This was not a food vacation (I’m seriously due for one of those) but that doesn’t mean I didn’t try squeezing in eating and drinking opportunities whenever possible. It was a family vacation where the biggest food-related revelation was that two of my cousins had fond memories of my mom being a good cook, which only meant their home-cooking bar had been set woefully low (sorry, mom). Lasagna, one of two special occasion dishes in my mother’s repertoire, was cited specifically. The other baked crowd-pleaser was enchiladas. I did like those enchiladas.
A different cousin I hadn’t seen since she stayed with us for a few mysterious weeks during an early ’80s summer remembered my mom making strawberry jam, which is outrageous (nearly as outrageous as her tale of my sister and I calling her sock monkey, Patricia, ugly) even though we did live a few blocks from a strawberry field. I would like to preserve my Banquet fried chicken and Steak-Umm memories, thanks.
Technically, my first meal in San Francisco was a Carl’s Jr. cheeseburger, the result of inexplicable behavior that may as well now be a tradition since I did the same thing last time I popped out of the Bart station en route to a Union Square hotel. Let’s not talk about that.
Beers were had a Mikkeller, the Danish offshoot and sort of relative of Torst, pre-and-post-Kin Khao. Most drafts are one size (8 ounces) which forces you to be more selective than at its Copenhagen and Brooklyn-based brethren where smaller pours can be ordered. Not being a Brettanomyces nerd, I didn’t necessarily want a full $14 glass of the crazy funky Abbaye De Saint Bon-Chien Grand Cru 2013 even as I’ve begun warming to sour beers.
Because they don’t know how to be confrontational on the West Coast yet are still dickish, 30 minutes after a server deposited two baskets of fries on our table that we hadn’t ordered, he returned to passive-aggressively scold us for not saying anything, which consisted of him letting us know they weren’t meant for us and then remaining next to the table as if waiting for an apology. Those fries were long gone, dude.
I rarely eat breakfast on vacation (the three hour time difference put me on a normal productive human schedule) so the pecan waffles at Sears Fine Food were a treat, touristy or not.
If you cross the Golden Gate Bridge and drive for about an hour northwest, up grassy hills and through dark Hobbit-y patches of woods and don’t hit any cyclists or throw up from all the curves, you may arrive at Hog Island Oyster Farm. Oysters, both freshly shucked and grilled (and unlike the New Orleans specialty, smoked and non-smothered in cheese and breadcrumbs) are a perfect pit stop snack eaten at first come, first serve picnic tables overlooking Tomales Bay where sunbeams can trade places with storm cloud drizzles every ten minutes. It’s worth paying $5 for the big Brickmaiden sourdough roll–you need it for soaking up all the buttery grilled oyster remains (and to settle your stomach if you’re like me and my car sick-prone relatives).
While sitting in a parked car downtown Petaluma waiting for my sister’s nausea to pass, we were treated to a show by an older mom or younger grandmother on the sidewalk clutching a not-so-plush Garfield in front of Pick of the Litter, a thrift store benefiting “forgotten felines,” (the number of animal rescue operations in Sonoma County was mind-boggling). She was in the middle of a Bubba Gump shrimp spiel to her ward, a boy born in the mid-2000s, about how once upon a time Garfield merchandise was available as far as the eye could see: Garfield books, Garfield calendars, Garfield phones, Garfield pajamas, Garfield posters, Garfield mugs, Garfield piggy banks…
How do you top that? With two scoops of ice cream at Lala’s Creamery, an old-fashioned parlor that I’m pretty sure isn’t actually old. Luckily, I have old tastes in ice cream–no seasonal berries or lavender honey for me, give me the rum raisin and butter pecan. There is actually a shake on the menu called a Grandpa. Just my speed.
Who says print is dead? An ad in a local paper read while passing time at Lala’s contributed to a dinner decision: China Chef, which turned out to be walking distance to the home that was our end destination. It’s like typical suburban Chinese, complete with zodiac placemats and combo specials, but with gluten-free options, coconut oil substituted on request, and meats both mock and organic that convinced my sister to take a bite of my Hot, Spicy and Crispy Szechuan Beef not “beef.” The shrimp dumplings were a nice bit of evening dim sum, and crab Rangoon will never not be ordered if presented as an option.
I wouldn’t feel right ordering a burrito anywhere except the Bay Area. (This prompted an LA vs. SF debate on Facebook. To me, Los Angeles is too Mexican to eat a burrito un-self-consciously where Mission burritos are part of San Francisco’s heritage.) Taqueria El Favorito in Sebastopol is just the place for cheap, carnitas-filled flour tortillas wrapped in foil. The griddling is key. And the pickled onions are great with fatty pork.
Spending time with non-food people has its ups and downs. I wouldn’t allow Ayurvedic food at my Super Bowl party to another’s irritation, but it’s fun to see someone still excited about things like deviled eggs and brunch. (I’m not sure if brunch really is scarce in Eugene, Oregon–late alcohol-fueled breakfasts seem suited for a college town–or if it’s just not on my sister’s radar.) Ugh, have we become so jaded that delicious strips of bacon and a mound of pimento cheese can’t be enjoyed on a burger because they are so overdone? (I still say nix the jelly jars.) Fremont Diner is one of those casual places with serious food that’s worth stopping by if you’re driving from Sonoma to Napa.
If you happen to be staying at an airbnb in Rockridge and don’t want to drive for food or cook, Rockridge Cafe is solid and more of a diner than Fremont Diner even with Niman Ranch name-checked on the menu. That’s corned beef hash. Pizza Rustica is also fine enough for pizza, but keep in mind that no one seems to eat after 9pm in Oakland and the upstairs tiki bar is closed on Mondays.
It’s not all about craft brews and local wines. A day time beer and a shot is perfectly acceptable at the Blind Cat, especially after an encounter at nearby Dynamo Donut with a staffer so comically condescending I thought I was being punked. We did not walk away from that experience with any donuts (though we did get some free coffee cake remainders after I went New York on his ass).
I prefer cats over dogs, but Trick Dog is having a moment and happened to be down the street. I can get on board with nouveaux boilermakers, a shot of Mandarine Napoléon plunked into a mug of Tecate, as well as cocktails containing three rums, third wave coffee, grapefruit, and fenugreek.
Despite passing through Pacifica, I didn’t get to stop at the world’s nicest Taco Bell in the town where I was born. However, I did get to experience a supposedly haunted café, Moss Beach Distillery, eat some clam chowder, drink a glass of Chardonnay, and possibly see three baby dolphins playing in the waves.
And similar to burritos only in the Bay Area rule, there are only a few American airports where I’d feel ok eating fish. I said goodbye with a Pacific snapper sandwich at Lark Creek Grill. Am I the only one who, price aside, actually likes eating in airports? Not fast food, but sit-down restaurants like you’re worldly or maybe on a business trip? Now that I live so close to LaGuardia, I’d consider hanging out there for fun if all the food wasn’t post-security.