Dining in San Francisco: Local is Global

By Emma Krasov. Photography by Yuri Krasov.

It’s been long established that San Francisco is a hub of international cuisine. Everyone who lives or works in the city would name a favorite Italian, Japanese, or Peruvian eatery on top of a dozen of neighborhood joints from every imaginable culture, without blinking an eye.

We, San Franciscans, are as diverse as can be, and insatiable gluttons for everything new, foreign, and unusual—as long as it’s delicious and authentic, and made with love and skill. We definitely agree with Julia Child’s famous words, “People who love to eat are always the best people.”     

It comes easily to San Francisco chefs–satisfying all cravings, offering all kinds of native foods, and accommodating various dietary needs. Let’s look closer at some authentic eateries from vastly different cultures in different city neighborhoods.   

Greens Restaurant at Fort Mason, a historic Civil War coastal defense site

Well-known and revered by the vegetarians everywhere, Greens Restaurant pioneered its famous meatless feasts with the founding chef, Deborah Madison, back in 1979. Since then, this fine establishment had served amazingly creative, fantastic, plant-based seasonal fare, rooted in California bounty, never skipping a bit.

For its 40th anniversary, Greens, now helmed by Chef Katie Reicher, initiated its first guest chef dinner series with participants’ list that read like Who is Who in the restaurant industry—Alice Waters (Chez Panisse), Tanya Holland (Brown Sugar Kitchen), Suzette Gresham (Acquerello), Kim Alter (Nightbird), and Pam Mazzola (Prospect).

This year, the restaurant implemented a new collaborative program, Guest Chef Summer Series, to welcome three distinct chefs—Crystal Wahpepah of Wahpepah’s Kitchen, a Native American woman-owned catering business, Heena Patel of Besharam restaurant serving Indian cuisine, and Adiam Tsegaye of Mela Bistro, a downtown Oakland restaurant specializing in Ethiopian fare. 

The visiting chefs were invited to present their native cuisines in four-course vegetarian dinners, created together with Chef Reicher, and open to the public. 

Last month, Chef Heena Patel introduced a mostly vegan menu inspired by the traditional foods of her native Gujarat, a coastal state in western India.

Her brightly colored, multi-ingredient dishes, redolent of myriad spices, arrived on the table one after another. An amuse-bouche of crunchy complex whole grain fritters with three different sauces, Sabudana Khichdi (tapioca and sweet potato porridge with toasted peanuts and edible flowers), and Makai Handvo (steamed corn and opo squash cake with coriander chimichurri and heirloom peppers), were followed by Moong Dal and Navratan Korma (khichiya rice crackers, parathas, Basmati rice), and a decadent dessert of Pistachio Kulfi Affogato with rose petals (no less!) and masala chai.

“We approached those who we admire and who believe in our mission to provide guests with unique meals made from locally sourced elements,” said Chef Reicher about her choice of this year’s series participants. “Inviting a diverse group of chefs who share values similar to ours is extremely important to all of us at Greens, and I’m honored that these incredibly talented women have agreed to participate.”

In accordance with sharing the Greens’ values, a portion of proceeds from the dinner series benefits Foodwise—a nonprofit organization that “offers education and food access programs to connect eaters of all ages with fresh food and local farms, and inspire communities to take part in creating a fair, regenerative, and delicious food future for all.” Founded in 1994, Foodwise operates Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and Mission Community Market in San Francisco (www.foodwise.org.)

The final visiting chef’s dinner at Greens is scheduled for September 28 with Chef Adiam Tsegaye who will create a meal inspired by her Ethiopian cuisine restaurant, where she combines modern and traditional techniques for the best results. Tickets are $120 per person (plus tax and fees).

Come enjoy a delicious vegetarian meal, and take a stroll by the water edge of the San Francisco Bay with views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island.                                           

Greens is located at Fort Mason, Building A, 2 Marina Boulevard, San Francisco, CA 94123. For more information go to www.greensrestaurant.com.   

Merkado Restaurant near Oracle Park, a Major League Baseball stadium

Serving lunch and dinner to a hungry crowd of baseball fans is quite an undertaking, but Merkado Restaurant proprietor Fabien Santos doesn’t see it as a challenge. His thriving Mexican cuisine restaurant has plenty of space to accommodate groups of practically any size! This spacious, especially for San Francisco, 9,800 sq ft “market” of an eatery in the South of Market (SOMA) neighborhood easily meets the demand from sports bar regulars, dining hall fans who enjoy a leisurely family dinner, and outdoor terrace lovers who come here for lunch or an after-work Taco Tuesday with friends.

In fact, Merkado dining areas have their special names and serve special purposes, like Cantina, suitable for by-the-kitchen group dining and events with 20-30 people; La Plaza de Agave with two bars for seated dinners for more than 80 guests or standing reception for more than 200; Tequila Tasting Room to host 30-40; Chef’s Table with a 20-foot-long communal table, and The Patio, secluded at the rear of the building, equipped with blankets and outdoor heaters.

Executive Chef Lorenzo Caamal, who grew up in Mexico, and implements Yucatán and Jalisco culinary traditions in his create fusion dishes, also doesn’t shy away from the crowds. His kitchen team works like a clockwork, putting together seasonal menus featuring fresh locally sourced ingredients from a long-established network of farmers and purveyors.

On a recent visit, this reporter thoroughly enjoyed a lavish lunch with classic Margaritas (there are at least three varieties on the restaurant bar’s cocktail list from more than 150 tequila and mezcal selections), and an array of not-to-be-missed Chef Lorenzo’s dishes.

Chips & Salsa come with house-made sauces that can differ on different days, but are always mild-to-hot, and equally delicious. Guacamole is bursting with flavor, garnished with chile, tomatoes and onion. Albondigas, or roasted lamb meatballs are served in morita-pepita salsa (chile and pumpkin seeds) with queso fresco, labneh, and crispy potato. The ever-popular Carnitas are comprised of crispy pork shoulder, chile Fresno salsa, radish, and pickled red onion.

Those are especially good with a side of Elote—street food-style grilled corn on the cob with crema, cotija cheese, lime, and chile de Arbol.

Tortas are served only at lunch, and therefore it’s not advisable to skip lunch here, at Merkado. Martinez torta is a delicious hearty sandwich of perfectly cooked beef brisket, queso Oaxaca, red onion and cabbage slaw, jalapeno escabeche, and beef consommé.

On a main course menu Enchiladas are a standout, made with pulled rotisserie chicken, nopal, caramelized onion, chile guajillo salsa, queso fresco, greens, and crema.

For the upcoming Mexican Independence Day on September 16, and Hispanic Heritage Month that will last from September 15 through October 15, Merkado prepares some special dishes, like Chile Nogada and Pozolo Rojo to be served every Friday and Saturday until October 1.

Chile Nogada is a stuffed chile poblano with walnut cream sauce and pomegranate. With its red, white and green colors reminiscent of the Mexican flag, this dish is traditionally served in Mexico for Independence Day. Pozole Rojo is a traditional Mexican soup with slow cooked pork rib and shoulder, hominy, chile de Arbol, green cabbage, Mexican oregano and radish.

In addition to traditionally used Mexican cuisine ingredients, Merkado offers plant-based proteins, produced by Impossible Foods whose meat alternatives are made from soy and potatoes, coconut and sunflower oils, with binders from methylcellulose and food starch.  

Merkado is committed to minimizing waste and limiting negative impact on the environment. “We offer large platters for sharing for the same reason,” states the establishment, “and to reduce the per-person cost of enjoying a meal… by two or more diners… Come hungry!”

Merkado is located at 130 Townsend Street, San Francisco, CA 94107. Learn more at https://www.merkadosf.com/.

Z & Y Restaurant in the oldest in the United States historic Chinatown

Some San Francisco city guides say that our Chinatown is more popular than the Golden Gate Bridge, and has been a tourist attraction almost since its founding year (and that was 1848, kids!)

Roaming the 24 city blocks of San Francisco Chinatown, densely populated with eye-popping specialty shops, apothecaries, temples, and bakeries is indeed worth your time, but knowing the best places where you can get traditional regional cuisines of China, made with fresh Californian ingredients, is priceless.

Z & Y Restaurant that serves authentic Szechuan dishes you can recognize by a long line at its entrance. Put your name on the list, and wait for the next available table—your patience will be rewarded. This bustling eatery with indoor and outdoor seating, proudly holds a prestigious Michelin Bib Gourmand award that marks “good quality, good value restaurants” that offer simpler style of cooking, easy-to-eat food, and a “sense of satisfaction at having eaten so well at such a reasonable price.”

Z & Y proprietor and Executive Chef Lijun Han, educated at a top culinary school in Beijing, possesses extensive cooking experience in Chongqing and Chengdu styles of Szechuan cuisine—one of eight established Chinese cuisines.

While Chengdu style, coming from the luxury-driven capital of Szechuan province, uses Sichuan peppercorns [both spellings Szechuan and Sichuan are considered correct], fermented soy beans, and crushed chilis as its main ingredients, Chongqing style calls for extra pungent and spicy flavors derived from the liberal use of garlic, chili peppers and chili oil, mustard, sesame paste, but first and foremost—Sichuan peppercorns—the dried berries of the prickly ash tree that have quite a few health benefits, and produce paraesthesia of the eater’s lips and tongue—a vaguely vibrating and numbing feeling.

This is the feeling the devotees admire and seek in Z & Y dishes, like a positively addictive Hot Braised Whole Fish with Chili, delivered to the table in a hot wok, filled with chopped crimson-red peppers, floating above a soft and tender white fish flesh cooked on a bed of crispy bean sprouts.

There are quite a few other wonderful choices on the menu, like a cold appetizer of Sliced Pork with Spicy Garlic Sauce, a hot appetizer of Steamed Pork Dumplings (a.k.a. soup dumplings—tender and delightful), and amazing Chef’s Specialties Black Pepper Angus Steak Cube and Tea Smoked Duck. With Chef Han’s exquisite menu you’re sure to overeat a bit, so pick a smaller dessert, like brightly-colored yellow pea cubes beautifully presented on a black platter dusted with powder sugar.     

Currently, Z & Y features its new “Spicy Flights” wine-pairing menu, offered for lunch and dinner through the end of September. The menu is created in collaboration with 3 Badge Beverage Corporation, a Sonoma-based wine and spirit distributor. A portion of the proceeds from “Spicy Flights” supports CAL FIRE Benevolent Foundation, an organization providing funds for California Firefighters and their families.

 “We are so close to many prestigious wine regions, it felt natural to pair our authentic dishes with local wines to enhance the dining experience,” said Chef Han. “I want to educate people about Szechuan cuisine and its bold flavors, especially pungency and spiciness, due to the use of garlic, chili peppers and Szechuan pepper, which pair surprisingly well with many different wines, and we are excited to share this with our guests with this special menu.”

Several wines from the 3 Badge enology portfolio are included in the “Spicy Flights” menu, like select bottles from Guinigi, Tree Fort, Gehricke, and Cedar & Salmon wineries.

“We are so excited to partner with Z & Y,” said August Sebastiani, president of 3 Badge Beverage Corporation.  “Our unique portfolio of wines provides options for unusual and surprising pairings, none more exciting than the unique Szechuan flavors on this sensational menu from Z & Y. Our company, 3 Badge, is named after my grandfather’s volunteer firefighting service badges, so we’re particularly excited to help support CAL FIRE Benevolent Fund, especially during this time of year.”

Z & Y Restaurant is located at 655 Jackson Street, San Francisco, CA 94133. Learn more at www.ZandYRestaurant.com.