surly

It was a quick walk from the hotel to Wayfare Tavern, Tyler Florence’s new restaurant nestled in the middle of the Financial District. We arrived just before 11am but found the door open and ourselves, by design, the first party to arrive.

“Table for three,” I say, smiling and glancing down at my daughter in the stroller.

“Do you have a reservation?” asks the rather dour greeter, glancing down at my daughter in the stroller.

“We don’t.”

“Welllllllll…I could either seat you at the bar or at these stand ups over here. I guess I could give you a table, but I would absolutely have to have it back by noon.”

“We’ll do the table and have it back by noon.”

She looks like I’ve just taken away her birthday and stomped her left big toe simultaneously.

“Please follow me,” she said on a tone that sounded a lot more like “Please jump off your choice of either of our city’s convenient and picturesque bridges and be sure to take the stroller and its contents with you.”

We get seated and a server literally races over to us. “I understand we’re in a bit of a hurry? I can get your orders into the kitchen immediately.”

Luckily, he’s dealing with people who study menus online before they show up. We know pretty much where we’re heading, so we get them started on the poutine while we figure out an entree to split. We settle on duck gumbo and a side of macaroni and cheese.

While they get to work on the food, we speculated about the source of the attitude. It seems odd to complain about our taking a table that was unoccupied and was unlikely to be so for the hour it’ll take to eat our meal. Our thoughts turned to the location: maybe our decidedly casual attire and the presence of a baby clashes with the Financial District chic they are attempting to affect. However, I did call the night before and ask about whether Ainsley would be welcome, and was assured that she would be…though, come to think of it, the woman on the phone followed that up with the fact that they didn’t have a reservation available until 9:30pm. And it was five on a weeknight when I called.

Popovers arrived. I’d read raves about them. Maybe Sourpuss’ attitude was sufficiently unpleasant that it made me resentful and harsh on them. Hard to say for sure, but I found the popovers to be just ok. They were eggy and the cheese taste is strong, but aside from those two notes, there’s not much going on. I really would have preferred a regular bread, to be honest. I tried them with the butter and didn’t really find them to be anything more special even when doused liberally.

Nothing but a thumb to the eye from St. Peter himself could have ruined the poutine, however. With all of the previous brittleness working against it, our table fell silent as we devoured that plate. Nicely crisped and slightly browned potatoes were already wilting under the weight of mozzarella curd, a rather generous portion of tender-as-my-wounded-father-feelings braised beef short rib, and some deep, complex truffle gravy, topped with several shaves of black truffle for good measure. I am grateful that I very carefully split the order onto our two plates prior to eating as, had we simply eaten off the same plate, I might have forgotten that I am a generous husband and gone feral and greedy. As boring as I found the popovers to be, they do make for a fine sop for truffle gravy.

And it’s downhill from there. The macaroni and cheese arrived and has the texture and flavor of a plate full of glue. I’m usually pretty harsh when it comes to mac and cheese — it’s one of those dishes where chefs tend to cut corners and the final product shows it — but when Loria pipes in saying “that is terrible” before I’ve said anything, I know it’s a pretty poor plate. She usually loves even the most unlovable macaroni and cheese. Limp pasta, barely browned bread crumbs, and an unpleasant cheese sauce binding it together. $8 completely wasted.

The duck gumbo is a better written dish on the menu than actually arrives. There’s nothing overtly wrong about it, but it’s nothing extraordinary beyond being a perfectly nice bowl of gumbo with duck confit. To make things worse, Ainsley apparently sensed that she’s unwelcome and began to fuss, so Loria took her off to a restroom to feed. I shoveled down the rest of the gumbo, asked for Loria’s half of the gumbo to be packaged to go, and beat a hasty retreat through a dining room full to the brim with two whole occupied tables. Whew, sure glad we made it out by noon to avoid what is clearly a lunch crush in the making.

In the only nice moment of service, I was given a coat check ticket at the table and, when we’re ready to go, I hand it to Sourpuss in exchange for our leftovers that have been neatly packed into a bag.

Thanks Wayfare and fare thee well! May we never darken each others paths again (unless I really crave that poutine, in which case I’ll call ahead and take it to go).

Wayfare Tavern on Urbanspoon

It was the first day of the convention, so we decide to help out Loria’s sisters by getting dinner arranged so that it is ready for them when they arrive back at the hotel. Last trip, I’d really hoped to hit Mission Street Food and was bummed when it closed up shop. When I heard that some of the same people were behind Mission Street Chinese and that they delivered for a couple bucks, that became our call.

Lung Shan/Mission Chinese Food – Lung Shan’s Vegan Delight, Hainam Chicken Rice, Slow-Cooked Char Siu Pork Belly, Braised Mongolian Beef Cheek, Broccoli Beef

We’d had an interesting conversation about it on the way back from Napa the day before. When I’d floated the idea of Mission Street for dinner, she went looking online for their menu and via Yelp came across not only a rather ordinary looking Chinese food menu, but some equally bland “what’s the big deal and why do people love this place?” reviews. I was perplexed since I’d been looking at a menu with some rather authentic-sounding and exotic dishes and the reviews to match. We soon puzzled out that they actually have two menus. I assume one is meant for the mouth-breathing Gwailo and the other for the locals. We ordered from the interesting menu and were rewarded. I have to admit that for every dish we got, there were two others that we were closely considering. We’ll have to try an all new assortment next time.

We’re told that the order will take an hour to arrive and are glad that we put the order in early to accommodate the girls when they get off the show floor. Half an hour later we hear a knock at the hotel door. Props and an extra star for sheer speed in San Francisco rush hour.

I tasted only a spoon of the soup, it having been ordered by Katelyn, a semi-lapsed vegan who I figure might be trying to avoid the rest of the meat-heavy order. It’s tasty miso broth, and she assured us all in strident tones that the mushroom dumplings were good as well.

The group agreed that the absolute favorite was the Hainam Chicken Rice. Something about the combination of bits of chicken meat, peanut, and heavy application of chicken fat made it irresistible. Even after I was full, I found myself going back for another fork of that rice.

My only disappointment was the pork belly. In general when I think of pork belly and slow cooking, I figure that the result will be a great deal of the fat rendered out over time and tender, succulent meat left behind. The cubes of pork belly in our order are 90% fat. I excised the meat from between the fat layers and there is a nice-sized snack. I will admit, however, that this is likely the result of my own expectations and that this presentation may well have been perfectly pleasing to the intended native palate. Both the soy-cured egg and the ginger scallion noodles that came with it were delicious, though.

We went beef heavy on the other two dishes. Had I realized that Janelle’s Broccoli Beef contained the same beef cheeks that the other Mongolian dish did, I might have opted for one of the other dozen or so dishes that were in the running, just for the sake of variety. The meat was delicious and tender in both preparations. I loved the fresh horseradish flavor in the Mongolian version, and the inclusion of actual poached oysters in addition to a smoked oyster sauce and Chinese broccoli signaled that this was not the beef broccoli that I’m likely to get from my strip mall sweet and sour joint at home.

I really enjoyed this food. Add in the possibility of delivery and I’m pretty sure that Mission Chinese will become a staple of our future visits.

Mission Chinese Food on Urbanspoon

Next up: why I’ll never watch Top Chef the same way ever again.

San Francisco Strikes Back – Day Three

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March 31, 2011

I woke up and discovered that Dynamo has two more flavors I’d not yet tried, so I made the early morning call and asked them to put aside a box. ‘Twas a small box. What followed was a full-blown donut melee. I won. Well, Sara Spearin really won, having not only scored my donut money but $20 for a t-shirt. But I felt like a winner, and that’s all the really matters, right?

Loria was scheduled to help her sisters set up the WonderCon booth, so Ainsley and I had an afternoon of cuddle time on the docket. Her sisters arrived in town and declared themselves in need of a dim sum fix, so I was off like a shot to a lunch spot that, after reading a bit, I decided I must try and discovered that this was probably my last chance on this trip to do so due to some upcoming renovations.

Naked Lunch – Artisan Foie Gras Torchon & Duck Prosciutto Sandwich, Smoked Pork Loin and Chorizo Sandwich, and 4505 Chicharrones

Read that first sandwich name again. Take a second to reflect.

Add to it that it is served with a slice of heirloom tomato which reminded me all over of what an actual tomato tastes like, butter lettuce, and black truffle salt, an ingredient that I have come to appreciate the power of in my home kitchen. I loved this sandwich so much that had I not been scheduled to take care of the little girl, I might have run back up to see if I could score another one. And I nearly strapped her into the baby Bjorn and did so anyway. It defines the word unctuous, with just enough herb from the lettuce and acid from the tomato to balance things out. And as over the top as foie gras on a sandwich sounds, duck prosciutto is even more so, in a good way.

I’d read a few reviews talking about the sandwich being very rich, so we decided to venture a try on chef Ryan Maxey’s latest brain child, a smoked pork loin and chorizo sandwich. It seems odd to call a pork and sausage sandwich light, but it certainly felt light next to the foie gras. Very thinly sliced pork loin with the perfect amount of smoke, just a touch of chorizo, and a creamy sauce. If I’d gone back for another foie gras, I might have needed to grab one of these to throw in the fridge and eat later on.

I’d also read nice things about 4505 Chicharrones, so I grabbed a bag.

Quick side note: after some hard-won weight loss over the past few years, I am a diet-controlled diabetic. When I was first diagnosed, I turned to pork rinds as a low carb snack for my Friday night game nights. Although they provided me with something to cram in my gob to help me avoid eating the other snack delights that generally grace the gaming table, even the hot variety that I could find locally available had the personality, texture, and flavor of packing peanuts. This goes by way of saying that my expectations for what a chicharron could be were fairly low – I figured I’d done my time in that particular circle of gastrointestinal hell and they just weren’t my thing.

Here’s to my sweet pork skin. I was so very wrong.

These little crunchy treats are light and airy. They coat the inside of your entire mouth from the first bite with a pleasant film of porky goodness. The seasoning on them is at once spicy, sweet, and happiness inducing. Had I gone back up with Ainsley to grab another couple of sandwiches, several bags of these would have been acquired, too. Fortunately, although I didn’t make it back up to North Beach for food, we did run across the 4505 booth at the Ferry Building just as they were closing down on Saturday and snagged another couple of bags, including a big one that I shared with my gaming group this past Friday. I was crushed to find out that FDA regulations prevent them from shipping out of state, but plans are in the works to have locals acquire a life-giving box of them to be smuggled across state lines.

Like Dynamo, Bi-Rite, and Out the Door, Naked Lunch has entered my list of places that I’ll need to hit at least once during a trip to San Francisco in order for the trip to be complete. There is some crazy alchemy going on there and I wish I could make myself a regular customer. Hear that, universe? Move the Naked Lunch madmen to Utah, please.

Naked Lunch on Urbanspoon

Ainsley and I played away the afternoon. Mom arrived back at the room hungry, which was good because we had reservations for dinner. We had every intention of hitting this spot during our last vacation in San Francisco, but every time dinner rolled around and I looked at that one, lone map marker way south of everything else, the will to travel left me and we opted for something closer to the hotel. Hungry and excited, we hit the Muni J line and, a rickety train later, we were in Noe Valley.

Incanto – Porchetta di Testa, Handkerchief Pasta and Rustic Pork Ragù, Pork Cheeks, Cippolini and Polenta, Sticky Toffee Pudding and Spice Ice Cream

Many pigs died to bring us this meal. They were appreciated by the diners and honored by the chef.

We’d loved our visit to Chris Cosentino’s Boccalone in the Ferry Terminal last trip and vowed that we’d make it to his restaurant Incanto this time around. Judging by the pictures on the website, we figured it was upscale enough that we ought to call ahead to make sure that Ainsley would be welcome there. The staff were enthusiastic in their positive response, but we booked an early reservation, figuring that on the slim chance that she might get fussy, there would be fewer diners around to be disturbed. We timed our arrival well: the doors opened as we walked up, and Ainsley had conked out on the train ride over.

“Are you adventurous diners?” our server opened his introduction of the menu by asking. Looks like we’re in the right place.

Porchetta is a lovely boneless pork roast constructed with layers of pork flesh, fat, and stuffed with herbs and spices. Porchetta di testa is basically the same thing, only instead of using various parts from the entire pig, it uses an entire pig’s head with the bones removed. Alternately, think of it as a very sophisticated and intricate head cheese without the gelatinous bits. The dish was presented with a salad of greens dressed with an acid-heavy vinaigrette. Loria discovered something interesting early on about the dish: the balance was so well-conceived that there were parts of the thinly cut meat that were relatively bland without a bit of the salad to accompany them, but that lit up with flavor with the addition of the acid and herb. I’m really glad we ordered this to start.

Our entrees arrived and we eagerly devoured both. The ragu had some particularly light and enjoyable pasta. The standout for me, however, were the pork cheeks. The meat was fork tender and had a deep, deliciously meaty flavor and the onions a sweet note that paired well with it. The polenta was perfectly cooked, creamy and rich. The star of the dish was the sauce. A dark, rich concoction that I bore no shame in mopping every drop of from the bowl.

If I have a complaint, it was about dessert. The sticky toffee pudding wasn’t bad, really, just not up to the standard of the rest of the meal. The cake portion of ours was a bit dry, even with generous application of the toffee sauce and ice cream. It also felt a bit small for the $8 price.

That small quibble aside, we loved our evening at Incanto. Between our mains and dessert, Ainsley woke up and one of the servers wandered by to play with her a bit. I really got the sense that we were welcome. It’s a warm space with warm people in it. One of my real regrets from the trip is that had we stayed an extra night, we might have been able to make Cosentino’s annual Head to Tail dinner. Maybe it’ll happen the week before the convention next year and we’ll be able to attend. In lieu of that, we’ll invite nine friends there to do one of his whole pig evenings.

Incanto on Urbanspoon

Up next: somewhere Ainsley ain’t so welcome.

San Francisco Strikes Back – Day Two

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March 30, 2011

Ainsley, although usually a very calm and agreeable child, did not approve of her hotel-provided crib. So I was up early and decided to check Dynamo’s Twitter feed to see what they’re making. I had no plans to make the hour-long bus trip there and back since we had a rental car for a day trip up north, and I was going to need all of the stomach room possible for an afternoon of Thomas Keller’s food.

Rats. They were making several flavors that are on my list to try this time around. Chief among those is the cornmeal cherry that eluded me last time. I mentioned my dilemma to Loria and she, ever pragmatic, said that I have four donuts on my list and that if we split them all, that’s really like only eating two donuts apiece. That can’t possibly spoil my appetite, she sagely reasons. I was halfway out the door before she finished the sentence.

Dynamo Donuts – an unwholesome variety and quantity of donuts

As mentioned before, I love donuts more than I can accurately explain. One of the biggest losses in my everyday life over the past year was the closing of the Dick’s Market up the street. Rather than taking that as evidence of my living a particularly charmed life, consider it a statement of how much donuts and I get along. The in-house bakery at Dick’s was amazing, and their apple fritter had become a regular part of my diet. It helped that the store resided in the same strip mall as my gym, so I could get my workout in and easily rationalize the pastry afterward. I’d earned it. Dick’s, you will be missed.

Dynamo, how I missed you. Over the course of this last week-long trip, I made the long trip there three times. If they weren’t closed on the day we left, I suspect there would have been one last trip there as our final stop on the way out of town. I say this despite finding out late last trip that the bus route from our hotel and Dynamo apparently also serves as the most convenient way for the denizens of the Tenderloin to get to the closest methadone clinic. So, needless to say, our merry band of bus riders are a colorful lot. I barely noticed on the way there, anticipation drawing my attention to the countdown to my 24th Street stop; the way back is fraught with terror as I will myself and, more importantly, my box of $3 donuts to be invisible.

Here’s what we ate during the entire trip. I’m sure if you do the math you’ll realize that if only four of these happened on this first day, we had a couple of really piggish days thereafter. Maybe it’s better if you just don’t do the math.

The Old
Meyer Lemon Huckleberry – this one is nicely tart due to plenty of lemon zest.

Maple Apple Bacon – same and brilliant as it ever was. I may or may not have eaten one of these myself each time I went.

Lemon Pistachio – beautiful middle Eastern flavors with the lemon glaze being much more acidic than you’d find on a normal lemon donut.

Hot Cross Bun – hint of nutmeg in the pastry cream filling.

The New
Molasses Guinness Pear – dense molasses donut with Guinness-soaked pears, crystallized ginger, and raisins with a molasses glaze. I love pears, crystallized ginger, and desserts, so this donut should be a no-brainer favorite. Instead, I found it rather muddled. I’m not sure if it’s a function of there being too much going on or a function of the donut being particularly dense and smothering the other flavors, but I could taste only a touch of pear, plenty of molasses, and not much else. That being said, the worst Dynamo donut is better than most other donuts I have available, so still a very pleasant experience.

Cornmeal Rosemary Cherry – cornmeal donut with rosemary and dried cherry with a buttermilk glaze. I love the idea of cornmeal in a donut. As a flavor, it doesn’t show up much in this one, being taken over by the glaze.

Monte Cristo – donut with chunks of gruyere and ham in the batter filled with a house made jam. Great jam, though I could have used more of it. And, while we’re at it, more of the ham and cheese would have been good, too. The one bite that I got that contained all three was sublime, though.

Bitter Queen – candied grapefruit donut with an Elderflower glaze and dusted with Campari sugar. Brilliant little pastry, this. First of all, there is much more sourness and bitterness than I anticipated in a donut. The Campari sugar is very flavorful, but the candied grapefruit makes this donut for me. Seeing this on their daily Twitter feed will give me serious hunger pangs from here on out.

Blueberry Cornmeal – cornmeal donut with fresh blueberries and a lavender glaze. I preferred this version of the two cornmeal donuts. Clear, copious amounts of blueberry flavor and a nice compliment from the lavender.

Strawberry Earl Grey – donut with dried strawberries and a double bergamot Earl Grey glaze. Orange from the bergamot oil in the team and strawberries, both very prevalent. I wish I’d gotten a second of these, as the half that I had didn’t have many dried strawberries.

Peanut Butter Banana – banana donut with peanut butter glaze. I’ll admit to not finding much banana flavor here, though the peanut butter glaze was delicious.

Dynamo Donuts & Coffee on Urbanspoon

Our appetites properly piqued, we picked up the rental car and headed north over the Golden Gate through Napa. It’s a beautiful drive that would, I’m sure, have been greatly augmented by an occasional stop at a winery for a tour and tasting. We don’t drink, though, so we blow right past Napa on up to Yountville to visit

Bouchon Bistro – Rillettes, Lobster Bisque, Poulet Rôti , and Gnocchi à la Parisienne

Our previous visit to Bouchon in Vegas was a memorable meal. We are also avid fans of the bakery, so we figured that it would constitute a nice side trip to visit the mother ship of both. We encountered what was to become a running theme on the trip: the wait staff, as happy as they are to see us, are over the moon about having Ainsley dine with them. Both the our server and the greeter are both lavish in their praise of her beauty and behavior. And, as much as I feel immune to a wait staff who butters me up personally, appreciating my child seems to wonder for my mood and the size of the post-meal tip.

This incarnation of Bouchon is a much smaller, more intimate room. I’m fairly surprised that we are one of maybe five tables occupied. The lobster bisque arrives and I’m surprised to find a deep, rich, and complex flavor more akin to a beef stew than the seafood-enriched soup I’m expecting. In fact, without the benefit of having been the one ordering it, I don’t know that I could have identified it as a seafood dish at all. It’s not bad, but definitely not expected. The rillettes, on the other hand, comes exactly as described: meat cooked into a tender paste, packed into a small crock, then topped with apricot preserves. It’s served with small grilled pieces of toast which I feel duty-bound to pile as high as I can with the tasty mix. The flavor balance is dead on, with the preserves providing just a bit of acid to cut the fat of the meat. I kind of wish we’d ordered two of these and skipped the bisque.

There are no surprises with the mains, however: the roast chicken is juicy, flavorful, and perfectly done. I recall there being vegetation that accompanied the dish, but it hardly mattered. I was too busy denuding the bones of my part of the chicken to pay much attention. The gnocchi is the best I’ve ever had. It is light, airy, and the browned butter sauce around it is beautiful.

We’re offered dessert, but plan on the bakery next door.

Bouchon on Urbanspoon

Bouchon Bakery – small assortment of desserts

I don’t know whether I was full or simply sated after the Dynamo run, but a trip to Bouchon Bakery, usually an expensive endeavor, turns into a fairly cheap affair. We grabbed a chocolate eclair, which was rich and decadent and that I would gladly enjoy again. I also grab a blackberry pâte de fruit (mispronouncing it as “pa-tay d’froot” only to find it’s actually “paw d’fwee” (die in a fire, French language)) and two macarons. Among them, only the passion fruit macaron stands out as being anything special.

I’m certainly open to admitting that, after a day of food indulgences, my palate was shot. The next time we’re in Vegas, I certainly will be excited to visit the version of the Bakery in the Venetian. This one in Yountville has a larger selection, adding a robust selection of breads to the menu. Since we were there for dessert, I was mostly focused on those and surprised to find that there are very few choices here that can’t be had in Vegas.

Bouchon Bakery on Urbanspoon

The drive home was trying. We managed to nail rush hour between Napa and Oakland, and sit in the car for an extra 45 minutes. Ainsley’s patience finally runs thin, and by the time we’re dropping the car off at the hotel, she’s in real need of feeding and a nap. As such, when dinnertime rolls around an hour or so later, I head out to forage for food to bring back. Since the mall is just next door, I opt for an old friend.

Out the Door – Green Papaya Salad, Steamed Pork Bun, Crispy Jumbo White Shrimps with Garlic Shanghai Noodles, and Lemongrass Pork Noodles

Among my proud accomplishments this trip is that I have both convinced and addicted Loria to the joys of Out the Door. The fast-food incarnation of the famed Vietnamese restaurant The Slanted Door offers impressively seasoned and conceived dishes to go. My experience with them last trip was marred only by the fact that I discovered them the day before we were leaving, so I didn’t get to try everything on the menu.

I’d had the green papaya salad last time and loved it, and grabbed one again this time to make up for the last time I talked Loria into a papaya salad at a local Thai place that was dreadful. She agreed that this version was crisp and delicious and has rhapsodized about its joys since then. The steamed pork bun was the same as last time, with bonus points being awarded for it not being the disturbing color of blood red that most similar buns in San Francisco are on the inside.

Of the two entrees we got, Loria picked better than I: while the shrimp noodles were good, I found somewhere halfway through my dish that I’d had more than enough of them. Instead, I finished up the lemongrass pork noodles and wished that I’d gotten the caramelized chicken that was on the menu.

One note: the online menu appears to be somewhat out of date, as the lemongrass chicken that appears there wasn’t available. I’m not sure if that had something to do with our being there somewhat late in the day, but good to know if you’re headed there that it’s best not to get yourself married to any particular dish until you arrive and see what they are actually offering that day.

Out the Door on Urbanspoon

Up next: a naked song. Cringe, San Francisco, cringe.

San Francisco Strikes Back – Day One

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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.

Mr. Pollo

Mr. Pollo  on Urbanspoon

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.

Tartine Bakery on Urbanspoon

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.

Bi-Rite Creamery
Bi-Rite Creamery and Bake Shop on Urbanspoon

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.

Spice Kit on Urbanspoon

Next up: a walk through Thomas’ garden.

What I Ate in San Francisco – A Confession, final

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April 2 – Day Four

Out the Door – Shredded Chicken Salad, Steamed BBQ Pork Bun, Caramelized Chicken

Tucked in the far corner from the Bloomingdale’s entrance we frequented, Out the Door has both a very busy takeout counter and a sizable dine-in area – especially for a mall. Though I have to admit that there is nothing about this place that says mall food to me. The first meal I ate there, my poor digestive system was feeling a bit abused from days of donuts and ice cream, so I figured I would go light and get a salad and steamed BBQ pork bun. The prices, on first glance, seemed a bit steep, but no other salad options were speaking to me, so I took the plunge.

I’m so glad I did.

The cabbage-based salad had a light, crisp mix of vegetables very delicately dressed in a lime and ginger dressing. Simple and delicious. The chicken on top of it seemed a bit skimpy, but then I’m used to eating large homemade salads with 1/3 of a chicken on top of it. The salad ended up being very filling despite looking small. I topped it off with a steamed BBQ pork bun. Costco, of all places, used to sell these and I loved them. I mourn the loss of them. The Out the Door version had a filling that was less of the paste of meat and aromatics I’m used to having. Instead, it was filled with a complex mixture of still-crisp vegetables, cubes of pork, and enough sauce to cover them.

My second meal there the next day, I went for broke and got the caramelized chicken. Suffice it to say that, even though I tend to view rice as a carb that I can easily cut to a minimum (in favor of dessert), I ate nearly all the rice served with this dish in an effort to soak up all of that unctuous, complex sauce.
Out the Door on Urbanspoon

April 3 – Day Five

It’s our final full day in San Francisco, so I decide to start it off in style. Although neither of the girls are interested in them, I get up very early and go to Dynamo. They are just finishing frying off the hot cross donuts and it becomes clear to me that I either miss the panel with Max Brooks or finally get to taste the cherry cornmeal donuts. Already planning to return next April for the convention, I choose the panel and promise myself the donut on return. Besides, I’ve already eaten five, maybe more…my poor, poor diet.

After the panel, I’m hungry again. So I slog through the rain to the Ferry Terminal to Boccalone for another meat cone, then around the corner to

Yank Sing – Deem Sum Platter and many other tasty Deem Sum treats

I’d read about the baked BBQ pork buns here, so I wanted to give this place a shot. I’d also read that it was fairly expensive for dim sum, which I didn’t find to be the case at all. Maybe a bit more than the $15 for two we’d paid in Chinatown, but the quality of this food was amazing.

Seafood was front and center for most of the dumplings in the dim sum platter. Loaded with scallop and shrimp meat, they were tender and tasty. I’m also a bit amazed that it was all packed so well that it was hot even after my long walk from the restaurant to the Moscone Center. The baked BBQ pork buns were as advertised – simply a step above. I especially liked the onion flavor prevalent in the filling, something missing from other incarnations I’d had before.

I regret both that I decided to hit this one late in the trip, as it would have been worth revisiting, and that I was doing takeout: I’ve never actually had dim sum with the rolling carts piled with bamboo steamers, and they do this at Yank Sing. Next time!

Yank Sing on Urbanspoon

Convention ends, we tear things down, and head back to the hotel with the intention of dropping off the bags and heading to the food court. I have been eyeing Out the Door’s Coconut Pork Riblets. I can nearly taste them in anticipation.

We get ready, head out, and get to the doors of the mall later than hoped to find them locked. I nearly pull a “Khaaaaan” here. Instead, I pout silently as we head to

Mel’s Drive-In – Broiled Chicken Breast Dinner

This place looks horrendous from the outside, so while the girls get seated, I run up the street to look at the menu for Green Papaya in the hope that it’s prices are comparable. It’s more pricey, so I trudge back and face the music.

While the girls work a convention, the business picks up the cost of their food. So when our weary server wanders over, I start by saying “Mine will be on a separate check.”

“Nope, sorry, all one check.”

Um…ok. Eventually Janelle overhears him talking to somebody – he’s finishing up a 13 hour shift. I guess that’ll explain the surly attitude.

I’m too upset at having been deprived of my last visit with Out the Door to argue. The food eventually comes. The girls seem to be ok with theirs. Mine is terrible – dry chicken, gravy that tastes like something mom would have turned in her apron permanently had she made it. The server chides us for not ordering dessert. We pay and leave defeated.

Mel's Drive-in on Urbanspoon

April 4 – Day Six
Our flight is early, so no real breakfast. I wake up around 4am, though, and cannot sleep. So eventually I shower and head to Dottie’s around 7am. I find myself first in line, grab the pastries to go, and return to find the girls getting ready.

My to-do list for the next trip to SF: Sotto Mare, Yank Sing, those Out the Door riblets, as much Dynamo as my pancreas can handle, and some other places we didn’t make:

Mission Street Food
Restaurant Jeanne D’Arc

In my perfect world, we’ll have time the resources to go early and visit Yountville, too. I’ll let you guess why.

What I Ate in San Francisco – A Confession, part 3

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April 1 – Day Three
The day starts with a run to Dynamo. They have flavors today that I haven’t tried, and Loria doesn’t really want to go out. I leave her sleeping and brave the SF bus system. Loria’s sister Janelle flies in to set up the convention, and she flew out on the same wince-inducingly early flight that we did two days earlier, so I figure she’s probably not eaten. So, to make sure that each of them get at least a donut or two, I buy a dozen. I arrive back at the hotel, having defended the box against hordes of hungry bus passengers. We leave the hotel room in heavy sugar shock. Great success.

After the show is set up, we decide to visit

House of Dim Sum – Baked BBQ Pork Buns among others

Janelle and Katelyn worked Wondercon last year and found this place and made many returns trips. It is, kindly put, short on ambiance: basically a line of steam trays from which the food is served cafeteria style. I’d heard the girls rave about the baked pork buns as being the stuff of drool-soaked dreams. They ain’t wrong: sweet, radioactive red filling in what is a very light and airy dinner roll, glazed with honey. It’s basically a dessert with a bit of protein in it. The steamed pork dumplings are very good, as is the shrimp wonton soup which comes from the back, made to order. Also important here: this place is dirt cheap. Loria and I eat for $15, and the food is substantial enough that our 4pm meal holds us for the rest of the day.

House of Dim Sum on Urbanspoon

Well, not entirely. I do sneak out around the corner late and grab dessert from what turns out to be a bad April Fool’s Day prank at

Beard Papa – Vanilla and Pumpkin Cream Puffs

I discover this place while searching online for noodles the night before, and find many raves about their cream puffs. I also discover that there is one next door to the hotel, so it’s a convenient treat.

I cannot imagine what anybody in the US sees in these.

Perhaps it’s due to the Asian population in SF that this chain has flourished, but my first bite of the pumpkin cream puff is the most disappointing dessert moment since the time in Japan that I bought a big pastry and found it was filled with red bean paste. The filling has barely any flavor at all, and is not sweet. Hoping that we got a bad batch of pumpkin, I bit into the vanilla and it was similarly flavorless. I certainly get cultural differences when it comes to the preferences of seasoning, but these were ridiculously bad. So bad that, after having a bite and confirming that Loria wasn’t really feeling adventurous, I threw the rest of them away.

Beard Papa on Urbanspoon

April 2 – Day Four
The show starts late for the girls, so we wander to get breakfast at the Westfield San Francisco Centre, which is situated perfectly between the hotel and the convention center. On the Night of the Deluge and Noodle Run, we popped in here and strolled around on the way back to the hotel and noted something strange in the food court. Here, observe: note the strange, patently un-mall-like names in the food lineup? Sure, there’s a Jamba Juice and Panda Express, but for every one of those there are three names that were unfamiliar to me. We decided to start with

Melt Gelato and Crepe Cafe – Bangkok Nights Crepe

This was a lovely concoction – lightly grilled veggies, chicken, and a peanut sauce and some cheese all folded into a crepe the size of a dinner plate. I enjoyed it so much, I had the same thing for lunch. Unfortunately, in the lunch rush they forgot the sauce, and the entire thing went from a tasty Southeast Asian treat to dry but serviceable.

Melt Gelato & Crepe Cafe on Urbanspoon

What came after the crepe was almost as important. I ran around to the various eateries, most of which were still not open, and gathered up to-go menus for the girls’ lunches. In doing so, I spied a Vietnamese place that I had to try. As much as I miss you, Dynamo, I really do mourn that I didn’t have more time with you, Out the Door.

Next time: Really, truly good night, Saigon.

What I Ate in San Francisco – A Confession, part 2

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March 31 – Day Two
We get an early start knowing that there’s a line ahead of us. We know this because of the reviews of the place all mention them. We also know due to a bit of 21st century spying

Dottie’s True Blue Cafe – Blueberry Cornmeal Pancakes, Whiskey Fennel Sausage and Mushroom Scramble with Grilled Jalapeno Cornbread, and Blackberry Bourbon Coffee Cake

You know there’s going to be a wait and, in a city where we counted at least six restaurants on every city block downtown, probably something really worth eating when you can look at the Google Maps Street View and see they happened to catch a substantial line outside when they took the picture. Add to that the fact that, despite only being four blocks from our swanky Marriott Marquis hotel, it’s in a particularly manky part of the Tenderloin, and you know that the popularity must mean something.

We got lucky and arrived to find only 4 people in line. That still required about 30 minutes of waiting, so Loria pointed out that we must have gotten there just as most of the dining room was seated. The place is tiny inside, maybe 10 tables. It is decked out in retro style. It is not what anybody would describe as pretty. But since I was there to eat rather than get decorating tips, I couldn’t have cared less.

The pancakes were tender, substantial, and pocked with more blueberries than I’d have thought possible. They are served with honest-to-goodness maple syrup. Loria ordered a side of bacon and it came, as requested, crispy. I don’t know where they get it from, but it was the good stuff.

The scramble was loaded down with the sausage, which looked to be cut up links, fried up crisp. Loria thought that the fennel was a bit strong, but I really liked it. I also really enjoyed the grilled cornbread, especially for the rather impressive trick of having a full jalapeno taste without much heat. Although you can see the majority of the grill area when you walk in, and it’s tiny as all get out, clearly these are people who love food. They must, since they dish out portions of it which are criminally large. I ordered the coffee cake to go, mostly because it sounded too delicious to pass up but I hadn’t a single bit of room left in my belly. For about $30, we were full until well after noon.

That coffee cake? Yeah, it rivaled anything from Dynamo. The booze taste was pronounced, but paired really well with the large, juicy blackberries that covered every bit of the top of the cake. By the time I got around to eating it in the evening, the crumb topping had dissolved into more of a caramel. I doubt the state of it would have made the baker very happy, but oh, dear heavens, was it good.

Good enough that, on the final morning of our trip, I got up at 6am and was in line at about 7:15am to make sure that we had some breakfast to go. I looked in the window and nearly wept openly to see that the coffee cake was not on the hand-written marker board where the daily baked goods are listed. The baker, seeing me crestfallen, shook his finger at me to indicate that the items on the board were not, in fact, what they would be serving. He then took a towel, wiped it all away, and replaced them including, instead of the blackberry version that I’d hoped for, a blueberry whiskey coffee cake. The memory of the previous version was positive enough that I bought two pieces of it, along with a few scones, a regular cinnamon coffee cake, and an apricot peach muffin. All were fine, and although the blueberry incarnation didn’t quite live up to the big, juicy blackberry version, it was definitely tasty.

Dottie's True Blue Cafe on Urbanspoon

Full high-quality diner food, we waddled to Powell and stood in line for a cable car. Our plan was to catch a boat to Alcatraz. Arriving at the pier, we took the long walk down to where the tickets are sold…a long walk which passes the Pier 39 sidewalk seafood stalls and…what’s that, stomach? You’re hungry? How tha…nevermind. Later. You can wait an hour.

Eventually discovering that not only is Alcatraz a popular choice today, but that all of the cruises out there are completely booked, we take the long walk back to the pier and past it to Ghirardelli Square.

Ghirardelli On-The-Go – Thick Chocolate Shake

The last time I was in San Francisco, it was for a high school debate trip. I went on one of these each of the years I was in high school. The first year, I established a bit of a tradition upon arriving in the wharf area: I would go to the Ghirardelli shop for a deep, rich chocolate shake, then go upstairs to the Boudin shop and get a bay shrimp sandwich. That combination, despite many lovely meals in SF, came to sum up what I figured the city should taste like.

Sadly, both the Boudin shop at Ghirardelli Square and the sandwich are gone. We stopped by several of the Boudin Cafes – now ubiquitous in the city – and ended up eating at none of them. I guess the lack of my favorite dish soured me.

But, I couldn’t pass up the shake.

Since my time in high school, I’ve become much more selective about the chocolate I eat. This is due mostly to the excellent chocolate tasting class taught by Matt Caputo at Tony Caputo’s Market and Deli as well as a lot of tasting and reading of my own. I expected going in, therefore, that the weight of my current snobbery would overcome any fondness from my formative years. Wrong.

Is the chocolate flavor a one-note samba? Yes. It didn’t matter. The thick, rich shake reminded me of all of the reasons that I prefer dark chocolate to other kinds. We shared the shake, but even as stuffed as I was, I could have eaten a second on my own happily.

Ghirardelli Soda Fountain and Chocolate Shop on Urbanspoon

Instead, being that it’s still only 11am and a bit early in the day for a second full-on carbfest, we get out of there, wander around what has become a quite barren shop space at the Square, and go looking for something more substantial.

Tarantino’s Sidewalk Cafe – Bay Shrimp Salad on Country Bread

I’m still mostly stuffed from breakfast and the apres- brunch chocolate dessert, so I opt for a sandwich. I’m craving shrimp due to my Boudin-related disappointment, so I go for the shrimp salad sandwich, choosing from what is a surprisingly robust selection for what is basically an open hole in the restaurant wall. It’s simple mayo, celery, and a double-fistful of shrimp, but the salad is really good. The bread doesn’t hold a candle to Boudin and is slightly dry to boot, so I eat most of the filling out of it with a fork and toss it. Done and done.

Tarantino's on Urbanspoon

Then, not surprisingly, we both need a nap, so it’s back to the hotel.

Loria wakes up suggesting Slanted Door, a rather high-end Asian fusion place we looked over in the Ferry Building. She mentions the many noodle dishes sounding good. I recall it being pretty expensive, so I’m not as jazzed. We look out the window and what do we see? Nay, no popcorn or apricot trees. Rain. This is to be the story of the rest of our trip, culminating in an epic storm that we get to experience on our last day in SF as a thundering downpour (which I trudge through four separate times to get food) and a second time the next day when we get to Utah and find that winter has made an unwelcome reappearance.

So, walking down to the Ferry Building is out. I Yelp and discover that several Japanese noodle shops are nearby, one of which has gotten raves.

Katana-Ya – Butter Corn Ramen

Many of the reviews that I read mentioned Butter Corn Ramen. Being intimately familiar with both the stale, plastic-wrapped versions as well as fresh ramen in Japan, the combination intrigues me, so I read no further and we’re off in the rain to get hot noodles.

It’s a tiny place, 15 tables max. We’re seated immediately and start to pour over a huge selection of ramen, sushi, and donburi choices. My mind’s made up going in, though: butter corn ramen for me! I can choose from either shoyu, salt, or miso broth, and opt for the miso. As it the norm for a fresh noodle house, the food is out almost immediately. I quickly discover that, although I’m expecting some exotic flavored noodle or strange ingredient that would explain the name of the dish, it turns out that butter corn ramen is…you guessed it!…a bow of ramen with a couple of pats of butter melting on the top and a half-cup of freshly cut yellow corn. It’s good, don’t get me wrong, but given the many choices I had on the menu, I wish I’d read the reviews a bit more closely. The food is delicious and hot, perfect for a rainy evening.

Katana-Ya on Urbanspoon

Next time: why not all mall food courts are equal.

What I Ate in San Francisco – A Confession

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March 30 – Day One
We started our SF visit – nominally motivated by Wondercon, which Loria was working and I was attending – at the Ferry Building. And we chose well. And then, shortly thereafter, not so well.

Boccalone – Meat Cone

Chris Cosentino’s salumeria, the offspring of his local Incanto restaurant, is filled to the brim with preserved pork. A smaller shop than I’d envisioned, it didn’t disappoint with the meat cone, a selection of the shop’s delectable pork treats served in a small paper cone of the type you’ve probably had a shaved ice in. Ours had capocollo, prosciutto, and soppressata in it. At $3.50, it’s a tasty, tasty bargain that reminded me just how magical an animal the pig is.

Boccalone on Urbanspoon

Not surprisingly, we weren’t full, having not eaten since a hurried breakfast at 5am. I do truly hate early morning flights. So, we walked around, looking at other options in the Ferry Building, which has a wide variety of small food stands. Several of them, like Slanted Door and Hog Island Oyster Company, I’d heard of and was interested in trying. We had many miles of trudging to do in search of good food, though, so we opted for

San Francisco Fish Company – Crab Cake Sandwich and Clam Chowder

You’d think that combining “San Francisco” and “Fish,” this place would be a no-brainer for good food, right? Instead, we ate a mushy crab cake so overpowered with parsley that I couldn’t even begin to taste the crab, and a cup of the thickest, blandest clam chowder I’ve ever had. It was enough to stave off the hunger pangs long enough to arrive at our next feeding trough, but wasted money, calories, as well as the commodity that proved to be the most valuable on our trip: stomach capacity.

To get to that trough, we took the BART from Embarcadero to the 24th Street station and started walking to

Humphry Slocombe – Boccalone Prosciutto, Toasted Coconut Caramel Candy Cap, and Secret Breakfast

This ice cream shop specializes in wild, out there flavors. As far as flavor went, I couldn’t taste much of a piggy note at all in the prosciutto ice cream, which I’m sure some would argue is a good thing. However, if I’m brave enough to order such a thing, I would at least like some hint of meat in my treat. Instead, it tasted a lot like bland ice cream base.

The Candy Cap in question is a mushroom. It adds a nutty quality to the dessert, and this was by far the best flavor of the three. Secret Breakfast, which I tried just a sample spoon of, is intended to be Irish Whiskey and corn flakes. I couldn’t really taste any of the cereal, so basically it was a half-teaspoon of whiskey ice cream. That’s not a bad thing, per se, but isn’t exactly revolutionary.

My biggest problem with all three ice creams was the texture. Try this experiment: go buy yourself a good premium pint of B&J and leave it on your counter for an hour. Refreeze it, then taste the outer surface. Every one of the Humphry Slocombe ice creams that we ate had this same kind of grainy consistency. It’s likely that the flavors that I wasn’t getting were being washed away by the huge ice crystals ensconced in the ice cream. At any rate, it’s not a pleasant texture for ice cream, and seems like the sort of thing that a pro can easily avoid. Looking at their flavor list, I think we kind of lost out on some of the potentially exciting ones. Unless of course, all those flavors end up just as bland as those we tried. Color me disappointed, overall.

Humphry Slocombe on Urbanspoon

Out the door and a few blocks up the street

Dynamo Donut and Coffee – Ostensibly the Maple Glazed Bacon Apple, but so…very…many

A small, easily missed shop unless you are looking for it specifically. Which, fortunately, we were. I love donuts to a nearly unnatural degree. Put a high-quality, crunchy and sweet apple fritter in my hands and all is right with my world. Ditto a good, dense buttermilk bar or old fashioned. I can tell a good donut shop from a bad one easily by the look of the pastries, and sometimes just from smell.

Dynamo is the real deal.

In total, we visited Dynamo three times in a week, each trip requiring a half hour on public transit each way. We dropped an obscene amount of money on what would would consider to be mere snacks. I would have considered it a happy, happy trip had we subsisted entirely on them. The majority of my weight gain over the course of the trip was due to them, I’m sure. Even the weaker entries were better than the majority of donuts I have readily available to me locally. I gave serious thought to asking about franchising opportunities.

Here is the butcher’s bill for the entire trip. Stop judging me, please.

Chocolate Rose – dense chocolate cake donut with a rose-infused sugar glaze. Just enough of the rose to detect and enjoy, and that chocolate cake is the best I’ve ever had. I wasn’t surprised, on the last of the three visits, to see the baker pull out a large bag of Valrhona chocolate powder. Use the best ingredients when cooking and you’re halfway there.

Spice Chocolate – same dense chocolate cake but dredged in cinnamon, sugar, and chipotle powder. I’ll admit openly that I tasted no heat at all here. I would like to have done so – the combination of chocolate and spicy ingredients really do please my palate. Maybe I hit them on a weak day.

Saffron Chocolate – alleged to be a raised donut with saffron and orange zest in the pasty and glazed with a chocolate saffron glaze, I really only tasted the orange in the pastry and chocolate in the glaze. I would be willing to sit down with a large cup of the regular chocolate glaze and the saffron version to do an in-depth taste test, though.

Vanilla Bean – clean vanilla taste in the glaze

Maple Glazed Bacon Apple – this is, I’m pretty convinced, the perfect raised donut. The apple in the pastry part is crisp and tart. The maple glaze has the sweet, earthy flavor that only comes from the real stuff. The crisp little bacon bits on the top push it over the top. It’s a perfect balance of salty and sweet. I will cop to the flavors of donuts I had during our trip, but refuse to disclose the numbers of each that I consumed. If I did so, a shameful number would be these bad boys.

Caramel de Sel – a nutmeg donut with a layer of fleur de sel caramel. I suspect these are much better eaten when warm. Mine was cold and the hardened, sticky caramel coated the inside of my mouth and made tasting any of the pastry impossible.

Lemon Pistachio – if you’ve had much middle eastern cuisine, you’ll be familiar with the combination of pistachios and lemons. This is a great interpretation, though I admit that I could have used more nuts on the outside.

Lemon Sichuan – vanilla donut filled with honest-to-goodness fresh lemon curd rather than that nasty, dayglo stuff you find in most donuts, then dredged in sugar and sichuan peppercorns. I was hoping for more pepper, as I didn’t really taste any, but I still love this donut a lot.

Lemon Thyme – lemon zest and thyme in the pastry and a honey lemon glaze. Of the more exotic herb-and-spice flavored donuts, this one had the most herbaceous taste. It’s a really inventive combination that works really well.

Candied Orange Blossom – candied orange blossom in the pastry and glaze, and a drizzle of bittersweet chocolate. I think I tried this last on the most donut-heavy day, and my ability to enjoy was getting muted. It was fine, if not entirely memorable.

Apricot Cardamom – cardamom, dried apricot and current pastry with a cardamom glaze.

Chocolate Star Anise – chocolate cake donut with chocolate and star anise glaze. I didn’t really taste much anise, which is fine with me as I’m having a hard time imagining it pairing well with chocolate.

Chocolate Rosemary Almond – chocolate cake donut with rosemary chocolate glaze covered in rosemary-fried almonds. The rosemary is pronounced enough to detect and doesn’t match particularly well with either almonds or chocolate. Or maybe it’s the entire package that I objected to…at any rate, not my favorite.

Meyer Lemon Huckleberry – raised lemon zest donut with lemon glaze, then covered in huckleberry glaze. Tart and sweet, I really enjoyed this one.

Sticky Bun – basically scraps of all the other donuts drenched in a caramel glaze. Better sounding than tasting, in my humble opinion.

Milk Chocolate Passionfruit – raised donut with a passionfruit glaze covered in milk chocolate crumbs. Despite not being a huge milk chocolate fan, the big huge passionfruit flavor won me over on this one.

Hot Cross Donut – a special for Easter, I gathered, this was a filled pastry cream donut that I recall loving and cannot, for the life of me, remember a single flavor involved. I would buy and consume one right now if asked, though, if that gives you any indication how I felt about it.

I got skunked trying to get a Cornmeal Cherry on two separate occasions, so it along with Pumpkin Spice and Guinness Chocolate will need to wait for another day.

Oh, Dynamo. I miss you already.

Dynamo Donuts & Coffee on Urbanspoon

We needed a nap after this. I woke up hungry, against all odds, and searched online for options and found

Sotto Mare – Clam Chowder, Shrimp Cocktail, and Sand Dabs

Neither of us were ravenous, so we decided to walk from our hotel on Market and Fourth to this little gem in Little Italy. The reviews were raves when it came to the seafood. It was a much longer walk than we’d anticipated, so by the time we arrived we were ready for food. We split soup, appetizer and entree. It was uniformly amazing. I thought I’d pretty much seen all that clam chowder had to offer, but this bowl was revelatory: very little cream, all clam flavor. The reviews all mentioned sand dabs as a standout favorite. I love seafood, but hadn’t ever had them. We got a plate with some vegetation and 8 small, pan-fried fish that were rich and satisfying.

I’d go back here in a heartbeat.

Sotto Mare on Urbanspoon

Next time: day two, where we learn that getting into prison is harder than one might imagine, and that I really ought to think more literally when trying to decipher a menu.

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