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Jan 28, 2002 05:10 PM

San Francisco - City of mediocre ribs, sushi, dimsum... (PLEASE HELP!!!??!)

  • r

OK chowhounds please please advise,

I just moved to this city and need a culinary pep talk
and quick. While i wound never say that SF is a lousy food city, my experiances have not validated the hype that i heard across the land about this holy land.

I gave my name and waited patiantly at Ton Kiang on Geary; Good, but does ungreasy and fresh validate spending twenty five dollars a person on dimsum? In Manhatten it would make it empty.

I gave away my change on the way to Tu Lan; Should tasty and cheap make a vietnamese restaurant so wonderful that it wins rave reviews for eternity. In Queens it would make it dependable.

Truly mediteranian had pricey if slightly above average fallafel that were tasty and scraply shawarma that would pale in the shadow of any one of the cheap lebanese restaurants in Montreal. The next day I sat on a lit patio on Filmore and ate the only "shawarma" I ever had that was flavored only by grease for 12.95! I guess I know why Truly Mediteranian is held as an sf jewel.

As for BBQ: Brothers Barbeque had Korean barbeque that could be on any block in Fort Lee, NJ and the brother and laws bbq on divisidaro had faty ribs and overcooked chicken in a bland brown sause that would make it only in the most desolate of South Carolina truck stops.

I waited on line to try the chopped liver and maza balls at the famous Jewish Delicetessen... Oh wait, there are none.

I skepticly waited on line at ebisu sushi: A combination plate unvieled a delicious garnish of tiny fish slices atop rice that was being disguised as nigiri and turned out to be by meal. Should moderate portions of meltingly soft tuna and tender (if slightly too cold) salmon pieces formulate a best of San Francosco sushi restaurant?

What is it about this city that elevates a genuinely acceptable restaurant to a bonefied institution? The only reason I am so harsh is that everywhere in the country including NY, they say the bay is the supreme food city. SF is definintly not a bad food city- its above average. But it took me and my friend 12 months and 20 pounds to drive from our hometown (NYC) to San Francisco and all i heard in every city is the majesty of San Francisco.

So far I found a bakery on Irving and 9th that has the best baguette in the country (finaly) and was the only diner at Mas-San sushi, a small sushi bar on 8th and Clement that had cheap sushi as good as Ebisu. I also ate delecious beef brisket for 6 dollars at Tommys Joint better then my Nana used to make.

Please chowhounds, in a city as famous as San Francisco where the "best of the bay" winners are supposed to often double as the best of America winners, help me; contemplate the good places--i mean the places that would make SF deserve such a reputation and let me know. Have i hit some overrated joints, or is the nation simply wrong about this city?

- Ryan

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  1. Dearest heart: I could SERIOUSLY do without the "things were sooooo much better in NYC" attitude that makes SF-ers want to puke. This is a very expensive and rough place to live -- if you're not into it, move away! Right now! And let us have your apartment! Transplanted New Yorkers are so vomitously stuck on their ex-city, and it's annoying as all get out.

    That being said: no, there ARE no good delis in SF. Max's is OK but if you feel like paying $14 for a turkey sandwich you must make more than I do. The mistake I think you're making is looking for the same kinds of places you find in NYC. Nope. We have different wonderful things. Unbelievable Asian food, (particularly Hakka, Szechuan, Vietnamese) wonderful African food, sublime Mexican food. If you'd like recommendations in each of these categories I'm happy to give them to you. but only if you promise not to insult our lovely, yummy city in the context of asking for help. SF-ers tend to adore our city and we're very sensitive when newbies show up and start loudly and unfavorably comparing our city to their ex-hometown.

    8 Replies
    1. re: Superfly

      Thank you.

      1. re: Superfly
        Leslie Brenner

        While I think you're right to suggest Ryan seek out the kinds of foods San Francisco excels in, rather than, say, deli, in his defense, he did discuss two underwhelming sushi experiences and a disappointing Vietnamese experience. I do, however, understand why you bristled.

        Since I'm about to make a trip up your way this week, I'd sure (for my own selfish reasons) love to hear someone meet Ryan's challenge!

        1. re: Leslie Brenner

          The thing is that his challenge sounds like he's saying simply "prove to me SF is a food city." How can we do that when we don't know exactly what kind of food Ryan (or you) is looking for? Gimme a category and I'll give you a recommendation.

          I just object, now and forever, to those who come to us from other cities and whine whine whine about what they left behind. This place has gorgeous weather, stunning scenery, friendly natives, fascinating culture, etc. etc. Not to mention the *wonderful food!* Yes, it has its downsides -- every place does. But on balance this is an incredible, vital, exciting place to live and I feel lucky every single day to be here. Which is why I get annoyed when my true love SF is dissed by some New Yawker.

          1. re: superfly

            I just think Ryan is a bit homesick. When you're feeling this way, you want comfort foods that remind you of home -- hence the constant comparison of dishes to those he had in NY.

            Ryan, I think you have to move on a bit -- experiment -- try new foods, different dishes from the ones you had in NY. Open yourself to new tastes and have fun.

            Here are some recommendations:

            Mexican burritos, tacos, etc. -- La Corneta in Glen Park on Diamond St. or in the Mission on 24th St. or any of the zillion tacquerias and taco trucks mentioned in posts here over the past few months.

            Handmade tortillas and wonderful tacos, etc. -- La Palma Mexicatessen on 24th St.

            Dim sum -- South Sea Seafood Village on Irving near 15th Ave. or for really inexpensive dim sum takeout TK's on Irving near 23rd or 24th Ave. Also, on the Peninsula, Fook Yuen or Seafood Harbor in Millbrae. This area of Chowhound is also a wonderful place to look for recommendations for Chinese dinner places.

            Thai food -- Jitra Thai on Ocean Ave. in the Lakeside Village neighborhood or Regent Thai on Church and 29th St.

            Noodles and really good Chinese bbq meats and poultry(with a Vietnamese touch) and excellent rice plates -- New Hai Ky on Irving at 23rd Ave. -- try the orange duck noodle soup with wonton (ask for the "thick" noodles) or Cheung Hing (lots of branches in SF and the Peninsula including one on Irving, one on Noriega, and one in Millbrae.)

            Ice cream -- some of the best and most unusual ice cream flavors you'll ever taste are available at Mitchell's on San Jose at 29th St. or at Marco Polo on Taraval.

            You might also consider just walking along Clement St. or Irving St. or Mission St. (and the area around 16th and Valencia) and checking out some of the restaurants in the area for yourself, or just check out the listings here over the past few months . I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.


            1. re: Nancy Berry

              re: inexpensive dim sum takeout TK's on Irving near 23rd or 24th...could you be refering to TC pastry?

              1. re: Limster

                You are absolutely right, Limster. It's TC Pastry. Senior moment, I guess. Anyway, it's cheap and good takeout dim sum. There are a few tables inside the shop, but it's mostly takeout.


              2. re: Nancy Berry

                Trying to get the low down on good restaurants in SF. We are going to be in town for Chinese New Year in Feb. We enjoy good Mexican food, but have no access here in small town British Columbia.

                1. re: nelson

                  Hey, Nelson!

                  I can't help you specifically with tamales (I'm sure someone will), but the best Mexican food in SF is in the area called the Mission District (named for Mission Dolores). Don't worry about it not being "downtown" -- it is very easy to get to "the Mission" by public transit: just hop on BART (westbound toward Colma or Daly City) at one of the downtown stations and get off at 24th Street in just a few minutes.

                  I particularly like the Mission in the day time -- it's one of the sunniest parts of the city, and the palm trees and the bright colors make it look almost tropical.

                  Here's a link to an earlier tamale discussion -- a couple of these are right near 24th St. BART:


        2. Don't take this personally, Ryan. You just hit a nerve.

          I admit I'm prejudiced -- I'm a third generation born in the Bay Area. But people who complain that they can't find a good NY deli, or a great Middle Eastern Restaurant, or great BBQ (even assuming that this is true) and therefore SF isn't a great food city are totally missing the point.

          What I rarely, rarely, rarely hear discussed here is that the Bay Area has it's own cuisine. Sure "California cuisine" has become a cliche, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't exist and we shouldn't be proud of it. Fresh local ingredients prepared in simple ways that highlight the the quality of the ingredients is what makes the food scene unique, and yet people complain about how it's not like NY or London, or whereever.

          It's stupid. It's like complaining that Hong Kong isn't a great food city because it doesn't have a great KC style BBQ joint or that Paris isn't a great food city because the dim sum is only so-so.

          It astonishes me that many of the people who come here from around the country and around the world come here with the idea that they should eat "ethnic" food and are rather dismissive of the indiginous culinary traditions. Maybe as few as 20 years ago you couldn't get good ethnic food in most US cities, but that's less true now. Certainly I wouldn't expect that the foods of ethnic groups outside the Pacific Rim would be any better than they would be in the east -- that's just common sense.

          Maybe it's our own fault -- we're ashamed of the cliche and too quick to downplay the "Californianess" of the food. We describe is as French, or Italian, or Asian -influenced, and people rightfully note that it's not "authentic" to those cuisines. Maybe we should stop making a fetish of "authenticity" since I'm not sure that any cuisine uprooted from both its culture and its original ingredients can ever be "authentic." Maybe I'm not expressing myself very well and someone can help me [g].

          The Bay Area has good-to-great food options in almost every imaginable cuisine plus, and amazing diversity of foods and cultures (sure the BBQ is good in North Carolina -- if you like North Carolina BBQ -- but how's the dim sum?), it has a culinary tradition of its own. That's what makes it a great food city.

          And if people want New York Deli food, I suggest they look for it in New York, where most people have never heard of Meyer lemons, let alone have them growing their backyard.

          3 Replies
          1. re: Ruth Lafler
            Leslie Brenner

            Your point is very interesting and well-taken, Ruth. But as a person who recently moved from NYC to LA, I've remarked that while much of the so-called ethnic food, especially Chinese, Thai, Japanese, and Mexican, is far better (generally speaking) than what you find in NY (of course there are cuisines that are better in NY, such as middle eastern and a number of others), the higher-end restaurants, those that serve what you refer to as California cuisine, but include French (and other Mediterranean) and Asian influences, (those that can also be called contemporary American) are generally a notch or two lower in quality than contemporary American places in NYC. That is in L.A., anyway, and in my very humble opinion. And I feel I'm pretty unbiased, as a California native (25+ years) who spent 15 in NYC.

            I feel that cities go through very positive times in terms of their food energy and creativity, and then less positive times. NYC's was in a real high during the mid 1980s when I moved there, then in my opinion it went through kind of a food slump during the late 80s through mid 90s, and then it came roaring back, and now it's amazing. San Francisco's well-deserved reputation has a long and illustrious history, but I've certainly noticed ups and downs, observed during my five year stint living in the Bay Area, and assorted visits since. Sorry to be so long-winded, but do you, Ruth, and others feel that San Francisco is up to its usual high food standards at the moment? Is it a good time for food in San Francisco (and the Bay Area in general) right now? I'm not talking about the quality of ingredients, which is always A-1 in SF. I'm talking about that more subjective, less easy-to-define synthesis that happens in the kitchen and shows up on the plate. I'd really love to know what you think.

            1. re: Leslie Brenner

              Interesting question. I can't say that I eat out enough to tell, but my impression is that you could be right -- that there was an economic slump in the early '90s that drove away a lot of talent followed by a big boom, which meant that the restaurant business inflated at a rate that outstripped talent and creativity and there were a lot of "outsiders" on both sides of the restaurant equation (restarateurs and diners) that diluted the "Californianess" of the food scene (one example of that could be the sudden ubiquitousness of non-local luxury ingredients like fois gras). Also, the growth of the food scenes in other cities (Las Vegas, for example) has siphoned off some of the talent and energy.

              If what I posit -- and this was just off the top of my head -- is true, then this period of retrenching could actually be a good thing. The wheat will be separated from the chaff, there will of necessity be new ideas, and people will be in the restaurant business in the Bay Area because they the have a passion for region and its foods, not because it's a hot place to make money.

              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                Well, a lot of those chefs were using Sonoma duck foie gras, which IS a local product. I agree, though--it definitely felt that a lot of the restaurants that hit big in the mid-to-late 90s were all serving the same menu. Chiogga beet salad, Niman pork chop, Liberty duck breast, creme brulee....And did I mention the garlic mashed potatoes and sauteed dino kale?

          2. Welcome to SF, Ryan. Here's the input of a transplant who's been here for nearly 15 years about the local food scene:

            The dim sum is good here, though perhaps not as good as in Vancouver, Toronto or perhaps even NY (I had a good meal at the 888 last year). I wouldn't say it's bad though, you'll have to try the best half dozen places to settle on your personal favorite.

            As far as vietnamese, the best places are probably in San Jose, home to a large community.

            Middle eastern: quite poor overall, one of the weak points of the local scene. Montreal, which you mention and which I know well, has in contrast the best mideastern food in N America. You will find absolutely nothing in the same class as Daou or Alep here, or backlava like Mahrouse's (arguably the best in the western hemisphere).

            BBQ: good scene in the east bay (Oakland mostly): Flint's, Dougs, Everett & Jones, KC BBQ. Also several Korean BBQ joints down Telegraph ave which my Korean friends endorse.

            Jewish delis: not an local forte, unfortunately.

            Sushi: Ebisu used to be great, perhaps it is a victim of its success. Just like dim sum, there are many other great places and you will eventually settle on your personal favorite.

            Overall, SF is still a great culinary mecca, with tremendous variety, but the spectrum of local offerings isn't quite all-encompassing.

            9 Replies
            1. re: garçon

              I think a lot of people have already expressed the view that you can't come to a city and then get pissed off because it doesn't have the "comfort foods" you remember from home. But Ryan hit a couple nerves for me in bashing both SF and New Jersey. Yeah, I'm from Exit 114 and 98 originally, and it's tiresome how people have to compare stuff to NJ whenever they want to make the point that something sucks. Now, I'm not going to haul off and say that NJ is a culinary mecca. As an avid home cook and fan of eating, I died and went to heaven when I moved here. But I do miss Jersey tomatoes and corn in the summer, pizza, fresh cut fries from Martell's on the Point Pleasant Boardwalk, and a fried egg, cheese, and pork roll sandwich at 3:30am at any Jersey diner. Italian food in NJ ain't bad either, eh Guido? So I'm echoing the sentiment of others when I say, "Stop whining about what you can't have, and let us know when you finally find something to like." And since I'd like you to have something good to talk about, my suggestion of the moment is a burger at Absinthe with fries and all the condiments and one of their killer cocktails. The Coq Au Vin is great too. But don't go looking for a cheap meal. Oh and one more thing, speaking of BBQ. My husband's lived in the South and eaten BBQ in Memphis, Nashville, Savannah, etc. Guess where he had the best ribs of his life? Marlin's Cafe in Pt. Pleasant, NJ. See, you never can tell...

              1. re: Babyfork

                Ay Rocco... lay awff da kid, huh?

                I've gotten used to people knocking New Jersey. I lift weights to get myself in shape for the next time some wag tells me the "two weeks in New Jersey" joke.

                Don't say NJ isn't a culinary mecca. It is. Ever wonder why there aren't very many Perkins/IHOPs or very many Olive Gardens in NJ? Because we (and I speak as someone who grew up at exits 11 and 127, though I hate identifying myself by exits and perpetuating that stupid joke) have incredible diners like nowhere else (having grown up six blocks from the Reo makes one pine for diners when on the Left Coast), incredible Italian food, and Eastern European food like you can't believe.

                New Jersey is a mecca for those who love Portuguese food (Newark Ironbound), Swedish bakeries (southern NJ, near Swedesboro), Indian food (ever been to Iselin and North Edison?). Boardwalk fries with vinegar and waffles with ice cream, salt water taffy, clams, and the best damn tomatoes in the entire world bar none... that's NJ.

                It's annoying sometimes having to search for great pizza when I'm used to having incredible pizza on every street corner. That's the Jersey I miss.

                It's a great food mecca...don't youse kid y'selves.

                1. re: PRSMDave
                  Burke and Wells

                  I'm another New Jersey native transplanted to San Francisco. I've written comparing and contrasting the two on this board before, so I won't deal with that question again.

                  This is probably going to get burried, way down here, but I have a theory to advance that perhaps says something about the "region" and "authenticity" questions that crop up on this board frequently.

                  Food is area, yes. But food is people, and I find that trumps area. Can you spot the preparer in the dish? Is the owner's spirit lingering in the decor they designed and built, no matter how prefab or inexpensive?

                  I don't think of "New Jersey pizza," I think of Sal, owner of Sal's Pizza, where I grew up. Sure he's in NJ, sure he's got those local ingredients, but Sal is Sal, and he's no artist, but his place and his food are only to be found at his old address a few blocks from my high school. Sawa sushi here in the South Bay is all about the man and his wife--they ARE the experience. Thus I never find myself thinking about "the great sushi in the Bay Area," but rather I think about Steve Sawa and his wife. Even when I contemplate visiting another place, like the oft-recommended Hamma-Ko, I'm eager to experience the people and place, since if all I want is great fresh fish I know where to get that, clearly.

                  Folks have noticed I'm gregarious in restaurants. I want to meet the owner, the chef, the servers. I want to see if there's friendships to be had, information to share. Even if I never speak to anyone but the waiter, and even then only to order, I'm trying hard to "hear" the food, the place and the service--to have a conversation with the creators through these elements.

                  I'm moving soon to San Diego, against my will, I fear. I'll miss the familiarity and convenience of having all these favorite places, but I'll be thinking of it as a collection of places, rather than an "area" per se. It's a subtle difference, perhaps, and it doesn't extend to ingredients, which I know to be area-centric and seasonal.

                  I suppose this makes me a romantic, and I can feel when it betrays my "objectivity" (note the quotes) when it comes to reviewing and rating restaurant experiences. I don't mind--when my bubble is burst it's a learning experience.

                  Thus though I miss NJ places like Arthur's steaks, Thomas Sweet's ice creams, Jerusalem Pizza and the glatt deli next to it, Sal's Pizza and the Sub Shop in Princeton, though I miss China Bull and Bear in Hillsdale and brunch at the Ho-Ho-Kus in, though I miss MY FATHER, I don't actually miss "New Jersey food," because I never cultivated a sense of it.

                  And when I move next month, I'll miss the glories of Sawa Sushi and the pho at California Noodle House in Sunnyvale, the Cheese Shop in Carmel, Cafe Kati and Bay Bread and the croque madame at the Curbside Cafe and countless others in San Francisco, and heavens knows I'm gonna miss this board and its get-togethers, but I won't miss "SF Bay Area Food" becuase, in the same way, I never truly cultivated a sense of it.

                  All this is a little subtle--after all, what is a food culture or an area but the sum of its places, climate, ingredients, time and people? Perhaps I'm arguing in circles. Still, this perception comes to my aid, because I find myself less attached to an area--which leaves me free to get excited about the people I'll meet in my new home, San Diego. And I know whenever I visit the Bay Area I'll have places I want to go, that I know and love.



                  1. re: Burke and Wells

                    T-Sweets! I miss their bittersweet hot fudge, getting a fresh strawberry "mix in" with their sweet cream ice cream...I also miss fried clams along the boardwalk, going crabbing for blue crabs "down the shore", the excellent pizza from LaStrada's in Millburn, Carvel ice cream cakes, cherry cheesecake and coffee at any diner, and yes--the best damn beefsteak tomatoes you'd ever want to eat. while I don't really ever want to live full-time in New Jersey again, there was some good food to be had there, as Rocco attests.

                  2. re: PRSMDave

                    Maybe I have a blind spot, but this is the second time people have complained about someone "knocking Jersey" when I have been unable to find where this supposed knocking occurred.

                    Do people from Jersey automatically assume that when Jersey is mentioned in a food context it is being knocked? Maybe New Jerseyites and Bay Arean's have a heretofore unknown common bond: we go on the defensive when NYC types talk about our food [vbg].

                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                      Absolutely, we hate it when people from New York say anything about us... it's ingrained. :) (Once upon a few years ago, David Letterman put up a billboard on the West Side Highway that said "Attention motorists: New Jersey is closed.")

                      It's probably a gut reaction... New Jersey is so rarely portrayed in a good light by the rest of the country that the likelihood of a comment being positive isn't very high.

                      In any case, it was a different poster who accused Ryan of knocking New Jersey (just reread the original post that spawned this and the only mention of NJ is of commonplace Korean BBQ). My post was occasioned by the poster who said NJ isn't a culinary mecca.

                      1. re: PRSMDave

                        I tried to make it clear in my message that NJ has some wonderful food to offer. I could have gone on and on about it, but that wasn't the point of my message. But, unfortunately, as a NJ native I still don't think you could describe it as a "culinary mecca." What I meant by that was a place that draws people because of its food. You just don't hear people champing at the bit to go to NJ to sample the cuisine. Anyway, since I'm here again I'll add some more to PRSMDave's list. The subs. Along with pizza, a good sub is something you just can't get here. The guys at Jersey Mike's may have not seen me for 6 months, but when I walk in they don't have to ask for my order. Mike's started in 1957 in Pt. Pleasant and they've started a chain. I'm hoping a Jersey Mike's makes it out here real soon. Also, I'm going to say it again: Jersey tomatoes. They are simply the best. Cluck U. makes great wings. And hey, Dave, I could have been serving you those fries on the boardwalk if you had any 10 years ago. Ah, those summer jobs...

                    2. re: PRSMDave

                      "the best damn tomatoes in the entire world bar none"?

                      Have you been in Sicily, Tunisia, Greece or Lebanon in midsummer? Or if you haven't renewed your passport in a while, how about the Berkeley farmer's market in august?

                      Fuggedaboutit! ;)

                      1. re: garçon

                        Yes to all of those places in the midsummer except Lebanon, and I live off Berkeley farmers market tomatoes in the summer.

                2. I think you fell into the trap of going after the obvious hypey favorites in the media. Don't be deceived by the "Best ofs"-- there's better stuff to be had. I think you've drawn some fire because many folks don't consider those places as the best (or near).

                  Here is my tip of the iceberg (browse and search through the archives -- I can't possibly sumarize here):

                  Sushi: Hama-Ko I can vouch for personally. Other places that have been mentioned a lot here, Kabuto, Hamano, Murasaki. I'm going to be missing lots of places. Browse through the SF message board or do a search. (Ebisu has decent rolls, but the sushi isn't very good.)

                  Go to Maki in Japantown if you want excellent cooked japanese food -- the salmon oyako wappa meshi (salmon and roe steamed with rice in a bamboo basket) is my favorite.

                  Dim Sum. Much better options in the penninsula. Once again, do a search. Major presence of HK-based chains. In SF, Yank Sing is also rather pricey but has more delicate dim sum. Harbor Village is another option. I like South Sea Seafood Village because it's walking distance from where I live and the quality is very high for relatively low prices.

                  I assume that the bakery you've mention on 9th and Irving is Arizmendi. Try their pizzas. For good baguettes, some of the folks here swear by the Bay Breads chain - there's one on Cole and Parnassus. But better than the bread is the cannelle.

                  Then mexican. The Mission. Read Syre's post on mission burritos.

                  Also check out San Miguel on 20th and Mission for some really good Guatemalan food. Get pan dulce at mexican bakeries -- I actually kinda liked La Victoria on 24th and Alabama.

                  Don't forget to shop and cook at home. Not only is the produce significantly tastier, they're also a lot cheaper.

                  1. Wow, your post has certainly hit a nerve. Granted, the few places you mentioned are generally seen as pretty good Bay Area places, but people have different tastes and maybe you've hit a off night. My suggestions would be for you to stick around a bit and see what other posters will say about restaurants in this area. After a few weeks, you'll see many more suggestions. I have not been to all the following places, but from being in this community I've gleamed the following placesn (a small sample):

                    Chez Panisse (for California)
                    Gary Danko (for high end French and California)
                    French Laundry (really high end French)
                    Hama Ko (Japanese)
                    Swan Oyster Depot (oysters, clam chowder)
                    Shalimar (hole in the wall Indian)
                    R & G Lounge (Chinese)
                    Golden Star (Vietnamese)
                    Kokkari (Greeek)
                    Taco trucks in Oakland's International Blvd.