Turtle Tower, Lers Ros, Mitchell’s, La Ciccia (San Francisco: Day Three)
I am in San Francisco this week for WWDC (Apple‘s Worldwide Developers Conference). I found out a few months ago I’d be able to attend, so of course, I made a list and asked for advice beforehand. Now that I’m here, I plan on posting a report as quickly as possible for each day, to stave off procrastination. My report for “San Francisco: Day Three” (Tuesday, June 3, 2014) is as follows:
Another day, another ho-hum convention center continental breakfast, but for lunch I managed to squeeze in two places in the Tenderloin [cue Wilhelm scream].
Ever since I had the amazing phở gà (chicken pho) at Phở Quang Trung (review), I’ve been wanting to try another bowl, to see how it’d measure up. I decided on Turtle Tower, as they were known for their North Vietnamese-style phở gà. Of course, I ordered the phở gà lòng (with giblets), along with café sữa, dá, Vietnamese drip coffee with sweetened condensed milk, iced.
The noodles that came with the phở gà lòng were wide, probably a quarter inch in width, and rather soft. True to my (minimal) understanding of Northern-style, the only accompaniments were some slices of jalapeño and a lemon wedge (I assume due to the lime shortage). The giblets were good (except for the overcooked liver) but minimal, though I could have ordered more on the side, but I didn’t want to get too full.
Overall, Turtle Tower’s phở gà was good, but after having Quong Trung’s, I couldn’t help feeling underwhelmed here. And not to kick them while they’re down, but the condensed milk in the iced coffee was too sweet for my taste.
After I finished at Turtle Tower, since I was only a block away from Lers Ros, I decided to try it as well. I had been striking out on offal during this trip, so even though I had just had chicken giblets, I ordered the Pad Kra Prow Krueng Nai Kai, basil leaves with chicken entrails. I ordered the rice plate, which is a dollar less for I assume a smaller portion of the entrée but comes with a bowl of rice. It was plenty of food.
I really wanted to like this dish; it was chock full of offal, decently prepared so the various bits and pieces weren’t overcooked. However, it had three strikes against it. First, the waitress asked if I wanted it medium spicy (she did not clarify “Thai medium” or not), but the dish was really not very spicy at all. Second, more significantly, the dish had barely any basil, and so did not have that fragrant punch of Thai basil I was hoping for. Third, most egregiously, the dish was incredibly salty! I mixed as much of the rice in with the sauce as I could, but it was still too salty. Three strikes and they’re out!
I hate to judge a restaurant by one preparation of one dish, but based on this lunch, I can’t imaging going back to Lers Ros.
After the lackluster lunch(es) I had in the Tenderloin [cue Wilhelm scream], I really wanted dinner to be an improvement. I had arrived in Noe Valley for my reservation at La Ciccia almost a half hour early, since I’m at the whims of the Muni schedules. Using my trusty iPhone, I quickly located a potential detour in the form of Mitchell’s Ice Cream, and in under 15 minutes I had a junior scoop of Ube (purple yam) ice cream in hand.
Ube is an ice cream flavor popular in the Philippines (Mitchell’s has several other Filipino ice cream flavors). Since it was purple, I was expecting a taro-like flavor; not sure why, as I’ve had purple yams before, and they don’t really taste like taro; the power of suggestion, I guess. Anyway, the ube flavoring was more subtle than one might assume, based on the coloring. I’m very glad to have tried it.
When I walked into the cozy restaurant, I was greeted warmly by co-owner Lorella Degan (I recognized her from pictures on the website), who seated me at a small table for two. I noticed that the menu did not have the pasta dish with the cured tuna heart that I had heard so much about. I wasn’t too disappointed as I somewhat expected this, since the server at Porcellino, which also serves a dish with cured tuna heart on occasion, mentioned the other day that tuna hearts were “not in season”. I’m not sure if that makes sense, unless tuna’s not in season, but perhaps sourcing just the hearts is more difficult this time of year. So I ordered the other pasta dish that I was really interested in, the fresh house-made spaghetti with spicy oil and bottarga (salted, cured mullet roe), but first I started with the spicy octopus tomato stew.
The stew came out piping hot, with a generous portion of baby octopus (probably 8-10 individual octopodes). The spiciness of the stew built slowly to a good level; I think it was spicier than the dish I had at Lers Ros! I haven’t had much spicy Italian–I’m not counting the Italian-American creation fra diavolo, which depends heavily on chili pepper flakes and is not very subtle at all–but I loved the heat here. I also really enjoyed the tenderness of the octopus. I generally prefer them a little snappier, like with sushi, or with a bit of char, like in Spanish cuisine, but this preparation was just fantastic.
The spaghetti was equally amazing. What I was most surprised by was how al dente the noodles were, yet they were not undercooked. I didn’t notice the spicy oil that much, since the octopus stew was also spicy, but no one could have missed the bottarga. I’m predisposed to liking bottarga as it is essentially identical to the Japanese delicacy karasumi (also salted, cured mullet roe), which I love. A generous portion was grated onto the pasta, which mixed with the starch from the fresh spaghetti and formed a creamy, briny, sauce that was just exquisite.
To end, I wanted to highlight the service at La Ciccia. I thought it was perfect tonight, with just the right level of attentiveness, and genuine warmth without a trace of sycophancy. Lorella was the great host, and though I knew going in what dishes I wanted to try, my waiter made great recommendations without pressure. With only two dishes, no drinks, and no true entrée, my dinner was relatively inexpensive, but I made sure to leave a decent tip (~20%) and told Lorella, when she checked in on me before I left, how much I enjoyed my meal.
La Ciccia has a no-electronics policy that’s listed on their website and printed on their menu. While I am generally not a rule breaker, I have snapped a pic at a restaurant with a no-camera policy, but tonight I put my phone away out of respect. Next time I’m up in SF, I will definitely go back to La Ciccia.
Onto Day Four, Part One!
645 Larkin St
San Francisco, CA 94109
Lers Ros Thai
730 Larkin St
San Francisco, CA 94109
Mitchell’s Ice Cream
688 San Jose Ave
San Francisco, CA 94110
291 30th St
San Francisco, CA 94131