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Four Days in San Francisco-- Please Critique (apologies for the long intro)

Hi, everyone,

My husband and I are taking a four-day trip to San Francisco in a couple of weeks and I would love your thoughts on our food choices. A little bit of background: We are former New Yorkers currently living in Ohio, so we both (1) have experience with a top-notch food scene and (2) desperately miss that food scene. We are staying on points, so the first night we are at the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero and the rest of the time we are at the Westin Market Street (which I know is on Third Street). We won't have a car but are very comfortable with public transportation and can take cabs to fill in the gaps (so bonus points for places reachable by public transportation).

The goal for the trip is to eat well but not overly expensively, probably one higher-end, California cuisine, tasting menu dinner and entrees under $25 for the rest. Italian is our go-to, but we like everything. We'd particularly like to eat things that SF does better than (or at least as well as) NY, and things that we can't get where we currently live (which includes most ethnic foods). Good service and hospitality are more important than a "scene" to us, but food trumps all. For reference, in NYC our favorites were Gramercy Tavern (mine) and Babbo (his), we were not blown away by Per Se (way more expensive and overall less enjoyable than our favorites), and we never got excited enough about seafood to make it to Le Bernardin.

My husband likes to dine out as much as I do but has zero interest in planning where we're going to eat (or talking about my plans), so I'm trying to build in a lot of flexibility by having multiple options for lunches and going wherever we happen to feel like on a particular day. We're not really breakfast people, so I think we'll just grab whatever is convenient for that.

With that said, here are my current thoughts. Advice and comments greatly appreciated.

-Monday dinner:

We arrive in the evening and are coming from eastern time, so we might want to stick close to home base. Currently thinking small plates at Sens (same building as our hotel) or Barbacco if we feel up to it. Other ideas?

-Tuesday dinner with local friends:

Mau (their suggestion, so this one is pretty firm)

-Wednesday tasting menu dinner:

Sons & Daughters-- I read a lot of the threads on tasting menus and looked at a lot of menus, trying to find the best cost/value ratio. We will definitely have the wine pairings, so that factors into it. And we're not celebrating a milestone event, so I nixed some of the places at the highest end of the range. I picked S&D over Atelier Crenn (too experimental to count on loving), La Folie (too straight-up French), AQ (not as "special" feeling as S&D(??)), Saison (too expensive) and Quince (more expensive than S&D). Since we wanted California cuisine I didn't even get into the Cal-Ital places. Did I make the right call on S&D?

-Thursday dinner:

Barbacco, unless we end up there Monday. Maybe one of the lunch places as a back-up plan, though a Middle Eastern, Turkish, or Greek place would also be good.

Lunch options:

- Dim sum (on my list of must-dos): Yank Sing

- Mexican: La Taqueria

- Burmese: Burmese Kitchen (closer than Mandalay or Burma SS)

- Thai: Lers Ros Thai

- Yucatan: Poc Chuc

Thanks for the help!

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  1. So Barbacco isn't my favorite of all the cal-italian places, I'd rather go to Perbacco (more formal perhaps than you want) or Cotogna.

    For Thai: Kin Khao is an intriguing option to consider. I find the menu and execution there superior to Lers Ros (but it is also more expensive)

    I haven't been to Sons & Daughters, so I can't really provide much insight there.

    2 Replies
      1. re: goldangl95

        +1 to you can do better than Barbacco. It actually feels a bit more LA to me than SF (somewhere in between). The best part about Barbacco is really interesting wine flights.

        I always enjoy Zare at Flytrap a lot more than Barbacco, in the same price range, and same side of town. It's more san francisco, the tastes are more unusual, the cocktails exist (Barbacco is wine only).

      2. I did not like Lers Ros when I went there earlier this month, but I only had one dish (way too salty). I'd recommend Kin Khao on the mid-end (tried and liked a variety of dishes there) or Zen Yai on the "low-end" for their Thai Boat Noodles (haven't had anything else there). Both open lunch and dinner.

        I had great luck with my thread asking for help with my itinerary (http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/976796). Even though we're coming from different geographies, our goals are similar, to get food that we can't get back home (though I did end up trying more Thai than I expected to, and L.A. has great Thai food). I just posted an index of the places I went to (and my report thread for each day) in that same thread yesterday.

        1. Barbacco is good, but I think it's best for convenience sake, if you don't have other options. It's understated, and visitors will want to be wowed instead.

          Gaspar is a Brassarie nearby getting some good write ups.

          Likewise, Poc Chuc isn't the strongest name on your list.
          I think you're on the right track with La Taqueria.

          I personally would replace Burmese with a Vietnamese, Bahn Mi from Saigon Sandwich, but you are visiting Mua. Burmese had a moment, and I'm of the opinion that most places are coasting now. Yama in the Mission might be the exception.

          Yank Sing... it's a nice time, but unless you want the sit down experience, there are better places for Dim Sum. Wing Lee is even better for most items.

          Sons and Daughters is a good pick... you can also see if the menu at AQ's sister place called TBD interests you. The verdict's still out on the fixed menu though.

          1 Reply
          1. re: sugartoof

            +1 on replacing Poc Chuc. Still mourning the loss of Mi Lindo Yucatan ... Poc chuc is not the replacement I need.

            On Mexican ... there are a number of places doing less cheap but reliably good work ... Nopalito would fit the bill. In Oakland, Tamarindo (they are open late and have a tequila bar too). You'll never make it to 4th St in Berkeley, but Tacubaya.

          2. Thanks, everyone!

            - You've got me pretty convinced that I should replace Barbacco. I had written off Perbacco as too high-end, but having taken another look at the menu, it's actually pretty reasonable. Cotogna also looks good. Actually, I just checked Open Table and there's nothing available there before 10pm that night, though that might not be a deal-killer. NYC trained us well. :) I was considering A16, though it sounds like reviews are mixed on that and it's really loud. I also keep going back to La Ciccia, though I think it will end up being more seafood-focused that we are looking for. So... still unsure on Italian.

            - I'm pretty comfortable scrapping both Burmese and Poc Chuc.

            - Zare at Fly Trap looks great, though the mains are a bit above my range. Aziza is in the same boat. I need to do more research on Middle Eastern/Turkish/Greek before pestering you with other options.

            - Saigon Sandwich was on my list until our friends suggested Vietnamese at Mau. Not sure if we'll want to go Vietnamese twice-- though then again, Banh Mi is a whole different animal, so no reason to cross that off the lunch list.

            - As for Thai, I'll admit we're going to be less discriminating here than with Italian places. The one crucial criterion is that the place have Pad Thai, since that is my husband's absolute favorite. Kin Khao's website said the menu selections there were just a small sampling of what's available. Can I count on Pad Thai there? I had read some good things on these boards about Thai House Express/House of Thai as well. Thoughts?

            - Lastly, dim sum. I think I starred Yank Sing because they have a location near the Westin. I had also written down City View, Koi Palace, and Great Eastern, based on the boards. We are by no means dim sum experts (probably goes for all Asian cuisines-- we like them all but aren't experts on any), but it sounds like convenience may have gotten the best of me. Should I keep any of the others on my list?

            Thank you again!

            38 Replies
            1. re: Cuisinescene

              Yank Sing is a solid choice for dim sum - no need to question the choice.

              Kin khao was created to introduce Thai dishes that are unique to the US. If Pad Thai is a deal breaker, stick to Lers Ros.

              1. re: Cuisinescene

                I could be remembering wrong, but when I was there I didn't remember seeing pad thai or khao soi or any noodle dish on the menu that night. On their website, they list crab sen chan, which is like a crab pad thai. I really think it's worth going there even if there's no pad thai, but if it's critical to you, call them first to make sure they have a pad thai or pad thai-like dish that night/week.

                I've wanted to try Yank Sing. My impression is that there are better dim sum at a cheaper price point in SF and environs, but it is kind of a classic choice, so if you're not dim sum aficionados and the price is fine with you, then you'll probably be satisfied and it crosses off something on your must-try list. I'd say go for it.

                1. re: Cuisinescene

                  If you want to slip in a Burmese dish or two, there's a "secret" Burmese restaurant just three blocks from the Hyatt Regency, Sapphire Asian Cuisine. It looks like just another Chinese steam table place when you walk in, but there's a "Made to Order" menu on the wall which consists of mostly Burmese standards. The owners are Burmese and seem especially pleased when you order from that menu. I've had both the "Fish Chowder" (mohinga) and "Coconut Noodle Soup" (ohn no kau swe) there and they are decent versions (for $6.59!)

                  It's lunch only, though they have a Happy Hour with "Burmese Tapas" (i. e. samusas, from what I hear).

                  Sapphire Asian Cuisine... Taste of Burma
                  475 Sacramento St.
                  San Francisco

                   
                   
                  1. re: Cuisinescene

                    You may want to read this current thread about Great Eastern. It's certainly on my list for our next trip down.

                    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/9790...

                    1. re: c oliver

                      Thanks for the tip on Sapphire Asian, soupçon! That might be a good option for lunch before we check out and switch hotels.

                      And good to know that Great Eastern is menu-only, c oliver. My husband may prefer that.

                      sugartoof, TBD looks like it could be great if you like that day's menu, but there's not much option if you don't. I'll keep that in mind; thanks.

                      Offalo, Pad Thai is going to be a deal breaker for hubby. :)

                      So now we have:

                      - Monday: Sens (lazy option) or something else (need to do more research on suggestions you guys have given)

                      - Tuesday: Mau

                      - Wednesday: S&D (more feedback from those who have gone would be great)

                      - Thursday: Perbacco (for now)

                      -Lunches: La Taqueria, Lers Ros, Yank Sing (convenience) or Great Eastern (menu only), Saigon Sandwich, Sapphire Asian Cuisine.

                      I need to look up the places near the Hyatt you recommended for Monday dinner and generally do my research on Turkish/Persian/Middle Eastern/etc. so I can ask you fine folks informed questions.

                      Thank you for the help!

                    2. re: Cuisinescene

                      You really can't beat Yank Sing for dim sum.

                      http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/7321...

                      It's more expensive than most other places but they use better ingredients, have better service (which some people apparently find a minus, like clean bathrooms), and are more consistent. City View's good but a step down. Koi Palace is less consistent and in a wildly inconvenient location.

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        Robert, your review was one of the reasons why I had originally picked YS. :)

                        Did you find the cart people to be as pushy as other people did? My husband is really off-put by pushy salesmen (used car lots and NYC's diamond district are pretty much his nightmare), hence the thought that a menu-only place might be good. But Yank Sing's XLB do sound awesome.

                        1. re: Cuisinescene

                          More expensive as in three or four times more expensive! The two of us can eat for under $20 at those other places. As far as better ingredients and clean restrooms, not sure where else RL has tried but we certainly have had NO problems in that regard.

                          OP, do realize that XLB are not a Cantonese dish, rather Shanghainese so when I see them at a 'regular' dim sum place I'm prepared to be disappointed and now no longer get them. I've never found the cart ladies particularly annoying. I just say no. I prefer menu because it's always fresher/hotter.

                          1. re: c oliver

                            Unless you're well versed in dim sum, cart service is preferable to places with menus. Great Eastern's website has great pics---does the menu at Great Eastern have pics too?

                            It's good advice to shy away from XLB at Cantonese places--- some places use frozen ones. How are they at Great Eastern?

                            The XLB at Yank Sing are competitive with most Shanghainese places around here, and unless the OP has a local source that is among the top in the country, YS's XLB will be a treat. You should get the XLB off the menu though-- they're a time sensitive dish, and you might be disappointed from ones that lingered on the cart for a while.

                            As for the ethnic makeup of Yank Sing's customers, it's 50:50 Asian:non-Asian according to the owner. http://blogs.sfweekly.com/foodie/2013... .

                            1. re: hyperbowler

                              Here are the menu pix:

                              http://www.greateasternsf.com/Dim-Sum...

                              When I have XLB in SF I have them at Bund Shanghai.

                              I think a menu with pix is a great way to go. One may easily know what they like and what it looks like but not what it's called. The cart ladies may not know a ton of English (but some do) but they seem to know enough to figure out what you're asking about. I can't ever remember the name for the bean curd stuffed with pork and vegetables or the eggplant stuffed with shrimp paste but they always know what I'm talking about :)

                                1. re: hyperbowler

                                  Yank Sing's clientele may be 50/50 if you factor in weekends, but I've been there at weekday lunchtimes when there was nary an Asian face in view.

                              1. re: Cuisinescene

                                I don't find the service pushy at Yank Sing. They sometimes keep offering the same things you said no to already.

                                As noted in the tips I linked to, the way to spend three times as much at Yank Sing than at any other place is to order the really expensive dishes other places don't offer.

                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                  So Bob and I can both eat at YS for under $20? I had NO idea. Thanks for the tip.

                                  1. re: c oliver

                                    I don't know how you could get out of City View or Koi Palace for $10 a head. Maybe Y Ben House was that cheap. When I was at Koi Palace four years ago, all but one of the dishes were $4.50 and $6.90 each.

                                    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/5843...

                                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                      We go to a couple of places in Chinatown and one on Clement and the tab is under $20. And we pay the same in NYC, LA, SEA.

                                      1. re: c oliver

                                        Which places in Chinatown? Not Great Eastern or City View, which are the ones that were mentioned up-thread.

                                        House of Banquet you can get seven items for not much over $20 including tea tax, tip, and tea, but that's a long schlep from downtown.

                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                          When we're staying in Marin or Sonoma, we usually go to House of Banquet. Love it. In Chinatown we have been going to Happy Chinese for the last five years or so. Before that, it was Dol Ho.

                                  2. re: Robert Lauriston

                                    The last time I was at YS, as soon as we sat down a waiter came over with one of their "specials"--a glazed Chilean sea bass. One of our party ordered it without thinking, and I think it was in the $20 range, just for that dish. So, yes, be careful what you order.

                                  3. re: Cuisinescene

                                    Yet another vote for Yank Sing. On our most recent visit in April, ladies were very nice, mindful of our shellfish allergy & were even kind enough to take a picture of our family. YS is a must whenever my elderly parents visit from Texas. Yes, do get get the XLB & finish off with mango pudding.

                                    Lastly, call ahead to be safe. I've even called same morning.

                                  4. re: Robert Lauriston

                                    Yank Sing's service isn't anything special. The room is nice, and it's clean, but that's about it. Ingredients are mid-level. Dim Sum is so bad in NY right now that Yank Sing isn't the worst choice for the OP, but locals shouldn't be playing it up as if it's really great, top notch Dim Sum. It's good, but nothing they serve is the best version of it in the city.

                                    It's not a bad intro to Dim Sum kind of place though.

                                    1. re: sugartoof

                                      Each to his own. Most things I've had at Yank Sing were the best version I've had of those items since Harbor Village closed. As noted in the topic I linked to, few have gone downhill over the years due to replacing pork with chicken or just leaving it out entirely.

                                      People love to hate Yank Sing, but every time I try a place that people claim is better, it's not. City View is solid but a step down.

                                      http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/3764...

                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                        And I'd say it's mostly non-Chinese who love to love YS. Oh, I looked at their menu hoping there would be prices. Do they not have chicken feet?

                                        1. re: c oliver

                                          On the weekends at Yank Sing I always see Chinese families having a good time at nearby tables. Weekdays it's your typical pan-ethnic Financial District / SOMA / Moscone crowd.

                                          They always have chicken feet, sometimes duck feet as well.

                                        2. re: Robert Lauriston

                                          I don't hate Yank Sing, I just wish they served better food. Dim Sum can taste much, much better than that.

                                    2. re: Cuisinescene

                                      La Ciccia has a pretty good selection of pastas, so you're not locked into seafood there. I don't think it would stand out if it were in NY, but I recall some NY visitors reporting wild enthusiasm for their meals.

                                      Cotogna's a lot more convenient, and they're a popular choice right now with more of a California approach than La Ciccia or even Barbacco.

                                      1. re: sugartoof

                                        Cotogna's convenient if you can get a reservation.

                                        There's nothing like La Ciccia in New York, let alone Ohio. They'll be closed from June 24 to July 9, though.

                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                          "There's nothing like La Ciccia in New York, let alone Ohio. "

                                          Not true. When was your last trip to NY again?

                                          1. re: sugartoof

                                            We will be there during the time that La Ciccia is closed, so that takes the option off the table. Cotogna's available reservations aren't terribly convenient, though something earlier than 10 might pop up. It sounds like Perbacco is a solid choice and I have a table booked there for now for Thursday's dinner. Oh, how I've missed living in a place with food worth arguing about! ;)

                                            1. re: Cuisinescene

                                              Some things worth ordering at Perbacco:

                                              http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/7949...

                                              http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/6846...

                                              The cheese plate is one of the best I've had in this country. We sometimes go there specifically for that.

                                            2. re: sugartoof

                                              Excuse me for jumping in, but we've had visitors from NY who raved about La Ciccia and certainly implied there was nothing like it in NY.

                                              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                "certainly implied there was nothing like it in NY."

                                                It's one thing for a NY'er to rave about La Ciccia, but I can't begin to guess why they would claim there's nothing like it in NY. Since they're not here to discuss it with directly, I don't see the point in rehashing this.

                                                1. re: sugartoof

                                                  So please name the places in NY (and Ohio?) that you apparently have in mind.

                                            3. re: Cuisinescene

                                              FWIW we liked what was on offer appetizer-wise more than mains at Fly Trap on our April trip to SF which kept the costs down. Almost every dish was sweet that evening, which was not ideal. Try to get seated in the back room if noise is an issue, and do make a reservation if you can.

                                              Cotogna is a standout for me at lunch time, and reservations are easier then (though still difficult). The room is so pretty in the daytime and seems less frenetic.

                                              I hadn't heard of Mau and will be intrigued to read what you think of it. We've tried a half dozen Vietnamese places in SF over our visits and haven't really been blown away, except for the bo luc lac at La Bodega, which is still the best version I've ever had.

                                              I'm a sucker for Burmese, especially the "salads" and the tea leaf one is unique and worth trying. Good idea to go for lunch as it will keep you awake if eaten at dinner. Burmese Kitchen was the first place I ever had it and the best for a long spell.

                                              1. re: grayelf

                                                That would be Bodega Bistro, I presume. La Bodega is a long gone Spanish resto in North Beach that came complete with flamenco dancers.

                                                1. re: soupçon

                                                  those were the days. could stay for the final set at Barkan's club Keystone Korner and catch some flamenco in the early a.m. a few doors away.

                                                  1. re: soupçon

                                                    LOL. Yes, I was confused as to why a Vietnamese restaurant had a Spanish name until I learned it was from "bo" (beef), "de" (?) and "ga" (chicken) in Vietnamese.

                                              2. Lers Ros, Poc Chuc, and Mandalay are places where you can do well if you order correctly, and the specific dishes I've had there in the past year were as good as when I first tried them in 2011.

                                                The pastas were never a strength, but it's disappointing to hear all the negative stuff about Barbacco. I've not been for a while, and many prices have gone up, but I can't think of Cal-Italian or regional Italian place that's competitive with its price point. Pizza places, you can do well for cheap (e.g. Pizzeria Delfina), but not small plates.

                                                La Taqueria: get the tacos dorados. I don't like their burritos, even when it's customized to have no beans and grilled, but there are lots of fans.

                                                Zare at the Fly Trap is an excellent recommendation. Maykadeh in North Beach has the best traditional Persian in SF IMHO. There's also a new place in SoMa, Anar, but I haven't seen reviews so far.