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May 24, 2008 02:48 PM

Visiting from Toronto and looking for the best affordable eats

Hey Chowhounders,

My boyfriend and I will be visiting the Bay Area for a week in mid-June. While he was born and raised in Toronto, I gotta say I'm a true Vancouverite at heart. Living in Toronto for two years has left me sorely missing the Japanese Izakaya-style restaurants back home. I also miss amazingly fresh sushi without having to shell out $100 (which is what has to happen out here in Toronto). I've always heard how SF is a tremendous food city, so I have high gastronomical hopes for this trip! What is can't miss in this city for about $15-$30 per person?

My boyfriend has recently been converted to a ramen-lover, and we've encountered great places in NYC and Vancouver...what's the best the Bay Area has to offer? He's also a huge fan of pho (as you can see, we're just a bunch of noodle-lovers).

We have plans to go to Swan's Oyster House, grab some chowder on the Wharf, check out the Ferry Market and spend a day in Napa. We've already made reservations at Manresa in Los Gatos as our one big splurge meal.

We'll be staying in Santana Row. We'll have a car so anywhere from Carmel to Napa (or something like that, I'm kind of geographically-challenged) is fair game. He's worked in SJ for several months so he knows his way around (hopefully).

Also appreciated are suggestions for drink places. I love a good martini, but I avoid anything that contains a flavoured vodka like the plague.

And one more thing (just out of curiosity)! When I was eating at Frontera Grill in Chicago, I started chatting with someone from SF who travelled ALL THE WAY there just to experience some "really good" Mexican food. This seemed a bit counterintuitive... Mexican food is of course sorely lacking in Toronto, but it's gotta be pretty decent in SF, right?

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  1. The good news is you can get ramen and pho near San Jose. The bad news is Santana Row is (depending on traffic) an hour to 90 minutes from San Francisco and two hours or more from Napa Valley.

    The Wharf is a massive tourist trap and chowder is not a San Francisco specialty.

    Best cheap eats:

    2 Replies
    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      What about this "cioppino" that I've seem crop up on this board? It just so happens my favourite Italian restaurant in Vancouver is called Cioppino's so it peaked my curiosity :)!

      1. re: gijoeanne

        Cioppino is a fish stew. Quite of few Bay Area restaurants have it on their menu, I think I'd probably say that I like Tadich Grill's version the best.

    2. If you're thinking of crossing the bridge (or taking BART) to the East Bay, I'd recommend Pizzaiolo in Oakland for inspired drinks. They are $7 - 9 for cocktails, but the care taken in concocting them makes them worth it. They make their own tonic, for chrissakes. Their food is also excellent, and if you're careful (and don't count drinks) you'll be able to get dinner within your budget. I recommend getting one appetizer, one pizza, and one of the Contorni - this will be plenty, and not break the bank. The owner, Charlie, is a Chez Panisse alum, and so the whole menu is seasonal to reflect available produce.

      If you like Vietnamese food, I will again recommend Oakland - a vibrant Chinatown with fewer tourists. Binh Minh Quan has delicious food and is open for lunch and dinner; if you're looking for cheaper, more authentic fare, Cam Huong has great sandwiches and dessert drinks - I recommend the pork chop banh mi and any of the following drinks: taro and coconut, black-eyed pea, and basil seed with fruit. If you want Chinese pastries, go to ABC, nearby.

      If you like Ethiopian food, Ensarro, also in Oakland, is the best I've ever had.

      Another good bet for tasty AND cheap (not to mention a fun tourist activity) is the Berkeley Farmers' Market. Forget Ferry Plaza! Go to the Tues or Sat market and get good Indian (Curry Leaf) or Thai (Andy & Cindy).

      The Mexican food up here is nothing compared to LA.... but there are some tasty burrito places in the Mission in SF.

      Have fun!

      Berkeley Saturday Farmers' Market
      Center St and Milvia St, Berkeley, CA

      Berkeley Tuesday Farmers' Market
      Derby St, Berkeley, CA, USA

      5008 Telegraph Ave, Oakland, CA 94609

      Cam Huong Cafe
      920 Webster St, Oakland, CA 94607

      ABC Bakery Cafe
      388 9th St # 186, Oakland, CA

      366 Grand Ave, Oakland, CA

      5 Replies
      1. re: eeblet

        I don't think it makes sense for someone staying in San Jose to go to Oakland for Vietnamese, Chinese, or Ethiopian food.

        I think Binh Minh Quan's gone downhill.

        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          Really? I've been going there weekly for a year and a half, and if anything, I've seen it get better. Every now and then the chef might have an off-day (or a day off!), but it's been just great.

          As far as going to Oakland - it seems totally conceivable that someone might take a trip up to the East Bay to go hang out in Berkeley for the afternoon, and not out of the question to hop off the freeway on the way. :)

          1. re: eeblet

            What do you order at BMQ? My last two visits there were so disappointing that I haven't gone for a while. I always found the menu hit-and-miss:


            A visit to the Berkeley-Oakland area's definitely worthwhile, but they have as good or better Vietnamese, Chinese, and Ethiopian food in San Jose.

          2. re: Robert Lauriston

            Agree with RL. While in San Jose, go to Pho Kim Long for seriously authentic Vietnamese eats. It's always crowded, cash only, and has a grimy decor to boot (ie sticky table tops).


            While in San Jose, go to Kahoo for the shio ramen. ASJ for spicy beef noodle soup.

            Those 3 are some of the best noodling experiences you'll get in the bay area.

            Manresa for your splurge is brilliant. The decor is relaxed and less formal than most high end places. Go chef's tasting with wine pairing (premium if possible) for an amazing experience of unique tastes and textures (without being too molecular gastronomy).

          3. re: eeblet

            I'll try to give South Bay correlates to eeblet's recs (note: I haven't been to some of these in years, so I'm hoping other people can jump in and give updates)
            Ethiopian: Zeni was my favorite, but I've read raves on Cafe Rehoboth
            Vietnamese:one of my great regrets is that I barely ate any Vietnamese food when I lived in the South Bay, but I'd look for Alice Patis' posts for more info

            For ramen - Ramen Halu and Kahoo Ramen in San Jose seem to be the most highly regarded

            For Taiwanese spicy beef noodle soup with handcut noodles, ASJ in San Jose

            This thread links a couple of good San Jose threads:

            If you're planning on driving down to Carmel at some point, look into taco trucks in Salinas:

            The main thing, though, is that I would rethink staying in San Jose the entire time you're in the Bay Area - as Robert mentioned, you'll be spending a lot of time in the car. Look into staying in Emeryville in the East Bay for lower-cost options for at least part of your trip (days when you're focusing on SF and Napa) - look for posts by lexdevil on this thread for strategies:

          4. ha the Frontera Grill comment. I've been there and have no idea why it's so popular.

            You have made a great choice in going to Swan's try to go during the week so you don't have to wait in line too long. If you'll be in town for the evening skip the wharf for chowder and instead go to Bar Crudo for their seafood chowder (and everything else).

            If you want to try some good Mexican food go to Maya. It's the most authentic I've found in the city. It's a little bit more of an upscale restaurant similar to Frontera Grill.

            In Napa you can't go wrong with French food. Try either Bouchon or Bistro Jeanty in Yountville. Will you do any wine tasting there? I taste there at least once a week if you need any suggestions.

            6 Replies
            1. re: rocio415

              Maya is a branch of a Manhattan celebrity-chef restaurant. There's also one in Dubai.

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                Which celebrity chef in Manhattan? I read the owners and chef are from Mexico DF hence also the owners of Mexico DF. Regardless, it is the best Mexican food I have had in SF not necessarily the best Mexican food I've ever had.

              2. re: rocio415

                Actually, any wine tasting suggestions would be Napa would be FANTASTIC! We're more into the smaller, family-run type of wineries. Somewhere along the way while consulting for a client, my boyfriend has become anti-multi-national wine conglomerates a la Vincor...excuse me for not knowing the exact term for these companies :p.

                We're staying at Santana Row purely because we have a friend who owns a very nice place there (ie. no expensive hotel fees!) So ironically, we're actually staying there out of financial considerations.... While working in SJ, my better half actually bothered to drive to SF for dinner, and drive allll they way back to Santana Row to party with the "hipsters," so car time is not a big issue.

                1. re: gijoeanne

                  Lately most wineries require reservations so make sure you call in advance. If you'll be in the Yountville area (where the restaurants I recommeded are located) there are a few great places. Right next door to Bouchon is Hope & Grace, further down the street is Jessup Cellars both which have a small tasting room and not super touristy despite the location. About a 10 minute drive away is Robert Biale which focuses on very strong Zinfandales so make sure you eat before going there, also make sure to get the story about "Black Chicken". Last but not least is Elyse winery off of highway 29 does really great red wines particularly Cabernet Sauvignon. Have a fabulous time.

                  Jessup Cellars
                  yountville,ca, yountville, ca

                  Elyse winery
                  yountville,ca, yountville, ca

                  Robert Biale Winery
                  4038 Big Ranch Rd, Napa, CA

                  1. re: gijoeanne

                    You should really consider checking out the wineries in the Santa Cruz mountains. You won't have to trek up to Napa from the South Bay, and the wineries will be much smaller and less corporate.

                2. I'd ask some San Jose locals about taquerias and Mexican food. There's lots of it in California everywhere. I just don't know San Jose and rarely see SJ taquerias/Mexican discussed here much...although I've eaten at a few places it was a while ago. Might also check out Vietnamese in SJ. Very large population there.

                  Not far from SJ is Mountain View and there's a number of excellent and inexpensive taquerias (I like La Bamba but others have their favs) and an old school Cal-Mex sit down restaurant, La Fiesta. The family also owns a few sister restaurants, Palo Alto Sol and Fiesta Del Mar...none of it will be cutting edge but a good representation of Cal-Mex food and reasonably priced.

                  In SF there's plenty of taquerias but no outstanding sit down. I like Maya but Mexican food is a funny thing in SF right now I might hit a taco place for lunch but not as the main event so to speak.

                  Between SJ and Monterey is Salinas and there many taco trucks. Others can talk about that better...and there's the search function.

                  I think you'll like Manresa. Might be the best haute restaurant on the West Coast right now.

                  1. I think this is the most recent version of Melanie's ramen rankings -- quite a few of the top ranked places are in the South Bay:

                    Also, the south east side of San Jose is a huge Vietnamese enclave (did they ever resolve the issue of what to call it?). I always start at the intersection of Story Road and McLaughlin, but there's also a big cluster at the Lion Plaza at King and Tully.

                    Grand Century Shopping Mall
                    1001 Story Rd, San Jose, CA