This roadtrip has been a voyage of culinary discovery so far and we’ve barely made a dent in it; from donuts to oysters to bourbon to kale, we’ve scaled the high and frankly, even higher points of West Coast dining and the last post resulted in my lauding with honours the fabulous Pacific Catch and their heavenly salmon rice bowls.
But let’s face it, in order to maintain the perfect balance, everything has its opposite; as there are hot dogs, so there must be mustard. As there is gin, so there must be tonic. As there is jelly, so there must be ice-cream. And as there are healthy salads, so there must be treats of such oozy, heavy deliciousness, they’re worth every potentially guilt-inducing moment of devouring.
I say guilt-inducing in jest because I actually don’t think you should ever feel guilt about what you eat. It’s your choice so put in your mouth, your tummy, your body whatever makes you happy and accept the consequences. Personally, I love pretty much everything so I try and eat pretty much everything in moderation. That said, I’ve never in my life put a Ben & Jerry’s pint back in the freezer half-eaten so let that be all you need to know about how slippery that damn slope of moderation can be at times. Anyway my point is, eat what you like & work it off or eat what you like, don’t work it off & accept that waistbands may tighten unless the only things you eat that make you happy are broccoli and tofu in which case what are you doing reading this blog?
We’ve established then that San Francisco is the playground of the active, the luminous & the healthy but it also has a dark side that is really quite exceptional. Let’s have a look at the savoury portion of the dark side in this post and talk grilled sandwiches stuffed with mac’n’cheese and a burrito that has frequently topped a gazillion shrieking ‘Best Burrito in the World!’ polls…
I’d first of all like to introduce you to a little ‘Grilled Cheese Happiness’. This is the delicious tagline of The Melt, a San Francisco HQ’d chain that boasts 16 locations throughout a state every bit as golden as the cheese they sandwich between their sourdough, artisan white or spicy garlic breads. Led by directors including former Apple execs and Silicone Valley stalwarts, The Melt is growing rapidly and was recommended to me as a place to hit up for lunch now, before its popularity explodes nationwide.
Located on Howard St in San Fran’s SOMA (South of Market District), the scaffolding of the building next door make it a tad hard to spot but look out for the giant orange Melt circle and a minimal, vaguely-futuristic decor and you’ll be fine. With soup and salad also offered – although I can’t imagine the willpower or mental state of anyone who goes into a grilled cheese shop and orders salad – the menu isn’t vast but it offers a really decent selection of grilled cheese sandwiches that would feature in the dreams of the most ardent fromage lover.
BTW, it did make me snort to see the calories listed because I neither cared to have or took any notice of this information – if you want grilled cheese, you’re having grilled cheese and a calorie content that veers from ‘heyyyy-that’s-that-bad’ to ‘holy-mother-of-brie’ is not going to stop you.
Anyone who loves cheese will know that trying to pick one over another is a nigh on impossible task but one that, unless you have a very extendabable waistband and a very high tolerance for melted dairy, must be done and so I present you with The Mission, sourdough stuffed with jalapeno and pepper jack, and the Mac Daddy, a casual little number consisting of aged cheddar, smoked bacon and macaroni packed between artisan white bread slices. Yeah, that’s right. I said macaroni.
This is some good grilled cheese. The Mission’s sourdough bookends were perfect; chewy and fluffy and sweet and sour, basically everything you’d imagine a sourdough from this part of the world to be. The jalapenos were generously portioned and gave a sharp, hot, sweet, juicy bite to each mouthful that was pleasantly tempered by the cheese.
The Mac Daddy is possibly the only thing in the world that I will allow to call itself that ridiculously self-indulgent title because it was epic and it was worthy of it. I mean come ON, it’s creamy mac’n’cheese and crispy, salty bacon bits sandwiched between soft, golden, crunchy, herb sprinkled slices of grilled bread. The pasta wasn’t as strong a flavour or texture in sandwich format as it usually is on its own which was a good thing because it meant it wasn’t the literally killer combination you might have feared but it was gooey and delicious and the tang of accompanying pickles cut nicely through the luscious carbiness.
I felt a little for The Melt here because if I hadn’t been to the Grilled Cheese Grill only a few days before, I may have pledged my love for their sandwiches even more and although their bread was some of the best I’ve tasted, the winner for overall experience can’t help but go to a little vintage school bus. That said, this is an awesome place to go when you’re feeling deficient in the cheese stakes and if The Melt keeps on extending its reach and that reach hits London town, consider myself signed up as their first customer.
So now let’s venture south in the culinary sense and take a look at one of the country’s best loved, most popular & highest ranking burritos. Ah come on, where’s your sense of adventure? It’s only the size and weight of a newborn baby – wipe those cheese strands off your chin, get your stretchy pants on and let’s be having you…
In 2013, US Esquire Magazine asked the readers of their ‘Eat Like A Man’ blog to vote for the best burrito in the USA. Coming in with a storming 40% of the vote was El Farolito, a tiny hole-in-the-wall place in the Mission District of San Francisco. Serving burritos for the past 32 years, this was one of the first places to acquire a spot on my must-eat list for this trip and if I could reach out and shake it firmly by it’s guacamoley-refried-beany-cheesey hand, my God, I’d like to.
Two of the biggest selling points that make this place stand out among a sea of similarity are that a) they stand by their ingredients and their ingredients have to be quality – they always buy from the same suppliers regardless of cost – and b) you can pretty much pick & choose until the burrito assembled in front of you is less a staple of the Mexican diet and more an absolute work of art worthy of a place on your Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter galleries.
From the recognisable – steak, chicken & pork – to the more unfamiliar to me although probably not to the locals – beef brain, tongue & head meat – there is an excellent choice of meats to build your burrito around. Add in toppings that include rice, beans, tomato, cilantro, onion, salsa, cheese, sour cream and avocado and you have all the fixings of something insanely good. Just ask the rainbow of locals who were already lunching or the man who’d come straight from the airport, wheeled case in tow.
There was a short queue when we arrived mid-afternoon which was quickly worked through by the cheerful, polite staff, one of whom got extra points for recognising me as English and not Canadian or Australian. Watching the cooks work in ever expanding clouds of steam & sizzle was quite therapeutic although I did realise that I’ve got bath towels smaller than the fresh tortillas and mountains of seasoned meat they were laying out. At less than $18 for two of these monsters (we had Carnitas and Carne Asada or pork and steak for the uninitiated), the value here can’t be denied and when they brought them over to us with piles of napkins and pots of salsa, our mild salivation was only two droplets away from becoming table-top puddles of anticipatory dribble.
This is hands down the best burrito I have ever had. Ok, I can see you reaching for your tea or checking that you’ve not missed your tube stop and I’m not convinced that you’re really listening to me so I’ll say that again. Slowly.
Best. Burrito. Ever. Had.
The meat was ridiculously juicy and rich with the flavours of seasoned, seared pork coming through; honestly I could’ve eaten a nosebag full of it like some carnivorous, greedy little pony. Every ingredient was abundant to the point where forkfuls often had to be taken to avoid losing your beans or meat overboard and there was a clever subtlety that made each mouthful creamy, spicy and moreish but never over-powering. Don’t be mistaken, this is one enormous piece of edible Mexican engineering and there were moments near the end when a minute of silent contemplation had to take place and buttons had to be undone…you have been warned.
As a devotee and loyal advocate of all Mexican cuisine, the burrito is something I’ve had my fair share of. I fear I have now been forever spoilt by this one though because try as I might to find a suitable substitute here in London, I just don’t think it’s going to be possible. If you ever see a little redhead eating a burrito and weeping quietly into its tinfoil jacket, be aware that it’s probably me and I’m definitely wishing I was back in a little paint-peeling-store-front having a warm welcome and the burrito of my dreams in El Farolito.