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first timer in SF

I'll be embarking my first trip to the Golden State of America. I am looking for local specialties that I can't find here in Toronto. There are very little selections for good mexican food here in Toronto, so I will definitely want to hit up some nice authentic mexican restos. The friend that I'll be staying with said the chinese food in SF is pretty much the same as TO, so i guess i'll forgo the chinese food (unless there are restaurants with special menus!). Any other recommendations for cheap eats?

Oh, i'll be at Emeryville, so i guess restaurants in berkeley, SF, and oakland will all be fine~ any ideas?!!

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  1. Will you have a car? What days will you be here? What does cheap mean to you?

    Here's a recent link that pretty much coveres Emeryville.

    Search on "International Blvd" for Oakland Mexican recs. Search "Mission Taco" for SF recs. If you go to SF, 24th St is a good central point for Mexican.

    In the Tenderloin in SF there is lots of cheap eats along the Indian/Vietnamese line.

    A good starting book to get an idea of area eats the "The Chowhound's Guide to the SF Bay Area".

    1. Yeah, will you have a car, and how far are you willing to drive for great chow?

      Here's a discussion of unusual ethnic cuisines we have in the area:


      Here's a long topic on the Toronto board that has some in-depth discussion of the differences between SF and Toronto, including some opposite views about Chinese food:


      To me the Chowhound guide is disorganized and random, sort of like a two-year-old core dump of the site. I'd get the new San Francisco Food Lover's Pocket Guide instead.

      14 Replies
      1. re: Robert Lauriston

        Yeah, I'm still using the Chowhound Guide and still find most of it relevant. What it is is a good overview ... sort of a reader's digest of the board and starting there will give somone unfamiliar with the area a good feel for it ... besides it's not the usual dry guide. It's a quick read, filled with lots of info and often funny.

        Nice to know that Unterman put out a pocket guide. I use the big book and the Chowhound Guide, but the the heavy format of the other book was too much to tote around. Come to think of it I didn't actually use it that much after reading through it, but another good source for somone out of the area. Will have to take a look at the pocket guide.

        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          wow, lots of information, thanx people, you've all been really helpful!!

          So I was talking to my friend last night and we will be getting a car for the time when i'm there (great friend!). I'll be in cali around beginning of April for 6 days (Thurs to Tues). However, minus the day flying back, I only really get about 5 full days~

          I showed him this thread and he seconds La Node. Town Hall looks like a great idea. Never know what "american comfort food" is, excited to check that one out for sure. My friend also mentioned about this great Thai place around his neighbourhood, with awesome thai ice tea~

          Toronto has very little south east asian cuisine (besides vietnamese). So after going thru all the threads, I've narrowed down to few cuisines that I really want to try.

          Yucatan and other Mexican specialities
          Northern Vietnamese

          How's the sushi in the Bay area? Great sushi often costs an arm and a leg here in TO. Any great recommendations for sushi in the moderate price zone (around $30 before tax and tips)? and are there any izakaya type of restaurants around? Went to Yakitori Totto in NYC not too long ago and had an amazing time. It'll be nice to go to a similar restaurant again.

          1. re: oohlala

            Basque, Piperade and/or Bocadillos.

            Burmese, Burma Super Star or Mandalay (aka Golden Mandalay). Try tea leaf salad. At BSS, do not miss the sambusa soup.

            1. re: oohlala

              Ok, you are going to have to search for these on your own on the board ...

              Yucatasia ... a mix of Vietnamese and Yucatan food ... SF

              El Rey Pakal ... in San Rafael across the bridge. Yucatan. Not everthing is great, but the weekend specials are worth checking out and you can read on the board what to order and what not to order.

              If you go that route, on 580 if you take the 23rd St exit, there are a number of Mexican joints. This is a hard-core poor neighborhood, so be warned.

              If you are lucky, the churro guy will be there. Lately he has been selling Friday evenings. Look for the crowd on the corner.

              El Tapatio has mochajetes and chavindas

              Pepitos I like a lot. Great chile verde and whatever bakery they buy their pan dulce from is the best in the area

              Up a ways is a great Central American restaurant that has good pupusas - El Tazumal.

              Basque doesn't seem to be as strong point in the area and I'm guessing Piperade is the best with a modern California slant. If you search on 'basque' you will find what else is out there.

              You really should try Aziza ... Cal Moroccan. Not a cheap eat, but for the price, really worth it ... and pretty different.

              Be sure to go the the Saturday morning farmers market at Ferry Plaza. Just the samples are enough for breakfast ... though it is hard to resist buying.

              Not in the same class, but near you and interesting is the Old Oakland Farmers Markt on Friday. People really like All Star Tamales that are usually sold there. There's a place near there that serves average old-school Mexican-American chow but the tortillas are from heaven as are the house-made chips.

              And you really should do California food ... like the slice of Cal Pizza from Arizmendi which is near you. Get a cheese roll there too. One of my favorite things in the Bay Area.

              For a weekend breakfast is El Calaca Loca which has a gut-busting and wonderful $5 chiquiles breakfast using top fresh local ingrediants. I'd put this as Cal-Mexican done right. Hop across the street to Bakesale Betty's and get some fine baked goods ... especially the lamingtons.

              And if upscaling a bit, go to Fonda on Solano after 9 pm for a break on some of the prices. For $5 you can get duck tacos with pomegranite seeds ... really tiny duck tacos, but still. Everything on that 9pm menu is good.

              1. re: rworange

                I LOVE U, RWORANGE, hahahahahhahahahhaha~

                definitely checking out the places u suggested.

                Thanx SO much!

                guess most good sushi stores are out of my range in SF....... too bad~

                1. re: oohlala

                  Hopefully someone else will reply. I don't know nothing about no sushi.

                  If you can find sushimonster or KK on the board (maybe thru google?) they have some GREAT sushi posts.

                  1. re: rworange

                    One more thing, I'll need to bring some snacks back to work. Anything that's unique to SF, or cali, that can be easily transported and shared with lots of people?

                    1. re: oohlala

                      I would get XOX chocolates. A box of caramel, a box of peanut butter (if Canadians like peanut butter) and a box of mixed. They are in North Beach near Washington Square.

                      While these aren't the priciest chocolates a box of 20 will still run a little over $7. So if you want to go less expensive, if you don't have them in Canada, then See's chocolates.

                      I also like the almonds sold at the Ferry Plaza farmers market. I think it is Everything Under The Sun, but it might be Balakian. One of these guys bought the farm of the vendor I was crazy about. They original owners retired. Ask if they cold store the almonds. That would be the right vendor. Almonds have oil so they go rancid over time. So this farm cold stores the almonds and doesn't roast them until they are about to be sold. Best almonds I've ever had. They also have flavored almonds too.

                      1. re: rworange

                        I absolutely adore XOX chocolates (they are my favorite truffles in the world) but part of what makes them so great is their super-fragile shells - if it gets even a little warm, and the ganache softens, and you jiggle them box a little bit, the shells crack - and oops! You have to eat them all yourself... can't give cracked, melting truffles as a gift...

                        1. re: daveena

                          I'll sample them first, if i like them a lot, i'll just break all of them and give my co-workers the remnents. $7 for box of 20, not bad at all!

                          Thanx a lot, people!

                          1. re: oohlala

                            You'll see what I mean - these truffles aren't lined up in a box, they're piled into a mini-Chinese food takeout container. Straight out of the shop, they're firm, because the case is refrigerated, but once you let them warm up a bit (and you should, to really enjoy the flavor and texture), the centers become so soft, and the shells are so fragile, that the bottom ones collapse under the weight of the top ones. Oh, and with the exception of a few flavors, they're indistinguishable from one another. These aren't glossy, fancy little things with gold leaf and patterns to identify the flavor - they're cocoa-covered, rustic little nuggets of ganache. (My faves are caramel and cognac).

                            I took a box from Oakland to Pacifica (a 25 mile drive) and only the top layer came out intact... they still tasted great, but looked a mess. Unless you can keep them cold the whole way back, I'd just eat them myself, and find something more temperature stable for your friends.

                            1. re: daveena

                              Another thought would be to ask at the shop how best to transport them. They do a mail-order business so they might pack them for the long trip. I brought boxes to San Diego a few times and they were fine. I get them in little boxes of 20 though.

                        2. re: rworange

                          Or go to 5-Star on Divisidero for truffles. They're wonderful.

            2. I agree with you that Toronto's got some good Chinese grub, so skip the Chinese here. Since you're near Berkeley, do Chez Panisse Cafe if you can snag a table, or do some good Thai food at Plearn on University Ave. There's also La Note on Shattuck Ave. Both are good, casual, affordable places for some chow.

              Whether you'll have a car or not, you should hit up a couple of places in the city. Here are some suggestions depending on what you'd like.

              Go to Town Hall for dinner one night. It's American comfort food at its finest. It's rich and filling so bring an appetite! And don't miss the Butterscotch Pot de Creme. For some interesting and fresh Californian cuisine, try Coco 500. And for some fun Mexican go to Tres Agaves. It used to be co-owned by Sammy Hagar so you know it'll be fun. A16 is very Southern regional Italian. The pastas and pizza are beyond what you'll get in Toronto. You'll need to reserve tables in advance for any of these SF restaurants, so go to www.opentable.com to do that. You'll be glad you did. Tables fill up fast in S.F!

              And one word of advice: never call it "San Fran" or "Frisco." No one who lives here does. Enjoy! :)

              8 Replies
              1. re: VirgoBlue

                Forget Plearn. Thai House Express on Larkin in SF. Or Champa Garden in Oakland.

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  Have you ever tried Marnee Thai in the Sunset? Curious to know your thoughts...

                  1. re: VirgoBlue

                    I haven't. Those "Traditional Relishes (for adventurous diners)" sound pretty interesting.


                    1. re: VirgoBlue

                      I have tried Marnee and a few years back when I knew nothing about Thai food, I used to like it alot. It pales in comparison to Thai House Express, Sajai, or even the Thai place on Mission between 25th and 26th. Marnee is sugary and makes too many concessions for those who cannot handle spice. Nothing at Marnee can compare to the briased pork leg; seafood curry over pickled greens, stringbeans and thread noodles (on the specials board); fried rice with dry fish, or even the pad thai with crab at Thai House.

                      1. re: Amy G

                        i agree with everything in this post

                        1. re: Amy G

                          Agree with Amy G on Marnee. It is similar to Thep Pheonom on Waller. Overpriced, but for some reason there's lots of people who still go there. Maybe they were once "good", but certain people don't know or care whether the food is good, as long as the vibe is right, service, or there's a certain crowd they fell comfortable with.

                    2. re: VirgoBlue

                      Re: Tres Agaves: I did not like the food here AT ALL but do have the house margarita, out of this world. If you like Tequila, they have all kinds to try.

                      1. re: walker

                        The best selection of tequila in the city is at Tommy's Mexican Restaurant, not Tres Agaves.

                    3. For a beginning overview of cheap eats, check out this new post:


                      6 Replies
                      1. re: chemchef

                        Back from my 5 day trip to SF and still jetlagging...... anyway, i just want to thank you all chowhounds from the Bay area for some wonderful suggestions. Here are some of the highs and lows of the trip,

                        La Note in Berkeley:
                        Mussells in spicy saffron sauce (we couldn't stop requesting for more bread, so good!); Fish stew with assorted seafood (i didn't try any cause of my allergy to crabs/shrimp, but a must-order for my friend all the time when they go there); I ordered the snapper and it was edible, no wow factor.

                        Cheeseboard: 4 cheese and 4 onions for that day. We got 4 slices of pizza for 2.75, not too sure if the cashier knew what she was doing.......... anyway, one of the best pizza i've had, totally different than the ones in Toronto. Also had the pear scone, mmm~ yum yum!

                        Pastry shop next to walgreen, also on Shattuck, tried the macarons (pistacchio, chocolate, and strawberry), mmm~ so good! denser than i thought.

                        "Taiwan restaurant" on University in Berkley: Few authentic indigenous Taiwan dishes, great comparing to TO. I LIKE!

                        Town Hall on Howard: Asparagus soup, jumbo asparagus with ham and cheese, and andouille sausage for appetizer. Pork chop, lamb shank, and duck for main. Butterscotch pot de creme for dessert. Apps were disappointing, mains were awesome! Dessert really filled the cracks in our stomach!

                        Chutney (indian/pakistani) on Jones: Great tandoori fish, lamb vindaloo and fluffy naan. Didn't feel the spinash paneer. Average biryani. The people hanging outside that neighbourhood scared me.

                        Pelican Inn @ Muir beach: Rude service, i guess the little place is mainly making money from the locals, didn't seem to care about visitors much. Had the fish'n'chips, juicy fish, not my kind of tartar sauce though.

                        Overall, I'll definitely want to go back to SF to try out more bakery/pastry shops. There were few days where I was just saturated with sugar. Anyway, thanx again!

                        1. re: oohlala

                          Pastry shop next to Walgreen's = Crixa? I haven't seen macarons there. New item?

                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                            I'm pretty sure s/he means Masse's, which is next to a Long's (Crixa isn't next to anything, although it's across the street from a RiteAid), especially since it's mentioned in conjunction with the Cheeseboard.

                            Thanks for reporting back, oohlalal!

                            1. re: Ruth Lafler

                              That makes sense.

                              FWIW that is a Walgreen's across the street from Crixa.

                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                Really? Used to be a RiteAid. I guess I haven't kept up with changes in the chain drugstore world.

                              2. re: Ruth Lafler

                                oops, my bad~ yah, I believe it was called Masse's. It was diagonally across from the cheeseboard, it was a really small store.

                                Oh yah, I forgot to mention this in my earlier response. My friends and I also went to Burmese super star and since my friend's gf's family is from Burma, She said the food was pretty authetic. We waited for 2 hours and ended up getting takeout. I really enjoyed the flavours, however, i guess the kitchen must have ran out of food, so all the meat and potato we had in our stews were rock hard solid. I guess it must be from the 2nd batch. Oh well~

                        2. I didn't see any replies about sushi so...

                          If you're going to be in town on April 1st you might want to consider going to the Sushi & Beyond event put on by the Japan Society - http://www.usajapan.org/detail.cfm?id...

                          My favorite places are Hama-ko and Sebo but neither are "cheap", in fact, none of the board favorites are - Kiss, Anzu's sushi bar, Zushi Puzzle unless you eat quite moderately. Minako is more a home-style Japanese that also serves sushi but its quite good. I believe Ozuma might still have happy hour specials but I remember them being only the most generic stuff on their menu. Bar Crudo is not traditional sushi but a lot of people love it.

                          No Name Sushi on Church St is cheap but not good.

                          There used to be a little sushi fish market on Irving that was the "go to" place for locals wanting good sushi party platters or to get fish for making sushi and they had two tiny tables for those who wanted to eat in - but the ownership changed last summer and it went downhill drastically. I haven't heard whether they've managed to get the quality back up or not so I no longer recommend it.

                          That's all I can think of. You might want to do a search for "sushi" to see if anything interesting comes up.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: larochelle

                            I think you'll get good quality sushi in Rockridge at Uzen at your price point. They usually have a couple of specials flown in from Japan. If you're looking for burrito sized fusion rolls, this is NOT the place. Just good, simple food. The eggplant app. is the only real dud as far as I'm concerned.

                            5415 College Ave., Oakland (walking distance from Rockridge BART)
                            (510) 654-7753
                            Lunch Monday-Friday; dinner Monday-Saturday

                          2. I have family in Toronto (Richmond Hill area cough cough) and even though I haven't been in almost 4 years I think I have some idea. My understanding is that Japanese restaurants at least around that area are run and owned by Chinese (after all RH has tons of HK expats) and perhaps some Korean, so finding an authentic Japanese run and owned place is not as easy and if so it would definitely not be cheap.

                            If you want cheap and authentic nigiri sushi in SF, Okina in the Richmond area might fit that bill. Similar to Ino Sushi in SF Japantown but much cheaper, where nigiri is served directly on the counter if you sit at the bar. It also sounds like the chef was trained the old school way in Japan, and perhaps has some sort of eccentricity as well to boot. Only open 3 days out of the week I believe (dinner only? Ino Sushi too, dinner only). Never been but I've heard overall positive things about that place from Japanese expats, especially those who are more budget minded.

                            You could theoretically eat decent sushi for within $30 at most sushi restaurants in SF, in the form of a chirashi bowl (aka scattered mix sashimi over vinegared sushi rice) that could range from $15 to $25+, although you probably don't get to choose the fish that goes on it. If you have a big appetite, you might not be full after this, and may have to order some nigiri or cut roll in addition (hopefully not a Big Mac elsewhere).

                            If the place offers 2 or 3 kinds of chirashi at different prices, naturally the highest price one will have perhaps more exotic/pricier fish. I would even try calling Ino Sushi (even though a solid nigiri dinner where you order on your own or leave it up to the chef can cost $80 or more to be full) and see how much their chirashi is and whether they offer more than 1 version (and if prices can be divulged) and/or if there's a chirashi that might have fish you like (or let them know what you like).

                            Since you are visiting from Toronto, I'd do a tourist thing and also hit up Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market in SF on Saturdays, get there before or by 10 AM and get a nice stroll and try some of California's best organic produce and offerings, and perhaps some of the various cooked/prepared food the stalls offer, e.g. Pranther Ranch's stall for either pancakes or free range organic grilled chicken, gelato at Ciao Bella (blood orange is great if you like a citrus icy), maybe Out the Door for green papaya salad (though you may want to stay away from overpriced Cantonese congee and anything that looks Cantonese that you can get from Chinatown much cheaper), try a Blue Bottle coffee if you like drinking coffee, Hog Island oysters if you like raw oysters, Delica RF1's hijiki salad (Japanese/fusion deli), and several of the produce vendors offer free samples too.

                            In short the Ferry Building Plaza Farmer's Market (and inside the Ferry Building itself) is like an uber high end Movenpick eatery/market, lots of variety, unfortunately not a buffet ;-) Should be superb this time of year for the FBPFM if the weather keeps up. Great view of the Bay too. Bring a jacket or coat, might be windy.

                            I don't think you'll find an izakaya or yakitori-ya in SF that is as good as the ones in NY. Places in SF that offer izakaya fare also do sushi and other cooked food/set dinners/combos. For real good kushiyaki or yakitori (places that specialize in this) or izakaya restaurants that do kind of an upscale fusion twist you may have to convince your friend to drive to the South Bay (Sunnyvale, Los Altos, Cupertino) to hit up places like Tanto, Gochi, Sumika, Sumi-ya, Saizo for dinner.

                            5 Replies
                            1. re: K K

                              The infamous sushi master K_K has spoken, hahahahahha~ Yes, Master~

                              Farmer's market sounds like a great idea! I'll ask my friend what his plan is (he mentioned about driving down to LA) and I guess on the way, we can hit some of these places you suggested.

                              Thanx for all the input from you SF chowhounds! Can't wait for some sunshine~

                              1. re: oohlala

                                I'm not a master or expert, lol, just an avid fan.

                                Do note that Sumika and Sumi-ya are only open for dinner. The izakaya fare trio of restaurants (Tanto in Sunnyvale, Gochi in Cupertino, Saizo in Sunnvale) only offer the full strengths of the menu during dinner. Lunch is a more scaled down set meal kind of affair. Tanto's lunches are a bit ho hum if I remember, but Gochi and Saizo have some decent authentic Japanese set lunches that would be passable in some parts of Hong Kong and maybe in the basement of Japanese department stores in Japan, like a very nice beef bowl with raw egg at Gochi, or a decent grilled unagi (not the fresh kind but at least done right) over rice at Saizo served with grilled unagi liver (which is also excellent on skewers during dinner only). Tanto in Sunnyvale might still have a minimum charge of $30ish during dinner though :-(
                                Sumika is the newest of the bunch, but by far the most authentic even down to the chef and charcoal (imported from Japan), sadly also not cheap if you eat and drink a lot, though you could get by within $30 ish if you order carefully.

                                There's also a lot of good stuff in Oakland and Berkeley. Tons of affordable eats along Telegraph in Berkeley if you want to eat like the students at UCB. Try the Blue Nile for Ethiopian, eating with your hands, family style, must try at least once (I'm sure there are others, maybe better, but this place in Berkeley is a standout). Intermezzo (?) for a cheap sandwich and salad a la starving student kind of eat (maybe this is not as good anymore?), and I remember in the late 90s Bongo Burgers was great for some lamb burgers or something with lamb in it.

                                Do they have good German food in Toronto? If not, maybe you should also consider either Schroeders or Suppenkuche. Get a German beer on tap too while you are at it :-)

                                1. re: K K

                                  Better East Bay Ethiopian can be found at Cafe Colucci on Telegraph. We usually get the Shouro Combo and a second dish w/ meat. http://www.cafecolucci.com/

                                  I've eaten a lot of Bongo Burger falafel in my day, and they're quite reliable (though I prefer Holy Land). The lamb burger is called the Persian Burger. It's a very long, thin rectangular patty on an equally long roll. It's served w/ lettuce, etc. and sumac. Ask for extra sumac. It's really the key ingredient, giving the sandwich a nice tartness.

                                  Intermezzo salads are huge, but they're more about quantity than flavor. My standard was always the poppy seed dressing. The sandwiches are also huge, but mostly because of the slabs of fresh wheat bread. Watch out for odd surprises/combinations (I never would have anticipated mustard w/ tuna salad, but what do I know?). If you choose to try this, avoid peak meal times...the lines are just goofy.

                                  1. re: K K

                                    Toronto has tons of ethnic restaurants as well, but the issue of authenticity is always being questioned (I'm mostly referring to european cuisines). I guess due to the lack of native ingredients they have back in their own countries and other factors, I have pretty much given up on looking for "authentic" dining experiences in TO. As long as the food is good, I will trek my way there.

                                    I've only been to 2 German restaurants in my entire lifetime (one specializing in hocks, the 2nd one was owned by a 4th generation canadian), so I can't really say if they're authentic or not. However, the food was pleasing~

                                    There are a lot of new Ethiopian immigrants in the city, Ethiopian restaurants have been growing steadily. I'll love to try the ones in SF, maybe there'll be more fish in it, ha~

                                    1. re: oohlala

                                      Ethiopian / Eritrean places here usually have lots of vegetarian dishes, most offer a vegetarian combo platter so you can try half a dozen things for $10 or so.

                                      Topic on German restaurants in SF: