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I've spent most of my life in the San Francisco Bay Area, poking around ethnic markets, patronizing obscure little restaurants, and driving to local farms just to buy a few pounds of sweet, undersize Gravenstein apples.
Above, Shirley Fong-Torres, center, guides foodies through Chinatown. Her tour includes dim sum and ends "when someone explodes."
I'm always on the lookout for new and interesting things to eat. I didn't think there was much any tour could tell me about food in the Bay Area. Was I ever wrong.
Just as there are tours for people who love mystery novels, Victorian houses, or murals, there are tours for people who love to eat, drink, and cook. As a region with no dearth of award-winning chefs, the Bay Area has some fabulous food tours. They're organized by chefs, writers, or ordinary people who happen to think it is one of life's great pleasures to introduce you to their very favorite peach or bear claw or dry Jack cheese.
North Beach, San Francisco's hilly old Italian enclave, is an obvious site for a great food tour. In high-tech Asics, her red hair festooned with trendy butterfly clips, GraceAnn Walden, a restaurant columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle,has been leading a rollicking Saturday eat-a-thon called "Mangia North Beach" since 1987.
Walden doesn't limit herself to things Italian, but to things delicious. First stop: O'Reilly's, a neighborhood pub where they make their soda bread fresh and their Irish coffee authentic. And there's nothing Italian about XOX Truffles, a pocket-size storefront where Jean-Marc Gorce—who owns the shop with his wife, Casimira—demonstrates how he prepares his melting confections with cream, chocolate, and cognac. "What could be better than people starting on a shoestring and making it big with a great product?" asks Walden as we leave XOX. "Okay, andiamo."
Everyone on the street knows Walden. The priest in St. Francis of Assisi knows her; the shopkeepers know her; the dogs know her. She leaves us on the sidewalk in front of the 90-year-old Liguria Bakery and emerges minutes later with squares of pillowy focaccia wrapped in paper. Liguria makes only focaccia: onion, pizza, raisin, and plain. They're all great.
The tour ends with a leisurely three-course Italian lunch at Enrico's, a classy restaurant on a sleazy stretch of Broadway. Walden is a born storyteller, and she holds forth on everything from the best martinis in town (at Martuni's) to how she once smuggled fresh sausages out of France in her bra ("giving me even moreof a Dolly Parton look.") Mangia North Beach is what all tours should be: a few hours in engaging company.
"Javawalk" also fits the bill. "I walk fast, I talk fast, and I haven't even had any coffee yet," Elaine Sosa warns as she kicks off her caffeinated walk in downtown San Francisco. The city was a coffee-roasting capital in the Gold Rush, notes the hyperkinetic former stockbroker, who "quit the rat race" in '94 to start Javawalk. "I've always thought if you wanted to get a feel for a neighborhood, go to the coffeehouses," Sosa says.
Italian immigrants started the coffeehouse culture, so Javawalk focuses on North Beach, as well. Caffé Trieste may be the area's most famous establishment, because it was once a popular Beat hangout. This dark, funky café still pours "one of the best cups of house coffee in the city," says Sosa, who takes hers with a splash of steamed milk. It's superfresh. Unlike your local Starbucks, Trieste roasts its coffee on the premises.
Behind the scenes on North Beach tours: above left, at Caffé Trieste; below, at Liguria, venerable bakers of focaccia.
Sosa stops frequently on her two-hour tour—to point out where to find the oldest espresso machine in San Francisco (Tosca) and to admire a state-of-the-art computerized German roaster (at Caffé Roma). She always includes a visit to Thomas E. Cara, a shop dealing exclusively in gorgeous imported espresso machines, and she never skips Caffé Greco, where she recommends everyone finish the morning with an affogato—a shot of espresso over a scoop of gelato.
Just down the hill from North Beach, the irrepressible Shirley Fong-Torres has spent the last 14 years introducing people to Chinatown. Her company, Wok Wiz, offers a variety of tours. But "I Can't Believe I Ate My Way Through Chinatown" is the obvious choice for serious chowhounds.
The day begins with breakfast at the venerable Sam Wo's, famous in years past for employing Edsel Ford Fong (no relation), "the rudest waiter in San Francisco," Fong-Torres says. To kick off the feeding frenzy, she orders a round of fried bread and congee—a savory rice porridge—with thousand-year eggs.
The eggs are an acquired taste. "Just think about the first time you had an oyster on the half shell, or caviar," Fong-Torres tells skeptics poking at the greenish, gelatinous egg. (It's a fresh duck egg, aged for six weeks in a paste of salt, ash, and lime.)
Fong-Torres's tour lives up to its name: There's a dim sum snack; a barbecued duck "beauty contest"; a visit to a greengrocer; tea at a teahouse; and a Hunanese banquet featuring sumptuous smoked ham, salt-and-pepper calamari, and honey-walnut prawns. "At lunch I discuss where people should go for dinner," says Fong-Torres. "And the tour ends when someone explodes."
Joyce Jue, a soft-spoken author and cooking teacher, offers another Chinatown option. "My goal is to give people an inside view of how self-contained the whole community is," Jue says. "Within nine or 10 square blocks, transplants from Asia can resume a life almost exactly like the one they had." Jue was raised in Chinatown, and rarely left it until her family moved to the suburbs when she was a teenager.
Everything they needed was there in the crowded, noisy, vibrant district. Jue visits the Stockton Seafood Center that specializes in dried abalone ($680 a pound), dried scallops, and shark fins, explaining how luxury ingredients like these add tremendous flavor to soups. "I like to emphasize that Chinese cooking isn’t just peasant food," she says. "There’s a Chinese haute cuisine."
Jue shows groups how to pick a fine barbecued duck ("crisp, taut skin; not too red") and takes them into Wycen Foods, where exquisite sausages—pork, duck liver, chicken—hang from ropes on big metal hooks. Some tours end with a cooking class in which Jue uses ingredients purchased during the walk; others culminate in a dim sum lunch.
There's a lot more to San Francisco food than North Beach and Chinatown, of course. The city has everything from Nicaraguan fried yucca to the best Vietnamese sandwiches this side of Ho Chi Minh City. For now, fans of those foods have to map out their own tours.
But just an hour north of the city, writer Michele Anna Jordan offers gastronomic tours of Sonoma County, one of the most agriculturally diverse regions on earth. "The pinot noir from the Russian River is some of the best and we have fantastic organic milk that gives cheese makers plenty to work with," says Jordan, author of California Home Cookingand the out-of-print Cook's Tour of Sonoma."The apples may be considered a little ugly, but they taste great. The garlic is hot and full-flavored."
In planning her tours, Jordan has broken the area down into its grape-growing regions. One tour focuses just on the lovely Dry Creek Valley, famous for its zinfandel. Jordan stops at Preston Vineyards, where 100-year-old vines produce grapes for a lively, fruity wine. Lou Preston also bakes spectacular sourdough bread with the wild yeast from his vineyard. It has the best texture of any bread Jordan has ever eaten, she says, with "a crackly crust and good-size holes on the interior."
Just a short drive from this paradise of bread and wine is a farm that sells excellent dried tomatoes, a garden shop cultivating more types of flowering thyme than I knew existed, and Dry Creek Peach and Produce, which raises eight varieties of luscious white peaches. "The fifth variety to ripen is the Arctic Gem," Jordan says. "The texture is like satin, voluptuous and smooth. I have a standing order for a case a week when they're in season."
Arctic Gems, thousand-year eggs, focaccia as light as air. Who knew?
Mangia North Beach, $45, (415) 397-8530. Javawalk, $20, (415) 673-9255. Wok Wiz, $65, (415) 981-8989. Joyce Jue's tours are offered through Sur La Table, $65, (415) 732-7900, and Ramekins, $70, (707) 933-0450. For information on Michele Anna Jordan's tours, $85, contact Ramekins.