The Golden West
I would be the most blissed-out blimp if I could eat breakfast at The Golden West every day. Owned by Dennis Leary of Canteen/Shields, this take-out window serves the same stellar baked goods as its SOMA sister The Sentinel. Warm cinnamon-crusted coffee cake ($2.75) and hefty muffins ($2.50) with crisped tops are pulled from their pans when you order them. They sell out each day, sometimes as early as 9:00 a.m. Entrees alternate between two of the best hangover cures in San Francisco: Chorizo Gravy with Cornbread and Pork and Beans (both $6). In the first, a coverlet of pinkish sauce rippled with chorizo gravy conceals all but a few marigold corners rife with chewy corn kernels. The second is a hearty but not heavy soup. Tap your spoon against the floating poached egg and watch it bleed yellow into the slightly spicy porky broth. Shards of pork shoulder and soft white beans will fill your spoon until the last drop. A little tomato cilantro salsa helps keep things surprisingly light.
As a California native and de facto avocado aficionado, I embrace any menu that serves my favorite fruit for breakfast. La Torta Loca ($8) is a sandwich inspired by the one chef Alex Placencia’s mother used to make him after school. Earthy white bean puree cushions ten slices (I counted) of ripe avocado and salty queso fresco on a baguette. Sometimes, the kitchen substitutes melted white cheddar, but no complaints here. Spank on a little “magic dust,” a sweet and savory house chile powder blend and chase with a cup of Four Barrel Coffee. Beware that the café's other breakfast sandwiches tend to be oily.
The Plant Café
This popular mini-chain dedicated to local, organic food serves excellent breakfasts that just happen to be healthy. The powerhouse Plant Breakfast Bowl ($6.50) refreshes with a diced jumble of young coconut, apples, and pecans in shallow bath of coconut water. Maple syrup adds richness. The Basil Tofu Scramble is so flavorful it might satisfy a carnivore. You can order it as a plate with toast or wrapped inside a grilled wheat tortilla with tender potatoes, black beans, spinach, cherry tomatoes, and a little melted cheddar ($8.25). For a drinkable meal, choose from the 20+ made-to-order juices and smoothies.
These aren’t the best or biggest burritos, but they are only $5 for organic eggs from the restaurant’s farm in Sonoma, free chips, and access to a Mission-worthy salsa bar. In this Nopales Con Huevo Burrito, tender strips of nopales, the mild pads of the prickly pear cactus, get swaddled with refried beans, tomatoes, and eggs in a steamed tortilla. It needs some oomph, but that’s when you hit the salsa bar to load up on choices like cucumber salsa fresca punchy with jalapeño, smoky pumpkin, fruit-filled mango, and "inferno," the hottest option. Inferno won’t blow out your taste buds, but it will make you sweat. Beware that the cashier only provides two plastic salsa cups for to-go orders. If you decide to eat in, you’ll find plenty of empty tables upstairs.
Fleur de Sel
Morning pastries taste like Paris at this French café owned by former Chapeau chef Stephane Gregoire. Rip into a puffed croissant ($1.95) and watch the flakes fly from its thousand blond layers. Only the faintest smudge of grease sticks to your fingers. Sink into the apple turnover ($2.25) filled with fresh apple puree, a bit of tartness to counteract the buttery puff pastry. And then, you must tackle the vegetable quiche ($3.50). Spoon into a custardy interior that’s more vegetable than egg, and you might, as I did, forgive the mushy crust and film of congealed Emmentaler. The veggies change seasonally, but expect a cornucopia year-round.
John’s Snack and Deli
It’s standing room only at this Korean deli and convenience store where you can get kimbap ($3.25-$4.75) for breakfast or lunch. Though it’s sometimes referred to as "Korean sushi" because of its similar appearance, the fillings in kimbap are usually cooked. At John’s, get yours with meat, fish or kimchi along with sweet omelet, snappy cucumber, shredded carrots, and thin sheet of tofu. The deli opens at 6:00 a.m. for coffee service, but John’s mom doesn’t start making kimbap until about 8:30 a.m. Call in your order if you want to ensure it’s ready when you arrive.
John's Snack and Deli: 40 Battery Street, San Francisco, CA 94111 (map); (415) 434-4634
Blue Hawaii Café
Leave it to the surfers in Hawaii and Southern California to come up with a supercharged morning meal that’s as colorful as their landscape. Blue Hawaii Café purees frozen açaí berries with a bit of banana to temper the açaí’s natural pucker. They build the bowls ($4.95-$5.95/small) by blending this frozen açaí slush with your choice of non-dairy milk (I go for almond), some pedestrian granola, and a wreath of sliced banana, strawberries, and blueberries. The finished product has the personality of a smoothie, the texture of a sorbet, and the look of a kicked-up fruit bowl.
It would be remiss not to include San Francisco’s ubiquitous French bakery in a discussion about breakfast. There are three locations in the Financial District alone, although the one on Market serves a truncated menu. At La Boulange, you'll find the gamut of admirable pastries like croissants thick with dark chocolate or almond paste and Danishes staked with pucks of creamy cheese. In the morning, a latte bowl of oatmeal ($6) is the wholesome option. The oats arrive in a steamy bath of frothed milk, soft but still chewy with mixed fruit floating on top. You can order it with brown sugar, maple syrup or honey or dollop your own spoonful of nutella or jam from the selection of self-serve condiments. Note that La Boulange offers its whole menu all day long, so if you feel like a turkey bacon club on pain de mie at 7:30 a.m., bon appetit.
222 Sutter Street, San Francisco, CA 94108 (map); (415) 989-5010
465 California Street, San Francisco, CA 94104 (map); (415) 402-0576
685 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103 (map); (415) 512-7610
The Chai Cart
Here lies the remedy to foggy mornings: cauldrons of masala or rose chai made the traditional Indian way. Whereas chai lattes add steamed milk to brewed tea, The Chai Cart boils the milk and tea together to meld the flavors. I’m partial to the masala ($2.75/small) for its prick of pepper and fresh ginger juice. A speck of sugar tames the burn and balances the other spices. The Chai Cart has two locations just a few blocks from each other on Market Street.
Newtree Café and Chocolate Shop
At this bright café/Belgium chocolate shop, you’ll find deceptively rich vegan hot chocolate and a wining morning muffin. The hot chocolate ($4.45) blends Newtree’s brand of organic, fair trade dark chocolate with almond milk and a subtle potpourri of cinnamon, cloves, and orange peel. The drink’s only sweetness comes from the chocolate, which itself is primarily sweetened with agave. A similar spice medley perfumes the carrot coconut muffin ($3.45) whose bounty of sliced almonds, whips of candied ginger, and dried cranberries make it seem healthy and indulgent. Before you leave, don’t forget to sample the dozen varieties of chocolate displayed along the wall.
Honorable Mention: Batter Bakery Kiosk
The kiosk on the corner of California and Kearny sells some of the baked goods produced at Batter Bakery in Russian Hill. The bakery struggles with consistency, but the scones ($3) are generally reliable. You’ll find sweet (apple cinnamon) and savory (goat cheese, beet, and onion) options with browned exteriors and interiors that are more tender than flaky. Options rotate weekly, but if you spot the lemon thyme olive oil quick bread ($2.50), nab it. Bits of green herbs and lemon peel flake this sunny slab with a flavor reminiscent of pine trees. Skip your coffee and complement your scone with strong black tea.