I feel like I’ve been straying a little far from the theme of this blog, which is supposed to be San Francisco, the city that I love. This occurred to me a couple of weeks ago, after I wrote “On Homosexuality,” which, by the way, was not my best work. I wrote it in a rush and I don’t think I effectively got my points across. Gay rights is a subject I care a lot about, and I just may have to write about it again in the future. If I do, I promise to have my arguments a bit more thought-out, or at least more entertaining. But hey, nobody, not even moi, can come up with utter brilliance and perfection week in and week out.
Anyhow, the plan was to follow-up “On Homosexuality” with “On Japanese Toilets,” as I did, and then this week I was going to write “On the Superbowl-Bound San Francisco 49ers.” Oh, it was going to be a wonderful post, full of uplifting memories, waxing nostalgic about Joe and Jerry and Ronnie and Roger. But then…well, we know what happened, and we need never speak of it again. Perhaps come September the wounds will have healed enough that I can try writing about the boys in red and gold, but certainly not today. On the bright side, I don’t have to take off work on Monday morning to watch the Super Bowl (remember, I’m in Japan).
Yes, there will be no football in my blog this week. Instead, I’m going to talk about what many perceive to be one of San Francisco’s biggest draws: its food. As you could probably guess, in San Francisco we have our own brand of snobby foodie culture. In fact, that phrase I used before, “we don’t think we’re better in San Francisco, we are better in San Francisco,” pretty much sums up our view of gastronomy. Actually, use of the word “gastronomy” pretty much sums up our view of gastronomy. But then again, as a friend of mine who is irritated by SF snobbery pointed out the other night via IM, “in SF it’s hard to say ‘fuck you and your large variety of traditional neapolitan-style pizzerias’ while you’re chowing down on some pizza.” I was a little disappointed that he failed to note our excellent Chicago-style deep dish options as well (I prefer Paxti’s myself, but Little Star is quite good too), but I let it slide.
One thing people often notice about San Francisco is that it’s a city full of “foodies.” Don’t get me wrong, the foodie is not endemic to San Francisco; I have encountered Foodies in LA, NY, DC, and Chicago, and I bet they exist in most major American cities where the liberal elite tend to congregate. However, scientists have found that San Francisco has more foodies per capita than any other city in the Western Hemisphere. To be a foodie, you really only need to have three qualities: (1) you have to really like food, (2) you have to be under the impression that you like food more than “normal” people, and (3) you have to refer to yourself as a “foodie.” It helps if you have a blog devoted to food, like Jen, who is one of two people who have linked their blogs to mine, the other being Lel ‘ephant.
I would go as far as to say that it also helps if you’re female. I know very few male foodies. This is for two reasons: number one, as I noted above, in order to be a foodie, you must refer to yourself as a foodie, and men generally don’t like referring to themselves with cutsie words ending with the “ie” or “y” sound, except maybe for “alky”. Another is that men generally don’t appreciate food as much as women. Think of a date: A man takes a woman to a nice restaurant. If the woman is at all worth dating, she orders something filling and really enjoys it (and that reminds me: ladies, if a man takes you out on a date, please eat. When you just order a side salad and nibble on it, that’s quite unattractive). Meanwhile, although the man is hopefully enjoying his meal at least to some degree, his focus is on his date enjoying her food, because somebody once told him that food is an aphrodisiac, and he’s hoping that that’s true. And if his date is a foodie, then it’s very likely that his strategy is working. In fact, a foodie I know once posted a link to this site on her facebook page and made a comment to the effect of “looking at this site makes me feel the same way that looking at porn does for most guys” (to which I commented, “repulsed?”).
But gender differences aside, in San Francisco we are all foodies—women and men, Mission People and Marina People alike. I’m using what I call the “peasant we,” which is the opposite of the “royal we.” I coined this term a few weeks ago, because I found that in my law firm (and I’m assuming in most law firms), partners have a very peculiar way of inappropriately using the first person plural (e.g., “ ‘We’ need to get this due diligence report done before ‘we’ go home tonight”). In any case, what I’m trying to say is that I myself am not a foodie, even though I live in a city saturated with them. There are several reasons why I say this. For one thing, I don’t call myself a foodie (see above). For another thing, although I really like food, I don’t claim to like food more than you, although I may make such a claim about music (and in fact I kind of did that already last month). All in all, I can’t say that I am obsessed with the food to the point that it’s a priority in my life. This is because “good” food is expensive in this town, and I don’t wish to spend my money that way. If there was a way to bit torrent good food, I’d potentially be a “foodie”, but alas, I’m not going to spend my hard-earned beer (and occasionally scotch) money on solid sustenance.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve eaten at many of the finest restaurants in San Francisco. By virtue of working at a law firm, I’ve been wined and dined at a number of the highest-rated dining establishments in downtown SF. Did I enjoy them? Sure, a little. Would I go to them again on the firm’s dime? Of course. Would I go to them again on my own dime, when I wasn’t trying to impress a girl? This is much less likely. The only expensive restaurant in downtown SF that truly wows me is Kokkari. I’d totally bring a platonic friend there for his or her birthday.
Call me a cheap Jew (and you’re only allowed to if you’re Jewish yourself—thems the rules and you know it), I just don’t believe that meals are the best ways to spend my hard-earned cash. They taste good, but the experience is so fleeting and so, so expensive. I’ll pay $50 for a concert because the memories will last me a lifetime. I think the most expensive meal I ever paid for myself was around $300 and I honestly don’t even remember what I ate. My date was a foodie—maybe she remembers. I sure as hell hope so, for that kind of money.
San Francisco foodies claim that it’s not all about the money. Sure, they line up to eat at Michael Mina and Gary Danko, but they claim that they’d be just as happy eating greasy ethnic food, and demonstrate it by their love of food trucks, where you can get bao or gourmet authentic Korean tacos for a mere $4 a piece (and they’re so filling that you only need 3 or 4 to constitute a meal, if you also drink a $6 stout from a local craft microbrewery). It makes me miss L.A., where tacos off a taco truck cost $1.25, and you get your money’s worth. Yes, L.A. tacos don’t have duck or pork belly or kim chee, but they do taste damn good. (Note: I’m talking about the Mexican tacos in L.A. Korean tacos actually originated in L.A., and they contain all of that aforementioned deliciousness. I have nothing against that aforementioned deliciousness, it’s just really difficult to make a cheap meal out of it).
I make no claims about being a meat-and-potatoes type of guy, and I wouldn’t say that I always go for simplicity in my food, but I do believe that we’ve reached a point in SF where eating establishments are going a little too far trying to “foodie-it-up”, to the point of sacrificing taste for gimmicks. As an example of this, consider Metro Caffe and Greenburger’s. They are located across the street from one another and are essentially the Montagues and Capulets of the Haight & Fillmore burger world. Metro Caffe does burgers and cheesesteaks, hovering in the 7-8 dollar range. Greenburger’s (and what the hell is with the apostrophe? The ___ of Greenburger? Is Greenburger a person? Should it be “Greenberg’s” instead?) does burgers, starting for $10 without cheese (and who the hell gets a burger without cheese?), Greek lamb burgers, and fish n’ chips po’ boys. Metro Caffe serves its burgers with fries and onion rings. Greenburger’s serves its burgers with sweet potato fries and onion strings. Metro Caffe has a few other things on the menu, like breaded zucchini strips and japaleno poppers. Greenburger’s non-burger-joint-style offerings include coconut curry chicken noodle soup, turkey chili and cornbread (with cheddar and red onion), and a large variety of $6 milkshakes, among several dozen other items.
Looking at the menu, one would say that Greenburger’s is a clear winner. But how do they compare in terms of taste?
- Metro burgers are made with “Niman ranch natural beef” and taste amazing. The beef has so much flavor that it overwhelms your taste buds on your first bite, and reminds you of the first time you French-kissed a cow (figuratively). Greenburger’s burgers are made with “Five Dot Ranch all natural sustainable beef” and taste incredibly bland unless you drown them in ketcup. The beef has an unpleasant wet texture no matter how it’s cooked, and reminds you of the first time you French-kissed a cow (literally).
- Metro’s onion rings are crispy, airy and large, the way onion rings should be. Greenburger’s onion strings are wet, oily, and will somehow leave your fingers and pants nearly transparent with grease even if you eat them with a fork. Metro’s regular fries are better than Greenburger’s sweet potato fries, and this is coming from somebody who pretty much always prefers sweet potato fries.
- Metro Caffe is a burger and cheese steak joint, and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. It has a few other appetizers on the menu, but those are merely intended to supplement the burgers. Greenburger’s is just trying to play off of all of the SF foodie stereotypes, and as a result suffers a serious identity crisis: it uses the word “burger” in its name, yet burgers comprise a very small part of the menu; it has a number of “southern” offerings to cater to bay area elitists who want to feel like they’re experiencing the authentic deep south; it has Asian items on the menu (duh); it has a number of milkshakes, because adults love to eat kid food in SF; and of course, everything is “green” and organic and vegan if you want it to be, because that’s how we roll in SF. Unfortunately, this makes Greenburger’s a jack of all SF-food trades, king of none. Metro Caffe, on the other hand, is a king of burgers (I had originally written “burger king”, but then realized that that name has already been taken by an inferior product. Damn you, creative branding!).
My point? Don’t try to wrap up your food in clichés, decadence, or self-proclaimed creativity and tell me that it tastes good, San Francisco. I’d much prefer if you just stuck with the basics and did them right. If you’re in the Lower Haight and craving a burger, go to Metro Caffe. It’s cheaper and better than Greenburger’s. Even if you’re a foodie.
So if I really like food but I’m not a foodie, where do I like to eat in SF? I’m glad you asked. I already told you about Kokkari and Metro Caffe, but also check out:
- Burritos: El Castillito on Church St., across from Safeway. My favorite burrito in SF, and I’ve tried a lot of them.
- Sushi: Koo on Irving and 5th. It’s completely gimmicky, foodie-y, expensive and non-authentic, but I don’t know where to get good authentic sushi in SF so if you’re gonna get gimmicky sushi, you may as well get the best.
- Italian: North Beach Restaurant is probably the closest thing we have to a NY-style Italian joint. Steps of Rome is a good cheaper option.
- Dim Sum: I like Tong Palace on Clement Street. It’s dirt cheap but not (too) dirt-y.
- South American: Mr. Pollo, on Mission and 24th-ish. For a while it was one of the better-kept secrets in the Mission, now you’ll never get a table there but it’s worth trying.
- BBQ: Baby Blues BBQ in Bernal. We’re not exactly known for our BBQ in SF, but this place is damn tasty.
- Jewish: Wise Sons Deli. Started by a Jewish camp buddy of mine, this place is incredible. I can’t recommend it enough.
Happy eating and see y’all next week!