My own 82-year-old grandmother, who has lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, nearly her entire life, recently ate her first bagel and was amazed to eat something – in her words – “so different.” Lucky for us, our City by the Bay’s history is steeped in outlaws and explorers, and that sensibility is alive in our willingness to eat anything, in every possible combination (hangtown fry, anyone?). San Francisco’s history, geography, and numerous diasporas honoring every diet and allergy, along with our obsession for “the good life,” result in a city of never-ending exploration in eating.
I founded the SF Food Adventure Club after dinner with a group of food-obsessed friends during which we constructed a three-page list of foods we want to eat before we die. In August 2009, I organized our first adventure and issued badges to the friends and strangers who showed up to eat durian fruit. Fifteen adventures later, we’ve made headway: ostrich eggs, human placenta, pulled pork made from jackfruit, and accusations of being “a bunch of hipster cannibals.” Check. Live octopus, roasted guinea pig, and putrefied shark meat. Not yet, but 2012 has just begun.
Here are 10 of my favorite food adventures:
Artist Monica Martinez created the edible insect street-food project Don Bugito with the La Cocina kitchen incubator program. Using both pre-Columbian and contemporary Mexican cuisine, Monica makes a strong case for entomophagy (insect eating) as a viable and tasty meat alternative. Last October, Monica led an incredible insect-based dinner at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin. The beautiful and toothsome multicourse meal included mezcal with worm salt; buttery ant larvae with zucchini, avocado, and a blue corn tortilla; roasted cricket salad with jicama, sweet potato, and pumpkin seeds; an incredible corn custard fringed with wax moth larvae; and a crispy toffee mealworm ice cream sundae. The feast got me and another club member hooked on chapulines (roasted grasshoppers.)
Where to get it: Don Bugito pops up at street food festivals and food-arts events around the Bay.
A popular Southeast Asian street snack, balut is a duck embryo, aged 17–21 days, boiled for eight minutes and eaten directly from the shell, sometimes seasoned with an acid (lime juice or vinegar) or simply salt and pepper. The chick inside the shell is formed enough to have a beak, the beginning of feathers, and pliable, undeveloped bones. You crack open the top of the shell, sip out the liquid surrounding the duck embryo and then eat the duck itself. Depending on the age of the embryo, you eat the yolk too. The still-forming feathers prick the tongue, but quickly soften into a sort of warm duck budino. Ditto with the bones, which are not yet boney, and the tiny, tiny beak. Balut is so tender, it’s as if the embryo were sculpted out of duck fat. All nine members of the Food Adventure Club loved balut during our egg-themed event. Regardless of its infancy, duck is delicious and I will always say yes to it.
Where to get it: Pacific Supermarket, 2900 Alemany Blvd.; $4 for a 6-pack of raw balut
Native to regions in Southeast Asia, durian weighs about two to seven pounds, and is as notable for its creamy, pulpy flesh and thorny exterior as for its public transportation ban in Singapore. Some liken the smell of durian to cooked onions covered in rotten strawberries. Connoisseurs think it’s more akin to a sweet almond custard. Durian is eaten raw and also used to flavor ice cream, candy, cakes, shakes, and other desserts. Our club members – all first-time durian eaters – agreed that its reputation for a rotten but intriguing smell was well-deserved. We actually filmed ourselves eating the durian, this being our first official adventure, and caught the honest reactions for all posterity. One curious member went in for a second helping but hasn’t touched durian since.
Where to get it: City Super, 1108 Stockton St.; $1.49/lb.
The kind, intelligent folks at Mission Chinese Food think up exciting dishes that we, the hungry public, couldn’t come up with ourselves. Reading the MCF menu is always an adventure: fascinating ingredients, innovative use of bitterness that really pushes my tolerance, and fun twists on traditional dishes. I would walk a hundred miles to have my mouth scorched by Kung Pao Pastrami, made with “explosive chili,” tender brined beef, celery, potato, and roasted peanuts. I also appreciate the sort of shabby, worn interior incongruently paired with excellent hip-hop, and that MCF is not putting money into décor and setting, but into ingredients, staff pay, and the San Francisco Food Bank ($.75 from each entrée is donated).
Where to get it: Mission Chinese Food, 2234 Mission St.; $3–$13.
Named after a monthly underground Parisian vegetarian restaurant, Queer Food for Love creates multicourse vegan feasts around a particular theme and serves it in a highly curated environment that includes film installation, live music and DJs, visual art, and thematic repurposed trash décor by the QFFL Craft Committee. Most recently, QFFL created a menu in honor of Jonathan Katz, visiting curator at the National Queer Arts Festival, which included Pop Art Pop Tarts (featuring Pop Rocks), Robert Rauschenbergers, and Allen Ginsbutter & Jelly. I’m one of a legion of fans who hopes QFFL food artist Yasmin Golan will open her own restaurant. Many Food Adventure club members volunteer at QFFL feasts; it’s a delicious way to be involved in this food-arts community.
Where to get it: Queer Food for Love is a pop-up food experience, $20/ticket. Look for its Halloween feast in October 2012.
The Food Adventure Club’s third adventure was supposed to be a Lebanese sheep brain omelet that adventure leader Rebekah’s grandmother used to prepare. Rebekah couldn’t find a butcher who would sell only the brains; they insisted that legally they must sell the entire head. Lacking a hacksaw, butchering skills, and the stomach to do the dirty work, she decided to take club members to El Tonayense’s food truck and get brain tacos. Upon eating the tacos, all four participating members had various gagging responses to the mouthfeel of brains. I love tacos with cabeza (beef head), a wonderful beefy filling more pliable than carne asada, but – to me – tacos de sesos (beef brains) are precisely what you imagine: unappealingly chewy and zombie-like. Still, it's worth trying; you might like it.
Where to get it: Various taco trucks and taquerias, including Taqueria Vallarta, 3033 24th St.; $1.75/taco.
It’s fitting that Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern names Incanto in Noe Valley as one of his favorite restaurants in the country. If you’re not already an offal fan, you’ll find munching on duck innards in a confit of duck heart, liver, and gizzards bizarre. Chris Cosentino, chef at this meat-obsessed restaurant loves organs, entrails, and sweetbreads, and showing eaters the magical and delicious ideas made possible with the oft-discarded butchered parts. On a recent visit, I ordered the calf's liver and kidneys. I enjoyed the latter, which are cooked more well done and gave me an umami-ish thrill. The liver, at first glance, looks like a giant medium-rare steak, replete with grill marks and pink juices. If you don’t love the consistency of organ meat, which I do not, the large portion – though tasty – seems endless.
Where to get it: Incanto,1550 Church St.; calf’s liver & kidney $26.
Kopi luwak’s claim to fame – besides being “The Most Expensive Coffee in the World” – is that it’s brewed from beans eaten and shit out by the luwak, a kind of Southeast Asian civet cat. Purveyors say the luwak’s stomach acids and enzymes produce a “unique fermentation process” creating a smooth flavor without the bitterness coffee drinkers are accustomed to. Kopi luwak coffee runs $20 to $40 a cup and is difficult to find, even in bean-obsessed San Francisco. I scoured the city until I found Kirimachi, a pop-up ramen restaurant in North Beach, seemingly the only place in San Francisco serving kopi luwak. The most expensive coffee in the world comes to your table in a single-serving envelope, very finely ground, and a card verifying its authenticity, all tucked in a gauzy drawstring bag. Stir in the coffee, wait for the grounds to settle. I drank mine black and it was smooth, no bitterness, and I feel inherently more interesting for having tried it.
Where to get it: Kirimachi, 450 Broadway St.; $20 a cup.
Ustilago maydis, known as corn smut or “devil’s corn,” is a plant fungus that causes disease on corn crops. Plenty of organic and pesticide remedies exist for battling this pathogen but Native Americans and farmers in Mexico recognized the culinary possibilities of the fungus. Also known as corn fungus, corn truffle, or by its Mexican name, cuitlacoche, this fungusis showcased in Mexican recipes, including a rich black stew of sopa de cuitlacoche, crepas de cuitlacoche, and corn fungus pudding. Corn smut is at its best during the summer rainy season months when you can buy it fresh, shuck it from the ear, and prepare it with onion, garlic, poblano, and epazote leaves. Fortunately, you can buy cans of cuitlacoche year-round. The black fungus is already prepared and you need only heat a little up to top any of your favorite tortilla-based dishes. You’ll notice the deep-earth nuttiness expected in mushrooms and then taste a surprising fruitiness. This being winter with no fresh cuitlacoche, I spooned the canned version over tacos made with thick, handmade tortillas, fresh salsa, refried beans, and spicy guacamole. The black saucy fungus looks stark and amazing next to the red tomatoes and green guacamole.
Where to get it: Casa Lucas Market, 2934 24th St.; $7–$15/can, varied sizes.
at Omnivore Books
I spend a lot of time and income in this sweet Noe Valley bookshop that sells new and vintage books and regularly hosts events. I buy all my cookbooks at Omnivore, which is full of opportunities to re-create historical recipes. Take The Trans-Mississippi Home Maker from 1898 with its early Nebraska recipes: scotch woodcock, pork fruitcake, panned rabbit, and Chautauqua bread. My biggest historical re-creation flop was M.F.K. Fisher’s Dijon gingerbread recounted in The Art of Eating. It took me a year to find sodium carbonate, an elusive ingredient Fisher breezily names. I stored the batter in the depths of my refrigerator for three months – as suggested – only to have it bake into a terrible, inedible cement that created a miserable stomachache but awesome photos.
Where to get it: Omnivore Books on Food, 3885a Cesar Chavez St.; The Art of Eating $24.95.
Try any of the daring edible experiences above, or better yet, become a member of the San Francisco Food Adventure Club. New members are always welcome. Check out our policies and procedures and get in on the next San Francisco Food Adventure Club outing!