Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"La Luz's Mexican flavors hit the spot"

Click here for my review of La Luz restaurant in Fort Collins, CO!

San Francisco, Day 5: Lee's Sandwiches

Catch up! Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, and Day 4
So technically it's not really my fifth day in San Francisco, since I flew out early that morning, went to Lee's Sandwiches the night before, and didn't eat the bánh mì I purchased there until I was on the plane flying to New York City. But it was definitely my last taste of SF, and that's what I'm going to go by, dammit.
I've heard Lee's Sandwiches called "the McDonald's of bánh mì," and it's easy to see why. There's something really corporate about the place, both in the design and the display. It's a very strange feeling to associate with a bánh mì place.
The sandwich I ate on the plane had undoubtably suffered from its night in the refrigerator and from being eaten so many hours after it had been assembled, but I'm not sure that the mediocre bread, strange cold cuts, and clunky condiments would really have been that much better fresh. Even though Lee's Sandwiches offers bánh mì that are huge and inexpensive (less than three bucks for a sandwich on a ten-inch baguette), they taste as cheap and mysterious as their price. How I wished for one from Saigon Sandwich instead!

And so ends my San Francisco eating adventures, but only for now, I hope. If there's anything I shouldn't have missed (and I know there was plenty) drop me a note. I intend to go back while I'm still only two hours away!

San Francisco:
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

Monday, June 29, 2009

San Francisco, Day 4: El Tonyayense, Pica Pica Maize Kitchen, Bi-Rite Creamery, Pagolac

Catch up! Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3
As if to make up for only eating at two places the day before, GQ, BH, and I started my fourth day in San Francisco by hitting up the Carnaval street fair in the Mission District, where there promised to be eats aplenty.
But we might have come at the wrong time, because when we showed up there was little in the way of music, parade, or costumes. Instead, we found ourselves strolling through a typical lineup of vendors, the likes of which could have been found at any street fair in the nation. I'm not sure what made us stop to get food at the El Tonyayense truck, either, but stop we did, and I decided to get an al pastor torta. I should have skipped it for something else—the bread was tough and tasted either microwaved or steamed, and the pork was much too salty and also full of gristly bits. Meh.
GQ did better with her purchase of a "maize'wich" from the Pica Pica Maize Kitchen stand, which as far as I can tell is also an actual restaurant in Napa. A thick corn pancake was split in half and filled with black beans, cheese, and marinated tomatoes, and the sweetness of the griddled pancake really worked with the salty filling.
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From the street fair we wandered over to Bi-Rite Creamery, where I skipped the famed salted caramel flavor (not salty enough for my tastes) in favor of a scoop of roasted banana. This particular ice cream was delicious, tasting exactly like the fruit but even more so, if that makes any sense.
It was a long walk back from the Mission District to SoMa, and by the time we got back to GQ and BH's apartment we sat around to rest until our stomachs called out for a meal. After all the eating we had been doing, no one was in the mood for an intense meal, so of course for dinner we went to the Vietnamese restaurant Pagolac for "Seven Courses of Beef."

Yes, had we each opted for the seven courses, it would have been another insane meal, but we wisely decided to order two portions to split among the three of us. We do have limits, you know.

What you see above are the necessary elements for this kind of meal: a bowl of hot water; dried rice-flour sheets; nuoc mam; and a plate of lettuce, pickled carrots and daikon, and assorted fresh herbs.
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As each new course of beef comes out, you take the rice-flour sheet, dip it into the hot water until it softens, and then use it to wrap rolls filled with the veggies and beef. Once you have a respectable roll (or at least one that won't fall apart), you're ready to go. Dip one end into nuoc mam before taking a bite.
The first of the seven courses was a plate of marinated, nearly raw beef, which was delicious. The dressing was tangy and sweet and the thinly shaved onions, herbs, and ground peanuts each added new dimensions to the dish. This beef preparation was one of two not meant to be wrapped in the rice-flour sheets.
The next course was a plate of plain raw beef, meant to be cooked shabu-shabu style in broth. When each piece was done, we wrapped them with lettuce and herbs in the rice flour sheets.
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Same with the next course, which was beef painted with some kind of sauce, which we grilled at the table.
The fourth, fifth, and sixth courses came out together on one plate. They were all grilled versions of beef: a crumbly sausage, a skewer of rolled beef, and a skewer of beef that had been barbecued flat. They all sort of had the same flavor profile, but they were all good. We just kept on wrapping and eating away; our rice paper sheets and veg were refilled as requested.
The last course was a supremely comforting soup of toasted rice, beef, and scallions in a light, flavorful broth. It was the perfect end to the meal, and they were nice enough to give us three bowls for the three of us even though we had only ordered two portions.

The next morning I would be flying out of San Francisco, and I was happy to have had such a unique eating experience as my last real meal in the city. I'd have one more meal coming though, sort of….

San Francisco:
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

Sunday, June 28, 2009

San Francisco, Day 3: Saigon Sandwich, Flying Fish Grill

Catch up! Day 1 and Day 2
My third day in San Francisco started with an late-morning stroll to nearby Saigon Sandwich, reputed to make some of the best bánh mì in town. The cluttered shop had the same vibe as one of my NYC favorites, Sau Voi Corporation: narrow, tiny space; cluttered counter stacked high with Vietnamese sweets and snacks; tiny women assembling sandwiches in the open. I took it as a sign of good things to come.
I was right, too. After one bite of my "special combination" bánh mì I was totally hooked. Each element was perfectly executed, from the dark, peppery pate to the sweet pickled carrots and to the juicy slices of roasted pork. The fresh bread held up well to the huge pile of ingredients, and even though unwieldy strands of cilantro hung out the side of my mouth (the only thing I can think of to criticize) I think it's one of the best bánh mì I've ever had. There's not a single place in NYC I can think of that compares. Especially not at $3.50!
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We also got a roll of coconut-laced, banana-filled sticky rice, a snack that was just the right touch of sweetness after our hearty sandwiches.
After lazing around the apartment for a bit, GQ, MH and I drove about thirty miles south of San Francisco to Half Moon Bay, where one of MH's friend was getting married. Since GQ and I weren't actually attending the wedding and were just in the area to hang out, once MH split for her bridesmaid duties the two of us explored what there was to eat for dinner. We ended up at Flying Fish Grill, which GQ had read about somewhere.
Flying Fish Grill is a casual joint that I imagine would be fun in warmer weather, when sitting outside on the patio wouldn't mean freezing our noses off. Nonetheless they offered an inexpensive menu of seaside favorites, including the Fish Taco Grande, which wrapped a piece of deep-fried cod in a corn tortilla along with jack cheese, guacamole, shredded cabbage, salsa, and white sauce. At four bucks, I'm not sure it was completely worth the price, but it was definitely a decent fish taco.
We also split an order of the "Crabby Cheezy Bread," which was a garlicky combination of cheese and crabmeat spread over bread and broiled until toasty. I was pleased by the large chunks of crabmeat on top, but found that once I took a took a bite there wasn't much actual crab taste. The cheese and garlic in that proportion were just too strong for that kind of delicate flavor, I think.
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For my entree I went for the California Wrap, swayed by its promise of deep-fried shrimp, avocado, mango salsa, ginger slaw, and rice in a warm spinach tortilla. The shrimp were plump and tender in their crunchy batter, and provided a nice textural contrast to the soft mush that was everything else. Don't get me wrong—it was delicious mush, and everything tasted really fresh.
I'm not sure I would have done it without GQ and her sweet tooth sitting at the table, but we ended with a slice of blueberry pie, served a la mode. Whether the pie was made in-house I couldn't tell, but it had all the elements of homemade: warm, flaky crust; rich, non-gloppy filling; and a squiggle of whipped cream hiding the crust's imperfections. The vanilla ice cream was mediocre, but once it melted into the blueberry pie, it was just as good as it could be.

Would I go back to Flying Fish Grill again? If ever I'm in the area, yes.

San Francisco:
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

Saturday, June 27, 2009

San Francisco, Day 2: Slanted Door, Ciao Bella, Acme Bread Company, Ghirardelli, Mangarosa

Catch up! Day 1
We started off the next day at the Ferry Building, where after sufficiently whetting our appetites by passing through the rows of food vendors and shops, we sat down to have lunch at the Slanted Door.

Both GQ and BH are part Vietnamese, and so have exacting specifications for Vietnamese food; BH said he was a fan of the crepe served at the Slanted Door, citing it as one of the better versions he'd tried. What came out was a shatteringly crisp shell filled with shrimp, pork, bean sprouts, and onions, pieces of which were meant to be rolled into leaves of cool lettuce and dipped into nuoc mam. The combination of flavors, textures, and temperatures was quite wonderful.
The crepe was the highlight, and from there it turned less exciting. We got a spicy rice vermicelli salad, with cabbage, cucumber, mint, chicken, lime, and peanut sauce, which wasn't actually that interesting in flavor or execution. Just your average cold noodle/veg/chicken salad.
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GQ went for the Alaskan halibut over vermicelli noodles; MH ordered the lemongrass chicken, which came piled with peanuts, jalapenos, and slivers of red onion. I took bites of each of their dishes and thought they were good but again, not outstanding. Maybe I just have higher expectations when dishes like these cost nearly two or three times what they are priced in regular Chinatown (or Saigontown) joints; I appreciate the increased attention to decor and presentation, as well as to possibly fresher, better quality ingredients, but then it comes down to, is it three times as fresh? Three times as high in quality? Three times as tasty?
Sometimes, the answer is no. My grilled lemongrass pork over vermicelli was no more delicious than anything I've had elsewhere. The fried "imperial" rolls it came with were decent—super crunchy on the outside, and filled with a good combination of shrimp, pork, and glass noodles—but they needed a dip in nuoc mam to fulfill their potential. Had they charged me six bucks for this plate, I would have been happy. But it was twelve, and so I felt critical. Hipness and scene just isn't worth that much to me, I guess.
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Afterward, in the marketplace, we stopped by Ciao Bella and topped off our lunch with gelato (a single scoop of pistachio in waffle cone, for me). And I was going to pass by Acme Bread Company, reasoning that there was no good reason for me to buy a loaf of bread, but when I saw they were selling a loaf dotted with scallions, I couldn't resist. The bread could have used more scallions and a bit more salt (okay, maybe it's unfair to wish for scallion pancakes) but nonetheless I ended up tearing off little pieces of that bread and popping them into my mouth all afternoon.
After the Ferry Building GQ and I walked along the water to Fisherman's Wharf and then eventually hit Ghiradelli Square, where we were handed samples of their new peanut butter flavor. I love bringing back food and sweets from different places, but with Ghirardelli, I felt absolutely zero need to buy chocolate. Why bother, when it's so readily available across the nation? It's the same as when I went on the Celestial Seasonings tour—I could have bought some tea, but then again, I can get Celestial Seasonings tea at any grocery store, anywhere. So on Ghirardelli chocolate, I passed.
We spent a while poking around before getting on a cable car to return to the apartment. After resting up, GQ and I were joined by BH and MH and we all went to Mangarosa for dinner. The lively restaurant features samba dancers who get up on the bar and who circle the dining room, urging patrons to get up and dance with them. I arrived during the middle of one set, and managed to snap a few photos of the dancers before we were seated at our table.
We started with pão de queijo, the delightful, chewy cheese breads made from yucca flour. The ones at Mangarosa were small little puffs, and so good that we ended up ordering a second basket.
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None of us were especially hungry, so we opted to share two different salads plus a main course. On the left is a salad of hearts of palm with arugula, endive, and radicchio in a citrus vinaigrette, and on the right is a warm spinach salad with goat cheese, polenta croutons, grilled pears, and caramelized onions.
Above is the Brazilian Steak Réchaud, which came sliced in pieces on a very hot grill. I don't know what kind of steak it was, but it was richly flavored and almost buttery. There were little bowls of fried garlic, toasted yucca flour, and tomato and cucumber salsa as condiments, too, which nicely complemented the grilled meat.
Despite GQs protests (she wanted something else) BH succeeded in ordering quindim, or Brazilian coconut flan, for dessert. I sort of wish she had won—the heavy custard was as thick as cheesecake and tasted like sweet egg yolk. It was cold and hard and way too rich, and the raspberries around the plate did little to lighten the taste. After one bite I put down my fork and just drank coffee instead. We hit up a few bars in the area afterward before I headed home with GQ and BH—and the first thing GQ and her unsatisfied sweet tooth did upon arrival was head straight for the freezer to scoop out a bowl of ice cream. After that disappointing flan, there was no way I could blame her.

San Francisco:
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

Friday, June 26, 2009

San Francisco, Day 1: Civic Center Farmer's Market, Bund Shanghai, Paulette, Miette, Mandalay

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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.
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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…
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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.
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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!
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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.
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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…

San Francisco:
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