San Francisco, California, USA
27.04.2005 - 28.04.2005
The Big Boss Man called me into his office. The room was dark, and smelled slightly musty, like a grandparents’ bedroom. The Big Boss Man sat behind his massive oak desk, overflowing with important papers. He leaned forward, his leather chair… Nay, given its size and grandeur it would be better to call it his throne. His throne creaking as his hunched form moved towards me. He raised a bony finger and pointed it at me.
“Peon,” he said, as he was wont to call me, “we need you to go to San Francisco.”
“I can do that,” I replied.
I would be working at a client’s office close to SBC Park where the San Francisco Giants play. The client’s office is just down the street from the site of Jack London’s birth, and is located in a building that used to be the offices of Rolling Stone Magazine. Not much still exists of Rolling Stone in the offices, but one of the conference rooms is called “The Hunter S. Thompson Room.”
“Get yourself a plane ticket, but keep it under $750 US,” he said. I had to strain to hear his raspy voice, which was barely a breath given his advanced age.
“What if I find a ticket for $350?” I asked.
“Then you have saved the company some money,” the Big Boss Man replied. Not much incentive for me to find a good deal there. So I booked myself Air Canada direct to San Francisco to collect the Aeroplan miles.
“Get yourself a hotel, and keep it under $250 a night!” he said, in a voice that walked a line between the voice a judge would use in scolding a criminal and the voice a teacher would use in talking to an extremely stupid child.
“What if I find a place that’s only $100 a night?” I asked.
“Then you save the company some money,” he said. Again, not much incentive for me to find a cheap hotel, so the Courtyard Marriott on 2nd at Folsom was where I chose to stay. For $159 a night, I got the 17th floor looking east towards the Bay Bridge. At night, I could lie in bed and see both the TV and the bridge illuminated like a Christmas tree.
“Finally, Greg, you get $51 dollars a day for food.”
“What if I spend less than that?” I asked.
“Then you get to keep the rest,” the Big Boss Man replied. Now that is an incentive to find good food deals. I could eat fast food every meal, but I craved some taste! So, how do you eat cheap in San Francisco?
There are three main strategies to eating cheaply. The first is to avoid restaurants and purchase all your food at the grocery store. This is a good plan if one has a fridge, and hopefully a microwave in their hotel room. I, however, had neither. So another strategy would need to be employed.
The second strategy is to eat at the cheap places you know, specifically, the fast food joints. Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Subway – all are close to the hotel and easy to find. But fast food tends to be bland and the environments in the restaurants built to be familiar and safe. But I wanted to experience the flavor of San Francisco – both in my food and in the environment I was in.
So I employed the last strategy, which is to find the cheap local places and eat there. But how does one find the cheap but good local places to eat?
One way is to ask the locals where they eat. Based on the recommendations of the local San Franciscans from the client, I was directed to a couple of places.
I had a decent lunch at Koh Samui & the Monkey, 415 Brannan Street (Brannan and 4th Street) – The “quick Thai lunch” was $10.50, providing you with an appetizer (I had the spring rolls) and a curry dish (I had the yellow chicken curry). (website: www.kohsamuiandthemonkey.com)
For Dinner, the recommendation was Mistral in the Ferry Building at Market and Embarcadero. Mistral is a French rotisserie place. For $8.50 one is provided with ½ chicken with 2 sides. I took my meal outside to the walkway behind the Ferry Building and watch the ferries dock while eating. (www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com).
The final recommendation was for Victor’s at 210 Townsend Street by SBC Park. I had the Chicken Mole Super Burrito for $5.75. A massive burrito stuffed with chicken, rice, lettuce, guacamole, sour cream and cheese. The burrito includes a handful of nacho chips. I grabbed my meal to go, but Victor’s has a nice patio and is a popular pre-game hangout.
The second way to find places to eat is to just wander around and find places. My first morning, I stumbled across the Eden Plaza Café (2nd and Harrison Streets). $2.50 gets you a breakfast sandwich with 1 scrambled egg, sausage or bacon and cheese on an English muffin. The friendly woman working the counter is likely to call you “sweetie” and “darling,” even if she doesn’t know you. She did know many of the customers, though, which is a great sign for a restaurant. Repeat customers mean that the place must be good, and is always an indication to a traveler that the meal you are about to get is good.
Walking to work, still licking my fingers after my breakfast sandwich, I came across a surprising sight: a New York City police car, a couple NYC Taxi cabs and a NYC transit bus. Apparently, Director Chris Columbus was in town filming the movie Rent, based on the Broadway musical of the same name. The crew had transformed a block of 3rd Street into a dirty New York block, including casting a local diner as a NYC greasy spoon.
The next morning the film crew had cleared, but the diner still remained and still looked greasy. The HRD Coffee Shop (521 3rd Street at Bryant) provided me an omelet, hashbrowns, toast and diet coke for under $5.00. I sat at the counter facing out to the street, and watched policemen and constructions workers come in for a blue-collar breakfast.
Just a block from the office I found The Brickhouse Café (426 Brannan Street). Looking at the menu, I saw an 8 oz. three cheeseburger for $9.75 including fries or a Salad. I choose the fries, added a Diet Coke and with taxes, the bill came to $12.21. That’s not bad compared to a similar meal at McDonald’s. The Burger was excellent but the fries were middling. I should have gotten a salad. Service was not quick; it took about 15-20 minutes to fulfill the order. However, the burger was worth the wait.
Another great way to find places to eat is to check out the free paper. Most cities have at least one free newspaper that gives restaurant listings by area. In San Francisco, I checked out the San Francisco Bay Guardian. The SFBG (www.sfbg.com) had a listing for The Thirsty Bear Brewing Co., full of “Young work-hard, play-hard types from the Financial District and Multimedia Gulch” who have “made this brick-walled brew pub their own, knocking back pints of ale and nibbling their way through a great selection of Spanish tapas.” Sounded like my kind of place, but then I saw the listing for Big Nate's Barbecue, which is said to be “pretty stark inside – mostly linoleum arranged around a pair of massive brick ovens.” Not exactly the decor that inspires, but apparently “the hot sauce will make you sneeze.” How could I resist that?
The walk to Big Nate’s passed me through most of the area of San Francisco called SOMA (South of Market Street). SOMA is a neighborhood in transition (some would probably call it gentrification), a place full of industrial shops situated beside trendy restaurants and bars. Porn shops sit a few doors from high-end kitchenware stores. The closed doors of local nightclubs and Mercedes Benz dealerships provide shelter for homeless people. “Old industries” like metal workers and car repair shops sit beside “New Industries” like film production and software development.
Eventually I came to the mainly unadorned entrance for Big Nate’s and went in.
Big Nate’s is named after Nate Thurmond, former NBA Hall of Famer for the Golden State Warriors. And fitting for an NBA player’s joint, the portions are amazingly large. My Pork Ribs Dinner came with 6 pork ribs, but not off any normal sized pig. These were jumbo ribs – like Fred Flintstone would be served. Big Nate’s doesn’t bother with fluff either – dinner is mainly meat. You get two small portions of potato salad and cole slaw, all that for only $13.95. Even with a beer, tax and tip, the bill is under $20.
So ended my culinary adventure in the Soma district of San Francisco. I mainly kept my daily food purchases under $30 a day, meaning a good $21 a day (US) making it’s way into my pocket. $21 a day for 4 days means that I made $84 for doing nothing more than eating good food in local restaurants. Sometimes I think I have the best job in the world.
P.S. I know that the United States of America has its problems, but in some ways it is still the greatest country in the world. After all, I know of no other place in the world where one can purchase Diet Vanilla Cherry Dr. Pepper. Only in America can one find and truly appreciate the excess of having the tastes of Cherry, Vanilla and whatever it is that Dr. Pepper tastes like all melding into your mouth at one moment. And, do it all on a diet! God Bless you, America, from Diet Soda to Shining Diet Soda!