A Travel Diary of San Francisco Food Experiences
By Katie Robinson
I am an avid traveler. My sisters have lived everywhere from Germany to Chicago to middle-of-nowhere, Vermont, just to name a few. If I want to see my siblings, I have always had to get my ass of a couch and into a cramped window seat out of Philadelphia. This has been both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it’s to only see my sisters a few times a year. On the other, it’s given me a really good excuse to visit so many great places.
For this recent travel experience, I decided to venture out into the Bay Area to visit my sister, Danielle, who just moved there this past October, dragging my boyfriend, Sam, along with me.
This is how I travel: first, compile a list. Not of activities or tourist attractions, but of restaurants, coffee shops, and any other notable types of eateries. It’s a carefully rendered list – full of cross-references from Yelp, food blogs, a variety of websites, and anyone I trust who knows the area I’m headed. Any name that pops up on a number of different sources becomes a must-go.
There is a reason why I organize my travel this way. I firmly believe that the way to really know a city is through its food. A city’s food culture speaks volumes about the type of place it is. To some extent, a food culture is just a microcosm of the landscape: the food that is indigenous in the area will get utilized. But it’s also more than that: the flora and fauna a locale has makes it unique, but its preparation tells a story. Food culture is at the heart of any given city, and it beats as fast or as slow as the pulse of its people.
What I learned on this trip is that the Bay Area’s pulse is slow as hell. I guess Northern Californians appear content to wait exorbitant amount of times for their food, and they don’t seem to be particularly discerning in what they’ll wait for. I was floored by the wait times everywhere – lines down the block for a fried chicken sandwich in Oakland, wrapped around a street corner for Tartine bakery in the Mission (Full disclosure: I heard the chicken sandwich wasn’t worth the wait, but I can’t pass up a good bakery and holy shit, I would wait an enternity to eat there). It seems that no matter the hour of day or night of the week, with negligible exceptions, the wait is at least 45 minutes. As someone who is patient with everything but my food and my coffee, I struggled to adjust, but I managed.
Night one, I had the best meal of the trip. From there, it remained pretty consistently delicious. Here are the highlights:
Tucked away in Uptown Oakland is Hawker Fare, which can either be described as “hipster Thai” (per my sister’s word choice) or “a Thai Isaan Eatery” (per the word choice of the Hawker Fare itself). It was my first meal upon arriving in California, and likely my best.
Here’s the sad truth: there are no food pictures from Hawker Fare.
Here’s my excuse as to why: due to flight delays and general not-getting-our-shit together, it was around 9 PM by the time we actually ate. I was exhausted and so hungry I thought I might pass out. By the time the food arrived, I had descended into a near blind rage and tore our meal to pieces, with little else in my mind besides, “It’s fucking midnight on the East Coast and I need food and sleep immediately.” In short, food photography never even crossed my mind. Unfortunate, but true.
Thai is not even the right descriptor of what Hawker Fare is. It’s like no Thai I’ve ever had or even heard of. It’s crazy spicy in a good way, and everything on the menu sounded like something I might not want to eat but then turned out to be everything I ever wanted and never knew existed.
Blistered green beans. Spicy as fuck. Sam was quite literally dripping in sweat while we ate them. I love spice, so I loved them. Not to mention they have smoked pork bacon in them – little chunks of tender, fatty bacon to complete the appetizer.
Khao Mun Gai. It’s poached chicken. There’s fermented bean sauce involved. It sounds weird, but it turns out fermented bean sauce kind of tastes like a delicious soy-hoisin type sauce. Who knew? Comes with chicken fat rice – tender, flavorful, delicious enough to eat on its own.
The pork belly. It comes as three large squares of braised pork belly in a soy broth, with chili vinegar to dip it in. It’s cooked to perfection: melt-in-your-mouth soft.
Day 2: I am on my A-game by this point. I remembered to take food pictures, if only because I’d been waiting for a sushirrito for longer than I can remember. Yes they have it in other cities, but San Francisco’s is OG, and I wanted to go to the source if I was going to indulge in it at all.
A sushirrito is, in case you can’t guess, like a roll of sushi, except made into burrito form. It’s more sushi than anyone ever needed, but clearly not more sushi than anyone ever wanted, because I wanted it, and badly.
We got tempura shrimp, because it touted all my buzzwords: tempura, red cabbage slaw, sriracha aioli. It had a nice crunch, the slaw was sweet and crisp, and the aioli added a nice kick. The rice burrito falls apart a little at the end, but such is the price we pay for trying to make sushi larger than it was ever meant to be.
I wouldn’t say Sushirrito is remarkable or one-of-a-kind. It’s just sushi in burrito form. But the special element is borne from the sheer gluttony of it all.
Afterwards, we explored the semi-close-by Chinatown area to grab some bubble tea and check out the funky food stores before wandering our way to the aquarium so I could geek out over the otters and do some sea lion watching at Pier 39.
Mission Burritos are a must when in San Francisco. I was told this multiple times, and when someone insists I eat a food, I’m not one to object. I was told that they would be enormous, and I was not let down. To quote Wikipedia: “[A Mission burrito] is distinguished from other burritos by its large size and inclusion of extra rice and other ingredients.” So yeah, I was excited.
We went to El Farolito, a fairly unassuming Taqueria that is a gem of the Mission. In the land of price inflation, El Farolito is a welcome reprieve: the carne asada super burrito we ordered (which we split, because they aren’t kidding about the size) was only around $7. A super burrito is packed with beans, tomato, onion, cilantro, salsa, cheese, sour cream, avocado, and a shit ton of rice, plus your choice of meat. The meat was tender and delicious, the portions were beyond hefty, and the tortilla was soft and well-wrapped (it didn’t fall apart, which is a real feat in the burrito world).
Down the street, after lunch, the woman running a little boutique full of art and clothing by local artists told us El Farolito was a little touristy, and the better burritos were elsewhere – a tough thing to hear after I’d already eaten. But she did say that for the price, it’s pretty impressive: the burritos are good, and definitely cheaper than the other Mission burritos in town. So, lesson learned: ask the locals first. Although given another chance, I might do it the same; my wallet probably needed the relief.
This one was a game changer. I don’t really like broth, and I don’t love noodles, which I know seems general, but it’s true. I thought, due to this, that ramen would obviously be ruled out of my repertoire. But I was wrong.
At Sam’s insistence (he literally brought it up every day, multiple times a day), I assented to a ramen dinner. We went on one of the couple nights my sister couldn’t get dinner with us – a Tuesday, around 7:30. In spite of Yelp telling us that we were likely to wait anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours, we somehow got lucky and ended up being seated right away, in a spot at the bar. Right in front of us, a guy was making the noodles. It was fun to watch, and also good for me sneaking photos, which he awkwardly caught me doing a few times. Oh well.
After the experience, I am a total convert. I got the Hokkaido Miso Ramen with added chili garlic paste. To be honest, I didn’t even understand half the words that described what was in the dish. What I did see was ground pork belly and, pork belly fiend that I am, I knew I needed to have it. The broth was strong and spicy in that way that clears out your sinuses while you eat. The noodles were perfectly cooked – tender with just enough bite. The pork belly was the consistency of ground beef, punctuating bites with its added fattiness. The shoyu-marinated egg (still don’t know what shoyu is, besides that it tastes amazing when you marinate an egg in it) added some next-level flavor. That bite of yolk mixed in with the noodles and the broth is heaven. The vegetables were leafy and wilted from the heat, but delicious to slurp up with the noodles.
Also, the bowl is HUGE. It is larger than my face. I couldn’t even make it through the whole thing (which just meant I got to enjoy it again as a snack the next night!), but I enjoyed every bite.
After Ramen Shop, I won’t diss ramen again.
Philz is somewhat of a cult coffee shop around San Francisco. It’s slow moving, known for brewing each cup individually, so it takes some time to get your coffee. Like I said: the pulse of San Francisco is slow. But the result is delicious.
I lived off the Mint Mojito Iced Coffee for a few days. The coffee is strong and vibrant, and they make each one to your taste – they even have you taste it before you leave, in case you want to adjust anything. I always got mine “medium sweet, medium creamy,” in their terminology. The fresh mint permeates every sip of the drink – probably because they press a bunch of fresh mint into the bottom of the cup, and then put some more mint leaves on the top. It’s a nice touch.
Philz was my lifeblood for a short period of time. It fueled me for some beautiful hikes across both San Francisco and neighboring Marin County – I’ll post some pictures of those treks below. And they’re opening up stores in DC, for all the Baltimoreans who might want to take a trip to check it out!
Returning home from a trip is always a little painful. We left 65-and-sunny and landed back in damp and barely-over-40. But the first thing we did after landing was head to my favorite pizza place in Philly, to make the transition back to regular life just a little easier.
As much as it sucks to be back home, running very low on food supplies and mostly just eating cereal until I find time to get to the store, I know I can look forward to many future food adventures. For now, I’ll continue to compile lists of restaurants I need to visit across the globe, eagerly awaiting the day I get to eat at them.
Katie Robinson is a writer and food-lover originally from the suburbs of Philadelphia who considers herself to have many homes in many places. She currently resides in Baltimore.