A few years ago, on a whim, a fellow 18th Street dweller and I decided to truly take advantage of our fair avenue with a comestible combination that just makes sense. The vaguest of rules were ascribed. We would consume something at Tartine, Bi-Rite Creamery, and Delfina Pizzeria in the same go: no leaving that sublime stretch between Dolores and Guerrero, no excessive time taken in between establishments. We could nosh in any order and sample anything on offer, but ultimately have a hearty bite at each. Gougère, broccoli raab za, and a scoop of coffee toffee? Yup. Sam’s Sundae, calzone, and a lemon cream tart? Right on. Anything goes. Everybody wins.
And thus, the trifecta was born.
San Francisco is very good to its food-loving denizens, and I wanted to show my mutual appreciation by, well, eating. A lot. Equipped with a seemingly above-average enthusiasm – and capacity –for epic mealtimes, I set out to uncover other notable triumvirates around the city, where the proximity of three delicious options is just too tough to resist.
The Bernal: Paulie’s Pickling, Deli Pub, Liberty Café
Recommended: Friday afternoon nosh time, party of two
Biking up the not-entirely-gentle grade of Cortland to the heart of Bernal Heights is a good way to get the blood pumping and palate ready for action. Our first stop is the 331 Cortland Marketplace, where a rotating collection of vendors – selling everything from empanadas to knives to sushi rolls since opening a year and a half ago – share a single storefront on the neighborhood’s main drag. Paulie’s Pickling makes all its products on the premises, and we choose two of its signatures: dill and garlic. When we get outside and unwrap the white paper, there are actual sprigs of fresh dill and coarsely diced garlic sticking to the glistening cured cucumbers. The cukes are crisp and juicy and somehow, despite the vinegar, flat-out refreshing. My accomplice, an avowed pickle aficionado who has made pilgrimages in search of The One, firmly declares it the best he has ever had. Washed down with a strawberry lemonade soda – made with real fruit and a simple syrup by fellow marketplace-r Spice Hound, and fizzed on the spot – and we’re already on a roll.
Deli Pub is just a few doors down. It would be easy to pass this place by from the street, with its faded maroon awning and chipped paint on the large plate glass windows. Stepping through the Dutch door, however, is like entering another world. Massive potted plants spring forth from nearly every corner, obscuring a mishmash of mismatched furniture and well-worn wooden banquettes, while KCSM’s über-cool jazz selections set the mood. “What’s best here?” I ask the lone, dark-haired man behind the counter, who I later find out has been running the joint for 24 years. “Heh heh heh,” he says. Long pause. Smile. “Everything.” My pal and I split a turkey sandwich and a pastrami sandwich, both toasted to perfection and both equally delicious. After paying up front, we unexpectedly spend the next 20 minutes sampling off-the-menu delights: habanero-infused peanuts fried in olive oil and kept in a glass jar above the cappuccino machine so they’re always warm, serrano peppers and roasted garlic served with toothpicks out of milk-glass teacups that Imad – the proprietor – keeps to snack on as the day goes by. The effect of this place is almost psychedelic, and we leave with sweat beading at our temples and John Coltrane still freestyling through our heads.
It’s time for something sweet, and Liberty Café is just down the block. We walk straight down the side of the building and through the courtyard to the bakery in back. Bernal is idyllic, but it’s somehow even more peaceful staring out through the picture window on a sunny day, popping bites of a banana-chocolate muffin and a morning bun.
The Bacon: St. Francis Fountain, Dynamo Donuts, Pop’s
Recommended: Sunday afternoon nosh time, party of four
The Bacon is a test of wills: three rounds against three 24th Street establishments that straddle York and specialize in pork-punctuated delicacies. Sensing that an empty stomach was the best way to approach this trifecta, I refrained from snacking in the a.m. My accomplice gave in to temptation, but kept it light. “I was hungry this morning," he explained. "But I ate some vegan-ass-birdseed-bullshit because I knew what was coming.” We are going hog wild.
There is a wait at St. Francis. There always is at St. Francis. Although we’ll begin our eating at Dynamo, we put ourselves down on the waitlist first thing.
Dynamo makes its Bacon Maple Apple donuts daily but often sells out by the afternoon, so we’re taking a chance cruising up at almost 2 p.m. Fortune favors us, and we each walk away with a donie of our own, a rich and delicate balance of sweet and savory, which we nibble on while willing our name to be called outside of the diner.
There are actually a myriad of vegan options at St. Francis, which has been serving San Franciscans since 1918, but for every meatless option there’s a meat-full one that will truly clog the hell out of your insides. We ordered two of these specialties: the Chef’s Mess, a literal pile of scrambled eggs, homefries, mushrooms, green onions, tomatoes, sour cream, and, of course, bacon, and the hogcakes, a mixture of cheese, scallions, and bacon bound with pancake batter. No extra plates are needed to share, just a fork in hand and the guts to go for it. Syrup will help. Coffee is a good idea. Don’t forget to breathe.
Across the street, the air is heavy upon crossing the threshold of Pop’s and it’s instantly clear why. There’s a sizzling, steaming, bacon-making George Foreman grill at the end of the bar. “It gets the Saturday night funk outta here,” says the bartender, although I would argue it creates a similarly powerful competing funk and the two unite to create an unstoppable mega-funk that must be simply submitted to. A five-dollar bill will buy you a pint glass filled to the brim with a flawlessly kicky vodka and tomato juice concoction topped off with the following: two green olives, two green beans, a spear of pickled asparagus, a gherkin, two squares of cheddar-jack cheese, and a thick strip of bacon. YES. LITERALLY. These bloodies aren’t for the faint of heart.
The Outer Richmond: Moscow & Tbilisi Bakery, Kappou Gomi, Joe’s Ice Cream
Recommended: Saturday night nosh time, party of three
A proposition to Merriam-Webster: Delete what currently exists under the entry for “piroshki” and replace it with the words “Moscow & Tbilisi Bakery Store.” Good lord. The decades-old Outer Richmond haunt has a lot to offer – poppy-seed rolls, cheese blintzes, challah, and cakes – but you’d be doing yourself a disservice by not ordering one of their doughy pockets of goodness. By the time we’ve turned around and walked the three feet to a small round table, the brown paper bags holding our two treasures – one potato, one cabbage – are almost completely soaked. Grease is good, and these babies are fried, deep. And there, sitting beneath the sharp fluorescent lighting complemented by the hum of the soda fridge and bakery cases, we dig in.
Nearly next door is Kappou Gomi. The small Japanese eatery is like the restaurant version of a day spa: dim lights, calm music, even warm washcloths before the meal begins. We order the New York shabu-shabu and ramen for three. The waitress brings a plate of fresh vegetables and accouterment (enoki and shitake mushrooms, carrots, daikon, tofu) and lays it gently in the oversized ceramic pot of boiling water at our table. It begins to steam as the fresh vegetables slowly cook and sink beneath the surface, and we take turns adding the almost impossibly thin slices of beef which cook within seconds. When we’re finished serving ourselves, the equally satisfying ramen comes out in an equally large bowl, and in the end it’s all we can do to finish our Sapporos. But wait. There’s more.
A quick jaunt over to 19th Avenue will take you to Joe’s, a creamery and grill that has been in the neighborhood since 1959. We’re back to bright lights, and quite a bit more energy, families, and kids. We go for a Joe’s-It, this classic SF establishment’s take on that other SF icon. Two thin, knobbly, house-made oatmeal cookies flank a scoop of smooth vanilla, with a layer of chocolate coating the whole damn thing. We slice up our It evenly, making an easy, muss-free end to a delicious three-part meal.
The glory of the trifecta is its versatility. You could go to any and all of these places, in a different order, ordering entirely different things, and create a mind-blowing new trio-to-be-reckoned-with. Some additional trifectas to try:
Outer Sunset: Turkey Sandwich at Outerlands, cinnamon-sugar toast at Trouble, Siberian chaga mushroom tea at Judahlicious
Hayes Valley: Chocolate sables at Miette, a Gibraltar at Blue Bottle, and a scoop of TCHO chocolate ice cream in a pizzelle cone at Smitten
If you find a particularly perfect trio, tweet it with an #sftrifecta hashtag so others can give it a go!