Archive for the ‘San Francisco Restaurant Resolution’ category

San Francisco Restaurant Resolution: Week Three — Town Hall

June 22, 2012

The third week of our eatery exploration (read this first if you missed the original premise) found us celebrating our first monthiversary at a restaurant called Town Hall. I thought this would be an appropriate location for a special celebration, because our first outing as an “official” couple — the first time the Pirate Queen introduced me as “the boyfriend” to people she knew — was a company holiday party a year and a half ago at San Francisco City Hall. Since I didn’t think Mayor Lee would let us set up a candlelit table in his lobby, Town Hall — which, as it happens, is nowhere near City Hall — seemed like the next best thing.

Town Hall is located in SOMA (that’s “South of Market,” for you out-of-towners) in a building that I suspect was once a factory or warehouse. Due to the entire interior surface of the restaurant being exposed brick and glass, sound reverberates through the dining room like a colossal echo chamber. Dinner at Town Hall is, for this reason, a little like eating next to a jet turbine running at full throttle. It may be the loudest place I’ve ever taken a meal where there wasn’t a baseball or basketball game being played. (The noise pollution on the night we visited was exacerbated by a tableful of testosterone-fueled yuppie businessman types whose conversational volume level betrayed the quantities of adult beverage they had consumed during their stay.)

Fortunately, the food kicks butt.

I started with an appetizer of barbecued shrimp, served in a decadent Worcestershire-based sauce that perfectly melded sweetness and sharpness. A pair of old rubber galoshes, grilled and covered with this sauce, would be awesome. The shrimp, tasty in and of themselves, were exquisite. I was glad that the Pirate Queen talked me out of my first choice, buttermilk biscuits accompanied by prosciutto and red pepper jelly. (But we’re going back to Town Hall, specifically for those biscuits.) The Pirate Queen kicked off the festivities with piquillo peppers stuffed with blue crab and cheese, which she described as outstanding.

For my entree, I chose the buttermilk fried chicken. Now, let’s be honest — the best fried chicken comes from your grandma’s stovetop, not a fine-dining kitchen. Most restaurants that serve fried chicken opt for either of two extremes: crispy but blandly flavored, or deliciously seasoned but mushy and greasy. Town Hall achieves that rare split up the middle — a crust that’s light and crunchy but also redolent with spices. The meat underneath was done to a turn while still moist and juicy. It wasn’t the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten, but it reminded me of that one, which is about as good as you can find. I’d have taken a bucket home if they’d let me. The Pirate Queen loved her main course of bacon-wrapped trout — she said that her favorite fish arrived perfectly cooked, and you know… bacon. (Quite a few dishes at Town Hall feature bacon. I’m not saying that as though it’s a bad thing.)

In addition to the cuisine, we gave high marks to our server, who made a couple of spot-on suggestions, and was attentive without being intrusive.

To reference an old proverb:  You can’t fight City Hall, but you can fight hunger at Town Hall. This superlative eatery nearly pegs the Uncle Swan ratings meter with a lofty four tailfeathers out of a possible five. I’d have given them four and a half, as the Pirate Queen suggested, but I feel compelled to dock half a tailfeather for the excruciating noise level. Still, Town Hall delivered the finest flavors we’ve sampled so far on our summer tour. It’s definitely cleared itself a spot on our “must go back” list.

You’ll find Town Hall at 342 Howard Street, South of Market in downtown San Francisco. It’s an easy two-block walk down Beale Street from the Embarcadero BART and MUNI station.

San Francisco Restaurant Resolution: Week Two — La Taqueria

June 12, 2012

For our second weekend of new-to-us restaurant exploration (read this first if you missed the original premise), the Pirate Queen chose what many diners consider the best place in The City to score authentic Mexican food. We needed a no-frills, hassle-free stop on our way out of town for a concert, and La Taqueria on Mission fit the bill.

La Taqueria: Best in the world? I think not.

The prosaically named La Taqueria frequently appears on lists of San Francisco’s tastiest budget-friendly eateries. Its carnitas taco ranks at #4 on 7×7’s 2012 Big Eat, the local magazine’s annual checklist of “100 Things to Eat Before You Die.” When you enter the restaurant, you’re greeted by an entire wall plastered with dining awards and honors, in addition to a blazing neon sign that boasts, “The Best Tacos and Burritos in the Whole World.” That’s a lofty standard for the Mission District, home to more taquerias than you can shake your sombrero at. So, we went in with high expectations. Did La Taqueria deliver?

Well… sort of.

The Pirate Queen ordered two tacos, one filled with carne asada and one with chorizo. I mixed things up differently, pairing a carne asada burrito with the highly touted carnitas taco. We shared a basket of chips mounded with the house salsa. All five of our items proved delicious. The meats were uniformly well-cooked, tender, and flavorful. The beans in my burrito were nicely seasoned and boiled whole rather than refried. The chips offered good solid crunch, and the salsa accompanying them tasted fresh and bright.

But I kept looking at that sign, and asking myself, “Is this really the best taco and burrito in the whole world?” Bite after bite, the answer came back, “Not so much.”

Tacos at La Taqueria

I’m not even sure that La Taqueria serves the best tacos and burritos in the Mission, much less the entire planet. They’re good, yes, but not exceptional. In fact, the last burrito I ate in the neighborhood, at El Toro (on Valencia, between 16th and 17th Streets), was at least the equal of my La Taqueria example, and might have been just a skosh better. It was certainly bigger, and perhaps better value for the money. That’s one of the challenges at La Taqueria. Unlike most of their Mission competitors, they only make burritos in a single modest size, which pales in comparison to the deluxe and super options at other taquerias. If you have a decent-sized appetite, you’ll need to add at least an extra taco to your order so you don’t walk away still hungry.

The quality of the fare at La Taqueria is unquestionably high. Little complaints bugged me, though. Both the carnitas and the carne asada contained far too much juice for the amount of meat. While I have no issue with moist meat as opposed to the dry and tough variety, an overabundance of liquid results in limp tortillas and an overall soggy finished product. My burrito and taco both proved too waterlogged to be consumed out of hand, leaving me to poke into them with a flimsy plastic fork. That’s not my ideal taco- or burrito-eating experience.

I had a similar issue with the chips-and-salsa combination. There was absolutely nothing wrong with either element on its own. (I prefer a lighter, less dense tortilla chip, but that’s strictly an individual aesthetic.) However, I’d rather have my salsa served in a separate container, so that I can apply it to individual chips as I dine, thus maintaining chip integrity. La Taqueria dumps the salsa on top of the chips like cheese on a bad ballpark nacho, and achieves the same unfortunate effect — sodden chips that are both difficult to handle and less than pleasant to eat, tasty though they might be.

Chips and salsa at La Taqueria

As taquerias go, La Taqueria provides a better than average atmosphere for your culinary pleasure. The walls of the funky dining area are festooned with posters from old Mexican films. I got a chuckle from the visual pun created by the poster for a movie entitled “A.T.M.” mounted immediately above the ATM. The furnishings are simple yet comfortable, and there’s patio seating out front if you care to watch vagrants meandering by as you nosh. Counter service was efficient, if not particularly engaging. Once we placed our order, food was dispensed with lightning quickness.

Clearly, thousands of folks — many of whom paraded in and out of the restaurant during our dining hour — hold La Taqueria in much higher esteem. All of the points I make above are subjective. I certainly enjoyed the flavors of my repast at La Taqueria, and I wouldn’t mind eating there again. With so much nearby competition for my Mexican cuisine dollars, though, I’m sure that I’ll probably find my way into several other joints in the Mission before I circle back around to this one.

On the Uncle Swan scale, La Taqueria rates three tailfeathers out of a possible five. The Pirate Queen, less easily impressed than I, lobbied for two and a half, but I’m in a generous mood. You could certainly do far worse than this if your tastebuds are in a Mexican frame of mind, but I’m equally certain that you could do better, too. If nothing else, it’s an opportunity to check that carnitas taco off your bucket list.

You’ll find La Taqueria at 2889 Mission Street (between 24th and 25th Streets) in San Francisco.

San Francisco Restaurant Resolution: Week One — Bissap Baobab

June 4, 2012

Shortly before our wedding, the Pirate Queen and I discussed measures we could take to maintain the fun and newness of our courtship as we entered our Spousal Unit phase. (Frankly, we feared falling into a rut over time, as many couples do.) We thought about the activities we most enjoyed together as we were dating, one of which was exploring interesting new dining options. Given that we’re fortunate to live in one of the greatest foodie destinations in the world, there’s no reason to confine ourselves to the same old joints… as excellent as some of those old joints may be.

So, we made a pact: Every weekend between now and Labor Day, we’ll challenge our palates with a San Francisco restaurant that neither of us has patronized previously. By the end of the summer, we’ll have discovered at least fourteen new places to eat — some of which, we hope, might work themselves into our list of go-to spots.

This past weekend, we began our culinary journey at Bissap Baobab, a Senegalese restaurant in the Mission. (The signage on the building reads “Little Baobab.” Apparently, the restaurant under that name merged with another establishment nearby, called Bissap. If you look for reviews on Yelp, either the old name or the new will get you to the correct page.) Although both the Pirate Queen and I have traveled — and dined — internationally, neither of us had sampled Senegalese cuisine. Truth to tell, before arriving at Bissap Baobab, I wasn’t aware that Senegal had its own unique cuisine. But then, that’s one reason we’re undertaking this experiment — to learn about unfamiliar cuisines.

As it turns out, those Senegalese know a thing or two about food. We began our repast with two appetizers: aloko (fried plantains accompanied by a tangy yogurt-based sauce), and prawns swathed in a spicy red curry. I liked the plantains more than did the Pirate Queen — as you’ll doubtless deduce as you read this and future posts on this topic, she’s not partial to sweets — but we both agreed that the curry prawns were a hit. The sauce was pungent, but not overly intense, and with surprising levels of flavor. The shrimp themselves were slightly overdone, but not rubbery. (Shrimp may be the most difficult protein to cook perfectly. No, I take that back — octopus and squid are even trickier.)

The Bissap Baobab menu includes only five or six entrees, most of which consist of a basic sauce to which a selection of meats (or tofu, for you vegetarian types) can be added. Depending on the sauce, the meat options range from lamb or chicken to fish (tilapia, mostly) or prawns. All entrees can be accompanied with either rice or couscous. The Pirate Queen chose the yassa (a rich, mustard and onion-based sauce) with lamb, and enjoyed it thoroughly. My entree, called coco, consisted of a tilapia fillet grilled on skewers, then layered with a slightly sweet coconut-onion sauce and sliced potatoes. The fish was expertly cooked, and the well-balanced sauce made a perfect match.

We found the flavor profiles surprising and memorable. I expected something similar to either Moroccan or Ethiopian cuisine — two styles of cooking with which I’m quite familiar. Instead, Bissap Baobab’s food reminded me more of both Caribbean (which made sense, given the West African heritage of many Caribbean residents) and Indian cuisine, the latter of which came out of left field. The unique combination of spices, aromatics, and other ingredients is distinctive and very appealing, and I’ll look forward to other opportunities to expand my connection with this wonderful regional style.

As for the restaurant experience beyond the food itself: Like many restaurants here in The City, Bissap Baobab suffers from complications of space, or lack thereof. We were shoehorned into a corner in which our table wedged cheek-by-jowl with three other small tables, two of which were occupied by other diners. The staff, to their credit, figured out quickly that the arrangement was too cramped, and removed the unoccupied table to create breathing room between the three that remained. Aside from this minor snafu, we enjoyed our visit. Our waitperson offered friendly, helpful explanations of both the dishes and the drink menu, and answered all of our questions with a smile. Food arrived at our table with reasonable promptness, though we did have to wait a stretch to settle our check at the end of the meal. The interior of the space is decorated with bright, hand-painted murals that lend the ambiance a vibrant energy.

Uncle Swan gives Bissap Baobab a solid three-and-one-half tailfeathers out of a possible five. If you’d like to try a regional cuisine that offers some savory surprises, check out the Senegalese fare at Bissap Baobab the next time you cruise the Mission. (A bit of trivia: Bissap is the hibiscus flower; baobab is a fruit tree also called monkey bread.)

You’ll find Bissap Baobab at 3388 19th Street (between Mission and Capp) in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood.