Ask most people who have been to San Francisco and they will probably tell you that it’s one of their favorite cities on earth. It was even ranked third in the Readers’ Choice Awards of the Top 10 Cities in the United States by Conde Nast Traveler.
Aside from the beauty of its sights and neighborhoods, and the Bay Area residents’ open-mindedness, San Francisco’s different cuisines and restaurants keep travelers coming back for more.
I was back after a very long time, and was excited to eat my way through the nooks and crannies of this lovely city. I am happy to say it did not disappoint. Here are a few must-try spots for your own visit.
Hard Knox Cafe: If you are into not-quite-healthy but oh-so-delicious Soul Food, or Southern-style cuisine like jambalaya, fried chicken, barbecue ribs and the like, head on over to Hard Knox Cafe. While waiting for your meal, don’t pass on the piping-hot cornbread and butter. Eat anyone else’s cornbread if they are silly enough to decline.
I went for what it’s famous for: Fried Chicken and Waffles. The chicken was nice and crisp on the outside, and tender and juicy on the inside. It comes plain (no gravy like we are used to) but you can request for some sausage gravy if you wish.
Get a few sides while you’re at it. The candied yams, yam fries and corn on the cob are good choices, but pass on the disappointing mac ‘n’ cheese. (www.hardknoxcafe.com)
Cha Cha Cha: There’s no visiting San Francisco without visiting the famous Haight-Ashbury District, so while you’re there, hop over to Cha Cha Cha for some Caribbean food, tapas and sangria. The small plates are great for sharing and, depending on how many you order, can work as a snack or a full meal.
Lick the bowl
My favorite was the Chicken Paillard, chicken breast drowned in a mustard cream sauce and served with warm bread. The taste is so addicting, you need to make sure not to lick the bowl (although my cousin argued, “It’s Haight, no one cares!”).
Other standouts were the guava-chipotle glazed chicken wings and fried plantains with black beans and sour cream. Wash everything down with a glass (or carafe) of their sangria, but make sure you’re not the designated driver! (www.cha3.com)
El Farolito Taqueria: Why eat in Mexican-American fast-food joints when you are in the home of the best Mexican food outside of Mexico?
Although a stroll around the Mission District will reveal a dizzying number of places to choose from, check out the tried-and-tested El Farolito. It has several branches around the Bay Area and serves simple, no-nonsense but deliciously satisfying food. A friend jokingly said that if there are no weird animal parts like tripe on the menu, it’s not “real” Mexican.
Well, aside from tripe, the place also offers beef tongue and brains.
Order the super burrito with carne asada or carnitas, and the strawberry agua fresca, pureed fresh strawberries with sugar and water. Best eaten at 2 a.m. after a night out. (www.elfarolitoinc.com)
Pizzeria Delfina: If you plan to hang out at the popular Dolores Park or visit the Mission Dolores, there are a few places nearby to curb hunger pangs. Pizzeria Delfina serves freshly made, wood-fired pizza. It’s so simple but hits the spot on so many levels.
Try the Prosciutto Pie with prosciutto di parma, sheep’s milk and arugula; and for a different twist, the Napoletana has olives, capers, anchovies, peppers, oregano and no cheese, so request for some if you would like it with mozzarella.
This place is small and very popular, so prepare for a bit of a wait during peak hours, and brace yourself for some possible celebrity sightings! We were seated next to Martha Stewart! (www.pizzeriadelfina.com)
Sam’s Chowder House: San Francisco is synonymous with clam chowder, so if you’re going on a calorie fest, make sure it’s worth it. You will need to drive out about 30 minutes to Half Moon Bay to get to Sam’s Chowder House, but the drive will be well worth it.
It is known for clam chowder and lobster rolls, so quickly glance at the menu if you must, but make sure to order these two.
The clam chowder is thick and creamy with no extenders, and if you can get a table outside, you’ll have a great ocean view and cool wind to boot. (www.samschowderhouse.com)
House of Prime Rib: One can’t leave San Francisco without visiting this legend of a restaurant. Yes, there are other places to go that would make any avid carnivore happy, but this place has been around since 1949 and has Anthony Bourdain’s stamp of approval, dubbing it “The American Dream.”
The meat is carved tableside and can go from the petite-sized City Cut (although still a little bit over the “just right” mark for my Filipino appetite) to the thick King Henry VIII cut. Your dinner will come with traditional sides such as creamed spinach, mashed or baked potato, and Yorkshire pudding, as well as horseradish sauce and a salad. Be prepared to eat—a lot.
We all went home with leftovers that turned into steak fried rice the next day. (www.houseofprimerib.net)
V. Sattui Winery: If you love wine, there is no way you can miss a day trip to Napa. Only two hours away from the city, you’ll find a number of vineyards to visit, but one that stands out is V. Sattui, which provides its own wines, of course, but also has a deli filled with cheese and other little bites, and a large picnic area to enjoy your food and drink outdoors.
I spent my birthday there this year and went home pleasantly buzzed and happy. There’s lots of space for kids to run around and, yes, dogs are welcome!
Bi-Rite Creamery: There’s ice cream, and there’s Bi-Rite Creamery ice cream, which juices its own fruits. It also uses only organic and/or sustainable ingredients. The result: true-to-flavor goodness. When it says roasted banana ice cream, it is made from caramelized roasted bananas and none of the artificial stuff.
It also makes flavors according to season, so in the summer you might find balsamic strawberry or popsicles made from Concord grapes; and in the winter, look out for Earl Grey, Eggnog and Peppermint. (www.biritecreamery.com)
Acquerello: If you want a bit of fancy, Acquerello is the place for creative food and a more upscale atmosphere (and price list). You can choose between the Prix Fixe or Seasonal Tasting menus.
Since California has made foie gras illegal in restaurants, I was quite surprised to see it on the menu in the pasta sauce mixed with marsala and truffle, until I saw foie gras in quotation marks. It is in fact still made of regular duck liver soaked in milk overnight, and blended with marsala, butter and cream. Superb! (www.acquerello.com)
Brenda’s French Soul Food: For a New Orleans twist to your Soul Food experience, check out Brenda’s in the Tenderloin. Before you freak out over the location, know that the beignets alone are worth it. I recommend ordering the beignet flight so you can sample all four flavors, although the chocolate and crawfish varieties are my favorites.
Not to be missed are the Oyster Po’ Boy and the Hangtown Fry, a crispy oyster and bacon scramble with cheddar grits on the side. Wash it all down with the watermelon iced tea. The biscuits with sausage gravy are a dream. (www.frenchsoulfood.com)