Discover more from Aleka Gürel
A guide to feeding yourself in San Francisco
One former resident's opinionated but not-at-all comprehensive take
It’s official: we no longer live in San Francisco. It’s a bittersweet moment and a nerve-wracking one, as I face re-building our wonderful community in Boston — not to mention having to rediscover a network of places to eat and shop. I wanted to take a little time to pull together (and frankly, honor) my San Francisco & Bay Area favorites; if you’re living in the Bay, or just visiting, I hope you consider checking some of them out.
First, a note. If there is one piece of advice I’d give anybody moving to San Francisco, it’s this: do not wait three years to start shopping at farmer’s markets. I am full of regret about the fact that I rarely took advantage of seasonal & local produce in my first years in SF, and grateful that I finally changed my shopping behavior. There’s nothing more inspiring for home cooking than having a crisper stocked with a huge, delicious and hyper-fresh variety of produce. Plus, I’ve totally resigned myself to not having another good avocado until we fly back for a friend’s wedding next year.
Ok, on to the list!
Back in late 2020, I spotted a giant, coffee-glazed cinnamon roll on local food writer/curator Omar Mamoon’s Instagram stories and had to have it. A few days later, Astranda founder Eric (who beyond being a talented pastry chef, is an incredibly lovely person) showed up at my doorstep with rolls in tow, and they were as amazing as expected. These days you can find them at Excelsior Coffee on weekends, via Pastel’s pick up service, and occasionally for home delivery if you keep an eye on Instagram — in addition to the original coffee roll, Eric now offers a chocolate chip version that’s also awesome.
I am so lucky that Bernal Bakery happened to start popping up right outside my apartment during deep COVID. Running downstairs for a croissant and a week’s worth of bread quickly became a cherished Friday morning ritual and one I already miss so much. Their country loaf was (was! *sob*) our staple sourdough, but they also make awesome fougasse, foccacia, baguettes, pastries, cider donuts, and a recently released blueberry muffin cake with a cornmeal topping that I’m mad I didn’t get to eat more of before I left. If you visit, pick up a slice for me and say hi to Ryan, cofounder, baker extraordinaire, and all-around gem of a human.
Confusingly, Bernal Cutlery is not (currently, at least) located in Bernal Heights - it’s on Valencia street in the Mission. But that aside, it’s one of my favorite places to take foodie friends in the Bay; besides being my local knife-sharpening joint, it’s basically a wonderland of food-related shopping. You’ve got a pantry section up front with goods from local Bay Area and California producers (including handmade Xulo flour tortillas, which are a must-have.) You’ve got a great cookbook section, stunning handmade cutting boards, hundreds of kinds of beautiful knives, and a (my words) “Christmas stocking section” stuffed with tons of small but useful things, like Chef’s presses and oyster knives. If you’re wandering down Valencia for some food and drink, you won’t regret popping in.
Yes, ok, this is a grocery store; but they also do amazing sandwiches, which is a very good thing to know if you’re driving up past on your way to the North Bay for a hike. Remember to pre-order, and try the Vegan Hippie — it’s got crispy sweet potato strings inside.
My first job in San Francisco was up at UCSF’s Laurel Heights campus, right down California from B. Patisserie, and we’d occasionally wander over after work or during our lunch breaks for pastries. I loved them so much that years later I still deliberately avoided scheduling appointments with my nearby primary care provider’s office on Mondays, when they’re closed and thus not available for a post-appointment drop-in. My first love was their banana-chocolate-almond croissant, but these days I can’t miss the kouign amann they’re famous for. (If you go around Lunar New Year, get the black sesame flavor.) At checkout, treat yourself to a small packet of the wildly good chocolate sablés — you deserve it.
It’s almost a San Francisco cliché for a reason; Dandelion’s chocolate is really, really good. Swing by their shop for a canelé and a hot chocolate with homemade marshmallows, or order yourself a big bag of baking feves or hot chocolate online. My friend Minn once showed up to a housewarming party with a jar of their hot chocolate mix instead of wine, and I thought that was the greatest idea ever and made it my go-to gift to send friends. Hot tip: they have a sister location in Tokyo that makes a super-rich chocolate gateaux, and each mother’s day they ship a small number of them to the US for timely delivery. If your mom or a mother-figure in your life loves chocolate, do it.
One of my all-time favorite SF weekend activities was to walk from Fort Funston up to Hook Fish Co, grab a rockfish burrito, and then walk back down the beach. A nice long walk, beautiful beach scenery, and great food - what more could you want? (Fun fact: Hook was at one point the subject of some extremely dumb Twitter drama, when former SF D.A. Chesa Boudin got roasted for picking it as his favorite SF burrito.)
Pim Techamuanvivit’s two Thai restaurants rank among the best meals I’ve had in San Francisco. Kin Khao, which has a longstanding Michelin star, was our go-to special occasion date night by virtue of being extremely delicious, yet unpretentious and not horribly expensive. During COVID, they pivoted to takeout and became our special occasion movie night meal. Sadly, Kin Khao’s temporarily closed while they move back into their original Union Square location, but you can dine in at Nari for a similarly excellent experience.
I only got off the waitlist to try William Lim Do’s hyper-popular Neijiang sweetwater noodle kit once, but holy heck was it good. My real success was also ordering a big jar of his Lanzhou chili crisp, which lasted months after I’d hosed down the noodles; it’s stuffed with warm spices, incredibly addicting, and I’ve never found anything quite like it. After going on hiatus, he’s back open for pickups in Daly City, and you should absolutely put your name on the list.
Where to even begin? The fact that I won’t get to trek out to Oakland every so often for LDC’s vegan Singaporean food is one of the things that makes me saddest about leaving the Bay. I am nowhere close to vegan, and yet every time I bite into one of their Shaobing sandwiches, it’s like my brain temporarily short-circuits out of sheer pleasure. You should also pick up an order of their tofu nuggets and their oyster mushroom goreng, and whatever special they’re running that day - everything will be amazing.
When we first moved to SF, our friends Kevin and Andrea managed to convince us to join them for a few early morning trips to Dogpatch Boulders. Bouldering was fun, but the real draw was following up the morning exercise with a stop by Neighbour Bakehouse for everything croissants stuffed with cream cheese and scallions, and other delicious pastries.
There is plenty of great ramen to be had in San Francisco, but I have a soft spot for Nojo in Hayes Valley, an offshoot of a Japanese chain which specializes in chicken broth ramen. Sam’s go-to order involves a giant braised chicken leg; I go for the tan-tan spicy miso, with ground chicken.
If you really need a fancy French butcher in your life, Olivier’s is your spot. They are definitely pricey, but their meat is delicious and even just ogling everything in their display cases is a treat - over the course of my patronage I’ve splurged on a giant marinated Côte de Boeuf, a huge duck (which I used for the Serious Eats Big Duck Project), and herb-seasoned porchetta. If you’re looking for a centerpiece roast for a holiday meal or other special occasion, this is the way to go.
Eating well often involves having a collection of excellent cookbooks. Celia Sack’s little Noe Valley cookbook store is therefore my favorite place to bring visiting foodies to browse for a while; you’ll find all the latest and greatest releases alongside classics and even older rare books. It’s also a great place to find signed copies, and if you go often enough you’ll eventually bump into some food luminary or another (I still regret being too chicken to say hi to Samin Nosrat!)
Very good thin-crust pizza, very good kale Caesar salad. What else do you need? I can’t vouch for whether it’s the best pizza in San Francisco because, to be honest, it was excellent enough that we never felt the need to try any other spot.
Back when we lived in Rincon Hill, I mentioned to my then-boss (hi Kelly!) that I had a Saturday morning Ferry Building Farmer’s market ritual, and she insisted I go try the Roli Roti porchetta sandwich. The line is always long, but it’s worth the wait for porchetta fresh off the spit, plus lots of arugula and onion jam sandwiched into a bun. Just lean in to the mess and don’t bother wiping your hands or face until you’re totally done; otherwise you will run out of napkins halfway through and regret it.
I regret never ponying up for dinner at Rich Table, but I’m glad I made a habit at eating at their fast-casual sister joint. As the name might suggest, RT offers rotisserie chicken, but I honestly never order it; what I love are their rice bowls with chicken fat rice, your choice of meat (including pork belly, mmm) and tons of bright and crunchy toppings, like pickled onions, shredded cabbage, cucumbers, and lots of fresh herbs. The vegetable sides are also great; whole roasted cauliflower with beetroot tahini might be the stunner of the group, but I’m partial to the roasted Brussels sprouts with garlic aioli and cotija.
It’s a classic for a reason. Tartine Manufactory is a fun, hip spot for brunch with friends; the original location is pokier, but now that all of the SF locations deliver, you can just do that and skip the infamously long line. The bread is obviously great, but I’m partial to the gougeres, and am endlessly bitter that the recipe for their amazing chocolate rye tea cake isn’t in their cookbook.
Yes, I am a stereotypical millennial foodie and fan of Kenji López-Alt. So when I heard he was involved in restaurant in San Mateo, I dutifully drove down for dinner. Wursthall is not particularly fancy - the general vibe is modelled on a German beer hall - but it is a fun, reliably good spot for dinner with friends. It’s also got generous outdoor seating for staying COVID-safe. My order: currywurst to share (the blistered mustard seed/blackened ginger sauce is awesome), either a smashburger or Korean fried chicken sandwich as my main (German-style potato salad on the side, please), and a Stella’s Brownie (yes, that Stella) for dessert.
That’s all for now, folks. I know I missed a million amazing places, especially those that opened recently; we haven’t been indoor dining, so there are tons of spots I just never got to try. Stick your favorites in the comments so I can plan my meal itinerary for the next time we’re in town!
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