Like many San Franciscans, I enjoy nothing better than a big dinner party with friends.
This means shopping farmers’ markets in a quest for seasonal produce and spending hours poring over recipes and pushing myself to try something new.
And when I travel to other countries, I relish checking out the markets since this is a chance to learn about a culture through its food – either the culinary customs of a place or the local delicacies that are unique and telling. And then I return home inspired and try my best to replicate my favorite meals, searching for that special fruit, sauce, or yogurt that isn’t found in a typical American market.
So it’s no surprise that I’m into theme dinners and ethnic cuisine. True, there are still some ingredients that are tough to find – this is what adventuring outside our borders is all about! But I love the hunt through a great ethnic market, and during my many years living in San Francisco, I’ve come to recognize a few true gems.
My friends know me best for my Mexican dinners where I serve carnitas (slow roasted pork) with an array of salsas and a simple but spicy guacamole. Essential to one of these meals are the authentic ingredients: fresh tortillas from La Palma Mexicatessen and produce from Casa Lucas Market on 24th Street in the Mission.
According to Ayte, an employee at Casa Lucas, the market has been owned by Febronio Felix for 30 years now and most of the employees hail from different parts of Latin America. Casa Lucas takes special orders, but you can typically find close to 50 different kinds of salsas, a wall of tortillas, tamarind chocolates and sweets, and an assortment of cakes and breads.
This is where I go if I’m looking for bargain herbs and spices, a steamer for my tamales, a pan for paella, or a terracotta pot for my pinto beans. Casa Lucas sells hilarious piñatas, caramel corn, and sundries from Latin American countries. But crucial to any Mexican meal is the fresh produce – the fiery peppers, tomatillos, tiny Mexican limes, fresh cilantro, crisp white onions, ruby red Roma tomatoes, as well as goods like crema and queso . And Casa Lucas is one of the few places in the city to find spicy chorizo Española . Olé!
Recently, I veered toward another Latin cuisine and made a meal reminiscent of the summer I spent in Rome when I was in college. For this, I invited a few friends over for a batch of my favorite pasta, bucatini all’amatriciana, with its red sauce that includes accents of bacon and red pepper. Though it doesn’t carry fresh produce, Lucca Ravioli Company on Valencia does have all the accoutrements, including the essential guanciale (thickly sliced Italian bacon) and hard-to-find Maestri Pastai’s bucatini pasta.
Entering Lucca is like stepping into a part of San Francisco history. Owned and operated by three generations of the same San Franciscan family, Lucca has been importing specialties from Italy since 1925. Lucca’s manager also proudly told me they’re a union shop and he’s been working at the store for 16 years.
Lucca is definitely old-school Italian – it’s not precious or foodie; it’s just good. The pastas and sauces are made fresh, and select Italian beverages are offered, including Campari liqueur and aranciata and limonata San Pellegrino sodas. Lucca also has Italian beans, quince paste, pizza dough, and a selection of cheeses, including pecorino Romano, Parmesan, and Gorgonzola. You’ll find baccalà – dried salt cod – and marinated veggies, olives, as well as a variety of imported Italian meats, like prosciutto di Parma .
And there’s a happy crew of handsome guys behind the counter who appear to have an encyclopedic knowledge about everything Italian. The best espresso in Italy? They know. How to prepare that baccalà? They’ll tell you. And they know how to make a mean deli sandwich, too.
This last spring, I got away from the Latins and went East – far East! – trying out a Korean pork roast recipe I found in the Momofuku cookbook. For this meal, I shopped at my favorite Korean grocery, First Korean Market on Geary.
The owners Mr. and Mrs. Lee are from Seoul, Korea. Seven years ago they immigrated to San Francisco and bought the market from its original owners. The store itself has been around for 20 years and all the fresh packaged items – including all the pickled bok choy that comprises Korea’s national dish, kimchee , the seaweed rice rolls stuffed with pickled daikon and fried egg called kimbap , and the marinated meats ready for barbecuing – are made fresh by Mrs. Lim who’s been with the store for its entire 20-year history.
Due to timing, I couldn’t cook all of the banchan (the lovely side dishes traditionally served with a Korean meal) for my feast, so I bought Mrs. Lim’s premade banchan from First Korean Market’s selection – it usually has at least a dozen available to go.
Through YouTube videos on Korean food (dork alert!) and my patient Korean friends, I’ve learned about all the seasoning – dried mushrooms and fish – that is crucial to a rich broth for soon doo boo jjigae (silken tofu stew). I’ve been schooled on the many red pepper paste ( gochujang ) options available for broth seasoning or as a garnish to a barbecued meat. And First Korean offers all the proper fixings for a Korean meal, including fresh vegetables, some harder to find tofus, an entire aisle of rice, huge bags of barley tea, jugs of Korean soy sauce, and a selection of Korean beer and rice wine. There may be larger Korean markets in other parts of the Bay, but I love this market for its convenience and how sweet and friendly Mrs. Lee is whenever I stop in.
For my birthday dinner this past spring, I pulled together a “Communist (dinner) Party.” The kitschy menu included veggie borscht, piroshkis , Moscow mules, and the added bonus of friends dressed as rugged Bolshevik comrades. It was yet another chance to adventure into new territory.
And in this case, I learned about my own Ukrainian heritage – digging deep into the food, drink, and customs of the motherland. For the fixings, I discovered New World Market in the Outer Richmond, a store offering foods from in and around the former U.S.S.R.
New World is owned by Mikhail and Nonna Sukhovitsky who immigrated to the United States in 1978 from Kharkiv, Ukraine. Nonna explains that New World started as a little shop on Balboa St. The Sukhovitskys moved to their current location 12 years ago and began manufacturing their own smoked meats and fish. They have a Georgian chef who makes dishes from Ukraine, Moldova, Russia, Georgia, and Uzbekistan, and they cater and take customer requests. Nonna sagely tells me their goal is to bring “old flavor to the new world.”
As I walk around the market, I notice that behind the register are blinis, fresh piroshkis with mushroom and meat fillings, and other handmade dumplings. But it’s within the deli cases that things get truly inspirational – there’s beet salad garnished with dill, pickled watermelon, baked apples, kebabs, and a wild variety of cold cuts, including jellied veal tongue, blood sausage, and Buzhenina and Mongolian sausages. Of course, there are also familiar names, like “bologna” and “salami” and plenty of samples.
Mikhail finds me taking photos of cases filled with pickled tomatoes, pre-packaged borscht, and a variety of Eastern European beers. He suggests I see where they manufacture their smoked meats. In the basement he opens a pristine stainless steel door; inside I find row upon row of meats: liverwurst, salamis, sausages, and bolognas. Mikhail is passionate about this little in-house factory and he tells me that preservatives aren’t used. “All natural,” he says, offering me a slice of a chicken sausage to taste.
At the end of my visit, I ask Mikhail if he misses Ukraine. He shakes his head no. Most of his family immigrated to the United States with him. And the food? When he lived there, he says, the food wasn’t so good – it was a communist country and there wasn’t much variety.
“And San Francisco?” I ask.
Mikhail smiles and it’s a smile that lights his entire face. “I love it here,” he says quietly. “My life is good,” he nods. “San Francisco is a wonderful place.”
San Francisco has a bevy of wonderful ethnic grocery stores that reflect our diverse population and the interest of our many food lovers. Visit them for the adventure and inspiration, and make your own feast. And if you have a favorite discovery, point us in that direction in the comments below.