Friday, November 13, 2009

muir woods, sausalito, alcatraz

So yesterday was our awesome dinky bus tour. We drove across the Golden Gate Bridge to Muir Woods. The Woods are 500 acres or so of old-growth redwood forest. It wasn't logged initially because it was in the bottom of a steep valley, then in the 1930s the Muir family bought the area to conserve the redwoods. So it goes without saying and all - they're huge. Unlike Australian bushland, very little light reaches the forest floor, because the redwoods are so dense. They had a cutaway section of a redwood that died in 1936 with the age rings marked out. A redwood that died in 1936 was a small tree in 900AD. That's how old they are. Pretty amazing.

Next stop was Saualito - supposedly a very pretty seaside town. It might have just been the area we were in, but it struck Mark and I as less 'pretty seaside' and more 'horrendously touristy'. Not great fans.

Back across the bridge and over to where the Alcatraz ferry departs. It's only about a 10 minute ride to the island - 1 1/4 miles or so, I think. It's the temperature of the waters and the strong currents that prevented escape, rather than the distance. Apparently if the winds were blowing the right way prisoners in their cells could hear the sounds of New Year's Eve parties on the SF shore. The actual prison is really quite small - one large rectangular building with regular cells, isolation and high security cells, the dining hall, and a door to the recreation grounds (solid concrete). There were also workshops, but those are all closed to the public due to disrepair. They have a great audio tour narrated by former prisoners and former guards that takes you all over the prison. What I didn't realise is that the guards' families also lived on Alcatraz! They had old army barracks (the place was a fort before a prison) converted to apartments, plus a couple of pretty swanky houses, for accomodation. There was two bowling alleys and a small supermarket on the island, and the kids caught the prison ferry (12 round trips a day) to and from school on the mainland!

Post-Alcatraz we went for a walk along Pier 39. Today, terribly touristy, but you can kind of see how it would have been a nice arcade in the nineteenth century. Pier 39 also has this great sea lion colony (making up for the lack of visible bison in Golden Gate Park). The sea lions started lounging around on some of the marina boat docks, and Californian law requires that boats give way for marine life... so now there's about eight floating platforms that the sea lions hang out on. And there's lots of them. Hundreds. They were mostly napping on the platforms when we were there, and they were crammed on! Every now and then one would be squished off the edge, or a new sea lion would jump on the platform and crawl across all of the others. To the others' disgust. Sea lions, it turns out, are quite stinky en masse, and very, very noisy. I had to take an audio clip on my camera of all the noise! They bark and bark and bark.

So dinner last night was at Bar Crudo, one of SF's best seafood places, apparently. It's all tapas-y. We had a taster plate of crudo (sashimi, with all different dressings - scallop with root vege puree and truffle oil; butterfish with orange and olives; tuna with soy sauce and apple; arctic char with wasabi and finger lime), lobster and beetroot salad (okay, but the salad worked just as well without the lobster in), half a fresh Dungeness (?) crab (so, so good. And a thinner shell than blue swimmers have), and seafood chowder (delicious, but very rich).

An that is that.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

reasons why I love SF*

* may not be reasons unique to the city.

i) Overhearing this:
Non-descript middle-aged guy feeding his dogs treats: They're entirely vegetarian!
Non-descript mid-thirties woman with dog: Good for you!

ii) The bus stops have maps on that show all the bus routes in the area, plotted out on a map. Also at the corner of every street the name of the street is engraved in the pavement. And the buses have an LED sign inside that tells you what the next stop is.

iii) Every restaurant menu has at least four different salads. Usually around six.

Reasons I do not like this city
i) too many homeless people
ii) You can't actually see the bison in Golden Gate Park. I walked for kilometres (literally) to go check out the bison fields, because I thought it was hilarious that they have bison roaming in part of the SF equivalent of Central Park. I saw lots of electric fencing, and rolling green fields, and no bison.
I have little to report since yesterday (more shopping, see). I ate a grilled cheese on sourdough sandwich at Boudin's. I understand the joy of toasted cheese sandwiches now. I think it has something to do with the orange American cheese.

Last night we ate at Millennium restaurant - a relatively swanky organic, local vegan restaurant a couple of blocks from us. If I had their chef at my disposal, I could easily be vegan! Yuuuum! I had a salad of wilted spinach, fingerling potatos, golden beets and crispy hickory-smoked tofu with apple cider dressing. Mark had some Indian-inspired cauliflower-chickpea stack-thing.... dessert was seasonal ice-cream. There was a lime sorbet (tasted lime flavoured, but very different to our limes. I'm wondering if it was key lime or something); peanut butter and strawberry jam 'ice-cream' (the peanuts lending the creamy texture), and the crowning glory - raw 'ice-cream' in huckleberry cashew flavour (the cashews giving the creamy texture). Yuuuuum! I'm a total convert to the vegan nut-based icecreams! The huckleberry was all purple and tart, but the cashews meant there was this really sweet, creamy aftertaste.

Today I think I'm going to wander round Golden Gate Park. They have a Shakespeare Garden there, which has all 150 plants mentioned in Shakespeare's works. An odd idea, but cool.

Tomorrow we have our Alcatraz tour, Friday we might go to Berkeley, and Saturday is reserved for the Ferry Market Building (giant farmer's market) and MOMA.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

So Mark was at the conference all yesterday, and I was shopping all day *cough*. So today you get my observations on the retail world of SF.

i) SF is really, really dog friendly. There are loads of dogs around (yet no dog poo...). I've seen a few people carrying little dogs in a bag, which starts to make sense when you consider the distances people might be travelling by foot, and the crowded streets in which a little dog might be a hazard. They're allowed in stores. A few stores I've seen have a water dish and biscuits just inside the door. Yesterday I saw a woman walking her pug in the basement level of Anthropologie (so, like, it wasn't that she just ducked inside quickly to pick up something). That's kind of like taking a dog into some of the fancier Claremont shops. That said, there do seem to be some unwritten rules - I haven't seen dogs in the department stores, for instance. Well, I have, but it was a homeless lady and her dog, so I don't think it counts.

ii) There's a much wider age range amongst retail assistants. The department stores have middle aged ladies as well as young 'uns (a little like Myer and DJs, I guess). But at Anthropologie they had young 'uns, a couple of middle aged ladies, and one retail assistant who was definitely in her 70s. Absolutely awesome.

iii) The accent is really easy to pick up by accident. I started saying 'thank you' in the American way yesterday because I heard/ said it so many times. Sometimes I love the drawl, sometimes I find it totally grating.

iv) We have this perception that Americans are all monolingual. No. Middle-class white Americans are monolingual. Most Latino people are bilingual. You hear Spanish spoken a lot (even outside the Mission, though in Mexican restaurants). My pronunciation of my takeout order last night was so miserable that the Latino bartender laughed at me. Damn.

v) Lots of restaurants do takeout and doggy bags (though they just call it 'boxing' the food). Colibri, the bar/ restaurant downstairs from our hotel happily made me takeout last night (stuffed poblano chilli with black bean sauce, and the most amazing churros in the world - churros filled with dulce de leche! *drool*). Farmer Brown's, which in fanciness and feel is kind of like Harvest, boxed up leftovers for the table next to us.

vi) It's true, America does have a better service culture than we do. Everyone is so helpful!

Oh, and I tried jicama yesterday. Not sure exactly what it is - it's some kind of pale green vegie that came diced into batons in my salad (with grapefruit and candied pecans...). Goes really well with grapefruit.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

okay, dinner update.

We went to Farmer Brown's - a soul food restaurant that particularly sources their food from local, organic, African American farmers.

My god. I am so full I had to take a photograph of my food-baby. Hel-lo facebook profile pic!

Anyway: Mark had crawfish and shrimp with grits, and I had cornmeal crusted catfish with candied yams, garlic beans and hush puppies. And their equivalent of the 'bread' you get before your meal was little sweet cornbread muffins with a scoop of mixed strawberry jam and unsalted butter. Americans really like mixing up their sweet and savoury.

Anyway, it was awesome. Tomorrow's mission includes finding a good Southern cookbook in Borders. I bought some canned chipotle chillies today at Bi-Rite so I can make some good Mexican - now I want to make good cornbread.

Mission to the Mission.

Sorry about the lack of photos, we forgot to bring a camera cable to upload them...

Went to the Mission today. I slept in a little too much, and we missed making it to our intended thing - a guided tour of murals in the Mission. The Mission is the Latino district of SF (it also has some Italian and a touch of Greek). For reasons kind of unclear, much of the Mission has murals. All the schools are covered in murals, the public pool and some of the churches, as well as the sides of commercial and residential buildings. But given the washed-up-hippyness of the community group that runs the tours, and how prevalent the murals are (I thought they might be hidden in side streets) I'm kind of glad we missed it.

The Mission is a bit skeezy in parts, but is being gentrified (with some resistance). We went to 826 Valencia Pirate Supplies Store. 826 Valencia is a program started by author Dave Eggers to encourage creative writing amongst kids - particularly disadvantaged kids. The 826 stores (there are stores in different cities) exist to raise money to fund the programs. The day we were there there was a group out the back, plus a couple of teens dropping by to find out where the college application workshop was being held (the local highschool). Anyway, each of the stores has a different theme, and the SF one is pirate supplies.

The place is like a fantasy. Just inside the door is a tiny theatre with only two seats and a fish tank in place of the screen. All over the walls are framed bits of writing - a list of things that make the pufferfish puff up, practical jokes that aren't funny on a pirate ship... just all sorts. I was standing reading the one about What To Do If You Are Mopped. Just as I got to the line about not looking up - a whole pile of mopheads fell on me! I screamed. The girl at the counter (who has a level to the trapdoor in the ceiling that lets loose the mops) was very pleased with that reaction. Kids are allowed to barter for things at 826 - like, they might trade a story or a joke or a song for an eyepatch, or whatever the person at the counter thinks their offering was worth. Plus there is also a giant - and I mean giant - tub of lard to play with. Yep. There for no real reason, but you're welcome to stick your hands in it.

Next down the street was Paxton Gate. This big, bright building that houses a business dedicated to the Natural Sciences. So it sells interesting houseplants, test tubes, framed butterflies and mounted animal heads of all kinds. Their matching kids store has fossils and mounted stuffed plush toy heads. Awesome.

Bi-Rite Organic Icecreamery was next up. Salted caramel and pumpkin flavoured organic icecream (I want to go back for the lavender and honey)... so, so good. So we went to the Bi-Rite Market too. They had gorgeous bunches of organic flowers outside. It sounds really odd, but the colour of flowers are different here. They're brighter, more intense, but more natural somehow? Bi-Rite started as an organic store 30 years ago. It's now owned by the second generation, and also incorporates two farms so that for some of their produce, they can control the entire supply chain. Bought up some heirloom apples and other bits and pieces.

Asked the checkout chick for a good Mexican place for lunch. She pointed us towards a place beginning with Y that I can't remember the name of. We were the only Anglo people there, and had no idea what the Spanish menu was describing (except Pesca Frito and Bistecca, neither of which we wanted). The nice waitress took pity on us and suggested we have the mole which was fresh that day, with fresh tortillas and rice. Mole is like a chicken stew, made with cocoa. Man, those tortillas kicked the tortillas we had last night! Rougher ground corn, with visible fingerprints in. Plus mole for two, two waters, tortillas and rice came to the grand sum of $10.80.

The Mission is so Latin-oriented that the mobile phone stores there have all their window advertising in Spanish. We just missed Dios de los Murtos (November 2), but a lot of windows still had their displays up. Sadly, the store that sold Mexican paper decorations (papel picado, crepe paper flowers, pompoms...) was closed. There were also a whole lot of stores selling child-sized Mexican wrestling masks. Given that these stores were in the skeezier part of town, I'm pretty sure they weren't aimed at tourists.

Saturday, November 7, 2009


Landed yesterday at about 10am. While the Perth to Sydney flight was fine, I was not well on the Sydney to SF leg. Blergh. The nice Qantas steward refused to give me my special vego breakfast (because it contained eggs, which I wouldn't eat anyway, but which he did not think would stay down). He would only let me have cornflakes. But aside from that breakfast, Qantas vegan meals (they don't do lacto-ovo-vego) are good! Definitely more palatable than Mark's omni meals, and generally healthier too. By the time we cleared customs (fingerprinting of both hands, thumbprinting, photographing...) and worked out the BART (train system) and got to our hotel it was about midday.

So we spent the afternoon sorting out a simcard for Mark and checking out the nearest pet supply store. Heh. Oh, and the art galleries! There's loads of extremely good art galleries round our hotel. One is showing original Latrec lithographs. Another has a Chagall exhibition. Another had an artist list outside that made me gurgle - Miro, Chagall, Haring... but there's also quite a lot of galleries for emerging artists, which is quite interesting. Had a chat to the nice owner of Mark went out for a drink with some people at the conference, and we were both so tired when we got back that we just headed to the Mexican restaurant next to our hotel for dinner. It was awesome - sort of nouvelle Mexican. Plus, this being SF there was an actual range of vego choices on the menu. So Mark got a lamb shank baked in banana leaves, while I got this awesome pile of cheesy caulflowery goop sitting on an ancho chilli tomato sauce with mushrooms on top. Sooooo good.

For lunch we went to a diner that is in Lonely Planet. At 2pm the tiny little Dotti's True Blue Diner still had a queue down the street to get in for lunch. A half hour wait got us two seats at the counter in front of the short order cook. Then we learned the thing about the massive portion sizes in America. I ordered two pancakes (wholemeal buttermilk with cinnamon and ginger and real maple syrup) and a side of potato hash. Mark ordered two pieces of French toast and a side of bacon.... I managed one pancake... we got through about 2/3 of the hash... Mark ate about three quarters of his French toast... we're going to try to remember to share meals from now on!

There's so much music in SF - loud street buskers and music coming out of shops. Usually jazz or South American stuff. I like it a lot.