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Apr 11, 2013 10:16 AM

Rick Bayless on San Francisco

Mr. Chicago Mexican gets ready to throw down:

I know a lot of people are going to get upset by his comments, but I agree with him almost completely, although I do wonder just how much he really could know about it after three days of sampling.

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  1. I think he is spot on...

    I miss the Mourad of the old days of Aziza (and wish he would open a new restaurant that would go back to those roots).

    I grew up on Mexican food while living in San Diego and dashing to Ensanada and Rosarito for fish tacos; there is so much being done with that cuisine that we are not seeing beyond the Mission burrito.

    And I've been pretty tired of Cal-Italian for almost a decade. No one has done anything interesting with pizza or pasta in ages, yet it continues to show up on most of the 3-star restaurants in some fashion.

    42 Replies
    1. re: CarrieWas218

      I don't think the very popular local pizza style you get at Cotogna, Delfina Pizzeria, Zero Zero, Flour + Water, and many others existed ten years ago.

      It's true that the Bay Area dining scene is shaped by customers who care more about their food being delicious than about whether the chef is doing anything new or interesting (Daniel Patterson's complaint in his "To the Moon, Alice" NY Times piece a few years ago). There are lots of classic Italian dishes that are unlikely to be improved by modernist techniques or exotic ingredients.

      1. re: Robert Lauriston

        I don't doubt that classic Italian can be improved upon.

        It is just sad for me that we don't have a more diverse ethnic selection:

        Where are the Cuban sandwiches?
        Authentic Turkish pilafs (more than a mere kebab)?
        Scandinavian beyond Plaj?
        Central European like Czech or Bosnian?
        Real Colombian with ajiaco and the sancocho ?
        Deep South BBQ?
        Islamic Chinese?
        Brazilian Fejoida?
        Moroccan that isn't twee?

        1. re: CarrieWas218

          Okay, you say the glass is 10% empty.

          Feijoada: Bossa Nova, Canto do Brasil, West Portal branch of Mozzarella di Bufala
          Cubano / Medianoche: Paladar, Poquito, more
          Sancocho: Paladar
          Moroccan: Zitouna, more

          I say it's 98% full. There are few cities in the country with a more diverse selection of international cuisines. Chicago probably has a few we don't, we probably have 50 they don't.

          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            We've had this talk before, and I'm not from Chicago, but Chicago takes no backseat to SF with respect to restaurant diversity; in fact as far as I can tell, they crush us. Perhaps it's just owing to the size of the city, but the names of the neighborhoods alone suggest greater ethnic diversity: Chinatown, New Chinatown, Greektown, Polish Village, Ukrainian Village, Little Italy... I'm not saying I'd rather have their dining scene (there is much, much, much to be cherished about the ingredient quality here), and there are certainly some things here that are better, but it's hard to argue that SF is has more diversity -- the opposite is probably true, especially when we limit ourselves to the midrange restaurants that include California and Cal-Italian cuisine.

            My Chicago friends do covet our Burmese food, though. Apparently the closest Burmese place to Chicago is in Indiana.

            1. re: dunstable

              Chicago has much larger Polish, Greek, and Ukranian populations. Those are the few I was thinking of. Among the cuisines we have here (some you have to go to the suburbs for):

              - Afghan
              - Argentine
              - Basque
              - Basque tapas
              - Belgian
              - Breton crepes
              - Burmese
              - Cambodian
              - Caribbean
              - Chiuchow / Chaozhou / Teo Chow / Chinjiew
              - Colombian
              - Ethiopian / Eritrean
              - Filipino
              - Goan
              - Guatemalan
              - Hakka
              - Hawaiian
              - Indian pizza
              - Indonesian
              - Korean
              - Lao / Laotian
              - Malaysian
              - Muslim / Islamic Chinese
              - Nicaraguan
              - Pakistani
              - Peking-style hotpot
              - Persian
              - Peruvian
              - Salvadorean
              - Shanghai
              - Singapore / Malaysian
              - Sichuan / Szechuan
              - Sri Lankan
              - Taiwan / Taiwanese
              - Taiwanese-style Sichuan
              - northern Thai
              - Tibetan
              - Turkish
              - Vietnamese bahn mi
              - northern Vietnamese
              - Xinjiang
              - Yucatecan

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                Heh heh.

                Well, first of all, this list appears to include the entire Bay Area, which is arguably cheating. But this is what it looks like when you do that for Chicago:


                1. re: dunstable

                  A lot of Zagat's categories are not really cuisines, but they list 111 for Chicago and 140 for SF.


                  Chicago is over four times the size of San Francisco, so a fair comparison should include at least some of SF's suburbs.

                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    I'm not going to count all the cuisines, so I'll assume those numbers are correct, but either way I don't think any of this invalidates Bayless's point that too many of SF's restaurants are too similar.

                    1. re: dunstable

                      In context, his comment seems inexplicable to me.

                      RB: ... there is a real similarity from restaurant to restaurant. Of course, all the restaurants are doing the seasonal thing and getting the same ingredients from the same farms and what not, but it’s all a little bit too alike. ...

                      Zagat: We hear that criticism all the time. But even with that group of restaurants that you mentioned? With Mourad doing Moroccan and the Slanted Door’s focus on Vietnamese? How so?

                      RB: The food here is incredibly steeped in Italian food. For starters, everyone has pasta and pizza on their menu. ...

                      Of course Slanted Door has noodles, but Aziza doesn't, and neither has pizza. Unless he's talking about the flatbread that comes with Aziza's spreads, which is no more Italian than Slanted Door's noodles.

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        He's saying what Carrie was saying, or at least that is also how I interpreted it: there are a ton of Cal-Italian restaurants, and for the most part they are doing the same thing. I'm not even sure that the styles of pizza you mentioned were not available ten years ago: Pizzeria Delfina itself is almost that old. And since then the number of such restaurants has only grown. A lot. Personally I don't think we need more.

                        1. re: dunstable

                          Thanks, Dunstable - and I completely get what you are saying about the transit issue.

                          Sure, I can get good Turkish down on the Peninsula, but A La Turka is far from *GOOD* authentic Turkish. Many of the better, ethnic cuisines are not BART friendly and require work to get to - which is difficult if you live in the city without a vehicle.

                          1. re: CarrieWas218

                            Where on the Peninsula do you get better Turkish food than Tuba and Troya?

                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              i don't know Turkish food very well but i found Tuba pretty mediocre. Things were mushy and rather bland. i liked it LESS than A La Turka.

                          2. re: Robert Lauriston

                            I don't understand the nitpicking of the details of his comments. Supposedly, this was an interview, not a carefully crafted thesis and it's very possible that he just didn't express himself very well. Can happen to anyone.

                            I think it would be more interesting to discuss the merits of his broader sentiment of food convergence. Is everyone serving organic Mary's chicken these days? To me, that's a more interesting topic than whether or not the Slanted Door serves pizza.

                            1. re: nocharge

                              Thinking about it, it seems clear that Bayless just ignored the follow-up question and went on with his answer to the previous question.

                              1. re: nocharge

                                According to Bayless, it wasn't even an interview -- it was a few casual, off-the-cuff comments to a local food writer.

                        2. re: dunstable

                          I agree with Robert -- I was just going to post that the only fair comparison is to include the entire Bay Area (or at least, San Francisco and the East Bay) when comparing to Chicago.

                          1. re: Ruth Lafler

                            The difference to me is transit. You can get to most of Chicago using their trains and buses; a person without a car in SF will pretty much never set foot in, say, Albany. You can fairly argue that an SF person can easily use BART to get places... but that costs a lot more than the single fare it would cost you in NY or Chicago to get to the far reaches of the city.

                            For that matter, for a lot of SFers, the East Bay may as well not exist, in sort of the same way New Jersey may as well not exist for Manhattanites, even though places like Hoboken and Jersey City are closer to Manhattan than most other parts of NYC are. I can't even get a lot of my friends to go to Oakland, never mind the rest of the Bay -- from this perspective, the idea that we should lump Walnut Creek or San Leandro in with San Francisco is unreasonable.

                            1. re: dunstable

                              I am originally from Chicago. The city itself is quite large and the surrounding metro area is vast. People do not routinely travel from the far north side to the south side just for a meal. Public transit is not all that great outside the city limits either, it's slow and you need to cover a lot of distance.

                              The Chicago food scene has improved tremendously in the last decade or two, but I kind of think that is mostly in the trendy, gentrifying areas surrounding downtown. Plenty of pizza and pasta in Chicago too, not regional or updated Italian either. Old school Italian-American is everywhere.

                              While I do not enjoy driving to the East Bay. I have joined friends in Oakland and Walnut Creek recently. As long as it is accessible to BART it's OK with me.

                              Didn't Rick Bayless get a lot of flack last year for making the same kind of comments about Los Angeles restaurants. He should learn to be a little more diplomatic.

                              1. re: pamf

                                People especially do not routinely travel just for a meal come winter-time.

                            2. re: Ruth Lafler

                              And it's not as though Bayless visited dives. Arguably it is also cheating to limit it to upper or midrange since a lot of the best ethnic variety is found at the lower ranges. e.g. there is so much buzz about the restaurant renaissance in downtown Oakland, as though all the rather dingy and cheap restaurants in Oakland Chinatown (where English on menus appears as a second language) had never existed.

                              I do think that the distribution of restaurant ethnicities or regions of the world in Chicago is more even. The bay area is much more dominated by East Asian cuisines (taken as a homogenous group) than Chicago is dominated by any single general world region. I think that makes SF seem less diverse than it is.

                              Now, if we're talking availability of variety for home cooking, as opposed to eating out, well, there is no contest. My sister, a former denizen of Chicago, used to be green with envy when she'd come to visit and we'd do the grocery store tour.

                              1. re: MagicMarkR

                                Bayless himself is the chef and proprietor of midrange restaurants, so it's reasonable that this should be his perspective. I mean, yes, taken as an entire city, it would be ridiculous to say "San Francisco has no variety," but when people make that complaint, they usually mean the midrange places.

                                1. re: dunstable

                                  I would say that Bayless' restaurants in Chicago are the equivalent of Slanted Door and Gary Danko in SF. They are located in a prime tourist area. There is a line before opening every day at Frontera (limited reservations). Topolobampo is actually a higher end place with a tasting menu. Every tourist heading to Chicago has them on their list.

                                  1. re: pamf

                                    i'd probably catch some flak for saying this. while sf has a good variety of different cuisines, there are also many $50pp restaurants that have berkshire pork chop, liberty farm duck, leg of lamb and grilled salmon on their menu. delicious, still of course.

                                    a city's restaurant diversity is just a function of who immigrates there., i.e. the racial diversity.

                                    1. re: ckshen

                                      "a city's restaurant diversity is just a function of who immigrates there., i.e. the racial diversity."

                                      It's not that simple. A lot of the Mexican restaurants in SF are run by Salvadoreans, a lot of Thai restaurants by Laotians. The number of Portuguese restaurants around here is not proportionate to the size of those communities.

                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                        Agreed. Chinese folks also open Japanese restaurants when there are too many Chinese restaurants around.

                                        1. re: ckshen

                                          Particularly the more business-savvy ones, since one can charge a whole lot more for Japanese food compared to Chinese food.

                                        2. re: Robert Lauriston

                                          I would guess, too, that when restaurateurs see a cuisine has been accepted and are more likely to open another one. Are there more Burmese people in the Bay Area than there are in NY or Chicago? Seems unlikely, and yet there are many, many more Burmese restaurants here, maybe because places like Mandalay and Nan Yang have been going strong for more than 25 years and Burma Superstar has been incredibly successful for more than 20.

                                          1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                            Per the 2010 census, yes, there are more Burmese in the Bay Area, 7,383 or 0.17% percent of the population of the the SF-Oakland-Fremont MSA vs. 5,126 or 0.03% of the population of the NY-NJ-Long Island MSA and 1,261 or 0.02% of the population of the Chicago-Joliet-Naperville MSA.

                                      2. re: pamf

                                        I was living in the Chicago area when Frontera opened. It was a breath of fresh air. After a couple of years in the Western suburbs after living in Berkeley, it was remarkable. I commuted to the northern suburbs and as soon as Frontera was open on Saturdays during the day, we went often. There were not those long lines at that point although they did appear during our time there.

                      2. re: Robert Lauriston

                        David Chang made the same observation on City Arts & Lectures re San Francisco chefs' seeming lack of desire to do new/innovative things with food... he wasn't the least bit snarky about it.

                        1. re: mariacarmen

                          I'm not sure it's the chefs' lack of desire, I think it might be the customers' lack of interest.

                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                            maybe both... if you build it, won't they come?

                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              I may be wrong, but it seems like around these parts, for the most part, we are well over foams, tweezers and deconstructed items as the base of our meal. If that is not being "new/innovative," good for us. We are also, in my uneducated opinion, much more assimilated in our ethnic communities for a much longer period than Chicago, and our food reflects this (probably for better and for worse).

                              1. re: lmnopm

                                The implicit suggestion you are making is that anything that is not straightforward California-style cooking is some form of gimmickry. Not every innovation is derived from molecular gastronomy (although I don't mind that sort of thing either). For that matter, I don't care about innovation that way either (or not that much, anyway). The problem here isn't lack of novelty; it's lack of variety (and I mean the midrange places here).

                                1. re: dunstable

                                  How do you improve on something that's already pretty darn good? When I think of California food I think of fresh ingredients, heavy on the vegetables, with meat as an accent rather than a focus, cooked simply.

                                  I can't comment on Bayless' Chicago restaurants, as they have a habit of being closed everytime I've been there. His outlet at O'Hare was OK, as good as Andale :)

                                  Italian-influenced? In addition to a fair number of Italians having settled in the area, we do have a very similar climate to Italy. (It's always amused me that a number of grocery chains in the South Bay have Italian names - Piazza's, Cosentino's, Lunardi's...)

                                  1. re: tardigrade

                                    It's not a matter of improving the food, just diversifying. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with any particular restaurant. Objectively speaking, there's nothing at all wrong with, let's say, Nopa. Nopa is a great restaurant. It's only when we look at the dining scene collectively that it gets boring. There is not a chasm of difference between what Nopa does and what Range does. Or Maverick. Or Bar Jules. Or any of a zillion other places in SF. This carries over to the Cal-Italian thing: are Cotogna and Flour + Water really doing anything that different from what Delfina and A16 were doing ten years ago? Again, these are all excellent restaurants when considered individually, but it made me roll my eyes when people referred to it as a "trend."

                                    1. re: dunstable

                                      To me, meals at top Italian places such as Cotogna, Incanto, Barbacco, Perbacco, A16, Farina, and La Ciccia are quite different experiences. You could add Acquerello, Quince, and SPQR though to me those places are French.

                                      Nobody was doing the popular Naples-by-way-of-NY pizza before Pizzeria Delfina opened seven years ago. They raised the bar. It's true that there are an awful lot of fairly similar pizza and pasta places (the two Pizzeria Delfinas, Flour + Water, Beretta, Delarosa, Zero Zero, Ragazza, Gialina, etc.), but I think that's because every neighborhood can support one.

                                      We have huge diversity in pizzas as well. This might be the best city for pizza in the world.

                                      1. re: dunstable

                                        I have to agree about a lot of the "mid-range" places. When I was looking at restaurant menus for my birthday dinner a couple of years ago I was struck by a certain sameness. But then, that was before the latest crop, i.e. AQ, Rich Table, State Bird, the new incarnation of Bar Tartine, even Plaj (although I didn't care for the execution, at least the dishes were different).

                          2. re: CarrieWas218

                            I agree with you Carrie (and Rick Bayless) regarding Aziza.

                            It has been one of our favorite SF restaurants for many years. We just returned from Morocco and were excited to, once again, experience "New Moroccan" versions of the dishes we had there. Our dishes at Aziza this weekend were indeed excellent but unfortunately we saw no vestiges of the Moroccan cuisine we were expecting.

                            Even the Basteeya (yummy smoked duck) was such a vast departure from our Moroccan experience that it was more like a mini phylo pie.

                            The waitstaff service was efficient and attentive but there was a considerable wait in between courses. We can only guess that the delay initiated in the kitchen. There was no acknowledgement of our daughters birthday even though they were alerted ahead of time.

                            Lastly, we had planned our evening knowing that we were not going to do the tasting menu because, in the past, we have always left too full from the over-abundance of wonderful food. Now that the chef'st menu is $95/pp we were glad that was our plan. YIKES! But this time, , the offerings on each plate were so minimal, our son left the meal still feeling hungry (even after 3 apps, 4 entrees and 2 desserts/4 people).

                            This was a wonderful and special dinner but I do miss the dishes/experience that made Aziza famous. :(

                          3. Complaining that everyone has pasta and pizza on the menu is kind of weird given that three of the four restaurants he'd eaten at at that point have neither. What's true in SF and maybe less so elsewhere is that some places with very Italian-influenced menus (e.g. Zuni) don't particularly identify as such.

                            He's right that there's not much of a Mexican tradition in SF except for the taquerias.

                            1. I saw him speak on his last trip to SF and he was pretty complimentary of the food scene here then.

                              I think of Rick Bayless as someone who's generally thoughtful in his comments. It's pretty hard to argue with his assessment of the Mexican food scene in SF.

                              1. All I know is Frontera Grill was my least favorite restaurant when I visited the Great Lakes region last summer.

                                7 Replies
                                1. re: Civil Bear

                                  Yah I don't have a high opinion of it either, although I can see how it might have been a heady concept back in the day.

                                  But I did like his torta place in the airport! Best airport sandwich I ever had!

                                  1. re: dunstable

                                    The torta place is good and the original is XOCO is right next to Frontera Grill. It's a casual, order at the counter place, but there is usually a line there too. They use top quality meat and make really flavorful sauces. I tried that after unsuccessfully trying to get into Frontera, and have been back a few times.

                                    I knew about the one in the airport but didn't get a chance to try it last time I was connecting through O'Hare.

                                    Too bad the Frontera Fresco in Macy's basement doesn't seem to deliver at that same level.

                                    1. re: pamf

                                      Xoco was good but I like Cactus better :). I wish Rick would do a visit to the Bay and only eat Mexican. Would love to hear his take instead of him just recounting what others have said to him.

                                  2. re: Civil Bear

                                    Have never eaten @ Frontera Grill. But I was blown away by Topolobampo when I ate there many years ago--and even--this sounds brag-gy--like I was there at the start! :)--ate @ Bayless's first high-end Mexican place, Lopez y Gonzales, a terrific little place in Cleveland (we're talking mid-80's-so thirty years ago....). I've cooked out of his cookbooks so much, the pages are falling out. And he and his wife have reputations as good people among chef pals. Not sure why I'm going on here, other than to say--I think he's a serious guy who (even or especially when he's off-the-cuff and not in interview mode) is worth a listen.

                                    1. re: sundeck sue

                                      I like his shows too (especially the recent Baja episodes) and have a couple of cookbooks.

                                      Head on over to the Home Cooking board because his "Mexican Everyday" book is in the running for May Cookbook of the Month (COTM).

                                    2. re: Civil Bear

                                      i have to say, now having been to Topolobampo, and not out of sour grapes at all - most of his dishes tasted much like each other, to me! we (4 of us) were really not all that impressed. i still like him, as a personality, and for the attention he's bringing to mexican cuisine, but i wouldn't go back to his restaurants if i were back in Chicago. maybe xoco.

                                      1. re: mariacarmen

                                        Topolobampo and Frontera Grill are IMHO the most overrated restaurants in Chicago. I have been to both (not by choice) many times over the years and have always walked away disappointed with the food and service.

                                        If they were not owned by Mr. Bayless I doubt they would still be in business.

                                    3. He posted a comment:

                                      "Rick Bayless here: I am sorry that this interview came out this way. This is from a 3 or 4 minute interview (I didn't even understand that it was an interview when we started) between two sessions at the IACP conference. I was just answering a bunch of unrelated questions with off-the-cuff comments that were cryptic at best. These words do not represent my full opinions. Hopefully this will shed more light: I think that lots of the restaurants in San Francisco have a similarity--just like they do in New Orleans. It's called regional style. I'm always surprised by that similarity I find in a lot of the well-known SF restaurants, because when you think of food in the Chicago or LA or New York, the well-known restaurants are unexpectedly different. Aziza and Slanted Door in SF are vey different from what I think of as SF style (as is State Bird Provisions, which I went on my last night), which is why I chose to go to them (plus I'm a fan of Mourad's cooking, even though it seems less Moroccan than I've tasted in the past). There is a lot of Mexican food in SF, but it isn't very similar to what I eat in Mexico. When people talk to me about Mexican in SF, they are usually talking about great tacos and burritos in the Mission. I think most people would agree that SF isn't well know for a plethora of Mexican dinner restaurants. Sorry for the jumbled and incomplete comments. "

                                      3 Replies
                                      1. re: alliaphagist

                                        Nice of him to clarify. Another way of saying this, though, is that SF has a deep bench in a wide variety of styles. This might make it appear that top restaurants share commonalities to a visitor, but really there are just multiple top restaurants in each style. There is also a unique to SF ingredient quality that does stand out across styles as well.

                                        1. re: alliaphagist

                                          I really don't like his Frontera Fresco restaurant in Union Square - I'd rather just go to an SF taqueria. But I would really like to have something like Topolobampo here. I wonder if some of his view of San Francisco is based on his commercial success (or lack thereof) with his current restaurants here. Maybe he thinks people in San Francisco won't eat anything other than super burritos.

                                          The irony is that he probably would do well here with a high-end Mexican restaurant, but maybe he thinks otherwise.

                                          1. re: alliaphagist

                                            I don't think he has anything to apologize for. It's not like he ripped SF a new one--his criticisms were very mild. His only mistake was in talking to a "reporter" who wanted to stir up something that wasn't there.