Fat Dude in the City: If you’re going … to San Francisco

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San Francisco and Vegas are two cities with a lot in common in my book. Now, just hear me out. Both were places that, as a kid, I only visited when family was in town. Every trip involved the same food: fast food on the long car rides and clam chowder in Frisco or the Circus Circus buffet in Vegas. Clearly, my window into both cities was very limited until I became an adult.

Las Vegas was a whole new world to me when I started going in my 20s. The food. The debauchery. My dad never said nothin’ ’bout that before. But explore I did, and eat I did. Though I’m from the Bay Area–P-Town represent!! San Jose represent!!–I never experienced much of San Francisco aside from Fisherman’s Wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge.

After spending only a couple days in The City, I left with two main takeaways: 1) I could walk from neighborhood to neighborhood having dinner out and probably not repeat places for years. 2) I want to eat through this city, every night, for years. Here’s the first two days of that lofty, imaginary goal, in celebration of our friend Neil’s 30th birthday.

Check out the adventure after the jump.

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The City, from Twin Peaks.

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In the city, from the elevator in the Westin St. Francis in Union Square.

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Down the steep and twisting Lombard Street.

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Outside of Saint Peters and Paul Church in North Beach, across the street from Tony’s Pizza where the adventure begins.

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We saw Tony’s Pizza on Travel Channel and knew we had to go. The owner is Tony Gemignani, the first American to win at the World Pizza Cup in Naples for his Neapolitan pizza. He only makes 73 of these pizzas a day, so we wanted to arrive for lunch to make sure we had one.

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The overriding quality in any great Neapolitan pizza is the purity of the flavors, and this one hits those marks: creamy, slightly salty cow’s milk mozzarella (fior di latte, I’ve learned), fruity, crushed smears of San Marzano tomato and a just-crisp-enough crust. I’ve only had pizza with the basil applied after, and I didn’t think it added much by cooking the herb along with the pizza.

I hate that it’s sliced, but it’s just a little larger than an individual pizza anywhere else.

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The giant meatball, limited to only 25 a day, was more of a small meatloaf than a ball. It’s a succulent blend of veal, beef and pork. We ordered ours topped with wild mushroom, pancetta and robiola. I’d order the meatball over the Neapolitan pizza (now that I’ve had it one), and venture off into the more creative parts of their menu.

Aside from crafting an overwhelming array of pizza styles (Classic American, Detroit Style, New York 22″, Coal Fired, Pizza Romana … even St. Louis style with provel cheese), I could seriously get lost in their California Style menu alone:

Quail egg, white rose potato & guanciale

Tamarind & Pork (tamarind and apple poached pork, apple chutney, serrano peppers, bacon, Monterey Jack, scotch bonnet peppers)

Eddie Muenster (fried kale, smoked bacon, calabrese peppers, muenster cheese, honey, lemon)

Maybe next time.

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We explored the neighborhood after pizza. Restaurants everywhere, tons of art and a bunch of cool stores.

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We stopped at City Lights bookstore next, which was an influential place for the city’s Beat Generation. Somehow, in this bookstore I’ve never been too, I walked through the front door, across the room and straight down the steep wooden staircase to the bookstore’s basement. I took a few corners  the cooking section. Guided by the fates.

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Around the corner, literally, is (Jack) Kerouac Alley. Of all the paintings, including the one at the very top of this post, this one of the man behind bars in the window, was my favorite.

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Even the pavement becomes a canvas. On one street, a hundred different messages were created using scraps of tape. This one stuck out.

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Ghirardelli Square

Not too far from North Beach is Fisherman’s Wharf. We parked at the wharf and made our way up the street (and later halfway up a hill) to Ghirardelli Square.

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Inside of the plaza’s chocolate shop, you can watch the chocolate being made each step of the way. The place sells monster sundae’s too, so after watching it get made, you can dig right in.

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Fisherman’s Wharf

My childhood memories of San Francisco begin and end at Fisherman’s Wharf. The boats. The water. The sea otters. The chowder.

It’s a tourist trap, but a place you shouldn’t miss if you’ve never been.

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This street is seafood central. If you walk under the awnings, there’s a plethora of seafood shops to choose from.

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We were already so stuffed from everything else so we didn’t really eat. Well, I did get a small cup of chowder, mostly so I could have Nadia experience legit Frisco chowder.

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Next to the wharf is Musée Mécanique, an old-school arcade with games from different eras and various places throughout the country.

I decided to square up with this Lucha Libre arm wrestling machine …

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… and seriously got my ass kicked. Lesson learned. Don’t mess with a luchador.

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We walked back outside and I licked my wounds while watching this beautiful sunset.

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Kokari

Dinner was at an upscale Greek joint called Kokari. I wasn’t sure what to expect because I’d never had Greek in a fine dining atmosphere, save for George’s on Pine Street in Long Beach, but that’s not necessarily fine dining, it’s just a nice Greek restaurant.

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Kokari’s centerpiece is a spit with succulent birds taking the 360 spin. On this night they had chicken and a duck special. We shared various meze (dolma, grilled octopus, hummus), but the restaurant was too dark to shoot pictures in. I’m no fan of fine dining prices, and I always feel that Mediterranean entrees are easily overpriced. That rang true here. Of what we ordered, the grilled halloumi cheese and zucchini cake were my favorites.

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Foreign Cinema

Breakfast the next morning was at Foreign Cinema in the Mission District. It used to be a movie theater and later found a second life as a restaurant and art gallery. The line was as thick as the opening should be for any great blockbuster.

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The motif is unchanged, which created a very cool vibe while walking into the restaurant.

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The space is split into an art gallery and two dining rooms, one inside and one outside under a large plastic tarp. It feels like you’re eating in a bubble and I wish it was raining the day we went just to have experienced that.

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This drive-in speaker was another of the subtle touches that recalled the restaurant’s cinematic past.

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While we waited for our order, Nadia and I walked into the adjoining art gallery and checked out some very cool photographs and paintings.

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Some of the dishes, especially this crab frittata, were as beautiful as the artwork.

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I can see why the place is popular, but I wasn’t necessarily enamored with every dish. The adult Pop-Tart was sad, small and empty; the burger too bulky and over-cooked. Their bacon, however, was in the Top 5 strips I’ve ever had (this being the best) and the fries were essentially In-N-Out fries taken to the next level for any better way of describing it.

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On the way out, I did get this shot of Nadia, Neil, Gina and Matt. Reason enough for the visit.

Neil thinks that passes for a smile. He never smiles. SMILE NEIL!!

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Since we were already in the Mission, we decided to grab donuts for later on the way out of town at Dynamo Donuts.

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The walk-up stand touts a variety of gourmet donuts, and they even sell dog donuts! After eating here, I found out they had been featured on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” and were named as one of the 50 best donut shops in the country by Saveur Magazine.

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The accolades are worthy because these are some seriously d-lish donuts. The toasted coconut and spiced chocolate (essentially Mexican hot chocolate) blew my mind. If anyone knows of a donut place in SoCal that’s on par with this, spill the details.

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San Jose

We spent the remainder of our time up there in San Jose, one of my two hometowns in NorCal, with a group of my best friends. From left to right: Matty, Neil, Gina, Cat, Devo, Lucho, Clint and myself and Nadia at the bottom.

But that’s a whole different food tour. One I’ll save for another time.

Thanks for a great vacation guys!

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