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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.

                  http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/7251...

                  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.