In September, I’m moving to Los Angeles to go back to school. I’m not an L.A. person. I hate the Lakers, and I don’t like driving. Huge, expansive, smog-clogged cities I can’t wrap my head around make me want to stay home, not go out. That said, I’m warming up, doing my best. I’m fixing to buy a car and invest in less embarrassing sunglasses. A few days a week, I may even trade in my basketball high-tops for a wetsuit and a Costco surfboard. We’ll see. I know Los Angeles is a special food city — from Koreatown barbecue joints, to tamales at Grand Central Market, to Armenian chicken joint chains and Indian regional cuisine in Artesia. Immense, spread-out, far harder to make sense of, sort out, and “get” than San Francisco, a relatively tiny, practically universally food-obsessed, and media-rich place, Los Angeles poses challenges to a dedicated chaser of delicious things, particularly one accustomed to walking to his favorite restaurants. Still, if food doesn’t get me out of the house, nothing will. I will be a hermit, confined to my desk, writing about whatever I see drifting past my window. I’m leaving San Francisco. I want to come back, I intend to, but I know, either way, its time for me to log a few years in a new setting. Perhaps doing so will make me appreciate this city even more.
There’s nothing like leaving a place to make you want to make sure you know it before you go. For some people, that means tearing through favorite shops, haunting beloved beaches, and catching up with old friends. For me, that means eating. To that end, I’ve made a list of a few things I need to eat between now and September, dishes I associate with the eight years I’ve spent here. Importantly, I’m not eating in order to remember my favorite flavors (though I do that too). Instead, I’m trying to leave town only after taking stock of the time I’ve spent here, and for someone whose evolving eating habits keep time as well as any clock, keeping the hallmarks at the forefront of my mind simultaneously keep me connected to the people I’ve known and the places I’ve frequented. I’m not speaking of my favorite restaurants in San Francisco, the institutions, the destinations, the places I’ve gone to for special occasions. My fairly recent dinner at Coi looms infinitely larger as a meal than the countless times I, as a lunch-breaking paralegal, bought a salad at Foccacia on Sacramento St., but the fact I ate at Foccacia so often means I do have a lot of time tied up there, a period of my life, really, several years during which I ate one of the establishment’s salads nearly once a week.
Tasty as it is, Ti Couz‘s Salade de Maree is similarly not one of the best things I’ve eaten in San Francisco. It is, however, one of the first things I ate when I arrived. In late 2002, my roommate, a friend from college, and I would go there for brunch, sit outside, drink Bloody Marys, and munch through massive bowls of rice, greens, capers, grape tomatoes, tiny soft scallops, baby shrimp, hard-boiled eggs, cauliflower, green beans, and strips of seared tuna. The dressing was light and lemony. Some people wake up with coffee; I prefer alcohol and acidity.
When I think of the pizza I have enjoyed here, Pizzeria Delfina is tops, particularly a special pie with green garlic and speck they ran last Spring. Nonetheless, for every molten Panna and sweet, blistered Margherita I have downed at lovely lunches and dinners with friends and family, I’ve eaten a dozen slices without a hint of artisanal pretense at Serrano’s. Serrano’s sits on 21st, not far from Valencia. Until Fall of 2004, I lived a block away, on Valencia and 22nd, and during that time, the tiny take-out spot was my go-to: Long, floppy, free-form double-slices festooned with an infinitely customizable array of toppings and cooked to order. The routine — stepping up, asking for a slice, and rattling off the toppings you want — encourages ordering hubris — say, extra garlic, spinach, barbecued chicken, corn, feta cheese…
In 2004 — or was it 2005 — I played my first show in San Francisco, a mid-week affair at the Hotel Utah Saloon. Over the next couple of years, I played the SoMa venue at least a half-dozen times. I liked — and still like — the bar’s long, shiny bar, miniature balcony, and prow-like opening into the tiny music room, but a lot of what made playing the Utah so fun was having a bite before the show, specifically an excellent house-made veggie burger patty on a well-toasted bun with good, crispy fries. I associate the Utah’s veggie burger with getting started playing music with my best friends in San Francisco, which makes it something to remember, even if I’ve had plenty of great real burgers on other occasions.
Taqueria Vallarta made me switch from burritos to tacos, at least on occasion. Vallarta’s tacos are tiny, inexpensive, and greasy, topped with concentrated, grill-stewed meats and soft onion strips cooked down to their essence. The meats are arranged in pinwheels along the inside of a silver, bowl-like surface. They bleed into each other, cabeza tangled up with chicken, chorizo mussing up the pastor. Tellingly, I don’t think I’ve ever eaten these tacos for lunch or dinner, but for the three years I left at the edge of Potrero Hill, near General Hospital, they were the only snack I had.
Like a lot of San Franciscans, I shop at farmer’s markets, but I’ve never been devoted just out of a desire to obtain nice produce directly from farmers. A lot of why I love getting up early — even before a morning basketball game — to poke through the stalls at Alemany has to do with the ready-to-eat wares. Yes, Alemany’s row of low-profile tents can’t touch the Ferry Building’s well-publicized armada of awnings, but the prices there are accordingly higher, the clientele less diverse, and the vibe generally tonier and less regular-feeling. When I started going to Alemany, I ate breakfast as I shopped. Usually — still — I buy a cold samosa from the Sukhi’s stand, and gnaw at it as I rummage through bins for unpocked sweet potatoes and fresh-looking chard. It’s never the most perfectly seasoned samosa I have eaten, but for me, it trumps any muffin in town.
I look back at this list I have just written and laugh. For someone who has dashed all over town to taste new things, my regular noshes don’t stray far from where I’ve lived. I’ve been all over the Bay Area, but nearly all of my abodes have been in the Mission. Even as far as fairly inexpensive eats go, I’ve had great Thai at Lers Ros in the Tenderloin, amazing Lao in Oakland at Vientian Cafe, soup dumplings at Yank Sing and Shanghai Dumpling King in the Richmond, a stunningly tasty torta ahogada at Mi Barrio in Fruitvale, and dosas at, well, Dosa, but when it comes to making sense of what I associate with my time here, these five entries, mundane, largely forgettable, are the tastes that came to mind. Even if they don’t reflect my favorites, they do reflect the person I’ve been — busy, inclined to eat for convenience, often within a few strides of my apartment. When I started writing about food in 2008, I started eating better on a regular basis. The work hasn’t been lucrative by any means, but I eat richly, which reminds me: That might be why I got into it in the first place.