Finally went to Chez Panisse, the genesis of farm-to-table cuisine.

Forks in the Road: Some San Francisco Culinary Icons … Finally!

In all the yummy trips I’ve been lucky enough to make to San Francisco, there were still some glaring omissions in my “been there, done that” list. Until recently. During my last trip, I got to sample some long awaited delights, and I’m happy to say that none of them disappointed.

Chez Panisse

The menu at Chez Panisse changes daily to highlight the freshest ingredients.
That day’s menu at Chez Panisse

Yes. I know. Sacrilege that I had never crossed knife and fork and genuflected at the genesis of farm-to-table cuisine.

We arrived upstairs for lunch on a Thursday afternoon in mid-August … without reservations. After learning of the minimum half-hour wait, reservations seemed like they would have been a good idea. As it turned out, it was perfect that we didn’t have them.

We took a seat and waited and watched and soaked it all in.

With a backdrop of the rich ambiance and imbued history of the art-deco style building itself, the real stars of Chez Panisse became the people – both employees and guests.

Our hostess was the gentle general, having to deal with egos of all sizes and doing it with polite, but firm aplomb. She also got props for being willing to pitch in and buss tables, something not everyone in that position deigns to do, but clearly she was part of a well-orchestrated team. All the servers definitely knew their stuff, and glided about with professionalism and delight.

The guests ran the gamut. Two ladies who lunch, who had reservations, but didn’t might waiting a bit. A European family wearing every possible high-end logo, who had reservations, and did very much mind waiting a bit. Three generations of women enjoying the grandmother’s birthday. A young couple as star struck as we were to be at Chez Panisse. Several groups for whom this was just a checked box, and were on to the next landmark as fast as possible. An elderly, very dapper African-American man who may or may not have had reservations, but had clearly been here many times over the years, and was shown to his seat by our hostess with her arm over his shoulders and sharing the smiles of a well-burnished and much-cherished friendship.

She came up to us soon afterwards, just minutes beyond her estimated half-hour time frame, and we were shown to a two-top table at Chez Panisse.

As for the food. Started with flutes of bubblies, because … hello, seats at Chez Panisse with no reservations! From there, heirloom tomato bisque with crème fraîche, and anise hyssop; rocket lettuce salad with prosciutto, mint, hazelnuts, and pecorino; pizza with rapini, black olives, and ricotta.

Yes, that’s a long list of ingredients, because the much-lauded food at Chez Panisse is about stellar ingredients – and rightly so. I expected that. I didn’t expect my experience to be so much about the people. That was housemade icing on the locally sourced cake.

 

La Taqueria

The burritos at La Taqueria don't have rice, but they're packed with flavor and ambiance.
La Taqueria burrito — carne asada, super, dorado, con cerveza.

Given my love of Mexican food, and how much time I’ve spent in the Mission District, it was ridiculous that I’d never had a Mission burrito.

What’s the big deal, you ask? Isn’t a burrito just a burrito? Well, is a Parisian baguette just a baguette? Is Kansas City barbecue just barbecue? Is a Maine lobstah roll just a lobster roll?

Such it is with Mission burritos. In addition to meat, beans, and cheese, part of the flavor comes from the vibrant atmosphere, the heat of the salsa, the rat-a-tat patter of at least two languages in the background. There’s definitely a there there in the Mission.

My first Mission burrito was going to be from La Taqueria, which opened in 1973. It’s a mildly controversial choice because their burritos don’t have rice, but I figured any place good enough to have been dubbed an “American Classic” by the James Beard Foundation was good enough for me.

The burrito was going to be a carne asada (grilled sliced beef), ordered super y dorado, por favor. “Super” means adding salsa, guacamole, and hot sauce. The “dorado” option isn’t on the menu, but gets you a burrito that’s griddled on both sides after it’s been assembled so it stays together a little better and has just a bit of crunch. Dorado literally means “golden,” and it was.

Again, total luck with even getting a burrito, let alone a seat. Normally, the line here is out the door and then some, but we arrived so early you couldn’t even really tell if there was a line. As such, it’s possible that I inadvertently cut in front of a couple people, but since a very sweet abuela did the same thing right behind me, I was forgiven!

 

Beep’s Burgers

This circa-1962 burger joint is on the SF Legacy list of bars and restaurants.
Beep’s Burgers on Ocean Avenue.

This throwback Ocean Avenue burger joint is on the SF Legacy list of historically significant bars and restaurants. Built in 1962 during the heyday of the space age, the name was supposedly to imply the ubiquitous “beep beep” sound of futuristic stuff. Again, silly I hadn’t been since it’s only a few blocks from a friend’s house in Ingleside.

I must admit I wasn’t expecting much – just a basic thin burger on a thin bun and old school, non-battered fries would have sufficed. But Beep’s has a different orbit in mind. Whether due to a recent ownership change, I don’t know, but … the juicy burger was at least a quarter pound, maybe a third, and the soft, fresh buns were from local favorite Semifreddi’s Bakery, and the fries were real fries.

 

St. Mary’s Pub

A neighborhood bar established in 1948 that's enjoying a new life thanks to new ownership that appreciates its heritage.
St. Mary’s Pub — a neighborhood bar established in 1948 that’s enjoying a new life thanks to fairly new ownership that appreciates its heritage.

Not sure why this little gem of a neighborhood pub hadn’t crossed our radar before. Established in 1948, it’s located on Mission Street on the southern edge of Bernal Heights.

On this visit to San Francisco, it caught our eye as we were taking the bus from aforementioned Ingleside to aforementioned La Taqueria. Admittedly, the selling point could have been the banner sign advertising the seven flavors of bloody marys available on the weekends.

When we took the same bus that weekend, the banner caught our eye again. When we saw that the bus stopped almost right in front, we took it as sign. The bloodies were delightful.

Mitchell’s Ice Cream

Mitchell's Ice Cream has been serving handmade super-premium ice cream since 1953.
Espresso Toffee Crunch and Cantaloupe from Mitchell’s Ice Cream.

Since 1953. Ice. Cream. Small batch. Handmade. Super-premium 16% butterfat. Espresso Toffee Crunch and Cantaloupe. That is all. That is enough.

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