In Japantown’s Buchanan Plaza, a stone’s throw from Ruth Asawa’s famed origami fountain, sits Benkyodo Company, a 113-year-old institution. Established by Suyeichi Okamura in 1906, Benkyodo has offered San Franciscans handmade manju (steamed, filled cakes made with wheat or rice flour) and mochi (pounded glutinous rice cakes) for over three generations.
Benkyodo is the city’s last-standing manufacturer of Japanese sweets, called wagashi, and the shop is a testament to the resilience and grit of the Okamura family. The family survived forced closure and Japanese internment during World War II, redevelopment in the Western Addition, and encroaching gentrification. But every year, whether eaten for a daily treat or a Japanese New Year's celebration, these wagashi are a San Francisco staple.
Benkyodo’s gleaming glass counter offers a selection of over a dozen types of treats that change by the season and even by the day. Brothers Bobby and Ricky Okamura painstakingly pound rice-flour dough without a recipe in sight; the treats are then molded and filled with sweet white lima bean or adzuki red bean paste, and ripe strawberries, apples, or juicy blueberries.
Benkyodo doubles as a dinette, offering up an Americana menu of tuna or deviled-egg white-bread sandwiches for under $6. But for me, the fresh mochi is the star of the show. Specialties range from the delicately chewy green mochi dusted with nutty kinako (soybean) flour to pillowy white mochi wrapped around soft creamy peanut butter. Age (bite-size sugary doughnuts filled with smooth bean paste) and festive rainbow suama (sweet mochi dumplings) are not to be missed.
It’s best to beat the after-school rush, as early birds are rewarded with fresh picks before they sell out. I prefer these treats as an unapologetic second breakfast, and regularly order the mango mochi and humble chofu, a tiny honey cake that’s wrapped around a plain glutinous-rice cake. If you are extraordinarily lucky, during the springtime Cherry Blossom Festival, you might get your hands on the sakura mochi, a pale-pink rice cake wrapped in a salted cherry blossom leaf.
Not much of Benkyodo's decor has changed since the 1960s; the long red lunch counter, with matching stools, is charmingly retro. It's an opportunity to savor a bit of history reasonably, as the prices are friendly to tourists and neighborhood elders alike.
Long before brunch lines were cool, Eddie’s Cafe on Divisadero drew crowds for its hearty plates, mellow vibe, and kind service. Originally opened in 1974 by Edward “Eddie” Barrie, the restaurant served up Southern comfort in the form of stewed oxtail, fried chicken and waffles, and grits, geared toward the then primarily African-American Western Addition and Fillmore communities. Eddie sold the business about 15 years later to Helen and Min Hwang, who preserved the name and Southern flair, but focused on breakfast classics to attract neighborhood newcomers while also welcoming longtime guests.
At Eddie's, there's hardly a vegetable in sight (the green-speckled Denver omelette is a notable exception), the pancakes are plate-sized, and the sausages, gloriously, come in link, smoked, and patty forms. The tender biscuits are always warm, with softened butter, and you can choose between a side of white rice or hot grits. Drip coffee flows easily along with the attentive and efficient service. The back wall is plastered with posters from neighborhood theater groups and also features a working pay phone—a pleasing anachronism—where Mia, the new owner, hurriedly takes pickup orders.
Eddie’s is one of the few places left in San Francisco where the diversity of the Bay Area is evident on any given Sunday—people from all walks of life come together here. Part neighborhood bastion, part unofficial SF Giants memorabilia museum (check out the hilariously eclectic mug collection in addition to the Giants bobbleheads), and a rare spot in the city where you can still get breakfast for two for under $30, it offers exactly what you want in a homey diner.
In the Tenderloin, a neighborhood full of good regional Vietnamese food, Mong Thu is my favorite. Owner Kim Nguyen has run her family business for over 24 years, operating out of a tiny alcove on Hyde Street and drawing a faithful following of neighborhood folks and nearby workers for her deeply aromatic noodle soups and banh mi sandwiches. In 2017, Kim almost faced closure due to a number of permitting issues; luckily, after teaming up with her talented daughters, she received a small-business grant from a local government program called SF Shines, aiding a complete renovation. The restaurant reopened with fresh mint-colored walls, hand-painted signs, a new food-prep area, and an updated menu, and Kim’s soup pots are humming once more.
Kim and her family immigrated to San Francisco in the 1980s seeking a better life, like many immigrants from Southeast Asia (particularly Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia) escaping war, poverty, and political instability. Over time, a large number of first- and second-generation immigrant families settled in the Tenderloin, establishing the neighborhood's “Little Saigon” and bringing many Southeast Asian restaurants, cafés, small grocery stores, and sandwich shops. Mong Thu is an anchor in this community: Weekday lunchtime brings regulars catching up on neighborhood news while sopping up the last bit of banh mi xiu mai (juicy pork meatballs in a heady tomato broth) with fresh baguette.
A healthy money tree sits atop a tidy counter of plastic cups brimming with chè, taro-flavored rice pudding with tapioca pearls and sweetened condensed milk. I love sitting in this leafy corner to get a peek at Kim’s kitchen action, while eyeing the lunch orders of my fellow diners.
My go-to is the hu tieu nam vang, a clear vermicelli soup topped with sliced pork, bits of crispy pork rind, plump shrimp, basil, chicken, mint, scallion, and fried shallots. Kim’s broth, scented with charred onion and anise, is good on both sweltering and shivery days. But the real star of this dish is the golden, crispy pancake, with hunks of skin-on shrimp, that sits on top, accompanied by homemade nuoc mam, a fish sauce–based dipping sauce. Bring cash, and steady yourself for the heart-pounding punch of the iced Vietnamese coffee.
Birba, a relative newcomer in Hayes Valley, is the tiny wine bar that could. Owner and hospitality veteran Angie Valgiusti—who honed her credentials at venerable Bay Area restaurants such as The Slanted Door—persisted through an ultimately successful Kickstarter campaign to open up a relaxed wine bar for industry folks and vino newbies. Part friendly neighborhood wine bar, part European-inspired café, the endearingly narrow Birba (meaning “rascal" in Italian) waited for a frustrating two years to introduce its most welcoming feature: a garden patio shaded by a two-story-tall avocado tree.
Delivering buzzy pét-nat with zero pretension, Birba is my place for long-overdue friend catch-ups and post-work wine-downs; it offers adventurous and accessible wines, paired with deftly crafted small plates. The low-key vibe summons the enotecas I hung out in when I lived in Italy: dimly lit, with well-loved wood countertops and rustic walls, and serving up salty, crusty focaccia and warm, plump olives. Menu staples like burrata toasts and freshly made pasta will tide you over before you hit up a nearby City Arts & Lectures conversation or a show at SFJAZZ.
The Birba wine list is a world tour for thrifty and extravagant travelers alike; after having a drink there, you’ll be tempted to bring a bottle home (which you can, as the bar also sells wine to go). I love the selection of dry German rieslings that put their sweet cousins to shame, and was recently introduced to a crisp rosé from the Canary Islands that I haven’t stopped thinking about. Sometimes I switch up my aperitivo with a bittersweet Italian vermouth and a splash of soda. And the dessert pots are my secret Achilles' heel—one bite of dark-chocolate pot de crème with toasted hazelnuts inevitably prompts an immediate second order.
Folklores Coffee Traders
As a port city, San Francisco has long been a coffee haven. The city is steeped in coffee history, from James A. Folger offering the first packaged ground coffee to Gold Rush miners, to the beatnik-led café culture of the ‘60s, to the craft-coffee revolution of the early aughts.
Folklores Coffee Traders on Fillmore Street is my neighborhood coffee spot, and it bridges the gap between our aspirational coffee lives (third-wave artisan roasters, single-origin pourovers, oat-milk lattes aplenty) and our real coffee lives (close to home, friendly baristas, cheap and cheerful drip cups). Originally established as Zo11 Coffee Traders by Alex Assefa, and rooted in Ethiopian coffee culture and hospitality, the café is now under new proprietorship by owner Gideon Woldetsadik and his wife.
Because Ethiopian families traditionally purchase green coffee beans and roast them at home, Folklores sells beans this way to meet the needs of the Ethiopian and Eritrean residents that live nearby. Folklores also makes fragrant micro batches of coffee beans using its small in-house roaster, packaging the beans in bags for customers to buy and take home. Blends range from fairly acidic lighter roasts, with hints of lemon peel and white flowers, to warmer dark roasts with notes of tobacco and chocolate.
Folklores’ full-bodied whole-milk latte with hints of cinnamon wakes me up most mornings. Gideon rightly chuckles at me when I ask for medium strength—fair warning, Folklores' brew will fuel you for hours. Try the Ethiopiano, a squat piccolo latte topped with a shot of espresso and a dollop of foamed milk. If you’re looking for a slower, more traditional coffee experience, the jebena is a quiet morning treat: You’ll receive a medium-ground rich brew served in the type of spouted clay pot that’s typically used in Ethiopian coffee ceremonies.
Don’t sleep on Folklores' breakfast options, either. I opt for the crispy, chili-flecked lentil sambusa (a fried triangular pastry) or the ful (braised fava beans topped with fresh tomatoes, chilies, and onions). The herb-laden salmon scramble with goat cheese, sautéed fresh peppers, and potatoes is another favorite. Folklores is a low-key and friendly, but tiny, operation. Be prepared to wait, and admire the colorful Pollock-reminiscent paintings on the wall, done by local artist Chris Duke.
Where the neon lights dimmed on the Burgermeister on Church Street now shines Beit Rima. With his parents’ blessing, Chef Samir Mogannam reimagined this location of his family’s 20-year-old burger chain into a bustling spot—sweetly named after his mother, Rima—dishing up what he calls “Arab comfort food." Eschewing the dilution inherent in the boundary-less umbrella term “Mediterranean," Samir’s menu is a faithful homage to his Palestinian and Jordanian heritage.
My personal favorites include the meze sampler platter—the spicy-sweet muhammara, a red-pepper-and-walnut dip served with crunchy seasonal veggies and bright-pink pickles, is a standout—and the hummus ma’lehma (with spiced ground beef and pine nuts), which I usually pair with the creamy, tangy house-made labneh and a glass of minerally Palestinian white wine. Don’t miss the blistering-hot made-to-order pita with an ample dusting of za’atar, and hearty plates of perfectly charred yogurt-marinated chicken skewers atop Samir’s mother’s rice.
In a space that feels like a stylish, homey living room, you’ll find the energetic chef expediting orders, sprinkling that last handful of nigella seeds, or greeting returning diners like family. Samir worked his way up through fine-dining ranks under chefs like Reem Assil, but always aspired to have a place to call his own. Beit Rima is indicative of how the next generation of chefs cooks unapologetically and authentically to their stories, and, in a city where the personal is political, Beit Rima deliciously weaves a multigenerational story with a captive, hungry audience.
It looks like Samir’s persistence has won his family over, as a second Beit Rima is in the works in Cole Valley, taking over—you guessed it—another now-retired Burgermeister.
Peaches Patties, the contemporary Jamaican-patty shop in Bernal Heights owned by SF native Shani Jones, fills a conspicuous gap in San Francisco’s food scene: an unfortunate lack of Caribbean dining options. Shani, the daughter of a Jamaican mother and a father from New Orleans, makes her patties from scratch every day, selling beef, curried chicken, and spinach versions.
These pastries are buttery, plump, and redolent of hot pepper, allspice, and thyme, a much-appreciated departure from the all-too-common fate of patty fillings ground into unidentifiable mush. You can complete your patty meal with two other San Francisco rarities: warm sweet plantains, and fluffy rice and peas.
With a boost from small-business incubator La Cocina, Shani has steadily built her business out of a tiny stall in a shared food hall. Where Shani really shines is in Peaches Patties’ local catering, where she has more room to show the finesse and diversity of Jamaican cuisine.
Like any local who loves to host, my favorites for a birthday or baby shower gathering include her fiery grilled jerk chicken thighs, and escovitch—pan-seared local trout topped with a confetti of hot and sweet peppers in a malt vinegar–based sauce. One last insider tip: Peaches Patties’ once-a-year jerk whole turkey is a welcome addition to any Friendsgiving table.
Yummy Dumpling is a cherished frozen-dumpling depot, and a weeknight savior for busy home cooks. Located in The Avenues, the family-owned business is enticing enough to convince any local or intrepid food lover to cross the Bay Bridge. I love its ethos of "simple outside, rich inside," which punnily describes both the food and the location. Upon entry to a plain beige storefront, you'll usually find three to four hairnetted women delicately rolling, filling, and wrapping thousands of dumplings by hand. There’s no seating or dining-in option; just concerted dumpling-making and a friendly counter-person with a price list and home-cooking instructions at the ready. (Steaming is best.)
Grab a handy red plastic tray, and dive headfirst into the freezer to actualize your dumpling dreams with pork and green chive, lamb and Napa cabbage, or beef and daikon dumplings, never frostbitten or brittle. Cooking yields tender, juicy dumplings with a bit of chew. The Shanghai soup dumplings are a permanent fixture in my freezer, reserved for blustery SF evenings. Wontons, shrimp-and-chive pancakes, and pork buns, perfect for a dim sum party, round out the shop's frozen offerings.
Prices range from about $5 to $9 for a bag of 20 dumplings, depending on the size and variety. Please do not confuse the shop for a restaurant: If you’re looking to enjoy these dumplings on the spot, get thee to the wildly popular King of Noodles across the street, which sells prepared Yummy dumplings in addition to noodles.
Any Farmers Market
I won’t wax lyrical about how utterly amazing California produce is, but honestly, San Franciscans are incredibly spoiled—especially by the sheer number of year-round farmers markets operating in the city (20!). Most locals are loyal to the farmers market in their ‘hood; it’s a good place to catch up with a neighbor, or pick up precious items you can’t find at the grocery store (think Emerald Beaut green pluots or pastured duck eggs). Small farmers from the strawberry-laden fields of Watsonville to the almond orchards of Modesto lug their fresh wares to the city each and every day of the week except Mondays.
The Ferry Building Farmers Market is the best-known market of the bunch, serving as the living blueprint for the Bay Area’s love of all things organic, local, and seasonal. (Disclosure: I’m on the board of CUESA, the organization that runs the market.) But I also have a soft spot for the independently owned and farmer-run Heart of the City Farmers Market at Civic Center/United Nations Plaza, which has only a handful of paid employees. In operation since 1981, the market transforms a hardscrabble public plaza into a vibrant outdoor market, frequented by award-winning chefs and casual shoppers alike every Wednesday and Sunday.
I typically take a lunchtime jaunt to the market, where I’m greeted by beautiful bunches of ruby-red chard; dark, leafy dinosaur kale; rainbow carrots with fluffy tops; and knobby squashes that are taller than my pint-sized godson. My favorite part of San Francisco farmers markets? Every market accepts CalFresh EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) cards, formerly known as food stamps, ensuring fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables for more San Franciscans.
El Buen Comer
I was first introduced to Isabel Caudillo one sunny Saturday via a plate of chilaquiles. I was at her popular stand at the Noe Valley farmers market, and one bite of the crunchy deep-fried tortillas enrobed in salsa verde, accompanied by a tiny mountain of cheese and a perfectly runny fried egg, made me rethink every bowl of cold cereal I’d ever had for breakfast.
It took almost a decade—one spent juggling large catering orders, a dedicated market stand, and frequent pop-ups, all while raising three sons—but in 2016, Isabel finally opened her own brick-and-mortar restaurant, at Kingston Street and Mission. As is true for many local entrepreneurs, Isabel’s journey started in her tiny home kitchen, from which she served up lunch plates of her signature dish, guisado—a hearty Mexican stew or braise, depending on the day—for $8 a pop. Now, at her light-filled restaurant and open kitchen, Isabel’s sacrifices and hard work have paid off, and it shows.
Deep-mustard and aquamarine tiles line the walls, bordering burgundy bookcases adorned with Mexican folk art and objects: a well-worn metate, a nativity scene, dancing skeleton figurines. Thick handmade corn tortillas arrive piping-hot in floral-patterned napkins in a straw basket, and fragrant black beans simmer tableside in terra-cotta pots. Each tortilla, with its rough-hewn edges and grooves, is perfect for sopping up my preferred guisado, mole verde de puerco: tender braised pork in a rich and earthy pumpkin-seed mole.
El Buen Comer's hearty, affordable portions make it ideal for groups and families. Though I generally stay on-menu, you do have the option of letting Isabel feed you her way, with a chef’s tasting priced at $40. I like to visit with my friends who have children, and see their little ones savor a key part of every San Franciscan’s diet: fresh, soulful Mexican food.
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