Wednesday, April 27, 2011
A Family's Culinary Tour of San Francisco
Returning from a well-deserved vacation in the country during the height of Great Britain's battle with Germany in World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was queried by journalists how his vacation had turned out. In his inimitable witty style, Sir Winston replied: "If only the wine were as old as the chicken and the lady of the house were as willing as the maids, I would have enjoyed my vacation more." Or something close to that. My family's recent three-day trip in San Francisco could be summarized in the same vein as Sir Winston's lament. If only San Francisco were a bit less commercialized and driving downtown were a little less stressful, we would have enjoyed our vacation more.
San Francisco is not Las Vegas. In terms of available commercial land area alone, Sin City beats it hands down. That is why every time we take a vacation in Las Vegas, parking our car is the least of our worries. The other thing that makes a San Francisco tour more taxing (to a self-guided tourist like me) is the complicated, and to my humble opinion, the tourist-unfriendly system of one-way traffic grids downtown. This is not to say that all of San Francisco is crisscrossed by one-way and left- and right-turn only streets. But it is close. It's very close to a driving experience in the big Apple. If you are not a San Franciscan taking a self-guided automobile tour in this city, it becomes downright stressful. Having said that, the other things that a tourist must also watch for are the fine prints. Yes, the fine prints: on the hotel reservation, the tricky rate signs in the parking structures, etc. You could save a lot of money if you examined the fine prints on your reservation contracts and the other commercial enticements that you are going to encounter during your visit.
When my wife made an online reservation at the Best Western Plus Americania Hotel in downtown SF, the web site did not say upfront that parking was valet only and costs 20 bucks a day. It meant that the discounts that we saw on paper had evaporated when we forked over payment for two days of valet parking, plus tips to the valets. The web site also said free "Wi-Fi," but theirs was intermittent and complicated to tap into. Imagine less savvy, non-techies (like some senior citizens) trying to connect to the Internet, and you'll see what I mean. Like I said at the outset, San Francisco is not Las Vegas, and Best Western's defense is that downtown San Francisco is prime real estate district, ergo, parking areas are limited and expensive. Great. If only they told us ahead of time.
After processing these setbacks in a collective, if subjective, analysis, we still have a bit of goodwill left in our hearts to not totally slam the "City by Bay". We've visited here many times since the mid-80s, but in those visits we had the good economic sense to patronize the small, unpretentious, mostly Indian-owned motels along Lombard St. My philosophy being that if we could find our way to Lombard Street, from there, I could navigate my way to all the must-see attractions in this city. From Lombard, the Palace of the Fine Arts and the Praesidio are just five minutes away. You can even walk if you are not pressed for time. The Golden Gate Bridge is about a three- mile straight-up northwesterly drive away. The Golden State Park is just 15 minutes away to the East; The Crooked Road is at the terminus of Lombard to the East, about a mile-and-a-half distant. Chinatown is a short two-mile drive. But on getting there, you have to contend with an acute parking space shortage.
So this week, navigating from the epicenter of traffic gridlock, I spent an inordinate amount of fuel driving from Point A to Point B due to the city's system of one-way streets. Not only that, when you are driving in San Francisco, you gingerly share the lanes with the streetcars, the electric Municipal buses, and hundreds of intrepid bicyclists. In retrospect, it would have made better sense to leave the car at the hotel and just walk or take the streetcars and buses to our destinations. I'm sure that native San Franciscans have an easier way navigating through these one-way grids, but self-guided tourists like ourselves have a tougher time.
After a couple of upsets, we regroup and tackle the next agenda on hand. Where to eat and what. On our way from Los Angeles, some 400 miles away, we limited our food intake to store-bought sandwiches for breakfast. We stop at a travel center south of Coalinga and have hamburgers, and fish and chips for lunch. We are reserving our stomachs for a nostalgic dinner at Fisherman's Wharf or at Pier 39. We choose Pier 39. After briefly shopping for a restaurant, we decide on Chowders. The marquee says Chowders. But that's just the beginning. They serve lots of (red or white varieties) chowders, alright -- thick, steaming hot soup with fewer diced potato but with more clams, celery and herbs -- on a large sourdough bread whose core is scooped out. Almost every diner who comes in, I note, orders this staple. We order one, in addition to a seafood plate consisting of crispy breaded deep-friend shrimps, squid rings, and a large half fillet of fish. My daughter Justine orders a chicken strips plate. But calling them strips would be an understatement. They are more like thick slabs of chicken breast. Quite huge. The sides are thick, crispy potato wedges, and soda. The prices aren't cheap, but affordable. And the chowder and seafood plate are winners.
On Monday, we drive to Chinatown for lunch. It takes us 15 minutes to secure a metered parking slot, and the meter only accepts change enough to last one hour. That means finishing our lunch within an hour to avoid being ticketed. Lucky for us, we find our Chinese restaurant a block away. It is Yuet Lee Seafood Restaurant at the corner of Broadway and Stockton. (Just like in L.A.'s Chinatown, there is a Broadway St. here too).
I request our server, a nice Chinese lady, if she could tell the cook to hurry it up as we are under the gun, and thankfully, our orders -- a plate of roast duck, seafood chow mien, steamed rice, and beef with Chinese broccoli -- are served inside of ten minutes. Not only that. They are all appetizingly good, cooked in the same style as entrees we are accustomed to at our favorite Hong Kong-style restaurants in Los Angeles. As we are praising the restaurant and ourselves for picking it, I look at a showcase near the cashier's station -- and there it is, a picture of Travel Channel's Samantha Brown and the restaurant's owner. We also note at the door that Yuet Lee is Zagat-rated. No surprise there.
The crown jewel in our three-day gustatory journey is a dinner at an Italian restaurant on Howard Street, located four long blocks southeast of our hotel. The receptionist had suggested Buca di Beppo, a family-oriented Italian restaurant that is one of a few that's open on Mondays. We leave the Honda Element and walk the four blocks to a four-storey building in front of the San Francisco Intercontinental Hotel. Going inside Buca is akin to witnessing a slice of Italian history. The restaurant is multi-level, and when it comes our turn to be seated, a hostess leads us to the basement level via a staircase. Framed photos of famous celebrities hang on brown-colored walls, including those of Sylvester Stallone, Richard Simmons of Kiss, Carrot Top, Dom de Luise, Sophia Loren, Stephen Curry of Golden State Warriors, Arnold Schwarzenneger, Charlie Sheen, Danny de Vito, and many others. I am quite sure that all those celebrities have dined here. Framed vintage black-and-white pictures of Italian life also crowd the brown-colored walls. There is a half-dozen busts of the headless David, an iconic Marilyn Monroe statue with the blown white dress, and hundreds of memorabilia from the old country.
The restaurant is family-oriented and the food portions are designed to be shared. For instance, we order a small spaghetti with meatballs, good for three persons. The meatballs are so large, my daughter exclaimed, "These are not meatballs; this is a meatloaf." This entree comes in a large bowl, and it is so humble, it is unmistakeably traditional Italian, unlike the overly tomato sauce-based and slightly sweetish and tangy variety that one gets at fast-food places. The small thin-crust pizza comes sliced into finger-holdable squares on a wood tray placed on top of a large unopened vintage tomato sauce can. You can taste the freshness of the green and red bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, and the pepperoni and sausage toppings. It is called Supremo Italiano Pizza, and is aptly named. The entrees, it turn out, are still a bit too much for the three of us, and we leave the restaurant sated and with leftovers to boot.
While we feel bad about a few issues, mainly with our hotel's trickery and the craziness of the driving situation in the city, we are unanimous in declaring that when it comes to our restaurant choices, we are right on the money. Prices here are comparatively more expensive than Los Angeles. The lowest grade of gasoline is at least 20 to 30 cents higher; restaurant food is bordering on the expensive end compared to L.A. prices; and the most onerous of all: parking rates.
Notwithstanding these negatives, we are coming for more of San Francisco's charm. Only next time, we will get a room on Lombard Street.