Urban Explorer

Some of the best things our critic consumed in a year of eating around a constantly evolving town

No two San Franciscans live in the same city. We all create our own metropolises by the patterns we trace, the choices we make, the landmarks that appeal to us. There are many ways to learn a new place: After we figure out where to get essential goods and services, it's the more esoteric hunting and gathering that leads us astray, into the nooks and crannies of the heretofore unexplored. I track down every used bookstore and junk shop; my goddaughter knows the coordinates of every comic book emporium.

And then, of course, there's the food. You know how somebody can look at you and say, “Oh God, I love you so much I could just eat you up?” That's how many people relate to their cities. I remember two friends who tried to eat a swath across Los Angeles, rather methodically: Jonathan Gold, who decided he'd eat his way through every dive, taco stand, and deli on Pico Boulevard (starting at its eastern edge) instead of going to grad school (hey, it worked out; he wrote the estimable Counter Intelligence, an essential L.A. food guide, and now covers Singapore street food and white truffles in Italy for Gourmet); and, quite independently, Angelo Pizzo, a screenwriter of some means, who organized a group to eat in every restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard (starting at its westernmost spot, at the cliffs overlooking the sea). I don't think either of them completed his Sisyphean task (at the end, you'd have to start all over again, given the half-life of most eateries), but I'm sure it was fun while it lasted.

There are worse ways of learning a city. My personal map of San Francisco, which I started to create decades ago, has been considerably redrawn in the last year. While I was out, San Francisco became like New York: Restaurants can roost on the most unlikely streets, and yet the crowds will come.

For years I ate tacos in the Mission, and I think the taquerias are now better than ever. I have happy memories of the carnitas, lengua, and cabeza tacos I recently enjoyed at La Taqueria (2889 Mission, 285-7117), the freshly fried red snapper taco at Pancho Villa (3071 16th St., 864-8840), and most especially the taco al pastor at Taqueria Can-Cun (2288 Mission, 252-9560), lifted into the realm of genius by thick, buttery slices of ripe avocado. But I was also drawn to the Mission to feast on crisp Tomales Bay, Kumamato, and Hog Island oysters; a mixed grill of rare duck breast, meaty quail, meltingly soft chicken sausage, and a crostini spread with a suave foie gras pâté, the succulent meats set off by a crunchy, bitter salad of chicory and sour cherries; and a deep purple, true-flavored Concord grape granita, all at the sophisticated Foreign Cinema (2534 Mission, 648-7600). I also found myself trolling for a parking space week after week in order to buy anything at all from the well-stocked counters at Tartine (600 Guerrero, 487-2600), be they cheesy savories such as the signature open-faced croque monsieur or masterpieces in pastry like the banana cream tart, whose shell is glazed with chocolate and layered with caramel.

When I went to North Beach, I was happy to find that the perfect pizza crust is still being baked at Tommaso's (1042 Kearny, 398-9696), and that the meatball, onion, and provolone on focaccia at Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe (566 Columbus, 362-0536) is still lusty, gooey, and utterly satisfying. But I was even happier to be introduced to the sublime thin-sliced roast pork sandwich at L'Osteria del Forno (519 Columbus, 982-1124), and to be able to follow the signature sweet potato gnocchi in a cream-and-bacon sauce at Da Flora (701 Columbus, 981-4664) with a genuine Hungarian pork paprikash with dumplings. (I'll have to return for the duck livers cooked with brandy and sage.)

I read about a guy who's eating his way through the menu of his favorite Chinese restaurant (and posting his progress on the Web). I'm just beginning to eat my way through Chinatown. At Yuet Lee (1300 Stockton, 982-6020), we started with crunchy pepper-and-salt-roasted fresh squids or prawns, and followed with sautéed fresh and dried squids, pink and ivory on the plate, set off by the fresh green of cilantro and spring onions, or the fragile steamed fresh flounder, unbelievably soft and sweet and tender. At R&G Lounge (631 Kearny, 982-7877), the kitchen pulled crab from the big tanks and sautéed them with pepper and salt or ginger and scallions; fresh pink shrimp, recently swimming in another tank alongside, were served split, barely cooked, dreamily bathed in garlic.

The Richmond now feels like the United Nations. I feasted on blini with smoked salmon, salmon caviar, herring, fresh dill, and sour cream; fragrant, woodsy mushroom and barley soup; and pelmeny in chicken broth at Katia's Russian Tea Room (600 Fifth Ave., 668-9292); impeccable dim sum at Ton Kiang (5821 Geary, 387-8273), especially the pea tips and shrimp dumplings, gleaming pink and green through their translucent skins (pink and green can be very appetizing, it seems); exquisite sushi and ippinryouri at Kabuto A&S (5121 Geary, 752-5652), including succulent, huge grilled sea snails drenched in roughly chopped garlic butter; and rich French fare at Chapeau! (1408 Clement, 750-9787), most memorably, perfectly seared foie gras perched on an onion and apple compote, with an apple cider gastrique, followed by delicious veal sweetbreads crusted with porcini and sautéed with chanterelles, trumpet mushrooms, and a touch of white truffle oil. Oh my God, they were good.

I may never need to find a restaurant near the zoo (you can bet on it, actually), but once I discovered that there are $10 standing-room tickets to the opera, I found myself haunting the eateries around Civic Center, and being haunted by what I ate there. At Jardinière (300 Grove, 861-5555), Traci Des Jardins did a smooth, chilly, classic duck liver mousse, but also an unexpected, and unexpectedly brilliant, combination of duck confit with candied kumquats, Medjool dates, and pistachio. Midori Mushi (465 Grove, 503-1377) excited with precise and unusual changes wrung on fresh raw fish. Wild salmon on a rectangle of rice, moistened with yuzu (a sour citrus) and garnished with spider-web strands of mildly salty kombu (processed sea kelp), and a rosy tuna-and-avocado tartare covered with thin pounded circles of ivory scallop were the highlights of an excellent omakase meal there. It's hard to choose just a couple of highlights from Absinthe (398 Hayes, 551-1590), but silky chilled Dungeness crab, with a small crock of white truffle-scented butter and the witty touch of crisp, briny house-pickled sea beans, was one, and another was a poached beef tenderloin with baby turnips, carrots, and leeks, served with a creamy marrow sauce and a bowl of crunchy sea salt, the most delicate pot-au-feu imaginable.

I had fabulous meals not just in neighborhoods where there weren't restaurants before, but also in places where there weren't neighborhoods before. When I used to live in the Bay Area, you couldn't drive into the Presidio without being challenged to produce identification by an armed guard, but a few months ago I drove in unmolested, parked easily, and had one of the most delightful, peaceful, relaxing breakfasts of my life in a charming little place called Desiree (39 Mesa, Suite 108, 561-2336), tucked away in one of the old barrack-y office buildings. My eggs were scrambled with green onions and sided by smoky house-made gravlax, strong coffee, and fresh-squeezed orange juice, and I lounged on a high banquette, admiring the ocean breeze. At Acme Chophouse (24 Willie Mays Place, 644-0240), on a site where people once parked their cars, I had a superb grass-fed rib-eye, a plate of leaf spinach swimming in cream, and a glass full of butterscotch pudding, followed by a baseball game upstairs in Pac Bell Park, a combination I intend to repeat yearly, no matter what damn name gets pinned on the stadium (next time the Giants can feel free to win in the standard nine innings, although we did enjoy watching them do it in 11). And nothing could have been more urbane than the setting and the food at Baraka (288 Connecticut, 255-0370), the French-Moroccan tapas spot perched on Potrero Hill, where the bright-green falafel were made from fava beans, dates came stuffed with chorizo, cabrales, and serrano ham, and you shouldn't miss the plump, eggy sugar-crusted beignets fragrant with orange-flower water, to be dipped in orange marmalade and tangy yogurt.

But my favorite new neighborhood is the Embarcadero, happily freed from its dark prison of concrete by the Loma Prieta earthquake, an unwitting aid to the best bit of urban redevelopment in the city. The Marketplace at the beautifully restored Ferry Building (Embarcadero & Market, 693-0996) is not just a transportation hub but a transporting one, full of delicious things to eat and drink from all over the world. You can quaff wines from New Zealand, Australia, Germany, and Austria, as well as France and Italy, at the popular wine bar in the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchants; drink exotic tea like an emperor or empress perched on teak thrones at the Imperial Tea Court; buy handmade cheeses from English, Spanish, and Greek farms as well as its own Point Reyes dairy at Cowgirl Creamery's Artisan Cheese Shop. And these are just three of the more than two dozen food purveyors in permanent residence. (Several days a week, farmers' markets surround the place with fresh produce.) I'm looking forward to pho and crab with cellophane noodles at the new Slanted Door outpost there, and a cheeseburger with extra onions and a chocolate shake at Taylor's Automatic Refresher, both due to open in 2004. Welcome to the neighborhood!

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