A travel journal
to San Francisco by SeenThat
Quote: One of the exciting things while visiting a place is learning to know the local food and the adaptations of international dishes to the particular taste of the locals. San Francisco proved to be an excellent center of Asian food, sometimes creating combinations unthinkable at the dishes homelands.
Japantown in San Francisco is maybe less known than other ethnic quarters and it is worth a careful visit; one of its attractions are the many Japanese restaurants at the shopping centers. A fierce competition pushes the prices down and creates an excellent food quality.
Across the bay, in Oakland's Fruitvale, Saigon Wrap offers a Hi-Tech version of Vietnamese food. All the classics are available here: pho noodle soup and typical Vietnamese sandwiches are the hits and closely resemble the originals. Aware of their customers' tastes, they serve Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk and cappuccino as well; tapioca desserts, and smoothies. Not all the attractions are Asian; next to Saigon Wrap is Powderface, a place specializing in New Orleans style Beignets.
Unfortunately, there is a definite sense of danger in the streets after dark; thus visiting the sites for a late lunch makes more sense. Oddly, the cameras in every street corner do not add a feeling of security; who is watching on their other side? I asked locals and got truly surprised looks.
The food pricing does not follow a simple pattern. Downtown San Francisco is not the most expensive place in the area; actually, for small items and odd coffees, the variety is better and prices are lower here. Oakland and Berkeley are generally more expensive, especially while moving away from their main streets. Water in neighborhood's shops can be ridiculously expensive, bringing it from downtown before venturing in less central areas is recommended.
The MUNI (www.sfmuni.com/) is a system of trains and buses serving the city of San Francisco. Tickets cost .50 and a free transfer ticket can be obtained and used within 90 minutes. The website offers a comfortable Trip Planner.
AC Transit (www.actransit.org/) is a system of buses covering the East Bay towns. Trips cost .75 and a .25 transfer ticket is valid for 90 minutes; trips can be planned through their website.
Transbay buses cost .50 and cross the San Francisco - Oakland Bay Bridge. At San Francisco they conveniently stop at a terminal close to both Market and Mission streets.
At www.sparetheair.org, it is possible to check if the current day is a Spare the Air Day; if so, all the options mentioned above are free.
To avoid the sight, we entered the Japan Center Mall and after wandering a while through the interior, which included a Japanese Bridge and a scaled down Osaka Castle, we decided to eat at Kushi Tsuru, one of the many Japanese restaurants in the place. Most of them showed their distinctive dishes on their windows and the choice between them was hard; however, Kushi Tsuru made a positive impression and we weren't disappointed.
The service was professional and fast, and the too close tables were not a problem because, in the early afternoon of a Friday, the place was scarcely populated. An excellent miso soup served as an appetizer and provided the perfect background while we studied the complex menu.
We tried three signature dishes, Sukiyaki, Katsu Don, and Bento Kaiseki.
The Sukiyaki was superb. The dish was served in a pan and included meat, tofu and vegetables. The meat was lean and cut into thin slices; the vegetables were fresh and crunchy. The secret of a good Sukiyaki is the broth, and here it was at its very top. The dish costs $9 and justifies moving to San Francisco.
The Katsu Don was a big bowl of rice with an omelet over it supporting chunks of breaded meat and seaweed. The wasabi served with it was fresh and naturally colored, in a pale cream instead of the usual green. However, the dish suffered a major adaptation from the original; in Japan it is done with very fat meat and includes chunks of fat; politically incorrect in these days, here it was done with lean pork-meat. It cost $9 and was served in a quantity able to feed a small family.
The Bento meals are the biggest attraction in the area. They are not well defined and the term refers to the typical tray in which they are served. They are considered to be a whole meal and exist in many variations. My host chose the one called in Kaiseki, that cost $18 and was the flagship of the restaurant. The tray had regimental dimensions and included red tuna, shrimps, tempura, and small pieces of other fishes, roasted or marinated. Rice and vegetables cut in ornamental ways completed the dished. All the ingredients were top quality, and despite its size, the tray was left clean.
Excellence has a price; in our case it was the dessert. The dishes' size didn't left any space and created a reasonable pretext to return.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on August 12, 2006
1737 Post St
San Francisco, California 94115
+1 415 922 9902
A million different treats were displayed with simplicity against a background heavy with reds and gold. The simple lotus and a melon Chinese cakes cost a dollar each and were excellent, puff pastries cost the double and were nice; next to them were butter croissants and donuts winking at the foreigners. The Chinese pastries were adorned with the classical Chinese seals in red; and Chinese patrons were sipping soups that I didn't find listed at the counter.
I don't expect to see a Spanish restaurant serving Wiennerschnitzel nor a Chinese place serving good coffee. The brewed coffee here was awful, but that was fine with me. Coffee is not part of the Chinese Cuisine and if seen in an authentic Chinese place it should appear—in my eyes—as an afterthought, for the sake of casual foreigners crossing its way.
Next to the counter was a note that claimed the Eastern Bakery is the oldest Chinese bakery in the area, dating back to 1924. "We were here before the Great Depression, the bay bridges, World War II, etc...," a sign next to the counter says.
Next to it there are many Chinese bazaars, musicians and Chinese-seals' artisans; many of the buildings are shaped as pagodas and complete the feeling of inadvertently having crossed the Pacific.
720 Grant Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94108
The Fruitvale station of the BART leads to the Fruitvale Village, a pleasant residential and commercial complex built around a sunny plaza. Just in front of the station, at suite 134, and next to a giant palm, is Powderface, a pleasant coffee shop specializing on fresh and tasty New Orleans Style Beignets.
Beignet is a fried dough, hollow, and square, covered with powdered sugar and served hot; the sugar melts in the mouth and combines with the soft, inner part of the crust to create a delightful experience. They are fried in front of the customer in deep oil which unfortunately is recycled. The powdered sugar is carried away easily, and if not the face, at least the fingers will be covered by the sweet treat by the time the beignets are gone. Three are sold for $3 and a dozen for $10.
They offer more conservative sandwiches, croissants, cakes, smoothies, and other attractions; however, considering the special-experience value, which so attracts travelers, the beignets are a must. To accompany them, one of their coffees is the natural, and excellent choice.
The coffee is served on paper cups and the beignets on a carton tray; however, in a place aiming up-market they could have paid more attention to that detail. The service is fast and professional; the waitress kept smiling all along my interrogation regarding the nature of the beignets, despite my being sure she had heard the same question many times before.
The place is spacious and comfortable and the classic music played in the background strangely fits the surroundings. Huge windows allow looking at the quiet and sunny plaza; a narrow bar with high chairs next to it is placed along the windows just for this purpose. A couple of tables along the inner walls allow comfortably reading the newspaper or writing this entry.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on August 19, 2006
3411 East 12th Street, Fruitvale
Oakland, CA 94601
The fact that many of their clients were of Asian background when I visited, was an early—and correct—sign of their products' quality. Many times, Asian places put a very strong emphasis on their products' quality and less on their environment, but this is not the case here. The place has been carefully and tastefully designed with a kind of high-tech style that adds taste to the food. Free wireless Internet on computers with high-quality flat screens placed on comfortable spots and a huge, flat screen quietly displaying their self-advertising and attractive PowerPoint presentation.
Until 9am they have an "early birds" breakfast, which includes a coffee and a stuffed croissant for three dollars. I missed that, and the Vietnamese sandwiches—nowadays ubiquitous in the East Bay area—were available here in a rather pricey version. Instead, I decided to try their pho, the traditional Vietnamese noodle soup that is eaten across the ocean at all hours of the day. I selected the beef version, and wandered if it would be served here with the thin slices of raw meat in the process of being cooked by the soup; it seemed to me a daring move for an American restaurant.
A few minutes later, a generous bowl was served next to a tray with the typical condiments: sprouts, mint leaves, lemon, a piece of chili, chili paste and soy sauce. The rice noodles occupied the bowl's bottom and on them, the meat was still rosy-fresh but getting darker by the second. Green onion decorated the soup. After putting everything in, the taste was as good and fresh as anything I tasted in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. Considering the air-ticket saved, it was a bargain at $5.50.
Such a big dish didn't leave much space for a dessert and I settled for a mango smoothie which cost $2.50. It was prepared from fresh fruits on the spot and served with a genuine smile.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on August 19, 2006
Tel Aviv, Israel