At the risk of offending a huge number of opinionated people, all of whom know far more about iconic food than I do and express that much better, it is time to put together a list of the things you really must consume in San Francisco, before we take all your money and leave you bruised and bleeding in a Tenderloin alleyway. Because you looked like such an easy mark, and we needed funds for drugs and healthcare.
Anyway, you didn't notice a thing.
You were smoking pot.
A burrito. Not one of those odd things from Chipotle, which may cause karma to hit you in the face, but an actual burrito made by someone who says "que". Filled, preferably, with meat. I suggest carnitas.
Crab. Stirfried with black bean and garlic, or ginger and scallion. Eat it with your hands. Do not say "ni hao" to the waitstaff unless you can continue the conversation in Mandarin.
Pho. Spelled with a squiggle over the "o" (phở), and pronounced "fuh". Southern style, with fresh basil leaves and beansprouts, often eaten for no logical reason with Sriracha sauce. Just ask for extra sliced green chili if you like it hot, and have a cold Vietnamese coffee afterwards.
See next entry.
Vietnamese coffee (cà phê sữa đá). Made with Louisiana ground coffee, which has chicory added, served in a drip glass over a glop of condensed milk. Stir it up after finishing your phở, and pour it over the ice cubes in the taller glass.
Crab. Again. This time plain cooked (or steamed), with iceberg salad, sourdough bread, and a bottle of wine. And feel free to say "ni hao" to the waiter. He's either Mexican or North African, and doesn't really care.
Dim sum. Go to Yank Sing, which many local Chinese sneer at because it's a little more expensive, but the quality is superb, stellar, extraordinary, and the selection is better than anywhere else.
Chow mein in Chinatown at a place that serves mostly Chinese people. Apparently all kinds of weird things are sold in the vast interior under the name 'chow mein', I've heard horror stories oh boy, so you probably can't get anything like the real stuff at home.
Oysters at Swan's on Polk Street ("Swan's Oyster Depot"), plus a salad with their house vinaigrette (made with crab fat!). Then a day or two later get their combination salad sandwiches, pick up a bottle of white at the Jug Shop (five blocks up Polk Street), and go have a picnic somewhere.
Top of Nob Hill in the park, for instance.
Cioppino. Do not bother with any of the places on the wharf, it's a crap-shoot down there. North Beach is a better option, but ask a local (in other words not a taxi driver).
Something seafood at the Tadich Grill. It's an institution.
Snacks and mai tais at the Tonga Room, which is the tiki bar to end all tiki bars. They have regular rain storms inside, by the way.
Anything at the Zuni Cafe.
A banquet at the R & J Lounge (嶺南小館 'ling naam siu kwun
'). Either downstairs (casual) or upstairs (private dining rooms). Excellent food, stellar service, and a high tolerance for your weird antics. The last time I was there one of the members of the party kept swearing in Cantonese, and they took it all in stride. We stuffed ourselves.
A burger and fries at Sam's on Broadway. It's a hole-in-the-wall dive, right up the street from strip clubs and across from the Sam Wong Hotel (formerly the 'Hotel Colon'). Do NOT drink the house red.
A steak at Harris Steakhouse on Van Ness at Pacific. Dry-aged beef, done properly, and great service. Make a reservation beforehand, and have a cocktail to start (a Manhattan or a Martini). They'll remember how you like your cocktails the next time you come.
Visit Belden Alley and pick one of the restaurants at random. You'll have fun and great food, and later you can go around the corner to the Occidental Cigar Club for a smoke and another drink to finish.
Roast duck in Chinatown. I recommend either the Kam Po on Powell (港新寶燒腊小食 'gong san po siu laap siu sik
'), or Gourmet Delight Barbecue on Stockton (新凱豐燒臘店 'san hoi fung siu laap dim
Have it chopped into manageable pieces first.
Late night eats at Yuet Lee (悅利海鮮飯店 'yuet lei hoi sin fan dim
') corner of Stockton and Broadway or the Sun Hong Kong (新香港酒家 'san heung kong jau kaa
') on Broadway at Columbus. You've had a lot to drink, last call was a while ago, and boy jayzis are you hungry.
We all are. These are the places.
Maple glazed donut (a 'bar', also known as a 'long john' in some parts of the country) filled with oozy custard at Bob's Donuts on Polk Street at two o'clock in the morning after singing your tiny little heart out at the karaoke bar around the corner on California. Either that or a fresh apple fritter straight out of the deepfryer at around three A.M..
It's good for the throat.
Stirfried Chinese broccoli (芥蘭 'gaai laan
') OR mustard stalk (油菜 'yau choi
') with oyster sauce (蠔油，蚵油 'ho yau
'). Or water spinach (通菜 'tung choi
'). Yes, in Chinatown. Just do it, okay?
Or you could spend an arm and a leg at any one of our critically acclaimed restaurants, along with all the other folks who read guidebooks and the latest must-eat lists.
Don't forget to have some Fernet Branca.
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