Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Forget Rice-A-Roni...San Francisco Is The Treat

It was 41 degrees and raining last weekend in Philadelphia. As much as I love to cozy up by the fire with my dog and a good book on a cold rainy day, I was thinking that I would rather be back in California where the hubby and I were a few weeks ago. We

traveled from LA all the way up to wine country in California, but San F

rancisco was the place that really impressed me so that's the subject of this travel post. Forget Rice A Roni...San Francisco is a treat in itself.

HIT: The Sea Lions at Pier 39:
Whenever my husband wants to make me smile (or act like a giddy 5 year old) he takes me to the zoo. We must go 4 or 5 times a year, and each time we must spend ample time at the otter tanks. In my mind, sea lions are a hundred times cooler AND bigger than otters so seeing these wild animal just lounging around next to yachts in the pier 39 marina was more than a hit...it was a home run. Yes, the smell can be a bit overwhelming but it's worth it to stand there and watch these guys flop around on top of each other, searching for that perfect spot to catch some rays. There is some speculation that the sea lions showed up in the marina in 1989 after an earthquake but most believe they just feel safer there. Whatever the reason I, and I'm sure the city of San Francisco, are happy they decided to stay.

MISS: The Rest of Pier 39:
Aside from the sea lions and the great view, the rest of pier 39 area and fisherman's wharf is a bit of a tourist trap. We had some time to kill before our Alcatraz boat left so we took that hour to stroll the pier. An hour is about all you'll need there...20 mins to look at the sea lions and the rest of the time you'll just enjoy the scenery. If you're hungry while you're there don't fall for the tourist trap food. Go to the end of the pier area towards the Boudin bakery (home to that infamous sourdough bread) and grab a snack from a row of not so fancy looking seafood shacks. They've got some really good looking (and cheap) seafood for sale in street-food friendly packaging. There are no bells or whistles at these shacks...just good looking seafood and plenty of it.

HIT: Alcatraz:
In all honesty, Alcatraz wasn't as good as I thought it was going to be BUT I enjoyed the heck out of it all the same. Eastern State Pen in Philly is the first Penitentiary built in the US and it was designed to look like a freakin' castle. Unfortunately it ruined Alcatraz for me. There were, however, some really cool things about Alcatraz and the boat trip itself offered some great views. Did you know that the guards and their families actually lived on Alcatraz? Can you imagine growing up there? And did you know that most of the vegetation is there today because the seeds basically hitchhiked their way onto the rock in the soil that they used to fill in the island? I thought that was neat-o. Some tips...1.) Be sure to either pre-purchase your tickets online or expect to have to wait an hour or two between buying your ticket and actually getting on the boat. They'll give you a time to come back if that's the case so you don't have to wait in line. 2.) Take a jacket. My husband, the all powerful, never cold, polar bear of a man actually said, "gee, I wish I brought a jacket, I'm a bit chilly". Amazing folks. 3.) Be sure to purchase tickets at the only location that is actually contracted to sell them by the National Park Service : http://www.alcatrazcruises.com/ ($26/person) it's at pier 33 and it's called Alcatraz Cruises. Some other places will take you on a cruise AROUND Alcatraz, but this is the only company that will take you to the island.

HIT: Boccalone's Salumi at the Ferry Building Marketplace (pier 48)
Their motto is "Tasty Salted Pig Parts" and that might as well be a freakin' haiku. They offer a variety of salumi but the thing that surely put them on the map was their salumi "cone". It's a paper cone filled with a variety of their tastiest cured meats. Move over ice cream. You're no longer the only thing that should be eaten out of a cone. http://www.boccalone.com/

MISS: The Actual Ferry
Building and Marketplace at Pier 48:
The rest of the marketplace was pretty crappy. Ok. Not crappy. Perhaps just overpriced and overhyped. If you're going there in search of some gourmet packaged food save yourself the trip. But if you're in the building for lunch you might find some good little places to grab a bite to eat. We split a roast beef and arugula sandwich and a beer for around $12 (not TOO shabby) at Il Cane Rosso's and it was of amazing quality. All local ingredients and it showed: http://www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com/cane_rosso_sf.php

HIT: The Public Parks:
I have found that California in general offers it’s residents a plethora of recreational opportunities. San Francisco was no exception. There were parks everywhere! Be sure to stop by Alamo Square Park for a great view of the Painted Ladies (the picturesque houses that were on the opening credits for Full House). While you’re in that neck of the woods head a few blocks west through the Haight Ashbury area to Golden Gate park. It’s a HUGE park with museums, recreational areas and the famous Japanese Tea Garden. It does cost $3.50 to get in and it’s debatable whether or not it’s worth it (pretty but small-ish), but you’ll at least want to check it out. Be sure to park as close to the tea garden area as possible. We thought we could walk from Haight Ashbury and got lost in the park. Like I said, it’s huge. **note** If you do wander off the beaten path in the parks you’ll SURELY run into some (ok, a boat load) of young drug dealers. But not to worry. They are as polite as can be and will just ask you if you’re “looking for anything” in passing and then tell you to have a nice day. We ignored a group of them and they said, “You know, it would be nice for you guys to at least tell us no thank you”. You’ve got to love it.

HIT (As Long As You’re Smart About it): The Trolley System:
The hubby and I only use cabs when it’s absolutely necessary. If a city has ANY type of public transportation we’re all over it like white on rice. The trolley system in San Francisco is made up of popular and not so popular lines. The MOST popular line is the Powell Hyde line and rightly so. It offers the BEST view of the city and bay. Not to mention the fact that it runs straight up a hill that even mountain climber wouldn’t want to scale. You’ll wait for a good 20 or maybe 30 mins at certain times of the day to ride this line. But you should still ride it once. Perhaps hop off at Hyde and Lombard and see that crazy twisty road (worth a look) and be sure to take pictures of the view. The rest of your time there steer clear of that line. The rest of the lines run quickly, efficiently, and cover quite a bit of the city. **note** The subway passes and the trolley passes are NOT interchangeable. They’re completely different.

EAT:

San Francisco had some of the most amazing food I’ve ever experienced. I’m glad because I went there with almost unattainable high hopes. If you go you MUST eat here:

Bar Jules 609 Hayes St – The menu here changes twice a day, every day. Yup. The entire menu! They don’t even bother printing out paper menus. They write the lunch or dinner selections on a blackboard, comprised of whatever was fresh that day, and that’s it. Eat what they offer or go home hungry. I recommend, however, that you eat what they offer. We started with the steak tartar. The hubby chose the salmon and I chose the poussin (young chicken). I almost never order chicken but something that night told me I MUST and I’m glad I did. This was the BEST chicken I have ever tasted. All of our dishes were perfect. No. Almost better than perfect…what would you call that...heavenly? Sure. Heavenly! The wine list wasn’t overly pricey. Actually, we ordered a more “modest” bottle of wine and the server opened it, smelled the cork and without us even having to ask gave us another bottle because she thought that one wasn’t quite right. To tell you the truth we could hardly tell, but it’s that attention to detail that makes this place amazing. We ate many meals on this trip but this place will always stand out in my mind and I will be a walking advertisement for them. If you’re in the city please try it. http://www.barjules.com/

Anchor & Hope 83 Minna Street – A few months ago the hubby and I had our first taste of sea urchin roe and we were instantly hooked. When I heard that this place offered a warm sea urchin appetizer I knew we had to check it out. You’ll have to look hard for this place. It’s down an “alley” and the chalkboard sign doesn’t exactly jump out at you. But I think it’s worth a trip. The food was good. Fresh, clean seafood. They had a good oyster selection (which we had in addition to our starters AND entrees…we’re suckers for a raw bar). The hubby had some nice scallops and I had a white fish (honestly can’t remember what kind) with a potato cake (the reason I ordered it…I love seeing new ways to cook potatoes) and everything was yummy and well prepared. I think the thing that sets them apart from the rest of the seafood restaurants in San Fran is this warm sea urchin appetizer. It was, in my mind, sublime. It was served in it’s shell with Dungeness crab and a lemon beurre blanc sauce. The hubby thought the lemon killed the urchin. I told him, “Hmmmm, then maybe you should just let me finish it huh?”. I thought the balance was perfect. The lemon cut the sweet, creamy flavor perfectly and the whole dish was a success. Perhaps you can head here for the raw bar and the sea urchin. The rest of the food was good, but maybe not worth writing hope about. http://anchorandhopesf.com/

Get Out And About:
We packed a lot into this trip to California (we started the trip in LA). There is SO much to see and do! If you find yourself in San Francisco be sure to get out of the city for a day. Just 15 mins or so north of the city (over the Golden Gate Bridge…so you can check that off your list of things to do and kill two birds with one stone) is Muir Woods National Park. It’s an old growth redwood forest filled with some of the biggest and most beautiful trees you’ll ever see. Even the drive down into the valley is worth the trip. While you’re down in the valley follow the signs to Muir Beach for a look at the rocky (and cold) coastline. I could have sat there all day. It’s worth the drive.

While you’re north of the city drive up into wine country! Sonoma and Napa are just about an hour north of San Francisco (maybe even less). Wineries abound and all of the wine is pretty decent. Most places will charge you $10 for a tasting but I would say it’s worth it. Be sure to get there early in the day. They all close around 4 or 5pm, but open around 10am. We weren’t really in the wine drinking mood early in the day and much to our dismay had to cut our day short. But no worries! We headed back to the coolest, not to mention quirkiest hotel around… The Flamingo Resort (Santa Clarita). I think we paid $50/night to stay here using Priceline and it was worth every penny. Apparently it’s an institution in the area and everyone we spoke to had a “once, at the Flamingo, I…” story. It’s old-school retro with updated rooms (not super updated…no marble tubs in here) and the largest pool area outside of Vegas (notice the bad ass neon flamingo sign (it spins!) in the top right hand of the picture...classic). I have to give this place two thumbs up. If you’re looking for a place to stay in the Sonoma/Napa/Santa Clarita area of wine country this is your place. Go in with an open mind, leave your pre-conceived notions of what you think you want in a hotel behind and you’ll have a great time.

If you’re thinking of taking a trip to San Francisco you can check out my Google Map that shows some of the places we visited. If you need any more info on this destination or any of my other trips just shoot me an email(link at top of page) and I’ll be happy to chat with you about it! I always love talking about the places I’ve been…can you tell?

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