In a culinary landscape that can often seem like the realm of the auteur – if not the autocrat – condiments are the great equalizer. No matter how curated a dining experience might be ("The chef suggests you eat from right to left; this is Israeli couscous, after all"), at some point you will be alone with all those bottles and jars on the table. What happens next is your choice. This utter freedom, I would argue, is a big part of why condiments hold such a special place in our hearts.
Inexorable antipodes, ketchup and mustard are at once all-American and endlessly adaptable. This is why we love them – and why they remain necessary complements to so many different types of food. Ketchup is something of a wonder, a perfect condiment that contains all five tastes of the palate. Most ketchups I’ve had use tomato as the main ingredient, but local burger truck Doc's of the Bay offers an addictive version of the sauce that casts red bell peppers in a satisfying starring role. The result is sweet and tangy, but with a zippy, vegetal twist that continues to surprise at every taste. According to Lauren Claire Smith, Doc's signature ketchup was born from her co-owner Zak's "extreme aversion to traditional ketchup."
I sampled Doc's Original Red Bell Ketchup with one of its classic burgers and an order of fries dusted with Doc's Potlatch spice blend. The ketchup paired with both beef and spud beautifully, proving that Smith isn't boasting when she states, "I am confident that we've perfected our recipe." She went on to reveal that Doc's is "in the nascent phases of bottling and distributing our ketchup for retail consumption." For now this will take the form of "selling mason jars off of the truck," but soon we might be able to buy this crimson treasure off the shelf. Try some and you'll see why this could only be welcome news.
Yellow squeeze bottles aside, we expect variety from our mustard. Some of the best local versions can be found in the Ferry Building adorning the sandwiches of the Golden Gate Meat Company. While the official recipes are secret, both the strong Dijon and the delectable honey mustard are created from a mix of two different prepared mustards, which are then doctored with sour cream and local honey, respectively. The Dijon comes on the GGMC's house-made pastrami sandwich, where its tangy creaminess complements the cured beef's sweet and salty punch. Meanwhile, a wonderfully heavy dose of the honey mustard can be found on the pulled chicken sandwich. I suggest bringing a friend and splitting both, although the friend is optional.
The light, creamy perfection that comes from whipping eggs together with oil is a special thing in the world of food. The resulting emulsion has many names, but whether it's mayo, aioli, or tartar sauce that you're after, this is one style of condiment that is always better when it's made fresh. Being a fan of the European tradition, my first stop was La Trappe Cafe, a self-described Belgian bistro and Trappist lounge that offers up giant cones of frites with your choice of a dozen styles of dipping sauces. Kristen Friis-Hansen, the chef at La Trappe, told me that each of the dips is made from scratch several times a week. The top seller is the Andalouse mayonnaise, a classically Belgian preparation that incorporates red and green bell peppers. Tangy and deeply flavorful, it was an ideal accompaniment for the fries. Also worth sampling are the spicy wasabi mayo and the sweet, chunky roasted red pepper mayo.
Looking for more fried foods to pair with creamy dressing, I headed to the experts at Piccadilly Fish & Chips. This tiny fry joint offers up made-to-order portions of fish, shrimp, scallops, and more. All come from the impressive fryer, which features four separate chambers and an upper panel decorated with a delightful seascape. Be aware: You will not get Piccadilly's homemade tartar sauce unless you ask for it. But those who do will be rewarded with a piquant mix of mayonnaise, black pepper, and diced pickles. Mine even came in a tiny china dish, which seemed wonderfully incongruous in a restaurant filled with disposable plates and plastic flatware. Make sure to get a lot of tartar, as you'll want to use it on your fries too.
Having covered the fundamental sauces, I went looking for condiments from other cultural traditions. One of the best came from Lime Tree, a six-year-old Indonesian place in the Inner Sunset. Its house roti, an unleavened flatbread cooked on a hot griddle, comes with an amazingly complex curry dipping sauce. Chef Ming brought the recipe for the vegetarian sauce with him from Indonesia and divulged that its deep, savory flavor is made of cumin, lemongrass, and numerous other spices cooked into a coconut milk base. The result is the perfect partner to the piping hot, yeasty roti.
I ventured West from Indonesia (but north and east from the Richmond) to arrive at the Old Jerusalem Restaurant, a Middle Eastern gem at the bottom edge of the Mission. Here I discovered an embarrassment of dip-able riches, starting with the delectable one-two punch of the spicy Turkish salad (tomato paste, hot sauce, and onions) and creamy bakdounsia (tahini, parsley, and garlic) that accompanied the homemade pita brought to my table. I then ordered the gigantic veggie combo platter, which comes with hummus, baba ghanoush, and ful. The first two were stellar versions of the familiar recipes: thick, tasty, and obviously fresh. But the fluorescent orange ful was the real discovery, highlighting its primary ingredient of fava beans while featuring a spicy puree of chile peppers and garlic. Hannibal Lecter should be so lucky.
My last dip stop was Noe Valley's Pasta Gina, which has offered an impressive range of homemade pasta, sauces, and dips for the past 17 years. There are an imposing seven varieties of dip from which to choose. (Luckily, Pasta Gina also sells Gracie Bakery breads, the perfect delivery vehicle for virtually any spreadable foodstuff.) The olive tapenade was briny and tart, packed with several different kinds of olives. White beans, sun dried tomatoes, olive oil, and parsley combine to make a Tuscan bean dip that was both light in consistency and long on flavor. And the addictive smoked chicken featured the titular protein, along with sour cream, sun dried tomatoes, and parsley. All of Pasta Gina's other dips looked amazing too – I just didn't have any room. A return trip is essential.
There is no way around it: My final condiment discovery had to be something sweet. Luckily, the dessert menu at Sauce in Hayes Valley features just the thing: freshly made cinnamon sugar donuts accompanied by a decadent vanilla bourbon dipping sauce. (The doughnuts – and the rest of Sauce's menu – are also available at its new location in the Financial District.) Chef Ben Paula says his inspiration for the dish was malasades, the fried-dough dish that his Portuguese grandmother used to make. He also let me in on the secret of why the dessert is so crazy delicious. "It's got all the real food groups," he laughed. "Butter, cream, sugar, vanilla, and booze."
So there you go. I tried to cover the big boys of the condiment universe, but of course not everyone's favorite treat or spot will be represented. (Hot sauces are completely missing, but only because I covered them in this article last year.) Feel free to have at me in the comments for omitting something absolutely vital to your existence.
Visit Doc's of the Bay's website to track its next stop.
The Golden Gate Meat Company can always be found at the Ferry Building, or at its own site.
La Trappe is in North Beach at 800 Greenwich Street, but it's best to peruse its epic beer list online before you visit.
Head to 1348 Polk Street to eat at Piccadilly Fish & Chips.
Lime Tree Restaurant is in the Richmond at 450A Irving Street.
You can find Old Jerusalem Restaurant at 2976 Mission Street.
The home of Pasta Gina's spread of spreads is 741 Diamond Street in Noe Valley.
And Sauce's donuts can be found in both Hayes Valley, at 131 Gough Street, and in the Financial District at 56 Belden Place.