Why do all chefs in San Francisco have an insufferable hard-on for octopus? This is a ladylike question that confronts me weekly as a professional food writer who frequently visits both new and established restaurants in the city. I see it so often on menus that it's reached put-an-egg-on-it levels of cliché (at least to me).
If you love octopus, S.F. is your motherfucking playground right now. And some of the best preparations of it are very simple: You can have it stewed in white wine and tomatoes (polpo in umido) at Cotogna; grilled with lemon, oregano, and olive oil at Kokkari Estiatorio; roasted with curried raisins and coriander at Liholiho Yacht Club; or battered and fried into balls (takoyaki) at Ramen Yamadaya.
Some of the best chefs in town have personally prepared it for me, and I can easily determine one kitchen's prowess above the others (when trying it out of politeness).
More often than not, I'm eating there at the management or publicity company's invitation, and will typically ask a server or manager what the highlights of a menu are. It's astonishing how often I'm directed to an octopus dish — and how often someone may still insist that I order it even after I mention how little I care for it.
It's not just the ubiquity; it's the fact that octopuses are freakishly intelligent. Yes, we eat all kinds of smart animals. Yes, I'm a hypocrite. But I still pause before eating a creature that can navigate labyrinths, is strong AF, and uses an arguably advanced form of logic.
Octopus species haven't yet reached the critically endangered list — which mostly includes creatures you've never heard of, like the African Wild Ass — but they're not the most sustainable choice in the world, either. The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch list suggests that Giant Pacific octopus from Alaska is a “Best Choice,” but cautions consumers to “shop smart, though, because only a small amount is available! Then look for a 'Good Alternative,' but know that these sources have environmental issues. Take a pass on imported octopus unless it's from a 'Good Alternative' source.” So I'm bowing out.
With the bounty of food options available to local restaurants, it's time to start looking for some alternative tentacles — if only to get these chefs out of their creative rut and onto something new for their menus.