When I think of layer cake, images of smiling, neatly coiffed, white-aproned 1950s housewives come to mind. I think of childhood birthday parties, the Pillsbury dough boy, the red Duncan Hines cake box, and tubs of store-bought icing in pastel colors. It certainly doesn't seem to fit in with the images I've got swirling around San Franciso dessert menus: all homemade ice cream, seasonal pies, and tight-rope walking flavor experiments sprinkled with salt. I can't help but get excited when a layer cake shows up at a dinner out. They're few and far between, so let's take a look at the restaurants and bake shops around town that are taking the sentimental layer cake for a spin.
Like Champagne, Tequila, and Parmigiano-Reggiano, piment d'Espelette is one of those rare things regulated by AOC, meaning the product's name is tied to a specific region and can not technically be produced outside its designated origin. Piment d'Espelette is a chili pepper cultivated in the Basque town of Espelette. It's similar in flavor to paprika, though many chefs find its brand of smokiness and aromatics particularly bewitching. Of course, the pepper has been around forever, but recently I've seen its frequency rise on menus around town. Jasper's Corner Tap chef Adam Carpenter, a long-time lover of piment d'Espelette, suspects it's showing up more now because the price has recently become a bit more approachable. "There was a time when it was over $100 a pound," he says. "It was very scarce." Here's a glimpse of some places where piment d'Espelette is popping up these days.
It's time to talk about popsicles right now, while the air is balmy and the collective mood is high. Leave it to San Francisco to suddenly obsesses about local, seasonal, organic, handmade popsicles, all together now. This week, you can buy popsicles that taste like apple pie from a tricycle in the Mission. Bar Gelato pops made with locally-distilled single malt scotch are wrapped up at the Academy of Sciences, and there's a seafoam green food truck that will whip up a batch of liquor-laced "adult" mojito pops upon special request. Here's a laundry list of some new notables on the popsicle scene that's suddenly become a thing.
Take a French baguette, slather it with a thin layer of mayo, add pickled vegetables, carrots, cucumber, jalapeno, marinated meat, and cilantro, and you've got yourself a banh mi sandwich. If you haven't tried one yet, I'm betting you will sometime soon. A byproduct of the French colonization of Indochina in the mid 19th Century, banh mi (literally "bread" in Vietnamese) have existed in San Francisco for at least thirty years, although until now they were mostly confined to the Little Saigon region of the Tenderloin and the Vietnamese-dominated area around Clement Street in The Richmond district.
In the past year, all of a sudden, there are food trucks, a pop-up restaurant and a posh Pacific Heights quick service joint helping the formerly obscure sandwich break new ground. As banh mi tradionalits grumble over the sandwich's newfound trendiness, the question remains as to whether the more mainstream iterations hold up to their more ethnically authentic forbears. We'll leave that debate to the comments section. For now let's get the conversation started with a brief timeline of the banh mi in San Francisco—from its humble origins to this glittery Renaissance we're seeing now.
San Franciscans are the most avid drinkers of Fernet-Branca outside of Italy (where it's made) and Argentina (where it's the unofficial national drink). A bitter digestivo that includes myrrh, rhubarb, chamomile and saffron among its many herbacious and aromatic ingredients, Fernet has forever been the not-so-secret handshake for local bartenders.
First brought to the West Coast by Italian immigrants, Fernet-Branca actually survived the Prohibition Era by billing itself as a "medicinal elixir." Now old Italian grandfathers do it. Hipsters do it. Even my Earth mother, holistic pharmacist at Pharmaca—the very picture of clear-skinned health—tells me it's the only thing she drinks. Jason King, owner of The Broken Record puts it simply: "It's an industry drink, and people look to bartenders for cues on what to drink. It started getting so popular three years ago that I couldn't stock it fast enough." Recently Fernet on-tap and Fernet desserts have become a thing. It seems like our love knows no bounds.
More into farm-fresh than slow-smoked, San Francisco isn't much of a BBQ town. Aiming to change that, a slew of Southern expats in the local restaurant industry will be stepping up to the picnic plate in the coming months. Take Elizabeth Wells, for example. A native of Montgomery, Alabama who's lived in San Francisco for about ten years now, her craving for "the true flavors of the SouthEast" has not abated. In October, Wells will be opening Southpaw, a Memphis-style BBQ restaurant with an on-site brewery and a fun tagline: "Put a little south in your mouth." Around the corner, the restaurant vets behind Hog & Rocks and Maverick will be opening a Hofbrauhaus-style, counter-service spot inspired by the classic "meat and three" restaurants of the South. And the Marina's got something hot in the slow-cooker too. More on what's in store after the hop.
It's Fall. And with Fall, restaurant openings go haywire. Charles Phan's Wo Hing General Store, three new BBQ/Southern-inspired restaurants (in the Mission and the Marina) and the first of three Bay Area Umami Burgers should be opening in the next few months. And that's just off the top of my head. With soft-opening this, and grand opening that, firing off left and right, sometimes it's nice—necessary, even—to step back and relish the gems that've been sitting here, right underneath our noses, for years: the Chez Papas, Canteens, and Outerlands of our city. This post is dedicated to the San Francisco fixtures that haven't just survived for three, five, maybe even 20 years, in our cutthroat restaurant-scape; they've flourished. And you better believe they've got something good in the works for the next few months.
You know you're supposed to get elbow deep in that new bbq recipe at some point over the next few days. It is Labor Day weekend, afterall. But sometimes life isn't giving you pork butt and spices, it's giving you pop-ups. Since these underground dinners and impromptu "restaurants" are coming out almost as fast as food trucks these days, perhaps this weekend is a good time to avoid the grill all together and check out an outside-the-restaurant-box meal event. We picked our some of our favorite upcoming pop-up events to take you into this weekend, and the coming month too.
San Francisco is one of the few cities in the US where, come winter, it's nearly impossible to find a tomato at the hottest restaurants in town. On the contrary, come tomato season, it's hard to avoid them. Now that all the heirloom varietals have hit full stride in warmer points south, there are tiered salads of steamy heirlooms, plays on Caprese, cherry tomato-dotted pizzas, and, finally, the seasonal BLT has arrived. The happy by-product of this tomato overload is tomato water. While the New York Times just gave the "intense translucent liquid" a little jab as one of the fleeting "charms" of the 1990s, Bay Area chefs never seemed to let it go. Find out why they love it and where you can try it, after the hop.
The first time I walked off the street into Japantown's Bushi-tei, it was just to take a closer look at the majestic, live-edge communal table that almost fills up the entire street-level dining room. A glance upstairs revealed irregular, Hobbit-like slabs of wood lining the walls. Another look down popped with pairs of whittled wood spindles, serving as the most delicate of chopsticks on each table. I had to come back.
Essential SF knowledge in your inbox
Sign up for our email newsletters to keep up on events, restaurants and SF haps.