Local Flavors: San Francisco - #103

Every city in the world has a local flavor, a flavor that comes from the signature dishes of the town, from a group of preferred ingredients, or type of restaurant that is only found in that area.  It is a flavor that comes from appreciating a particular piece of cooking equipment or a technique.  There are dozens of influences, but the local flavors always the result of the history, geography, economics, and the ethnic groups that have settled in the city.

This is San Francisco.  And the history of its growth is unique.  Almost every other major city in America was founded by a group of people with similar ideas, similar traditions, and a similar desire to build a new community.  Puritans in Boston, Mormons in Salt Lake City, Catholics in New Orleans.  The one great exception is San Francisco.  And it's amazing to see how this difference has affected the way this city eats and drinks. So please join me, Burt Wolf, for a taste of the local flavors of San Francisco.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: San Francisco was founded by 25,000 guys who showed up one afternoon in 1849 to find gold.  They were not interested in agriculture or craftwork or building a community.  They were interested in getting as rich as they could as fast as they could.  And as soon as they got rich, they were interested in partying.  Some of those guys got rich from finding gold and later on finding silver.  But many of them got rich from selling things to the miners, like Levi Straus, who sold them jeans, or Leland Stanford, who sold them so many groceries that he was able to put up the money for Stanford University. 

BURT WOLF:  But the gastronomic history of San Francisco is not just about money.  The people who came here during the gold rush came from every part of the world.  And they held on to many of their gastronomic traditions.  French sailors who were on their way to Asia came into San Francisco and jumped ship to head for the gold fields. If they struck it rich, they came back to town to live it up, to eat and drink the best of everything.  If they didn't strike it rich, they came back to town to open a restaurant.

The French and many other European immigrants influenced the early cooking of San Francisco. But the biggest impact came from the thousands of Chinese laborers who worked in the gold fields, and on the railroads, and at the wineries.  They built their own town within a town. Today it is the largest Chinatown outside Asia.  Originally it was almost completely a male society.  The men lived in small rooms without kitchens.  All their meals were taken in nearby restaurants.  Hundreds of restaurants, and at all levels of quality and expense.  Today some of the finest Chinese cooking in the world is right here in San Francisco.

SHIRLEY FONG-TORRES ON CAMERA: Good morning, America. 

GROUP ON CAMERA: Good morning, Shirley.

BURT WOLF: Shirley Fong-Torres is known as the wok wiz. 

SHIRLEY FONG-TORRES: All right, now.

BURT WOLF: She's a cookbook author, a historian, and television chef who has created a walking tour of her neighborhood that she calls “I Can't Believe I Ate My Way Through Chinatown”.  She also runs daily tours that cover the history, culture, and folklore of the community. 

SHIRLEY FONG-TORRES: So our first stop will be to Sam Wo restaurant for our Chinese breakfast. This is Cheung Fun, in Chinese, in  Cantonese means long, and Fun means the rice noodle.  This is cold, and inside is lean barbecue pork that they make here, and then there's coriander and green onions and some scrambled eggs.  So it's sort of like a breakfast roll.  And so you just pick it up with your either your fingers or your chopsticks as a little snack.

SHIRLEY FONG-TORRES: One of my favorite produce markets is right there on the corner. Let’s try this. This is called Dow Mil. I hope you order this in a restaurant.  We do this cause we just want you to taste it.  It's a pea sprout comes from the snow pea family, and when you bite into it, you see that a little bit of an aftertaste.  Now that's a lion dance to signify the grand opening of a new restaurant or a business.  It's a loud celebration. 

SHIRLEY FONG-TORRES ON CAMERA: So, to find a nice, good duck, we look for one that has ... that's carmelized, that has, not too fat, like that one has a little bit too much fat on it.  But not too skinny because then there won't be enough meat.  You want one to have a graceful neck and nice legs and thighs, kind of body I'm trying for.  Oh!  Back to the duck. Now, which one do we think?

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: We were gonna go with the end one.

SHIRLEY FONG-TORRES ON CAMERA: The end one.  Okay.  We'll pick that one.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: That was your pick, so I don’t wanna….



SHIRLEY FONG-TORRES: Mm, mm.  Hurry and eat. We have to go lunch. And I love this place because they have excellent dim sum and then also great entrees, and the food we're having today is actually more like a banquet because we have been eating so much on the street already.  And the Chinese realized there was a business here.  They could open up a restaurant and these non-Chinese would come in and pay money for their meals, and, so, Chinese food started to become popular. 

BURT WOLF: At the same time that the Chinese were building Chinatown, the Italians were building San Francisco's Little Italy.  It was originally settled by Italian sailors from Northern Italy who jumped ship to join the Gold Rush. When the Rush was over, they stayed on as farmers, shopkeepers and restaurateurs, putting their community together in an area known as North Beach. The North Beach restaurant is a good example of a place that serves the traditional dishes of Northern Italy.  Bruno Orsi is in the kitchen, and his partner, Lorenzo Petroni, is up front.  They're both from Tuscany. 

I've known Lorenzo for years. So, I felt I could borrow part of his kitchen to show you how to make pasta at home and to make some for our lunch.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: So, you make the pasta dough, take a ball about the size of a lemon and then you need a pasta machine to make at home.  The first job of the pasta machine is to thin this out into a flat ribbon, and it will have something that is made from stainless steel or some non-reactive system.  You want the machine to be sturdy.  It's very important that it have a great lock that will hold it down, a clamp that will hold it on the board.  If you're gonna to do it by hand, you want to make sure that this mounts in in a way that it's secure, so it won't slide out.  You take your ball of pasta, and you put it into the rollers that will thin it out. Grazie. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Now, you can do this by hand, the grinding, and it works pretty well.  Notice, it keeps getting longer each time I do this, and I flour it between each pass. But you can also do it with a motor.  It makes it a little easier.  It's not a big deal. All right.  Watch this. Now, normally, you would let this dry for a couple of hours, and then, when it was dry, you would change to the cutters. When you pick out a machine, it's nice to have at least two cutters.  This one has, I think, six different cutters.  Okay.  Andiamo. 

That's it.  And that's how easy it is to make pasta at home. 

BURT WOLF: The Italians were the first major European immigrants, and the Chinese were the first major Asian immigrants.  The second Asian group to immigrate to San Francisco came in the early years of the 20th Century, and they came from Japan.  Over 25,000 Japanese arrived in California and many headed straight for San Francisco.  Today, there are over 12,000 Japanese-Americans in San Francisco, and they make major contributions to the city's business, cultural and gastronomic community. 

The word around town is that when it comes to Japanese food, Ebisu is at the top of the list.  It's owned by Steve Fuji, a major authority on sushi, who taught classes on sushi preparation and presentation at San Francisco's DeYoung Museum.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I brought along my own gear to make sure that I would be able to do this at home.  First thing I brought was a rice cooker.  They're wonderful because they will do it automatically, and the rice will come out perfectly everytime.  When you're picking one out, make sure that it has a non-stick surface on the inside, so the rice will come away easily.  You also want one that has markings in there, so you know just how much water to put in.  It'll cook white rice in about 30 minutes, about 40 or 45 minutes for brown rice.  It has a clear top so you can see when the rice is finished, and when it is finished, it automatically shifts to a holding temperature, and it will keep the rice warm for up to 12 hours.  Good piece of gear.  Second thing is my sushi kit.  Okay.  Steve, do I have the right stuff here? 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Sushi vinegar. Right.

STEVE FUJI ON CAMERA: Sushi vinegar. Yes.

STEVE FUJI ON CAMERA: And soy sauce.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Sauce. Rice vinegar.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA:Pickled ginger.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Wasabi.  Special rice.




BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Dried seaweed.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And the single most important piece of equipment a teeny little window shade.



STEVE FUJI ON CAMERA: Yeah. That works.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Okay.  I'm ready to learn how to make sushi.

STEVE FUJI ON CAMERA: Okay.  So, you put seaweed on a bamboo shade.  And like so.  This is the shiny part.


STEVE FUJI ON CAMERA: It's outside.  And the dull sides go inside.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: So, it's the dull side that goes up.



STEVE FUJI ON CAMERA: And then, you put rice.  Leave about half inch or so from the top.

STEVE FUJI ON CAMERA: And you go, like so.  And then you just bring down easy like so. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I’m just spreadin' it out.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Yours is spreading out better than mine. I’m going to be in remedial sushi making.  I can tell.

STEVE FUJI ON CAMERA: And then come to the end.  The wasabi. And like so.  That’s Japanese green horseradish.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Green horseradish.  Okay. 

STEVE FUJI ON CAMERA: Okay.  You put this in the middle.


STEVE FUJI ON CAMERA: So, bring this mat like so and then bring it over and then when you lift this one up, it’s almost half inch lips over here.


STEVE FUJI ON CAMERA: And then pick up the mat, one side, okay and then push it over.  Just a little.  Not too hard. Okay.

STEVE FUJI ON CAMERA: And then, like this.  There you go.



BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Oh.  Look at that. Give me a match. 

STEVE FUJI ON CAMERA: (Laughter) Okay. With a knife.


STEVE FUJI ON CAMERA: You run the water down.  So, will not stick to rice.


STEVE FUJI ON CAMERA: That’s why a lot of people do go like this and ...

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: You have to run the water down.  Okay.

STEVE FUJI ON CAMERA: You're right-handed.  I'm left-handed.  So, you cut them in half.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Cut it in half.

STEVE FUJI ON CAMERA: You got a half?  I don't think so.


STEVE FUJI ON CAMERA: Okay.  Turn this over.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Turn that over. 

STEVE FUJI ON CAMERA: Should be even.  Right?

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: No.  I'll make it even.  Wait a second.  Okay.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Now, it's even. 

STEVE FUJI ON CAMERA: Cut this into three pieces.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Into three pieces.

STEVE FUJI ON CAMERA: Right.  Then when you put them in a dish, should be height that be all same.  And the fish in the middle. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: So, the first thing I noticed is they're not all the same height, and my fish is not in the middle as effectively as yours. 



STEVE FUJI ON CAMERA: But as it goes, you will learn.

BURT WOLF: Starting in the early 70s, restaurants in and around San Francisco started developing a style of cooking that became known as California cuisine.  They began to use local products produced to the restaurant’s specifications.  A perfect example is Hawthorne Lane.  Ann Gingrass is the chef and David Gingrass manages the house.  The room is beautiful, sophisticated and comfortable.  The open kitchen can be seen but not heard, and the food which blends European, Asian and American elements is excellent.  We started with a carpaccio of apple with walnuts and jack cheese, which Ann is going to demonstrate. But first, a word about slicing. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Normally, when you cut food, the food stays still and the blade moves over it.  But there's an alternative where the blade stays stationary and the food moves over the blade.  And the best example of that is something called a mandoline.  This is a particularly good one.  It's made out of a fiberglass form.  The blades lock in place.  You can use this nut on the back to adjust the thickness both in inches and in millimeters.  There are a number of different types of blades.  Take your food.  Put it in place above the blade. Take your safety guide and lock it on.  It holds the food.  And then you're in business.  Our apples are ready.  Let's go.  What happens next?

ANN GINGRASS ON CAMERA: Thanks. Then we put the apples on the plate.  So, we coat the plate like this, and then to prevent it from turning…discoloring we brush it with a little walnut oil mixed with parsley and tarragon. Then I sprinkle it with this little walnuts chopped with these chocolate nibs.


ANN GINGRASS ON CAMERA: They're like the chocolate bean crushed up.  Then we squeeze a little lemon juice, salt and pepper and then we shave this cheese.  And you just sprinkle that around.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: That's it.  I'm ready to start.


BURT WOLF: The apple carpaccio was the first appetizer.  Next, crispy fried prawns with toasted garlic sauce and fresh spring rolls.  A taste of stir-fried lamb with eggplant and garlic chips served in radicchio leaf cups.  The main course was spiced marinated grilled chicken with curried noodles and carrot and peanut wontons.  And for dessert, a lemon chiffon passion fruit cake with shaved white chocolate.  At the end of this program, I'll show you how to get the recipes for the dishes in this show.  Since the days when the miners came into San Francisco with their pockets filled with gold, the restaurateurs of this city have made it their business to supply their customers with the best of everything.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In 1952, the Buena Vista Cafe decided to try and reproduce the perfect Irish coffee, as it was made in the Shannon Airport in Shannon, Ireland. 

It wasn't easy.  They even went back to Shannon to try and figure out what they were doing wrong, and they didn't get it right until the mayor of San Francisco, who once owned a dairy, figured out that they had to let the cream rest for 48 hours before they whipped it to the ideal consistency.  At last, the perfect Irish coffee had been recreated in the United States. There was much rejoicing throughout the land and many people lived happily ever after. 

BURT WOLF: And here's how they did it.  First, a heat-proof glass is selected and pre-heated with hot water.  Two sugar cubes go in. Then the glass is filled to the three-quarter mark with hot coffee, and the sugar is dissolved.  A jigger of Irish whiskey is stirred in.  Now, they only put the whiskey in because it helps hold up the lightly-whipped cream which is poured in gently over a spoon.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Not even the Blarney Stone was left unturned in their search for the perfect Irish coffee.  Here is to the pursuit of excellence.

BURT WOLF: In 1849, the Boudin family arrived in San Francisco and opened a French bakery.  They used French baking techniques but incorporated a sourdough process to create a sourdough French bread.  Since then, San Francisco has become famous for its sourdough bread, which is made from a combination of flour, water and wild yeast.

LARRY STRAIN ON CAMERA: That's the mother dough that we’ve perpetuated since 1849.

BURT WOLF: My guide is Larry Strain, the president of the company.  The flour and water are mixed together and exposed to the air in order to attract the wild yeast.  Once the yeast takes hold, the mass turns into a starter, or culture, which is the foundation of sourdough bread and acts as a leavening agent like any yeast or baking soda.  Each time a new batch of bread is baked, some of the original starter is incorporated in the new batter and some of the new batter is turned back into the original starter. The Boudin bakery is still using the starter that got started in 1849. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: What makes sourdough bread taste different in one part of the world than it does in another is the local wild yeast that grows in the area. The wild yeast in San Francisco is so specialized that it is known as lacto bacillus San Francisco.  Now, of course, you could buy sourdough starter in San Francisco and bring it home to any city in the world and make sourdough bread. But it would never taste the same as it does in San Francisco, because your local wild yeast would want to join in the fun. 

BURT WOLF: San Franciscans have an extraordinary interest in good eating and drinking.  They take it seriously in terms of pleasure.  But they also take it seriously in terms of business.  There are over 3,500 restaurants in San Francisco.  You could eat in a different one every day, and it will take you 11 years to get through them. 

BURT WOLF: And travelers love that.  San Francisco is the number-one tourist destination and considered to be the top city for restaurants.  Sixteen million visitors come here every year and spend 6 1/2 billion dollars. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In 1909, the city formed the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau, which makes it one of the oldest organizations of its kind in the United States.  It has over 2300 member firms, which makes sense, because tourism is the largest business in San Francisco.  Over the years, the Bureau came to realize that many people traveled because of their interest in eating and drinking, and they commissioned the first national study of people who loved good food and wine, which has become known as the “Foodie Study”.  John Marks is the president of the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau. 

JOHN MARKS ON CAMERA: A Foodie is a dining enthusiast, a hobbyist, if you will.  Some of us play golf.  Some play tennis.  Some go boating. 

JOHN MARKS: Foodies clearly like to go out and dine and enjoy fine wine, and they do so in record numbers.  About 77 million Americans self-classify themselves as Foodies.  Foodies today are really kind of going back to basics, looking for good value, good food, good quality, good service. They're over the minimalist thing.  They're over the tall food thing.  And they're just looking for an exceptional evening out.  Well, San Francisco has the very high-end restaurants that people know about.  But it's that large base, that 3500 that we’re so strong in, and the ethnic diversity of our restaurants is terrific. 

BURT WOLF: One of the major pieces of information to come out of the Foodie study was the importance of the credit card, which was music to the ears of San Francisco's business community, because San Francisco is the home of the modern credit card.  The idea of using a credit card to make a purchase was introduced during the early decades of the 20th Century.  A major catalyst was the automobile.  As Americans bought more and more cars, they used more and more gas.  And the gas companies got the idea of issuing the credit card so you could fill up your tank and debit your bank at the same time. 

BURT WOLF: The card only worked for the gas company that issued it, which kept you loyal, but Americans, being somewhat promiscuous, usually carried at least two.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In 1914, Western Union offered a credit card for its services, and then, a number of large retailers joined in.  But they were all closed systems.  You could only use the card for purchases in the company that offered you the card.  Most people still found it pretty tough to make a purchase without cash. 

BURT WOLF: But the real breakthrough in the credit-card business was made by a company that got started at the beginning of this century in San Francisco.  A.P. Giannini was the head of a small neighborhood bank called the Bank of Italy. 

He became famous, because the day after the Great Earthquake of 1906, he crawled through the rubble of his bank, took out the money that was in a safe, set up a table in the street and began making loans to people who wanted to rebuild their homes and businesses.  His little bank grew and eventually changed its name to the Bank of America. Giannini's interest in extending credit eventually ended up as the Visa Card, and in spite of the fact that it can be used to purchase anything anywhere, its users seem to have a special interest in good food and wine.  Which is typical of most things that originate in San Francisco.  An example is "Beach Blanket Babylon."  "Beach Blanket Babylon" is a musical spoof of pop culture that opened in 1974 and has been running ever since, which makes it the longest-running musical revue in the history of American theater.  And some of its funniest stuff is about eating and drinking.  That's a brief taste of the local flavors of San Francisco.  I hope it whetted your appetite for a visit.  And I hope you will visit with me next time on Local Flavors. I'm Burt Wolf.

If you would like free copies of the recipes from this program, or hundreds of other recipes from Burt’s programs, to read his special reports from around the world and interviews with leading food authorities or to order a copy of The New Cooks’ Catalogue, a critical guide that tells you what to look for when purchasing cooking equipment and utensils, with over 1,000 color photographs and recipes, just visit Burt online at BURTWOLF.COM.