San Francisco cheap eats

Seals at Fisherman's Wharf

Boy, have I been putting this off. I promise, it’s for a good reason. I got back this week to find most of my lab gone. In fact, I was the most senior person left, which means I was in charge of a bunch of new undergrads who asked me questions I couldn’t begin to ask.  What ionization chamber? Where? (Heh… Just kidding). Anyway, this list is about as complete as my photo collection from San Francisco (um — not very), but hey, we only had three days. Our mission was simple: eat as much good food in San Francisco as we could without emptying our wallet. I think we did pretty well, actually.

We’ll start with bakeries, because San Francisco sourdough kicks ass.

Acme Bread Company Ferry Building Marketplace (Embarcadero + Market Street)

Skip Boudin in favor of Acme without hesitation. This true artisan bakery lives up to its reputation as one of the best bakeries in the West. We loved the rye boule and sourdough baguettes, and if you’re in the mood for breakfast, their cheesy sourdough rolls are amazing.  I only wish we had made it out to their original bakery.

Boudin – Fisherman’s Wharf

Ok, I lied. But not for the bread — even if they do claim to be using the same mother starter from 150 years ago.  We went to their Wharf location, where they bake their breads, and had a look at their $3 “self-guided tour” (translation: 2 room museum, which nevertheless has a history of San Francisco sourdough, and does an ok job of covering the city history as well). The tasting room at the end of the tour wasn’t such a bad way to end.  The only problem? Their sourdough wasn’t sour enough.  The sourdough I grew up on (not so far from San Francisco, really) was actually sour — a perfect counterpoint to a sliver of unsalted butter (of the pastured cultured variety — mmm). Of course, the Con Agra flour bags might have something to do with it … The chocolate raisin bread isn’t a bad consolation prize, though, if you’re starving.

The Italian French Baking Company – 1501 Grant, North Beach

I wish I had tried the macaroon. This bakery has the only wood-fired oven in San Francisco, and is definitely more Italian than French. We got there in the afternoon and there wasn’t much bread left, but the baguette we had was pretty good — light and airy, with a delicious scent.  The pastries looked amazing, but as we were off to dinner, and the old woman out the counter was all business, we exercised a bit of restraint.

Cafe Trieste

On to cafes. Actually, just two, though there are plenty of good ones in San Francisco. Even the ubiquitous Peet’s is excellent (oh, how I wish they would come to New Haven … But that’s another story).

Caffe Trieste – Grant + Vallejo, North Beach

This place is something of a legend, both because it claims to be the first place to serve espresso in the West, and because I remember coming here years ago with my parents. I thought it was so cool then, but the only things I remember clearly from previous visit(s?) were the jukebox and the sex toy / novelty condom machine in the bathroom.  I will say that their cappuccinos are excellent, and it’s a good place to go for a cup of coffee or glass of wine and just people watch after dinner in North Beach.  They seem to be a franchise now, but the North Beach location is the original one.

The French Hotel – 1538 Shadduck, Berkeley

You want the coffee, not the room. Get a double cap in a tall glass, and enjoy it outside with a scone from The Cheeseboard down the street (more on that later).


Ok, now it’s time for lunch. Hungry yet?

Mijita – Ferry Building Marketplace, Embarcadero + Market

Damn — I just realized Chef Tracy Des Jardins — a James Beard award winner, and the chef / owner of this place — was working the cash register when we ordered.  That makes this place so much cooler for some unknown reason … Perhaps because she actually seemed like a nice boss in the few seconds I interacted with her…

But this is about the food, which was awesome and affordable.  There was a reason this place was packed to the gills when we came in.  I got a taco de carnitas, which consisted of two freshly made corn tortillas and some perfectly slow-cooked pork with carrots, jalapeños (I think), onions, and cilantro. James ordered the queso fundido, which was a baked cheese and chorizo dish served with flour tortillas. We also got chips and guac, with a Dos Equis for me and a Mexicoke for James. Everything was delicious, authentic, and worth the amazingly short wait. And really filling, to boot, for a whole $20 total. I think the drinks were the priciest items we ordered. Oh, how I’ve missed good Mexican food …

Chef Jia’s – 925 Kearney St, Chinatown

The $5.25 lunch specials lured us in after a quick tour of Chinatown, and we were not disappointed. The food was excellent for the price. I had spicy prawns with string beans and brown rice, which was tasty, filling, and fresh. This place is definitely worth a look if you’re in the neighborhood and don’t want to spend a lot of money. The place next door (with the nice decor, to the left) is apparently really well known, but more expensive, if you’re into that kind of thing.

North Beach Pizza – 1499 Grant St., North Beach

This is another famous North Beach restaurant, and is worth a trip. When we were in the city, my dad used to take me here for sausage pizzas when I was little. They’re pretty much exactly as I remember them — cheesy and delicious. The sauce is excellent, and the crust is a bit fluffier than, say, a New Haven-style pie, with a slightly sweeter aftertaste. Order one with extra garlic, and then head down to Caffe Trieste for an after dinner drink.

The Cheeseboard Pizza Collective – 1512 Shadduck, Berkeley

This place is like an upscale, friendly version of the soup nazi for pizza. They only make one kind of pie a day — no substitutions — so leave your picky friends (ahem, James) at home, or send them next door for bread and cheese.  We went there twice, and got a corn, chile, feta, onion, cilantro, and lime pizza the first time, which involved freshly sliced tiny limes and a few extra slices for fun. The second time around, we had zucchini, feta, and onion (and probably something else I’m forgetting), which we topped off with a couple of heads of perfectly roasted garlic (we ordered one — they gave us two for one… awesome). The crust is delicious, and if you like the topping ingredients, they’re delicious as well. Oh, the cheese … They use good cheese. I mean, seriously good cheese. But I’ll stop ranting now, and just warn you to bring cash, because that’s all they take.

While we’re on the subject of the Cheeseboard Collective, pay a visit to their bread and cheese shop next door. We had a cheesy sourdough roll, a brioche, and “Wolverines” (sourdough rolls with fruit and nuts). All the pastries were excellent, and there were hoards of people in there proclaiming that their scones were “the best” and grabbing them from their bins like starved students.  Check out the bargain cheese bin for some interesting cheeses. You won’t know what you’re buying, but that’s part of the fun.

Triple Rock Brewery & Alehouse – 1920 Shadduck, Berkeley

This is apparently the oldest original brewpub in the US, according to their website. Take it from me: avoid the food. Stick with the beer. The Stonehenge Stout I tried was excellent. Everything else was pretty much just fuel. I did appreciate the real veggies in the chili, though.

Finally, I have a few more odds and ends to recommend.  First, head over to the Scharffenberger factory in Berkeley for a tour and free chocolate (call ahead for tour times, and plan to spend an hour there). Then, check out a local farmer’s market. BART stations have a local touring guide, with locations, times, and directions for all the farmer’s markets throughout the week. We went the the Civic Center Farmer’s Market, and bought some excellent olive oil and honey (the SF Bay Area Beekeeper’s Blend was so freaking good). Also, don’t forget to check out everything else in the Ferry Building Marketplace. Cowgirl Creamery is right next to Acme Bread Company, and their Red Hawk cheese is delicious.  We stayed out by the airport, so we had a baguette and cheese for dinner on one of the nights, and were perfectly happy.

One last thing: If you want to see photos from the rest of our trip (Sequoia National Park, Yosemite, Big Sur, Redwood National Park, etc), go here. If you want to actually see photos with me in them, email me.


Filed under restaurant review, San Francisco, stories

8 responses to “San Francisco cheap eats

  1. wow i didn’t realize you went to so many parks while you were camping, that trip sounds amazing! i’ve never been further west than colorado and it’s on my to do list to visit san francisco – so your foodie advice will come in handy then.

  2. liz

    it was awesome — and Yosemite and Sequoia (and Big Sur!) are totally doable if you make it out to SF. The whole coast is gorgeous … But I’m biased, just a bit. 🙂 hope you make it out there soon (and have fun on your camping trip — you said you had one planned for the summer?)

  3. You did well, little grasshopper, but you missed House of Nanking (amazing Chinese food unlike I’ve had anywhere else). I’m actually gonna stop right there, cause if I start going off on a food rant about SF? Lordy, we’ll be here all day.

    I have a ton of hole in the wall places I love in that town from living there, and a list of about 10 bars worth checking out, if you want…..

  4. liz

    SavageCats — heh… that’s the fancy place next to Chef Jia’s I mention. Chef Jia’s is “the next best thing”… And considerably cheaper. But you should write your own post! We didn’t do research, and as I said, only had 3 days. I’m back in the Bay Area for a conference in Oct., and would love a list of new places to try, so send ’em along.

    Oh, and where will you be during the day on July 21?

  5. Nifty, we’ll definitely check out some of these places when we go! I am craving spicy west coast tacos like there’s no tomorrow….

  6. yes i’m going camping at acadia national park in maine during july! i am way too excited and will surely post all about it when i get back…lobsters and blueberries and beer mmmm.

  7. liz

    Julia — Sweet! Have a great trip… Acadia’s one of those places that’s been on my must-see list for ages, but I haven’t made it up yet… Maybe I’ll wait for your recommendations. 🙂

  8. Sounds amazing! I have been to some of the national parks they are so cool!

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