Where to Eat in San Francisco

One of my favourite things to do during my month of exploring San Francisco was to make sure I was outside as dusk fell. The fog, a forceful personality with a name (Karl), a Twitter feed (@karlthefog) and an ability to evoke a private, knowing smile when brought up with a resident, was magical at that time of day. I would find a street corner to call my own and lean into the side of a building, staring up as wisps of clouds tumbled in, faster and stronger, carpeting the city in a gauzy mask of white.

I knew about the fog prior to arriving, having seen a video called Adrift (below) and other wonderful time-lapses that filmed its magnitude as it barrelled forward. But nothing prepared me for the wonder of watching it approach and of seeing how parts of the city were obfuscated by a hazy mist and others completely sunny, at exactly the same time of day. Despite its relatively small surface (7 miles by 7 miles), the city’s varied topography divides it into microclimates and submicroclimates; you never know what the weather is a few streets away. Temperature can vary as much as 5C (or 9F) degrees by block. There is even an app to track weather by area of San Francisco, now available for iOS.

And so, seemingly out of nowhere, a bright blue sky would fade, elongating tendrils of soft white the only warning of change. On the way to the airport, the BART train passed by Daly City, almost completely shrouded in fog. Gazing out of the window, I watched train glide through the clouds. I texted Cheri, whose apartment I was house-sitting during my month in town, to tell her how beautiful I thought it was. “Funny you should mention it” she replied “that’s the Filipino area of town, and we joke that it is so misty because of all the steam from the rice cookers”.

Initial Thoughts from San Francisco

While Cheri is Filipina herself, she doesn’t live in Daly City but in SOMA (South of Market), which was where I, too, resided for my month in San Francisco. With Cheri and her husband Nick on a three-week trip to Europe, I was holding down the fort, learning about the city and finding my very East coast self slightly startled by the friendliness of the people here. Daily, someone would start up a conversation while waiting for the train. “Hi, are you from here?” or “Hey, I’m James — what’s on tap for your evening?” In New York, this would be out of place. In San Francisco, they just call it “Thursday.”

San Francisco does have its share of problems, as many of you might have read recently. Pieces on the tech scene and entitlement, on Silicon Valley’s second boom and a Medium piece by Peter Shih (subsequently toned down, but the original is here) talking about the aggressive homelessness and terrible public transportation system, which spawned an outpouring of furious counter-posts (one here and another here).

For the record, I don’t think the transportation system was terrible — I actually found it easy to get around. I will  say that I do not understand how one cannot obtain a transfer from a MUNI stop to a bus — at this point you have to pay twice. And I also wish there was a sign somewhere that explained the bus stop markers; my first day in town, I wandered around pulling my hair out, staring at my phone map which CLEARLY showed I was at the bus stop, but there was no bus stop. The answer, I learned, is that the city paints part of the streetlight pole or parking pole yellow and then stencils in a minute number to indicate what bus stops there. This is not so obvious, but it resulted in a brief comedy of errors as I missed several buses before I could finally, frantically, flag one down. The driver, having taken pity on me while smirking at my histrionics took one look at me as I boarded and blurted out, “first day in town, lady?”

How did you guess…

where to eat on a budget in San Francisco

Without a car, I took buses most of the time, including late at night. I’m sure the city has many women wandering alone, but in contrast to Saigon or even New York, I found the city to be a particularly intimidating place. The concerns about the homeless population are real — the State’s programmes for shelter and food are significantly better than many others, and many people point themselves toward California for that reason alone. There is also the matter of other states shipping homeless people to California; currently the State is thinking about a lawsuit with Nevada for that very reason.  With good weather and support, I understand why those seeking shelter would head to California. But some of the population are also suffering from mental illness and in my short time in town I’ve been flashed several times, masturbated at once, watched a man smash his face into a car window, and almost got taken out entirely when a man shoved his partner off a city bus’ back steps. These events were all day time events.

As a Kiwi friend noted, half in jest, “It’s not a poverty issue. It’s that at any given time, I feel like someone is going to shank me for no reason at all, just for walking nearby”. Untreated mental illness can beget random acts of significant street violence, and with a persistent bias against openly addressing mental issues (other than pharmaceutical ads), I can’t see it going away. And it’s those random acts of violence that made it difficult to fully relax into San Francisco as a place. Not because of anything that happened to me, but just a spidey senses feeling of general awareness, of not knowing what will happen next.

One of my best friends in town, Neda (who I met in a hostel in Argentina in 2008) is an ER resident at San Francisco’s only (!) trauma centre, SF General Hospital. She was a great resource to talk about the homelessness, the root causes, treatments and more. I don’t note it here as a deterrent, but rather a reminder that in bigger metropolises the stratification between haves and have-nots appears in different ways. For Bangkok, it’s the smaller tin houses on a klong next to giant super malls. In Saigon, it’s the newer skyscrapers casting a shadow on the boats headed in from the Mekong, bringing rice and goods. And in San Francisco it’s the crazy juxtaposition between the homelessness and the huge houses sitting above the Market and the Civic Center and the Tenderloin, between the flow of tourists and the homeless people they sidestep in getting from A to B.

Unlike Peter, I’m not derisive of the city’s composition. I was simply surprised. The city was beautiful, and I truly enjoyed my time there. I was fortunate to spend my birthday at a table of friends from around the world who found themselves in San Francisco at the same time. I was able to hike to Tamalpais, to walk the city on foot and to make a habit of drinking tea with people I would only normally see once a year. A real treat.

It was also important to feel out of my skin for a bit, and to remember that these problems — different to how they would be manifested elsewhere — are present at home. I think that those problems are important enough to mention here as well. Many of my friends who live there are used to those differences, and are quite nonchalant about their presence. Many were surprised I’d take buses at night. I can see how one can easily stay isolated in parts of the city away from what are seen as “problem areas”, but I wonder how the city will digest its many different residents as the years go by.

Where to Eat in San Francisco

where to eat in san francisco

The city and the bay are, without question, achingly beautiful. As I said in the opening paragraph, the golden hour is particularly wondrous, shimmering with light and fog and reflections off the water. It’s a hugely photogenic place and it is full of people I love. I felt very lucky to get this month in town.

And, it merits saying, I spent most of it wandering and eating. With a cluster of friends I met all around the world somehow in town at the same time, I did not lack for company to share these meals. It was great to meet readers as well when I spoke at the Apple store late in the month, and to compliment most of the cheap eats with a few spectacular but more costly intervening stops.

As promised, I am sharing my spreadsheet of cheap eats, cobbled together from your suggestions, my wanderings and friends’ urgings. It’s an open spreadsheet now, so for anyone who wants to add to it, please do.   For the HTML version (if you want to just pull it up without the edit function and you’re on the move, click here.)

The requirements: cheap eats, please note if it’s gluten-free or not, and please add your Twitter handle in the notes section, so I can attribute you if I head back there.

Spreadsheet food magic 

Blue highlighting indicates my own notes; the other notes were from the person who recommended it.

Other San Franciso Food Guides

  • Eater’s “Unofficial, highly opinionated information about the city by the Bay”, from 2018 here.
  • The Infatuation’s First Timer’s Guide to Eating San Francisco here.
  • TimeOut’s best San Francisco restaurants to eat at for 2020 here.

Bon appétit!

Photos from my Month in SF

I promised photos, didn’t I?

Most of the pictures below are taken with an iPhone 5, with the exception of these next photos, which were with my trusty Olympus E-P3 (mistakenly with a 20mm lens as I forgot my other one). I ended up leaving the EP-3 at home most of the time, so the bulk of the photos are from the iPhone. Not a bad choice either!

The EP-3:

Golden Gate Bridge
Golden Gate Bridge after a long hike through Tamalpais with my friends Jared and Ryan
Golden Gate Bridge
And from the other side of the highway.
Hiking through Mt Tamalpais
Hiking through Mt Tamalpais. So beautiful.
Hiking through Mt Tamalpais
This is Jared, one of my friends from Montreal who I hung out with in NYC when I was a lawyer, met up with in Thailand in 2008 and now, hiked with in SF since he moved there 2 weeks before I arrived. WIN!

Bun Rieu from Soup Junkie San SF

Where to eat in san francisco: Soup Junkie
This one merits a 2nd view.
Where to eat in san francisco: La Taqueria Mission
Of all the tacos I ate (AND THERE WERE A LOT), La Taqueria’s on 25th & Mission were my fave. These were 3 of their offerings. Nom.

And as promised, the Adrift video that is well worth a few minutes of your time. You’ll never think of fog the same way again:

Thanks, as always, for reading!


59 thoughts on “Where to Eat in San Francisco”

  1. The photos! Oh my goodness the photos. They’re all so absolutely wonderful. San Fran has been tugging on my heart for a very, very long time now. This post is just feeding my wanderlust, I hope you know!

    I also had no idea their fog had a name, let alone a Twitter. Learn something new everyday!

  2. Those trams are pretty cool looking. Are they all like that? From the 70’s or something?

    I was about to be sad with all the dog photos and no cats, but then you delivered with Humongous Cat. Thank you Jodi. :D

      1. “Humongous Cat” – lol. When my 8-year-old niece saw her for the first time, she yelled “FAT KITTY” with such excitement that now the rest of my family will only refer to Zoey, lovingly of course, as Fat Kitty.

  3. Beautiful photos! I’m glad you talk about SF here (I only visited once but had a similar experience in terms of feeling your ‘spidey sense’ tingling at all times). It’s certainly not just outside the US that this is an issue.

    1. Hey Joey! I haven’t spent much time in Montreal in the last few years because when I come to town, focus is to see as much family as I can — and cook. Definitely hope to have other spreadsheets crowdsourced from readers but Montreal unlikely to be one of them for now. Thanks for reading!

  4. Hi there! I’ve been a big fan of your blog for quite some time (I also share in your wanderlust), but I’ve never commented before. I’m originally from Silicon Valley (currently studying in Holland), and I loved this post about SF! Couldn’t agree more – out of all of the cities I’ve lived in, including NYC, SF stands out as the most intimidating for all of the reasons you mentioned. However, as you said, it still is a very special place. Thank you also for the AMAZING spreadsheet! I’ll be sure to check out the best places for tacos and what I like to call ‘soup with a lot of stuff in it.’ Thanks again and enjoy India!

  5. Here are a few quotes why we just love SF.

    One day if I go to heaven…I’ll look around and say “It ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco”. -Herb Caen

    San Francisco has only one drawback – ’tis hard to leave. -Rudyard Kipling

    You know what it is? (It) is a golden handcuff with the key thrown away. -John Steinbeck

    If you’re alive, you can’t be bored in San Francisco. If you’re not alive, San Francisco will bring you to life. -William Saroyan

  6. I love when people spend enough time in a city to be able to make solid recommendations to others…I live 90 miles from SF and will use your food recommendations next time I go there. Thank you! (and wow, it looks like you had beautiful weather!)

  7. San Francisco is definitely on the top of my list of cities to visit next year, once I’m back in the states. It just seems like a city with such cool vibes, and one with a personality unlike most other US cities. I really enjoyed this article Jodi, and beautiful photos!

  8. Great post. I just got back from 2 weeks in San Francisco as well and I also find myself having a hard time discussing my trip without mentioning the homeless problem there. Frankly I probably talk about that more than I do anything else, and especially the mental ones. That was particularly shocking to me.

    I personally found the public transportation system there maddening. I could tell that once you got the hang of it, it would be really nice… but being an outsider trying to figure out which bus / train actually goes where, was way harder than it had to be. Couple that with Google being wrong a good percentage of time; I was totally frustrated and using cabs by the end of my stay… which is an adventure all in itself! LOL Also, note to future travelers, you can string together transportation to get to the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge… but good luck getting back to town! :)

    BUT! The city is amazingly beautiful and I had an incredible time there. My wife and I got to see the sights we’d wanted to see for some time now and I got to connect with my cousin that I get to see once every 5 years or so. Really cool place, but you’re right… it has it’s set of problems like most every other city in the world.


    1. Hey Dan! The only reason I was able to get around was courtesy of an app called Transit, which is free. I used to use Rover but found it maddeningly slow, and I tried Google maps but the times were all wrong. However Transit not only got the time right, but also has a “nearby” function where it shows you where ALL the buses / MUNI are in your surrounding area. It’s the cat’s pyjamas. I found it via the kindness of a random stranger, who found me wandering aimlessly along Valencia when I ought to have been on Mission. He advised me to get the app — and he was right. (Random stranger who worked for Apple: if you are reading this, THANK YOU.)

      1. Nice! That does sound most helpful! I had a random stranger help me out as well after walking back and forth on the same crosswalk several times… staring hopelessly at my phone, trying to decide which side of the street the bus *might* be on. I looked up to find I was in the middle of the strip club district. I apparently looked terribly out of place! LOL

  9. That fog is amazing, so beautiful! I’d never heard of it before, now I want to go to SF EVEN more! And when I do, will definitely be using this great spreadsheet, thanks for sharing.

  10. Consider the following your fault: I’m HUNGRY. And I want a dog.

    I was in SF with my dad a couple of years ago. He’s a taxi-and-Marriott kind of traveler, but I made him travel like I do and get on the bus. At the end of the day, he exclaimed, “The bus ride was the most interesting part of the trip!” Fortunately the bus ride did not include any flashing.

  11. Thank you for the great, accurate post on what living in San Francisco is like. The Bay Area is AMAZING in so many ways, but there are real struggles for many who live there. The homeless are some of the most aggressive I’ve lived around and having been gone from SF for almost a year now, your post brought it all back. Traveling through 10+ countries this year, I have yet to encounter another city where I’ve felt so uneasy, but loved, at so many different times. Glad you had a chance to explore it in all it’s ups and downs and grateful for the food recs when I get back!

  12. Good to see your blog this first day coming to inbox, just after creating email account. Greatly ‘enjoyed’ your various yummies, good to know U; keep in touch!!!

  13. Lots of great photos, it seemed like you had a great time in San Fran. I haven’t been yet, but I hope to visit once I’m back in the US!

  14. That’s one adorable cat! Haha but the most captivating of all for me is the San Francisco Bridge! I’ve only been there once but I remember it as if it was yesterday. Awesome job with the photos :)

  15. Disappointed that there was no mention of tasty dim sum for cheap eats! Love La Taqueria though, and all your photos are amazing. Also – Karl the Fog?! No way! He’s just gained a Twitter follower.

    1. Right? I love that feed. And he’s diligent about finding content that relates to him, with editorialized tweets that aren’t twee. Was thrilled to see him comment here too.

      re the Dim Sum, I have celiac disease and it’s quite hard to find Dim Sum that’s friendly for my stomach. When asked what my last meal would be by Roads & Kingdoms, I said “dim sum” — if I’m going to die anyhow, I’d want to go with a lot of dumplings and siu mai first ;)

      If you have Dim Sum suggestions, please add them to the chart!

  16. Your photos are so pretty! I like that you talk about the issue of mental illness as adding to feeling of always — I guess you could say — watching what’s going on around you. We have a pretty large homeless population in Los Angeles, too. And I’m pretty sure LA once shipped a lot of them over to Santa Monica. It’s really kind of sad because some of them are the nicest people you’ll ever meet and then some of them will follow you all the way to front door of your office building demanding you buy him a sandwich (that happened to me). But, because of living here, I also travel much more aware. So I guess you live and you learn.

  17. Pingback: Friday Roundup: September 13, 2013 | Eclectic Travel Girl

  18. The times I’ve visited SF, I also had time to wander around the city alone and I think you artfully described the vibe. However, it’s a “vibe” more and more often felt in U.S. cities. (I just deleted a scree that I realized amounted to a thread jack).

    Having rescued everyone from my soap box rant, I must also compliment your iPhone photos. And, I shouldn’t have looked at them at 1:30 a.m. as dinner was a long time ago.

  19. Great post! This really excites me – especially the spreadsheet – as San Fran is the next stop on our trip around the USA. We are obsessed with food so we will def be using that resource.
    Can’t wait to hear all about your India travels.

  20. You have no idea how bad I want to go to San Francisco now. I can’t wait till I finally make it out there. I love this blog and the spreadsheet is something I definitely have to save! Thank you!

  21. I’m definitely going to recommend your post to people headed to San Fran. Great job here and beautiful pictures too!

  22. Probably should read this after lunch no I’m even more hungry. Heading to San Francisco in Feb we got a great deal with Tour America. So thanks for posting.

  23. The photos are fantastic. It’s been awhile since I’ve been to San Francisco but I remember clearly how much I loved walking around the city. Your photos bring me right back.

  24. Great shots here, I love the rustic setting you used for some of the pictures. I’ve never been to San Francisco before, but I’d really like to make it out to Cali.

  25. What a lovely post! love the way its written (its one of your first posts i’m reading) and the photos – Ah! (she says aching with nostalgia!) “Achingly Beautiful” – thats exactly how i describe it in my head whenever I see images of SF! its one of my favourite places in the world and I am trying to migrate there. Your post has given me some useful insights into life there – things you would not pick up on unless you spend a few weeks there (rather than a week or two on holiday). Thank-you, and I look forward to reading more about your adventures!

  26. You are a very talented writer and photographer. San Francisco is my favorite U.S. city (though I haven’t traveled much within my own country…), and I wish to live there one day. All of your photos reminded me why!

  27. Jodi, wonderful post! I used to call San Francisco home for a while and was surprised that a soupofiliac like you missed my favorite soup ever in the world. (EVER!) San Francisco’s Burma Superstar restaurant does many an amazing rendition of Burmese dishes. They take quite a poetic license and turn many Burmese dishes upside down… and I have a feeling they invent a few based on the flavor profiles you can find in Myanmar. I am a little embarrassed to admit that I love their food more than much of what I’ve eaten in Myanmar. Such embarrassing admissions aside, I have not been able to locate a version of Burma Superstar’s samosa soup anywhere in Myanmar in spite of constant effort and many conversations with any food-loving English-speaking Burmese. I have a feeling that Burma Superstar may have invented the dish. In any case, it is my favorite soup ANYWHERE. It’s made with lentils/beans, is a bit curried and a bit sour, has cabbage, pieces of amazing home-made samosas and falafel, tomatoes (unless I’m misremembering), mint, and so many other unbelievable flavors. It comes together as both an explosion of flavor and a comfort food at once! Soooo good. I hope you have a chance to seek it out if you find yourself in SF once again! In the mean time, keep up the tough work of eating amazing food all over the place — someone’s gotta do it! =)

    1. Hi Natasha, not a big fan of Burma Superstar (as you can see from the spreadsheet), but did eat samosa soup in Myanmar itself, for breakfast, near the big Aung San market in Yangon. You’re right, it was great!

      1. Thanks for the tip, Jodi. I did not make it to Yangon on my first trip, but will be sure to go there next time and will search high and low till I find the samosa soup you had there! =)

  28. Jodi,

    I discovered your blog while googling things about India in anticipation of an upcoming trip there. I just wanted to say “thank you” for writing responsibly about the town that’s been my home for the last 13 years, San Francisco. I’m a social worker here, working with the most severely acute mentally ill population–the very people you write about observing and–rightly–feeling nervous about during your visit. I was sort of cringing in advance of reading this post, anticipating a piece focused only on the culinary playground the city offers. Yes, San Francisco is a great food town, and stunningly beautiful, at least in wide focus, but the most salient story about the city today AFAIC is one of economic disparity. It is interesting to think about how the city will “digest” its many residents, as you put it. As I’m sure you know, many of its longtime residents are being economically displaced in the wake of certain changes here. By the way, I think your comment about San Francisco having a certain energy that makes it difficult to “relax into” is spot on. I said almost the same thing to a friend I was visiting in Las Vegas a few months ago, and I was surprised to realize that, even after living here all these years, I still feel more relaxed in Vegas or NYC.

    Anyway, cheers from your newest reader!

    1. Hi David, funny enough I’m responding to this comment from San Francisco, where I am currently staying for a few days. Thank you for the kind words and the comment. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the site thus far and hope you continue to do so! Safe travels :)

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