San Francisco Budget Eats

(Fish tacos, Taqueria El Zorro)

There are few things more wonderful in life than fish tacos from a California taqueria.

San Francisco bookended my 6-week holiday visit to the US. Tampa had great Cuban food and Southern barbecue, and Salinas Valley has perfected grilled meats, but the Bay area had everything I sorely missed while living in Beijing. With the recession in full swing, I spent a week trying out a wide range of cheap eats in and around San Francisco. Here are some new-to-me favorites.

(Tacos al pastor, Taqueria La Morena)

Mexican - In New York you cannot find tacos like these, except maybe if you trekked out to Jackson Heights on the 7 train at 11pm to seek out taco trucks. Most Mexican food in California isn't very Americanized, unlike in the rest of the country. These are simple hand-sized soft tortillas, piled with meat, freshly diced onions, cilantro, and (often) homemade salsas. If you fork out more than $3 for a non-seafood taco, you're paying too much.

Casa Sanchez (2778 24th Street, San Francisco) has, according to my friend Jason, some of the best salsa in the Bay area. The restaurant has a table of free chips and house brand salsas for customers; I wolfed down a healthy portion of chips along with my chicken tacos "super" style (lots of guacamole and sour cream.) Another favorite spot was Taqueria El Zorro (308 Columbus Ave at Broadway, San Francisco), which, despite its location in the trendy and touristy North Beach, serves some amazing fish and prawn tacos with just the right amount of spiciness. One night I also met up with fellow China blogger Elliott Ng (of CN Reviews and Uptake) in South San Francisco at a spot called Taqueria La Morena (307 Baden Ave, South San Francisco). We discussed the Chinese blogging community and social media over incredibly savory tacos al pastor. Well worth the trek!

(Wonton noodle soup, King's Won Ton and Noodle)

Chinese - You didn't think I would go over a month without some sort of Chinese food, do you? San Francisco has something Beijing doesn't: good and cheap Cantonese food. (You can read my rant of Beijing's Cantonese depravity here.) King's Won Ton and Noodle (1936 Irving St., between 20th and 21st Aves, San Francisco) satisfied my craving for springy wonton noodles and tightly packed shrimp and pork wontons. While eating I noticed a big bamboo pole in the corner, the kind used to tenderize handmade egg noodle dough and rarely used nowadays. The waitresses confirmed that the noodles are indeed handmade the old-fashion way, not on the premises but at a nearby location.

(Nouveau chicken 'n waffles, Gator's Neo-Soul)

Soul Food - The first time I ever had fried chicken and waffles was at the legendary Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles in L.A, an institution that became a cult favorite for both the food and the danger factor; locations are in seedy neighborhoods and windows lined with thick bars. This soul food dish was new to me, but apparently the combination of a syrupy breakfast item and greasy take-out chicken enjoyed a huge student following in L.A. My impression I was never a huge fan of ultra-thick American waffles, and the chicken, though indeed glistening with beautiful fat, seemed too dried out, perhaps a few minutes too long in the deep fryer.

Then on this trip I tried the chicken and waffles at Gator's Neo-Soul (129 South B. St., San Mateo.) The menu revolves around a Californian take on soul food, meaning dishes are lighter and reasonably portioned. And while the restaurant's dinner entrees are in the $20-$30 range, not exactly "cheap eats", brunch is a much more affordable way to try out Neo-Soul. The chicken's skin was perfectly crispy, and the thin wheat buttermilk waffle came with a mound of not-too-sweet peach cobbler butter. I also liked the barbecue shrimp, simmered in herbed butter and set around a bowl of saucy grits. It was a good amount of food, meaning I could finish my dish and not collapse into a food coma.

(In-and-Out burgers with strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla shakes.)

In-and-Out - I'm cheating, since this isn't a new discovery. I can't go to California without eating In-and-Out at least once or twice. A few years ago I experimented with the secret menu options, including the "Protein style" with lettuce in place of a bun that proved too messy to try again. Now I stick to a combo of cheeseburger, fries, and vanilla shake, classic and dependable, for just over $5.

In the unlikely event that the recession is over the next time I'm in California, In-and-Out would still be my first stop out of the airport.

California-Style Barbecue

As interesting as it is to live in China, I am on a much-needed vacation back in the U.S. Other than suffering from a nasty week-long stomach bug, I have been indulging in things I never thought I had missed about American life. Crock-Pot cooking. The Food Network. Small town social events.

The past few days I have been in the Salinas Valley, specifically, a small town called King City where Jacob (partly) grew up. Surprisingly enough, I was almost giddy to get here, because after a year of living in a city of 18 million where elbowing is a way of life, it was a huge relief to spend some time in a tiny town of wide quiet streets and two traffic lights.

I confess to having a soft spot for, even somewhat romanticizing, the Salinas Valley, ever since reading The Grapes of Wrath in high school. A sunny California for dreamers outside the movie biz. Where rugged migrants had escaped the Dust Bowl for ""America's Salad Bowl", this land of large farm swaths where much of the country's lettuce, tomatoes, artichokes, and broccoli are grown. When Jacob first told me he was from this area my first thought was, "You had Steinbeck's childhood!"

And one of the best secrets about Salinas Valley is the barbecue. Specifically, the wood-fire barbeques that is the center of social life here. When towns are surrounded by ranches, you can be sure this is not grilling on a backyard George Foreman. The style closer to the Southern-style barbecue, with a distinct Western and Latin influence that seems distinct to the Salinas area. The grills are massive, with wheel cranks to lower and raise the jumbo meat loads that are smoked with California oak. A grill's size is measured by the number of chickens you can fit on each. The one below is a "40", though there are also "80"s and "100"s.ย This is a modern grill, but Jacob remembers the ones from his childhood being made out of 50-gallon oil drums.

In King City, any occasion is an occasion for a barbecue. Birthdays, Quinceaรฑeras, weddings, or just because it's Saturday. Last year I attended a "Cowboy Supper" at the town park, during which I ate the best steak of my entire life, probably owing as much to the grill as to the fact that the cattle was just slaughtered a few hours earlier from a ranch down the street. Today we headed to a chicken barbeque fund-raiser. A one point two "100" grills and one "40" grill were at full capacity, surrounded by luscious oaky, chicken-y smoke.

According to the grill master, today's half-pieces of chicken were first marinated with a mixture of beer, vegetable oil, basil, salt, and pepper, before being grilled. They cooked an hour on the underside, then half an hour on the skin side, while being periodically basted. Foot-long sausages crisped and smoked alongside the chicken.

When chicken is smoked this long and the skin is charred this beautifully, it took little time before we were digging in. And the green chili salsa and side of baked beans didn't hurt either.