Wednesday, August 15, 2012

My Four Cents - Four Days in San Francisco

I had the opportunity to visit San Francisco this month, and I was excited to explore the city. I’d driven through before and spent half a day - enough time to fall in love. The colorful row houses lining the streets, the many varieties of trees springing up from the sidewalks, the little signs reminding you that paper comes from trees on paper towel dispensers. I wanted to see more.

And see I did. I walked EVERYWHERE. If you have the time, the inclination, and a good pair of shoes, San Francisco is a very walkable city. There are so many hotels in the downtown area, and it serves as a great starting point. I was lucky enough to stay at the Ritz-Carlton (all expenses paid), where a man wearing a top hat opens the cab door and warmly welcomes you. Oooh, the Ritz is all fancy, I thought, so high-end for the girl that normally sleeps in cars or on someone’s couch. But you know what? Their shampoo is no better than what you get at The Best Western. Go figure.

Anyway, I arrived in the early afternoon, starving from a long morning of traveling. So, I made my way to Fisherman’s Wharf (, where I heard you could get the best clam chowder in a bread bowl. My route took me down Stockton, straight through the bustling Chinatown market ( The sidewalks are packed with Asians purchasing any manner of fruit, vegetable, or dried shrimp. Lots of interesting food items to see, but you have to be willing to squeeze through a crowd. I picked the side of the street that was getting the most direct sunlight - in the low 60s, the weather was a small shock compared to the 100-degree Texas heat I was used to. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one seeking sunlight. Down at the pier, a few dozen sea lions basked on the wooden docks. I decided on Boudin Bakery (, known for its sourdough bread. It’s big and full of tourists. Out on the wharf, there are much smaller operations, and I kind of wish I had come upon these first. They look more authentic. The chowder was good, thick and creamy, and the bread bowl was fresh. As for it being the best, I’m a New Englander who would frequently get clam chowder at Dad’s, the local seafood restaurant five minutes from my house. And it was better than this. So while this was good, it definitely wasn’t anything special.

There’s a Maritime National Historic Park at the wharf (, with a pretty schooner at dock. It was pretty cool, but I think my eyes lit up a little brighter when from here I glanced the large letters spelling out “Ghiradelli” ( on a nearby hill. That’s where I headed next. Someone stands at the entrance to the shop, handing out little Ghiradelli squares. Today, it was milk chocolate with almonds and sea salt. Yum. I walked around the corner to the take-out shop (and I didn’t say no when the lady at that door handed me another chocolate). People were digging into some amazing-looking sundaes, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the “Colossal Cookie.” This chocolate chip cookie was outrageous, and every bite was warm, gooey deliciousness. Next time, I’m skipping the chowder and going straight for the cookie.

After a brief stop at the hotel to check into the room, I wandered down Grant Street for awhile until it hit Lombard Street. Hmmmm. I had heard this was the steepest, curviest street in the USA. Did I want to attempt it tonight, after all the walking I’d already done? Yup. So I headed down Lombard and after a couple blocks I reached Columbus, where the uphill part began. Two blocks up, and you reach the famous section - a curvy, brick road with pink and purple hydrangea bushes blooming brightly along the edges. It would have been quite lovely except for the bumper-to-bumper line of cars creeping their way down. Turns out, pedestrians don’t walk the road; there are steps in a straight line on either side. I walked up it, just to say I did.

As the sun set, so did the temperature. I made my way back to the hotel along Grant Street, where I found the shopping section of Chinatown. I popped in and out of the stores, perusing the fans, chopsticks, Buddhas, and lucky cats lining the shelves.

Dinner reservations were at 10:00pm at Nopa (, a mere 2.5 miles away. I’m so happy I had the foresight to check the weather while I was packing - warmer clothes and layers are definitely a necessity in San Fran, as their climate is pretty cool year-round. Still, it was hard for me to comprehend 58 degrees while experiencing the sweltering Texas summer, so I didn’t pack enough warmth. (Luckily, I don’t mind wearing the same two outfits a few days in a row.) Donned in a long skirt, boots, and sweater jacket, I was only a little chilly when we ventured out. Nick and I started walking at nine, following Market Street for much of the way. Turns out a section of this street borders the Tenderloin, a kind of unsavory district, named so because back when cops walked the streets, the ones walking this area got paid more, enough to afford a good cut of meat. I wouldn’t necessarily say I felt unsafe, but it was a little creepy. San Francisco seems to have a high population of crazy folks, and many of them hang out here at night (in the day, too, but there’s less of ‘em). Dinner was superb - a light but interesting salad followed with olive oil cake. My feet were thankful when we hopped in a cab for the ride back to the hotel.

The next morning, I got up bright and early. Well, I was bright - the San Francisco skyline was still heavy with gray fog. I briskly walked to the bakery that stole my heart when I was last here - Tartine ( Along the way, I popped into Goody Goodie (, where a chalkboard sign adorned with flowers reads, “Cookies for breakfast? Yes, Please!” How could I resist? I got the circus cookie, chock full of chocolate chunks and popcorn, and ate it for an afternoon snack. Sounds fun, but it actually wasn’t that great. At Tartine, I patiently waited in line (I think there’s always a line), for a morning bun, fruit frangipane tart, and coffee. I scored a table in the tiny bakery, so I wasn’t surprised when another girl in line asked if she and her sister could join me. That’s one of the things I love about traveling solo - you tend to meet a lot more people. I enjoyed our conversation as much as I enjoyed my breakfast, and we even walked together for awhile afterward, strolling from the Mission District up into the Castro District. Sexual innuendo abounded in the gay section of town - Sausage Factory and Hand Job Nail Salon were just a couple businesses I passed.

From there, I wandered through the Noe Valley District, where I came upon Anthony’s Cookies ( A paper taped to the door requests keeping it closed to help preserve the freshness of the cookies. I was intrigued. (Honestly, they probably had me at “cookie.”) The small cookies ‘n cream cookie was very soft and chewy, but too greasy in my opinion.

Along the way back to the Castro district, I discovered a beautiful section of 22nd Street. One of my favorite sights in San Francisco are the rowhouses, and walking through the city really allows you to enjoy the immaculately well-kept fronts and gardens, something you’d miss if you’re zooming past in a car. 

Back in the Castro District, a neon red sign announcing “Hot Cookies” caught my eye. Hanging in the window were men’s briefs with “Hot Cookie” written on the crotch. Photos were plastered all over the wall of scantily-clad people having fun. The last thing I needed was another cookie. So, I got the “Sexy Bryan Bar” instead.

Then it was on to Haight-Ashbury, with a quick stop in Golden Gate Park to sit in the grass and relax for a bit. It was pleasant; nothing quite compares to the sound of some man yelling profanities and nonsense. I can’t describe him more than this because I was afraid to make eye contact.

Haight Street is full of boutiques, restaurants, and coffee shops, but I like to go there for the thrift stores. Once I reached the end of the street, I was ready to call it a day, so I headed back to the Ritz. I passed Union Square on the way, which I had heard was good for relaxing and people-watching. Maybe it’s because the square was full of white tents for a food festival, but there wasn’t much to see.

I was pretty relieved that Millienium (, the restaurant I chose for dinner, was only eight tenths of a mile away. I’m not gonna lie - my feet and legs were feeling pretty worn out. But I made it there and sat at the bar, a good place for solo diners to enjoy a meal. You don’t feel quite so alone, I guess, and you can always strike up a conversation with the bartender or the lady sitting across from you who orders a bottle of pink champagne for herself. This restaurant - all vegetarian with a seasonal menu - has tons of good references and won “Best Splurge” in a local newspaper’s poll. I found the flavors uninspired, underwhelming, and overpriced. I didn’t even bother finishing my chocolate mousse cake. And everyone knows that dessert is my favorite part of the meal, so that’s saying something. I was disappointed, but I still think the possibility of amazing is worth the risk of lame - in any aspect of life. Just wish this risk didn’t cost so much. :/ It was a brisk walk back to the hotel, where I basically crashed.

The next morning brought me to HRD Coffee Shop ( in the SoMa district, where I had a gigantic spicy pork kimchee burrito. It was freakin good, but I could only manage to eat half. It’s stuffed with juicy, flavorful chunks of pork, and at about seven bucks, including the coffee, a much, much better deal than last night. I remembered that you don’t have to look toward the hoighty-toighty restaurants for a good meal; often, the real deal is found in the unassuming joints. (Of course, that didn’t stop me from going to another popular restaurant for dinner tonight.)

Since I wasn’t too impressed with the American bakeries yesterday (I didn’t bother finishing any of my treats, and my opinion toward my baking skills has actually increased), I decided to try the Chinese bakeries and see if I’d have any better luck. At the Eastern Bakery ( on Grant Street, I discovered the lotus flower mooncake, which is oh-so-yummy, and a gigantic version of the greasy sesame ball filled with black bean paste that I used to love when my family would get Dim Sum in Toronto’s Chinatown. At the Blossom Bakery, on a parallel street between Grant and Stockton, I tried the Wife Pastry (Does anyone know why it’s called that?) filled with melon paste - also really good. The prices were cheaper at the Blossom Bakery, and they had other yummy-looking items, but I didn’t want to go overboard... I couldn’t pass up the almond cookie at Wa-Li Bakery on Stockton, though, as it reminded me of the cookie my mom would buy me whenever we were in New York City’s Chinatown.

If it sounds crazy that I went for lunch after this bakery spree, it’s because you don’t know that I didn’t eat any of it when I bought it - they were late afternoon snacks and airplane dinner the next day. That is why I decided to walk 3.1 miles to Burma Superstar ( in Inner Richmond after I brought my goodies back to the Ritz.  It was a very far walk, and I didn’t even feel like I was in San Francisco at the end - Inner Richmond feels like another town - but it was totally worth it. Every dish I saw them serve looked delicious. I chose the vegetarian (no dried shrimp) tea leaf salad, and the flavors were amazing. It had these slices of fried garlic and some sort of dressing... I have no idea how to explain it, but every bite was incredible.

Walking back toward the Ritz, I passed Japantown (, which is near Post Street and Buchanan, if I remember correctly. I found a happy cat at their equivalent of the Dollar Store - the Dollar Fifty Store.

Before dinner, Nick and I had drinks at the Ritz, where I got to sip a glass of Prosecco champagne - so much better than the $6 bottles of Andre I usually have. We ate dinner at Absinthe Bar (, which has a very suave interior. The food was delicious. I had a stone fruit salad for dinner and peaches with coriander cream for dessert. They have a seasonal menu, and I would be happy to try some new dishes if/when I’m ever in the city again (I would eat at Nopa again, too - another restaurant with a seasonal menu). To avoid Market Street late at night, we took a taxi back to the Ritz, where we enjoyed another drink at the bar.

Oh Saturday, our last day already! We had plans to eat breakfast at Dottie’s True Blue Cafe (, featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. When we got there, the line was out the door and around the corner. Rather than waiting, we decided we’d rather check out the farmer’s market at the Ferry building (, and I’m so happy we did. There is so much produce, with samples of everything - peaches, nectarines, ice cream, honey, everything. And it’s all so tasty. I found myself wishing for a farmer’s market like this at home. There are also lots of kitchen vendors set up in tents, as well as in the building. I opted for the Monty Cristo from the Prather Ranch Meat Company, a ham and swiss cheese sandwich on grilled French toast and topped with nectarine jam. Yum. 

We walked back to the Ritz and sat in the lobby to enjoy our mochis before checking out. Nick discovered the beautiful Japanese bakery (Minamoto Kitchoan - while we were walking down Market Street through the Financial District on our way to the farmer’s market. We shared cherry blossom, kumquat, and another flavor. Wow, I wish I had a Japanese bakery near my home. I can still feel the pink squishy rice flour and taste the creamy smooth white bean paste with a faint hint of cherry blossom on my tongue. If I go to San Francisco again, I would go back for more of these.

Sooner than I would have liked, it was time to go. I could easily explore this city more - I’m sure there are many pretty secrets hidden in the nooks and crannies. One day.
And where are all the other pictures? The charming homes, the sea lions, Lombard Street? Someone else has them. In my opinion, if you’re going to take someone’s camera that accidentally got left in a restaurant, you could at least have the decency of leaving the memory card to be reclaimed. :/

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