The last time I was in San Francisco was under simultaneously awesome and unfortunate circumstances. Awesome because it was the finale of a wonderful two-week cross country road trip with two of my good friends; unfortunate because just days earlier, during said trip, I had badly twisted and sprained my knee while white-water rafting on the Colorado River (during a set of rapids JK fell out, the boat tipped up on its side, my foot stayed wedged under the seat before me, my body flew out of the boat, my knee wrenched and my foot popped free). So by the time I got to San Francisco, I had a giant blue knee immobilizer wrapped around my right leg, and I was hobbling around with a wooden cane. (Yup, not crutches—no insurance back than, and a cane was cheaper.) Let's just say that trying to navigate those crazy hills with a busted knee was more than a little inconvenient, so I was pretty happy to explore the city healthy and whole this time around.
GQ had graciously offered me her home and her company, and because I arrived pretty late at night, it wasn't until the next morning that I started getting a sense of where I was. The apartment she shares with her boyfriend BH is in SoMa, which also happens to be quite close to the Civic Center Farmer's Market. As soon as we were able to get ourselves showered and outside, we hit up the market to see what we could eat.
The first thing we encountered was this Belgian Sugar Waffle truck, which neither of us could resist. These yeasty specimens were light, chewy, crisp on the outside, and glazed with the perfect amount of sweetness. They beat the long-ago waffle I had from Wafels & Dinges by a mile.
One waffle was surprisingly filling, so we opted to get tamales from this stand (sorry, didn't get the name, only a photo) and called it the end of breakfast. The one I picked out was the spinach and cheese, which was served hot so that that cheese inside turned gooey. The entire thing was very satisfying.
From the market, we started walking north toward Chinatown. Along the way, we ran into a library book sale and I managed to snap up six books I'd been wanting to read, each for a mere dollar (score!). We also picked up some macarons: the pink and green ones on the left (sweet wedding almond and pistachio) were from the hip macaron shop Paulette, and the more natural-colored ones on the right (pistachio and strawberry buttercream flavors) were from the French bakery Miette. When I tried them later, I found the ones from Paulette superior to the ones from Miette; the latter were too chewy, and the flavored buttercream lacked flavor aside from sweetness. From Paulette, the almond macaron was outstanding, but the pistachio bore zero hint of nut in its taste. Overall not one of the macarons made as much of an impression on me as the ones I had from Madeleine Patisserie in NYC. But maybe that was just the magic of the first time…
I replenished my store of semi-precious stones for jewelry in Chinatown, and then decided to have lunch. We found ourselves in the middle of an odd service hour—it was about 3 or 4 pm and the restaurant GQ had wanted to go to was closed in preparation for dinner. When the second restaurant we tried told us the same, we walked into Bund Shanghai across the street and crossed our fingers that we'd end up with a good meal despite having chosen at random.
Unfortunately, I'm not sure how successful we were. The pan-fried noodles with seafood, above, were pretty good…
and so was the chicken-corn soup…
but the "boiled pork sweet rice ball"—flavorless pork filling wrapped inside bland gobs of rice dough, suspended in hot water—was terrible,
and the soup dumplings were the smallest I'd ever seen, with no soup at all inside of them. The meal was okay, but it definitely wasn't the best Chinese food we could have eaten. Lesson learned: still better to do some research first.
After lunch, back at the apartment while waiting for MH to arrive, GQ and I set out to make our own macarons, despite just having purchased so many. But good thing we did—our attempt was, in short, a massive failure. Not only were the cookies completely flat, they stuck in gooey clumps to the Silpat or crumpled up with the merest nudge from finger or spatula. Plus, they were way too sweet. GQ had made several successful batches of macarons prior to baking them with me, so I can only conclude that I was the macaron killer. Sorry, GQ!
Between the farmer's market, Chinatown, and sampling too many failed macarons, it was difficult for me to work up an appetite for the dinner we had planned at Mandalay, a Burmese restaurant. But I'd heard about the Burmese food in San Francisco even before I'd arrived; I'd never tried the cuisine before, and was eager to sample it. So, off we went with BH and MH.
The one dish I always heard about was the fermented tea leaf salad, so that's what we started with, along with a salad that subbed in shreds of fresh young ginger for the smoky, fermented tea leaf paste. The components were very similar otherwise: peanuts, sesame seeds, toasted lentils, ground shrimp, fried garlic, green pepper, and a dressing. Each came beautifully arranged and was mixed tableside by our server. I found the ginger salad too strong, but I loved the toasty, nutty flavors of the tea leaf salad.
We shared an order of balada, which was something between Malaysian roti and Chinese scallion pancake: the crisp round of dough was thick and chewy, but came with a coconut-laced curry dipping sauce. I found it very oily but still delicious.
We also got a tureen of murky-looking samusa (aka samosa) soup, with actual chunks of cut-up samusa bobbing around in the strong, salty broth. There were other things floating in there as well: chick peas, lentils, assorted vegetables, and pieces of something that tasted exactly like falafel. I would never have thought to make broken-up samusa into soup, but the chunks somehow retained their crunch and lent their flavor to the soup in a good way.
By then we were all full, but we had overestimated our appetites and there was still more on the way. Out came "Rangoon Three Ingredients," which combined tender pieces of squid, shrimp, and scallops in a stir-fry with tomatoes and onions. This was a very well balanced dish, and if I had been hungrier I would have definitely eaten more of it.
To go with the seafood we asked for coconut rice and turmeric rice, the latter which arrived looking like a dish of fried rice. Both were wonderfully flavored, with the coconut just edging out the turmeric rice with its hint of milky sweetness. Either would have been good enough to eat plain.
And then there was a noodle dish, which I don't remember very well. I think it had sounded interesting on the menu, but in execution, it was nothing special.
Finally, the four of us split one dessert, just to get a taste. Nearly every Asian culture seems to have an iced dessert like this: shaved or ground ice, ice cream or sweetened condensed milk, various sweet jellies, sweetened beans or bean paste. This one was no different but also no less refreshing at the end of our heavy meal.
Now that I've written up the whole day, I'm just a little appalled at how much we actually ate that day. And this is just the beginning! Whew…
Day 1: Civic Center Farmer's Market, Bund Shanghai, Paulette, Miette, Mandalay
Day 2: Slanted Door, Ciao Bella, Acme Bread Company, Ghirardelli, Mangarosa
Day 3: Saigon Sandwich, Flying Fish Grill
Day 4: El Tonyayense, Pica Pica Maize Kitchen, Bi-Rite Creamery, Pagolac
Day 5: Lee's Sandwiches