Bay Area Staples Made in the Bay and Here to Stay
I once had a friend who wanted to move to San Francisco to start a restaurant called “The San Francisco Treat,” which would only serve Rice-A-Roni. The joke here, for the younger readers, is that Rice-A-Roni used to market itself as “the San Francisco treat,” due to the fact that they were invented right here in SF’s Mission district. They used to have commercials with a cable car and a bad jingle (you can probably hear that jingle in your head right now) and probably Clint Eastwood shooting a guy with a .44 magnum and Steve McQueen driving a Mustang really fast around corners. They’ve pretty much dropped the “San Francisco treat” tag, but they still use a cable car image in a lot of their logos and promotional material.
The thing is, Rice-A-Roni hasn’t really been a uniquely San Franciscan treat for a very long time (probably a good thing). More of a both-parents-work-long-hours-in-a-slowly- crumbling-marriage-so-just-eat-it treat. And even when it was a San Francisco treat, it was still just, you know, Rice-A-Roni. Not, like, something that tastes good. But our beautiful Bay Area has a bucketload of unique enjoyments, culinary and otherwise, that you just can’t quite find anywhere else. And unlike in flyover country, where most towns’ claims to fame have to do with The World’s Largest Something or the birthplace of a famous serial criminal, our special stuff is actually cool. Here’s the best of it (although we probably missed a few things). If you are looking for things to see or things to do in San Francisco, here are a few things to look out for.
Not just “a burrito from the Mission.” I mean the Mission District in San Francisco has an actual style of burrito named after it. (Which, to be sure, is basically any burrito you’ll get in the Mission.) Now this is going to be another one of those contentious things with some comments-section nerd who claims that you can get an authentic Mission burrito somewhere else. Really? You can get a Mission burrito at Chipotle? Fine, then move to Chipotle.
The Mission burrito is considered its own style due to the unique mix of ingredients. There isn’t really an exact set recipe, but you’re probably going to see meat, cheese, guacamole, beans, rice, salsa, pico de gallo and cilantro, all wrapped up in a flour tortilla, a massive more-than-a-meal size creation. Swing by Taquerias El Farolito or Taqueria Cancun for the absolute best of the best, but any good taqueria in the Mission will do you right. And you just don’t find a burrito that quite lives up to the San Francisco standard outside the Bay Area. I’ll even grant that there are some good “Mission burrito-type burritos” outside the Mission, and outside the city. But I’m sorry, you didn’t have a good Mission burrito in Los Angeles. What you had in Los Angeles was a bad time, and now you’re trying to trick everyone into hanging out there by talking up this mediocre burrito you ate. Give it a rest and stop trying to hurt people.
Alright, theoretically there’s probably some knockoff artist in New York, Los Angeles or somewhere like that trying to peddle his off-brand low-rent version of cioppino, but for the most part, you can’t really get a good authentic cioppino anywhere but San Francisco (specifically North Beach). Anything else is like saying that the best Philly cheesesteak you ever had was in Seattle. It wasn’t a Philly cheesesteak. It was a cheesesteak sandwich you bought in Seattle. Also, I’ve eaten at enough Seattle sandwich shops to know that whatever you bought there, it wasn’t that good, so stop pushing your weird Seattle agenda.
Cioppino never really caught on in a big way in this great nation of ours the way that other Italian foods did. My theory is that this is because unlike most Italian food, which comes from Italy and looks effortlessly beautiful, cioppino is not from Italy and it looks like something a character from Trainspotting might see after taking the wrong drugs. At least, it does when it’s real cioppino. But as anyone who’s ever dated a very beautiful person can tell you, looks do not have any specific relationship to how much fun something is. So bear down, embrace your fear, look past the horror, and dig into something wonderful. For my money, the best cioppino is at Sotto Mare but there’s no right answer to these things. Tadich Grill also gets high marks, as does The Old Clam House.
Fresh San Francisco Sourdough
“Well of course you can’t get and delicious, fresh San Francisco sourdough anywhere outside of San Francisco. That’s a no-brainer! But you can make sourdough bread anywhere you want. Why does it matter if you get it in San Francisco?”
Good question: fictional, made-up-person. First of all, it matters because everything’s better in San Francisco. That’s why I moved here. But more importantly, it matters because of something called “terroir,” which is another one of those French words I’m so fond of. Anyway, terroir is this fancy word that basically means stuff tastes different when it’s made in different parts of the world. With sourdough bread, terroir is particularly pronounced. It’s got something to do with the bacteria in the yeast. Look, I’m not a scientist, I just like bread.
The point is that San Francisco sourdough is really awesome. For some reason, sourdough is no longer the standard bread in most of the world, because apparently we’ll eat sandwiches made out of cardboard if it’s a nickel cheaper, but it’s still the best bread in the world. And San Francisco has the best sourdough. Get out there and grab some. I recommend Boudin Bakery, the one at 10th and Geary. Acme Bread Company is also fantastic.
Technically, there are some other cable car systems still in existence elsewhere in the world. But San Francisco’s is the only one that still utilizes the traditional, authentic system of a hand-operated cable car in street traffic. The fact that we still do this in San Francisco, in this day and age, is kind of a delightfully insane idea, particularly when you realize how shockingly bad at driving most San Franciscans are. (Yeah, you. Don’t try to deny it.)
Sure, all the tourists know about it, and you’re probably never going to get a decent seat on one of them, and there are faster ways to get where you’re going, and it costs 7 bucks, but on the other hand, San Francisco is the only place in the world you can have this experience. You can’t do this anywhere else in the world, and it costs 7 dollars. Get over yourself, jaded hipster, and try it, at least once.
The first time I had an It’s-It, I didn’t like it, because I don’t like coconut. That’s a terrible reason to not like It’s-Its, though, because there isn’t any coconut in an It’s-It. One too many glasses of wine for me that night. Upon more sober investigation, It’s-Its are amazing. It’s an ice cream sandwich, made with real oatmeal cookies, and coated in dark chocolate.
I know, right? Awesome. I’ve heard rumors that you can get these tasty treats outside the Bay Area, but I think those are cleverly crafted falsehoods designed to fool the unsuspecting. I’ve never seen an It’s-It outside the nine counties. They’re made down in the South Bay–finally, something good about the South Bay that isn’t a tech company or a school–and a classic favorite of the Bay Area.
Lots of people like to drink. Even people who don’t drink, half of them don’t do it because they like it way too much, and the other half don’t do it because they believe that it’s so much fun that it’s actually immoral. But everyone knows it’s fun. And we love to do it. But folks, maybe it’s time for you & me to stop sitting around in our pajamas drinking tequila at two in the morning and binging Netflix, fun though this may be. There has to be a more social way to be a boozehound, a way with some joie de vivre.
Why not go on a tour of San Francisco’s awesome hometown brewery and distillery, Anchor Brewing Company? Anchor produces what is probably San Francisco’s most famous local booze, Anchor Steam. But it also produces one of America’s best gins, Junipero, and a mighty fine rye whiskey called Old Potrero. There are several other awesome distilleries in the Bay Area, but let’s not forget about the drinker’s utopia, wine country. Napa and Sonoma Counties present one of the absolute best ways you can spend a day or even a weekend. Looking to spend a lot of money on vino? Wine country’s got what you’re looking for. Trying to be a baller on a budget? Wine country can take care of you on that front as well. With so many different wineries available to choose from, there are a lot of ways to do wine country, but you can’t go wrong with any of the Wilson Family wineries. You’ll also enjoy Barlow Vineyards and Beringer Vineyards. I once got too drunk to drive in Sonoma for under ten dollars. I’d tell you how I managed that, but I don’t really remember, on account of I got drunk. And, of course, we have to mention the best way to really enjoy the local bar scene, San Francisco Pub Crawls. The best way to celebrate Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco De Mayo and more, CrawlSF has been producing the best pub crawls and events in San Francisco since 2003.
By the way, I get that the concept of a brewery, distillery, or winery tour is not unique to the Bay Area. But these specific breweries, distilleries, and/or wineries are unique to the Bay Area. Back off, brosephine.
You know, there was a time in my life–a weird, shadowy time I’m uncomfortable talking about–when I had no idea that ice cream could have alcohol in it. I was a fool, and I see that now. But I didn’t know any better. And then, on one glorious day, like Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, I was forever changed by a random encounter. A friend brought some homemade “Secret Breakfast”–a Humphry Slocombe flavor which contains bourbon and cornflakes, I repeat BOURBON AND CORNFLAKES–to a BBQ at my house. It was, needless to say, a revelation, and by the time I got to work a few hours later, I believe I may have been a little bit intoxicated (probably from the beers I was drinking, but maybe I got a touch of bourbon).
This flavor, and other alcoholic ice creams like Jesus Juice sorbet, are just a few of the wonderful flavors that Humphry Slocombe produces. So many beautiful flavors. So many clever names (and also some less-than-clever names, but that’s the way it goes. You can’t hit a home run every time.) Most of them, to be honest, do not have alcohol in them, and that’s acceptable. The previously Jesus Juice, however, contains red wine and Coke (a cobination called a Kalimotxo and served at El Lopo on Polk Street). Humphry’s rotates a lot of their flavors in and out of production, so you never know what’s going to be available, but there’s always something great. With so many amazing ice cream options, choosing the best ice cream in San Francisco may be a tough choice, but Humphry Slocombe will always be on the list.
Frank Chu (and other street icons)
Every town has its eccentric icons. But no town has ’em like we do (seriously). In fact, we basically invented the famous street loony with Emperor Norton, who ate at the finest restaurants for free and had a Mark Twain character based on him. And, of course, The Summer of Love filled with Acid, Weed and The Grateful Dead helped enhance the eccentrics. Keep your Naked Cowboy, New York City. San Francisco has real local flavor. Guys like Omer Travers and Owen Bias define a rebellious spirit in this city that refuses to be gentrified, covered up, or pushed out.
They’re not always comfortable to be around. Bias is the guy with the “No Unlawful Sex” sign who tells seemingly every attractive woman that she’s living in sin (he often uses more explicit language.) Tellingly, as San Francisco has gotten wealthier and cleaner (and yes, gentrified) in the last couple decades, opposition to such characters has grown. In this era of San Franciscans complaining about Bay to Breakers and SF Pride, the cops get a lot of calls about Travers, the crazy guitar guy on Valencia street who frequently yells out offensive epithets and off-color jokes, from Mission hipsters and gentrifiers who want to live in a “cool” neighborhood but can’t seem to tolerate the trappings of such a place.
But the street characters of San Francisco continue undimmed. And perhaps the greatest of them all is Frank Chu. Frank’s the guy in the picture. You recognize him if you’ve spent much time (or any time) in any of the slightly touristy areas of the city, particularly in the vicinity of Union Square, although he ventures all over the place. Frank embodies the San Francisco spirit of protest, but he’s also firmly his own, unique man, as the things he protests are not things that anyone else is protesting. Literally. No one else. Many of these things do not appear to even be actual words (can I borrow a dictionary?). He’s had hundreds, maybe thousands, of different unique signs over the years. He even had a nightclub named after him for awhile–or rather, named after one of his favorite targets, “12 Galaxies.” Also, he apparently charges $100/week to advertise on the back of his signs, so if you want your business to be awesome, you should get on that.