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Please help us get excited about SF again! (a little long)

After considerable initial excitement, we've become a little disappointed by food in SF since having moved here 6 months ago, especially if compared to the variety and quantity of restaurants in NYC we love (or, for that matter, in Hong Kong, or Paris, or Barcelona). The key word here is probably "love"--there have been a lot of restaurants that were fine, pleasant, etc., but we want to fall in love, to have to stop talking mid-sentence because the flavors in our mouths are so surprising and right, to get so excited we remember why we can spend hours trawling Chowhound for recommendations.

Please help us! Given SF's sterling reputation, we're assuming we're doing something wrong here. To give you a sense of where we've eaten, I'll try listing all the places that have truly excited us, versus the (oft-praised) places that underwhelmed us. Any further suggestions would be much appreciated. We have a slight preference for places in the Mission//Bernal Heights or in the financial district/SOMA, though we're of course willing to go elsewhere. East Bay recommendations also welcome.

(At this point, and while acknowledging how lucky we've been, it's probably worth mentioning that we've lived in various foreign cities, which makes us perhaps unreasonably picky about--though also potentially very excited about--US versions of some cuisines. This includes Italian, French, Cantonese, Korean, Hungarian, Spanish (esp. Basque and Catalan), German, some Chinese, and Argentine food. (No, we're not in the 1%. Not even close. It's just that we've prioritized living and working abroad, especially in our student years.))

Restaurants we love:
- Aziza
- Benu
- Chez Panisse, sometimes
- the old Bar Tartine (very disappointed by its new incarnation, though the bread's still wonderful)
- Koi Palace (though currently searching for a version with less MSG--will soon try Tai Wu/Mr. Fong)
- Lers Ros (Tenderloin version; haven't tried the Hayes Valley branch)
- Nopa, sometimes
- Range (we find them inconsistent, but the 70% of the time they get it right, good god, they get it right)
- Slanted Door (maybe it helps that we've never been to Vietnam)
- Spicy Bite (for delivery in Noe, at least)
- La Taqueria
- Taqueria Cancun (well, one of us loves it; the other one doesn't, finds it too greasy)
- Tartine Bakery (for its lemon tart and croissants)
- further afield: Bouchon, China Village, Maru Ichi in Mountain View, and the late, much-lamented Kaygetsu

Places that disappointed us, particularly versus the hype:
- Beretta (what is the deal with Beretta? Can't begin to understand its appeal)
- the new Bar Tartine
- Burma Superstar
- Commonwealth (we wanted to love this place!)
- Flour + Water
- Incanto
- Plum (was it an off-night? People seem to adore this place)
- Quince (used to love this place back when we lived on the Peninsula and would drive into the city, but something changed)
- Zuni (to be fair, we didn't try the roasted chicken--maybe we'll try it another time)

Places we've found pleasant, though nothing to jump up and down about:
- A16
- Delfina
- Dosa
- El Farolito
- Foreign Cinema
- Gary Danko (we haven't tried it in years, though)
- Heirloom Cafe
- a couple of Korean places in outer Richmond, including Jang Soo and Han Il Kwan
- ICHI Sushi
- Inka's
- Knead Patisserie & Local: Mission Eatery
- La Ciccia (this one's on the border between pleasant and amazing--one of really liked it, the other one is often put off by strong sea flavors)
- Lahore Karahi
- Limon
- Manresa (haven't tried it in years)
- Mission Chinese
- Mr. Pollo
- R&G
- Sam's (for the onion rings)
- SPQR
- Truly Mediterranean
- Udupi Palace
- Yank Sing
- Sura
- Z&Y

Places we've been meaning to try (though, should we?):
Ame, Bowl'd, Chez Spencer, Eijii, Ippuku, Izakaya Yuzuki, Kappou Gomi, Pastores, Papalote, Piqueo, Pizzaiolo, Saison (only if we get past the sticker shock), Roli Roti, Sushi Aka Tombo, Tai Wu, Una Pizzeria Napoletana (we liked it in NY)

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  1. Yuzuki and Ippuku are great.

    Bowl'd is the best Korean I've had around here.

    Una Pizza Napoletana is a must-try if you like the non-crisp traditional Neapolitan style, personally I prefer the local Naples-NY hybrid with some crispness, Cotogna's my favorite for that.

    Why did you love China Village and not Z&Y?

    5 Replies
    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      I have to give a strike against Bowl'd, especially since they seem to have high standards for ethnic food (Full disclosure: I am also Korean, so my standards are probably not the same either). There's nothing wrong with it... so long as you only ever want bibimbap. It's a bit expensive for what it is, too.

      1. re: dunstable

        Where do you prefer for Korean in the Berkeley / Oakland area?

        I've never ordered the bibimbop at Bowl'd. http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/768049

        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          Nowhere, although I have not eaten at every single Korean restaurant in the East Bay, so don't take that as a personal dismissal of every Korean restaurant (although my overall opinion is indeed sorta low). Sometimes I will be out with my Asian friends and we will end up somewhere like Playground or the Porno Bar, and there will be Korean bar food there; otherwise I almost never eat Korean food out.

          The vast majority of Korean food is super easy to make at home. With the banchan, you marinate it and perhaps blanch it or something, the end. With the meats, you marinate it and fire, the end. I can't bring myself to eat it out (and pay money for it) unless it's REALLY kickass.

          1. re: dunstable

            Kind of unfair to single out Bowl'd, then.

            I have eaten at literally every Korean restaurant in Oakland, and overall I like Bowl'd the best, though there are other places I like for certain dishes, and nobody puts out a spread of panchan as diverse as Sura's.

            I've bought every English-language Korean cookbook, and make it at home, but to do the kind of meal I get when I go out would take me two days.

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              I'm not singling it out, exactly. It just happens that I have eaten at Bowl'd, and that is my assessment. It's just one opinion, just like yours; the OP can make of that what s/he will.

              It is true; if you made every bit of banchan that places typically offer, then you would be busy for a while, and in fact I used to spend Sunday evenings making it, so that I could eat it throughout the week. (Now I'll just eat out, heh.) But if it's just for me, I cheat a little bit with the banchan, and buy the stuff that's sitting in the little salad bar thing of the Korean supermarket.

    2. I love Farallon at 450 Post Street. It's a bit pricey but worth it.

      Also, if you are up to going to Half Moon Bay, you might want to try Navio at the Ritz Carlton. Again it is pricey but very worth it.

      1. Please clarify, you'd like to find more places to love, and then have a list of more than a dozen places that you've 'loved, loved.' Does that past tense mean you're not fond of them any more ?

        if you still love those places, you're doing pretty well. if they don't please you as much any more, it's quite possible that this area's reputation/hype surpasses what it actually puts on the plates and in your palates, in your hierarchy of qualities of course. you've compared this area with some of the preeminent dining cities of the world, and although some folks around here won't seriously consider the notion, it might not be a just comparison. just one factor, the development/population density here probably isn't as concentrated -- especially relative to NYC and Hong Kong. and of course the elite tier chefs in these parts are influenced by the best of French and Catalan/Spanish cooking, not the other way around.

        if you're open to trying another Burmese eatery, and have modest expectations, you might consider Mandalay. the pizza is very good at both Pizzaiolo and Tony's Pizzeria Napoletana, but the North Beach place has many styles of crust, the Temescal joint only does one. non-pizza menu items are more in the lighter, California cuisine style at Pizzaiolo (as you probably know, its owner is an alum of Chez Pan'.) if you like China Village, again with modest expectations you'll probably enjoy Shanghai Bund or Beijing Restaurant ; of course, they won't have the Szechuan style stuff, but in their own regional concentration some of their dishes equal or surpass the China Village interpretations. Roli Roti's signature chicken is a basic herbs + salt crusted bird, nothing extraordinary or markedly better than what you can do at home, and for my tastes there's a couple of other places that make better porchetta. enjoy your quest.

        4 Replies
        1. re: moto

          @moto: Good point, I'll change the tense to the present. Yeah, we still love the first set of restaurants, though we'd really like to branch out and try some new places. The ones you recommend sound very interesting, thanks. And what you say about population density is true; we are starting to wonder a little if this might not be a top-tier restaurant city, though we're hoping to be proven wrong, as we're probably here to stay for some time. And there's a lot to be said for the area's emphasis on local, fresh ingredients.

          @Saluti: Thanks for the recommendations!

          @Robert Lauriston: Thanks for the thoughts. And China Village's execution, ingredients, and use of Sichuan peppercorns all seemed a little better than Z&Y's. (That said, even China Village made us happy on a relative scale, not if we consider Sichuan in China, or, surprisingly, in NY. Starting to think we'd be happier if our palates' memories were worse.)

          1. re: carbonara

            if you truly like those two Mission tacquerias named, you shouldn't have any problems at all finding other Cali-mex places to enjoy, as the SF expat susan has noted. should you or susan be in the vicinity of the city of Sonoma, try El Molino near the junction of hwy.12 and Boyes Springs Rd.

            if you care to try non-tacqueria Cali-mex fare in the Mission, the huitlacoche quesadillas and the chiles en nogada at La Torta Gorda are both very tasty.

            1. re: moto

              I have had (the very good) coffee and a (good) quesadilla as take out from El Molino, and was sad that I was rushing from one family event to another and didn't have time to try more (I will say that service was slow and disorganized the day we were there. Will go back though: the dish I really want to try there is the enchiladas suizas. Saw some going out to a customer and they looked great. as did the chalupas).

              1. re: susancinsf

                La Torta Gorda somehow wasn't on our radar at all, and it's close to us, so we'll have to try that soon, thanks. And El Molino if we're near Sonoma--got it. We might be there next weekend, so that's exciting.

        2. It is quite possible to have an great meal at La Ciccia without indulging in items from the sea, so I am a little puzzled as to why you'd put Range in the love category despite inconsistency, and yet put LaCiccia in the 'pleasant' category because one of you doesn't like strong sea flavors. Why not try it again and stick to non-seafood items for the one put off by them? (full disclosure: I was a regular at La Ciccia when I lived in the neighborhood and have eaten there many, many times, while I have only been to Range perhaps three or four times: I found Range to be consistently good but certainly not amazing, other than the often amazing cocktails.)

          I haven't eaten at Manresa, but from all I've read here and elsewhere, you might want to try it again if it has been years.

          I have a similar comment to Moto's: San Francisco is much smaller than New York, Paris or Barcelona (I believe Barcelona is the smallest of those three, and it is still twice the population of the City of San Francisco). So, the real root of your problem, I suspect, is that with a few exceptions, you are comparing apples and oranges, particularly by (for the most part) limiting yourself to places just in SF proper. If you love Spicy Bite, for example, you will think you have died and gone to heaven if you ever get down to the South Bay to try some of the Indian restaurants there. Similarly, try Redwood City or Oakland for taquerias that beat the pants off of La Taqueria or Cancun (and I say that even though Mexican food in the bay area always seems to disappoint me) Or head up to the North Bay (Sonoma, Napa, Healdsburg), which is where I suspect the really good Mexican food is these days, although alas, I never have enough time to explore that scene on my brief trips up that way to visit family. (For that matter, actually, you really need to try Pastores if you want really good home-style Mexican food without leaving Mission/Bernal).

          Bottom line: I think your expectations that San Francisco will match New York may be unrealistic, and you should get out (to the rest of the bay area) more. Have fun!

          4 Replies
          1. re: susancinsf

            Well, one of us really enjoyed her seafood-heavy La Ciccia, but still wasn't head-over-heels in love, and the other just didn't like his (non-seafoody) dishes, so really like + dislike seems to average out to pleasant. Range, meanwhile, has given us a number of oh-my-god moments, even if it's only happened on two-thirds of our visits. That said, our La Ciccia reaction was based on one visit, and we live nearby, so we'll have to try it again. And yes, Pastores has been on the to-try list--we'll have to go there soon.

            Thanks for the other recommendations. Do you have a favorite taqueria in Oakland, or a favorite Indian place in the South Bay?

            1. re: carbonara

              When you are looking for a not-inexpensive place, try All Spice in San Mateo for Indian fusion. It's California/ Indian. And we love it. It's relatively new.

              1. re: carbonara

                If you go back to La Ciccia and you like salumi or sopressata, don't miss whatever they have on special....usually house made and (to me) irresistible.

                I haven't been in the South Bay in so long that I am not the best source of the latest info on Indian there, but here is a thread that caught my eye and might interest you:

                http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/829776

                1. re: carbonara

                  Tastebuds in the South Bay has excellent Indian food. Complete, complete hole-in-the wall, and very spicy renditions. Their tamarind fish curry (Fish Pulusu) is excellent.

              2. I've been similarly disappointed or puzzled by the restaurants you name in your 2nd list - Beretta especially, tho I've had a few good appetizers there, but there pizza is flat-out bad, to me.
                I too wanted to love Commonwealth - we really did not like anything but one dish. Flour & Water - eh. Burma Superstar - Mandalay is better, even Burmese Kitchen on Larkin is better. Plum - i went 3 or 4 months ago for the first time - it just didn't live up to the hype (much like F+W). Zuni to me is good for a lunch - a burger, oysters, some champagne, fries - they're good at the simple pleasures. I love Range, have been lucky enough to only have been pleased there.

                I love Pizzaiolo - adore it, even. Is it going to surprise you? Probably not. Just really, really well done Cal-Italian food.

                Have you tried German? Suppenkuche in Hayes Valley has to me improved greatly and I've loved my meals there. Walzwerk is another people like, tho not my fave. Haven't been to Schmidt's yet.

                Ohgane, in Oakland, is our favorite for Korean, tho I've not yet tried Bowl'd.

                I had some outstanding sashimi at Sushi 29 in Albany (east bay), though some of their rolls were just ok.

                Places I've been to that wowed: Have you been to Coi? Or Commis, in Oakland? I still dream about the meals I've had at both restaurants.

                I think as you continue to explore neighborhoods you'll find the spots that excite you, that make you feel good about being here. Like everyone else has said, San Francisco is never going to be New York, Paris or Barcelona...different animal. Maybe keep your ears open for pop-ups. Good luck!

                6 Replies
                1. re: mariacarmen

                  I think Schmidt's and Leopold's have taken things up a notch from Suppenk├╝che, and Gaumenkitzel in Berkeley is another step up from there.

                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    I do like Gaumenkitzel. Need to try the other two.

                  2. re: mariacarmen

                    Thanks for all the recommendations. (It's nice to hear we're not the only ones underwhelmed by Flour + Water, etc...helps to mitigate the am-I-crazies.) No, we haven't tried Commis or Coi yet--for some reason, we'd been under the impression that Commis belongs on the list of extremely expensive restaurants, a category we've been slower to try. Looking at the menu, though, that $68 tasting menu looks irresistibly tempting. And we'll have to try to the German places, thanks. I get something like weekly cravings for NYC's Austrian food (Blaue Gans!), so maybe one of these German places will help fill the craving.

                    1. re: carbonara

                      Blaue Gans used to be one of my top fave restos in NY.
                      Lemme know if you find something similar in the Bay Area.
                      Skip Gaumenkitzel if you're looking for something even a pale shadow of BG. I haven't tried the others.

                      1. re: escargot3

                        Well, if you mean by 'pale shadow' Gaumenkitzel isn't Austrian or part of a high-power restaurant chain. Just a single chef using organic ingredients and preparing recipes handed down by her family.

                        However, given the OP's favor of celeb chefs, probably not.

                        Crixa Bakery in Berkeley might be of interest in terms of Eastern European desserts.

                        1. re: rworange

                          Celeb chefs? A little confused as to who on earth on that initial list is a celebrity chef, other than Thomas Keller and Alice Waters. I remember Nick Balla's name, but only because we used to love Bar Tartine so much. Other than that, I don't care if the person making my food is a feted chef or a monkey (or, you know, a hair-pulling rat), as long as the food's good.