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Two weeks in California

We are over in California in early April for our first non-city holiday: five nights in SF (staying on Union Street) to start with then up to Napa/Sonoma, across to Yosemite, then back up the coast through Paso Robles and Monterey. I have been studying the board and found TeacherFoodies long thread very useful, however I would like some advice on whether we have the best balance for our days in town. We are Australian, live in Hong Kong, and have lived in Paris - so Asian and European food isn't really what we want.

Our goal is to discover Mexican food (as we have only had bad to average in the past), get to experience some great modern californian food, and wallow in burger heaven. So far we have booked Manresa for our blow out (the FL was impossible) and Chez Panisse for their Monday dinner. So that leaves us three dinners and a few lunches. My thoughts and questions.

For Mexican I have Nopalito, Oaxacan, La Taqueria, Mamacita and Taco Delices on the list. I am going to have to probably pick three meals with probably two dinners and one snack lunch. Which three give me the best range of styles? Are these going to illustrate the best of Mexican food? Are any better for lunch or dinner?

I have described he burger hunt to my wife as the hunt for great casual californian cuisine in order to disguise its real purpose, again probably three meals with either two dinners and a lunch or vice a versa. I thought "in-and-out" sounded interesting (or should we save that for days when driving around the state?) and then I have Nopa, Bix or Zuni Cafe. From research they all seem to offer a good burger in a typical SF atmosphere plus the modern californian food needed to keep my wife happy. Which are best for a Friday or Saturday in terms of atmosphere (we want to see the town in all its glory). Do we book or do are we OK with a table in the bar? Waiting and sampling Californian beer and wine is not going to be an ordeal for us.

Grateful for any help, guidance or advice - are we missing anything obvious (we will hit the Farmers Market on Saturday). Appreciate visitors asking the same questions over and over again are a pain, but as a first timer it is tricky to get a feel for the place without a few specific question.

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  1. I'll think about this some more, but for now, yes once you've decided on restaurants you should make reservations as much as possible (even for the "casual-ish" Zuni cafe type spots).

    SF has a food scene that's bigger than the # of tables at restaurants. As a result, on a Friday or Sat. night, without a reservation, you will wait more than an hour for a seat at the bar at any of the popular SF places.

    You may want to mix up the Mexican with some Peruvian. There's a lot of great Peruvian spots in the city these days (La Mar, Fresca, Mochica etc.)

    1. What other activities do you have in mind? If you can devote an afternoon to food, I suggest you head over to Oakland's Fruitvale district for Mexican. Here's a thread with a lot of suggestions. http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/728770 The best time to go is late afternoon, as a lot of the places close early.

      6 Replies
      1. re: Ruth Lafler

        Ruth - Re will do the usual tourist stuff including Alcatraz, and a trip across to Oakland looks interesting, i may just copy your itininary for a food safari.

        Golden - thanks for the tip on booking we will try to work out an itininary. How far inadvance for a bar rather thanrestaurant seat?

        1. re: PhilD

          While from the French board, l know you plan well, you might want to try Aziza, one of my most exciting meals in years. It is Moroccan.

          1. re: PhilD

            First, it's not quite as crazy as my post makes it sound...sorry about the length..

            Some restaurants divert from this reservation plan, but in general you have two choices:

            1. Make a reservation for a table through Open Table. You can also try calling but because most SF restaurants subscribe to Open Table, they are not very good about answering the phone. It doesn't hurt to call though if you don't see a table. The popular eating times here are 7:30/8 pm. These times tend to go 3 weeks in advance at very popular places. The 6:30 and earlier and 9:00 and later times will be still available the week of, and everything disappears a day or two before.

            2. First come, first serve seating at the bar. You can usually get these if you arrive as they are opening. After that, the wait at the bar can be the same wait as for a table (an hour or more). Also, once the bar area is filled up, it's better to go try somewhere else than hoovering as SF restaurants are tiny. Anyones patience can start wearing thin after moving for servers and other people waiting every 2 minutes.

            3. La Mar (Peruvian) is the one of the biggest restaurants in SF that also serves decent to good food. It tends not to have these issues (but I can't guarantee it). I think half of the good will of people towards the place is because it is not a reservations nightmare and can handle groups.

          2. re: Ruth Lafler

            Second on Fruitvale. It's almost like being teleported to Mexico. A weekend afternoon is ideal. San Francisco has no similar Mexican-dominated neighborhood.

            You could hit an In-N-Out in a relatively food-deprived place such as Merced or Salinas, though you can also find great Mexican food in those areas.

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              I am not a huge fan of the Mexican food in Merced but nonetheless there is no reason to go to In N Out anywhere on OPs itinerary.

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                In Salinas my family prefers the great tacos & the salsa at El Grullense taco truck parked on Kern Avenue between Market & Alisal Streets (1 block from In-N-Out). No need to go to In-N-Out.

                Although I keep disposable plates, napkins, hand wipes & plate holder in the car, we still tend to avoid the quesadillas as they're ooze with oil -- tasty but a bit messy to eat in hand in a car.

            2. Nopalito is higher end and excellent. They and Nopa don't take reservations, so a Friday or Saturday night might require a long wait, but it's worth it.

              La Oaxaqueña is the only, to my knowledge, Oaxacan place, but I think you'd be better off going to a place that specializes in the foods of Mexico City, Jalisco, or the Yucatan. You may want to consult this thread for at least some search terms for regional Mexican in SF. http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/827474

              SF is known for its burritos, but they're so heavy that if you want to do a snack lunch, I'd jump to tacos near 24th St in the Mission. La Taqueris for carnitas, Taqueria San Jose for pastor, Taqueria Vallarta for tacos de suadero (hip) or chorizo. Between the two of you, you'd still have room for some other Mexican snacks around there.

              I'd do In N Out on the road... too much good food in SF.

              1. Regarding your Mexican choices, just know that La Taquaria is very good but it is a taquaria, meaning it's an order at the counter and eat with your neighbors type of place. Great food. Super casual. Probably best for lunch.

                You may also want to branch out to Poc Chuc for excellent Yucatan/Myan dishes (very homey) or for popusas at many the great Salvadorian restaurants SF has to offer (Balompie, El Zocalo, or my favorite hole in the wall Los Planes De Renderos are just a few choices).

                As for burgers, count me out for the Zuni version. The focaccia "bun" doesn't hold up and it ends up being just too expensive in the end. Also note that they only serve it for lunch.

                2 Replies
                1. re: Civil Bear

                  Zuni also has the burger on the menu after 10pm. I wish they'd switch from focaccia to buns but the one I ordered for dessert was still one of the highlights of the last meal I had there.


                  1. re: Civil Bear

                    There has been at least one recent 'downhill' report on Poc Chuc, but nonetheless, it would be high on my list. Their habanero salsa is the stuff of my dreams...

                  2. Seems like a reasonable trip for two weeks. Tip: when traveling in the mountains that time of year check the road and weather reports frequently to make sure the roads you want to take are actually open. We've had a mild winter, so Tioga Pass in Yosemite *may* be open by the end of April: if so, it's worth the trip over the pass to see Mono Lake (pack a lunch - generally a good idea when traveling in the more remote areas). Try to stop at Sequoia National Park near Yosemite to see the big trees if you can.

                    Most towns in the Central Valley have a large Mexican population, and a lot of small taquerias. My rule of thumb is that if a place has aguas frescas (fruit juices) or menudo (tripe stew) on weekends it's worth a try. If you see "lengua", "sesos" or "tripitas" on the menu they're likely to be spicier than the other offerings. Also, check out small-town farmers' markets: Monterey has one on Mondays (or maybe Tuesday, can't remember when I stumbled across it) that runs late and has prepared food to take away.

                    Wine: there's a lot of it, and more every day it seems. Sonoma tends to specialize in zinfandels, Napa in cabernet sauvignons and the Paso Robles region in Rhone varietals.

                    Beer: look for brewpubs - places that make their own beer usually on the premise. IIRC, state law requires them to serve food, but for most of them it's not the main thing. I like the Halfmoon Bay Brewery off highway 1 just north of Halfmoon Bay for its location - it's a nice place to sit on a sunny afternoon and watch the water. Thirsty Bear in San Francisco (Howard near 3rd, around the corner from the SF Museum of Modern Art) has the best combination of beer and food (tapas-like small plates that seem to change everytime I go there). Most brewpubs can do a decent burger.

                    In-n-Out Burger is ubiquitous and sort of the ur-California burger experience: very basic, limited menu and not particularly fast (they do cook to order) but decent. Also, check out the "California" board for specific places in the central part of the state.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: tardigrade

                      Great summary. Would also add that Sonoma (Russian River AVA) has great Pinot Noirs.

                      1. re: goldangl95

                        Thanks to everyone for the really great advice, looks like some great eating.

                    2. Hi PhilD!
                      How exciting..
                      Everyone has given you great rec's..

                      In Napa area, we've had a great lunch at Redd...opentable.com can be your friend if you can't get a reservation..we got into FL for lunch through them.
                      Gott's roadside in St. Helena has excellent cheeseburgers and Ahi burgers too...casual and very popular.

                      SF, I like Boulevard, Tadich Grill, Buena Vista for Irish Coffee, Ferry Building...Hog Island Oysters, Blue Bottle, Slanted Door.
                      We hear from friends that the Wayfare Tavern is quite good.

                      Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn is a lovely place to have lunch in Big Sur.. Wagyu burger was excellent and stop by Big Sur Bakery for homemade goodies.
                      PassionFish for dinner in Pacific Grove is excellent.

                      You'll probably want to try an In and Out double double burger...good when your driving around.
                      Great taco shops throughout California..don't eat much Mex in SF since we live in San Diego with fantastic Mex. food.

                      You both are going to love our gorgeous state..


                      Hope all of you in SF are ok with that 4.0 wake up this morning!
                      ; )

                      1. If you want a true representation of the many facets of Mexican food you will be passing through some perfect areas to explore as you cross through the central San Joaquin Valley to Yosemite and back to the central coast.

                        First do a search on the CA board for places like Salinas, Seaside, Marina, Watsonville, and Santa Cruz around the Monterey Bay area. Heading north from Paso Robles if you're adventurous the little towns of King City, Gonzales, and Greenfield have some hidden gems. If you find ones of interest post on the CA board for more details. Have a great trip and please report back.

                        If you happen to take the south exit out of Yosemite you would want to add Fresno to your search list.

                        1. Phil, if you're in the E. Bay (Berkeley), and near Chez Panisse, try Taqueria Talavera for the mole poblano. It's the best in the Bay Area, in my opinion. (Actually, I'd rather have it than Chez Panisse, which = I could make this at home for 1/8 the cost and a trip to the farmer's market.) It's NOT a fancy place but on a warm day great to eat outside on Solano Avenue. If you want it quicker and even less fancy, sister "restaurant" in an old fast-food joint La Mission on 1255 University is an even less fancy option. Mole is one of the great sauces of Mexico.

                          Taqueria Talavera
                          1561 Solano Ave, Berkeley, CA 94707

                          1. Thanks to all for great advice. Here is what we have so far, I realise some of these are best on the California board so will also post there. Are we mad, are we missing something obvious?

                            Friday – arrive from Hong Kong at 22:00 head into town and aim for a late dinner at Zumi Café, Nopa, or Comstock Saloon. We are staying at the Union Street Inn so hopefully not too far to travel.

                            Saturday – our B&B provides breakfast and after that head to the farmers market to browse and probably grab some lunch there. That evening head out to Nopalito and also try some bars around the area or head to the Mission district for drinks. May swop this for a more classic burger/steak meal if the Friday dinner option doesn’t work so may substitute Nopi or Zuni Café.

                            Sunday – head over to Alcatraz to tick off the tourist sights, for lunch we will probably head to a a good coffee place – I have Ritual Roasters, Bi-Rite Creamery, Four Barrels, and Dynamo Donut in my sights: any other recommendations? Later that afternoon head to Oakland for a Mexican crawl around Fruitvale, thanks to Ruth I have Elote fruit cart; La Torta Loca, Marisocos La Costa, El Gordo Taco Truck, Mi Pueblo Food Centre, El Ojo Agua Taco Truck and El Novillo Taco Truck to track down - is this going to be easy to do? And thanks to Robert I will aim for beers at The Trappist, Pacific Coast Brewing and Beer Revolution in downtown Oakland.

                            Monday – mooch around town with no target for lunch, probably aim for another coffee place. We will then head over to Berkley to wander around and have some drinks at Cesar, Trumper Pils and/or Bison Brewery. Dinner at Chez Panisse, then if we are up for it a nightcap at Hotsy Totsy Club.

                            Tuesday to Thursday - we head out to Sonoma and Napa staying in Glenn Ellen. Clearly I haven’t done well on choosing a hotel in a top food area but the hotel looks better value than other towns. Looks like Girl + the Fig and maybe the Fig Café and Wine Bar could be two of our meals. With the other meals being El Molino and/or Juanita Juanita. Have I got the best from the area around Glenn Ellen, it does seem there are better places but we don’t want to travel far in the evenings. During the day I will take a list of other places recommended in Napa etc and we will make decisions on the fly.

                            Friday – we head to Yosemite to stay at the Ahwahnee Hotel for a night, I suspect the hotel restaurant is the best bet. On the way I though of stopping in Oakdale as there are reports of a good Mexican. Is this too much of a diversion or are there better bets?

                            Saturday to Monday we are staying at Fish Camp in a B&B and the options for food don’t seem great so decent rather than great is fine. Any ideas or recommendations, in or around town?

                            Tuesday - head down to Paso Robles, aim to get there early afternoon and sample some wines. Are their any logical stops on the way, Fresno maybe, or should we plan on an In and Out Burger? I was planning to eat at Thomas Hill Organics but it looks like it closes Tuesday. The next best option would appear to be Artisan. Is this a good choice or are there other options?

                            Wednesday – a morning at Hearst Castle then head up the coast through Big Sur to stay in Monterrey, or Carmel, hopefully passing Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn, Nepenthe or Big Sur Bakery at lunchtime. We plan on going to the Aquarium first thing Thursday, and so thought Monterey was a better bet. Trying to choose between Passion Fish and 1833. Any others are we missing anything better? Probably try to grab a coffee and pastry at Parker Lusseau for breakfast.

                            Thursday – head back up the coast to Los Gatos for our final blow out at Manresa, I thought a lunch stop in Santa Cruz could work. Any thoughts for there or a better destination – the more scenic the better.

                            Friday – fly back to Hong Kong at lunchtime for a rest and a diet.

                            21 Replies
                            1. re: PhilD

                              Sunday: alcatraz -> taxi -> blue bottle mynt plaza, coffee from the syphon -> walk to bart -> fruitvale -> beer for dinner?

                              Coffee: Ritual doesn't match the hype, four barrel does, sightglass I hear good things. But Blue Bottle Mynt is a good restful place to get your head together after alcatraz, which is for some reason unusually tiring - I think it's the wind on the boat. You can also taxi to the mission, but it's unreasonable to do the mission and fruitvale on the same day.

                              Regarding oakland beer, consider skipping Pacific Coast, but stop in if you have the time. Get the sampler. It's a holdover from the early 90's; we make much better beer now. The trappist is a great place to just hang out, they specialize in Belgian which, if you're coming from france, might not be the best use of time and calories although the place is awesome. Beer revolution is rather too brightly lit for its own good.

                              generally, you want to drink west coast IPAs. The west coast IPA style is now plentifull around the us - I do like Dogfish Head - but it started here, and Lagunitas, Speakeasy, Russian River, Anderson Valley, Racer 5 are all names to look for.
                              Here's an article:
                              If you really like beer, Portland's the true mecca. You see lots of beers they don't have down here, with more balance. The producers I named are bigger guys (still independent) and widely available, where in Portland it seems every restaurant and bar has three beers you've never heard of.

                              If you want to do something touristy right in Jack London Square, stop for a beer at Heinold's. It's a real bar - an 1883 shack that's still, somehow, a neighborhood place. It's right by the ferry terminal, so you can get back to SF the romantic way - and probably have yet another beer waiting for the ferry.

                              If you get hungry on the late side, this area has a wide variety of great food. The best thing is a taxi up to Plum at 19th street. Although it doesn't seem long, it is, especially after a few beers. The plates are small and reasonably priced, and a huge bang for buck. They're doing strong michelin-one-star food. The beet boudin noir was exceptional last visit, but everything's always good. Sit at the bar to watch the show. Teeny place. Don't show up before 8:30 without a reservation, but also don't worry about just wanting a bowl of soup and a small plate. It's conceptually designed that way, and the small plates are very, very complex.

                              Down in Jack London Square, your best eats are at Encuentro. It's small even for an oakland place, a few blocks walk, you'll need a smartphone with GPS, much beloved by locals, good inexpensive wine list and great little plates like Socca of the Day. That little neighborhood was built for 20-something software people who like food and taking the ferry to work, this is their kind of place.

                              If you're feeling very energetic, take in the late set at Yoshi's. Yoshi's is a great jazz room, on the international touring circuit, similar to the Blue Note in NYC. The building was designed with Yoshi's around it, and the feel and sound is flawless. Not every night is great, but musicians love playing Yoshi's because of the intimate feel and Yoshi's usually books 3-4 night stands, so they get to rest up and hang with their friends in oakland (every musician has a bunch of friends in the east bay - it's west coast brooklyn). Sunday is usually something local or unusually, not a headliner, and they may not even have a late set, but it's worth a look. The food at Yoshi's isn't bad, you expect bad but it's pretty good, and they started adding more local stuff, like ribs. Most of the other stuff in JLS proper is a little dull, although Scott's will serve you a fresh local crab.

                              1. re: PhilD

                                Don't forget to allow for jetlag! If your flight gets in at 2200 you're still looking at at least an hour to clear customs and get to your hotel!

                                I don't remember there being much of anything in Fish Camp. The nearest "big" town is Oakhurst, where we stumbled upon a decent German restaurant in a shopping center a few years ago. The Ahwanee has a good rep, but it's beyond my price range.

                                In Sonoma, we always seem to end up at Della Santina just off the square. I've been to the Girl and the Fig a few times, and frankly have been underwhelmed. In Paso Robles, Artisan is pretty good. I'd stick to wineries west of town, though - haven't been too impressed with the ones to the east.

                                On the way to Los Gatos try to stop at Henry Cowell or Big Basin state parks for the redwoods!

                                1. re: tardigrade

                                  Sadly the German place in Oakhurst is no more.

                                  1. re: PolarBear

                                    Do you mean Erna's Elderberry House?
                                    It was always the big splurge in Oakhurst.

                                    1. re: 512window

                                      No, it was a little place called Three Sisters Cafe, named for three pet pigs, IIRC.

                                2. re: PhilD

                                  The Union Street Inn is at Union and Fillmore, that's Cow Hollow / the Marina. Friday late options:

                                  Osha Thai, Tacolicious, Umami Burger, Betelnut, midnight
                                  Brazen Head, Delarosa, 1am
                                  Mel's Diner, open all night

                                  Zuni serves their burger only before dinner hours and after 10pm.

                                  Why Hotsy Totsy? I think they have only one beer on draft and that's PBR.

                                  Near Glen Ellen I like Vineyards Inn. Not fancy at all but good food, very popular with locals.


                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                    The Hotsy Totsy has some of the best cocktails around, at least a few years ago. Don't drink the beer.

                                    "On the way to Los Gatos try to stop at Henry Cowell or Big Basin state parks for the redwoods!" Big Basin is a long way off the beaten path to Los Gatos, and a slow ride. A classic tourist error is to try to snag a view at the redwoods "on the way", but Big Basin takes a while. According to Google, it's an hour each way from Los Gatos, but it always feels longer and you want time to enjoy the trees.

                                  2. re: PhilD

                                    In Sonoma (the city), there is La Salette. I have not been but many on the board speak of it much more fondly than Girl & The Fig. La Salette is Portuguese.

                                    1. re: PhilD

                                      You can't drink at Bison and they don't do tours.

                                      You can't drink at Trumer Pils. They do have a tour. They only make one beer and personally I find it bland and boring.

                                      If you want to tour a brewery, I think Anchor's a lot more interesting. Or in the East Bay, Linden Street, which has tours and a taproom.


                                      1. re: PhilD

                                        Later that afternoon head to Oakland for a Mexican crawl around Fruitvale, thanks to Ruth I have Elote fruit cart; La Torta Loca, Marisocos La Costa, El Gordo Taco Truck, Mi Pueblo Food Centre, El Ojo Agua Taco Truck and El Novillo Taco Truck to track down - is this going to be easy to do?
                                        Yes, it's easy. It's maybe a mile, or a little more, roundtrip from the Fruitvale BART station to Mi Pueblo. Here's a map I made on google maps: http://g.co/maps/ab42z
                                        Note that the El Ojo de Agua truck has moved and been replaced by a Sinaloa truck. I'm not sure if there's anything to recommend there.

                                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                          Once upon a time, Sinaloa had a good fish taco, but I haven't visited that truck in many, many years & there's probably been a personnel change during that interval.

                                          1. re: Stephanie Wong

                                            Sinoloa's fish tacos (grilled) are still good but they have gone up a bit in price to $1.50 ea but still a bargain. My favorite there is the torta carnitas (minus the cheese and sour cream) with fish tacos being the second.

                                            1. re: ML8000

                                              Thanks for the update; hope to stop by this week. Original ltrick ocation at 22nd Ave & International or the new 2nd location at Fruitvale & East 12th?

                                              1. re: Stephanie Wong

                                                22nd and International. The ceviche tostada is also very good and a bargain at $3.50.

                                        2. re: PhilD

                                          I prefer the Fig Cafe in Glen Ellen to its larger sister the Girl and the Fig in Sonoma....and it has the advantage of being right where you are staying...plus if I recall correctly they have free corkage (at least for Sonoma wines:-) - so you can indulge and not have to worry about driving back .... My dad lives in Glen Ellen, so we try and visit as often as possible...Actually one of the best meals I've had in the last six months was had there back in November....the lamb was to die for. One thing I like about the Fig Cafe is that you can just have a burger or a salad, or you can have a more complete meal...but either way you will have enjoyed a nice meal!. One other tip: the back patio area of the Awahnee is my favorite place in the world for a drink....in fact, you could do far worse than making drinks and apps out there your "dinner" for that night.....(and the world's best view is just gravy:-)

                                          1. re: PhilD

                                            Lots of great information and help - a big thank-you to all. Only two weeks to go so the excitement i building. I will report back!

                                            1. re: PhilD

                                              In Glen Ellen - if you arrive at the right moment, you can be among the first guests at Glen Ellen Star http://glenellenstar.com/

                                              I strongly recommend El Molino over Juanita Juanita for Mexican food. A heads up, dining is on the patio out back inside a plastic enclosure, warmed by propane heaters, but you'll be sitting on wooden picnic tables. Check out the spring menu - last post at http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/711365

                                              1. re: Columba

                                                Thanks - do you know when the Star opens? And do the chefs have a local reputation? Looking forward to the "patio" sounds like a good contrast.

                                                1. re: PhilD

                                                  Glen Ellen Star opens for dinner on May 18, lunches in late summer.

                                                  I noticed that the interior is set up now...looking forward to eating there soon.


                                            2. I like the Anchor Brewery tour. The beer is good, the tour informative. Call early to get your desired day.
                                              Lagunitas Brewing Company in Petaluma (go figure) is maybe my favorite brewery to visit in the bay area. These guys are all pirates and miscreants.