Northern California is the land of Thomas Keller, Alice Waters, Tyler Florence, Michael Mina, Gary Danko, and Dominique Crenn. Which is to say, the San Francisco food scene isn’t just dynamic—it’s close to unbeatable in terms of quality and scope. Out of that has come a local devotion to specific foods and drinks that the region has become known for.
San Francisco Food Specialties
These are the nine San Francisco food specialties you need to try.
La Taqueria’s Carnitas Burrito
Great Mexican food is a given in California, and travelers need to know that the best burrito in San Francisco is at casual La Taqueria, in the Mission District. Actually, many burritophiles, including 538’s Nate Silver, contend that this isn’t just the best burrito in San Francisco—it’s the best burrito in the whole United States. It earned that coveted title thanks to its juicy and perfectly balanced blend of guacamole, flavorful meat, and beans and salsa—sans rice.
A strong runner-up to La Taq’s big, warm tortilla wrap is the super burrito at Taqueria El Farolito (also in the Mission), which stays open late into the night to accommodate its perpetually long line.
Thanks to Gilroy, the world’s garlic-growing capital just to the south of San Francisco, the city by the bay has enough of the stinky bulb to spare. Garlic is a staple of San Francisco food, and features as the menu centerpiece (and also the decor) at restaurants like North Beach’s Stinking Rose.
The best way to get some of the yummy stuff in your mouth, though, is on fries during a ballgame at AT&T Park. Served hot and oily, dolloped with thick chunks of minced garlic and garnished with chopped parsley, AT&T Park’s flavor-packed garlic fries are enough to take your attention away from all those home runs splashing into the bay. If it’s not baseball season, you can also get garlic fries (though not as good) at Gott’s Roadside and even at many McDonald’s in San Francisco.
Clam Chowder in a Sourdough Bowl
There’s little better than hot soup on a foggy day. This is why San Francisco is a great place to sit on the shore, listen to seagulls overhead, and slurp some thick chowder. On Fisherman’s Wharf, there are many opportunities to do just that—stand after stand scoops out the steaming stuff.
But it’s fun to head over to Boudin at the Wharf to tour the historic sourdough-producing factory—a longstanding San Francisco food institution—then order the satisfying clam chowder (or one of five vegetarian soup options) in a delicious bread bowl.
San Francisco has a big Irish community, and where you’ve got a big Irish community, you’ve got great Irish coffee. By far the best place to get it is at the Buena Vista Café in Fisherman’s Wharf, which has been open almost a century, and serving these hot liquid treats since 1952. The concoction is an expert blend of coffee, whiskey, and sugar topped with heavy cream—expect to feel more alert and more relaxed after drinking one (or three).
This saloon-like restaurant features a long counter tended to by crotchety servers who have worked here for decades—they claim to have served more than 30 million glasses of this hot, strong stuff. If you’re looking for good local coffee sans the booze, however, head to Blue Bottle Coffee instead.
Pasta in North Beach
North Beach is San Francisco’s Little Italy, so of course it’s where to go to get the city’s best, most freshly made pasta. Italians have had a deep influence on the San Francisco food scene, and nowhere is that more apparent than along lively Columbus Avenue, where chef after chef hand-cranks spaghetti, linguine, fettuccine, and tagliatelle from industrial-size pasta machines. Sauciers work their magic et voila, your palate is transported right to Sicily or Tuscany.
Ghirardelli chocolate, though sold all over the world, is synonymous with San Francisco. Italian immigrant Domenico Ghirardelli moved to California in the mid-1800s and set up shop to cater to the gold rushers. Today, at Ghirardelli Square in Fisherman’s Wharf, you’re welcomed into the large chocolate shop by a greeter who hands you a couple of free squares of the company’s caramel- or peppermint-filled confections. Proceed to order an ice cream sundae topped with the best chocolate syrup you’ve ever had. When you’re done, check out the big chocolate-cranking machine in the back, working hard to churn the Wonka-like liquid.
You haven’t truly tried San Francisco food if you haven’t tried the city’s dim sum. Plenty of holes in the wall sell sublime versions of the steamed delicacies. After all, San Francisco is home to the oldest Chinatown outside of Asia. In that bustling neighborhood, hit up Good Mong Kok Bakery for shrimp shumai and Great Eastern for chiu chow dumplings.
Down in the FiDi, Yank Sing is the dim sum star, with a veritable freeway of carts presenting a delectable selection of luscious rolls, buns, and dumplings to each table. The delicate flavors continue in the Richmond district, where in-the-know locals go to get authentic Chinese food—if you’re out near the breakers, order xiao long bao (a pork dumpling) at Shanghai Dumpling King, then head to Hong Kong Lounge to get dessert: a delicious egg custard bun. Everything, of course, goes great with hot tea.
Anchor Steam Beer
San Francisco is big on locally made food and drink, and there’s no beer more locally made than Anchor Steam. Its three-story brewery on Portrero Hill, built in 1937, is open for tours ($25; reservations required) that culminate in a tasting of the company’s crisp craft ales. Across the city from the brewery’s Art Deco style building is Anchor Steam’s inviting outdoor Beer Garden, which is great for travelers with kids or dogs.
You can also buy pints and bottles of Anchor Steam’s lagers, IPAs, porters, and stouts at most SF pubs, many restaurants, and during baseball games and special events at AT&T Park.
Cowgirl Creamery Cheese
San Franciscans adore their artisan cheese, and there’s no Northern California cheesemaker more artisan than Cowgirl Creamery. Though the company has a few outlets on the East Coast now, it was born in the burgeoning San Francisco food scene of the late 1990s. Today, its SF shop is in the Ferry Building Marketplace, where you can sample and buy hunks of seasonal award-winning cheeses, all of which are made from fresh organic milk. You’ll also spot the small company’s fromage blanc, creme fraiche, and aged triple creams on upscale restaurant menus across the city.
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–Original reporting by Avital Andrews. Follow her on Twitter @avitalb.