Parents in San Francisco - Weekend Report - LONG
My parents were in San Francisco this weekend, and just like on the last visit, we spent most of the time walking around and eating! This is a long post, so here is a Table of Contents:
1) Tajine – San Francisco – Dinner
2) Larkin Express Deli – San Francisco – Lunch
3) Incanto – San Francisco – Dinner
4) Hong Kong Flower Lounge – Millbrae – Dim Sum
5) Alemany Farmer’s Market – San Francisco – Shopping
6) The Cheese Board – Berkeley – Snack and Shopping
7) Canteen – San Francisco – Brunch
8) Taqueria Vallarta – San Francisco – Snack
9) Dottie’s True Blue Café – San Francisco – Breakfast
10) Summary Paragraph
1 – Tajine
My parents arrived on Thursday afternoon, so I met up with them after work for an early dinner. My plan was to go with them to Flying Pan Bistro in Chinatown, so we met near Union Square and walked all the way to Chinatown, only to find that Flying Pan Bistro was closed. Currently, it’s only open for lunch. So at that point I didn’t know where to go…I didn’t feel like eating anywhere else in Chinatown so we hopped in a cab and headed toward Polk St. I was thinking of checking out the new Afghan kebab place, or maybe heading down to Thai House Express, but as we got out of the cab at Polk and Pine, my Dad spotted Tajine, which I had totally forgotten about. I had been meaning to try Tajine, and it was early and there were lots of open tables, so we gave it a try.
We started with the harira, which the waitress kindly split into 3 small bowls for us since we were sharing. This was very good comforting lentil soup. Next up was the “Mosaic of Salads.” I wasn’t so impressed by this – the salads were a bit too cold, as if they had been sitting in the fridge for a bit too long. The plate included a smoky eggplant salad, a tomato/onion salad that was a lot like mild salsa, a red pepper salad and a beet salad. All were good but nothing stood out for me. They were served w/ a white bread w/ sesame seeds. We shared a vegetarian bastilla, which was nice. I liked the flavor of the cooked veggies inside the dough, but I thought the thick coating of powdered sugar was excessive – I prefer just a sprinkle. We also shared the Dajaj Mequalli - chicken with olives and preserved lemon. This was very good. The chicken was very tender and falling off the bone, the sauce was delicious, especially the bits of preserved lemon. I would definitely order this again. Overall, a nice, quick dinner – since it was so early, it wasn’t crowded at all.
2 – Larkin Express Deli
On Friday I met my parents for lunch at Larkin Express Deli. We shared the beef w/ lemongrass, tea leaf salad and mohinga. On the side we had the sour vegetable w/ bamboo shoot and some of the vegetable soup. My parents enjoyed the lemongrass beef, and they really enjoyed the mohinga (a surprise hit, since my Mom doesn’t always love fish, but she loved this soup). They didn’t love the tea leaf salad (no problem – more for me!) or the sour vegetable, but we all liked the deceptively spicy vegetable soup w/ large chunks of soft veggies like eggplant and okra. I actually didn’t think the mohinga was as good as it sometimes is – the noodles were a bit too soft. But the overall flavor is really delicious and the crispy fried lentils are great.
I had been looking forward to my meal at Incanto for months, and thanks to reviews from friends and from people on chowhound, my expectations for this meal were very, very high. For the most part, they were met, and I thought that overall the meal was very good even if it wasn’t as “perfect” as I had imagined.
I made the reservation one month ago, and we arrived early for our 6:45 reservation. Our table was ready, and we were seated in the middle of the room at a somewhat small table. We shared everything and ate family-style.
Salad of mixed greens with marinated beets and mascarpone (?) cheese came first. This salad was wonderful. There were several types of beets – a few different colors, beautiful dollops of soft cheese and possibly some pecans as well (I actually already forget, since this was several days ago). But overall, it was as close to perfect as a beet salad can be.
The salumi platter was stellar. The best part of the whole meal was when the server presented us with the platter and told us what each item was. Everything was arranged beautifully, and I liked everything. My mom liked the pancetta the best, I liked the head cheese, which was thinly sliced and had an amazing sweet flavor. I didn’t expect to like it at all, but it was just so delicious. My Dad really liked the pate, which was served with delicious homemade mustard. The pickled vegetables were beautiful, but a bit difficult to eat (still, we managed) and I think we basically cleaned the entire plate.
We had a half-order of the spaghettini with cured tuna heart and egg yolk. I liked this better than my parents, but we all agreed that it was very rich. It’s hard to imagine eating a half portion of this myself, let alone a full portion! It wasn’t as fishy as I expected, but after a few bites in a row the texture was almost a bit cloying. Despite this negative sounding comment, I really liked it, and would even consider ordering it again as long as I was sharing.
I thought the handkerchief pasta w/ pork ragu was good, not great, although I think my parents liked it more than I did. My mom commented that the pasta was perfect and very delicate, and both of them really liked the meat sauce. I just thought it wasn’t that interesting – just very good straightforward food. I guess I was hoping for something more awe-inspiring, even though I realize (and appreciate) that not everything is even supposed to be awe-inspiring, especially a rustic pork ragu. But I guess I was hoping it would be anyway. Moving on…
The pork shoulder was also pretty straightforward and simple, but excellently prepared. The coating had a spicy bite, which I really liked, and the pork was served over beans of several sizes and some sautéed greens. Nothing too fancy about this dish, but it was very solid and delicious.
With the meal, we shared two “mystery” flights of wine. All of the wines were good and different from each other. The two highlights came in the second round of the mystery flight – 2006 Pistillo was a white wine w/ aromas of honey, dry and smoother than the other white wines we tried, which were both crisp and more acidic. The favorite red was the Teroldego Rotaliano from 2003 – I can’t remember what it tasted like, but this was the favorite for all 3 of us…it was the only wine from 2003 (the other reds were from 2004 or 2005).
For dessert we had the bay leaf panna cotta (with balsamic vinegar and pomegranate) and a lemon curd w/ meringue (basically a lemon meringue pie w/out the crust). Both desserts were excellent. The panna cotta was delicate and smooth, and was quite light compared to the rich lemon curd. The lemon curd dessert was also served w/ a lemon shooter, which I found pretty pointless. It was an interesting idea though.
Service was good, but not great (for example, we were accidentally served a pumpkin risotto which we hadn’t ordered – which actually was a shame cause it looked really, really good – and we were never offered any coffee or after-dinner drinks, though we wouldn’t have ordered them anyway). The overall ambiance of Incanto was really nice, and my Mom said that it was pretty much her ideal restaurant ambiance.
Even though the two restaurants are very different, we couldn’t help comparing the meal to our meal at Aziza back in February – both were the “special” meal of the weekend, in the same price range, and featured lots of local ingredients. All of us agreed that we enjoyed our meal at Aziza a bit more than the meal at Incanto. This is mainly a personal preference I think – we may just enjoy the flavors of Moroccan influenced food a bit more than Italian influenced. So the comparison is somewhat meaningless, but I thought I’d mention it for what it’s worth.
4 – Hong Kong Flower Lounge
On Saturday we went (along with my housemate) to Millbrae for dim sum. We arrived at Hong Kong Flower Lounge at 11:30 AM, parked in the valet parking lot, and were seated in the upstairs room. At first I was a bit dismayed, since the upstairs was nearly empty when we were seated, and I was worried no food would come by. As the room filled up, I quickly realized there was nothing to worry about. By the time we left at 12:45, every table on both floors was filled and there was a huge line out the door. This was the best dim sum I’ve had since moving out here – both ambiance and food were better here than at any of the places I’ve tried in San Francisco. It was classy and spacious, yet not too fancy or pricy or crazy. Lots of families, relaxing pace of carts, and lots of great variety. There were tons of dishes we didn’t try and I am excited to return. Here’s a quick summary and grade sheet:
Sesame donut filled with pork: A-
Fried fresh rice noodles: B+
Rice noodle roll with beef: A
Steamed dumpling with pork and peanuts: A
Bean Curd Skin Roll: A+
Boiled wontons with sesame: A+
Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce: A
Fried taro pork dumpling: A-
Tofu and fish balls: A
The highlight was the wonton dish that Windy and David Kaplan suggested. This was awesome, and next time I’ll order two. They are indeed boiled briefly, the wontons were plump w/ shrimp and pork, and were cooked perfectly. The sweet sesame/soy sauce was delicious. Another highlight was the bean curd skin roll, which is my favorite dim sum dish and something I use to judge places by….so HKFL does very well in my book. We never saw any har gau (when I asked, they said it was coming, but we never saw it) and they had no dau fu fah (but apparently they sometimes make it?). But those are my only complaints. We saw lots of interesting carts and trays go by with all sorts of steamed, fried and boiled items – also soups, congee, noodles, salads and desserts. I am excited to return here. I definitely think it’s worth making a trip to Millbrae for dim sum – either by car or BART. The total bill for 4 of us was 52 dollars before tip for enough food to stuff us all.
5- Alemany Farmer’s Market
We stopped by Alemany Farmer’s Market on the way home from Millbrae to buy produce for Sunday’s dinner. My parents and I both enjoyed roaming around the market, and we bought lots of things. My dad had a good time choosing fruit for an all-local fruit salad which he made on Sunday – two types of plums, two types of grapes (small green and medium red), a small melon, pomegranates, pears and Asian pears. My mom and I bought great veggies for a vegetable soup (leeks, spinach, string beans, garlic, zucchini, onions, carrot, parsnip) and I bought lots of early girl tomatoes, garlic and kabocha squash for roasting. We were there in the early afternoon – no sign of the stand w/ the Chilean empanadas, but it’s okay since we were still quite full. It was nice to visit this farmer’s market to contrast with the Ferry Building, which we went to last visit.
6 – The Cheese Board
We attended a wedding in Berkeley on Saturday night, but before the wedding we had time to stop by the Cheese Board, where we had some pizza and bought some cheese. I’m not sure what kind of pizza it was, but we shared two slices and it was very good. Despite being the same kind of pizza, the two slices were quite different. One slice had a crispy crust, while the other (from a different pie) was chewier. I think we all preferred the crispy one. Does anyone know if they purposefully make pizzas with different crusts? Can you request crispy slices?
In the cheese shop, we sampled a few soft goat cheeses, hoping to buy something for Sunday’s dinner. We settled on the American goat cheese (soft, from a tub) that was excellent – a big step up from the goat cheese at Trader Joe’s that I usually get. Granted, the goat cheese at Trader Joe’s is more affordable. We also bought some feta, pre-packaged (from Corsica) – really good! The woman who served us said this is the most popular feta cheese they sell and it was great in the dish we made and also for eating plain.
7 – Canteen
Thanks to pane’s recommendation, we tried Canteen for an early brunch on Sunday. We arrived at 10:15 or so, and had to wait only 10 minutes before we were seated at a booth. Just in time! Service was very sweet, and I really liked the atmosphere of the place. Pane specifically suggested that I try the homemade chai and the eggs Benedict, so I did. Both were fantastic. The chai was creamy and spicy, but not too overpowering – served very frothy. At first I thought the eggs benedict had too much Hollandaise sauce – but that was before I tasted it. By the end of the meal I had the opposite opinion. I ended up ordering some extra rye toast to soak it up. This was served with home fries, which were crispy and buttery and really great. My Mom had an egg white omelet (not a problem to make this, and no extra cost) with goat cheese and two types of mushrooms. My Dad had an omelet with cream cheese and smoked salmon that was delicious. I am excited to return here for brunches in the future. This is such a small place that it’s necessary to come early and in small groups.
8 – Taqueria Vallarta
My parents and a friend of mine stopped by Taqueria Vallarta for a snack on Sunday afternoon – it was my first real visit and I was excited to try the tacos since I had heard good things. I asked the guy at the little taco stand what he recommended, and he said to order the buche. We ordered two buche tacos and one chorizo taco – somehow we ended up with the three of these, and also two carne asada tacos (even though no one mentioned carne asada at any point in the conversation). I guess none of us cared enough to say anything (they looked really good) so we ended up with 5 tacos, which we had no problem eating.
The buche tacos were exceptional, although I don’t have anything to compare them to since I had never had buche before. I didn’t know what it was until I looked it up online later that day – probably just as well. But it was really tender and flavorful – like extra tasty carnitas. The carne asada was also exceptional – really uniquely spiced compared to other taquerias, and I’d definitely order this again here. The chorizo was good but nothing too special. My Dad and I both had strawberry agua frescas that were fine. If you are a buche or carne asada fan, I recommend this place. The onions, cilantro and limes were available for adding yourself – chips were not included (cost 50 cents).
For dinner on Sunday, we cooked w/ a few of my friends. We made a great vegetable soup using the veggies from Alemany, and my Dad made a great fruit salad. Also had a pasta casserole w/ roasted peppers, olives and feta (I bought the peppers at Alemany also and roasted them on the gas burners of my stove), and for an appetizer we had roasted kabocha/garlic/tomato spread w/ goat cheese and bread from Tartine. Also some grilled chicken and some brownies for dessert. Pretty awesome, and a mostly local meal.
9 – Dottie’s True Blue Café
I met my parents at Dottie’s right when they opened on Monday at 7:30 AM for one last meal before they headed to SFO. This was my first visit. I had a scramble w/ whiskey sausage, mushrooms and spinach. This was served with home fries (not as good as the ones at Canteen, but still good) and delicious jalapeño cornbread. I don’t usually love cornbread, but this was very good. My Mom had an omelet that looked good, and my Dad had eggs over easy with sausage. The sausage seemed similar (but not quite the same) as the whisky sausage in my scramble. Overall, I liked this place, but I couldn’t help wondering who all those people were….the place had a line out the door early on a Monday morning! Makes me think San Francisco needs more good breakfast places.
10 – Summary Paragraph
Overall, it was a great weekend of eating. Highlights included brunches at Hong Kong Flower Lounge and Canteen, and it was definitely a treat for me to finally try Incanto. Alemany Farmer’s Market proved to be a good place to take visitors, especially with cooking projects in mind. Larkin Express Deli, Tajine and Dottie’s were solid, and the Cheese Board, as always, was a fun place to visit. Taqueria Vallarta was also awesome – just don’t tell my Mom what buche is! To end this post, I’d like to give a shout out to my parents (who will probably read this). Thanks for visiting! It was great eating with you!
I have some friends coming in from DC and Boston this weekend. Hopefully we’ll do some good eating as well!
Here are links for most of these places. I couldn't get the right links for Tajine.
Alemany Farmers' Market
100 Alemany Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94110
Incanto Restaurant & Wine Bar
1550 Church St, San Francisco, CA 94131
Hong Kong Flower Lounge
51 Millbrae Ave, Millbrae, CA 94030
Larkin Express Burmese Kitchen
452 Larkin St, San Francisco, CA 94102
817 Sutter St, San Francisco, CA 94109
3033 24th St, San Francisco, CA 94110
Cheese Board Pizza
1512 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley, CA 94709
Dottie's True Blue Cafe
522 Jones St, San Francisco, CA 94102
Wow, great report! It's funny, I went to Incanto recently with my mom and sister, and had a very similar reaction to you to the hankerchief pasta with pork ragu -- I thought it was fine, but it was probably my least favorite dish of the ones that we had. I also loved the salumi platter, but the biggest hit for the three of us was the spaghettini with cured tuna heart; we got a full order, and I was sad when it was gone, while there were leftovers of the pork ragu.
Hong Kong Flower Lounge sounds great and your report makes me very excited that my office does a holiday party there. I work not far away, and I really should get there for a weekday lunch some time; if any hounds are interested in joining me, my email is in my profile.
Wow! Great report and a great weekend of eating; thanks for writing it all up...I haven't tried taqueria vallarta but as a carne asada fan I will have to put it on the list.
For what it's worth, count me as another person who enjoys Aziza more than Incanto. Personal taste is part of the equasion, but service is another area where Aziza has consistently outshone Incanto (and a whole lot of other places too) at least on my visits. Obviously, though, the styles are very different,and some of the dishes on the Incanto menu are stellar (I love that beet salad and the salumi also).
Naturally, I'm disappointed that you didn't love Incanto as much as I do. I've generally had excellent service along with wonderful food. I'm delighted that you thought Canteen was great. They mix fresh batches of chai every day, I think, and if they are busy or you go to early, sometimes you are out of luck. I tried to get some after lunch last Wednesday and they didn't have any ready.
Dave's mom! Buche is---Nah, I won't let on.
Nice report Dave!
I'll have to try the chai at Canteen- sounds delicious.
Too bad Incanto didn't live up to your expectations. I loved it the one time I went (I thought the handkerchief pasta was heavenly, and I couldnt get enough of the spaghettini) and our service was wonderful. I had an only so-so experience at Aziza, though. I'm much more into Italian food than Moroccan, though. It really is a matter of personal taste I guess.
Totally agree about SF needing more good breakfast places. There's no shortage of mediocre ones, though. Dottie's should be great, and the food certainly is delicious, but I tend to avoid it because its always such an ordeal to get a table there. That cornbread though, oh man.
"But it was really tender and flavorful – like extra tasty carnitas."
First off great report. Now... Buche IS carnitas.... as far as I know places that specialize in Carnitas in the Bay Area are either rare or non-existent.... so people get the idea that Carnitas are specifically pork shoulder or loin... but that isn't the case.
In the places where carnitas are done well... for example the town of Uruapan... you will see Carnitas as a genre that includes just about any part fryable part of the pig from the ears to the butt... and including the buche.... and you order by the part.
BTW... if there are any Oaxacan places around... they usually make a killer Buche salad with roasted Chiles de Agua, thinly sliced onions, herbs etc.,
so buche is a subcategory of carnitas?
I actually am now having trouble figuring out exactly what buche is....I was reading more about it today, and some sources say pig stomach, or the area of meat just around the pig stomach....other sources refer to it being more like the neck. So what is buche exactly? Thanks a lot
re: Dave MP
re: Dave MP
Buche.... tricky to explain. Actually... pretty simple, its a sac that connects the esophagus to the stomach. It serves as a type of waiting room... where the food is moistened etc., but isn't exposed to bile & other mechanical digestion associated with stomachs.
Pigs have buches, so do some fishes & avian species. Pig buche is not the only type of buche that is commonly consumed in Mexico... another big regional specialty is dried fish buche soups... of which the Corvina is a particularly well commercialized specimen.
Here is an English language diagram showing the buche (Crop) in birds:
When you see buche at Mexican places it commonly refers to pork... and in the same method as carnitas... that is why I refer to it as a subset of carnitas. And my main point... is that when you are in Mexico... you don't really go to some generic taqueria to order "uno de carnitas"... rather you would "vamos a las carnitas" (lets go to the carnitas)... and you would order... "uno de oreja, dos de maciza y uno de buche" etc., (one of ear, two of loin / shoulder, one of buche).