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SF- Does the Emperor have no Chowhound clothes?

It occurred to me that, as time has gone on, I now rarely if ever go to SF for what admittedly is my own definition of Chowhound food. SF seems to have become the home of higher end Cal Cuisine. It does have its Viet, Chinese and Northern Indian spots, or higher end "me too" spots such as Dosa, but I can get better and more diverse efforts of those in the cities I now seem to be spending my time in. (San Jose, Milpitas, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Fremont, Millbrae, Redwood City, Mt View, Foster City etc). I can also get better efforts of subsets of Korean, Japanese, and Mexican among others.

Seems to me that the Chowhound universe has shifted over the years I have been here. But then again, maybe I have shifted. Interested in others thoughts.

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  1. The population of the City of San Jose is close to a million and the population of the City of San Francisco is about 750,000, so it shouldn't be surprising that the bigger city might have more food diversity. Apart from that, it sounds like you are lumping all of those other cities into a region, but not SF itself. There is no way that Foster City, population about 30,000, all on its own, has more diversity of eating places than San Francisco.

    That said, cuisines in San Francisco that I am aware of that you don't mention include Sardinian, Turkish, Tunisian, Moroccan, Nepalese, Cambodian, Afghani, Argentinian, Indonesian, Filipino, El Salvadorean, Guatemalan, Burmese, Malaysian, Thai, Ethiopian, French, Russian, German, Basque, Cajun, Italian, and Brazilian. Just to name a few. It might be time to do some more Chowhounding!

    5 Replies
    1. re: susancinsf

      mmmm perhaps. But SF has the "big rep" while the South Bay is looked on, in some quarters, as being bereft of adequate cuisine. And certainly, for well known fine dining, SF has it all over the entire Bay Area. And I refer to what is admittedly my own definition of "chowhound".

      So yes I know there is a single Sardinian restaurant, the well know Argentinan steakhouse, the one or two German spots that are implied on that list....Italian I can certainly find outside the city. How Chowhoundy those spots are is another question. I wasnt really attempting to name all cuisines.

      But now that you mention it, of your list, I can find equal or in some cases much better than the majority of that list. I just think that, for what I am defining as Chowlike places, (ie not upscale, well known, higher profile restaurants but the family run hidden gems) my universe has shifted outside of SF and into the vast hinterlands beyond....mainly South.

      I would agree however, that perhaps I need to spend some more research time in SF.

      1. re: tomritza

        "But SF has the "big rep" while the South Bay is looked on, in some quarters, as being bereft of adequate cuisine."

        I doubt that anyone who's familiar with the Bay Area as a whole would argue that SF is superior to the East and South Bay for non-European ethnic food. You're of course more likely to find great ethnic restaurants where the communities themselves are located - Afghani in Fremont, Indian in Fremont and Sunnyvale, Korean in Santa Clara and Oakland, Taiwanese in Cupertino/San Jose, Ethiopian in Oakland, Thai/Lao in Oakland, Vietnamese in San Jose, Japanese in San Jose.

        Every once in a while, you get a great restaurant that seems isolated from where the bulk of the community is - Thai House Express and Angkor Borei in SF come to mind - but those are unusual.

        Anyway, having lived in the South and East Bays, but never SF, I also rarely go to SF for non-European ethnic food. But I think that it's probably you, and not the universe, that has shifted :) Looking forward to hearing more reports of where you've eaten - there are so many undiscovered gems on the Peninsula and South Bay (I loved the South Bay because every strip mall seemed like a potential gold mine), and so few posters covering that region!

        1. re: tomritza

          Dismissing a restaurant because it's upscale is not the chowhound spirit. As Jim Leff says in the FAQ, "Chowhounds ... know certain pleasures come at a price—foie gras ain't cheap, and Château Margaux is one terrific drink. No pleasure is gladly missed."

          1. re: tomritza

            "But SF has the "big rep" while the South Bay is looked on, in some quarters, as being bereft of adequate cuisine."

            If I had a car, or if it were closer, I would eat in the Peninsula all the time. Same with Oakland. I haven't even been to Fremont, but if you gave me a good enough reason, I would hop on BART right now to eat there. In fact, does anyone have any good Afghani recommendations?

            1. re: Dave MP

              Afghan:
              Kabul in San Carlos (possible on CalTrain) or Sunnyvale
              Salang Pass in Fremont, across the street from DeAfghanan kabobs: not close to BART though
              Helmand Palace in San Francisco

              Helmand Palace is my favorite of the four above. However if you'll expand the cuisine to include Persian, Shalizaar in Belmont is a treat and worth a journey.

        2. I haven't spent enough time in the South Bay to have a strong opinion, but I think SF might have the best barbecue, Burmese, French, Middle Eastern, Moroccan, Persian, Peruvian, Salvadorean, Shanghai, Thai, and Yucatecan food in the Bay Area. The following are some SF places that might be the best at various cuisines or dishes:

          A16 (Neapolitan)
          Aziza (Moroccan)
          Angkor Borei (Cambodian)
          Helmand Palace (Afghan)
          Kingdom of Dumpling (Bejing Chinese)
          La Ciccia (Sardinian)
          La Santaneca (Salvatorean - pupusas)
          Larkin Express Deli (Burmese)
          Maykadeh (Persian)
          Memphis Minnie's (BBQ)
          Mochica (Peruvian)
          Old Jerusalem (Middle Eastern)
          Old Mandarin (Peking-style hot pot)
          Paladar (Cuban)
          Poc-Chuc (Yucatecan)
          Shanghai Dumpling King
          Spices / Spices II (Taiwanese Sichuan)
          Sunrise Deli (falafel)
          Taqueria San Jose (tacos as pastor)
          Thai House Express
          Ti Couz (crepes)
          Truly Mediterranean (falafel, schawerma)
          Zone 88 (Sichuan hot pot)

          The best Afghan food's probably in Fremont. Oakland and several other places have better Mexican. The best Indonesian and Turkish are in Berkeley, the best Malaysian / Singaporean in Lafayette. The best Ethiopian is probably in Oakland or San Jose. Oakland ties with SF for best Italian. I suspect the best Filipino and Vietnamese food is in the South Bay.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            Actually, I think the best Filipino food is in the North Bay, either Daly City or in the Vallejo area.

            The discussion on this board is the sum total of all the individuals who contribute to it. If there are lots of chowhoundy places in San Jose, you couldn't tell it by what people post here, with the exception of Vietnamese. Why don't you share more of those "more diverse efforts" with us?

          2. I think that in order to justify the SF reputation, you have to look at the bay area as a whole.

            High end: French Laundry, Manreas, Cyrus, Ubuntu.

            All of the ethnic neghborhoods sperad out around the bay. Lots of them are better than in SF proper, some are not. Many restaurants are just getting priced out of the city. Especially the Mom and Pop ethnic places you seem to favor. High cost of living, high cost of help, some new legal restrictions. (I am NOT trying to start a discussion whether those restrictions are good, just commenting.)

            SF is not alone in this. NYC used to be Manhattan and little else. Now you have the rise of Chinatowns in Flushing and Brooklyn, ethnic areas around the 5 boroughs, same as SF.

            Other cities probably share this also. The american dining scene just isn't as 'city centric' as it was years ago.

            4 Replies
            1. re: lgphil

              SF has plenty of cheap mom-and-pop ethnic places, particularly in the Tenderloin, Mission, Sunset, and Richmond.

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                Certainly, there are some left. Especially in the neighborhoods you mention.

                It used to be, that if you wanted Chinese food for example, you went to the city, ate in Chinatown, etc. Now, you go to the city, or Milpitas, or Cupertino, or Daly City or, Oakland or or or. Not limited any more. Same with other cuisines.

                I got to talking to the owner of a new Chinese place in Milpitas not too long ago. He had originally wanted to open in SF, but ended up choosing Milp because the rents were so much lower and he couldn't see the return in SF.

                I don't think iit is as much that Sf has 'lost it'. Just other places have caught up, moved on.

              2. re: lgphil

                I think the OP is confusing destination restaurants with neighborhood food. San Francisco is a tourist and convention center, and has higher rent than most of Oakland. So it's not surprising to find more high end places here that cater to that audience. Not all are highly regarded. That hardly makes them representative of what's available, only what ends up in Zagat.

                By the same token, you tend to want destination food when you drive half an hour or more. I know I do. It's easier to explore a neighborhood you live in for lunch every day, or dinner twice a week, than say for me to drive to Fremont and work my way around. Maybe I should drive to Napa for tacos instead of Ubuntu.

                It's a sign of social progress that recent immigrants no longer have to live clustered in urban ghettos to run businesses but have now spread out to suburbs and strip malls.

                But most of the restaurants I patronize in the city are ethnic food, not Chronicle-approved upscale European/Cal-Italian. Significantly, few of them are Chinese restaurants in Chinatown, Japanese restaurants in Japantown, or Italian restaurants in North Beach.

                1. re: Windy

                  A destination restaurant isn't necessarily the kind of place Michael Bauer would review. I've schlepped to the South Bay to go to places such as Thirupathi Bhimas, Darda, and Peking Eastern House that have food that's not available closer to home. I've talked with or overheard people at other tables at SF places such as Old Mandarin Islamic and Maykadeh who drove similar distances.

              3. Besides the obvious spreading out of ethnic restaurants and communities, I'm surprised no one has mentioned retail rental costs in SF. Certainly rent has gone up everywhere but I think SF (minus a few premium locations like Palo Alto) still is the costliest.

                Ethnic restaurants largely remain a family enterprise and this pushes people to find less expensive locations. I think this backs up the idea of people are moving out of SF, regular income and particularly mom and pop businesses. There's still a lot but given the cost of doing business and the risk, people are moving out.

                On the other end, places that start up in SF are obviously out to cover costs (like duh). The nice neighborhood place that charges $20-25 for an entre has boomed which is good but I think people are in denial if they don't think there's an effect, long term.

                The ethnic places that have opened more recently almost always open in lower rent districts like the Tenderloin, TenderNob, Nobloin, etc. As it is now, the Mission is tapped out and once places like Blue Plate move into the Excelsior and Silver Ave...not going to be much room left for Mom and Pop.

                Ethnic enclaves will still provide space for businesses within that community but that also has a stagnation effect. When was the last time you heard of a great new Chinese place in SF Chinatown or a great new Taqueria in the Mission?

                The emperor is still clothed but he's not wearing as much as he use to...I suspect he will be nekkid in 20 years.

                3 Replies
                1. re: ML8000

                  The Mission's absolutely not really tapped out. A couple of weeks ago I walked down Valencia from Duboce to 23rd and back on Mission St. While Valencia has been largely gentrified all through there, Mission St. is still pretty low-rent, only a handful of upscale restaurants and bars, and lots of seriously cheap dives.

                  Cheap ethnic Mission District restaurants opened in the last couple of years that have gotten attention here include Poc-Chuc and several other Yucatecan places, the Burmese incarnation of Yamo, Old Jerusalem, and Goood Frickin' Chicken. I saw a couple of dozen other newish places.

                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    Of the new cheap ethnic places in the Mission, if you notice, they tend to replace existing restaurant slots because it's less expensive to re-occupy a place with the required venting, etc.

                    Very few (if any) mom and pops places can afford to pop for $200k (min.) for new venting, fire suppression system, dishwasher, etc., let alone a nice new FOH. OTOH, moving into an existing place usually can get you a code variance. Yamo is a perfect example.

                    In other words, there's only so many slots that mom and pops will likely open in the Mission due to the start-up cost going from scratch. Add in high rents and high risk and new mom and pop places just aren't in the cards very often. I'd say the Mission is tapped out in this manner. The same thing has been going on in Chinatown for years but with tighter geographics...replacement, rotating ownership, etc.

                    1. re: ML8000

                      Sure, but those Mission Street and side-street mom-and-pop places fail all the time. A restauranteur looking for one can find a place fairly easily, and judging from the prices, rents haven't gone up the way they have on Valencia.

                2. Up till the mid-1950s, cities dominated discussion of regions. Now it's "population areas." San Francisco gets talked about a lot because it's a "destination city." Visitors don't head for Foster City or or Walnut Creek.

                  People heading for a night on the town often go for the big city.
                  But there's nothing at all new about excellent food being served up in outlying areas. A city gets its reputation partly from routist guidebooks, and after all, who wants to take a 25 mile ride to Foster City when there's a good place 2 miles away?

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: mpalmer6c

                    Tourist chowhounds head far and wide looking for delicious treats they can't get at home, or that might be better. As far back as 1996 we took a friend visiting from New York on an excursion to Milpitas for Muslim Chinese, and then to Santa Clara for Indian ice cream. He's taken us on similar excursions in NYC.

                    As it says in the FAQ, "Chowhounds ... won't hesitate to go far, far out of their way for even slightly better."

                    1. re: mpalmer6c

                      For me the question comes down to whether the excellent food is something I can get locally. I *live* in Foster City and frankly there's not a whole lot here. :) This isn't to say that there aren't some good "chowhound" type places nearby (Sweet Basil Thai and Tai Wu, for example, virtually within walking distance of my apartment, and of course all of San Mateo a few miles away), and there's a fair number of less chowhoundy but still acceptable places within a mile or two.

                      But if I really, really want a good Cuban dish, I'm gonna be driving a while. And maybe that's quintessentially Chowhound -- I'm interested in the Big Name Destination restaurants, to be sure, but I'm willing to travel an arguably ridiculous distance to get a truly good Cuban sandwich or Chicago hot dog at a "neighborhood place" that doesn't have any analogue in a neighborhood close by.