Even before moving up to San Francisco, Natasha and I loved to visit the city and sample all that it had to offer. Now, after a year living there and three weeks being away, I figured it was a good time to reflect upon all of our favorite places to eat. This is a mondo post, with lost of pictures and information. Hope you can make it to the end without getting too hungry!
Favorite breakfast joint: Plow
1299 18th Street | eatatplow.com
Located in Portrero Hill, Plow is one of those places we had to eat at at least once a month. A bit off of the main drag in Potrero Hill, parking is easy to find. A hidden gem it is not though, with wait times easily between one and two hours. To help with the long wait times, Plow offers free coffee, or if you like to start your mornings off right, you’ll be able to purchase mimosas and drink them while resting on their small bench or one of the planters just outside of the front door. Do note though, if you’re meeting others there, they won’t seat you until your entire party is there.
So what’s good at Plow? Well, everything I had there was pretty darn good, but there is a few stand-outs on their menu. While I’ve gone through nearly everything on the menu, I keep coming back to their signature dish, the Plow. It’s kinda like a Grand Slam, but made by people who really care about their food: two eggs, two pancakes, potatoes, and bacon. OK, doesn’t sound that special, eh? This ain’t no typical fare, let me tell you. First off the pancakes. Lemon ricotta, served with a very nice Vermont maple syrup. Fluffy, tangy, and moist. As one that doesn’t typically go for pancakes (I like the first three bites but then feel remorse about my choice due to the lack of depth of a normal pancake), I could eat a stack of these pancakes and nothing else. Then, there’s the bacon. Best bacon in SF I tell you. What about Mission Cafe you ask? What about it, go to Plow. The eggs are always well done, and they’re locally sourced, so they’re good, but there’s not that much to eggs (at least for me). They’re a bit runny, which Natasha loves, but otherwise they’re eggs. Moving on to the real star though, the potatoes. I used to think these were the best potatoes in the city, until I went to Bar Tartine that is (more on that later), but these are some seriously good potatoes. Crispy, flavorful, and perfectly salted, you don’t even need hot sauce or ketchup for these spuds (which they have and will provide without question, if you like).
Two other things that we really like at Plow are their egg sandwich (perfectly cooked eggs, bun, cheese, aioli, and, of course, you can add bacon) and their kale salad, when they have it.
Prices are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, and, as mentioned, the wait time can be pretty long, but Plow is certainly a place we have enjoyed multiple times.
Favorite brunch joint: Bar Tartine
561 Valencia Street | bartartine.com
I’ve been a big fan of Tartine Bakery for quite a while, so when I heard about Bar Tartine, their sister sit-down restaurant, I was all about it. Imagine how amazed we were when we were completely underwhelmed by dinner there not once, but twice. We had all but written Bar Tartine off until a friend of mine told us about an amazing brunch he had at Bar Tartine. Being a big fan of a good brunch, and wanting to give Bar Tartine another chance, I arranged Brunch there with a bunch of co-workers and boy, was I glad I gave them another chance.
Whereas the meals we had eaten for dinner at Bar Tartine were over-hyped and under-delivered, nearly every plate served in their prix fixe brunch menu was sublime. We went back again, this time with an even larger party of 16 merry eaters, and while the menu was mostly the same, the experience was just as good as the first time. To start, we were served some home-made almond butter with honey and bee pollen with apples on the side. A great little starter that got everyone excited for the rest of the meal. Following the apples and almond butter was a yogurt with granola and what they claimed were gooseberries. Now Natasha, having been born in Lithuania and a consummate gooseberry aficionado, swears they weren’t gooseberries. Neither she, nor anyone else at the table for that matter, could say what type of berries they were, but they were delicious. The mixture of the yogurt, home-made granola, berries (of some sort), and a semi-effervescent compote was both tart and refreshing, a nice contrast to the rich almond butter we had just finished licking off of our spoons.
While waiting for the next series of plates to come out, the waitress brought out a round of Tartine’s famous bread. If you’ve never had Tartine Bakery before, you need to do yourself a favor and get some of this amazingly awesome bread. I find the bread to be nearly the perfect bread. Hard (but not too hard), crusty outside, soft, spongy and moist inside, and tons of flavor. It feels like the right balance between a super-dense German-style loaf of bread and the super crispy and light French style. Be careful, you may just want to fill up on bread. Pro-tip: While Tartine Bakery generally has a 45 minute line for bread, you can get some of the exact same loaves from Bar Tartine with no waiting. Grilled cheese anyone?
Next up was my favorite thing served both times I was there: their smoked breakfast potatoes. Having had a smoker for some while and thoroughly enjoying smoked meats and cheeses (and teas, oh man I love lapsong souchong), these potatoes were right up my alley. Natasha, on the other hand, typically hates smokey foods and these potatoes were her favorite course at Bar Tartine as well. It tastes as though they take their potatoes and stick them in the middle of a big wood fire. Crispy on the outside, perfectly cooked inside, with an amazingly robust flavor. The potatoes are served with dill, parsley, and a nice sour cream. There was a bit of fighting over these potatoes while they were on the table.
After the amazing potatoes were all devoured, we were served some fantastic grilled goat cheese sandwiches. The goat cheese was not too overpoweringly goat-y and went very well with caramelized onions and steamed leafy greens, all wrapped in the amazing Tartine bread. By this point, we were all slowing down, but it seemed that the kitchen staff were just hitting their stride as they brought out the next dish, some fluffy egg soufflé with avocado on toast. While this dish was good, we were all getting so close to our eating limit by the time the dish came out that we weren’t that excited about it.
To finish everything off, we were brought out two different desserts, a potato fry bread with fruit compote and a home-made nutella-like spread on top of even more yummy Tartine bread. Unfortunately, both of these went mostly uneaten, but I really enjoyed the potato fry bread that I could fit in my belly.
While enjoying these seemingly never-ending courses, we all enjoyed a good number of their unique drinks. Since they have a beer and wine license only, the drinks are made with shochu (even though they list it as soju on the menu) or champagne, and a rapidly rotating range of interesting mixers. I’ve gone in a few times either for brunch or for sandwiches and noticed that every time their drink options changed, from herbal infusions to beets to exotic fruit juices, the drinks are all quite good.
Prices are a bit on the high side at Bar Tartine, with drinks and brunch going for $60-70 per person including tip. I’ve never had to wait for brunch, which is quite different from the eating experience at Tartine Bakery.
Favorite pastry shop: Tartine Bakery
600 Guerrero Street | tartinebakery.com
Tartine Bakery was one of the first places that I fell in love with in San Francisco. In fact, we picked the apartment we lived in because it was a few blocks away from both Tartine Bakery and Bi-Rite grocery (well, and the close proximity to a Google shuttle stop and Dolores park, but that’s beside the point). While I don’t have a problem waiting in line for a new restaurant, I usually won’t wait for a place I’ve been to before, since at some point you need to just get on with life. Tartine is special enough though that I’d wait in the 30-45 minute line once or twice a week just to get my crusty, flaky fix. Tartine is so popular that no matter what day it is, there’s a line forming 30 minutes before they open, and the line stays like that well into the middle of the day. On weekends, the line can get up to an hour long, just for a pastry—crazy I tell you! Crazy!
Why do people wait so long here? Simple, I haven’t found a better bakery in the US, and it rivals the great bakeries in Europe. My favorite things at Tartine include their morning bun, pain au jambon, bread pudding, and croque monsiuer.
Their morning bun is a simple thing, basically a cinnamon roll with the cinnamon toned down with a sweet orange glaze cap and lightly dusted in sugar. Breaking apart the morning bun reveals layers of flaky dough, soft and moist in the center. I’ve found the glaze cap a bit too sweet if eaten alone, but mixed with some of the doughier parts makes a perfect balance of flavor and sweetness. Many a fast was broken with just a morning bun and latte.
The pain au jambon is basically a croissant stuffed with ham and cheese, with some of the cheese allowed to ooze out onto the oven and burn ever so slightly. Burnt cheese…yummmmmmmm! While many will say that the croissant at Tartine is their pièce de résistance (and it is quite good), I find the addition of cheese and pig to bring it to a level of awesomeness not typically found in other pastries. It feels a bit indulgent to eat as I imagine they use an entire stick of butter in each of their croissants, but goodness is it tasty.
The bread pudding is always changing, with different fresh fruits on top. It’s pretty sweet though, so I find I want to order the pain au jambon and then share the bread pudding with someone, as a sort of decadent dessert.
The croque monsiuer is probably my favorite thing at Tartine, but often it’s not available yet when I have time to go in. Usually, the croques come out around 10 or so, but once in a while I’ve been lucky and have gotten them earlier. These gigantic open-faced sandwiches (which some of my friends from Europe tell me are patently NOT croque monsiuers—whatever) are available either with ham or vegetables. As I can’t say no to pig, I’ve always gotten the ham which has ham, tomatoes, cheese, asparagus, and a béchamel sauce, all lovingly piled on top of a giant slice of Tartine bread and baked until a nice golden crust of cheese forms. These are more than enough for a lunch-sized meal and Natasha has never been able to eat more than half of one in a sitting.
To go along with all of this yumminess, Tartine serves Four Barrel coffee from just a few blocks away, as well as pretty nice tea and even mimosas.
Not everything is amazing at Tartine though. Even after repeatedly being disappointed, everything I’ve tried from their cake and cookie case has been rather disappointing. I think I’ve gotten to the point now where I wont even try. You want a good cookie? Go down the street to Bi-Rite, they’ve got good cookies 🙂
Favorite sandwhich shop: The Sandwich Shop at Bar Tartine
561 Valencia Street | bartartine.com
I know, I know…three Tartine posts, I must work for these people, right? If only, maybe then I could bake a pastry to save my life 🙂 I don’t normally swoon over a place (let alone three places), but Tartine and Bar Tartine are just really well executed restaurants, and the Sandwich Shop at Bar Tartine is equally swoon-worthy.
One thing you should know is that I love sandwiches. Adore them. I could eat sandwiches for lunch every day and be happy. Sandwiches are versatile, efficient, and filling. I’m always hunting down great sandwiches. For a long time, I’ve been quite disappointed with sandwiches on the left coast. I spent a lot of my time living on the East Coast, where sandwiches reign supreme mostly, I believe, because there’s no such thing as a good burrito on the east coast (yeah, I said it, wanna prove me wrong?). When I arrived in San Diego in 2001, after getting over the shock of having actually good Mexican food for lunch every day for a month, I went on a hunt to find a good deli sandwich. Unfortunately, I never succeeded, even going up and down the coast in my hunt. Then I realized that California does their own great sandwiches that are not supposed to be deli sandwiches. This was an eye-opening experience, and one that the Sandwich Shop at Bar Tartine continued.
While I’ve tried a few of their sandwiches (and all were good) their reubano is far and away one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had, anywhere. Part reuben, part cubano, it’s just plain amazing. As expected, they start with slices of their a-mazing bread, then they add smoked pork (same amazing smokiness as their smoked breakfast potatoes, this time in pork shoulder form), pickles, rather amazing sauerkraut, cheese, and special sauce, all grilled to melty, messy, crunchy perfection. I’ve nearly ordered a second reubano after finishing my first one–it’s that good. The only thing that stopped me was not wanting to be too full for dessert (well, that and not wanting to become as big as a house).
So which dessert would be so amazing as to prevent me from eating another of my favorite sandwiches? Their peanut butter and jelly sandwich cookie, that’s what. See, peanut butter is one of my weaknesses (just like deep-fried crispy pork belly, bacon, lamb, goat, and goat cheese), if I see something with peanut butter, I must get it. Usually, I’m disappointed by peanut butter cookies. These did not disappoint. Fluffy, crumbly, and not too dry, the cookies nearly disintegrate in your mouth and are not too sweet. The strawberry jam in between is solid but definitely plays a supporting role to the cookies, which are the star of the sandwich. The cookie sandwich itself seems a bit small, but is quite rich and is quite filling. Definitely worth not eating another sandwich for.
They serve the same drinks during the Sandwich Shop hours of operation as they do the brunch, which includes a nice selection of beers that match rather nicely with their sandwiches. I’ve never had to wait long in line to order a sandwich, and as mentioned before, you can also order a loaf of bread to take home. Prices are slightly expensive with sandwiches running $12-13. Totally worth it though.
Natasha’s favorite place for dinner: Lavash
511 Irving | lavash.com
Persian food doesn’t seem to get the attention it deserves as the amazing cuisine that it is. While you can find hundreds of shwarma and wrap stands, countless places selling falafel and humus, most cities have only a small handful of Persian restaurants. I’ve always found this strange since, while the flavors can range into new and interesting territories (sumac is definitely an exciting new flavor for those that haven’t tried it previously), it’s also immediately accessible for anyone, as it’s not spicy or full of strange ingredients. Natasha and I love eating Persian food, and once we found Lavash, it turned into a restaurant we’d have to go to once or twice a month (at least).
Lavash has a lot going for it. Their location is small but very cozy, with a fireplace going in the winter months, in a room that feels alive but never too loud. The owners are warm and friendly, always looking to take care of you and make sure you’re happy. Service is always spot on, attentive and efficient. None of this would be worthwhile if their food weren’t good, and boy is it good.
When you sit down, you’re soon greeted with water and a small complimentary appetizer of feta, tomatoes, cucumbers, Persian basil, mint, parsley, and lavash bread (the flat bread eaten from Armenia to Kashmir that the restaurant takes its name after). The feta that Lavasha sources is amazing, one of the best ever. Making a little sandwich out of feta, tomato, basil, and mint is a great way to get the stomach ready and ignite the appetite.
Natasha’s favorite thing on the menu is their kashke bademjan. Basically an eggplant dip, the only similarity to babaganouj for me is that both are pureed eggplant. Whereas babagonuj is usually smoky and chunky, with a rather earthy taste profile, kashke bademjan is light, a little bit fruity, and delightfully complex. Made with eggplant, garlic (both fried and fresh), lime, saffron, dried mint, and kashke (a kind of whey), pile some of this delightful concoction on a piece of lavash bread and prepare to be wowed. Usually there’s a bit of herbs left over from the free appetizer which go quite well along with the kashke bademjan.
The reason that I keep coming back to Lavash though is the shishlik dish, basically marinated lamb chops grilled to perfection. I’ve never, NEVER, had better lamb than the shishlik at Lavash. This includes all the lamb I’ve had in New Zealand, as well as lamb chops from other restaurants that owe their popularity to their lamb chop dish (such as Vij’s in Vancouver, BC). Marinated with lime and saffron and then grilled to the perfect lamb state of medium rare, these are the tenderest, juiciest, most flavorful lamb chops ever. Typically, we get two orders of shishlik (a total of eight lambchops—we turn into little piggies at Lavash) and one other dish.
A great second dish is their fesenjan, a walnut and pomegranate stew with chicken, as well as their koobideh, a ground beef sausage which looks a bit like a longer (and less spicy) version a seekh kabab. The fesenjan is solid but not the best I’ve ever had (that title goes to an Iranian friend’s mom who would come to visit every few months and cook up a feast). Their koobideh is the best I’ve ever had, as koobideh has a tendency to get dry, but Lavash somehow ensures that their koobideh is forever juicy.
We normally order things family style, which results in one dish layered with lavash and all of your food layered on top (including grilled onions and charred tomatoes) and a plate per person of perfectly fluffy white rice drizzled with saffron butter. The end of the meal always has Natasha and I fighting over the last charred tomatoes and pieces of lavash that has soaked up the drippings from the various grilled meats placed on top.
For drinks they’ve got a decent selection of reasonably priced wines, a few beers on tap, and some great soft drinks. My favorite, the doogh, is a slightly fermented yogurt drink that has mint and sumac stirred into it. When feeling a bit under the weather, their huge pot of mint tea is always welcome. I’m not terribly fond of their desserts but Natasha really likes their subtley rose-flavored ice cream. Since we lived not that far away from Bi-Rite ice cream, I found it hard to justify eating ice cream I wasn’t crazy about with such great options close by.
Prices are pretty reasonable, you can get out of there easily for $20-40 per person, depending on how many drinks you drink and if you pig out and get a lot of shishlik (the most expensive thing on the menu). If you’re planning to go around a typical eating time, call ahead and see if you need a reservation. Since they’re small and popular, you may not be able to get a seat and there’s not much to do around the area. And speaking of the area, parking, like the rest of the City, is atrocious so add a bit of extra time onto your arrival estimate if you’re driving.
Josh’s favorite dinner joint: Burma Superstar
309 Clement Street | burmasuperstar.com
Ah Burma Superstar, such an aptly named restaurant. While it may seem a bit pretentious to call themselves a superstar, they’re actually referring to one of the actual superstars in Myanmar (aka Burma), Aung Sung Su Kyi, aka Daw Suu. Daw Suu (who I was lucky enough to be on the same airplane with when I went to Myanmar a few weeks ago) is a freedom fighter that has been working on bringing equality to Myanmar’s people for decades. She was even democratically elected as the president of Myanmar, only to be put under house arrest by the military junta. Anyway, more on all this Myanmar stuff in my post on Myanmar that I’m now working on, let’s talk about the food!
Having had a chance to sample the tastes and sights of Myanmar for nearly two weeks, I can say that Burma Superstar is really quite special as Burmese restaurants go. That’s not to say that Burmese food in Myanmar isn’t good—quite the contrary, it’s amazing. Burma Superstar, however, serves some pretty amazing dishes, including some dishes I couldn’t find (despite trying) in Myanmar.
Burmese cuisine, for those of you that haven’t had a chance to try it yet, is like the child of a bizarre love triangle of cuisines from Thailand, India, and China. Less sweet than Thai, fewer ingredients than Indian, and spicier than most Chinese dishes, Burmese cuisine is unique and as special as a snowflake (just like you, dear reader).
Seeing as how we’d have to bring anyone that visited us in San Francisco to Burma Superstar, (and Natasha’s addiction to their tea leaf salad) we’ve been there quite a few times and developed a pretty regular eating menu for when it’s just the two of us.
We always start off with the tea leaf salad, the national dish of Myanmar. While there are many different versions of this dish (called laphet thoke in Myanmar), Burma Superstar’s version is light and tasty. A sumptuous mixture of fermented tea leaves, romaine lettuce, tomatoes, fried broad beans, friend lentils, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, jalapeños, lemon, and shrimp powder, mixed in front of you at your table. After being mixed, the salad has a unique flavor to it (the indescribable fermented tea leaf) with a nice crunchiness thanks to all of the nuts and fried beans. Definitely a unique experience (and very different from the salads in Myanmar where not a single one had any lettuce).
Next up is the platha dip. This dish is very similar to roti canai from Singaporean or Malaysian cuisines with a buttery, layered bread that you rip pieces off of and dip into a curried dip with chunks of chicken in it. Very flavorful, and definitely shows off the Indian heritage of the cuisine.
Natasha’s and my favorite dish at Burma Superstar, without question, is their samusa soup. Sometimes I wish I could have this dish last so that I could leave with the flavor still on my lips. This vegetarian soup with pieces of samusa (basically a fried pocket with seasoned potatoes in it, like an Indian samosa but lighter and smaller, more similar in shape and dough to an Ethiopian sambusa), falafel, lentils, mint, chilies, and curry. This soup is the right balance of flavors and complexity, and makes me want to have at least two bowls.
When it’s just the two of us, the three above appetizers are often enough food, but I always have to get my bun tay kauswer. Kauswer (pronounced cow-sway) means noodle in Burmese and is the staple of many of their dishes. I couldn’t find anything like bun tay kauswer in Myanmar (not that I’ve been everywhere), but that doesn’t matter ’cause this dish rocks. Similar to a more soupy khao soy, this dish has a bed of egg noodles covered in a curry gravy with chicken, onions, cilantro, lemon, and a sliced boiled egg. Mixed together, this is a beautiful noodle meal, and my favorite entree there.
Other dishes that we get when with larger parties are their chili lamb (which tastes like it has some sichuan peppercorns in it), mint chicken (spicy and so flavorful), and garlic noodles (don’t get these on a date if you want a kiss at the end of it!). Their rainbow and ginger salads are also great, but not as great as their tea leaf salad.
For drinks, you can get a number of bottled asian beers as well as their special Burma cooler, which is a mixture of lemonade, ginger beer, and beer. Low in alcohol but rather refreshing. For non-alcoholoic drinks, their young coconut is always tasty and they have a nice selection of hot and iced teas. Dessert is also available but I don’t think I’ve ever had space for it.
Pricing is rather reasonable, a bit more expensive than a typical asian restaurant but way cheaper (and tastier) than most of the western-style meals available in San Francisco.
The biggest problem with Burma Superstar though is the wait. On popular nights, if you just show up, expect a two to three hour wait. The best solution is to call them at (415) 387-2147 before you head over and ask them to put your name on the list. They’ll give you an estimate, but since the wait staff don’t have a crystal ball, don’t be upset if you find out that they’re off by an hour (or more). Just go over there, find some parking, let the host know that you’re there (it’s important to check in to make sure they don’t skip your name on the list) and then go to a bar close by. Drink a few beers, relax, and don’t sweat the time. The food will be amazing and you’ll have a good time. If you want, you can get a few of their signature dishes at B* Bar, which is down the block but seldom has a wait. I think that’s for a reason though and I don’t feel that their quality is up to snuff as with their parent restaurant. Furthermore, their dish selection is different and not as many hits as with Burma Superstar. Another alternative is Mandalay, not too far away, as they take reservations and serve up food that’s much more on par with options found within Myanmar. Still, if you only have time for one Burmese restaurant, make it Burma Superstar.
All of our other favorites
San Francisco is a great place to eat, and I couldn’t limit this list to only a small handful of restaurants. Here’s a few other places that we’ve been going to for our eats:
- Favorite Ice Cream: Bi-Rite, especially the salted caramel, chocolate with peanut butter, malted vanilla, and the dark chocolate
- Favorite Grocery Store: Bi-Rite, especially the Olympic Provisions Saucisson, Phoenix Pasta, and chocolate chip cookies
- Favorite Kouign Amman: B. Patisserie
- Favorite Korean: Manna. OMG, their wings. Like, epic. And better than San Tung. Seriously.
- Favorite Thai: Chabaa Thai, the one on Irving. The one in the Tenderloin is fine, but not as extensive a menu. Get the Isaan style sausage and the Som Tom salad (and be sure to ask for things spicy)
- Favorite Pizza: Tony’s Pizza Napoletana
- Favorite Xiao Long Bao: Shanghai Dumpling King
- Favorite Sheng Jian Bao: Shanghai Flavor Shop (in Sunnyvale, quite a drive, but worth it if you’re down that way)
- Favorite Sichuan: Chef Zhaos (in mountain view, again worth it if you’re in the south bay)
- Favorite Indian: Vik’s Chaat Cafe (in Berkley) (runner up: Pakwan)
- Favorite Beer Bar: Toronado
- Favorite Sausage Joint: Rosemunde
- Best Sausage: Lao-style sausage at Cafe Vientiane (in Oakland)
- Favorite Cocktail Bar: Wilson & Wilson (runners up: Bourbon & Branch, Trickdog, Bloodhound)
- Favorite Espresso: Four Barrel
- Favorite Pour-over: Philz (runners up: Blue Bottle & Four Barrel)
- Other notables: Kokkari Estratorio, Frances, Locanda
Hope this list helps you find some great places to chow in the City. If you’ve got some other places that we should try out, feel free to list them in the comments!