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In a Pickle with Tacolicious

Photo: Edible Excursions

For the most part, Mexican food in San Francisco is associated with our signature burrito, a fat slab filled with beans, rice, meat and potentially more, easily weighing in at a pound or more. Everyone has their favorite taqueria, and disagreements over which is superior can get heated indeed. I like an SF burrito as much as the next guy, but I think we need to be honest: It's not Mexican food. It's San Francisco food. 

When I worked in Redwood City, a colleague told me that a large part of the city was populated by emigrants from Michoacan, families who have come to Redwood City and returned, generationally. Consequently, the city is chockablock with excellent, if unfancy, taquerias serving far more authentic fare. Over the course of many lunch breaks, I got to sample more than a few, acquiring a taste for one place's lengua, another's al pastor, and so on. I still occasionally make the trip down if I'm having a serious hankering, though the local El Tonayense trucks do a comparable job. 

And then there's Tacolicious, which manages to be both authentically Mexican and uniquely San Francisco. Started in 2013 as an spinoff of the Spanish restaurant Laïola for the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, and ultimately took over the concept due to its popularity. T-lish now has four locations (three in San Francisco, plus one in Palo Alto). The Valencia Street location, with its adjacent agave bar Mosto, is where you'll find us on occasional afternoons enjoying some tacos and a margarita or two. I also often bring groups there when I'm leading tours with Edible Excursions

Tacos at old-school taquerias are simple affairs, a scoop of grilled meat and a dollop of salsa on a single tortilla. Tacolicious lays on a substantial mound on a double tortilla; in fact, I typically split them and turn each taco into two. But there's more to Tacolicious than tacos. Owner Joe Hargrave and chef Telmo Faria make periodic excursions to Mexico City to see how people are eating in Mexico right now. Dishes like albacore tuna tostados "Contramar-style" reflect current food trends—in fact, we had very much the same thing at Aguachiles in Playa del Carmen. 

Sara Deseran, co-owner with Hargrave (her husband) and editor-at-large for San Francisco Magazine, published the restaurant's eponymous cookbook.  I've cooked from it some, and find the recipes approachable and true to form. But of course, what interests me most is preserved foods. 

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Membership has its privileges

Pasta shapes

When I started blogging nearly eight years ago (Really? Wow.), I didn't know my own motives. It was a place where I could drain the humors that build up: Poolings of creative juices, upwellings of joy, occasional outbursts of rage. Before long I came to understand that blogging was about community. This was before Facebook opened to the masses and Twitter was even a thing, much less Instagram, Pinterest and the rest. As bloggers, we found each other by clicking through from comments and blogrolls. It seems almost laughably primitive today. (Does anyone maintain a blogroll anymore? Is commenting dead?)

So it is that I've mantained friendships with OG food bloggers like Amy, Elise, Heidi, Lydia, Kalyn and others, and picking up new ones along the way. Folks like Michael, Irvin, Genie and John have become among our nearest and dearest. And don't forget my fellow NaBloPoMovians Nicole, Sabrina, Amanda, Renee and the aforementioned Irvin.

Sometimes that community manifests benefits in unexpected ways. Like when Ben started working for Foodie by Glam, and suddenly you get invited to cool events. One of those events was this past Tuesday at Flour + Water


For starters, the lovely and talented Danielle Tsi gave a few of us a primer on food photography principles, with an eye on shooting in restaurant environments. Then, the restaurant brought up a few dishes and we were free to rock the shutter. 

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An elegy for Eloise

Eloise ©Anita Crotty

(Image courtesy Anita/Married …with Dinner)

On our way home from Sea Ranch on Sunday we stopped in for lunch at Eloise in Sebastopol. It’s become our go-to spot when heading up to the coast, which we do with some frequency. This was perhaps our fourth or fifth visit in scarcely a year, our first being a celebratory dinner during an ersatz honeymoon last October.

Nablo09.90x33Shuna turned us on to the place, and in the months since we’d come to be very fond of it. We loved the charming and aromatic garden, full of lavender and herbs, that flanked the front. We loved the homey simplicity of the interior, the way the light played off the walls and filled the airy space. The service always was casual but not too casual, friendly without being inappropriately chummy. And the food — simple, well-prepared food — was a refreshing tonic to high-concept wine country fare. 

When we arrived this time, we had just come off two hours of winding Route 1 curves. I am not prone to motion sickness; the only time I have ever been afflicted was on a deep-sea fishing expedition on choppy waters for eight hours. Still, upon arriving I was feeling the kind of disorientation you do from a carnival ride or, say, a ritual hazing.

I was still shaking off the woozies when we were seated. We were six, at the tail end of the lunch service, and they seated us at the far end. As my senses came back to me, I became increasingly aware all was not right.

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Momofuku, too

Ginger scallion noodles ©DPaul Brown

Oh, the kerfuffle over a couple of high-profile New York chefs dragging out that tiresome trope: Bashing on San Francisco’s food scene. Back in October, at the New York Food & Wine Festival, media darling David Chang and media whore Anthony Bourdain had an affable banter, calling bull**** on various aspects of their industry, including themselves. One of Chang’s salvos was that, “there’s only a handful of restaurants that are manipulating food … ****ing every restaurant in San Francisco is serving figs on a plate
with nothing on it.” Later, Bourdain referred to Alice Waters as “Pol Pot in a muumuu,” since she evidently killed off a couple million people in her Berkeley kitchen.

Nablo09.90x33 First of all, ha ha! Funny! No, really! And any San Francisco foodie types who got their panties in a bunch over this need to grow a sense of humor. But it’s funny like pull-my-finger kind of funny. It’s a joke we’ve heard a million times before, from that corny old uncle who still thinks it’s as fresh and high-larious as the first time he told it decades ago.

Anyway, the whole point of our cuisine of unmanipulated food is that we have access to some of the best, freshest and most flavorful ingredients available anywhere. Why manipulate perfection?

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(Photo by Anita of Married …with Dinner)

We have a new favorite restaurant.

Full disclosure: Chef-owner Brett Emerson is a personal friend and fellow blogger. And his restaurant is two blocks from our home, in an area where there is a relative dearth of good restaurants. So, we have a vested interest in seeing Contigo succeed. But I can say, having grazed our way through the ever-changing menu four times in as many weeks, that we would be enamored of this restaurant under any circumstances. 

Loyal readers and friends know that DPaul and I spent a month in Spain back in 2001. We began our journey in Catalonia, first with a few days in Sitges to cleanse our palates, and then on to five days in the magnificent city of Barcelona. We had little experience with Spanish food, much less Catalan, and happily delved into it expecting it would be much like our trips through Italy.


While Spain and Italy may face each other across a vast sea and have shared roots going back millennia, their similarities, certainly on the culinary front, are few. We adapted quickly to this new diet of oily fishes, crispy fried croquetas and, above all else, pork pork porkity pork pork pork. But by the end of our month were desperate to eat anything other than Spanish food.

In our first week home, we indulged in all the pleasures endemic to San Francisco. Burritos! Sushi! We traipsed through our regular haunts, reacquainting ourselves with the food addictions we had established here.

And then, on the fifth day or so, the craving struck. Evening came, and the tapas, they were not there. Has anyone noticed my glass has no sherry in it? Where, for the love of all that is good and beautiful in the world, is my jamòn? We were faced with a void that needed to be filled, and would not be satisfactorily for a long time to come.

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Chez Panisse

Despite both DPaul and I having lived in the Bay Area more or less 20 years apiece, and despite being avid diners, neither of us had ever eaten at the world-famous Chez Panisse. This is something we have long wanted to remedy, and have discussed doing so with various folks. At long last, our dear friends Nick and Russ made it happen, and better yet as a very thoughtful wedding gift. After one abortive attempt where we languished on the waitlist, they were finally able to land us a reservation last week, at 6 pm on Friday, February 13. Our excitement mounted as the date drew nearer.

On the big day, I planned to leave my Redwood City office sometime shortly after four, a time that normally allows for easy commuting all around the area. But the best laid plans of mice and men, and all that. I ended up having to give a presentation, which delayed my departure to slightly after 4:30. I had to drop my colleague off back in the city. It was raining and the Friday before a holiday weekend, and traffic was unusually bad for that time of day.

Crawling up the 101, my blood pressure rose as the time slipped inexorably by. By the time of our 6 pm dinner reservation, I was still in downtown San Francisco, stuck in dead-stop traffic waiting to get on the bridge. Veins throbbed in my temples as I screamed expletives at the top of my lungs. I sent DPaul a one-word text message: "Hopeless." I was on the verge of tears. The evening was ruined, and I would not be dining at Chez Panisse that night. The disappointment was crushing.

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All right, people. I have heard your desperate pleas for my opinion on Cyrus. I have to confess, I almost decided not to post it after such a delay, but I feel better knowing that at least one other blogger out there is still catching up from President’s Day. And anyway, I did manage to scribble down my impressions on the bleary morning after, so why waste the effort?

My other hesitation in posting is that, despite or perhaps because of the amount of fawning praise I’ve read about it, I just wasn’t over-the-moon about the place. I mean, don’t get me wrong; it was good. Very good even. There were some things I really adored. But the whole was felt a little less than the sum of its parts. I think that had we not done this so relatively close on the heels of a life-changing meal like Alinea, I might have felt differently.

Nearly every thing they did well was mildly blemished, sort of a wabi-sabi approach, as if perfection would be an affront to the fine dining gods. As with another recent diner, they were very accommodating of dietary restriction, in this case DPaul’s wheat problem … with one little oopsie (read on). The service was professional yet warm and affable, but we ended up with a less than stellar table (why my reservation was inferior to others, I’m still not clear) with a lot of traffic, causing the back of my head to be brushed with every passing server.

Now the bar, that’s another matter. We specifically arrived early to have the opportunity to sit at the bar and sample one of mixologist Scott Beattie‘s world-famous concoctions, and we were not disappointed. DPaul predictably went right for the bourbon with the Frankfort Manhattan, featuring vanilla- and citrus-infused Buffalo Trace bourbon, which has since become our house bourbon. I, in turn, tried the Pelo del Perro, a palate-tickling affair of Charbay Ruby Red Grapefruit vodka, Chinaco Silver tequila, grapefruit juice, lime juice, agave nectar, grapefruit foam and a red-salt rim. The garnish were three minuscule rosemary blossoms floating on top, each a tiny explosion of woodsy bouquet. Perfect.

Though we both partook of the 7-course chef’s tasting menu, DPaul’s was
obviously  occasionally different due to the absence of wheat. Also, we
opted for different wine pairings to mix things up; I took the standard pairing, and DPaul selected the Grand Tasting pairing, customized to
highlight the chef’s tastng menu … at approximately twice the price.
Worth the differential? Sometimes.

We both agreed that it would be delightful to return and enjoy a meal in the bar area with some excellent cocktails. So, a happy ending by and by.

After the jump, the blow-by-blow description of our meal.

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Tasting 2007

The end of the year is a natural point of reflection. Lately I've been thinking back on some of the more delicious memories of 2007, new and interesting experiences all. I'll present them here, in no particular order: Grilled squid…

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Like some others, I always have a running list of restaurants locally that I’m eager to try out, but rarely do I have an irrepressible desire to travel to dine someplace. There are exceptions — El Bulli for the scientific innovation, L’Arpege for exulting vegetables to their highest form, St John for    quite the opposite reason — but domestically only one restaurant has piqued my curiosity in recent years.

Alinea, in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, was the brain- and palate-child of chef Grant Achatz, a young maverick who had trained with the likes of Thomas Keller and Charlie Trotter, and by all accounts had taken that training and run with it to new culinary heights. For years I’d ignored the urge to go for one simple reason: It’s in Chicago, and we are in San Francisco. Helluva commute.

But then, as our anniversary approached, I took stock. We had a certificate for a free night at a Kimpton hotel, ample airlines miles on United and an itch for some spontaneous travel. Why not?

One Monday in July I called and left a message requesting a reservation. The restaurant isn’t open on Mondays, and so no one was there to take my call, but being forgetful as I am, I decided it was better to call and get it out of the way. Later that same morning, a press release hit the wires that young chef Achatz, age 33, had been diagnosed with stage-four squamous cell cancer of the mouth.

Still, the next day I received a call from a reservationist at Alinea, who quietly and politely offered seating options for the full 24-course tasting tour at 5 pm, or the shorter 12-course tasting menu at 9 pm. My inner glutton cried out for the 24-course groaner, but reason prevailed. After all, we would be on Pacific time, and a 9 pm seating was ideal for our needs. Besides, 24 courses, however small, is just too much.

Knowing what I did about the restaurant, I was not gravely concerned about Chef Achatz’s not being in the kitchen. Food of this caliber and requiring such technical finesse is not made by one person alone, but by a well-trained team of artisans. I remained confident that Achatz’s deft hand would remain present even in absentia.

In the cab en route to the restaurant, my excitement and anxiety grew. I felt jittery; butterflies fluttered in my stomach. We were about to consummate one of my greatest culinary wishes, a dining experience I sprung on my unwitting husband, who didn’t know that we were going to this restaurant (or, for that matter, what it was) until 48 hours before. Would it live up to my expectations? Would it thrill and inspire DPaul as much as I hoped?

As we arrived at the restaurant, walking down a corridor ambiently lit in lavender, I was taken with a sense of serenity. Entering through the main door, we were met not by a host station and a bustling restaurant, but a lone man in a dark suit, standing there as if he were waiting for us all night. To our right we had a clear view into the kitchen. There were no clattering pans, flames flaring up from cooktops, harried cooks racing about. Each of the cooks were going about his or her business with methodical calm.

We were led upstairs and seated at a table large enough to seat six (ahem, by San Francisco standards). The deceptively large space was broken up into sections that lent a sense of intimacy and, yes, serenity. There were only five tables in our room; an adjacent room was similar, and there were other rooms as well.

And so it began. We gave ourselves over to our skilled army of waitstaff and the sommelier. We opted for the wine pairings, which is not only recommended but an obvious good idea. Who would have the hubris to think they could select a single bottle of wine to pair with what was about to come? We gladly accepted the assistance.

Chef Achatz has earned a reputation as a mad scientist chef for his use of high-tech equipment, custom-designed service pieces and otherworldly presentations. Rather, I think he’s more of an inner child chef, playing with his (and, by extension, our) food to come up with creative, whimsical and sometimes outright silly presentations that simply never failed to delight.

What’s more is that though the presentations were astonishing, the flavors were every bit as strong. Almost every ingredient seemed to be distilled to its purest essence and delivered in its most intensified form. Not every dish knocked it out of the park, but surely every one was at least a solid hit.

It is a sensual experience. Obviously his dishes delight the eyes and the palate, but there is a tactile element, and an almost over-the-top attention to olfactory stimulation. The only sense that was not overtly courted was hearing; though I suppose the novelty of being in a quiet restaurant was in itself a sensory experience.

I was also struck by how many dishes conveyed a sense of place. While Chef Achatz’s presentations are rooted firmly in Japanese kaiseki, the flavors we tasted roamed the earth. We tasted the mountains of Italy, urban English comfort food, the moodiness of the Pacific Northwest and straight-up Midwestern bravado.

I also appreciated the rhythms expressed in the menu. Certain ingredients, like truffle, were used more than once to develop resonance between non-consecutive dishes. And then there was the key lime. Well.

Oh, and at the end they present you with a printed menu to remind you of everything you’ve just experienced. What a souvenir!

And so, without further ado, I present a blow-by-blow of our exceptional (count it, 15-course) meal at Alinea.

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Lilly’s, Louisville


To say that our annual pilgrimage to Kentucky is an adventure in eating would be euphemistic. Truth be told, as I have said in the past, much of what was ever good and real about the food in this state, at least in the areas we frequent, has been subsumed by the juggernaut of modern fast-food establishments.

I don’t mean to pick on Kentucky specifically. This is surely a problem of epidemic proportions around the country and, increasingly, the world. It’s just that this is the one place we go to most frequently where this condition is most apparent. But there is hope.

I noticed, when perusing the list of upcoming Outstanding in the Field dinners, that there was one in Louisville. Sadly, we were not going to be here in mid-September, when it was scheduled, but I read on with interest about the chef, Kathy Cary of Lilly’s. Ms Cary focuses on local produce, working with farmers in the region and even a garden of their own. A preview of the menu offered some insight into her culinary tendencies — firmly rooted in the South, but inflected with influences around the world. I made a reservation for 7 pm on the Friday of our visit.

Lilly’s occupies a corner unit on the main stretch of Bardstown Road in an area called Cherokee Triangle. No triangle at all, it’s an irregluarly-shaped parcel of land, about two miles outside Louisville’s downtown proper, that evolved in the late 19th century. Bordered by Bardstown Road to the southwest, Cave Hill Cemetery to the north and Cherokee Park (among Frederick Law Olmstead’s last commissions) to the east, the streets are lined with grand Victorian manses, some bordering on the phantasmagorical.

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