50 Things You Need to Eat in San Francisco Before You Die
You are going to DIE. Sorry, dude. Before you do, though, at least make sure you house all 50 of these bucket list-able SF things, from Humphry Slocombe's Secret Breakfast to Craftsman and Wolves' The Rebel Within.
San Francisco’s most expensive sandwich overflows with an embarrassment of luxurious ingredients: “Kobe style Wagyu” beef from Australia, a mega-chunk of foie gras, shaved black truffles, and a black truffle sauce. You’ll feel like a million bucks and will also win Instagram for life. Oh, by the way, it’s $65, which defines decadence, but you're worth it.
2. Secret Breakfast
HumpSlo has lots of sexy ice cream flavors but they all take a way-way-WAY backseat to this grande dame. Secret Breakfast folds bits of caramelized cornflake cookies into a bourbon base that is lush and rich without tasting (too) boozy. It’s actually perfect for breakfast even though the shops don’t typically open until 11am; you can hit the outpost in the Ferry Building as early as 8am on Saturday mornings, though, which you will now that you've read that sentence.
3. Kouign amann
One of the best-selling calling cards of this charming Pac Heights bakery is the kouign amann (“queen ah mahn”), an example of fine Viennoiserie made of multiple layers of butter- and sugar-covered pastry dough baked up into a delicate celebration of caramelization and custard. The way it shatters on first bite... yup.
4. Fried veggie po-boy
Get up on this sandwich whether you’re a vegetarian or not because it is San Francisco’s most interesting remix of the New Orleans standard -- a standout even among Brenda’s solid meat and seafood choices. Cornmeal-crusted cauliflower, okra, and yams are drenched in vegan chipotle remoulade to create this filling 'boy.
5. Macadamia-crusted mac 'n' cheese
It takes a lot for a writer who has burned out her macaroni and cheese palate after judging not one but TWO amateur mac & cheese battles and who's sworn the stuff off for pretty much life. Like, fuck mac 'n cheese for real. But crust it on up with some fatty nuts and it’s a game-changer for sure. Can you feel the brand-new day?
Chef/owner Chris Cosentino and his young son Easton came up with the idea to blend ham and beef for the burger at his approachable new SOMA restaurant. The blend yields surprisingly juicy results, dude. Dad serves it with grilled onions, Gruyere cheese, Dijon, and fried potatoes. Pro tip: you should go ahead and put an egg on it.
There are stuffed grape leaves and then there are the transcendent dolmeh at this family-owned traditional Persian restaurant in SOMA. They’re stuffed with ground beef, rice, and split peas and topped with sweet, tart barberries and if they told you they were served as a dessert instead of an appetizer before the awesome main course kebabs and stews you’d totally believe ‘em.
8. Detroit-style red top
Despite the titular Napoletana, there are several regional pizza styles at play at Tony’s. If you’re a fiend for fried dough and double cheese, you’ll happily eat way too much of the puffy, deep, and square Detroit-style red top, notable for its thick racing stripes of marinara. Brick cheese is layered on the bottom of the pan and on top of the dough for glorious heart-stopping potential.
9. Russian honey cake
A labor-intensive nine-layer Russian honey cake (also called Krasinski torte) is a particularly efficient way for fiends to mainline sugar when the urge is just that strong. The layers of cake taste as if they've been soaked in caramelized honey, and they're sandwiched together with honey buttercream. The slice is slim but fat in flavor. Mmm... fat flavor...
Nopa’s haute Mexican offshoot deals legit crack in the form of a giant hunk of pork that’s been braised in orange, milk, cinnamon, beer, and bay leaf, accompanied with a little cabbage salad, spicy pickled vegetables, and tomatillo salsa to pile into tortillas with it. It's braised until it’s so tender it falls straight off the bone and into your mouth. It’s best experienced in slow motion so you catch all those flavors.
11. Chocolate snacking cake
This square, layered cake spanks other chocolate cakes both for superior flavor and value. The word snacking implies modest eating but this is an honest-to-goodness mountain of brownie-like cake with chocolate and mocha ganache. It’s inspired by owner Chuck Siegel’s summer camp memories, proof that we were all clearly going to the wrong summer camps.
12. Louisiana andouille pizza
OG pizza parlor Pauline’s has a Cajun-style pizza with a light and bubbly crust that isn’t easily duplicated elsewhere around town, which earns it a spot on this list. This particular pie is topped with andouille sausage, red bell peppers, green onions, and a fontina cheese that’s so creamy you will not actually miss the mozzarella.
13. The Real Korean Tacos
Another brilliant ethnic repurpose of the taco concept, this one using nori as the tortilla replacement. Filling options include tofu and chicken, but it's all about the interplay of Korean marinated and grilled bulgogi beef, kimchi salsa, and spicy aïoli.
14. Dried porcini doughnuts
Melted raclette (a cow’s milk cheese) and dried porcini mushroom shards push these sinkers straight over the line of common decency and into food fantasy territory. If you've never had a savory donut, first, we don't even know you, and second, this is the best way to pop that cherry.
15. Oboro tofu
Even if you're averse to the blocky and boring forms of tofu found at the grocery store, ask for the made-to-order oboro tofu and your perception will shift. It’s kind of like white, unsweetened flan, all warm and jiggly in a wading pool of soy milk made fresh at the restaurant. Soy sauce and toppings like bits of ginger, daikon radish, green onion, sesame seeds, and ribbons of shiso leaf are customizable options to enhance the delicate flavor.
16. Tacos tropical
Thinly sliced rounds of jicama are used in place of tortillas for the most creative tacos in town. The crunchy vegetable is a clever alternate vehicle for such a ubiquitous dish. Crowned with crispy panko-breaded shrimp and mango salsa, you’ll be tempted to recreate this dish at home but you won’t be able to without injuring yourself (jicama’s The Worst).
17. Pomme d'amour
The signature pastry from the bakery arm of Local Mission Eatery is a vanilla crème brûlée loaded into a puff pastry that's been streaked with crunchy salted caramel. It's beautiful, evil, awesome, and frightening.
18. State bird with provisions
Quail is the California state bird and the namesake inspiration for this eclectic and perpetually packed restaurant. Here the quail is crusted in a uniquely awesome batter that has inclusions like pumpkin seeds and house-made croutons before taking a bath in some hot oil and swimming atop a tangle of lemon-stewed onions. You’ll probably need to order two. Wait, no, you'll DEFINITELY need to order two.
19. Coconut black rice pudding
Forget the fried bananas, this Thai dessert is served family-style with coconut milk, caramel, and a crunchy mix of brown rice, sesame, and peanuts to put on top. Its ability to stun the eater senseless even after a meal of savory delights should not be underestimated.
Get in touch with your blood-boiling inner carnivore with this luscious Ethiopian steak tartare drenched in spiced, clarified butter. Ironically, even though the meat is uncooked, the menu states that the dish takes an extra 15 minutes to prepare. It’s worth the wait, especially if you’re chilling at the table by the fireplace.
21. Braised lamb “abgoosht”
Abgoosht is a popular dish in Iran, the home country of Chef/owner Hoss Zaré, who is always on a quest to infuse Mediterranean food with Persian influence. The lamb is braised until stupid tender, the kind that a fork just needs to quiver near to fall in a stew of chickpeas, potatoes, turmeric, and preserved lime. It’s served with lavash squares and torshi, an addictive pickled relish.
22. Coffee crunch cake
For 40 years, this small bakery inside the Super Mira Market in Japantown has sold this homage to a “koffee krunch kake” that was served at Blum’s, a defunct chain of Bay Area soda fountain/bakeshops that was popular in the '50s and '60s. Light, sponge-like layers of coffee-flavored cake are frosted with whipped cream and garnished with shards of honeycomb-like coffee candy. It sells out by 11am daily, which is simply justification to eat cake for breakfast.
23. Custard French toast
Brunch should be an occasion to pamper oneself to the point of sheer obnoxiousness, and thick slices of butter-bombed French toast filled with silken custard are an exemplary way to achieve this crucial goal. Dish creator Chef Amy Brown now operates Marla Bakery in the Richmond District.
24. Frito pie
This New Mexico-style junk food hack is served in a split Fritos bag with (or, for vegetarians, without) ground beef and pinto beans, and is dressed with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, New Mexican red chiles, and sour cream. It’s some tasty white-trash business, to be sure, and you need to slum it.
25. The Bird
There are few things more boring than a turkey sandwich unless it’s The Bird. It’s layered with provolone, coleslaw, avocado, and chicken-fried bacon (!!!!) for a sweet combo of textures and flavors. The thick and satisfying chicken-fried bacon is not to be confused with Bacon Bacon’s bacon fried chicken, which is like regular fried chicken only with bacon-studded batter.
26. Sweet Southern Lady
Crème brûlée used to be known as a lazy dessert item for restaurants without imagination, but this cart, truck, and shop that originally started from a makeshift set-up in Dolores Park elevates the confection with the crackable candy shell into something fun. A vanilla bean base gets candied pecans and bourbon caramel sauce on top. Like all desserts should.
Assuming you're not Superman (you're not are you???), you'll need this hero of a sandwich, it’s got six different meats inside: corned beef, roast beef, pastrami, ham, salami, and turkey. Oh, but that’s not all, layer those with avocado, bacon, beer-battered onion rings, extra pepper Jack cheese, mozzarella sticks, pesto, and jalapeño poppers. And good night.
28. The Rebel Within
This Scotch egg-style bad boy conceals a poached egg inside a bacon, Asiago cheese, and scallion muffin. It's served with the yolk still runny, but toast it up and it becomes a whole other taste sensation to experience. Diminutive in size, it’s satisfying as heck. Also: get two.
29. Pastrami cheese fries
This is a fairly genius combination because you’ve got a whole meal right here in one go: thick, soft fries piled high with chopped pastrami, Reuben sauce, green onions, and a kicky relish to pull it all together. Now we’re talking animal style!
30. Gaeng pa pla
The closest your city-dwelling self is going to get to the jungle might very well be via the “jungle curry” on the menu at James Syhabout’s ambitious Thai restaurant. Catfish, lemongrass, makrut lime leaves, galangal, and shallots swim in a bath of deep red oil, leaving an addictive funk and burn behind.
31. French fries
Listed under the “Snackles” section of the menu at this meat-on-the-side restaurant (huh??), these thin-cut potatoes were called “fermented French fries” but that was quickly dropped because it sounds kind of gross. But they’re incredibly not-gross, they’re just brined in vinegar (and probably some secret stuff) for a few days to give them that salt and vinegar potato chip-type irresistibility. They’re served with a nice sauce made from smoked apples because San Francisco.
32. Frozen Greek yogurt
Screw your mother’s fro-yo shop and come to this charming Greek cafe for frozen Greek yogurt topped with crumbled pieces of baklava, a dessert made of phyllo dough layered with walnuts and honey. Ask them to add some sour cherry syrup too and welcome your new dependency issue.
33. Tuna poke
Your broke or relatively broke ass probably isn’t going to Hawaii anytime soon, but you can get a transportive taste of the islands at this welcoming restaurant that rocks a potluck vibe. Raw, melt-in-your-mouth tuna poke is one of the only traditional items here, plated beautifully on an edible nori seaweed cracker and garnished with sesame oil and radishes.
34. Noodles with peanut sauce
Everyone’s always giving all the shine to the dry-fried chicken wings at this Sunset institution. But the restaurant’s spectacular homemade noodles drowning in a rich peanut sauce with scallops, shrimp, onions, peas, and some key crunch from water chestnuts quietly rules. (Get the wings too, though.)
35. Marlowe Burger
So nice, they serve it thrice! At three places, that is: Marlowe and both its sister restaurants -- The Cavalier and Park Tavern. Topped with caramelized onions, cheddar, bacon, and horseradish aioli, you should already be heading to the location nearest you. It’s probably most fun to consume it in the dimly lit English pub environs of The Cavalier, though.
It’s really not cool that pumpkin has become the domain of the basic bitch and been almost universally ruined. The only pumpkin dish in San Francisco still keeping it real is the baked baby pumpkin appetizer topped with ground beef and yogurt sauce at this Afghan restaurant. It can be served vegetarian or vegan (the latter without sauce). Reclaim the pumpkin here.
37. Foie gras torchon sandwich
With the recent overturn of California’s ban on the sale of foie gras, this North Beach sandwich has been resurrected from the dead, Jesus-style. A generous lobe of foie is combined with smoked duck breast, oven-dried tomato, butter lettuce, and a sprinkle of truffle salt.
Primavera stand at Ferry Plaza Farmers Market (address and info)
Every Saturday, the folks from Sonoma County restaurant El Molino Central and food business Primavera set up a Mexican food stand at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. The menu in SF changes weekly and sells out early, but their famous chilaquiles make frequent appearances and are basically the reason breakfast was invented. Corn tortilla chips are simmered in spicy salsa and served with refried beans, avocado, crema, and eggs. Don’t sleep.
39. Paper masala dosa
Described on the menu as a “jumbo thin rice crepe filled with spiced potatoes and onions,” the paper masala dosa at this South Indian vegetarian restaurant is more than jumbo, it’s actually insanely big -- like a baseball bat or something. It only marginally and awkwardly fits on your table, which is pretty fun in itself.
40. Roast beef nigiri
A sliver of seared roast beef, arugula, and shallots blanket a pat of sushi rice for a unique nigiri available at this streamlined Japanese deli counter in the Ferry Building. It’s served chilled, which really makes the flavors come together. While a lot of sushi joints have stunt rolls with meat inside, this is an elegant and affordable alternative with more than novelty value.
41. The Best Indian Pizza
If the idea of combining Indian food with pizza sounds scary, ever notice how pizza-like good Indian naan bread can be? Zante’s has done all the work for you here, combining a fine Indian meal of tandoori lamb, chicken, and prawns with spinach, eggplant, and cauliflower, all on an edible pizza plate. They already call it “The Best Indian Pizza” for a reason.
This incredibly fun twist-up of a croissant and a bagel comes in crazy flavors like Nutella and jalapeño, but the plain, original version best shows off this wondrous hybrid. Bonus: there’s no Cronut-like line.
43. California croissant
So coveted are the hybridized pastries at this upstart hipster bakery in the Tenderknob, someone infamously broke into the place and stole the recipe book, leaving the cash. (Either that, or they are PR geniuses.) As zany as it sounds, a wasabi- and ginger-spiked salmon sushi roll without rice stuffed into an airy croissant is one of the best non-corner store sandwich options in the vicinity, a surprisingly harmonious concoction that really comes together when drizzling soy sauce on it. No guys, really.
44. Quattro forni
Tony Gemignani’s Chicago mob-style pizzeria only makes 20 of these thick, square-cut pizzas per day. The name comes from the four different ovens that put in work on this bad boy, including coal- and wood-fired beauties that impart fluffy, chewy, and crispy textures, plus a final oven that gives the bottom a sizzling fry-up not unlike a donut that’s fresh out of the oil. There’s a basic version with mozzarella, garlic, and oregano, or you can tart it up with prosciutto, arugula, and Parmesan; both are wonderfully intense.
45. Tiger tail
You’ve already no doubt sidled up to Bob’s Donuts in the middle of the night to soak up your confusicants with delicious, fresh-out-the-fryer sinkers. Now you’re ready to venture out to the Avenues and eat a donut the size of your arm, a glazed, twisted treat stuffed with chocolate, cinnamon, and walnuts. Fun fact: an actual adult tiger’s tail can be over 3ft in length.
46. Saffron linguine & clams
When you need to escape the schlock of Union Square tourists and shopping (see: always), duck into the Sir Francis Drake’s restaurant for some handmade pasta. The linguine is infused with saffron for an unbelievable golden color and rich flavor, an elegant bed for garlic-amped Manila clams, roasted tomato, white wine, and spicy Calabrian chile.
47. Bao de chicharon
You’ve probably had plenty of Chinese steamed pork buns in your time in San Francisco (you have, RIGHT??). Well, they do ‘em differently out in La Mission at Chino, where Mexican influences intermingle on the plate, resulting in a soft, fluffy Chinese bao stuffed with fried pork skin (chicharrones), pork belly, avocado salsa, and pickled onions. A perfect foil to one of Chino’s inventive alcoholic boba tapioca slushies (paging 50 SF Things You Need to Drink in SF Before You Die).
48. Peking duck pizza
Most of the pizzas at Mozzeria are in the Italian-leaning Neapolitan style, but this is a remarkable Asian detour. Topped with hoisin, sesame seeds, green onion, and cucumber, it's strongly reminiscent of a savory Chinese green-onion pancake. Incidentally, Mozzeria is owned and operated by a hearing-impaired couple who both employ and attract other members of the deaf community to the restaurant, thus all the note-writing and use of sign language.
49. The Drifter
Superfood-packed, sorbet-like acai bowls are all the rage in tropical places like Hawaii and Brazil, but their deliciousness made it into the fog this year with the debut of new shops like this Hawaiian import. A hint of raw cacao blended into the acai fruit with cashew milk and toppings like raw cacao nibs, almonds, banana, and strawberry make a bowl called The Drifter taste naughty even though it’s mega-healthy. Who knows? It may just buy you another day or two to get through this list.
50. Rainbow salad
We promise we’re not trying to fuck with you by telling you to eat a damn salad before you die. We're telling you to eat THE damn salad: 22 different ingredients (including dried shrimp, green papaya, potato, rice noodles, flour noodles, and fried garlic) go into this colorful Burmese beauty, which is mixed for you tableside and will impress the hell out of your date.
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