Food Secrets from La Cocina’s Caleb Zigas

| September 24, 2010 | 0 Comments
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Caleb Zigas
Photo credit: Barry Zigas

Caleb Zigas is the Acting Executive Director of La Cocina and lives nearby on a block that he says “used to be called the Mission. Now it’s Noe Valley.” He organizes the programming for the business incubator, and is often called upon for media interviews. Among Zigas’ favorite foods are chicken soup, steamed pork buns, molletes (a bread roll popular in both Mexico and the Andalusia region of Spain) and nearly anything with miso. Zigas has been working in the food industry since a starter job at his all time favorite spot, Ruppert’s Restaurant in his native town of Washington DC. He is fully fluent in Spanish, which was strengthened by a brief “nightmare” vegan macrobiotic cooking job in Costa Rica. Other culinary stints have included weekend work as a butcher, as well as waiting tables and managing the front of the house. Zigas answered questions about his favorite eating spots from Bay Area Bites via email and phone interview.

The thirty-year old Zigas likes Zuni, but “only after 9 PM. I like to go with a good friend, or a couple, and start with a half-bottle of white wine and some oysters. Next, go with a full bottle of red and either a burger or the chicken. It’s quintessential San Francisco. Right in the middle of the city, big glass windows looking on sincere urban space, a beautiful open kitchen, and a couple of real steals on the wine list. And the food’s always just what it’s supposed to be.”

Also on the list is Yuet Lee: “It’s in different hands now, but they’re still holding it down. I’ve been going there since I moved here and worked for Isa Restaurant and Luke (Sung) would take us there for staff meals. It’s open late, and the food is always great. And the North Beach scene adds some sincere color. I don’t miss the salt and pepper shrimp (eat the heads) and the calamari is some of the best in town. Otherwise, I always let the staff order, they know it much better than I do.”

For Mexican/Salvadoran dishes, Zigas heads to El Zocalo, on Mission Street. “It’s 2 blocks from my house, which helps, but they’re an institution. Burn-your-mouth fresh pupusas for those kind of nights, bowls of caldo de pollo or res for when it’s cold and foggy. And cold beer too. I like the post-Rocapulco crowd and the old-school service. I always get the plantains too, just because it’s awesome that Salvadoran plantains come with cream and beans too.” As a back-up, or alternative, El Gran Taco Loco up the street “is probably my favorite taqueria; open until 2, brightly lit with some real Mexican dishes hidden in the menu and great carnitas.”

For shopping options, Zigas confesses that: “I’m going to cheat, but do it honestly to start.” (Several La Cocina vendors sell products there.) He likes to go to Alemany Market, because “it’s the most sincere Farmers’ Market I’ve ever been to. A great mix of organic and non-organic, of all kinds of farmers and then people making a living selling food. I love the Italian farmers in the back where you can get cardoon when it’s in season, the oysters and Dungeness crab vendors and the produce is just so varied. It feels like what we all talk about farmers’ markets feeling like; a community space, a real space, and a space where people make a living. The folks selling the Afghani dips are the best salespeople in the city. Though it’s probably worth revealing that the following are all La Cocina program participants, it’s also easy to say that we pushed to get into Alemany because we believe in it, and not the other way around. El Huarache Loco does some of the best Mexican in town, and she’s always got handmade mole. Sabores del Sur’s alfajores are ridiculous with coffee to start and if you can make Estrellita’s Snacks smile, you can probably consider it an awesome day. I like Good Foods Barbecue too, so don’t miss it there.”

La Palma on 24th Street is another culinary find on Zigas list. He says, “It’s the real deal. It’s in San Francisco. They’re making masa. What more can you want out of a place? Legitimately delicious tortillas, fast service and now they’ve got seating outside? Done.” Another store with ethnic treasures of a different vein is Semirami’s Imports on Mission St. “The hookah display in the window is what got me there the first time, but it was the olives, the spices and the service that has me coming back. The man knows everything about food, he’s kind and the olives are off the hook. Best place in the city for pine nuts too.”

Going to Dennis Leary’s Sentinel is a family affair for Zigas. “My grandpa, after 30 years in SF, has decided two things: 1) if people walked like they walked in NY, everything here would be better. 2) Boudin’s has the best lunch deal in town. The only way I can get him to change his mind is if I buy him lunch at Sentinel. Every time he tells Dennis about the deal at Boudin’s and every time Dennis smiles. It’s awesome. I love what he can do out of such a small space, It’s inspirational.”

His favorite 3rd date night spot is Noe Valley’s La Ciccia. “It’s probably not a first-date spot, maybe more like 3rd. But it’s got that right mix of nice, but not overdoing it, you can stay forever, or just share a quick meal. I’m a sharer on a date, so I like to move through all of the courses. Probably the octopus to start, unless there’s something else ridiculously delicious looking on the menu, and moving on from there. I’m a notorious over-orderer, but I always seem to make it through. I let them (Lorena or the servers, not my date) pick the wine for me, and they always do an awesome job of it. And I can walk home. That’s important on a good date. :)” For a first date spot, Zigas likes to try out Katana-Ya Ramen, because, “You have to love the Ramen.”

Mitchell’s is where Zigas goes for an ice cream fix. He says, “I only feel guilty because of how much/ how often I go there. And even then it’s more of a gym-related guilt than my normal Jewish-mother induced guilt. I just can’t believe what an awesome mix of San Francisco that place is. Taking a number and standing outside on a cold foggy night goes against everything East Coast in me, but I do it at least once a week. I’m into the Chocolate Caramel Crackle. If you can put it in a waffle cone and chocolate dip it, well, do. Otherwise, have the ice cream sandwich.” A runner-up guilty pleasure for Zigas is the bacon-wrapped hot dogs, found throughout the Mission. “But only do I feel guilty when I order two at once.” He also loves Henry’s Hunan on Church Street because, “It’s always good.”

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About the Author ()

Mary Ladd is a freelance writer and event professional based in her hometown of San Francisco. Her writing has been featured in SF Weekly, Tasting Table, the San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere. She has shuttled Anthony Bourdain around town and mastered the art of properly loading a catering van in a flash. Mary has eaten the world’s hottest burger and loves to cook and eat. Follow her at @mladdfood