Monday, August 31, 2009

Dish on Dining: Gialina Pizzeria

The Best Pizza … at Least in Glen Park
2842 Diamond St. (at Kern), San Francisco
Glen Park
PH: 415.239.8500
Dinner Sun.–Thu., 5–10 p.m.; Fri., Sat., until 10:30 p.m.
Major credit cards accepted, no reservations

This tiny pizzeria—whose landmark is primarily the Glen Park BART station—has developed quite a reputation. I’ve been meaning to try this place ever since Michael Bauer in his Pizza Friday series a couple of years ago declared Gialina as having the best pizza in the Bay Area.

My friend David wanted to try this place after he saw it featured on KQED’s “Check Please!”

So we met up on a Tuesday night for dinner. The restaurant is just a block away from the BART station. I was surprised to find Gialina (which doesn’t have a distinct sign out front) to be quite stylish. The décor was contemporary with a funky bent coming from the large funny black-and-white family photos on the walls. I was expecting an old neighborhood pizzeria, but it was like any hip restaurant you’d find in the Mission or Marina.

Gialina was opened by Sharon Ardiana, a chef who cooked at places like Boulevard and Slow Club. She named the place after her grandmother Lina, and kept the small restaurant charming and neighborly.

Our server seemed like he’d been there for awhile because he had a real authoritative tinge to his voice, giving us the low down on how the menu worked (it changes daily and is posted on the Web site), how we couldn’t combine two pizzas into one (but could do halvsies on an ingredient) and how we could get a taste of a wine if we’re interested. Whew, it was a lot to take in.

Eventually, David and I decided to split a couple of starters and zeroed in on the Potato Pizza, which was my suggestion because I love the comforting feel of potato on a pizza.

To start we got the Leaf Lettuce Salad ($9) with peaches, goat cheese and pistachio. The salad was lightly dressed and the ingredients were fresh. I especially liked the goat cheese, which was milky white and light. My only quibble about the salad was the pistachio, which I thought wasn’t the best nut to blend with all the ingredients. David liked the pistachio, although he conceded that there were maybe too many of them in the salad.

We also got the Little Meatballs ($9), which came out in a cute little casserole dish just oozing with melted aged provolone. The meatballs were indeed little, but they packed a lot of flavor in the meat and the sauce. I especially liked how the meatballs didn’t feel dense but were easy to bite into. I could eat a whole plate of this.

When our pizza arrived, half of it was covered with red onions and the other half did not because I’m not a fan of the red onions (and ironically two of the featured pizzas that night had red onions). Other ingredients on our potato pizza ($15) were applewood smoked bacon, rosemary and gorgonzola cheese.

First off, the pizza was really crispy and thin. I’d eaten thin pizzas in San Francisco before, but none as nicely crispy as Gialina’s. It had the puffy edges that you find often these days, and I liked the blending of the ingredients. However, the potato slices were too thin, IMHO, so I didn’t really get that comforting feel of warm potato slices. The pizza was overwhelmed by the applewood bacon, but that was fine because it was a nice smoky taste.

The one thing I didn’t like about the pizza, and some of you probably don’t care (like David), was the sheen from the oils. I have this thing about oil, which is why I’m not a fan of fried foods that has that slippery, greasy feel. Whenever I see oil on food, I just feel like I’m going to break out into an oil sweat. The sheen on Gialina’s pizza made eating it seem a bit oily, although I’m sure it was very healthy oils like olive oil.

Thinking the sheen might just be the pizza we ordered because it had the bacon, I took a picture of David’s takeout pizza, which he ordered at the end of our meal for his wife at home. (Yes, it was just a guys’ night out.) He ordered the wild nettle pizza with pancetta, mushrooms, onion and provolone and you can see it also has the shiny sheen of oil. Oh, wait, it has pancetta, so maybe it came from that? Anywho, I’m sure it tasted great. The sheen is a minor quibble.

I enjoyed the creativity of the pizza ingredients and the variety, and the place definitely was popular (our server came back often to check on us and in a way I felt like he was moving us along so we could empty the table). I would probably come back again, but I don’t know if I would consider this the best pizza in town. (I’ve been happy the few times I’ve been to Pizzeria Delfina.)

Still, if you’re on the BART and miss the 24th Mission St. station, just get off at the next stop at Glen Park and check out Gialina.

Single guy rating: 3.75 stars (Crispy and Tasty)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Gialina on Urbanspoon

Other pizza reviews:

Flour + Water: “The Personal Touch in Your Pasta”
Beretta: “Hip to Pizza and Cocktails in the Mission”
Pizzeria Delfina: “Showcase for Pizza and More”

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Eat Real Under the Summer Sun

It was another weekend of eating on the streets as I checked out today's Eat Real Festival at Oakland's Jack London Square.

The event was significantly different than last weekend's sister street food festival in San Francisco. It felt less crowded, the lines didn't snake for hours, and the weather was extreme summertime heat.

I walked in amazement of how I easily could try different food without having to spend nearly an hour in line. I thought how could Oakland get it right over San Francisco? After spending nearly three hours checking out the various vendors and booths, I realized that this larger event benefited by several points: 1) larger location in the lovely Jack London Square by the waterfront, 2) a variety of events like cooking demos and a farmers market to provide distractions if you didn't feel like standing in line for food, and most importantly 3) this is a three-day event over the weekend, spreading the crowds over several days compared to the San Francisco event where every food lover bombarded the Mission streets on one Saturday.

Despite the extreme heat, I was grateful for the easy crowds. At least on Saturday when I checked it out with my friend Vera.

The food were served mostly in trucks, really giving it a street food flavor. One of the first trucks we saw when we arrived was Sam's Chowder Van that was serving up clam chowder and mini lobster rolls. It was too hot for chowder, but we really wanted to try the lobster rolls ($5). Vera and I liked the lump lobster meat that tasted fresh, but Vera thought it was a bit overcooked and I felt it needed some kind of dressing like an aioli. But I appreciated how the roll was lightly toasted.

Then we went on to try some pizza slices from Pizza Politana, which trucked in its pizza oven to make the pizza on the spot. They served up a margherita pizza and a special "eat real" pizza ($5) that was made with goat cheese, lettuce, red onions and bacon. Vera got the margherita and said she liked the basil taste but the tomato sauce was a bit weak. I liked the "eat real" pizza because of the mixture of flavors. It was also a nice thin crust pizza.

Poleng Lounge from San Francisco was here after working last weekend's street food festival in San Francisco. But they served up a different menu, mostly ramen and some fancy gyoza. Vera ordered the cold vegetable ramen and she said the ramen was good but the broth needed more flavor.

I got a plate of turkey BBQ sliders ($5) from Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q. They're actually from Birmingham, Ala., but came for the festival and purchased all their ingredients from locally sourced providers. The meat was tender and I really like the sauce, which was tangy but not too sweet. The grilled corn was a bit odd, though, because it was too smoky, with a kind of petroleum flavor.

We took a break from the heat by heading into the indoor farmers market in the spot where a future food plaza is planned. Makeshift booths were set up with some of the regular sellers like Straus Creamery, Blue Chair jams, and Masa Organic rice. One of the booth with the longest line was Tcho Chocolates, which were giving free tastings of their chocolates.

Speaking of chocolates, Vera and I tried this gourmet 'smores ($3) from Kika's. We really liked the biscuit part, but I thought the marshmallow part was a bit weird, too gummy in a way.

Vera tried some mango sorbet from one vendor but I forgot his name. I walked around a bit and found this gelato place from Marin called Cici and tried their basil gelato. I loved it, although it was suffering from the extreme heat as my cup of gelato was almost a shake. Still, it was good.

Even though people had to wait in line, you still got a beautiful view to check out. Like I said, the line wasn't that long and moved relatively smoothly. So it was a fun day to be out in the sun. Here are more shots from the day. If you're reading this on Sunday, you better hurry and get out to Jack London Square for the last day of the Eat Real Festival, which wraps up at 5 p.m.!

A long line for free water.

The Sexy Soup Lady from the Mission District serving up her soups.

Ryan Farr grilling up his 4505 Meats' sausages.

People waiting in line (and one guy posing) at the Seoul on Wheels truck for some Korean tacos.

Related street food posts:
Taking it to the Streets (San Francisco Street Food Festival)
Lunch on the Road: Jon's Street Eats
On the Trail of the Crème Brulee Cart

Friday, August 28, 2009

Lunch on the Road: Jon’s Street Eats

The number of gourmet lunch trucks and makeshift fancy sandwich places seem to be increasing every day — all in San Francisco! Problem is, I work in Oakland.

So that means either spend the $6 and some change for a roundtrip BART ride for a very long lunch, or do without. Back to brown bagging it.

A couple of weeks ago, my lunch life changed dramatically when I read about Jon’s Street Eats, a rolling gourmet lunch truck by Jon Kosorek, formerly of Fork in San Anselmo. Kosorek started his own lunch truck and he was driving around the East Bay!

Please come to Lake Merritt. Please come to Lake Merritt.

I used all my will to draw Kosorek’s truck to my office near Lake Merritt and Oakland’s Uptown district. For days I watched his Twitter feed, where he posts his daily location in the morning. One day, Grand Lake. Next day, Emeryville. It was like Christmas eve wondering when Santa will get his fat ass down your chimney.

Finally, last week he posted that he would be near my office. So I grabbed my camera and headed to the block where he said he’d be, and that’s where I saw the shiny new truck parked on the sidewalk.

Kosorek, pretty much a one-man show, has a limited menu because he preps and cooks everything himself. When I went last week, he was offering up a panini and gazpacho ($6), a “scrapple” ($5) and deviled eggs. I ordered the scrapple, which is a grilled cake made of grits.

The scrapple was served with bitter greens, in this case kale topped with shaved parmesan. Kosorek cooks your order after you place it, so the food is nice and warm, and fresh.

When eating the scrapple, I could tell the quality in the ingredients Kosorek used. It was definitely restaurant-standard. The scrapple had bits of bacon (or maybe it was smoked ham?) and sweet corn, which I really enjoyed. I also liked the kale, which I generally find too heavy. But Kosorek grilled it with a sauce that made it very tasty.

I was really happy about my lunch, and glad it only cost $5. But I should warn people that it’s a very light lunch. I did feel a bit hungry afterwards. Still, I loved the way everything was prepared and presented.

Jon’s Street Eats came again on Tuesday (he apparently goes to a different location every day, but hopefully to my area in Uptown once a week) and this time he was selling a ratatouille pasta ($6), grilled cauliflower ($5) and chicken liver crostini. He also had some ice cream and specialty drinks for sale.

This time I grabbed my co-worker Sue with me as we searched out Kosorek’s parked truck, this time a bit farther away but still within walking distance. (Kosorek is still feeling out locations to find the best spot with lots of foot traffic; for now he’s relying on the people who follow his tweets.)

Sue ordered the ratatouille pasta and I got the grilled cauliflower, which was a thick slice of cauliflower that was grilled and served with grilled greens and frisee topped with half a soft-boiled egg.

Sue’s ratatouille looked really good and she said she liked the taste. Kosorek actually cooks the pasta at his truck, so everything is definitely made to order (which could mean a bit of a wait depending on how many other people are there before you). I enjoyed my cauliflower, which was nicely seasoned and tender. Everything was flavorful and fresh.

I hope Kosorek does well because his dishes are always so interesting and healthy given the big use of greens. At least once a week, I don’t have to worry about bringing in leftovers.

Follow Jon’s Street Eats on Twitter at to find his weekday lunch locations.

More street stuff:
Taking it to the Streets (San Francisco Street Food Festival)
On the Trail of the Crème Brulee Cart
Big Idea Party at YBCA

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

When The Single Guy Bakes

I’m obsessed with the Flavor King pluot (a cross between a plum and apricot) ever since I first tasted one at the farmers market in 2007. So every year in the summer when they’re in season, I buy them and snack on their sweet fragrant flesh that’s also quite beautiful in color.

I feel like we’re nearing the end of the Flavor King season because the fruit seems to be a bit more off-shaped when I looked over a batch at the Sunday farmers market near my home. So I wanted to do something other than just snack on them.

I recalled this post from Food Gal, who made a tea cake with peaches. But the recipe was called “Stone Fruit Tea Cake” from the “Rustic Fruit Desserts” cookbook. The Flavor King is a stone fruit, so in it went.

What’s interesting about this recipe, which looked super easy, was that the cake looks more like a tart. (It really reminded me of a “buckle” that I learned to make recently at Two restaurant.)

Food Gal’s version looked so pretty I was really excited about making this, even though I have to say I’m not a big baker. Food Gal is a big baker. I’m not. Mostly because The Single Guy can only eat so much and baking typically means tons and tons of finished baked goods.

Since I don’t bake often, I also don’t have a lot of fancy kitchen equipment for baking. And that is probably why this recipe, which I made on a Monday night after work, turned out to be so stressful despite its simplicity.

As I worked on the dough, one of the frustrations was creaming the butter with the sugar. The butter constantly clumped up in the blades of my hand mixer that I would then have to stop and push it out with a spatula. Anyone have any tips on how to avoid this? Granted, I probably wouldn’t have to worry about this if I had those fancy mixer with the plastic dough attachment, but I just had a hand mixer with the metal blades.

For some reason I thought the dough would look more like bread dough or pie dough because I kept thinking in my mind that I was making a tart. I forgot it was a cake, so the dough was really just cake batter. So I was a bit worried because it was so wet, which made it an ordeal pouring it into some plastic wrap because the recipe calls for freezing the dough for 30 minutes.

I got out my cute little tart pan, which — again because I’m the Single Guy — is only about 8 inches because that’s the perfect size for me. (But the recipe called for a 10-inch pan.) After 30 minutes, I brought out the dough from the freezer and patted it into my tart pan, leaving out a bunch because of my smaller pan.

I felt like I probably needed to leave the dough in the freezer a bit longer because it was still sticky, which made it hard to handle with my fingers because it kept sticking to me. It was really hard spreading it over the pan, and I worried whether I even got the right consistency in the dough. (It was such a mess in the kitchen I didn’t bother taking pictures of the process because my hands were a mess and in my mind I was thinking … this is not going to turn out good. Yes, me of little faith.)

After I placed my cut Flavor King fruit pieces and the remaining dough on top (I still have leftover dough in the freezer), I placed my tart pan into the oven and hoped for the best.

Little more than 30 minutes later, I checked on my tart and I was so surprised. It was so beautiful. The messy dough had risen and filled in all the open spaces, creating this intricate and evenly formed crust on top that was the lattice over the fruit. Bits of the Flavor King fruit popped out in a rich ruby color. I couldn’t believe how perfect it looked!

And when I took a bite, it was so good. The cake wasn’t anything fancy, it was just a nice fresh cake with baked fruit. But it was something I made from scratch! (I have to say, though, that the Flavor King did lose some of its delicate sweetness when baked and instead gave off a more rich plum flavor like jam, but still this was something that was easy to do.) Despite the tortuous and messy process, the reward was so fulfilling. Maybe I can bake after all!

Click here to see Food Gal’s post and get the complete recipe.

Related baking posts:
Non-melting Creamsicle Cupcakes
Peanut Butter Brownies
Father’s Day Grilling Class at Two

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Dish on Dining: 54 Mint

Modern Sicilian Comes to Mint Plaza
16 Mint Plaza (at Jessie), San Francisco
PH: 415.543.5100
Open Mon.–Sat.: lunch, 11:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m.; dinner, 5:30–10:30 p.m.
Major credit cards, reservations accepted

I notched off points for the poorly named 54 Mint, but this new Italian restaurant in the tiny Mint Plaza more than made up for it with bold dishes and beautiful décor.

So let’s get to it. The name. When you hear 54 Mint, you think it’s located at 54 Mint Plaza, like how 2223 is located at 2223 Market St. (See how it’s done?) But 54 Mint is at 16 Mint Plaza. And the story is that the name comes from the former address of the building that used to be there before it was torn down to become the redeveloped urban renewal bonanza now known as Mint Plaza.

Way to live in the past, 54 Mint people.

Despite the name, I found my way to the alley plaza that’s home to other foodie attractions like Chez Papa Resto and the Blue Bottle Café. 54 Mint is sandwiched between the two, encased in red brick and featuring an outdoor eating area perfect for sunny days.

I met my friend Ken for dinner and we were seated at a two-top in the main dining area. The restaurant has an interesting contemporary Italian vibe with a small bar at the entrance with legs of prosciutto hanging from the ceiling on one end and a dining area draped in natural light. There’s also a downstairs dining area that has no windows, imparting the feel of a wine cellar.

Where we sat, the dining area was furnished with stylish place settings and the walls were decorated with well-placed Italian pantry items. I told Ken that I felt like I was sitting in Pottery Barn or Williams-Sonoma, partly because I felt like I wanted to buy the dishes and glassware.

Alberto Avalle is one of the owners, and he’s responsible for Il Buco in New York, so there’s definitely a Manhattan-Italian sensibility to the place. (There were unusual art pieces at the host counter.)

The menu has a long list of items all without headings. I guess the idea is to offer you the freedom to eat anything you want at any time during your dinner without any restrictions. But if you really want to conform to a regular dining routine, the menu progresses from starters to appetizers to pastas to main dishes (as do the prices).

Ken and I ordered a few starters to share and they all arrived about the same time. Our server was nice enough to split the caprese salad ($10) that we ordered (so the picture shows just half a portion). 54 Mint’s version of this classic Italian salad of mozzarella cheese and tomatoes is made with fiordi latte mozzarella and beautifully plated with a swirl of balsamic dressing and olive oil and sprinkling of cured tuna roe.

All the ingredients of the salad were fresh and satisfying, but I didn’t think the tuna roe added or detracted from the dish.

We also tried the Carpaccio di Polipo ($12) or octopus carpaccio. Thinly sliced octopus was simply served with some fennel shavings and a “salmoriglio” dressing that was made of olive oil, lemon and herbs. The octopus was tender and easy to eat. I wouldn’t say this was the most flavorful dish, but it was light and reflected the quality of the ingredient.

The real interesting starter was the Arancina al Nero ($14), or fried squid ink rice ball stuffed with spicy shrimp. OK, before you all get a knot in your pants about me eating deep fried things, I will say that I generally avoid it but will try it if it’s a small portion or if it’s considered a signature of the restaurant.

The arancina was highly recommended by our server, and I was splitting it with Ken so I justified trying this plate, and I have no regrets. The lightly fried arancina actually came out like a big chunk of cake with a shrimp on top. But inside were the soft black rice and more shrimp that together packed a lot of complex flavors. This is worth breaking my no-fried-foods rule. (I enjoyed it so much I even took a picture of the inside, and I rarely take alternate shots of what I’m eating but I was so inspired by this squid ink arancina.)

For our main courses, Ken and I both decided to go the pasta route. Ken ordered the Ravioli di Ricotta e Spinaci ($16), which was spinach ravioli with ricotta cheese in a butter and sage sauce. Ken’s a vegetarian so this was right up his alley and he enjoyed the home-made pasta.

I ordered the Gnocchi al Ragu ($14), or potato dumplings with a beef and pork ragout. I have to note that there was a bit of a delay between our starters and our pasta dishes, so when my gnocchi arrived I noticed the top layer seemed a bit dried out like it had been sitting for awhile. But it wasn’t sitting to the point that the dish was ruined. After getting some fresh parmesan grated on top, I mixed my bowl and the bottom gnocchi were still warm so that refreshed my dish.

The ragout was hearty and tasty, but I felt the gnocchi, while light and plump, could have been more fluffy and shaped more round (it felt a bit too rectangle to me). Still, I enjoyed the dish.

We ended our dinner with the Fig Crostata, which reflected the season. The slice of crostata was served with a dollop of cream that had the rich texture and mild sweetness of mascarpone. The crostata itself was nice and flakey, but the figs didn’t pack a whole lot of sweetness or flavor. I wanted a sprinkling of brown sugar on top to help it out, but I guess that would have taken away from the theme of the kitchen’s cooking, which seems to highlight natural flavors.

In just the short time that it’s been open (about a month), 54 Mint has garnered a lot of attention and the crowds started to gather at the bar and entrance by the time we were done with our dinner. I don’t know if it was the food, the décor or the buzz, but I left feeling excited too. I can’t wait to come back.

Single guy rating: 4 stars (Stylish Sicilian)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

54 Mint on Urbanspoon

Related restaurants you might like:
Flour + Water: “The Personal Touch in Your Pizza”
Bottega: “Working Out the Kinks … NapaStyle”
Adesso: “Everyone Loves Free Food and (Not Free) Salumi”

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Taking It to the Streets

Usually at a street festival, the food booths are a side attraction to either the music or crafts. But when the street festival is all about food? Then everyone, and I mean everyone, is at the food booths.

This weekend was the inaugural San Francisco Street Food Festival. This is supposed to be the smaller, sister event to this coming weekend's Eat Real Festival in Oakland, but it looked like a major turnout as people mobbed the two blocks on Folsom Street between 25th and 26th Streets in the Mission District.

As I approached the festival on Saturday morning, I saw people walking away. Either they already ate their food and wasn't satisfied or they were bored with what they saw. My guess, after I finally reached the entrance, was that they saw the lines and did an about-face.

About 15 to 17 vendors set up booths to sell their street food-inspired dishes. Some of these were the city's most popular restaurants, like Heaven's Dog, Aziza, Absinthe and La Mar Cebicheria. The prices were kept under $10 in the spirit of street food (although to me, street food should be more like under $6).

There were two major spots where booths were set up, with lines spiraling from the booths to the sidewalk. In the middle were the dessert booths and a children's play area. I have to say, everyone seemed to be really good about the lines. No one was testy or cranky, and I was just glad that I had myself a doughnut from nearby Dynamo Donot prior to going to the festival. (BTW, finally tried the maple glazed bacon donot. Strangely yummy!)

I give kudos to booths who had a system organized, like this one selling tacos and had a very orderly pick up system so the line to order moved quickly and then people just had to wait for their numbers to be called. Too bad not all the booths used a similar system.

After checking out the options, I decided to get some food from the Aziza booth because I saw the sign for squid salad, and I love squid. Of course, the Aziza line was the longest and I ended up waiting for 45 minutes to get to the front, and then another 10 minutes for my food. I dreaded the idea of waiting in line for another booth so I got all my food at Aziza. So along with the squid salad, I got the Morroccan taco, which was made with two chunks of tender braised lamb and topped with pickled vegetables and yogurt. It all sat on a flatbread seasoned with harissa spice.

Despite the wait, everything was great at Aziza and well worth the wait. I got full from what I ordered so didn't try the other booths, but they were also offering interesting items. I just couldn't stand the idea of waiting some more. Hopefully the lines will move faster in Oakland's version this weekend.

Here are more sights from the San Francisco Street Food Festival.

Several chefs were out, including Tim Luym of Poleng Lounge, wearing a very appropriate T-shirt.

Beefy sausages on the grill at Absinthe for Chef Jamie Lauren's "famous hot dog."

Here's Chef Lauren cooking in the back, and she even enlisted the help of her "Top Chef" castmate Ryan Scott (background).

These funnel cakes topped with fresh fruits and cream looked like the most popular dish of the day. But I wouldn't eat it because ...

... they're deep fried. Of course.

Chef Mourad Lahlou (right) at the Aziza grill. The grill actually broke down and they had to get it fixed, which probably contributed to the long wait. For awhile they were grilling at a neighboring booth's grill.

The crowds probably look scary to the chefs having to prepare all the food. But they got it done.