Edited to add: Caution, this post is loooonggg. Thursday night: After securing our indispensable Muni passes ($24 for 7 days), we checked into the hotel and immediately made for Sam’s (374 Bush at Kearny) as it closes at 9 pm. We were seated by 8:30 and tried to order petrale and sand dabs, but the ’dabs were sold out. We both had the sole and J ordered a cup of clam chowder and a mug of Anchor Steam to wash it down. The sourdough bread was good but a bit burnt on the outside, and we found out that the kitchen had just run out of creamed spinach so things were looking a bit sad until the chowder came and was pronounced tasty. When the petrale arrived, all was right with the world. It was served simply grilled with two lovely roast potatoes on the side. The spinach was not missed, as the portions were very generous. I wish we could get petrale in Vancouver as it has definitely joined my list of fish happiness. We paid $50 plus $10 tip for this satisfying repast in a charming room. The server was attentive and helpful, gently correcting my mispronunciation of petrale which I appreciated (“We do hear it pronounced both ways” she said diplomatically). The atmosphere was definitely old school but in a good way, with the delightful curtained booths down one side of the resto and the slightly gruff maitre’d who spoke in Italian to several older gents who were obviously regulars. It felt old San Francisco-y to this visitor, anyway. A great start to our trip. Friday: On Friday morning, we headed to Café Bean (800 Sutter at Jones) for an early-ish breakfast. J had the Dutch Smasher for $7.25 (melted Edam, fried onion, tomato, ham and over easy eggs on toast) while I went for the chicken apple sausage and eggs with toast for $6.95. The eggs were perfectly scrambled, the sausage was delicious (housemade or at least very local I think) and the toast okay. We saw some Dutch pancakes on another table that looked mighty tempting too. They were serving Chester’s coffee in the urns but something else for the lattes which J deemed very tasty. No lineup, tasty, creative food at a good price in a funky setting a short walk from our hotel – what’s not to like? We then hopped on the Muni to the Asian Museum which is well worth a visit (nice museum shop also) before seeking out Taqueria Reina (1550 Howard at Lafayette). I had two tacos al pastor and one carnitas, and J went for the super burrito ($5.50) which came decked out like a Mexican flag on a platter. It was enormous (4”x4”x8”) and the quality suffered a bit from its size – too much rice, and a very bland enveloping red enchilada sauce per J and my small taste. The tacos were much more successful, with a slight edge going to the carnitas. We washed it all down with a mandarina Jarritos and a grapefruit Peñafiel (first one I’ve had outside Mexico) and waddled out for less than $20. Not bad but I think I’d tend to stick to the Mission for this type of food in future. Our next target was the Deco Ghetto near Hayes Valley. Sadly, several Art Deco dealers have closed down but there were still a number to ogle and the quality was excellent. We continued on up into Hayes Valley proper to peek into Absinthe (398 Hayes) and drool at the sweet wares on offer in Miette Confiserie (449 Octavia Boulevard), which is a really gorgeous store. Our best find was True Sake (560 Hayes btwn Laguna and Octavia) where we indulged in three very different small bottles. There is nothing like this in Vancouver, and the staffer was most helpful in yet another stunningly laid out store. We felt the call of Blue Bottle next and headed to their coffee kiosk (315 Linden Street at Gough) for a pick-me-up. J had the double latte while I went for the Gibraltrar, kind of a cross between an espresso and a macchiato as I was informed by the friendly staffer. I think that was the best coffee-esque drink I’ve ever drunk, and not just because I got a contact high from the amount of caffeine in it. We made like Italians and leaned on the counter to quaff our beverages. Thus fortified we headed back via F-line to the Railway Museum and then to the Ferry Building to try a fleur de sel caramel at Rechiutti and to Sur la table for another Kuhn Rikon sheathed paring knife ($9.95, comes in several colours, great for picnics). Our next gastronomic experience was the food highlight of the trip: Canteen (817 Sutter St between Jones and Leavenworth) for the coveted 7:30 seating. Having missed our chance in November, I booked well in advance for this tiny converted diner. It was a belated Valentine’s day dinner and Dennis Leary and his staff exceeded expectations. We started our Week 145 dining experience with a glass of white each (Chateau Guiraud Bordeaux Blanc Sauterne 06 for J at $6 and Domain Pichot “Le Peu de Moriette” Vouvray Chenin Blanc 06 for me at $8, a spot-on recommendation from our server which I’m hoping to find at home). The amuse was a shot glass of crab puree which J polished off as I am allergic to crab. Then I chose the sand dab (yes, they had sand dabs on the menu, woohoo!) for my appetizer. The perfectly grilled ’dab came with a well-balanced salad of avocado, water cress and tiny potato cubes ($10.50) that was a great foil for the fish. I can now add sand dabs to my list of fish happiness along with petrale. J opted to go straight for the main as his lunch-time burrito fullness was still lingering, and ordered the white sea bass with saffron fennel sauce and squid salad ($23.50). He enjoyed it very much despite the fish being a tad overcooked for the thinner bits. I selected the beef sirloin with white bean puree, porcini jus and braised greens with bacon ($24.25). This dish worked so well, with the meat juicy and flavourful, the beans velvety and well seasoned, the porcini jus rich but not overpowering for a somewhat reluctant mushroom eater, and the swiss chard providing a nice green taste with the little bacon bombs adding their smoky goodness. We finished up with the croquettes (justifiably “back by popular demand”), squares of lemon curd rolled in panko and pan fried, then served with a citrus sorbet: oozy citrus madness. And of course the signature vanilla soufflé, brought towering to the table then stabbed mercilessly by the server and filled with crème anglaise. We burnt our tongues in our haste to get at this ethereal yet oh-so-rich creation. Hard to credit that all of this deliciousness, from apps to afters, comes from a kitchen the size of my closet. The three cooks have perfected a ballet of sorts to get it all done three times a night in an open kitchen. So in case you missed it, this is a rave. It would be splitting the tiniest of hairs to complain but if I had to find fault, it would be that the recommended medium rare leaned closer to rare than medium on my beef, a slight issue for a maximum of two bites. The porcini jus could have been a mite warmer. And the music for part of the evening was a bit jarring and Irish-Roversy, but I’m reaching. For me, this meal was pretty close to perfection. The petite room is cosy and funky (you go to the youth hostel next door to use the ’loo), the staff are gracious and efficient and the whole objective seems to be to feed guests up real good with a bit of flair: my kind of restaurant. If it was in Vancouver, I’d be here once a month, minimum. Saturday: 8:15 Saturday am and we head for the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market on our favourite streetcar (Milan). We made a beeline for the Primavera stand as the lineup was long in November but I had my chilaquiles in hand within 5 minutes this time. We sat in the sun munching and gazing at the Bay Bridge. Does it get better than this? Because the crowds are so much more manageable, we made it around the market in about an hour, even with stops to drool and sample (June Taylor! tempura asparagus!). Dithered about whether to buy beans at Rancho Gordo and decided against it (suitcase issues) but what a phenomenal selection. The fresh produce was also amazing – J commented on the ridiculously gorgeous piles of red onions and the artichokes were Jurassic. On the way out, we nabbed a bag of chips at Lulu Petite (somehow I only ended up getting one of these, but it was goodgood) and an HK milk tea from Out the Door (tasty but too sweet for me to finish the whole thing). The eatfest continued after a scenic ride by Muni metro and bus to 24th in the Mission. It was Cesar Chavez day and the street was closed to cars for a parade. We decided to do an al pastor taco taste off and started at Taqueria Vallarta (3033 24th St) where the tacos are $1.50 each and are served from what used to be an outdoor cart. Great to be able to add your own onions, cilantro, salsa and lime. Next we hit Taqueria San Jose (2830 Mission) where they do the al pastor gyros style on a spit. I didn’t catch the prices as we had been joined by the BIL and he paid. The al pastor was good here, a bit less greasy than others we’ve had in SF, and the chips and salsa were tasty, especially the cruda which I only get at home if I make it myself. Overall impression of the two places today and Taqueria Reina yesterday is that I haven’t yet found the elusive taco al pastor of memory and maybe never will outside of Mexico. But damn, the search is a good thing. Our final taco tasteoff stop was the controversial La Taqueria (2889 Mission at 25th) where we had to switch to carnitas as they don’t have al pastor. We had heard about the crispy (dorado) tacos and had to give them a try. They are a different beasty entirely so it’s not really fair to compare them to the previous al pastores but I have to say we were instant converts. And I’m pretty sure we went here in 2003 but had the regular tacos and were not as impressed. So maybe it’s all about the dorados; they were stellar that day and worth every penny of the $3.50 price that I understand is part of the controversy. I could eat two and that would be lunch for me, so they seemed a relatively good value. The fact that they have lovely whole pinto beans inside is perhaps somewhat unorthodox but really worked for all of us, and we loved the salsa they put in too. We eschewed the proffered cheese and guac/avoc options and I think that was wise as you could taste each ingredient and yet they all went together. I would go back to all three places given the chance but I think I would seek out the tacos dorados at La Taqueria. So sue me. In between taco-ing, we explored Mercado Casa Lucas (2934 24th St), admiring the chayote and tuna roja, as well as reminiscing about Chocomilk powder. We also managed to inhale a couple of fruity pastries from Panaderia La Victoria (2937 24th St) and ogle the corn tortillas being hand-patted out in La Palma Mexicatessen (2884 24th St). I would have bought some to munch on but the lineup was humongous and my companions only had so much patience! We finally tore ourselves away from the 24th street hood and headed back towards the BIL’s nabe of 18th and Guerrero by way of Ritual Coffee (1026 Valencia near 21st) at the request of J. This funky hangout was just as good as last time in November 2007, complete with a very witty photography installation and beans being actively roasted and stirred in front of us. We continued on with renewed vigour, stopping at Casa Bonampak (3331 24th at near Osaga; www.casabonampak.com = online fair-trade folk art goodies from Chiapas and central Mexico). We had ice cream at BiRite Creamery (3692 18th) – mmm salted caramel! – and we had another drool fest at BiRite Grocery (3639 18th near Judah) which included a sample of the most excellent Abbaye de Belloc, a sheep’s milk cheese from the Basque region in the Pyrenees. Alas, I fear it is not available in Vancouver but if you are in SF and haven’t tried it, may I recommend you do. We managed to control ourselves but I couldn’t resist nabbing a BiRite carry bag. I know I’m going to get questions when I break it out on shopping expeditions in Vancouver :-). Since we were near BIL’s place we stopped there for proper English tea (they are actually English so tea making in my house can be a bit fraught for a mere Canadian). Then it was off to shop on Valencia, after which we hopped in the car and hit the nearby Trader Joe’s, with a pitstop to observe an SF taco truck in its natural habitat (one of the La Tonayense ones) although we did not indulge as we were trying to save room for…. dinner! What a great day, and it wasn’t over yet. We had lamentably unnecessary resos at Poc Chuc (2886 16th S btwn South Van Ness and Shotwell) for 7:30. When we arrived there was one other table of two and I think that was it for the night, except for some takeout orders. The server (who may also have been the owner) was incredibly gracious, offering us complimentary sangria or red wine. We chose sangria which was delicious. As no alcoholic beverages were listed I suspect this and the bottle of red wine on offer were provided expressly for us. We started with the Platillo Maya ($10) and an order of plantains with a delightful side of mixed greens ($6). The platillo (which by the way was beautifully plated) had an empanada, a tostado, a salbute, a panucho and a small flauta-type beasty called a kotzito. We shared these and I decided to order two more each of the salbute, panuchos and an empanada as a main, while the guys went for the eponymous Poc Chuc marinated pork ($14) and the pollo pibil ($12). Both were extremely generous in size and delicious from the tastes I had. The total bill came to $56 so I’m guessing they only charged me $10 for my customized main, and of course there were the gratis libations. Outrageously good value for well presented home-style cooking. So where are the customers? As J said, I fear this place will not be here the next time we visit, which is a real shame because the food, service, ambience and room were all winners. Perhaps it is the neighbourhood, which seemed out of the way (although easy to get to on BART) and a bit sketchy to a visitor… Sunday: The next morning we obeyed the siren song of the Canteen breakfast (817 Sutter St (between Jones and Leavenworth) and returned for another satisfying meal. Arriving at an overeager 9:15 there were tables to choose from but although the BIL didn’t get there till a bit after 9:30 we still got a coveted booth (no resos for brekky and brunch here). J ordered the omelette with fontina, ham and oyster mushrooms ($8.95), BIL went for the benchmark eggs and sausage ($8.75) and I opted to try the much-vaunted eggs benedict “with all the accoutrements” ($10.75). The boys also had the recommended short lattes ($2.50 each) and we were all very happy with our choices. The sauce on the benny was nicely tart and unctuous, maybe a bit much of it, and the eggs were well poached if a bit runny for my taste but once again these are tiny quibbles. I was also delighted to discover a small but functional pepper grinder on the table. Freshly ground pepper on eggs benny, oh yeah. Service once again was smart and snappy without feeling rushed, and we were on our way to the FiDi for an art deco walking tour. Next, we hopped on the Muni for a late-ish lunch at the small but immaculate Lime Tree (450 Irving btwn 5th and 6th) which was full when we arrived except for one table. The roti pratha, martabek and Singaporean noodles were as good as promised, with the martabek being the standout. We washed it down with a young coconut drink, paid less than $20 all in, thanked the owner (?) and hied ourselves down Irving to 9th, noting the many inviting eating and drinking establishments for future reference. After a tour of the DeYoung Museum (highlight: the observation tower), we headed to very busy local chainlet Tart to Tart (641 Irving) for tea and vanilla steamed milk as well as a very tasty skinny apple strudel. For dinner on Sunday night we had 7:30 resos at Thai House Express (901 Geary at Larkin). This corner resto is very lively inside and out (we knew about this ’hood but had never been in it at night) and the Geary busride there was pretty entertaining. We ordered the larb pla (deep fried catfish) for $9.95, the giuc mai (leek dumplings) for $5.95, the pad woon sen with pork and the gang dang with chicken. Standout was the larb which was expertly prepared with the ground rice providing a nutty counterpoint and bit of body to the lightly crisped catfish – a must have. The pad woon sen was very competently prepared and piping hot with fresh quality ingredients, but although this dish is always fairly subtle, it was verging on bland here. The dumplings were good but rather similar to ones I’ve had in Chinese restos, and the curry was a bit disappointing – all heat and not much flavour. So not a rave but by no means a bust and for $54 tax and tip (including one beer and two drinks for three), a pretty good value. We decided to walk to Hayes Valley in search of a hot beverage – no mean feat after 9 pm on a Sunday – and wound up at Momi Toby’s Revolution Café and Art Bar (528 Hayes near Octavia) for an outstanding chai tea ($3.25), not too spicy or rich, just right. We took the F line home and were treated to a bit more “behaviour” when an obviously inebriated gentleman brought his soccer ball on board and made like Pelé. Monday: Monday morning was reserved for our now traditional breakfast at Café de la presse (352 Grant at Bush), steps from our hotel. And yes, I had eggs benedict for the second day in a row. I give a slight edge to the bennies here over Canteen for two reasons 1) less sauce 2) eggs just a bit more set ($13). J had the oeufs en meurette ($13) and we both enjoyed a large bowl of Café Colombe au lait ($3 each). The service was impeccably Gallic as usual, the jazz was smooth and the clientele eclectically continental. Next up was a trip to Russian Hill for the Lombard switchback, the Diego Rivera Gallery, the view from the café deck where Janis Joplin once flipped burgers, as well as Macondray Lane and other points of interest. After all those hills, we were ready for some lunch. So down we went to adjacent North Beach and hied our selves to Lichee Garden. We were scared off by the super aggressive staff person who tried to talk us into spare ribs and out of the salt and pepper sand dabs we inquired about before we’d even taken off our jackets. We continued our quest and ended up (thankfully) at Great Eastern (649 Jackson btwn Grant and Kearny). We liked the look of the room, the demeanour of the staff, and the fact that there were many Asians at the mostly full tables despite the late hour. We also loved the little picture cards to help you order since there are no carts. Normally I’m not bad at figuring out a la carte dim sum but I was pretty pooped and the pictures were a godsend. We ordered snow peas with dried scallops and shrimp dumplings (the standout, great fresh filling with light enrobing), Shanghai dumplings (nice pork/ginger taste, no soup), shiomai (very good, not too fishy), fried shrimp roll (a new one for me with a slightly alarming chewy yellow wrapper that was nonetheless a hit), panfried leek dumplings (our second favourite item), and eggplant with shrimp paste (the only slightly off note, as the skin was a bit tough and the sauce too oily). The tea was excellent, the chili garlic sauce a nice change from the dippers we get at home, the service was seamless and helpful, and the live fish tanks provided endless enjoyment for the small people seated either side of us. Probably not quite in league with our usual dimsum haunts in Vancouver but very good. We were happily full but not stuffed for $26 all in which was a good thing as our next stop was Mara’s Italian Pastry (503 Columbus Ave at Green) for a raspberry ring and a honey-topped profiterole tower with rum-flavoured custard inside. Although very different, both pastries were top notch. We both had single lattes made with Lavazza coffee and rolled out the door $13.45 later. Next stop, SFO for the flight home! And of course, planning our next trip to the City by the Bay.