Navigating a city like San Francisco isn't so much a question of memorizing map grids as about cataloguing landmarks, making our way — often in a haze of habit — past thousands of shops we've stopped into and street corners we recognize. Moving back to town last week after three and a half years meant shelving the mental map of Seattle I'd graphed and picking up a more familiar, slightly out-of-date one.
I sensed the exchange the moment I crossed the Carquinez Bridge into Contra Costa County, when the master plan of the East Bay — plotted in meals and freeway exits, the signposts from my eight years reviewing restaurants at the East Bay Express — began to lock into place. Passing Hercules, I felt a click: The strip mall to my left housed a Filipino takeout place where a bowl of coconut milk–braised jackfruit had rocked my world. At the Gilman exit on I-80, another click: Somewhere, a few blocks off, was Sea Salt, the site five years back of an amazing tuna tartare with orange zest and oil-cured olives. As I passed Treasure Island and drove toward the San Francisco skyline, closing in on the neighborhoods where I'd cooked and lived since the early 1990s, the clicks came faster and denser — the memories of thousands of lattes, sushi rolls, sautéed sweetbreads, sticky-rice packets, and baguettes, all the way back to that first slice of Escape from New York pizza 18 years ago.
So it only seemed fitting, before beginning years of surveying new restaurants and the city's evolving culinary landscape, to spend a few days reorienting. To re-establish checkpoints and measure paces. To trace the footpaths underneath the pavement. With barely a bag unpacked, I headed out on a 48-hour tour of the meals that made up my old life in San Francisco — the restaurants and shops where I first fell in love with a favorite dish, the places I regularly revisited when flying in from Seattle.
It began with a drive over Clipper, down Portola and then Vicente, past rows of Doelger Brothers–style boxes, to eat Mandarin lamb at Old Mandarin Islamic (3132 Vicente at 42nd Ave.). A change-of-ownership sign was taped up in the front, but nothing significant was missing: the pale-blue walls and plastic flowers, the meaty steam from half a dozen hot pots fogging the front window, and the tangles of thinly sliced lamb thickly coated in cumin and chiles, sending up an aroma that segued from sweat to incense. On the side: a plate of stir-fried pancake with vegetables, a dish I'd ordered since a trip to Beijing, when my friend Lily pointed out a street vendor slicing a manhole-sized crepe into fettuccinelike ribbons.
The next day started with a cup of Three Africans blend from Blue Bottle Coffee Cafe (66 Mint at Jessie) in honor of the day the kiosk appeared in Hayes Valley. That day, caffeinated into a convert's ecstasy, I threw away my coffeemaker in favor of a plastic Melitta cone and swore off Starbucks for good. Then it was on to yum cha at the downtown Yank Sing (101 Spear at Mission, in the Rincon Center). On a weekday, the suited-up crowd doesn't seem to favor steamed tripe or jellyfish salad, but there's no dim sum with the same flash and delicacy between here and British Columbia. In fact, lunch confirmed that the Shanghai-style soup dumplings claimed to be the best in Vancouver have nothing on the ones I gingerly leveraged onto my spoon, their wrappers as translucent as muslin but strong enough to keep the hot broth sloshing inside.
As the day progressed and I crisscrossed town, nostalgic memories of dishes or the passage of time sometimes failed me. The dense, unevenly shaped pistachio macaroons at the original La Boulange (2325 Pine at Fillmore) — which appeared a decade before Parisian macaroons trended high — have lost their magic. The curtido (cabbage slaw) on the pupusas revueltas at El Zocalo (3230 Mission at Fair) is less biting than I remember, though the memories of 2 a.m. meals surrounded by club kids, mariachi musicians, and three-generation families seem fresh. And was the rice in the veggie kimbap at Woo Ri Market (1528 Fillmore at Geary) — a $2 meal (now $4) that fueled many Friday-night shifts in the kitchen — mushier than I remembered? But the powdered-sugar-dusted alfajores at El Perol in the Mission Market (2590 Mission at 21st St.) are as miraculously crumbly as they always were; a few seconds after fishing the cookie out of the bag, I already looked like Lindsay Lohan leaving a toilet stall.
After weighing the possibility of a scallop crepe with seafood sauce at Ti Couz against the cochinita pibil at Mi Lindo Yucatan, I asked friends to meet me for dinner at Pauline's Pizza (260 Valencia at 14th St.). Fifteen years before San Francisco's artisan pizza fixation went clinical and before the word locavore was coined, Pauline's was growing odd varieties of salad greens and pizza toppings in its own gardens, and the pizzas it turns out — like the sweet roasted pepper, thyme, goat cheese, and shallot special we devoured — have the same papery-crisp crusts and the same cottony crumb, distorted by air bubbles the size of apricots. There are more fashionable pies in the Mission, but only Tomasso's can beat Pauline's 20-year record for consistency.
What was next? A meatball banh mi at Saigon Sandwich on Larkin? An emperor's pancake at Suppenküche? These weren't the meals that changed my life — most of those dinners occurred at restaurants like Flying Saucer, R&G Lounge, the French Laundry, Incanto, and the emm-effing Chez P. They were the meals a thousand outings with friends centered on. They were the foods that sustained me through the barely-paying-the-rent years and the dot-com bubble and bust. This was just the way most of the San Franciscans I knew ate, the catholic appetites that drew me back.
No, the final meal would have to be the dish that marked the dead center of my San Francisco map: a regular carnitas burrito (whole beans, mild salsa, guacamole please) at El Toro (598 Valencia at 17th St.). Once again, I perched awkwardly on a sway-bottomed stool at a table smothered in California sunlight and unwrapped the foil, failing once again to tear it into an unbroken spiral. One bite — and I was right where I belonged.