Special Edition: State Bird Provisions

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*Hold on to your hats folks, you’re in for a rather lengthy post (we promise it’s worth it!).  Though State Bird Provisions is not on the 2011 Big Eat List, it is on the 2013 list for the State Bird with Provisions dish.*

The Place:

Though we eat at a lot of different restaurants, we don’t often target ones in the upper echelon of the culinary industry.  Though we’d love to go to your French Laundrys, elBullis (now closed), or Nomas, they seem almost unattainable.  Whether it’s the cost, the difficulty of getting a table, or just their reputation, the best restaurants in the world don’t seem very approachable.  They’re the type of places you may daydream about, but never really make any real attempt to go. However, when we heard that State Bird Provisions in SF was having a soft opening that was first come, first served, we thought “Hell, let’s give it a shot”.

So we do need to give this story a little more context.  First off, State Bird Provisions is fairly new to the scene (about 2 years), but has already won the James Beard award for Best New Restaurant, been declared in the top 10 restaurants in the world by Zagat, and named Best New Restaurant by Bon Appetit as well.  As you can see, the accolades are there, but the restaurant itself has stayed pretty humble.  It’s not in a “prime” location, there aren’t valets, no wine captains to be seen, and you don’t need to pawn your jewelry to cover the check.

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So we showed up an hour before service started, but as you can see some other people had the same idea (good thing we did too, cause after about 20 minutes the line had doubled).  When the doors opened they sat the first round of customers and took names and numbers for the second round (which we were in, but we were willing to wait).  Once we got the call we hurried back and readied ourself for a gastronomic adventure.  The restaurant is small and simple in a functional way.  It’s not that it lacks style, it just seems stylishly practical.  It’s best design draw is the kitchen, which as you can see is proudly put on display through the front windows of the restaurant.

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If you wanted to get deep you could say that this positioning is a representation of the mentality of the restaurant.  Focus on the food first and foremost and don’t worry about the other frills that often come with other high end (read: snooty) establishments.  Of course, the reason could easily be that it’s the only place the kitchen could fit, and our attempt at a metaphor is just in our heads.   Who knows, we aren’t exactly specialists here.  Anyways, let’s get back on track, we have a lot to cover here.  The kitchen is beautiful, looking almost like a workshop or laboratory, covered in small pots and beakers filled with exotic ingredients.  The chefs work quickly and precisely and it’s pretty entertaining just to gawk at them as they prep and create your food.

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The staff is the kind we thoroughly enjoy.  Casual but attentive, very nice but not fake, extremely knowledgable, and willing to crack a smile at our dumb jokes.  We had the chance to chat with the GM Ryan Anderson outside the restaurant after our meal and he just confirmed our suspicions that everyone that works there is pretty awesome (not only was he humble, but he had the type of honest enthusiasm about his work that is impossible to fake).  State Bird’s style of serving is Dim Sum (roughly half the items you can order off the menu, while the other half is brought around on trays and carts and you decide what dishes you want).  We’ve always loved this way of eating but usually only see it in Chinese cuisine or some sushi spots.

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The Dish:

So we’re just going to come out and admit we ate a boatload of food that night.  It’s going to be easier to just list the dishes and then go over them after (in our defense these are smaller dishes, but it’s still a lot):

  • raw oyster with spicy kohlrabi kraut & sesame
  • lobster ‘salsa’ salad
  • wild coho salmon tartare with fermented turnips
  • steak tartare with jimmy nardellos
  • pork belly plum salad
  • hamachi-avocado & seaweed cracker
  • garlic bread with burrata
  • smoked sturgeon ‘everything’ pancake, beet & horseradish condiment
  • CA state bird with provisions
  • chocolate macaron ‘ice cream’ sandwich, curried pecan streusel

First off, this Dim Sum is not the type you’ll find at your local restaurant.  This is grown-ass Dim Sum.  This Dim Sum does not mess around so you better be ready for combat cause it will mess you up.  Each tray and cart wheeled by makes your eyes bug out.  The ordering process was a bit of a blur, but we definitely remember the food enough to carry on.

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We started things off by being presented with the seafood cart (seen in the first pic of the post).   We decided to be strong and start slow, then promptly broke down and ordered everything on the cart.  This included the oysters, the lobster, and the salmon. The oysters were fresh with a nice spicy smokiness to them; a great way to start off a meal.  Both the lobster and salmon were light and refreshing as well.  To be honest, at this point we were still unsure if the place would live up to the hype, and while the seafood was good, it wasn’t making us see stars.  Of the two we liked the salmon better.  It had a very interesting combination of flavors that were nicely enhanced by the turnip.  Still, we were both wondering if maybe we had built things up too much and were just in for a good meal, but not a great one.  Turns out we were wrong, like 2 + 2 = 0 type of wrong.  Turns out the seafood was just the setup for the consecutive knock out punches that the forthcoming dishes would deliver.

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Our next wave of food included the steak tartare, pork belly, and the hamachi avocado cracker.  The steak was very rich and was accompanied by thick cut potato chips.  The chips seemed like an interesting addition at first glance but proved to add a great texture and saltiness to the meat.  The pork belly was just straight up ridiculous.  You may know that we’re biased towards pork belly, but this is something else.  They fry up chunks of pork belly and toss them in a lime chili sauce with fresh mint, satsuma plum, and sliced jalapeños.  The combination of sweet, spicy, tangy and porky (is porky a flavor?) is almost too much to handle.  If you thought the pork was good, the hamachi avocado was right there with it.  A nice thick seaweed cracker was topped with fresh hamachi, avocado cream, sesame, radish, and some other important ingredients that we honestly can’t recall.  Where the pork was in your face delicious, the hamachi gently played with our tastebuds with a symphony of flavors.  Anyone who’s ever enjoyed a piece of sushi or sashimi would place this on their top 10.

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For the last round we had the state bird with provisions, garlic bread with burrata, and the “everything” pancake, and finally the chocolate macaron ice cream sandwich.  The state bird was a breaded and fried quail (we didn’t know that was the state bird!) and set atop onions stewed in lemon and rosemary.  The balance between the dark richness of the bird and the tart, almost pickled flavor of the onions surprised us with how good it was.

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The garlic bread was a simple dish, with a knotted sourdoughish bread roll topped with fresh burrata.  The further you got inside the knot the moister and tastier it got.  Now we get to the “everthing” pancake, which was probably the dish that really made our jaw drop.  This is not a traditional pancake and you will find no syrup nearby.  The “pancake” was quite thick and had a consistency similar to a potato pancake.  It was covered in poppy seeds, sesame seeds, and possibly more.  Stacked on top were thick slices of smoked sturgeon topped with some frisee, fried leeks and fennel.  The pancake was accompanied by a beet puree and a horseradish creme (note: we are re-creating some of these dishes by memory so we may have got a few ingredients wrong, lo siento).  When you combine all these ingredients and flavors together it creates what we can honestly say is one of the most unique dishes we’ve ever had.  The closest thing we could liken it to would be having the best everything bagel you’ve ever tasted with smoked fish and five more layers of amazingness.  We’re not quite sure what else to say about this dish.  These are all flavors we have had before but never together in this way (we kinda wish we hadn’t already used the word symphony to describe the hamachi because we want to use it again here!).

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Just when we thought we couldn’t fit any more, dessert came in the form of an ice cream sandwich tower with god knows what in it, topped with toasted pumpkin seeds and plums.  Good Lord, let’s just say that for the next five minutes we were completely silent (rare for us) as we just slowly ate what was the perfect ending to an amazing dinner.

The Verdict:

I think you can tell where this is going, but yes, go to State Bird.  In fact, stop reading this and go right now.  No?  Ok, I guess that’s a lot to ask.

We’ve always hated the term “food experience” as it sounds kinda corny, but there’s really no other way to describe the meal.  What’s so great is that while the food is completely unique and new, it’s very approachable.  These are ingredients  you mostly know and that you’ve had before in your life, just never at this level or in these combinations.  We want to say we are at a loss for words, (though if you’ve read this far into this lengthy post, you know that’s not true) because try as we might we won’t be able to fully describe the meal or the dishes.  We were kinda dubious that the place would live up to it’s growing reputation but we were entirely proved wrong.  State Bird completely nails what makes a great dining experience; amazing food and quality people preparing and serving it.  We can chalk this up as one of the best meals of our life and we hope you get the chance to try it some day.

Dig In,

A & K

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Simmr presents: The Onigilly event!

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The Place:

As great as it is to go around and stuff our faces at all the restaurants in SF (and great it is), when it’s time to have a meal at home, our cooking skills just can’t seem to compare to the high standard The List has set for us.  Now, we are being a little self-deprecating.  We can make a pretty decent meal, but we often find ourselves trying to the make the dishes we have when going out, however they never seem to hit the mark.  The problem is that while we know how to eat the food at our favorite restaurants, we don’t know much about it or how to make it.  Other times we notice our dining experiences kind of running together.  Get a drink, order apps, eat good food, rinse and repeat.  We find ourselves wanting something a little different.  So how does one rectify these issues?  Enter Simmr, a company that connects customers to local restaurants through unique events.  Simmr teams up with chefs and restaurants to create fun, hands on experiences that are sometimes part learning and part eating.

We really like this idea because it has obvious benefits to both customers and businesses.  For customers, they get to experience a restaurant in a way they’d never get to normally.  Depending on how the event is set up, they may learn a little about the concept and history behind the food, they may get to make the dishes, or they may have a sweet customized meal just for them!   Not to worry about price either, this value came for a VERY reasonable price.  For businesses, they get a great chance to give customers a more in-depth look at what makes them special and to forge a more personal relationship.  This can really help create evangelists for their business and increase word of mouth.

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So, on to the food!  The Simmr event we decided to attend was hosted by Onigilly, a Japanese restaurant that specializes in the traditional onigiri, or rice balls, with a little flair of fusion.  Onigilly has two set locations as well as a stand and a roving foodcart.  The event took place in their location in the Financial District, a nice and cozy spot with an open kitchen and a small upstairs.  We were not sure what to expect on arrival but the Simmr and Onigilly staff was very friendly in welcoming us, giving us name tags, and directing us to the event area.

Things kicked off with an introduction of the staff and a description of what we’d be learning / eating.  The size of the group was perfect, roughly 15-20 people, just enough to have fun but not too large.  We had a nice time meeting our table-mates (and of course had an easy topic to talk about, food!), one of whom we found out runs the excellent blog Shikha la Mode which we highly recommend.  After the intro we jumped right into the demonstration!

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The Dish:

The first thing covered was the rice.  Onigilly uses a custom made brown rice that is 30% polished and actually looks a bit more like white rice.  Their method is straightforward; soak the rice for 30 minutes in a 1 : 1.5 ratio of rice to water, and then cover on medium high heat for 10 minutes and fluff.  One of our biggest shocks for the evening was how damn good that rice was.  It was slightly sweet with a little hint of earthiness and the perfect texture.  Unfortunately the rice is custom made for them by Koda Farms, so we might have to search a bit to find something comparable.

Next up was the onigiri itself.  Onigiri dates back about 2,300 years as a popular, quick meal.  Samurai would carry onigiri into battle for a quick and hearty snack.  The concept is very simple; pressed rice and a savory filling, all wrapped up in seaweed.  Though this sounds similar to sushi, it is far from it.  We were told that onigiri is just as popular as sushi in Japan, and more of a staple (we’ll have to ask Uncle Mark, who lives there).  The Onigilly staff gave us a quick demo of two different techniques of making onigiri and then we were let loose to try our hand at it.  There were four different fillings to choose from; Ume (sour pickled plum), Hijiki (soy-braised seaweed and carrots), spicy shrimp, and spicy bacon.  Of course we tried making all four (multiples of each as well).

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Though our onigiri maybe didn’t turn out as pretty as the one’s made by the staff, we were surprised by how compact and easy to hold they were.  Definitely makes sense that these are great for on the go.  Another cool thing is since the fillings are already cooked in different sauces, there’s no need to fumble with the mess of pouring soy or wasabi on it (something anyone who’s had to-go sushi has probably gone through).  All four were delicious, though the seaweed and bacon were our favorites.  The seaweed added a nice meaty texture and crunch and imparted a burst of soy flavor.  The bacon was……well, it was bacon, which is always awesome, but add some spice to it?  Bam!  Now you’re speaking our language.

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We sat down to enjoy our variety of delicious rice balls and were also greeted with edamame, miso soup, marinated mushrooms, chicken katsu, and some delicious infused sake.  Talk about food overload in the best way possible!  We chowed down, comparing notes with the other patrons, talking about food experiences, and generally just having a kick-ass time.

The Verdict:

Yes to Simmr and yes to Onigilly.  We really had a fantastic time, and one that we felt was very unique.  Have you ever watched a cooking demonstration on the Food Network and thought, wow, that looks fun?  Well this is that in real life.  We really enjoy what Simmr offers for a number of reasons.  First off, the best way to learn is by doing, and this allows you to step inside the kitchen of local restaurants and really get to know how things are made.  We are always looking for different types of experiences, and this event was definitely something you don’t get often.  It was so neat to meet the chefs and get to ask questions about the food, their philosophy, and their history, all while eating to our hearts content.  We are looking forward to our next event (especially when we heard that Simmr is teaming up with our favorite pho place, Turtle Tower!) and highly suggest you do the same.  How each event is structured will vary, but you can be sure that it will be something unique.  We will definitely be back to Onigilly and look forward to some more spicy bacon onigiri!

*Note*  There’s going to be another Onigilly event hosted by Simmr, and you should definitely check it out and sign up for the wait list (events get triggered when enough people sign up!)  http://www.simmr.co/events/3

 

Dig In,

A & K

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#32 Chairman Bao Bun Truck: Pork Belly Bun

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The Place:

It’s not often that we actually have to physically chase down a dish on the list, but Chairman Bao presents a bit of a moving target.  What we mean is that this place happens to be a food truck whose schedule and location is subject to change, and you must track it down if you want it’s tasty morsels.  In the last few years San Francisco has experienced a food truck craze which has spawned countless trucks of all types of food, from creme brûlée to Irish / Eritrean food.  Chariman Bao still stands as one of the best and most iconic.  It’s punful name and design (think Chairman Mao instead of Bao) have helped it stand out among many other quality trucks.  Thankfully they post a schedule on their site so one doesn’t have to guess where they’re going to be, but does have to plan ahead a little.  When you are fortunate enough to come across the truck the staff is friendly and the service is very quick (many food trucks do most of their business at lunchtime and need to be fast to cater to the office crowds).

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The Dish:

Bao are traditionally a type of Chinese steamed buns that are stuffed with a variety of different fillings.  Chairman Bao adds their own twist by halving the bun and turning it into something like a Chinese taco.  The dish is simple; just bun, marinated pork belly, and pickled daikon radish.  Add a little bit of sriracha on top and you are ready to go.  We’re biased toward anything with pork belly and this dish just adds to those feelings.  The flavor is incredible and very rich.  A lot of times steamed buns can get a little gummy, but not in this case.  It’s slightly sweet, soft, and provides an adequate vehicle for the mouthwatering pork belly.  The meat itself is everything pork belly should be and the daikon is the ideal crunch and freshness to accompany such a rich meat.  Really nothing else to say about this dish other than it definitely deserves to be on the list.

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The Verdict;

Get out your map and track this truck down next time you’re in the city, you will not be disappointed.

Dig In,

A & K

 

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#73 The Sentinel: Corned-Beef Sandwich w/ Gruyere

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The Place:

This spot is probably one of the smallest ones we’ve ever been too.  Located right near Market St. in the busy SOMA district, The Sentinel is little more than two open doors about 6 feet apart that allow you to enter and exit the shoebox of a deli counter.  They serve a simple breakfast and an array of sandwiches for lunch.  One can tell they have a bit of a sense of humor as the menu board is constantly hiding new little messages (“look at the kitties!”) and different visualizations of their name.  The service is very quick, which is a must in an area with a lot of lunchtime customers.

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The Dish:

Corned beef sandwiches are always a favorite of ours.  The keys to them being the meat, the bread, the cabbage, the dressing, and in some cases the cheese.  The Sentinel gets most of these right, but for us, didn’t fully complete the package.  The meat (arguably the most important part) is spot on.  It’s thick, juicy and very flavorful.  They also have great pickled cabbage and are onto something with the rich gruyere cheese.  For us, the bread and dressing could have been a bit better.  We’re probably being picky but our personal preference is heartier bread than the focaccia style of flatbread they use.  For the dressing, it was a little on the sweet, tomato-y side for us, when we prefer a bit more tang.  Complaints aside, the sandwich is still good, and it’s one of the most popular they have.  We could definitely be in the crazy minority.

The Verdict:

We would recommend The Sentinel, though not necessarily for the corned beef sandwich.  Having eaten there a few times, we can say that their menu is always fantastic, and are VERY happy with what we get.  Their sandwiches change often, but are always unique and a nice change from your standard deli options.  While we wouldn’t put this dish in the big win column for The List, we definitely would put the restaurant on it.

Dig In,

A & K

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#95 Grubstake: Bowl of Caldo Verde Soup

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The Place:

Everyone’s been to a place like Grubstake, a 1927 cable car that serves Portuguese food, right?  Wait, no, that doesn’t seem right.  Come to think of it, eating Portuguese food in a cable car is definitely a unique experience.  As you have figured out by now, Grubstake is just that, a converted cable car that features comfort food classics as well as some simple Portuguese cuisine.  It actually took us a while to go there seeing as it’s only about 4 blocks from our house.  The interior is small but quite cool, and is actually half cable car, half building.  The design is a mix between classic diner and kitsch, but works well and isn’t too cheesy.  The owner hales from Portugal and brings his cultural influences to a section of the menu.  Grubstake is open every day until a surprising 4am, which makes it a popular spot for the late night, post bar crowd.  We went for an early dinner and the place was pretty relaxed, having just one server and one busser for the roughly 15 tables.

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The Dish:

The menu is broken up into two sections.  One has traditional diner foods (breakfasts, burgers, salads, wings, etc), and the other is titled the “Portuguese Corner”.  From the second side is where we got the Caldo Verde.  The dish is a potato kale soup with generous hunks of linguisa and other spices.  As you can see, the soup has a cool greenish color from the kale, and is a big enough portion to share or eat as a meal alone.  The soups flavor is excellent.  The potato and kale blend nicely together, with neither ingredient really overpowering the other, but acting more in harmony.   The linguisa has a nice kick to it and really ties the bow on the flavor profile.  While the flavors aren’t revolutionary or groundbreaking, they are in all ways good.  The other dishes we tried were solid as well, but the soup was our winner of the evening.

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The Verdict:

Probably the biggest draw to this place is that it’s open late, near a bunch of our local bars, and provides solid food.  The Caldo Verde is great, and if you’re in the neighborhood or interested in Portuguese cuisine, Grubstake is a nice little spot.  No need to break your back to get here, but we’d call this another win for The List.

Dig In,

A & K

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#14 Il Cane Rosso: Warm Egg Salad Sandwich

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The Place:

The Ferry building on a warm weekend day is always a treat.  Beautiful fruits and vegetables from Farmer’s Market are everywhere, the shops and stalls are bustling, selling everything from oysters to fine chocolates.  People bask in the sun along the bay and watch seagulls try and snag the occasional treat from unsuspecting patrons.  It’s here you’ll find Il Cane Rosso (The Red Dog), tucked inside the building along with many other restaurants (though we use the term loosely, as most of the places are a combination of an open kitchen / register and self seating).  Il Cane Rosso has a small seating area outside so you can either get your food to-go or sit outside and enjoy the view.

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The Dish:

Due to some textural difficulties Kristina declined in trying this dish, so I’ll take things over from here.  The sandwich is served open faced on toasted Acme focaccia that’s been spread with a rich garlic anchovy butter.  The egg salad is heaped on top and covered in melted provolone cheese and lightly dressed arugula.  The egg salad is prepared with fresh Petaluma eggs and a garlic, tarragon and caper aioli.  The first bite shows that this stuff is VERY different from your run of the mill egg salad you find at a deli or grocery store.  This salad rightfully does away with the sweet and overwhelming mayo flavor common in egg salads and instead replaces it with a garlicky and salty flavor explosion.  The combination of flavors is intense and very rich (you’ll want a beverage with this dish).  The arugula provides a nice balance to cut through the cheese, eggs, butter and anchovy that pervades this bad boy.  The bread is crucial to this dish as it provides a sturdy vehicle for the salad that doesn’t crumble as well as a nice bit of crunchy texture.  All and all it’s a great marriage of some classic Italian flavors that I hold dear to my part Italian heart.

The Verdict:

I’m worried that this sandwich has ruined egg salad for me since it will be a standard I’ll compare to all others.  I highly recommend trying this sandwich the next time you’re at the Ferry Building, you won’t be disappointed.

Dig In,

A & K

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#47 Papalote: Chips and Salsa

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The Place:

As is common with a lot of taquerias in SF, Papalote is pretty standard looking.  The layout is what you’d expect, long skinny kitchen along the wall with a register at the end and a few small tables near the entrance.  The crew is friendly and things move pretty quickly.  There is a nice grill smell in the air, the type of smell that comes from well seasoned meat hitting hot metal (a personal favorite of ours).  There are two locations, one in the Mission and one right off the Panhandle.  We haven’t been to the larger Mission location, so this post will be in regards to the Panhandle location.

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The Dish:

We wouldn’t be surprised when looking at this post if you asked either one or both of the following questions:  Is the dish JUST chips and salsa, and why is that salsa orange?  To answer those questions (even if you didn’t ask them), yes, just the chips and salsa, and yes, it is orange.  Don’t fear, there is a good reason for both.  There are two obvious parts to this dish, the chips and the salsa.  The chips themselves are pretty unremarkable.  They seem to be bought vs. made, and really are no different from what you may get at your average neighborhood barbecue.  Upon seeing the quality of the chips our hopes started to waver until we hit the salsa.  We gotta say, this salsa is unlike any other we’ve had before.  It has a very rich and meaty tomato flavor, almost bordering on a pasta sauce, but not in a weird way.  It’s got a great spice level that helps balance out the roasted tomatoes and really is very unique.  The blend of flavors is fantastic and it instantly kicks up any dish it’s added too.  The salsa has been featured on the Food Network and has gotten rave reviews from Bobby Flay himself.  It’s been such a hit they’ve begun to bottle and sell the stuff online.   It’s a fire roasted tomato salsa, and that’s about all the info they will give you since they’re a bit tight lipped about the recipe (we don’t blame them, this stuff is orange gold).

The Verdict:

It’s worth it to go to Papalote for no other reason that to try the salsa.  The rest of the food there is great.  They’ve even been voted best burrito a few times, so it’s a good bet your going to have some tasty food.  We’d even suggest buying some of their salsa online, it’s that good.

Dig In,

A & K

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#52 Nopalito: Carnitas

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The Place:

Nopalito is described as a “neighborhood Mexican kitchen” and we would tend to agree.  The spaces (there are actually two, one in the Sunset District and one in Hayes Valley) are simple and open.  Both have an exposed kitchen, simple decorations, a no reservation policy and a general laid back air that we feel is an ideal setting for Mexican food.  Servers are casual but knowledgeable and the menu is straightforward and unpretentious.  They focus on traditional Mexican cooking as well as using local, sustainable ingredients.  They take the traditional part seriously, so don’t expect to find grande burritos or towering piles of nachos.  It’s a great marriage between quality cooking one comes to expect from San Francisco and the neighborhood feel that makes people comfortable.

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The Dish:

The Carnitas is one of their entree sized dishes, and similar to most of the menu, it’s quite simple.  The carnitas arrives in a parchment pouch along with a cabbage salad, pickled jalepenos, tomatillo salsa and some tortillas.  Upon ripping into the pouch a little burst of steam rises out and you behold the pork.  It’s a good amount of meat, and it’s still in one full piece.  The color is a nice rich brownish red and a first touch confirms that this thing is ready to just fall apart (in the way good braised meat wants to).  We asked and were told the braising ingredients are just orange, bay leaf, milk, cinnamon and beer.  We opted to make a small taco with the meat, cabbage, jalepeno and salsa, and dug in.  The meat itself is very tender and our self made taco was quite delicious on the whole.  We suggest eating it this way because the meat by itself is a bit bland.  This doesn’t mean it isn’t good, it’s just that the braising is very simple and meant to feature the natural flavor of the meat.  Put the wonderful texture of the meat with their ohmygodthatsgood hot sauce (what we dubbed their homemade sauce), some fixings and a tortilla, and you have a damn good morsel on your hands.

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The Verdict:

We like it, we love it, we want some more of it.  The place is great and the food is great.  You get to branch out with some new dishes you may not be familiar with, but they are all very solid.  In addition to the Carnitas, we had their Quesadilla Roja, Ceviche and Taco Pescado, and all were fantastic.  A good friend of ours works there so we now have further incentivization to return, but we would have been heading back regardless.  This place is definitely worth a try if you’re in town.

Dig In,

A & K

 

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#61 Golden Gate Bakery: Egg Custard Tart

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The Place:

Upon entering Golden Gate Bakery in Chinatown, we weren’t quite sure if we were walking into a bakery, or into a cramped accountant’s office the day before taxes are due.  There were mountains of boxes, papers pinned everywhere and a multitude of shelves where one would assume their would be baking equipment.  While maybe 500 sq feet in total, there is only room for about 4 customers at a time inside.  Behind the counter were 5 older Asian women who rotated taking orders, making change (cash only), filling boxes and disappearing to the back to bring out new goodies.  Since we couldn’t actually see any baking equipment / area, we can only assume that there was a separate room (or maybe they’re just magic).  It was about a 5-10 minute wait in line, not too bad for a Saturday afternoon.

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The Dish:

Neither of us have had an egg custard tart before, so we were very curious to see what we were in for.  Luckily a batch had just come out of the oven, so the bag was warm to the touch when we got our order.  The tarts are small, about the width of a baseball, and inside of the crust have a yellowish filling that looks……well, like custard.  Being the adventurous duo we are we grabbed one and took a bite.  The first taste is a very interesting experience.  The crust is perfect.  Slightly buttery, flakey and crunchy, but not overly so.  What is interesting is the filling.  It was warm and had a slightly sweet, slightly eggy flavor too it.  The texture is different from any other custard we have had before, straddling the line between a custard and maybe a jello with more consistency.  Since the tart isn’t overly sweet, it took us a few bites to really start to enjoy it to its fullest (not that we didn’t enjoy it at first).  The egg flavor is noticeable, but not strong enough to make it taste un-pastrylike.  After finishing one we found ourselves craving another and promptly gave into that desire by finishing the remaining two.

The Verdict:

The tart is definitely worth a try.  We enjoyed it, though get the feeling it may not be for everyone.  Having said that, it’s the type of dish people should try at least once, just to make sure you’re not missing out on what could be a new favorite.  Though there may be a little wait, and it is cash only, the experience was a good one.  Plus it’s always fun walking through the heart of Chinatown while drinking in the sites and sounds.

Dig In,

A & K

 

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#6 Smuggler’s Cove: Puka Punch

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The Place:

“Did we just walk into the Pirates of the Carribean?”  We’re willing to bet that is the thought of the majority of first timers when they enter Smuggler’s Cove.  Walking down a nondescript street in Hayes Valley, we arrived at our destination with a bit of puzzlement.  Looking at this next picture, does it even look like one of the city’s best Tiki bars is here?

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Though it’s hard to tell, behind those blacked out windows is the bar.  The only way we realized we were in the right spot was a polite doorman sitting on a stool outside and a few smokers taking a break from one sinful behavior to indulge another.

Middle of nowhere location and blank facade aside, this place is very cool.  The Pirates of the Caribbean (and a little bit Swiss Family Robinson) comparison is a compliment to the full adherence to the theme that Smuggler’s has.  The attention to detail is wonderful, from the ship’s rigging adorning the rafters to the Tiki inspired barware.   The inside is small, though it’s split into three levels with a bar on the main floor and in the basement.  The spirit of focus is rum and they make that pretty apparent by carrying about 400 different kinds.  The menu is very lengthy, being broken up into sections such as traditional drink from the Caribbean Islands, classic libations of Prohibition-era Havana, exotic cocktails from legendary Tiki bars, and others.  Each cocktail is accompanied by a it’s history or story, making for a fully immersive experience that allows one to feel transported to another place (a few cocktails definitely eases the transition).  Choices are difficult, as the menu has around 70 different offerings.  Along with high quality spirits, most of the other cocktail ingredients are house made.  Let us be clear, these drinks are not the fruity sugar bombs you may have sipped in a resort in Hawaii; these are serious drinks with a lot of variety and complexity.

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The Dish:

Okay, so the picture isn’t the greatest (it’s really dark in there), but this drink isn’t about looks anyway.  The Puka Punch is meant for two, and comes in a large goblet over crushed ice.  Instead of us describing what’s in it, we think their menu does a fine job: “Mere mortal bartenders quake in fear at the sight of 11 carefully measured ingredients, but not our intrepid crew.  Such is the nature of a great exotic cocktails like this masterpiece from the world famous Tiki-ti and Los Angeles.  Four rums, four juices, and a sea of spices make this ‘superb in taste sensation'”.

What comes up through your straw is one great tropical drink.  Neither overly sweet, nor overly boozy (though it’s packed with it, and will floor you if you’re not careful).  You taste hints of pineapple, coconut, dark rum, and spices like clove and cinnamon.  We were actually a little surprised by the subtlety of the flavors since there were so many ingredients.  While this drink fits into poolside drinking more than classy cocktail hour, it is quite good, especially when comparing it to other tropical drinks we’ve had in the past.

The Verdict:

Arrrrgh, make ye haste for this swarthy establishment as soon as the wind is at your back (sorry, that’s our pirate impression).  This place is a real gem.  We’re a little upset that we hadn’t been here yet.  It’s fun, the bartenders are friendly, and the drinks are damn good.  The decoration and ambiance would be enough to bring us back regardless of what they serve, so we are confident in saying you will have a great time no matter what.

Dig In,

A & K

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