Organic? Locally grown? Haute cuisine from a truck? The food streets of San Francisco have it all, writes Rachael Oakes-Ash.
I HAVE dined on silver-service, three-Michelin-star meals where food is as revered as the Dalai Lama but it took a food truck in San Francisco to bring me to my knees. I blame Chairman Bao and his buns.
Chairman Bao, known simply as The Chairman, is a customised food truck in funky oriental red that spends the days driving the streets of San Francisco to serve up a modern take on an old Chinese favourite to those with $5 to spare.
Locals in the know are happy to queue for former Charlie Trotter's chef Hiroo Nagahara's yeast-filled steamed buns, split down the centre like a taco and filled with braised pork butt and savoy cabbage, pork belly and daikon, spicy chicken and pickled cucumber, duck confit terrine and green papaya.
The Chairman (mobimunch.com/thechairman) is not the first food truck I have encountered in San Francisco, thanks to Vikki and Dianne at Carried Away San Francisco, who offer customised tours with a difference.
Tell them what you're interested in - urban renewal, pop-up restaurants, food, art, shopping - and they'll design a personalised tour of San Francisco's hidden best just for you. Arriving in a big red beast of a kitted-out car complete with leather interior and local goodies for nibbling, the girls head straight to El Tonayense Taco Truck (eltonayense.com) and let the food do the talking.
Food out of trucks has come a long way from Mr Whippy. El Tonayense proudly displays the Michelin Guide-recommended certificate in the window for its authentic Mexican cuisine. Eating from a plate while standing in the Best Buy car park where the truck is parked is as far from pressed linen table cloths and haughty waiters as you can get.
But San Francisco is a city obsessed with community and an all-for-one belief. Food trucks suit the second most densely populated city, after New York, where locals can eat for less than $US10 and make conversation at the same time.
Tartine Bakery in the Mission District takes community even further. Customers here have to bus their own tables as devotees line up down the street for bread pudding, buttermilk scones, morning buns, frangipane croissants, croque-monsieurs and other delights that add inches to the thighs just looking at them.
All this community talk only goes so far. Be careful to read your menu - food truck, sidewalk cafe or fine dining restaurant. The wonderful taste of fresh French toast dripping in maple syrup and cream was ruined at the divine Universal Cafe when we discovered a "Healthy SF Charge of $1 per person will be on the check". Translated? The restaurant wants the customer to pay for the mandatory employee healthcare contribution required. It is not mandatory for the customer to pay this so haggle all you like.
But back to the community. Off the Grid San Francisco (offthegridsf.com) combines the city's food trucks and street carts in one circular convoy at predetermined locations each day. These weekly food truck meet-ups culminate with 30 food trucks and street carts descending upon Fort Mason on a Friday night. Add a live band and portable tables and chairs and, voila, instant community.
It is typical for a region that has long been on a quest to educate America on the delights of wholesome fresh food filled with flavour and shared with friends.
While the masses were inhaling corn syrup, deep-fried food on a stick, drive-thru hamburgers and cheese in a can, the original American foodie, chef Alice Waters, was making her name in the university town of Berkeley, 20 minutes from downtown San Francisco.
Waters was a leader in the free speech university movement of the flower-power 1960s and became obsessed with locally grown organic produce before opening her trademark restaurant, Chez Panisse, on the main street of town in 1971.
As foodies jump on the foraging food movement, where local "foraged" produce has overtaken molecular gastronomy on leading world menus, Chez Panisse is celebrating 40 years of business and a plethora of spin-off independent restaurants by former chefs.
The Local Butcher Shop, also in Berkeley, was set up by Chez Panisse-trained chef, Aaron Rocchino, and is a shrine to all things animal flesh. The meat is sourced within 240 kilometres of Berkeley from organic pasture farms and bought by the carcass. The glass-walled hanging room can be viewed from the counter and a changing meat sandwich is served each day.
Zuni Cafe, on the edge of the San Francisco CBD, was originally founded in 1979 but it became hot property after Chez Panisse alumnus Judy Rodgers joined the partnership in 1987 and again in 2006 when another Chez Panisse chef, Gilbert Pilgram, took the kitchen helm.
Zuni also focuses on seasonal organic produce with sustainable food and has now, according to many, surpassed Panisse. We think it's the brick-oven-roasted whole chicken for two with currants and pine nuts that takes an hour from ordering to table. People have killed for less.
Waters and her offshoots are among many with a food story in the San Francisco region. The big end of town dines on two Michelin stars at chef Daniel Patterson's Coi Restaurant while Corey Lee's two-starred Benu is the hot name on software-boom-expense-account lips.
The more time I spend in San Francisco the more inadequate I feel.
This is a town filled with creativity and inspiration, where streetside car parking spaces are reclaimed by entrepreneurial locals who pay minimal rent and proceed to kit out the space with communal seats, turf and gardens.
Old building walls in backstreets, side lanes and alleyways are brought to life with painted murals dedicated to pioneers of civil rights movements. If you sit still for long enough in this town, someone will turn you into an art installation.
Carried Away San Francisco introduces us to the creative world of Flora Grubb (yes, that's her real name), a horticulturalist who has created a garden out of disused pick-up trucks, old cars and brick walls complete with barista coffee and cake at 1634 Jerrold Avenue (floragrubb.com). Then there's Smitten Ice Cream, which creates instant ice-cream from liquid nitrogen at its pop-up
ice-creamery in Hayes Valley (smittenicecream.com) and Trouble Coffee and Coconut Club (troublecoffee.com) that serves real coffee, the kind urban-dwelling coffee-devoted Australians won't spit out, down near Ocean Beach.
I finish my three-day food fest in San Francisco with a sojourn to the Ferry Building on the water's edge. The Farmers Market is held outside here on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
A wander through the building itself reveals an undercover food street celebrating all that is good about the San Francisco cuisine scene. Trouble is, I want more. A full week in San Francisco would only begin to satiate my excessive palate. I am a convert to this new (and not so new) wave of American food and all this worshipping has left my knees sore.
The writer was a guest of Carried Away San Francisco.
Four places to dine underground
San Francisco's thriving underground dining scene includes communal dinners in surprising locations. The trick to scoring a table is to register before your trip. Locations are often not revealed until mere hours before dining time.
1. Lazy Bear Dinners are served twice a month, with private dinners in between, and no dishes are repeated by chef David Barzelay. Developed entirely by word of mouth, Lazy Bear has hundreds vying for 48 seats every fortnight. lazybearsf.com.
2. GraffEats A proponent of speakeasy-style guerilla dining, graffEats serves playful American cuisine with different themes inspired by retro music, art and conversation. Venues change with each event. graffeats.com.
3. Cook Here and Now Expect to get your hands dirty as Marco Flavio Marinucci brings friends and strangers together to cook, eat and clean up. The food theme is sustainable and local. www.cookhereandnow.com.
4. Stag Dining Clandestine locations combine with style and impeccable food and wine pairing. The innovative menus are produced by the five foodie mates and chefs who created Stag Dining Group. facebook.com/stagdining.
Let them eat cake!
Americans love carbohydrates. So if you're looking for baked goods, bagels, sourdough or cupcakes, San Francisco is your stop. Show up with an empty tummy at any of these San Fran bakeries and start gorging.
Bakesale Betty Missing home? Get your fill of lamingtons and ginger cookies at Bakesale Betty, served up by zany Australian Alison Barakat. 5098 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland, www.bakesalebetty.com.
House of Bagels Authentic, chewy, boiled-water bagels in 27 flavours with home-made cream cheese to match. 5030 Geary Boulevard, houseofbagels.com.
Mariposa bakery Artisan-crafted, gluten-free baked goods — cinnamon scrolls, bagels, cupcakes, brownies and breads worth giving up wheat for. 5427 Telegraph Ave, Oakland, or the Kiosk at the Ferry Building, mariposabaking.com.
Mission Minis Cups of cake love for $1. Try the Cinnamon Horchata Mexican rice-milk cupcake with cream-cheese frosting, Peanut Butter Kiss or Aztec Chocolate, or upgrade to full size for $3. 3168 22nd Street, missionminis.com.
La Farine La Farine has a way with French pastry ingredients. The "morning bun" is legendary in these parts — croissant pastry filled with cinnamon and sugar, and that's just the beginning. 3411 Fruitvale Avenue, Oakland, lafarine.com.
La Boulange Bakery bowls of coffee, organic baguettes, sugar brioche, peasant bread and tartlets oozing chocolate ganache and whipped cream. Europe has arrived in San Francisco. Various locations, laboulangebakery.com.
Miette Banana cream pie, coconut mousse cake and classic American layer cakes. If Alice from The Brady Bunch made a cake, you'd find it here. 449 Octavia Street, miette.com.
Tartine Bakery Bread, bread and more bread. Throw in some buttermilk scones, bread pudding, croque monsieurs and coconut-cream tart and be prepared to join the queue and buy more than you came for. 600 Guerrero Street, tartinebakery.com.
Dish of the day
If you only go to San Francisco once, do your taste buds a favour and tick these must-have dishes off the "been there, eaten that" list.
Clam chowder at Bar Crudo Avoid the usual Fisherman's Wharf tourist traps and head here for the best seafood chowder in town. Trust us. 655 Divisadero Street, barcrudo.com.
Hangtown Fry at Tadich Grill This fried, breaded oysters, eggs and bacon-style omelet harks back to the gold-rush days of San Fran. Grab the "original" California cuisine at the Tadich Grill. 240 California Street, tadichgrill.com.
Bu luc lac at The Slanted Door If Charles Phan's restaurant is an institution, then his "shaking beef", bu luc lac, is a star student. Tender fillet, red onions and a vinaigrette served up Vietnam style. The Ferry Building, slanteddoor.com.
Roast chicken at Zuni Cafe Surely the most wanted dish in San Francisco. The brick-oven wood-fired roasted chook is salted for up to three days ahead to cure the flesh. 1658 Market Street, zunicafe.com.
"Shark's fin" soup at Benu The "faux fin" dish has been on Corey Lee's two Michelin-star menu since Benu opened in 2010. Expect black-truffle custard and Jinhua ham with a seriously modern twist on a seriously ancient dish. 22 Hawthorne Street, benusf.com.
The tasting menu at Coi Be prepared for the unexpected as Michelin chef Daniel Patterson takes diners on a sensory journey worthy of Alice in Wonderland surprise. The man has elevated fine dining in North America with refined technique and a commitment to local ingredients. 373 Broadway, coirestaurant.com.
Mel's Drive-in Grab a car, preferably a retro convertible, and drive right in to Mel's. Order up big on burgers, sundaes, fries, root beer and sherbets, and channel your inner Fonzarelli or Sandra Dee. Four locations, melsdrive-in.com.
Air New Zealand has flat-bed business class to San Francisco from Sydney via Auckland daily. Expect a menu from Kiwi chefs Rex Morgan, Peter Gordon and Geoff Scott and fresh morning smoothies. 13 24 76, airnewzealand.com.au.
The Clift Hotel's Redwood Room bar is made from the wood of one single redwood tree. Designer Philippe Starck has his fingerprints all over this hotel and, trust us, that's a good thing. Thumbs up for the room service menu and best concierge ever, thumbs down for the thinner walls. From $US255 ($242) a night. clifthotel.com.
Benu, 22 Hawthorne Street, +1 415 685 4860, benusf.com.
Chez Panisse, 1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, +1 510 548 5525, chezpanisse.com.
Coi Restaurant, 373 Broadway, +1 415 393 9000, coirestaurant.com.
Tartine Bakery, 600 Guerrero Street, +1 415 487 2600, tartinebakery.com.
The Local Butcher Shop, 1600 Shattuck Avenue, +1 510 845 6328, thelocalbutchershop.com.
Universal Cafe, 2814 19th Street, +1 415 821 4608, universalcafe.net.
Zuni Cafe, 1658 Market Street, +1 415 552 2522, zunicafe.com.
Carried Away San Francisco offers the best city tour I have done anywhere, bar none — personal, customised and fun. From $US335 for a customised half-day tour for two people. +1 415 786 2424, carriedawaysf.com.
Culinary walking tours of the Berkeley gourmet ghetto are offered every Thursday and Saturday for $US75. Take in a guided group tour of 11 food experiences in the area. edibleexcursions.net/berkeley_gourmet_ghetto.htm.