It’s no secret that San Francisco boasts one of the most dynamic food and beverage scenes in the world. According to a 2012 report, San Francisco leads the nation in number of restaurants per household – and the competition isn’t even close. By every measure, the City-by-the-Bay’s dining economy is snapping necks and cashing checks at rates that are virtually unheard of elsewhere, but the region’s dominance of the industry, while certainly owed to San Francisco, extends far beyond the city’s limits.
As CCA’s unofficial liaison to the Peninsula, I have the daily privilege of experiencing both the mecca beneath the fog and the sunny, suburban sprawl to the south—which many may not know is home to Silicon Valley and a number of gorgeous, high-end residential communities such as Atherton, Hillsborough, Palo Alto, and Woodside. The Peninsula is not only a more down-to-earth alternative to the bustling, hipster-packed city; it is also home to some awe-inspiring culinary delights. While many would proclaim that SF crushes the competition, I would respond with the simple assertion that nothing beats the nostalgia of gobbling down a familiar dish from your favorite hometown eatery. With that in mind I’ve compiled a short list of my top hometown restaurants. Be sure to give them a try if you ever find yourself wandering with your back to the Golden Gate…
San Carlos, California proudly proclaims itself “The City of Good Living.” As a life-long local of the quiet town of ~30,000, I can personally attest to that statement’s validity. Located exactly halfway between San Francisco and San Jose, San Carlos sits at the literal heart of the Peninsula. In addition to the laid-back small-town vibe, San Carlos is home to a rapidly expanding dining scene. My highly-curated list is composed of just three restaurants, all of whom reside on Laurel Street, the bustling strip that acts as virtually the entirety of downtown San Carlos.
We begin our tour of Laurel Street’s can’t-miss dining destinations with the newest addition to the local scene: Johnston’s Saltbox. Founded early 2014 by Sean Johnston and his wife Jennifer, Saltbox is the kind of restaurant that socially forward, health-conscious Bay Area foodies flock to – and for good reason. Saltbox features a limited menu that changes every day due to a commitment to using only fresh, local ingredients. In the Thomas Keller tradition, many of the herbs that you’ll find adorning your food were grown in the restaurant’s rooftop herb garden. It would be immediately outdated to mention menu particulars because of its inherent seasonality, but I will say that in my experience, the food is always prepared in an impeccable tribute to local flavors.
Like most good restaurants, however, the cuisine is only a part of the story. Saltbox, which is named as an ode to the eponymous architectural style, can become an open-air experience at the drop of a hat thanks to the floor-to-ceiling, accordion-style windows that face the street. If you’d rather dispatch with pretense and simply sit outside, there’s an awning-covered patio where patrons can sit to enjoy the open air.
Only a few short blocks north of Saltbox sits one of the most popular eateries in San Carlos: The Refuge.
The Refuge styles itself purveyor of the “World’s Finest Pastrami & Belgian Beer” – a lofty boast to be sure, but not one that’s without some measure of support amongst the locals. The restaurant, which overflows with customers most nights, offers an impressive selection of 18 Belgian draught beers and more than 100 bottled offerings. As a self-proclaimed beer nut, I’m particularly fond of the Tripel Karmeliet – a Tripel-style beer from Brouwerij Bosteels in Buggenhout, Belgium (say that five times fast) – and the North Coast Pranqster – a Belgian style blonde ale that’s taken Gold in its category at the San Diego International Beer Competition… five times.
Fair warning: The Refuge is not for the faint of heart; there’s nothing dainty on this red meat-centric menu—vegans need not apply. With that in mind, your best bets are the Garlic Fries, the Reuben (which is so pastrami-stuffed that the bread is basically a formality), the Champ Cheesesteak, or any of the burgers—particularly the Pastrami Burger.
If voluntarily submitting yourself to a meat and beer coma isn’t your thing, then let me turn your gaze another couple of blocks north…
We will conclude our stroll down Laurel Street with Rangoon Ruby, a restaurant that I count as one of my favorites both for its simple yet elegant aesthetic and for its unique culinary focus. Rangoon Ruby offers Burmese cuisine, which somehow manages to be exotic and vaguely familiar at the same time thanks to the similarities it shares with other Asian foods. My favorite dishes are the sesame beef, crispy chicken, palata, lemongrass chicken, nan gyi dok, and homestyle fried rice.
I’ve eaten at Rangoon Ruby more than a handful of times and I’ve probably tried 70% of the things on the menu without ever regretting a single choice, but let’s get to the real reason Rangoon Ruby places highly on my list: the tea leaf salad.
The salad is a deftly simple way to showcase a wide variety of flavors and textures without overthinking things. In the case of the fermented tealeaf salad from Rangoon Ruby, the flavors couldn’t be more unique. The fermented tealeaves act as a dressing that somehow manages to impart a creamy texture and a subtle acidity at the same time. Several accouterments provide an array of textures that lend themselves wholly to the overall mouth feel of the dish, which is entirely vegetarian except for a spicy dried shrimp powder. There’s no dairy involved, but the tealeaf salad is nonetheless one of the richest, most flavorful salads I’ve ever eaten.
San Carlos is a small town that does food in a big way. Like so many other bay area locales, it is less of a diamond in the rough and more of a twinkling jewel in the diamond mine of bay area food. But even amidst the veritable treasure trove of local dining destinations, this gem is not one to be overlooked. If you ever find yourself in The City of Good Living, be sure to grab a bite.
All the Swirl is a collections of thoughts and opinions assembled by the staff and industry friends of Charles Communications Associates, a marketing communications firm with its headquarters in San Francisco, California. We invite you to explore more about our company and clients by visiting www.charlescomm.com.