Every time I open an oyster I feel like an otter smacking an abalone against its rigid chest. It’s animalistic dining, and I’m willing to risk personal injury to partake of the carnal meat inside. I have more than a few scars from slipped knives and rough barnacles, not to mention an unhealthy amount of shell shards in my stomach due to my own poor shucking skills.
It was at Hog Island in the town of Marshall that I first fell in love with oysters and learned, painfully, to shuck them myself. It was also at Hog Island that I found out that the only thing I knew about oysters was a lie.
I almost stabbed myself when the guy in yellow waders told me that it’s not true that oysters are always tasty during months with an "R" in them. He explained that in fact oysters are best during the cold months. Otherwise when the water’s too warm, such as in September and October, the oysters are spawning. Said oysters are gross, bloated, slimy, and even more disgustingly – “creamy.”
Luckily, the winter months of January and February are great times to enjoy oysters. So, within this perfect window, I set out to find San Francisco’s best oysters and the most interesting ways to eat them.
I don’t know how I managed to live in San Francisco this long without going to Swan Oyster Depot. After a single visit, I’m adding it to the top of my list of places to take out of town guests. This little hole in the wall on Polk Street in Nob Hill has been in business since 1912 and has a justifiably zealous following.
Even at 2:45 in the afternoon, there’s a lunch line, but everyone waits patiently for a seat at the long bar. It helps that Steve, the owner, brings us pints of Anchor Steam while we wait. Steve’s been running the joint for decades and he has the kind of smile and light in his eyes that comes from doing something you really love for a living. His dad ran the place back in the day, and in a few years, his kids will take over.
After about 15 minutes I score a seat right in front of the weighing scale and next to the communal oyster cracker bowl. In between measuring pounds of crab meat, Steve greets the regulars who come in. Maude has been coming here for 45 years, since she was a neighborhood kid in knee-socks, carrying her mom’s seafood list. She’s known Steve and his brother since they were “this high,” she says, gesturing about counter height.
Swan’s oysters ($2 each) come only one way – on the half shell – but you get your choice of sauces. There’s a spicy one filled with habaneras and serfanos and a mignonette with wine, onion, and cracked pepper. I love them both and apprehensively ask Steve if he’ll share the one of his recipes (below), thinking there’s no way in hell he’ll give it out. But instead, he smiles and says, “Of course we will, we have no secrets here,” and sends me to his son, who has the same large shoulders and smile as his dad.
After an afternoon hanging with Steve and his family, eating fresh oysters, and drinking ice-cold pints of Anchor Steam, I feel like I’m on way to being a regular like Maude.
I belly up to the bar at Hog and Rocks across town in the Mission. It’s 7 pm on a rainy night and the place is relatively empty. The staff are watching the basketball game, cutting lemon wedges, and talking to the after-work patrons who are hanging raincoats on the hooks beneath the large wooden bar. I ask the bartender if it’s happy hour and he says that they “consider every hour happy hour,” and at $2 for west coast oysters and $3 for east, their regular prices are still cheaper than a lot of other spots.
Hog and Rocks offers fresh oysters daily, shipping them in from as close as Tomales Bay and as far away as Nova Scotia. I order a few local Marin Miyagis and some Phantom Creeks from New England, and ask the most important question – what’s best to drink with oysters? The bartender doesn’t even pause and gives me a generous pour of sparkling rosé.
There’s nothing fancy about Hog and Rocks’ oysters on the half shell, which is what I like about them. They use a light vinegar-based dipping sauce and some lemon, all served on a bed of crushed ice. As I’m sucking down the last of the Miyagis, the owner pulls up a stool beside me.
Scott Youkilis owns this joint as well as Maverick, which he says has a mean oyster Po’ Boy Sandwich. He’s a good-looking guy in his 30s – dressed in jeans, a button-down shirt, and a Patagonia jacket. Scott knows a lot about oysters and he gladly talks shop about farming, flavor, and the glory that is modern refrigeration and FedEx. He asks if I’ve tried their barbequed oysters, and points to a chalkboard behind me.
The barbequed oysters (4 for $10) arrive a few minutes later, just in time for a refill on the rosé. Compared to the naked half-shell ones, these babies are in full costume – adorned with tomato sauce and smoked shallots. Barbequed oysters don’t slide down as easily as their raw counterparts, but they’re equally tasty and make me feel warm and well fed on this drizzly night.
It’s easy to walk past Anchor Bar on Castro Street and not even notice it. The place is barely larger than Hot Cookie and doesn’t have the fluorescent lighting or half-naked photos of male sugar-addicts to get your attention.
With only five tables and seven barstools, I’d heard the wait could be epic, but on this Sunday evening, we stroll right in. We settle into a table between a guy reading the newspaper and keeping a stern eye on anyone who leaves the door open, and two older couples out for a double date. The men are wearing cravats and the women glittery sweaters, and with Anchor’s mirrored walls, it feels like Palm Springs.
I don’t normally think of the Castro as being great for seafood, but Anchor dispels that assumption pretty quickly. They’re a Michelin-rated restaurant and, as their shirts boast, have been in business for “32 Shucking Years.” Anchor serves oysters on the half shell with cocktail sauce and a dollop of horseradish. But I was more drawn to the “oyster shooters” that the old Hollywood-style signs advertised.
The waiter brings me my virgin oyster shooter ($2.50) – it’s like a Bloody Mary, complete with spicy tomato juice, a celery stalk, pepper kernels, and at the bottom, a sweet-water oyster just waiting to be swallowed. They also have sojou ones ($7.50), but I worry that will make me want a real Bloody Mary too much.
“What’s the best way to do this?” I ask, looking dumfounded at the opaque thin glass and wondering how to both drink and eat the shooter. “Any way you want, darling, there’s no wrong way,” says the waiter. I consider chugging the whole thing, but it’s more than 12 ounces and seems difficult. Plus, with the fancy older couples sitting beside us, I’m on my best behavior. In the end, I settle on sipping the spicy juice until I can see the oyster, and then swallowing it in one gulp.
After two weeks of sampling oysters at local joints, I decide it’s time to put on a rubber glove, grab a knife, and shuck some oysters myself. I head to Sun Fat Seafood Company in the Mission for some fresh Marin Miyagis and Kumamotos (.85 and $1.25) and take them home. Even after a week of eating oysters, I still want more... even if it means more cuts on my hands and shards in my stomach.
Want to have your own shucking good time? Eat some barbequed oysters at Hog and Rocks, drink an oyster shooter at Anchor Bar, or belly up to the historic Swan Oyster Depot for some oysters on the half shell. Would you rather prepare them at home? Sun Fat Seafood Company sells fresh oysters for cheap.
Here are the recipes for Swan Oyster Depot's Dipping Sauces for further do-it-yourself inspiration (thank you, Steve).
8 oz of Rice Wine
1 small red onion, diced fine
Small handful of cilantro
Pour into a small bowl and drizzle onto fresh oysters
2 habaneros, 2 serrannos
Juice of 6 limes
A few green onions
A handful of cilantro, diced fine
1 tsp of sugar
3 ounces of fish sauce
Blend it all together and dip cautiously