The Unexpected San Francisco Treats
No matter where you go when traveling, you recognize that every place is known for something. We're from Chicago, so when people think of our town they immediately think pizza, hot dogs, the Cubs, the "Windy" City. While all those wonderful things are associated with Chicago, the city is also full of other memorable highlights that visitors often miss. Chicago has some outstanding ethnic communities that are worth exploring. There is a lively and dynamic Chinatown, Polish food and culture galore (Chicago boasts the largest population of Polish people in the world second only to Warsaw!) Devon avenue is densely populated with authentic Indian restaurants and shops. Chicago is also home to a vibrant Little Italy, an extensive Greek town, and, well, you get the idea. It's really important to open yourself up to experiencing this sort of authentic ethnic adventure, for you will truly be able to discover a lot more of the fabric to a destination than if you simply restrict yourself to only explore the typical or well known tourist highlights. Not that you should skip those destination highlights - just be sure to seek out more of the local color as well.
The Golden Gate Bridge
We recently spent some time in the romantic city by the bay, San Francisco. We started out with the well-known attractions, such as the Golden Gate bridge, Chinatown, Fisherman's Wharf, the cable cars, and all the iconic San Francisco treats. But then we revved up our visit to take in some of what the locals have been buzzing about in the culinary world as well. We didn't have to ask too many people before discovering that the locals are raving about a restaurant with modern Greek cuisine called Kokkari. In fact, some of our local friends had tried and failed to secure a reservation.
Tony's Pizza Napoletana
So, we ended up eating at an Italian restaurant, Tony's Pizza Napoletana, an exquisite example of how pizza making can be elevated to the highest levels. Owner Tony Gemignani is an 11-time World Pizza Champion, with prizes including the Best Pizza Margherita at the World Pizza Cup in Naples, Italy and Best Pizza Romana at the World Championship of Pizza Makers in 2011 - the first American and non Neapolitan to win this coveted award in Naples. Located in San Francisco's North Beach district, an area well-known for it's many fine Italian eateries, Tony make his award winning hand-crafted pizzas in different ovens at different temperatures, including the award-winning pizza Margherita made out of the same wood-burning oven he won in Naples. We had to try the New York 22" a pie chock full of outstanding meatball, thinly sliced crisped pepperoni, fresh ricotta and garlic, with a perfect tangy-sweet sauce and cheese. We also tried a Gluten Free pizza with sausage and mushrooms with a gluten free crust that was crisp and satisfying. We started out with an order of meatballs in sauce that were absolutely delectable and shared various of the creative cocktails coming from bar manager Elmer Mejicanos' magical bar, including the Honey Bee which contains honey they get from the restaurant's rooftop. For Chicagoans to swoon over pizza in San Francisco, let's just say, you know it has to be good.
Against all odds, we did manage to get a reservation at Kokkari. The place was lucky that it lived up to it's stellar reputation, and then some.
Kokkari's Lamb Skewers
In a word it was outstanding. Kokkari executive chef Erik Cosselmon has delivered an outstanding experience in ethnic dining that is sumptuous and relaxed, elegant and homey, traditional and modern - all at the same time.
We sampled a full range of appetizers starting with the Chicago-born fried cheese dish of Saganaki, here made with fresh Greek kefalotiri cheese, which was not served as it is in Chicago, with a flambe flourish done at the table. It was a more humble and delicate version, which we found profoundly tasty. The spanikotiropita had the added twist of dill and chive that provided a nice California freshness that, along with the almost whispy thin layers of phyllo dough lent a new vision to a recognizable dish. We also sampled the tzatziki dip, served on a plate with pickled onions, cucumber slices and fresh grilled pita bread. The pita was thick and warm and delicious. Our entree choices included a special of the day in the grilled branzino (sea bass), crispy skinned Kotopoulo Souvlas, lemon-oregano chicken roasted with root vegetables, Arnisio Souvlaki, spiced lamb skewer grilled with onion bay leaf and tomatoes with tzatziki and potatoes, and a unique Californian interpretation of Markaronia, ravioli of roasted pumpkin and feta with cranberry beans, brown butter and hazelnuts. All were all deftly prepared and delicious. Each of us diners thought that we had ordered the best choice - which is always a pleasant surprise. We saved a little room for dessert and sampled the Galaktoboureko - a semolina custard in fill, that was served with quince spoon sweet and pistachio ice cream along with Koulourakia, a selection of Greek cookies. We finished off with some Frappe, classic iced Greek iced coffee.
The ambiance was well designed and comfortable. Even though the restaurant was very busy it was well managed and the staff was helpful and friendly. If you're planning a trip to San Fran, be sure to make your reservations at Kokkari early. We hear that reservations for prime time seating can need to be made up to three months in advance.
The Red Door Cafe
If you're in the Tenderloin during the day and looking for a unique little breakfast or brunch spot, look no further than the Red Door Cafe. This special little place, and we mean LITTLE, the place only seats about 12 diners in pairs. We had the pleasure of meeting the owner and chef A.D. early one morning. We were meeting a friend for breakfast at 9am at the Red Door Cafe. Proprietor A.D. was unloading the day's food supplies from his vehicle right in front of the cafe. As we stood there waiting he asked if he could help us. We said we were waiting for our friend. He said well we had two problems: 1. they didn't open until 10:30am and, 2. they only seat parties of 2. No exceptions. So our little group of three was out of luck. He proceeded to tell us that he liked us and could tell that we were fun, but sorry girls not gonna happen. So we said our good-byes and headed down the hill to another cozy spot, though with somewhat less personality, for an excellent breakfast. When we were walking back to our car, we passed by the Red Door Cafe that was now busting at the seams with couples waiting for a seat. It left us wanting to come back and try the Red Door Cafe the next time we're in town, so if you manage to get your timing right and nab a seat - please do tell us what you think of the place! And be sure to tell A.D. that the girls from Chicago said hello.
Boudin Bakery & Restaurant
One other thing you might want to check out while visiting the Fisherman's Wharf is Boudin's Bakery & Restaurant. Boudin sourdough bread (pronounced Bow-Deen) is not unusual - this is Sourdough Central in San Francisco. But what you might have missed is that they have a bakery museum there that is informative and houses an extensive look at San Francisco history, including the immigration of the many wonderful French bakers in the 1800s and the culinary history of the iconic sourdough bread.
We've provided you with just a few examples of how you might want to look at destinations a bit differently. Next time you are visiting somewhere new, be sure to look around for the unexpected - you will certainly be glad you did. If you can find out some of what's hot and what's intriguing from the locals, so much the better. If you've found a hidden gem when you were traveling, please do let us know about it. If we share your tidbit, we'll send you a limited edition long-sleeved PoshPorts t-shirt!