Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Thanksgiving in San Francisco: Colorado Whiskey and Mexican Food

"Who couldn't become ravenous in such a place?" 
-Julia Child

I spent Thanksgiving weekend in San Francisco, the irresitable city by the bay in the magical promised land where everything reaches "epic" proportions (as best described by NYC's Bike Snob). Needless to say, there is so much good food here it is hard to know where to even begin. My original plan was to do an extensive sampling of Bay Area taco trucks and shops, and then compare them to my favorite Denver places. However, I was ironically and brutally sidetracked by, of all things, a bottle of Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey.

Image from MetroMix Denver
I always have a bottle of Stranahan's in my cupboard, and it is also my favorite housewarming gift for my friends in distant corners of the country. To me it is one of Colorado's finest exports. Thanks to the ridiculous baggage fees, I waited until landing to get this bottle, and purchased it at a well-stocked liquor store in San Francisco's uppity Nob Hill neighborhood, The Jug Shop. The Jug Shop has a smart whiskey selection and an impressive wine collection-- they even have a rarity in this city: a parking lot. Being a special occasion and all, I sprung for this year's Snowflake batch, which means that this whiskey was finished in some sort of wine barrel after going through Stranahan's unique half Scotch-style and half Bourbon-style custom-made distillery.

I am not an expert in whiskey by any means, but I am a frequent consumer; and my friend that took on other half of the bottle was born and bred in Kentucky, so by birthright he is an expert on American whiskey (sort of like Floridians and Cuban food). Here is what I know: the original Stranahan's is aged in American white oak barrels, and the smoky oak taste is powerful and long-lasting, but the finish is smooth vanilla. This Snowflake bottle, finished in a Cabernet Franc barrel, had a pleasantly sweet aroma and flavor: we came up with bananas. The vanilla is still there, and so is the impressive 94 proof strength. And with a little less smokiness and an even smoother finish than the original, the Snowflake is delicious and goes down easily. So easy, in fact, that it became the beginning of the end of my epic bay area taco tour.

The amount of food I ate that night, along with the dizzying hangover I had the next day left me feeling less-than-ravenous for most of Friday, pretty much eliminating a full day of my taco touring. I never did make it over to the infamous Fruitvale Bart Station area (check out this amazing taco map) and apparently missed out on the finest of the Bay Area taco trucks. I did, however, sample some adequate alternatives in San Francisco's Mission district, and while for the most part epically Californianized, on the whole the food was very good.

A highlight was the taco truck El Tonayese. I think there are two of these trucks and a restaurant of the same name, all within a few blocks of each other. The one we went to was on Harrison and 22nd. Here I tried, of course, pastor. And carne asada. Here "con todo" (with everything), in true California style, means a hell of a lot more than salsa, cilantro and onions; and "epic" would be a fitting word for it: slice of lemon, lime, fresh radish and pickled jalapeños. It was a brilliantly colorful presentation and it tasted good too. This was some of the best pastor I have had that didn't come from a spit. The carne asada was also well-seasoned, tender and tasty.

I also got a chance to sample an "epic" burrito. This was actually a Thanksgiving meal primer that we got on the way back from buying the whiskey. We stopped in at a place called Can-Cun on Mission St near 19th. After we got our food, my friend and Thanksgiving host went into this drawn-out (epic) explanation about San Francisco burritos--something about the rice, something else about what "super" means in a California taqueria... and something else. His talked turned into a Charlie Brown-like teachers drawl as I was completely taken with my very good super burrito filled with pastor--also not spit roasted pastor, but with a decent flavor. And in a burrito it's just another flavor, so I didn't miss the lack of spit-char.

The surprise Mexican food of the weekend came on Saturday morning at the Ferry Building market off the Embarcadero. As we strolled through the stalls looking for something to eat I was skeptical that anything would be good here (only later did I realize that this was the same market that Mr. Bourdain cynically walked through on his TV show only to sort of like it in the end). We stopped in front of this Mexican-looking food stand called Primavera that was trying very hard to look Mexican. A few hipster-types were running the front, but on the back and side tables were a bunch of older Mexican ladies making fresh tortillas, scooping out aguas frescas and in general running the show. We ordered the chilaquiles plate and the tamales. Maybe it was eating our food under the bright morning sun with a crisp sea-breeze blowing across the water, and the impressive bay bridge in front of a cloudless sky dominating our view that made the chilaquiles taste so good; but likely it was because the thick, fresh-made and fried tortillas were incredibly tasty, and had a perfect crunch-to-sogginess ratio that is essential for good chilaquiles. The sauce was excellent too, and so was the rest of the plate: rice, beans, avocados and amazingly soft and fresh-tasting scrambled eggs. Really this is one of the better plates of chilaquiles I have ever had, and with their well-known hangover curing properties I could only look at my plate and wonder in vain, "Where were you the day after Thanksgiving?" The tamales on the other hand were a little dry and the masa fell apart too easily. The taste was good but my wife and I both fought over the rest of the chilaquiles while the leftover tamales got cold on the bench beside us as the boldly intrusive seagulls sat like vultures on a nearby railing, beady eyes fixed on the remains.

Now that's a view. 

San Francisco is an amazing and beautiful city with a famous food scene, and despite my whiskey-shortened taco tour, I did manage a decent sampling of Mexican food. On my final night I did have some pretty average spit-roasted pastor at a place called El Castillito near the 16th and Mission Bart station. The pastor marinade tasted like a spicy tomato paste, and though the meat was well cooked and it looked good, we all know by now that looks can be deceiving. Overall, of course, San Francisco has much more variety and selection than our humble Denver, but when it comes to tacos and burritos, it is comforting to know that Denver easily rivals San Francisco at least in terms of taste, quality and authenticity.

El Tonayese on UrbanspoonEl Toyanese
El Castillito on UrbanspoonEl Castillito
Taqueria Cancun on Urbanspoon Taqueria Cancun
Primavera on UrbanspoonPrimavera


  1. Ok once we admit you can't hold your whiskey, we can get on with this whole food fetish you've developed. Though maybe not blog appropriate, I can't wait til you join the Lumpy gang. All that aside, you managed to stumble into Taqueria Can Cun, which carly and I first went to in 1997. Needless to say after the 'diversity' of our Minnesota culinary experience, it was quite enlightening. Though you are catering to your gringo audience, this would have been a great opportunity to move into the 'other' parts that while sometimes revolting, are at other times delicious. Hearts, tongues etc. don't make it onto menus / blogs so often. Hope you and flaco had a great time.

  2. I love the taco truck map!

  3. Adrian - yes, and stayed tuned as apparently they are adding my posts and trucks soon...

  4. I know this is an old post, but forget stranahans, Leopolds is where it's at!! (and they haven't sold out)



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