Now reading Why San Francisco is Better Than New York

Why San Francisco is Better Than New York

San Francisco is at its best when we are oblivious, blind to everything but the products and possibilities in front of us.

In our Versus issue, we pitted the City by the Bay against Gotham in a food-on-food cage match. Here, Chris Ying argues for San Francisco; see here for Peter Meehan’s argument for New York. And for more great stuff like this, subscribe to the magazine today

My choice to move to the Bay Area had nothing to do with food. I was eighteen and headed to college.

NYSF_burst-1At the end of high school, my decision had come down to NYU or Berkeley. I chose Cal, partly because I liked that it had been a rallying point for the civil rights movement, and partly because my best friend and the girl I was chasing were both going there. Frankly, I had little idea where Berkeley was, except that it was obviously in Northern California, because I lived in Southern California and had never been. I knew even less about New York. I didn’t know shit about shit.

Food meant something to me, but what exactly, I wasn’t quite sure. I knew I liked eating more than other people did. At Berkeley, after spending freshman year in the dorms, most of us lived in groups of three or four or five in big, beat-up houses within walking distance of campus. But the farther away from campus you looked, the nicer the place you could land. Four of us moved into one floor of a bright, airy Queen Anne on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. It’s less affordable these days, but in 2001, we had our own rooms, a spacious kitchen, a private yard, and parking spaces for seven hundred bucks a month each. My roommates and I shopped for produce at Berkeley Bowl, and I cooked often. I performed my first bit of woodworking in the front yard: an overly complicated but pretty picnic table where I could host dinner parties.

I gradually became aware of where I was. Berkeley wasn’t a campus of disaffected intellectuals anymore; truth be told, it was mostly Asian engineering students. But there were still pockets of the local culture that remained true to reputation. The East Bay was still the home of Chez Panisse, Bay Wolf, the Cheese Board Collective, Acme Bread, Peet’s Coffee & Tea. Berkeley Bowl was a grocery store unlike any I’d ever seen. It was minimally designed—concrete floors, exposed ventilation, laminated neon-paper signs—but I could lose myself for hours in the variety and quality of produce and bulk ingredients. The borders blurred between crunchy hippie fare and “ethnic” ingredients, EBT shoppers and well-off professors. I never really knew how much I liked shopping for groceries until I moved to the Bay Area.

I started watching a lot of Food Network. The inaugural meal on the picnic table consisted of homemade pizza (Mario Batali’s recipe), macadamia-nut-crusted halibut with asparagus and coconut sticky rice (Ming Tsai’s), and mango salsa (Bobby Flay’s). I burnt a few macadamia nuts and dropped an entire glass platter of asparagus salad, plus the mangoes were too ripe, but the dinner was a hit among my easily impressed friends. I started cooking for them as often as I could. I tried replicating the Chinese food that I’d eaten growing up, and was surprised by how much people liked my home-cooked meals, amateurish as they were. I steamed whole bass in the microwave (still a pretty good technique!), and topped it with herbs, soy sauce, and smoking hot oil as I’d seen my parents do countless times. A frequent go-to was my uncle’s ginger-scallion noodles: long threads of green onion, minced young ginger, and spaghetti-ish noodles with a thin wash of hoisin sauce. Weeknights meant stir-fries: onions stir-fried with flank steak, chicken stir-fried with asparagus. Like my dad, I added MSG to everything, in the form of a brand of seasoning called Accent.

Food—what to eat, where to get it—consumed a fairly large amount of my headspace, and I’m certain it would have been the same in New York. But I’m also fairly certain that I would never have become a cook or a cookbook writer or the editor of a food magazine if I’d moved to New York. Had I lived in New York, I imagine my aspirations would have culminated in visits to the restaurants of my TV heroes. In San Francisco, my wide-eyed goal was to cook like them. Sophomore year, I walked into a relatively new restaurant near campus and asked if I could speak with the chef about a job. The place was called Downtown. In spite of its patently terrible name—a reference to the restaurant’s proximity to the Downtown Berkeley BART station—it was a good restaurant that occasionally flirted with greatness. 

The chef, David Stevenson, had no reason to hire me. But he was a Cal alum himself, and quirky (a true softie in spite of a prickly outward bearing, I later learned). He looked at me with a skeptical frown from above his wire-rim glasses and beckoned me toward the kitchen. With a nasally voice, he asked the lead line cook, Kit, “Do we need any more people who don’t know anything?” I could tell he was enjoying the discomfort he was causing.

“No?” Kit replied. I assume she didn’t realize that I was the know-nothing he was referring to. For whatever reason, David hired me anyway.

I was a college student—soft, green, unskilled, untrained, a waste of space. But Downtown was an ideal learning kitchen. There was a raw bar, where I shucked my first thousand or so oysters; a brick oven, in which we roasted butterflied chickens and whole branzino; a grill station, where I learned to cook pork chops and New York steaks to temp; sauté 1 and sauté 2 for risottos, fish, and shellfish; and pastry in the back. I started on pantry, where my first attempt at frying fritto misto was laughable—the coating on the shrimp fell away like eczema, the calamari clumped into a mass, the fish was jerky. The sous chef, Jon, dumped it all out and walked me step by step through the process again. In three years, I rotated through every station. I made the best Caesar salad on earth (IMHO), fried untold numbers of olives stuffed with anchovies, scraped granitas, expedited service, learned how to taste wine (and drink Fernet), burned and sliced my arms (and once accidentally dropped a bandage onto a salad), fooled around with waitresses, and designed the posters for the live jazz performances on the weekends.

Would I have followed the same trajectory in New York? Would I have lived in a big house with a nice kitchen? Would a New York chef have let an enthusiastic novice walk in and start frying seafood? What I know now leads me to believe not, but that’s beside the point. In Berkeley, while I was growing into a passable line cook, I was having the same transformative revelations about ingredients, cooking, simplicity, and seasonality that Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower, and Judy Rodgers had three decades earlier. I was walking the same trails in the same woods. Downtown’s owners and managers had come from the Chez Panisse family, and the school of cooking I was enrolled in was the olive oil–soaked, Mediterranean-inspired temple to farmers that Waters had founded a few blocks north.

On the weekends, I would wander around the farmers’ market on Center Street in Berkeley, then later at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, when it reopened on the San Francisco waterfront in 2003. At Center Street, I could buy the same produce we were cooking with at the restaurant. At the Ferry Building, I saw cardoons for the first time and discovered the drippy sweetness of Frog Hollow peaches. My friends and I began to eat our way through Patricia Unterman’s San Francisco Food Lover’s Guide, and despite that book’s unrealistically optimistic portrayal of Bay Area dining, we had some memorable meals: burritos at Pancho Villa Taqueria, sugary mojitos and s’mores at Luna Park.

Don’t bother tracking down either place anymore. Pancho Villa doesn’t clock in among the seven best burritos in San Francisco, and Luna Park is sadly defunct. Unterman’s affirmative outlook synced with the never-snarky, always-positive mantra espoused at the offices of McSweeney’s and the Believer magazine, where I started working after college. It’s an outlook that frustrates the hell out of New Yorkers, who are wary of everything all the time. When New Yorkers visit San Francisco, they tend to demand superlative dining recommendations—no doubt so they can measure them with their own finely calibrated judgments—and I struggle to provide them. I get excited about places like the House of Prime Rib, because it’s an undeniably enjoyable dining experience, but I can see New Yorkers wondering if it’s really the best or the first or the most special prime rib place.

New York has better food than San Francisco. I concede. I can be a painfully belligerent person, but I’ve never liked arguing this point. It’s not that I don’t love San Francisco or eating here. It’s that I want this city to thrive, and the times we go wrong are when we start paying too much attention to the outside world: when we try to make bagels or pastrami or barbecue or Chicago-style hot dogs. San Francisco is at its miraculous best when we are oblivious, blind to everything but the products and possibilities in front of us.

Diners are savvier in New York. It’s true. I visited the city for the first time during my junior year of college. I loved dinner at Babbo and Otto, and second dinners at Gray’s Papaya and the Halal Guys. After a few more trips, I caught myself looking at San Francisco with disappointment. San Francisco is one-tenth the size of New York, with an outsized reputation that creates unmanageable expectations. (Why else would we even be comparing them now?) It can be a dirty, unloving place. Our main food critic is myopic and antiquarian in his taste. It’s easy to get discouraged about San Franciscans’ historical lack of appreciation for talented fine-dining chefs. Daniel Humm worked here before opening Eleven Madison Park in New York. We had Laurent Gras at the Fifth Floor. For a while, Jeremy Fox was making the best food in the country an hour north, in Napa. Daniel Patterson recently left his position as head chef of Coi after nearly ten years of diligently trying to communicate his love for California to a stubborn audience. He found success, but I struggle to think of a harder-won victory.

But New York is also an echo chamber. It likes its own hype. (I’m sorry, but Great N.Y. Noodletown is gross. And how is an untoasted bagel better than a toasted one?) New Yorkers anoint heroes and stand by them—I should know, I work for one of them. If I spend a week in New York, it’s possible (probable) that I’ll go the whole time without speaking to anyone who isn’t somehow involved with food. The eagerness with which New Yorkers praise their restaurants is enough to make you think that everyone in New York is eating well, but they’re not. People eat terrible food everywhere. The foodies are just noisier out there.

Naiveté is what makes SF irritating as hell (see: the lines of people all over town waiting for mediocre brunch), but it’s also the key to its greatness. In 2004, I graduated from Cal and started cooking at Foreign Cinema, a concept restaurant that opened during the first dot-com boom and somehow managed to survive the bust. I worked for about a week on a grill the size of a half sheet pan before they cut me loose. I was coming into work in the afternoons, harried and tired after my morning internship at McSweeney’s. I was slow and confused, and nobody was going to take me under their wing like they had at Downtown. On the bright side, I got to know Anthony Myint, another Foreign Cinema cook whom I’d met before but never really spent any significant time with.

In 2008, Anthony and his wife, Karen Leibowitz, started Mission Street Food: a weekly pop-up restaurant housed inside a Salvadoran antojitos truck. If New York is an echo chamber, San Francisco is a vacuum. People move to New York to be plugged into the pulsebeat of the world. San Franciscans, ironically, tend to be unplugged. None of us knew whether another cook had ever thought to sublet a roach coach and make his or her own version of street food. Anthony’s idea felt completely novel and authentic. By the time Roy Choi rolled his first Kogi Korean-taco truck onto the streets of Los Angeles, Mission Street Food was moving into a new home in a dowdy Chinese-American restaurant down the street.

That sort of blind pursuit of an idea is evident in the best San Francisco creations. Mission Street Food evolved into its celebrated successor, Mission Chinese Food, when one of the chefs, Danny Bowien, decided on a lark to attempt cooking Chinese food. Tartine Bakery makes the best bread in the country and has influenced baking around the world, largely thanks to the quiet study and practice of its owners, Chad Robertson and Liz Prueitt. Saison, now a three-Michelin-starred restaurant, began as a pop-up on the patio of a café. The chef, Joshua Skenes, placed a value on what he was doing and didn’t allow the setting to change it. Peet’s started the second wave of coffee roasting from a small storefront in Berkeley. Chez Panisse picked a fight with the food industry that we’re still engaged in. Of course innovation happens in New York as well, but it’s hard enough to be whatever you’re trying to be without the crushing yoke of also having to be New York enough for New Yorkers.

I worry sometimes that San Francisco is losing some of its kamikaze verve. Like everyone else, I wonder if the tech corridor south of the city is changing, gentrifying, diluting the city’s culture and driving up rent prices. The second coming of tech to San Francisco has so far yielded second-tier restaurant creativity: oversized sushi rolls and grilled cheese sandwich shops. I’m not sure whether to take heart in or umbrage at the San Francisco origins of services like UberEats and Caviar. I lean on them and I see everyone else using them, too. But are they representative of the sort of innovation we should come to expect from Bay Area food? I hope not.

Other questions persist. Why don’t we have better Japanese food? Why are good vegetarian restaurants such a rarity, here of all places? Why is supermarket bread so terrible in the Bay Area? How can great Chinese food be so hard to find in San Francisco? Can this city really support any more Italian restaurants? I ask out of love.

New York and San Francisco have this in common: when you eat at the restaurants in either city, you know where you are. At Del Posto, Keens, Sammy’s Roumanian, Barney Greengrass, you can’t be anywhere but New York. The allure of visiting those restaurants is how close they make you feel to the city. The same can be said for the counter at Swan Oyster Depot, Dolores Park (with sandwiches from Bi-Rite or Tartine), a taqueria in the Mission at night, or a window seat at Zuni Café. The difference—and this could just be me—is how much closer you feel to the food here.