Lively ethnic restaurants lure adventurous foodies to San Francisco’s northwest corner.
Spices,” Carlos Ayala beams. “You’ve got to check out these spices.” The 34-year-old Guatemalan American clerk skitters out from behind the counter and heads toward the back of Haig’s Delicacies, a dimly lit specialty food and sandwich shop on Clement Street in San Francisco’s Richmond District. He stops at a large rack stuffed with dozens of packaged powders and seasonings: Hungarian paprika, Ethiopian bird’s-eye chiles, Indonesian squash seeds, dried Persian lemons. The array is intoxicating—flavors from around the world, in a store owned by an Armenian immigrant . . . next door to a Hawaiian barbecue joint and across the street from a Thai noodle house sandwiched between a Vietnamese deli and a Chinese fish market. Up and down the street, dozens of ethnic shops and restaurants sit together, forming if not the heart of the city, then at least its hungry belly.
But it’s salt, of course, that most people think of when they first visit the Richmond. Specifically the salty, frigid air that blows on the shoulders of coastal winds and spitting fog through this long neighborhood. The flavor of the district—north of Golden Gate Park and south of the Presidio, west of Arguello Boulevard and east of Ocean Beach—is multicultural bouillabaisse: Irish pubs, Russian bakeries, Chinese dim sum parlors, and more.
“This isn’t the Mission or the Financial District,” says Mourad Lahlou, chef and owner of Aziza, a sophisticated Moroccan restaurant committed to local, farm-fresh ingredients. “A lot of people come to this neighborhood just to eat, so your food better be good. You don’t see too many gimmicks out here.”
The Richmond’s oldest, best-known attractions—the Cliff House, Lands End, and the Legion of Honor—are clustered at its beachy end. But to get a taste of the area’s ethnic eclecticism you’ll need to venture further inland, to the lively blocks of Clement Street and Geary Boulevard between Arguello and 25th Avenue.
The eastern stretch of Clement has been called the city’s “new Chinatown,” though its edible temptations are anything but monocultural. Within just a few blocks, you’ll be lured by crispy chicken samusas and crunchy tea leaf salad (at Burma Superstar), classic cassoulet and escargots (Chapeau), vat-size bowls of Vietnamese beef noodle soup (Pho Clement), hand-cut beef dunked in broth (Prime Rib Shabu, just off Clement), fried yam cakes and Mandarin beef (Taiwan Restaurant), and tender Turkish lamb kebabs (Troya Restaurant). If you feel overwhelmed, just duck into the Richmond New May Wah Supermarket—though even here you’ll be greeted by bitter melon, fuzzy squash, four kinds of bok choy, chicken feet, pork blood, fish heads, white gourd juice, and a maddening variety of Thai energy drinks.
One of those pick-me-ups would help after a browse across the street at Green Apple Books (506 Clement, 387-2272, greenapplebooks.com). The independent bookstore opened in 1967 and has been expanding ever since. Creaky floors, hidden alcoves, and curiously arranged stacks—including a towering wall of cookbooks—make finding a title a bit like wading through a dreamy jungle, an Amazon without the dot-com.
A block from Clement, wander the parallel segment of Geary Boulevard, where you’ll want to gorge yourself anew. You could make a day of it: In the morning, devour a dim sum feast of silken tofu, snow peas, and shrimp-stuffed dumplings at Ton Kiang. In the afternoon, sip a pitch-perfect margarita at Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant and savor the tender slabs of cook-it-yourself Korean kalbi at Brother’s Restaurant. That night, relish couscous and chicken basteeya at Aziza, then visit Joe’s Ice Cream for a scoop of homemade root beer swirl.
Once you’ve had a nibble of the Richmond’s food scene, you may get the urge to multiply yourself like a Russian nesting doll and send each little version in a different direction to sample the neighborhood’s best bites. Or you could keep coming back until you’ve tried everything. And why not? After all, variety is the spice of life.
Photography by Melissa Barnes
This article was first published in July 2010. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.