Given chef Ben Hasty’s experience at the French Laundry in Napa Valley and with a few James Beard awarded Maine chefs, and given Jen Fecteau’s baking and front-of-house experience, this husband-and-wife duo could have settled anywhere to find success. But the New England natives came home, and lend their talents to the quiet town of South Berwick, Maine, providing their community an invaluable gift.
Thistle Pig’s bar displaying Maine’s state logo
While farm-to-table isn’t a new mentality in this farm-conscious, earth-friendly area, Thistle Pig introduces creativity, talent and a devotion to each dish that raises the small town dining bar. Jen and Ben live on as well as source their meat from Breezy Hill Farm, which has been in the Hasty family for hundreds of years. They use local, organic products.
Thistle Pig is one of those places: it’s the neighborhood’s dining room, cozy and full of families – new and old – that have made it their own. Its bustling interior and quality singlehandedly craft the personality of the unassuming main street on which it resides, brining it life and guiding its food culture.
Smoked Salmon on rye toast with horseradish, aioli & chives, $8.
My family would eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at Thistle Pig if we could. Oh wait. We can, and we did. (Almost). During my latest trip home to Boston and Dover, NH we got a fill of everything Thistle Pig has to offer in one given (Saturday or Sun-) day. And you lucky readers get a visual.
While their brunch is delicious, it’s their dinner that’s so magical. So we’ll start with that.
Under all circumstances, the ordering of two items is certain (see above and below). The smoked salmon toast was voted one of the best items we as a family have ever had. We’ve ordered these toasts as a meal, we’ve ordered multiple in one sitting, they’re just that good. The dish manages to bring out each component’s flavor equally to perfectly complement each other, resulting in a delicious, highly addicting sensation.
Crunchy Brussels Sprouts with ginger-chili vinaigrette, $7.
These brussels are no different. They start our meal, they end our meal, they come home with us in take-out containers. They are perfectly crispy and fried in garum (fish sauce) that offers a slightly ‘agrodolce’ (sweet and sour) taste. The vinaigrette makes a lovely bath for them.
Spaghetti with fava beans, button mushrooms and ramp butter $16.
There have been a variety of unique main dishes, like faro and lentils with pepper ragu or the intriguing ‘Chef’s Choice’ each night. My favorite is this – spaghetti with ramp butter, button mushrooms and fava beans. It was the perfect balance of hearty with light flavors, of vegetables and a light butter sauce with parmesan.
Chocolate Stout Cake with vanilla bean frosting, $6.
Needless to say, a place that has us so crazy about their smoked salmon (I don’t even really like smoked salmon) will have us totally enamored by their dessert – their Chocolate Stout Cake, to be exact. This is possibly one of the best pieces of cake I’ve ever had. I literally had a dream about it after the first time I tasted it. It’s dense, it’s chocolatey, its consistency is balanced perfectly by the thick vanilla bean icing. And with all its rich flavor it manages not to be too sweet. Well at least on my sweet scale, which I admit is highly skewed.
Full? It’s time for brunch.
Lemon Ricotta Beignets with cardamom sugar & lemon glaze, $7.
To start we had lemon ricotta beignets. These are the real, doughy, gut-coating deal.
The winning brunch entrees include…
Strawberry Pancakes with fresh whipped cream, $10.
…These strawberry pancakes. The cakes themselves were hearty, almost savory. The strawberries and whipped cream were oh, so real. I couldn’t stop until they were no more.
Grilled Ham & Swiss Sandwich with fried egg, cheese sauce, fried potatoes & freens, $14.
Lastly, the egg sandwich, which goes far and beyond other egg sandwiches out there. The ham was perfect. The fried fingerling potatoes were perfect.
A person can accomplish a lot in three months. He or she can read a book two, watch a Netflix series or ten, fly around the world or he/she can count down the days until a reservation at State Bird Provisions. That’s right, it takes planning three months in advance to get a reservation at this James-Beard-awarded ‘Best New Restaurant of 2013.’ By the time the fates decided I could have a go at the place, my expectations were high. Meet hype — a common and dangerous concept in a city like San Francisco with so many competing high-caliber eateries. Hearing nothing but amazing things about a place is likely to taint your experience, while stumbling upon something unexpectedly great satisfies in a different way.
Did State Bird live up to its three months worth of expectations? Let’s discuss…
The concept: Small dishes are served dim-sum style by servers who circle the restaurant with carts offering items like raw oysters and house made potato chips and chickpea crudité. Be advised that your eyes are probably bigger than your wallet. The menu includes many singular items by price (such as one beef tongue pancake) and larger dishes (such as fried rice).
Each dish or item is its own world. This is the most hype-worthy part. SBP’s owners and chefs come up with completely unique ways to use cuts of meat, with ingredients prepared differently than I’d ever seen before.
The food: If I go back to State Bird, it won’t be for the way the food itself tasted. It would be for the items that I can’t get anywhere else. The idea that they’re constantly changing their menu and creating new masterpieces in food preparation is enticing. Some of the dishes stayed on my mind afterwards, but only about half of them or less.
Beef tongue with horseradish buckwheat pancake, $5/each
Take this beef tongue as an example. I had never had beef tongue before. The garnish and the horseradish buckwheat pancake with the meat (or.. what even is it?) was very interesting. It tasted, um… very beef-tongue-y. Each bite I took was for the sake of the experience, not for my taste buds.
These little hedgehog mushroom toasts, on the other hand, were both incredibly unique and something I loved every bite of.
Hedgehog mushroom toast $3/each.
The state bird: The dish — fried California quail served atop onion garnish and shaved parmesan cheese — was good. That’s all it was. It wasn’t as unique and interesting as everything else. Fried quail is fried quail is fried chicken. It was as good as the last high-end fried bird I’d had.
CA State bird, onion garnish
The hype-worthy stuff: The pork belly citrus salad was excellent. The meat paired perfectly with the citrus and wasn’t too fatty. The garlic ‘bread’ with burrata was dangerously good, we each had to fight our instincts to finish off the bowl. The green garlic steak tartare on caeser toast was a group favorite. The guinea hen dumplings are delicious, though another item served one at a time. The yellowfoot mushroom & duck fried rice a la plancha was not as flavorful as some of the other items, and the kung pao bacon beef sweetbreads with nuts and seeds were another experience, though not my favorite taste.
Guinea Hen Dumplings, $5/each
In sum, a lot of the dishes were pretty delicious, while others were simply good. It’s a place to share and try new and different things. It’s pricey because of that. Maybe things would’ve been different between us had I not heard State Bird was one of this food-crazy city’s absolute best restaurants. We’ll never know. For now, State Bird will go up on the shelf as ‘sure, that place is good,’ ‘yeah, I’d go again,’ and ‘you should try it if you can.’ It doesn’t quite make the cut for ‘oh my god, I will never be the same without it.’
You know how sometimes when you know you just… know? I know at this level of knowing that last week I had the best bahn mi sandwich I will ever eat in my entire life. I had tried Dinosaurs; it was okay. I had tried the little vietnamese coffee shop in my neighborhood. It was better than expected. Then I tried the Belly Bun at Bun Mee. My life was changed forever.
I had heard Bun Mee was a San Francisco staple right from the beginning. I’m not sure why it took me so long to try it but I wish I could remember to whom it is I owe my never ending gratitude for recommending this place. This fast-but-fresh eatery serves up lots of tasty-sounding takes on the classic Vietnamese Bahn Mi sandwich. Give the other guys a look, but I highly advise you try the Belly Bun — this pork belly is classic for a reason.
Bun Mee uses Kurobuta pork — the most highly regarded pork in Japan. And if that’s not good enough for you, these pigs are descents of the Black Berkshire pig which is believed to be the highest quality pork in the world. Yup, Bun Mee takes its job seriously. They also serve the belly in a way that’s more appealing than other servings of pork belly — there’s plenty of meat and it’s not packed with fat. The meat is braised in a sweet sauce giving it plenty of flavor.
Bun Mee offers rice and vermicelli bowls that are superb as well. Meet the caramel citrus bowl. Sounds interesting, right? It includes pickled papaya, fresh citrus, avocado and a house-made caramel sauce. These bowls tempt in endless ways — over vermicelli noodles, over white or brown rice and accompanied by any meat (or not) of your choosing: pork, chicken, shrimp, steak or tofu. The chicken was just as delicious as the pork.
Last but not least, Bun Mee makes its own Agua Fresca in house. If my life depended on picking between the Kaffir Limeade and the Strawberry Lychee I don’t think I could.
Bun Mee has two locations, one on Market street that’s closer to Soma’s offices and one in the quaint blocks of Fillmore street. They both offer outdoor seating, but are both on the smaller size and could be anxiety-inducing around peak lunch hours. But I’ve told you exactly what to order, so go and try it. You have no excuse to live any longer in the proximity of a less than perfect Bahn Mi sandwich.
Over the past few weeks I’ve discovered another dimension of the Bay Area’s personality: Oakland.
I had heard of Oakland thanks to Childish Gambino and the people who told me not to attend an Oakland Raiders football game. (I attended the Oakland Raiders football game). I had also heard that Oakland is ‘sketchy,’ ‘dangerous’ and ‘too far from San Francisco’ per excuses to avoid it. (Oakland is RIGHT across the bay from SF. We’re talking a 15 minute drive. And you get beautiful views along the way of the mountains, the bridges and San Francisco’s entire skyline.)
True or not, these judgements can prevent you from exploring a place bursting with culture, creativity and pride. In addition to its street cred, Oakland is filled with art galleries, independent boutiques selling locally made everything, thrift stores, book stores, and bike stores (which can include bikes strewn across various sidewalks). It’s Yoda’s birthplace (so they say) and it’s all decorated in tons and tons of graffiti.
Oakland is San Francisco’s less pretentious, more affordable and grungier neighbor with its own style. It’s Portland, Oregon’s hipper sibling who went to public school. It’s the artsier pockets of Somerville that sit across the river from Boston proper. It’s a west coast Brooklyn without the fast-paced city influence where hipsters and locals and people who have seen some stuff coexist. You get it or you don’t. You love it or you avoid it. I fell in love.
And I was reminded of an important lesson from Oakland’s donuts, cupcakes and ice cream. It’s what’s inside that counts, anyway.
Temescal Alley condenses the magic of Oakland into two adjacent alleyways aglow with string lights (of course) and replete with fascinating finds. This alley is home to a store dedicated to the love of books (different than a bookstore, ask for more information), a store boasting ‘horticultural rarities‘ (because horticultural fascination is typically not rare), an apothecary, and the list goes on. I left with a handmade necklace, a candle, and a few burlap coffee bags to be made into some kind of home decoration because, you know, Oakland.
In Temescal alley you will also find this cute little donut shop producing the thing pictured above.
It’s a powdered donut filled with dark chocolate cream, made specially for me. The people at Doughnut Dolly make a batch of their sugar donuts every morning. They import flavors from a local creamery and rotate them throughout the week. My other choices were peanut butter, strawberry and vanilla cream. They pump the donut a few times with the delicious substance from one of the four cream filling machines and voila — a pretty darned good doughnut. The doughnuts are quite nice and light. I could easily eat five in one sitting. And yes, relax, you can mix flavors.
The Oakland location is extremely new, opening last summer. They also have a Berkeley location that I’m sure is just as magical.
Across town on San Pablo Ave exists another sweet haven. James and the Giant Cupcake sells cupcakes in three sizes: a-bite-of-amazing; perfectly-sized-delicious-amazing and oh-my-god-this-is-huge-and-amazing. By the time we arrived in the late afternoon there were none of the latter size left (that’s the giant size in case you’re confused). Not to worry, we bought six of the mini sized cupcakes. Yes, six. It’s the only way to effectively try the flavors. Plus, one was gluten free and one was vegan so those don’t count.
Flavors up above clockwise – ‘Cookie Blizzard’ (Chocolate Oreo cake with peppermint cookie buttercream), Chocolate Cheesecake, Blueberry Cheesecake, and ‘Hostess with the Mostess’ (chocolate cake with chocolate ganache and chocolate buttercream filling). The cakes were moist and they don’t stick to one type of icing. They were perfect.
3. Curbside Creamery
Curbside Creamery churns “artisan quality” versions of your favorite childhood ice-cream-parlor, hands-reaching-up-for-the-counter flavors. They do so, however, while keeping the animals in mind. About half their flavors are vegan with a cashew base. Ice ‘cream‘ made from cashews? Turns out, it’s not half bad. We tried the chocolate. The nutty substitute makes for a little less creamy, slightly dense version of ice cream. Buy, hey, sugar is sugar and for all the lactose-weary people out there (myself included) it’s a pretty tasty alternative. You can always revert back to their regular ice cream choices. The mint was just delicious.
It’s official. I’ve lived in San Francisco for a year. That’s approximately 1/6th of the time I’ve wanted to live here. So, whether I feel crazy for giving up comforts of home or like I’ve won the lottery because I left winter behind; whether rain shine or shine (there’s no rain here), I’m proud I made it. Starting over in a new place is certainly difficult. But doing so in a friendly, colorful, warmer-than-Boston city like San Francisco is probably as easy as it gets.
It’s as if the easy way of life on this coast is hidden, kept like a secret from other parts of the country. It’s a secret consisting of sun year-round, of day trips to the mountains and evenings on the beach; of warm days and cool nights, of blue haze and cotton candy skies; of spending the morning reading in a coffee shop; it’s the secret of letting whatever gives you pleasure take precedence over the other stresses of life.
There were some major adjustments to make in the food culture as well. The following are my observations about San Francisco’s food through my East Coast lens.
1. Your coffee is cooler than you.
“Build Your Own Damn House” at Trouble Coffee
Remember when I thought Dunkin’ Donuts’ coffee was drinkable? Ha! The coffee that baristas are brewing here in the Bay puts Dunkin’ to shame, and then some. In fact, they would be embarrassed to know that some of the East Coast’s most popular beans consider themselves the same product. Artisanal coffee is a way of life here, as are the chic, minimalist coffee shops and hipsters that come with it. And the coffee is s.t.r.o.n.g. Like, watch-your-digestive-system, pucker-worthy strong. Say goodbye to that Starbucks vanilla hazelnut latte you love. Not only is sugary flavoring not an option at these hangouts but if you buy coffee from a corporation your friends will never talk to you again. The only flavor question you’ll be asked here is: “Was that almond milk or regular?”
Pictured above is Trouble Coffee. (Just take a look at that link and tell me I’m not right about everything I just said.) Have you ever sipped from a fresh coconut along with your coffee? Well, here you can. Trouble Coffee is an unassuming joint down the street from Ocean Beach, where city meets the Pacific Ocean in a marriage of fog, immigrants and surf. Trouble Coffee has an interesting story behind it that you can read here. There’s no menu at the shop, but if you order the ‘Build Your Own Damn House’ you get a coffee, cinnamon-sugar toast and a fresh coconut. Why? Because this is what owner Giulietta Carrelli survived on during the troubled parts of her life before starting this coffee shop, which she preferably calls a ‘community space.’
The Bay area is home to multiple coffee roasters that deserve a mention here, such as Philz, Blue Bottle, and Sightglass. But among all the forward thinking brands and their shops, Trouble Coffee epitomizes the ‘don’t take life too seriously’ mindset, not because it’s ‘cool,’ but because that’s the value on which it was built.
2. Burritos rule.
Carne Asada Burrito at El Farolito Taqueria
The only form of fast food that’s acceptable in this city comes wrapped in a tortilla, with exceptions made only for In-n-Out. It makes such sense that In-n-Out, which offers a healthier fast food burger, comes from this coast. Everyone here is health-obsessed and doesn’t eat animals whose health records are undisclosed. This is all great, of course. Hooray for happy pigs and healthy humans who are kicking takeout containers and plastic cups to the wayside. But somehow the burrito has managed to sneak its way into the diets of all SF residents. And by sneak I mean largely situate. Mission Street is the most iconic street of the Mission neighborhood, which is one of SF’s most iconic and historically rich neighborhoods that’s still majorly exudes Mexican influence. What does this mean to us now? There are literally hundreds of taquerias on this street. Someday I will count them all.
Pictured above is one of El Farolito‘s finest. This joint claims to be one of the oldest and most loved burrito joints, but so do they all. Shout out to Taqueria Cancún and La Taqueria at 25th and Mission, which claims (possibly accurately) to be the “Original” taqueria. It was awarded for the best burrito in the country. One word: chorizo.
3. You can always sit outside, which makes life happy and fun.
Outdoor seating at Stable Cafe
Nothing brings a city to life more than its streets bustling at night, made festive with people sitting out on the sidewalks under string lights, laughing from their dinner tables while music from the bars drifts out of their open windows. In the Northeast, this is only possible for three months of the year, and defined as the term ‘spring fever.’ In San Francisco you can have this festivity, or ‘fever,’ year-round. it doesn’t matter if it’s May or January, you’ll find a day you can enjoy your lunch in the sun and your wine by moonlight. Actually, probably the only time you won’t want to sit outside is in July. Then, it’s too cold – something about the mountains and ocean and fog.
Meet Stable Cafe, the cutest little garden cafe thing you’ve ever seen. It’s attached to a succulent shop (plants whose name I didn’t know until I moved here) which allows you to quite literally enter a different world when you step off the street into this oasis. Stable Cafe has a great gazpacho and a great wine-with-sandwich deal at lunchtime. But you can eat a stale cracker in this place on a sunny day and it’ll be the best cracker of your life.
4. Cupcakes are officially dead, but even healthy people love Donuts (and ice cream).
Caramel du sel, chocolate toffee donuts at Dunamo Donut + Coffee
No one cares about cupcakes here. Their glory days as a trend have come and gone, or quite possibly never existed in the Bay area. But I’ve witnessed some slight excitement about donuts, even from the health nuts. Whatever, I’m not changing my blog name. Revolution, I say!
Dynamo Donut + Coffee creates some interesting flavors, such as passionfruit milk chocolate and lemon Sichuan. It’s also won itself lots of donut accolades. Dynamo is worth a try. A donut is a donut is a donut. However, I’m sensitive about my sweet things. There’s no place like (your favorite donut shop at) home. I still think the maple bacon masterpiece at Union Square Donuts of Somerville, MA is the best donut I’ll ever have.
5. This is an exciting place to care about food.
Sidewalk seating at Outerlands
In an artistic, eclectic, open-minded city like San Francisco it can feel like anything could be possible. And in a temperate, socially and food-conscious region like Northern California, and the whole Northwest for that matter, it feels like in the food world anything is possible. It’s exciting place to be if you care about food. California is responsible for most of the country’s produce as well as a sensibility for humane treatment of its farm animals. It’s known for its vineyards, it’s close to Oregon’s breweries and Portland’s pioneering food trends, and lest we forget Seattle’s coffee.
San Francisco itself is filled with farm-to-table restaurants, it’s home to Michelin-starred restaurants, it houses pop-up restaurants, supper clubs and speakeasies. In any neighborhood you have a range of new expensive craft food and drink to dive joints that’ve been there forever and are just as crowded.
I’m pretty sure more restaurants exist in the Mission neighborhood than do in all of Boston, and are new eateries open all the time. Here, everything feels more mixed together. It’s hard to know what’s ‘cool’ because ‘cool’ doesn’t really exist since everyone does their own thing and it’s ‘cool’ to do what’s not ‘cool’ and, well, you get the point…
Pictured above is Outerlands. A popular restaurant known for its drift wood interior, amazing brunch and ‘California cuisine.’ Its fresh ingredients and changing dishes, its modern design and paintings along the outside walls, its proximity to the beach; to me it all epitomizes one thing: California. Shh, it’s a secret. Don’t tell.