San Francisco is synonymous with good food. Talented chefs and access to amazing produce give this city a head start in all things culinary. But no matter how bright the spotlight, San Francisco never fails to deliver hidden gems, like a shop that focuses on sweets made without high-fructose corn syrup, or a fun co-op featuring amazing artisan cheese. "Food done right" isn't just a tagline here—it's a way of life.
Avedano's Holly Park Market
This is a butcher shop from our collective Americana memory. The meat and fish are sustainably grown (or caught) and come from animals free of synthetic hormones, steroids, and antibiotics; and are, whenever possible, from “local and responsible” sources. Once the butchers have the meat in the shop, they cut it by hand (well, they use saws and cleavers and boning knives, but they create the cuts individually and with care). Along with the old-fashioned meat counter that includes plenty of advice and cooking tips, if that’s what you’re looking for, this shop offers up meat boxes every Friday (pre-order only), from the Lean and Mean (17 pounds for $150) to The Housewife (27 pounds for $195). Think of them as a multi-sourced CSA, with a mix of cuts and animals to keep the most jaded cooks on their toes.
And, in the spirit of the best independent shops, Avedano’s wants its consumers to know more about sustainability and how to do for themselves. So there are classes: Butchery for Adults, covering the “basics of home butchering,” which in their minds involves being able to break down a lamb and a pig, as well as classes in curing, carving, and sausage making. There is no doubt that if you want to learn something about butchery and ask nicely, they will try and set it up. Bonus: The shop is run by a trio of hip, savvy lady butchers.
Renato Sardo and Dario Barbone, both from the Piedmonte region of Italy, started Baia Pasta when Renato learned that most pasta is made from North American wheat that is shipped to Italy, turned into pasta, and shipped back across the Atlantic. He quickly set out to learn how to use organic flours from Utah, Montana, and Colorado, as well as grains and durum and spelt wheat from California growers, to make brass-extruded pastas out of cold-temperature dough that is dried at low temperatures to maintain the original grains’ protein. Baia has even come up with rice and corn gluten-free pastas that have enough body and flavor to please serious pasta lovers. The results are toothsome and flavorful twists and turns of pasta that remind us to sauce lightly; pasta itself is the real star. Piles of their tempting graphic packaging fill the retail store in Oakland. You can also find their brightly colored, vintage-looking boxes of pasta at markets around the Bay Area and Northern California.
Bi-Rite Market is more a lifestyle than a shop. It’s a corner market with several varieties of raspberries or figs or citrus you’ve never heard of—only in season, of course. It’s a deli/take-away with wild-caught roasted salmon and grass-fed pastrami. And let’s not get started on the cheese case behind the produce section or impressively chosen wine inventory filling in the space between the bottoms of the shelves and the floor. (Don’t miss the Beaujolais Nouveau under the sustainably sourced, locally made chocolate bars!)
A store so popular it spawned its own creamery (Bi-Rite Creamery across the street), cookbook (Bi-Rite Market’s Eat Good Food), farm (to supply the produce section), and community center (18 Reasons), Bi-Rite goes well out of its way to support local food producers. Consumers appreciate it, of course, but these projects and local connections are just the way owner Sam Mogannam, who grew up helping his dad run the market and then became a chef and restauranteur before taking over—and transforming—the family business, believes things should be done. Food should taste good. Shops should be fun to go to. Staff should know about the food they sell. Bi-Rite sells the food Sam wants to eat: largely organic, sustainably made, plenty of small-batch and artisan products, and lots of fresh house-made items to boot.
The Cheese Board Collective
An institution of artisan cheese since 1967 and workplace democracy since 1971, the Cheese Board Collective is a beacon both to people passionate about fine cheese and to those interested in worker-owned businesses. The Cheese Board is part of the larger Arizmendi Association of Coops, which includes Arizmendi bakeries in the Bay Area with their chewy rolls and other famously tempting treats. In that same spirit, The Cheese Board doesn’t just sell amazing cheeses, but also has a bakery churning out everything from corn molasses loaves to pumpernickel bagels to chocolate cookies.
Oddly, Cheese Board pizza is almost as famous as the cheese. A daily vegetarian and organic pizza gets baked up Tuesday through Saturday, for lunch (11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.) and for dinner (4:30 p.m.-8 p.m.). Meanwhile, the experience of Cheese Board shopping can be extraordinary. Customers are encouraged to taste before buying, and the cheese clerks are always full of ideas about creating interesting pairings and combinations for cheese plates or pointing people toward new tastes. Adventurous palates are rewarded. At least a dozen types of gouda alone are usually on offer; and scores of small-batch and artisan cheeses from Northern California and beyond sit patiently, waiting to be tasted.
Cultured Pickle Shop
What is it about pickles? They’re just some veggies in a brine, altered in flavor and texture while being preserved long past their natural lifespan. But the snap and lacto-fermented goodness of a real, honest-to-goodness pickle cannot be ignored, and Cultured Pickle Shop has our number. The store would also like us to think well beyond the classic American sour dill, or even snappy, sweet bread-and-butter pickles. At any time, customers can taste around a dozen types of sauerkraut (kale kraut is amazingly good!), a handful of kimchees, scads of seasonal pickles made with fruits and vegetables beyond cucumbers, as well as sake pickles and traditional Japanese rice bran pickles. They also brew several flavors of kombucha. Actually, it seems the Cultured Pickle Shop is willing to try pickling anything at least once, as long as it’s grown locally and organically. On that last point they become remarkably rigid.
This new soda pop and candy store in the Mission is making locals bubble with excitement. Hard-to-find regional sodas, including dozens of root and birch beers, more colas than you ever dreamed of, and scads of bright, fruit-flavored sodas line the walls; stacks and barrels of candy add even more color and delight to the space. Started by the duo behind Taylor’s Tonics (their Mate Mojito is a minty caffeinated wonder), The Fizzary captures that olde-tyme laid-back feeling of a community store (there are a few stools on hand in case you feel like having a chat over your soda), and there are plans for a soda fountain and all the treats that implies for the future.
While definitely sugar-laden, there are three solidly great things about the offerings at The Fizzary. First, these sodas are almost all made with real cane sugar instead of highly processed high-fructose corn syrup. Second, the focus on small, regional bottles gives soda lovers some choice beyond the homogenized carbonated sweet drink landscape. Third, soda and candy are presented as treats at the Fizzary: Bottles are sold individually or in four-packs, and candy is sold by the piece. Nothing is super-sized or bulk-packaged. It’s a small point to some, but for those who love treats and health, the balance is an important one. Oh, and the chilling barrel, which cools off room-temperature bottles to thirst-quenching coolness in just a few minutes, isn’t just there to be fascinating; it also means most of the sodas can be kept on shelves, where they are easy to see and don’t require energy-sucking refrigeration. Brilliant.
Four Barrel Coffee
Sustainable, ethical coffee buyers agree: There is no one-size-fits-all solution to sustainable and fair-trade coffee. Different countries, regions, even farms present varied issues. Four Barrel seems to be endlessly learning (and continually educating their curious consumers) on the specifics of coffee growing around the world; and in a town full of excellent coffee on a coast that is coffee-obsessed, they still manage to stand out. Whether it’s a busy Wednesday morning or a lazy Sunday afternoon, the Four Barrel staff seems as interested in the quality of your cup as you are, and all their knowledge creates a memorable, sometimes palate-changing coffee experience. Kicking back on the high stools on Valencia street or inside the cozy wood cafe is, beyond a doubt, a new classic San Francisco experience. (Some may argue that the hours-long line for their coffee, which snakes through the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays, is its own event, but feel free to pass it up; you’ve stood in lines before.)
Monterey Fish Market
Fish is a challenge for even the most ethical eater since questions regarding the sustainability and health of seafood arise almost daily. Eat lots of fish! Fish contains mercury! Eat wild salmon! Lots of salmon labeled wild isn’t! Amid studies showing rampant mislabeling, a place like Monterey Fish Market feels like a godsend. Fish are clearly labeled, and, since the market buys them directly from fishermen with whom they have long-standing relationships, a certain level of transparency is possible. The market’s commitment to hiring people with a culinary background also means that customers get a lot of help and advice, if needed, along with their supremely fresh fish purchase. At Monterey Fish Market, not only can you get the environmental information you may want, but if your halibut tends to get a bit dry or you’ve never worked with fresh sardines before, you’ll leave with plenty of ideas on how to make the most of your seafood.
It’s a deli, a café, a dry goods store, a wine shop, and a neighborhood hangout. The new offering from the folks at Flour+Water (fabulous pizza and pasta joint around the corner) is many things to lots of people. Mainly, though, it’s a source of excellent, carefully curated cured meats and aged cheeses that are married with locally sourced ingredients—and these are their stars. But a person may need a nice Acme baguette or perhaps some crackers to go with their meats and cheeses, right? And a house-pickled carrot or cauliflower would go nicely with the pâté -of-the day, don’t you think? Perhaps a glass of wine to enjoy with your charcuterie plate on the sidewalk table (or a bottle to take home)?
Cups of coffee all morning and scads of made-to-order sandwiches at lunch may keep the place hopping, but the soul is in the cheese and meat counter. Everything in this fledgling deli may not be made in-house, but the staff sure acts like every bite and sip in the place comes directly from them. There is pride and connection in this corner spot. Just don’t tell the tourists.
Local chocolate in the United States is tricky. Unless you’re in Hawaii, you need to ship in the cacao beans. And many chocolatiers actually buy already-processed beans and flavor, manipulate, and shape the final chocolate. Since all steps of chocolate-making require skill and practice, even this is no small feat. TCHO bills itself as New American Chocolate. The company works closely with certified fair-trade growers to get good beans and to also create excellent fermentation and drying facilities at the farms, which ensure the best final quality.
Even more impressive, TCHO provides “flavor labs,” where the growers can make basic chocolate. This accomplishes two things. First, the farmers get to taste chocolate made with their beans, which is a new experience for most of them. Second, it gives the farmers and TCHO a shared vocabulary for talking chocolate, cocoa, and cacao beans. Visitors to the store get a similar experience, with chocolates presented based on their flavor profiles, not just the cocoa percentages we’ve all gotten used to. Fruity, nutty, floral, earthy, citrus: figure out your chocolate type. Then stock up and maybe take one of the free tours offered twice daily at the TCHO factory to see how they make it so tasty.