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San Francisco – Part 3

Now for the final installment.

On Saturday morning, we decided to take it easy and explore Mill Valley a bit before heading back into San Francisco.  Our hosts recommended a favourite breakfast spot of theirs as a starting point, and we navigated the windy road into town and made our way to Mama’s Royal Cafe on Miller Avenue.  We ended up parking about half a block away on the street because the cafe has a very small parking lot, but no big deal.  Now…if you’re looking for eclectic atmosphere, this is the place for you!  The outdoor seating area is somewhat tropical themed, and when you enter the restaurant you are greeted by bright colours and a piano, then the entrance opens up into a playfully decorated dining area, where we were seated by a cheery and friendly woman named Candy, whom I believe to be the owner.  The window-side table at which we were seated had lots of little knick-knacks and a good view of the entire dining area.  The menu is vast, so hopefully our experience will help you make your decisions.  Our hosts recommended the omelettes, so I went with a spinach, mushroom, and cream cheese omelette with garlic added, and Katie, being averse to most egg dishes, chose crepes with hollandaise.  We both had coffee, which was a welcome start to the morning.  The food came out and…well…it’s not that it was bad, but it wasn’t phenomenal either.  My omelette was more along the lines of a scramble, too loose to really be an omelette, and the cream cheese and garlic were not very well incorporated.  The red breakfast potatoes were well-seasoned and well-cooked.  Katie’s dish was unique, but the preparation of the crepes was questionable (greasy and a bit crispy) and the hollandaise could have used a little more oomph in the flavour department, though it still was pretty good as sauces go.  The fresh fruit was…fruit, but room temp and possibly bought pre-sliced?  What it comes down to is that I am torn about this place.  The food was…mediocre, but the service was super friendly and the atmosphere is fun…did I mention the pianist?  A gentlemen came in, sat down at the piano, and began playing, quite well.  It turns out his name is Frederick Nighthawk, and he’s a very friendly and talkative local (who will continue to play while he chats with you).  This is a restaurant that one visits for an experience, and if you visit with that in mind, all is well.  It is worth a trip, and really, you can’t walk into this place without feeling good about life, and when it comes to eateries, that is a trait very high on my list of positives.

Mama's Royal Cafe; 50mm @ f2.8, 1/2000 sec

Taking it In; 10mm @ f4, 1/20 sec

Decor; 50mm @ f2.8, 1/45 sec

Table Lamp; 50mm @ f2.8, 1/250 sec

Quirk; 50mm @ f2.8, 1/60 sec

Old School; 50mm @ f2.8, 1/60 sec

Breakfast and a Show; 50mm @ f2.8, 1/60 sec

Mushroom, Spinach, and Cream Cheese Omelette; 50mm @ f2.8, 1/125 sec

Crepes with Hollandaise; 50mm @ f2.8, 1/125 sec

After breakfast, we went for an extended stroll through downtown Mill Valley, which has a compact plaza-style layout filled with local business (mostly high-end).  For those of you not familiar with Food Network chefs, Tyler Florence, a personal fave, has made his home in Mill Valley and runs a kitchen supply store called the “Tyler Florence Shop” and a restaurant – El Paseo (with Sammy Hagar).  Naturally, we gravitated to the shop, and spent about an hour drooling over all of the kitchen gadgets, gourmet treats, fancy candles, and dozens of cookbooks.  Seriously, this place is like porn for would-be chefs and foodies.  Since we were trying to stick to something resembling a budget, we limited purchases to a couple treats, including a delicious looking tea as a thank you for our hosts.  Even the water (infused with citrus and berries) is worth a mention.  We decided there and then that regardless of my failed attempts to book reservations at El Paseo (they were booked four days out) for that night, that we would be coming back from the city to eat at El Paseo, even if it meant perching at the bar.  Moving on up the main drag, we encountered little boutiques and cafes, all of which helped us fall in love just a little more with Mill Valley.  Of course, we hit the real estate offices, and tried not to let the $1,000,000+ price tags put us off too much.  Gotta have dreams, right?  And needless to say, I believe we were both hoping that Mr. Florence would step out of the next door way we approached and welcome us with open arms…as I said…gotta dream!

Tyler Florence Shop; 50mm @ f2.8, 1/125 sec

Oils; 50mm @ f2.8, 1/45 sec

Honey!; 50m @ f2.8, 1/45 sec

Cutting Boards; 50mm @ f3.5, 1/30 sec

Silver; 50mm @ f3.5, 1/180 sec

Saucey; 50mm @ f3.5, 1/180 sec

Infused Water: 50mm @ f3.5, 1/180 sec

After drooling sufficiently over Mr. Florence’s wares and browsing through several other local businesses, we headed into the city with the intention of exploring Chinatown and meeting up with a friend of mine from film school.  Across the Golden Gate we go!  We parked in North Beach again and walked the few blocks to Chinatown (wading through hordes of drunken Santas).  Our goal was to get deep enough into Chinatown that we would have to work to find our way back out, so we set off into the maze of markets and restaurants and everything in between.  Chinatown in San Francisco is one of my favourite places, because it is ordered chaos wrapped in vibrant colours, rich scents, and pure urban noise.

Mural; 50mm @ f4.5, 1/6000 sec

Cross Culture: 50mm @ f4.5, 1/6000 sec

Living; 50mm @ f3.5, 1/6000 sec

Street Colour; 50mm @ f3.5, 1/8000 sec

Sidewalk Colour; 50mm @ f3.5, 1/8000 sec

Getting Around; 50mm @ f3.5, 1/8000 sec

Art in Motion; 50mm @ f3.5, 1/8000 sec

Crowds @ 50mm @ f3.5, 1/8000 sec (Sidenote: all of the cars with orange tags are part of a funeral procession)

Ordered Chaos @ 50mm, f3.5, 1/8000 sec


Deeper In

Funeral Procession


Cultural Colour

In the Details

Street Musician


Crowded Sidewalk


Walking into any one of the little markets is an adventure all on its own.  Because I haven’t spent enough time in the area, I couldn’t tell you if the amount of activity we encountered is normal or not, but it seemed to be restocking day for every store, which made navigating the aisles in search of goodies a unique challenge.  I don’t really have words for what we encountered, mostly because I couldn’t read the labels on a lot of the stuff, or I was too busy attempting to capture decent photos from the hip to avoid being yelled at for a second time to actually read the few English translations (the first time was while capturing a photo of some dried fish on the sidewalk outside of one of these markets).  So, instead of trying to explain it all to you, I’ll give you a few thousand word’s worth of photos:

Dried Fish; 50mm @ f4.5, 1/125 sec

Sidewalk Stalls; 50mm @ f4.5, 1/125 sec


Mee Mee Bakery

Beef Jerky





Sea Creatures 1

Sea Creatures 2


Shark Fin


The Mystery!

Buy it in Bulk!


More Bones

After a couple hours we still didn’t have our fill of San Francisco’s thriving Asian culture, so we headed to the Richmond District to pay a visit to the New May Wah Supermarket to stock up on all kinds of goodies for the trip home the next day.  Much like the markets in Chinatown, this store’s aisles were narrow and packed with all kinds of delights and curiosities, but took up twice as much space, so it was little overwhelming.  We only made it through half.  Not on purpose, but because we simply didn’t realize there was more to it.  For lunch we ran across the the street to Wei Lee Chinese Food & Donuts, partly because we couldn’t resist such and odd combo, even if we didn’t want donuts, and mostly because the delicious smell of the food cooking inside permeated the entire block and the ducks in the window were beckoning.  Very little English can be found in Wei Lee, which is fine by me.  If the only English to be found (including spoken) is the price of my meal, even if it means I have virtually no clue what I’m about to dig into, I feel very satisfied.  For less than $10, we both got tasty meals and leftovers.  Quick tip – while the flat noodles I got were delicious, but they were greasy, and I would recommend choosing rice to go with your proteins rather than the noodles.

Beckoning Ducks


Meal 1

Meal 2

Feeling a bit crowded after Chinatown, we headed for Golden Gate Park for a stroll while we waited for my friend to return from her photo gig an hour and a half away.  We ended up sitting in Shakespeare Garden, which I imagine is more enchanting in the Spring, but was still a very pleasant respite from the crowds.  After a visit with Ari of domoarifoto spent catching up each other’s lives since we last saw each other in 2008 during our educational pursuits at Brooks Institute of Photography, Katie and I headed back to Mill Valley for our much-anticipated meal at El Paseo.  In order to fully enjoy the experience, I left the camera in the car, so no photos, but I will do my best to use my words.  We got to El Paseo anticipating disappointment, since, as I mentioned before, we had attempted to get reservations that morning, only to find out that there was nothing available until the following Tuesday.  We approached the hostess, put on our brightest smiles, and we were given three options: sit in the bar area, wait and hope, or sit outside.  The last option was presented with pause, since it seems that 50 degrees is almost unbearably cold for the San Fran warm-bloods, but we Oregonians jumped all over that, since 50 degrees was t-shirt weather compared to the 25 degrees we had left behind in Portland.  We happily followed the hostess to our little cafe table on El Paseo’s picturesque cobblestone patio, situated in the heart of the little complex of buildings containing the dining room, the bar, and the wine room.  Surrounded by vines lit with white Christmas lights and with our table lit by a small oil lamp, our gamble turned into a romantic, almost completely private dining experience that will not soon be forgotten.  We don’t make it a habit to dine at restaurants with prices that rival my car payments, but we had a hunch that this food would be worth it, and we were not disappointed.  Our server was friendly and beyond professional.  The entire operation is run with impeccable efficiency and attention to detail, and it is obvious that every employee is carefully chosen and trained.  We started our meal off with their roasted bone marrow, served with rutabega jam, pickled onions, and toasted sourdough…perfection.  If you haven’t had bone marrow, I encourage you to branch out and try it.  It is rich and creamy and beefy…think butter infused with the best meaty flavors…and the chefs at El Paseo know how to do it.  Our next course was a surprise.  Since there were several large parties in the dining room, the kitchen was a little behind, so our server brought us each of a complimentary mug (literally) of creamy cauliflower soup, garnished with crisped sage…amazing.  So many dimensions of flavour in that mug.  Our entrees followed – Katie ordered their pan seared day boat scallops (read uber-fresh) served with creamed brussels sprouts, toasted barley, and a beurre rouge sauce (prepared much the same as the beurre blanc sauce from my Dinner Party posting, except with red wine).  For scallop fans out there, you know that there are either good scallops or bad, with no in-between.  They must be cooked perfectly, or they turn out rubbery and grainy and all-together unappetizing.  Another score for El Pasea…these scallops were like creamy pockets of ocean.  Absolutely amazing.  I ordered steak frites, a staple in any rustic kitchen, despite my usual lack of enthusiasm for steak.  Part of the draw was the truffle fries accompanying the steak (thus steak frites), but when the plate arrived and I cut the first tender piece of meat off and put fork to mouth (with shallot confit)…I knew I had made the right decision.  Good meat that is cooked properly (mine was medium-rare) is worlds away from your average steak.  It is melt-in-your mouth tender, and the rich flavours of well-fed and cared for local beef flood over your tongue…that’s a steak I will eat…which means I won’t be eating very many steaks in my life.  We rounded the meal off with a dessert special – an cranberry apple crisp topped with vanilla creme fraiche ice cream…c’est magnifique!  By the time the bill came, it could have listed my right arm and leg for payment and I probably would have parted with my limbs happily.  I rarely feel like I get what I pay for in restaurants, especially higher-priced establishments, but this food, this dining experience, was worth every penny (plus a healthy tip for our fantastic server).  For the time being, El Paseo will be the standard to which similar restaurants will be held in my eyes, and I highly recommend you make reservations now for your next trip to the Bay area…or take a gamble and end up on their fairytale patio…that’s up to you.

The next morning we packed, ate a light breakfast with our hosts, and I went for my last beautiful run in the hills before we headed to Albany for a small lunch with some old family friends, and the drive North to Ashland.  All-in-all, this trip to San Francisco was the best mini-vacation I’ve had, and I would gladly repeat it.  Between the vibrant culture of the city, the laid back magic of Mill Valley, and the endless foodie opportunities, we discovered a side of California that I had previously thought non-existent (I now understand George Cory and Douglass Cross left their hearts there back in ’54).  We both hope to return sooner rather than later, but until then – thanks for the memories, San Francisco.

Up next: a long-forgotten post about a visit to the Portland Farmers Market at PSU.

Thanks for reading!

The BEST holidays

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