How would you sum up your 2012 in one word?
For me, I would say “challenging”. This year has been challenging in life, health, career and relationship; it is all about risk taking, keeping the head above the water and hopefully able to get through the year without scathe. This year is definitely not my year according to the Chinese horoscope, as me being born as a ‘Fire Dragon’ will clash with the year of ‘Water Dragon’, luck will be hindered and never flow my way. I can’t help but to believe so to a certain extent.
Try not to sound like (not always) a pessimist, but there were a few highlights this year that I am extremely proud of; from the most recent, I hosted a Christmas Lunch for the homeless at Coast Shelter, a pop-up dinner party, a culinary tour to Malaysia, many cooking demos and classes, and of course, I published my first cookbook, ‘Have You Eaten?’.
While juggling with so many projects at the same time, living the crazy life as a freelancer, there’s no denying that 2012 has been a very busy year for me. “Let’s just book the tickets and go.” That’s what I have promised The Pom earlier in the year that we will put everything on hold and go somewhere for a proper vacation together. And we did it, we spent almost the whole November month, sightseeing and road tripping around USA. We have covered 11 states from the West to the East coast in 24 days and drove over 4000 miles on Route 66. It was one hell of a trip!
First stop – San Francisco.
Arrival – The Castro
After an exhausting fourteen hours flight, we finally touched down at San Francisco airport bright and early in the morning. First time we need to do is find our way out of the airport and drop off our luggage at the accommodation we’ve booked in. Usually we are pretty organised with our trips, we would have booked all hotels and restaurants, and know exactly where to go, on the exact day at the exact time. But not on this trip, we want to leave it flexible, not to rush things and play it by ear.
We also recently discovered the wonderful airbnb where we have booked some of our accommodations through the website prior our departure. I like the idea of staying with the locals, it makes our trip in the States a touch more personal whilst making friends along the way, and of course it is also lot more affordable. We’ve chosen to stay in The Castro district, one of the United States’ first gay neighbourhood and remains the largest.
Around Castro, in fact, the whole San Francisco city is dressed with stunning Victorian architecture, the wooden clad facade with the finest details, the bay windows, painted in light pastel colour palette, I can’t help but feels like being surrounded by life-size wedding cakes.
We try to do as little as possible on our first day, just to cope with the jet lag. The historic Castro Street itself is enough to keep us occupy for the rest of the afternoon. Rainbow flags adorned at every street corner, the huge red signage outside Castro theatre greets us as soon as we step into the lively high street. There is a great vibe in this gay community with an inevitable sense of freedom and liberation in the area. Not to mention walking down the street stark naked is actually legal in San Francisco, especially in the gay areas like Castro.
Many restaurants and shops here are filled with history and still paying homage to Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician who began political involvement as a gay activist here at Castro back in 1970s. The Castro Camera, a camera store operated by Harvey Milk is no longer but now a Human Rights Campaign Store, with a few artefacts from the old camera store including Milk’s barber chair are on display.
We settle down for lunch at Harvey’s, a historical landmark that has played a significant role in the history and development of the city. Formerly known as the Elephant Walk, a bar used to be frequented by Milk and the gay community where history was made. Nowadays, this bar cum restaurant is still thriving among locals and tourists.
Black and white photos of Milk in his political days are hung on the walls in memory of the Great Harvey Milk, who remained a historical monument and pillar to the gay community. Whilst I am settling down with a Cowboy burger and The Pom is having a date with Harvey’s Wrap, somehow the ritual of taking photos of food has never crossed my mind. I blame the hunger and jet lag, or perhaps I am just enjoying being a tourist and not have to worry about blogging for once! (I still do it anyway…)
A couple of nights were also spent at Blush! in Castro, a wine bar with great relaxing atmosphere, tapas style food and a great selection of Californian wine. Here, we have developed an affair with the Californian Zinfandel, not the weak diluted white stuff, but a robust red wine with a sweet after tone. And for a sweet midnight snack, then you simply can’t go past neon-lit Hot Cookie shop. From normal choc-chip cookie to a fudgey brownie on a stick, but it is the penis on a stick that will give you quite a good mouthful.
Harvey's Bar & Restaurant 500 Castro Street, San Francisco, 94114 Opening hours: Mon - Fri 11am - 11pm | Wknd 9am - 2am P: 415.431.4278
Blush! 476 Castro Street, San Francisco, CA 94114, United States P: +1 415-558-0893 Opening hours: MON-THU: 4 pm to 12.30 am, FRI: 4 pm to 1.30 am, SAT: noon to 1.30 am, SUN: noon to 12 am
Hot Cookie 407 Castro Street, San Francisco, CA 94114, United States Opening Hours: late Phone:+1 415-621-2350
Day 1 – Alcatraz Island Tour
First thing first, the best way to get around San Francisco is to get yourself a CityPASS. We found the CityPASS works really well for us in San Francisco but not necessarily for other cities. For $69, we can ride the Muni and Cable car, day and night, wherever we go; plus it includes admission to many major tourist attractions, and one of them is the Alcatraz Island Tour.
We’ve chosen to visit Alcatraz on the earliest cruise to beat the crowd. A leisure 20 minutes cruise on the SF bay which offers a great view of the city skyline, and “The Rock” itself is sitting right between two bridges, the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge. Once home to some of America’s most notorious criminals, now Alcatraz is one of the major tourist attractions in San Francisco with more than 1.3 million visitors each day.
To this day, Alcatraz is best known as one of the world’s most legendary prisons. The federal penitentiary that operated here from 1934 to 1963 brought a dark mystique to the Rock. The presence of infamous inmates like Al “Scarface” Capone, and the “Birdman” Robert Stroud helped to establish the island’s notoriety.
As soon as we step inside the Main Prison, headphones are handed over for our own self-guided audio tour which takes approximately an hour.
There is an eerier emptiness pervades through this three storey incarceration.
As we walk through corridors of empty cells, stories of the dark days are slowly to be unfold, narrated by former inmates and guards through the audio device. The cell is only the size of with both arms stretched to each side, in that tiny space has a bed, bog and the prison rulebook. Some inmates had the privilege of having limited personal items in the cell, some crocheted their own blankets, and Al Capone apparently was very good at painting, sketching of inmates and the guards.
The recreation yard offered the inmates a torturous glimpse of the outside world. the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge and freedom is just right behind the barbed wire fence.
Back on the main land, we do not have to travel far to look for food. We walk to Pier 39, it is a shopping and dining entertainment hub just like the Darling Harbour in Sydney. At the Pier, there are two levels of shops, restaurants and attractions to be explored, the quirky Lefty’s San Francisco is worth a visit, especially if you are left-handed.
The sea lions are the superstars at Pier 39’s K-Dock. A hundred (can be up to 1,000) or so of sea lions have camped out on the dock, bathing under the Californian sun. A row of laughter from the spectators as a clumsy sea lion fell into the water during his sleep. Whether sea lions or tourists, we are all here at Pier 39 for the seafood supply.
We hit Boudin Bakery & Cafe for some heart warming clam chowder to beat the winter chill. Boudin is famous for their sourdough, freshly baked daily since 1849. At the bakery, a full shelf of toasty golden brown sourdough in different shapes and sizes luring us in, especially the novelty sourdough shaped of teddy bear, turtle and even lobster are uber cute, you simply want to take them home and cuddle them to bed.
The most ordered from the menu are the clam chowder and the tomato bread soup. There is quite a production line going on in the kitchen, where sourdough loaves are being hollowed out then ladlefuls of clam chowder are poured into the bread bowls. As we are balancing the bread bowls on a tray dodging humans, finding a table to sit down is another challenge. Despite there isn’t many tiny clams in the soup, the creamy chowder itself is rich and hearty, and the Californian sourdough is lot more tangy and sour than what I am used to.
What people say about the portion size in USA is true, the food do come in huge servings which we both struggle to finish. We finished the chowder but left half the carb untouched, best to save room for more, just down the street at Fisherman’s Wharf.
Pier 39 - Boudin Bakery & Cafe Pier 39,Space 5-Q, San Francisco, CA 94133 P: 415-421-0185 Mon - Thur: 8 am - 8 pm, Fri - Sat: 8 am - 9 pm, Sun: 8 am - 8 pm
Fisherman’s wharf is the seafood haven in San Francisco. There are seafood restaurants dotted all around the area, but nothing beats chowing down some fresh local seafood right on the street at the wharf. You simply can’t miss it, a row of seafood stalls are heaving with tourists and locals, while the stallholders are trying to keep up with the orders, a few fishmongers at the far end of the line, bashing up dungeness crab and scrape out the juicy meat like mad men to fulfil the demand.
This time we get to try the lobster bisque with the option of serving in a paper cup or bread bowl, the soup is rich and intense from the many hours of boiling. Prawn cocktail is also popular, but we go for the crabmeat cocktail, chunks of white crabmeat is sweet and fishy, served with a surprisingly fiery cocktail sauce on the side.
But my favourite has to be the crab cakes, three pieces of cakes are deep fried to a nice golden crunch on outside whilst inside is filled with flakes of crab meat. I find myself dipping them into the cocktail sauce and works like a charm.
Blue and Gold Fleet Bay Cruise
Remember the CityPASS? Well, there are actually two more attractions here that you can use the CityPASS for admission. We join and line up for the Blue and Gold Fleet Bay Cruise, which is the best way to marvel at the Golden Gate Bridge, right up close and under.
The Golden Gate Bridge is a suspension bridge spanning almost 3 km long. Because of its ingenious architecture and design, the American Society of Civil Engineers had declared the bridge as one of the Wonders of the Modern World. From Fisherman’s Wharf, bicycles are ready available for hiring and you can cycle along the walkway on the bridge. To this day, this orange vermillion cable-suspension bridge is still the most iconic landmark of San Francisco.
Back to Pier 39, we still have one last place to check out by using our CityPASS and head straight to Aquarium of the Bay. The aquarium is not that big but has a great selection of sea creatures to keep the children and adults entertained.
The jellyfish section is always my favourite in any aquariums. The alien-like life form bobbing away in slow motion, while the translucent jelly bodies are glowing under the colourful lighting is simply stunning yet hypnotising.
We pretty much spent one full day at Fisherman’s wharf but we simply couldn’t fit in all the things we want to see, and all the food we want to devour. It’s time to take the cable car back to Castro and call it a day.
Day 2 – The Painted Ladies
I grew up with the TV sitcom “Full House“, so checking out the Painted Ladies near Alamo Square is a must for me. The painted ladies also known as “postcard row”, is simply a row of Victorian houses painted in three or more colours that enhances their architectural details. Only if I have a blanket and a picnic basket, I’d so have my own Full House reenactment right there and then.
California Academy of Sciences
Next, we visit the California Academy of Sciences by using our CityPASS again. The museum is located in the beautiful Golden Gate Park which can take hours to stroll from one end all the way to the coast. To visit the museum, be prepared to face a mob of children from school excursions.
This is not just a museum, scientists and students are actually study and work there at the academy. Visitors are able to observe what the students are working on behind the laboratory, a student is actually skinning a huge rabbit with a scalpel as we walk past. Hmm… tasty…
The most impressive part of the museum for me is the roof top garden. The Living Roof, is now a colourful tapestry of thirty Californian native plants growing over 197,000 square foot rooftop. Porthole-like windows add a futuristic touch to the landscape.
The neighbourhoods of Haight and Ashbury are actually within walking distance from the Golden Gate Park. Tie-dye, dreadlocks, flower power, grass and hippies; Haight-Ashbury is a district of San Francisco which remains the epicenter of hippie revolution since the 1960s.
This part of town is hip, funky, bohemian and edgy; it somewhat reminds me of Newtown in Sydney. The shops here are eclectic, fashion shops from hippie to kinky, vinyl toys to taxidermy memento, few doors down you will be able to puff the magic dragon and is somehow perfectly normal in this area. There are a lot more quirks and surprises to be discovered, the deeper you dwell into in this area.
Tartine Bakery & Cafe
For lunch, we find ourselves at Tartine Bakery & Cafe, a hot spot in San Francisco where you can easily put on a few pounds just by inhaling the buttery air inside the bakery. Co-owned by baker Chad Robertson and pastry chef Elisabeth Prueitt, this husband-and-wife team have decades of baking skills and experience under their butter-greased sleeves. Since opening Tartine Bakery in 2002, Elisabeth was named Pastry Chef of the Year in SF Magazine, then both were nominated for James Beard Award in 2006 and 2007, finally won the award in 2008.
The bakery is full house when we arrive, a long queue is formed from the cashier all the way out to the front door which isn’t really a bad thing, as I can buy some time to decide my order and drool over all the pastries behind the counter as we slowly inching closer to the cashier.
“One of each please…” is shouting loudly in my head, but is not going to happen.
We order a sandwich each before hitting the sweet department. And surprise surprise, the sandwiches are ginormous and after being cut into three parts still look so damn big on the plate! I am just glad that there isn’t an inch thick of pastrami inside my sandwich like those in New York, but a simple spread of Niman Ranch pastrami with horseradish and a slice of gruyère cheese on top. But it is the bread that steals the show, soft white bread filled with air pockets while the crust is incredible hard and crunchy, it will cut the root of your mouth if you are careful. Each sandwich comes with a tiny pickled spicy carrot, a great alternative to the gherkin.
The spicy turkey sandwich is just as good, thin slices of peppered turkey breast is adhered to the melted provolone, while the broccoli rabe pesto not only adds colour but a pungent, nutty flavour to the combo. Delicious!
Did I mention the sandwiches are huge? We hardly make a dent on the sandwiches and only able to finish one-third of it. But no fret, takeaway box is common in US and the leftovers are packed away, saved for the rainy days.
Oh that’s right, don’t forget the desserts!
Where to start? Choosing a few sweet treats to share is a daunting task. We settle with lemon cream tart and chocolate hazelnut tart. The crispy sweet pastry case is filled with sweet and tangy lemon curd, then topped with a big dollop of unsweetened cream that adds richness. The chocolate hazelnut tart is a decadent indulgent, you simply can’t go wrong with rich chocolate ganache and a sprinkle of toasted hazelnuts.
But my favourite is the delicate simple looking tres leches cake. Three layer of chiffon is sweetened with coconut milk then layered with cajeta similar to dulce de leche but made by using goat’s milk, and also crema which is a thinner version of creme fraiche often used in Mexican cooking. Now this, I can finish in one gob! 😛
Tartine Barkery & Cafe 600 Guerrero Street San Francisco, CA 94110 t. 415 487 2600 Opening Hours: Mon 8-7, Tue-Wed 7.30 - 7, Thur-Fri 7.30 - 8, Sat 8-8, Sun 9-8
San Francisco, this hilly city is also famous for its steep roads but one particular street takes the cake. We find our way to downtown and take the cable car up the steep roads to Lombard Street, which is famous for its steep eight hairpin turns within one short block section. By taking the Powell-Hyde cable car line that runs between Fisherman’s Wharf and downtown will stop at the top of this block. The crooked section of the street is only 400m long with the speed limit of 5mph (8km/h), it makes the cars looks like a row of ballerinas slowly descending down the zig-zag slope in synchronised slow motion.
One of the reasons for me to visit Unite States is also to reunite with one of my siblings and also meeting my nieces, especially the youngest whom I’ve actually never met in real life. My second brother who now lives in San Francisco brings us to Pasta Pomodoro, an Italian restaurant that emphasises on simple and authentic Italian food. Despite the restaurant is a franchise of many, they keep it as a local Bay Area business and the restaurants can only be found around San Francisco and Los Angeles.
My brother and his family are regulars here at Pasta Pomodoro, they know exactly what they going to order without having a look at the menu. Marsala is the first choice from the menu, big hunk of fresh chicken breast is pan-roasted with mushroom and marsala wine sauce, served with sauteed garlic kale on the side. My conchiglie gamberi is not shabby either, they are quite generous with the gulf shrimp, tossed with pasta shells and asparagus in a creamy yet intense tomato and shrimp stock. The pasta is cooked to al-dante while the shrimps are fresh and tenderly sweet.
The pollo e pesto pizza is as delicious as it looks. On a thin crust pizza base is topped with grilled chicken pieces, sun-dried tomatoes and crispy bacon, buried in melted mozzarella and drizzled with trails of basil pesto.
Start them young, a future food blogger? 🙂
Pasta Pomodoro 1060 Park Pl, San Mateo, CA 9440 P: 695-574-2600 Opening Hours: Mon - Thur 11am - 12am; Fri-Sat 11am - 10pm; Sun 11am - 9pm
Two and a half days in San Francisco is simply not enough as we barely scratch the surface of this beautiful city. But then we don’t feel too upset as we know this is only the beginning of our big trip in United States. Tomorrow will be a new day and a new city to explore as the journey continues… but San Francisco, we will miss you!
We head back to SFO for southward bound. Next stop, Los Angeles.
Today is the last day of year 2012, hereby I would like to thank you all for your support on my food and travel blog, A Table For Two. Every post you read and every comment you left on this blog is an encouragement for me to keep this blog alive and running. I am looking forward to share more exciting food and travel adventures with your all in the new year. Lastly, I wish you all a happy and prosperous new year of 2013!
Eat well, and lots of it!