Explore SF – Little Saigon

Explore SF  does the most varied tours of any San Francisco tour company that I’ve seen.  When their Living Social special offer came up, I jumped at the opportunity to take their Explore SF Little Saigon tour.  Dan Chew was our amazing tour guide.  He has his own super website that details $10 or less meals around the world.  It’s REALLY good, and Dan and I have a lot in common as we both have restaurant reviews and similar opinions of many restaurants, like Tito’s Tacos in Los Angeles and Bette’s Oceanview Diner in Berkeley.  Dan grew up in Chinatown and, in fact, spent the day before on two fully booked tours of the Chinatown community.  We were lucky enough to have Dan to ourselves, so he kindly switched up his tour to accommodate the myriad of tastes available in the Little Saigon area.  SO, that means you need to take the tour, as Dan will always be changing and adding stuff.  If you’re a foodie, you will love Dan as he is so knowledgeable about San Francisco food.

Officially designated in 2004, the two blocks of Little Saigon are Larkin St. between Eddy and O’Farrell.  However, our amazing tour guide, Dan advised that, unofficially, the community goes from Polk to Leavenworth and Golden Gate and Geary.  This is NOT a good neighborhood.  There are homeless people and beggars and a fair bit of crime.  Dan was able to navigate us away from the worst parts, but still, you’re going to see poverty and other unsightly activities.  Be forewarned.  Makes me wonder where the $25K per year that the city spends really goes.

Our first stop was Zen Yai where we ate Thai Boat Noodles.  Their noodles are my featured image for this posting.  Quoting Dan from his kind recap of our time together – “Zen Yai Thai – (771 Ellis Street).  Thai Boat Noodles (off menu).  Named after the many vendors who sell their noodles from boats plying their trade in the many waterways in Thailand. We had the thick rice noodles with sliced pork, meatballs, Chinese water spinach (Ong Chow in Chinese/Phak Bung in Thai/ Rau Muong in Vietnamese) and pork cracklings in a rich, dark broth made with beef stock, chiles, cinnamon, star anise and thickened with beef blood.”  Site of the original United Nations Building.”  And people, the bowl of this dish you see in my gallery was $2.50 – two-fifty!!!!  The large size is $5!!!!!  The soup is just amazing with a unique, spicy flavor.  I had never heard of water spinach before.  The stems are tubes – very nice texture and a little stronger taste than regular spinach.  I’m going back to this and every place we stopped in our Explore SF tour of the Little Saigon area.  Please note though, that the clientele is mostly Thai, and the specials on the wall are in Thai, not English.

We walked by Burmese Kitchen where Dan says the food is much better than Burma Superstar, a place in the Richmond district that is impossible to get in to.  Try the tea leaf salad when you go.  (This is why I liked Dan so much – not only did we taste, but he was so forthcoming on his knowledge of spots we didn’t stop at.  I was curious how someone who grew up in Chinatown would have such a knowledge of this neighborhood.  Turns out that Dan worked at The Art Institute of California nearby, and he and his colleagues decided to try a different restaurant every day that they ventured out for lunch.  And, by the way, there’s now a culinary program at The Art Institute of California where you can go to sample the students’ food on the top floor.)  How cool that the Tenderloin Peoples’ Garden is so close by and apparently being fully utilized.

Lemon Basil

Lemon basil

We went to the Civic Center Farmers Market which I keep forgetting is there.  I also thought, with the homeless people so prevalent in this area, that the market would be depressing.  However, this isn’t at all the case.  The produce is beautiful with a mostly Asian focus.  Things like yam leaves, Opo squash that Dan says is great grilled with spinach and ground pork, Indian bitter melon – Indians add these more bitter melons to their stews, and lemon basil – all quite unusual products that I didn’t know about before.  

We then proceeded to Saigon Sandwich, a place I’ve been wanting to try for the longest time as it is rated one of the best Banh Mi places in San Francisco.  There’s always a line there.   They are open seven days a week from 7am to 5pm.  Those three women work really hard.  According to Dan – “Saigon Sandwiches (560 Larkin Street)  Special combination banh mi. Steam pork, roast pork and fanci pork pate (sic) on a crusty roll smeared with a fish sauce/soy sauce/mayo spread then topped with pickled daikon and carrots, fresh cilantro and sliced jalapeños.”  This sandwich was $4.25.  Their other sandwiches, not combos, are $3.25.  No wonder there’s such a line!!!

Vietnamese Spring Rolls

Vietnamese Spring Rolls

I just loved Lee’s Sandwiches down the street, although we didn’t eat anything there.  Filled with sandwiches and buffet items, they also have a large selection of Vietnamese and Asian products as you can see by the myriad of pictures I took when there.  It turns out that they’re the largest banh mi chain in the world with over 55 stores and counting.

Dan pointed out Turtle Tower and says to order their Bun Bull Hanoi and the Cha Ha Hoi which is ground and sliced pork over vermicelli with fish sauce.  In case I got that wrong and you’re going, it’s the #12 and it costs $8.50.  I’m pretty sure that Turtle Tower is one of the highest rated Vietnamese restaurants in SF, at least for this Larkin location.  Lers Ros is another highly rated Thai restaurant that’s close by.

Not only did we get a foodie tour, Dan was great about pointing out beautiful old buildings and classic architecture.  Among them was, per Dan, “Alhambra Apartments (860 Geary Street). Built in 1913 in the Moorish style by native SF architect James Francis Dunn, the romantic penthouse and dome are where the legendary Rudolph Valentino reputedly entertained his paramours.”

Hai Ki Mi Gia is known for their braised duck leg with wonton egg noodle is well known to those in the know, now including you and me.  I’ve added their storefront sign and a cloudy picture of this featured soup.

  Then, it was on to A La Turca on Geary near Larkin.  From Dan – “Ala Turca (869 Geary Street)  Grilled kofte plate: ground meat with seasonings and spices made into patties and grilled. Served with rice and salad.”  It was superb.  The freshly baked bread had just come out of the oven.  As it turns out, when we approached the restaurant, we ran into our old neighbor when we lived in Diamond Heights.   He is Turkish, AND his wife owns the business with a partner after several years looking for good Turkish food in the city.  Amazing coincidence.  Jerry (as we Americans call him) is now working part time in Turkey and part time here in SF.  He is truly the entrepreneur.  We hadn’t seen him in 11 years.  His son is now 15!  Jerry kindly treated us to a wonderful a Ravani (sp?) which is not on the online menu.  It’s made of corn and semolina flour with coconut and honey and a pistachio topping.  It was delicious, especially when paired with the Turkish tea that Jerry gave to us.

Dan pointed out Kim Thanh for garlic roasted crab.  I’ve always gone to Thanh Long way out in the Sunset district, but Dan says Kim Thanh’s garlic crab is better and way less expensive.  

Castle Apartments

Castle Apartments

Other sites that one might not otherwise notice in such a strange neighborhood were, again per Dan, “Castle Apartments (823-829 Geary Street) Built in 1926, supposedly designed by Bernard Maybeck, architect of the Palace of Fine Arts.  Alcazar Theatre (650 Geary Street). This Moorish/Byzantine masterpiece was originally built as a Shriner’s temple in 1917 by architect T.Patterson Ross.

Gaylord Apartments (620 Jones Street). Designed by architect H.C.Baumann, the ornate pillared Spanish Colonial Revival facade, colorful tiled steps and wrought iron covered windows look as elegant today as it did when built in 1929.”

Dan showed us this completely awesome Jones Bar rooftop spot at 620 Jones Street that one might not normally even both to look up off the street.  Hard to see the entrance, this is a really cool place, especially for the younger crowd.  

Our last stop was a place that you would NEVER walk into without the knowledge and advice of someone like Dan.  Shalimar at 532 Jones is excellent Indian food at very reasonable prices.  Dan tells us we were served “Tandoori lamb chops- Lamb chops marinated in yogurt sauce and cooked in the Tandoori oven. Shalimar chawal- basmati rice cooked in a rich stock with savory spices, brown onions and saffron.  Garlic Naan”.  Oh man was it good, but by this time, we could barely manage small tastes of the three.  We left with a to go bag to enjoy at our Giants game that night.  And, in just looking up their website, they have four locations, two in SF, one in Fremont and one in Dublin.  Maybe that’s why their sign outside says they’re one of the best 50 restaurants in the country???

Go to Explore SF and book a tour.  Ask for Dan if you can.  I think they’re just super tours, and can’t wait for my next one!!

There are 3 comments

Add yours
  1. Michael Moran

    Thanks Donna for writing this about Dan and this tour. This tour and this neighborhood deserve more recognition for the varied and unique restaurants that put out some of the best food in the city. I am glad that more people are finding out about this phenomenal foodie excursion. The work that Dan has put into this tour should be on everyone’s radar and the love that these restaurateurs have put into their creations should be the talk of the town. Please come Explore SF with us again soon!

Post a new comment