Welcome to the Tenderloin: Eating San Francisco

11 Jun

“How much would it take to get you here?” The Grecian-featured man in suit and tie leaned back in his rickety wooden chair, eyes locked on to the tall, black women sitting across from him. She was dressed for business as well, in black slacks and a patterned shirt with oversized cuffs and collar. Both were facing a steaming plate of Sailor’s Hash – a scrambled egg concoction with hash browns, garlic shrimp, jalapeno, onions, cheese and Dungeness crab, topped with a liberal portion of smoked salmon. That was the first dish that caught my eye on the list of extensive offerings at Taylor Street Coffee Shop, and I was excited I was able to see someone else ultimately enjoy it.

As the women leaned in to answer him, my focus shifted to the table behind them, and directly across the very narrow aisle from me and the Mister. A very fashionable mother with two toddlers – the little girl of about 5 had thin lips, porcelain skin and big, wide eyes. She wasn’t happy, nor was her brother, and whatever words their mother was attempting to soothe them with (in French, as best I could tell) were not working. Their mood only brightened as they nibbled at the array of food before them – fresh strawberries, kiwi,oranges and apple slices; platter-sized buttermilk pancakes and a giant bowl of Fruit Loops. I couldn’t help but smile.

I took all of this in a few months back, as the Mister and I awaited breakfast at San Francisco’s Taylor Street Coffee Shop. We were out on the west coast for a friend’s faux-wedding (the big party months after their quiet nuptials at City Hall). He’s actually from California, and San Francisco is one of his favorite cities; conversely, I’d only been to the Bay Area once before, for a wedding then, too. In the end, we left with empty wallets, full bellies, and a camera full of experiences.

Taylor Street Coffee Shop was our first meal in the city, and it set a very good precedent. Take equal parts of in-the-know locals with meandering tourists, combine with a bustling atmosphere and great food, and top with reasonable prices (for anywhere, not just San Francisco!) and you’ve got a winning combination. Their menu offers an array of solid breakfast offers – the Mister ordered those aforementioned pancakes with eggs, hash browns and sausage – along with dishes that play up SF’s reputation for fresh, local seafood.  This was the first place we tried on our trip out west in March, and it laid the groundwork for tasty experiences to come.

Taylor Street Coffee Shop definitely has better food than Alcatraz.

I had the Dungeness eggs benedict, which consists of two palm-sized English muffin rounds stacked high with spinach, Dungeness crab and two poached eggs, topped with a liberal drizzling of hollandaise sauce. It came with a side of hash browns and I tacked on a half-order of chicken apple sausage.

Quite honestly, the sausage was the most disappointing entry, sad to say. It wasn’t bad – more ‘in-ter-rest-ing’, as the Mister says. I ate half of my half-order, but those who know me know, generally speaking, I’m kind of a sausage whore. Austin’s The Omelettetry has breakfast sausage they claim are just Jimmy Dean, but I suspect are small, 8-ball torpedos of crack and lard. At Taylor Street, they were very tender, with a hint of sweetness from the apple. No hint of grease, as is customary. The skin was charred, so it definitely had the look, but the mildness of the ground chicken wasn’t infused with that meaty taste from a well-worn grill.

That being said, the hash browns were another surprise, and they more than made up for the stumbling sausage. We both agreed, once again, that they were unexpected. Rather than a crunchy, bland hash brown that begs to be dressed with hot sauce, ketchup or egg yolk, Taylor Street hash browns had the requite crunch but the insides were almost creamy and had a touch of sweetness. Given the all-Asian staff, I made the immediate jump to a Chinese potato pancake. The term ‘hash brown,’ is a lot less intimidating, though, especially for a joint that claims the title of best San Francisco breakfast, 2004.

The eggs benedict was most definitely the star, though. It needed a little extra salt and pepper, but otherwise, every forkful was a wonder. There was a wealth of fresh crab, but none of the fishiness one might expect. Despite the hollandaise and runny yolk, the entire dish held up nicely; the spinach acted as a good cover, so while the muffin was never crunchy, it was far from soggy. Even with the last few forkfuls, I found myself having to use a knife to create bite-sized pieces.

The obligatory sourdough bread bowl w/ clam chowda.

As the week progressed, I indulged in some super tasty – if overpriced – dim sum, another positive diner breakfast experience and the obligatory sourdough bread bowl/clam chowder experience, which left me with a good amount of tourist cred but not a great meal. I recognize sourdough is, you know, sour, but my particular bowl seemed to have an added layer of seagull spit because it. was. sour. And the chowder was lukewarm at best; perhaps it was my fault for expecting an outdoor vendor to serve me hot soup on a 40 degree afternoon. Maybe it was the vendor’s fault for vending outside on such a chilly day. Either way, I admit I ate it primarily so I could check it off my bucket list (hey, some people want to BASE jump, I want chowder in Fisherman’s Wharf), but what I frankly enjoyed more was tearing the bowl into pieces to feed the legion of birds that began to congregate at my table.

We finished off our trip with a visit to The Franciscan, which was nowhere near as obnoxious as their website makes them out to be. From the website, it comes off as a local version of a Joe’s Crab Shack, but in person, it’s distinctive and elegant, with the dining room in a giant rotunda that offers near 365-degree views of the bay. With new flatware and silverware presented with each course, and entrees presented simultaneously by multiply servers, the entire experience is just fussy enough to justify the sticker shock of the menu. Yet, the overall attitude of the place says ‘you don’t have to wear your church clothes here.’

Me, in non-church clothes, enjoying views of the most notorious prison in the world. How romantic.

The most important aspect, of course, was the food — oh my, oh my, the food! I coaxed the Mister into trying oysters on the half shell, which is a particular favorite of mine. They were briny and fat, and the first slurp made me smile. The shells were clean, too — not one bit of sand or grit to get in the way of me and my precious bivalves. My entree was squid ink pasta with seafood, which – very literally – elicited a squeal of glee. I’ve been fixated on finding/trying/making squid ink pasta since 2006 or so, when a friend’s errant copy of Maxim provided a window into culinary genius. In what was surely included only in a handful of issues, Maxim actually ran a recipe column for men looking to impress the women in their lives; the first and only recipe I saw was for squid ink spaghetti carbonara. I was fascinated, but unwilling to suffer the wrath of my friend for stealing his publication, since the half dressed centerfold was on the opposite page. But at The Franciscan, a dream came true, and it was every bit as delicious as I’d dreamed. The pasta was the color of coal and had a unique, salty-sweet flavor. That was probably the biggest surprise — as intrigued as I’d been by the idea of eating it, I’d never stopped to consider squid ink pasta would taste demonstrably different from regular pasta. But, to offer up a new age type cliche, the pasta tasted like the essence of the sea, which married well with the seafood and herbaceous tomato sauce.

Gordon Ramsey would not appreciate the tomato dribbles. But bread sopped it up nicely.

Don’t get me wrong, though — this dish was work. The presentation (minus a few dribbles on the bowl) was impeccable, but once the show is over, I was left to de-shell the mussels and pinch the tails off each and every shrimp. There was a good 10 minute in which I was still prepping, and looking longingly at the Mister, who’d dived head first into his seafood platter. But he wound up doing a bit of work himself — you think those crab legs crack themselves?

They call it a platter; I call it a seafood mattress.

All in all, you don’t need me to say it; San Francisco can be a food lover’s nirvana. I knew I’d enjoy myself there, and – with few exceptions – I did. But it’s also nice to note that the Mister, who’s not the most adventurous eater, was so excited by the array of options we had, he actually stepped out of his element and tried his hand at a variety of new things, too. Sure, a food-cation to SF isn’t feasible for everyone, but if you have the opportunity, jump on it, because there are so many tasty experiences to be found once you start to look for them.

B

(p.s. I refused to try the location shown in our feature image due to their blatant disregard for proper grammar)

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