Market Tour: The Ferry Building, San Francisco

The many options from Acme Bread [Photograph: Carrie Vasios]

We first proclaimed our affection for the Ferry Building Marketplace with a 2011 roundup of must-try dishes. Since then, new merchants have joined the band of bakeries, casual eateries, prepared food sellers, and specialty shops that make this market a favorite destination for locals and tourists alike.

If you can, drop by in the morning when it's quiet and sedate (except at Blue Bottle, where there is always a line). Breakfast on a Rye Raisin Rabbit roll (more savory than sweet) or grab a 'Sorta' Cross Bun speckled with currants and candied citrus from Acme Bread. Or check in on Biscuit Bender, which became a tenant in September, for a tender, buttery biscuit in flavors like Mexican hot chocolate and corn-jalapeño. Their homemade fruit butters and smoky bacon-bourbon jam go best with the plain biscuits, where they don't have to compete with too many ingredients.

Biscuits to impress a Southerner. [Photograph: Tory Putnam]

All the vendors are obsessive locavores, often sourcing their ingredients from the farmer's market or their neighbors within the building. Cowgirl Creamery Sidekick, the cheese and sandwich offshoot of Cowgirl Creamery, uses bread from Acme; El Porteño stuffs its empanadas with beef from Prather Ranch; and newcomer Bouli Bar makes use of McEvoy Ranch's olive oil.

Tasting the gamut from Stonehouse California Olive Oil. [Photograph: Alissa Merksamer]

Only in the last ten years has the Ferry Building transformed into retail gold. The tunnel-like steel structure was built in 1898, along with a soaring 245 foot clock tower fashioned after the one found at the 12th century Giralda Cathedral in Seville, Spain. Up until the construction of the Bay and Golden Gate bridges in the 1930s, commuters and vacationers entered San Francisco via ferry. But the increase in car travel and the 1957 construction of the ugly Embarcadero Freeway, which cut the Ferry Building from Market Street, translated into decades of neglect. In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake destroyed much of that freeway, prompting its removal and leading to the building's restoration process, completed in 2003.

Now, weekday lunch is a madhouse of collared shirts and sensible heels from those who work in the Financial District, SOMA, or one of the offices located on the floors above. They swarm the communal tables and counters scattered throughout the 65,000-square-foot ground floor marketplace that comprises the public portion of the building. On sunny days, lunchers settle in at the benches along the promenade in back, which face the stunning San Francisco Bay and looming Bay Bridge.

Start at one end and saunter to the other. [Photograph: Serious Eats Team]

For something portable, go with the Argentinian empanadas from El Porteño. Buttery, flaky pastry reminiscent of pie crust encases ample fillings that range from traditional beef to a Swiss chard blend with Gruyère, pine nuts and raisins. The champiñones option is an irresistible meaty mix of seasonal mushrooms thickened with crème fraîche, Parmesan, and shallots.

The champiñones empanada makes a light lunch or filling snack. [Photograph: Alissa Merksamer]

Adjoining the Prather Ranch Meat Company, you'll find American Eatery, where sandwiches and burgers make up the bulk of the menu. I've had mixed success with the burgers—overcooking is a habitual problem—but the grilled pork loin sandwich is hefty and reliable. Shoestring fried onions and a lightly dressed green cabbage and carrot slaw adorn the chile-marinated loin. I like to swap the Acme Torpedo Roll (essentially cushy white bread) for the sliced semolina loaf encrusted in sesame seeds.

The daily soup and salad combo from Il Cane Rosso is consistently fresh, balanced, and fabulous. Plus, ordering here gives you access to the cafe's customer-only seating—a major bonus during the lunchtime rush.

Roasted eggplant soup and a market salad. [Photograph: Alissa Merksamer]

If you're on a cleanse, health kick, or don't have time to actually chew, check out Pressed Juicery. Start by asking for a sample of of Greens 3, a leafy garden of kale, spinach and parsley that's sweetened with apple. Then sip your way through more than one dozen unsweetened juices.

Bottoms up to anyone on a health kick. [Photograph: Alissa Merksamer]

Bouli Bar, the new restaurant from the owners of Boulette's Larder (next door) offers a more formal, sit-down venue with a contemporary aesthetic. It may cost $20 for a salad, but try not to let the prices deter you. Each sustainable, organic bite is worth the cost. Some items are carryovers from Boulette's, but the pizzas are unique to Bouli. Each bakes in a wood-burning oven, for a charred crust with a crisped bottom and puffy rim. In the photo above, the crunchy and chewy canvas is topped with a relish of eggplant, red pepper, tomato, and zucchini, as well as firm squash blossoms and dollops of burrata cheese. If you're on the move, you can order some dishes, including the pizzas, from the truncated to-go menu.

A crust that's worth every crumb. [Photograph: Alissa Merksamer]

The only period more frenetic than weekday lunch is Saturday, during the grand farmer's market that takes over the front and back of the building. G.L Alfieri Fruit & Nuts and Far West Fungi operate booths inside the building and at the farmer's market. The staff at Alfieri goads passersby with free bites of nut brittle, but they'll let you try their entire assembly of almonds, which come coated in a myriad of sweet and savory blends, like raspberry honey, lemon chili, and butter toffee.

Taste the almond butter! [Photograph: Tory Putnam]

At Far West Fungi, you'll find a mushroom for every meal, including rarities like elephantine lobster mushrooms with orange-red hues and hints of shellfish. You'll also find a knowledgeable staff. An assortment of fungi-related products occupy the shelves, like Perlage di tartufo, a caviar doppelgänger made from truffle juice. There's even a marshmallow dessert from Biscuit Bender and pints of Humphry Slocombe ice cream, both flavored with the maple notes of Candy Cap mushrooms.

Breadth of cultivated and wild varieties. [Photograph: Alissa Merksamer]

On the subject of sweets, sidle over to the glass counter at Recchiuti (which undoubtedly protects the array of bon bons from customers' drool). You'll discover several non-traditional infusions like lemon verbena and bergamot tea. Treat someone—or yourself—to a pretty gift box of dessert sauces: one jar of sultry, extra-bitter dark chocolate and one of smoky burnt caramel.

Chocolates to swoon for. [Photograph: Tory Putnam]

Most shoppers stop by the bakery Miette for macarons or cupcakes, but I prefer the cheesecake. Homemade honey graham crackers are crushed into a thick, buttery crust, a natural foil for the sour cream-topped cream cheese filling that's lighter than New York-style. The staff usually doles out samples of shortbread, so if they don't offer you one, be sure to ask.

This elegant cake that keeps for several days. [Photograph: Alissa Merksamer]

La Cocina, an incubator kitchen that helps primarily low-income women launch food businesses, has a permanent kiosk to feature their participants' products. Nibble on the shortbread cookies or dark chocolate-covered Brazilian honey cake from Kika's Treats while you wander, or sink into the sea salt or smoked chili dark chocolate truffles from Neo Cocoa.

New Cocoa's shell-less truffles. [Photograph: Alissa Merksamer]

If you come in the afternoon, break for tea at the calming Imperial Tea Court where you can take your time mulling over the menu of 60 different loose leaf varieties. Stick with liquids and bypass the overpriced dim sum. Or opt for an espresso and join the coffee connoisseurs on the line that consistently snakes around Blue Bottle.

Find oolong, puerh, white, green, black, herbal, and scented blends. [Photograph: Tory Putnam]

For an aerial view of the action in the Marketplace, head upstairs. Just tell the guard you want to check out the scene, and he'll (usually) let you pass.

The Ferry Building is open seven days a week, but many stalls close by 6 or 7 p.m. on weekdays. On Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., you'll find small farmers markets out front along with prepared food from 4505 Meats, Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen, and Hapa Ramen.

The San Francisco Ferry Building

1 Sausalito - San Francisco Ferry Bldg, San Francisco, CA (map)
415-983-8030; Ferrybuildingmarketplace.com

About the author: From San Francisco to New York and back to San Francisco, Alissa Merksamer is a food adventurer who'll try almost anything once. She's a frequent snacker and seeker of free samples. Check out her blog Glamorous Snacker and follow her on twitter @glamsnack.

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