On my third day in San Francisco, I got up early and went to Chinatown for two things: first, to photograph the red lanterns on Grant Street and second, to get breakfast.
I got to Grant Street just before 8am when the shops were still mostly closed and the street quiet enough that I could stand in the middle of the road and take a picture of the lanterns without stopping traffic or getting run over (don’t worry, I didn’t do anything dangerous).
Washington Bakery & Restaurant, Chinatown
For breakfast, I went to Washington Bakery & Restaurant on Washington Street for rice porridge (congee). The clientele was mostly Chinese, any newspapers being read were Chinese, staff greeted diners and took orders in Chinese. On every table were bottles of soy sauce and vinegar, chilli sauce, salt and white pepper.
I ordered pork meatball porridge (US$5) with a plate of yow char on the side (on the menu as “fried Chinese bread”), and a glass of iced milk tea. All around me, orange, yellow or white plastic bowls of steaming porridge – minced beef, pork liver, assorted pork giblets, and the old classic of preserved egg and pork porridge. My pork meatball porridge was very good – hearty, well seasoned and meaty – I think my mum would approve.
San Francisco Ferry Building
After breakfast, I walked down Market Street to the San Francisco Ferry Building Marketplace. There are shops and restaurants there, and the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays (I visited on a Tuesday).
I left the Ferry Building to walk along The Embarcadero to Pier 39. It’s very touristy at Pier 39, with live entertainment, the Aquarium of the Bay, boat rides and tours (including to Alcatraz), and lots of places to eat and shop. I enjoyed just walking around. There was one tourist attraction I didn’t want to miss: Pier 39’s sea lion colony.
A small number of California sea lions first appeared at Pier 39’s K-Dock after an earthquake in 1989. Over the years, more sea lions have come and stayed at Pier 39, where they have plenty of food from the bay and ocean and they are protected from their natural predators (sharks and orcas). As tides rise and fall, the floating docks are a safer, more comfortable place to be than rocks. There used to be boats at K-Dock, but after much debate, the boats were relocated elsewhere in the marina, leaving the dock to become the sea lions’ sanctuary. The number of sea lions in this colony varies depending on the season, available food supply and their migration patterns, but they’ve become a famous attraction for tourists as well as San Francisco locals. Interestingly, the majority of the sea lions at Pier 39 are male.
I heard and smelled the sea lions before I saw them. They were a boisterous bunch, barking and grunting noisily as they basked in the sun. There was some slapping and jostling and the occasional splash as a sea lion slipped off the dock into the water. I worked my way patiently to the front of the crowd so I could take some pictures. The sea lions were cute and funny to watch and I could’ve stayed for ages, but after I took my shots, I stepped away so someone else could squeeze in. Definitely worth a look if you visit Fisherman’s Wharf.
In-N-Out Burger and Fisherman’s Wharf
For lunch, I went to In-N-Out Burger on Jefferson Street near Fisherman’s Wharf. In-N-Out Burger is a fast food chain established in 1948 in California, where there are now over 200 stores, as well as in Arizona, Nevada, Texas and Utah. I’ve been reading about In-N-Out Burger on blogs for years – I love burgers and was keen to try it for myself.
It was busy at In-N-Out Burger as I expected. The problem wasn’t the speed of service – the staff were very efficient at the counter and in the kitchen – it was finding a seat. With no companion to ‘chope’ a spot, I circled the floor twice, carrying my meal on a tray, before swooping on a newly vacated table by the window. As I unwrapped my burger, I saw an African American lady doing exactly what I had just done, doing a lap of the dining room in search of somewhere to sit. I waved at her and smiled, gesturing towards the empty seat at my table.
“Thank you,” she said. We introduced ourselves (her name was Gladys) and she asked if I was enjoying my burger (I was) and that was the extent of our conversation, which was fine with me.
I’d done my research and ordered off the not really ‘secret’ menu – a double double (double meat and double cheese burger) ‘animal style’, which means you get pickles, extra ‘spread’ (tastes a bit like thousand island dressing), grilled onions, and mustard fried onto each meat patty. It was a terrific burger, definitely in my top ten burgers and next time I’m in any US state where there’s In-n-Out Burger you can bet I’ll have another one. The fries were OK, a little floppy, not the greatest fries I’ve ever eaten. You can get them animal style too by the way – that’s topped with melted cheese, spread, and grilled onions. Gladys had a hamburger and fries and chugged on an extra large lemonade.
Note: Shake Shack fans, yes, that’s on my To Eat list too for a future USA trip.
I suppose I should’ve eaten seafood at Fisherman’s Wharf, but I don’t regret my decision. Besides, I hope to return to San Francisco, so I’ll get another chance. It was absolutely packed at the seafood stalls and restaurants and I appreciated the delicious sights and smells everywhere I walked.
I walked back the way I came and dropped by the Ferry Building again to grab an ice cream from Humphry Slocombe. The queue was pretty long, so I had plenty of time to decide what to have. That day’s flavours included black sesame, Peanut butter chip, Tahitian vanilla, malted milk chocolate, salt and pepper and basil lime sorbet. I had a taste of one of their signature original flavours, Secret Breakfast, made with bourbon and cornflakes – too boozy for my taste (Jac would probably like it) and settled on Blue Bottle Vietnamese coffee, which really hit the spot on a warm sunny afternoon of walking. Blue Bottle Coffee is a Californian coffee roaster company and in fact has a cafe just opposite Humphry Slocombe at the Ferry Building.
House of Nanking, Chinatown
That evening, I headed back to Chinatown for dinner where a crowd was waiting to get into The House of Nanking. I almost walked away but found out that the majority of people waiting were actually a group of 13. Given that most people already in the jam-packed restaurant were there in twos, threes and fours, I figured it would be easier for the restaurant to find me a free seat than 13 people all at once. I was right – though there’s no solo dining in the busy dining room and I had to share a table with a couple of strangers.
My dining companions were John and Judy from Delaware and although initially awkward, dinner turned out very pleasant and we chatted about our travels and impressions of San Francisco. Just about everything on the menu sounded great and it was difficult to choose what to have. In the end, I ordered three dishes for myself, probably too much food for one person who didn’t even have a fridge in her hotel room to store a doggy bag, let alone a microwave to zap leftovers, but I ate as much as I wanted and felt satisfied. It felt slightly chaotic sitting in the heart of the noisy, bustling, dimly lit restaurant, with staff brushing past repeatedly with drinks and hot dishes. We ordered and paid for our food separately, though we swapped tastes – I tried some of Judy’s famous Nanking Sesame Chicken and she tried a taste of my fried Chinese eggplant. John had a beer, while Judy and I had iced lemon tea. When it was time to leave, we said goodbye and went our separate ways. I was pleased to see as we left the restaurant that the group of 13 had been seated and were tucking into a feast.
I’m not the kind of person who usually makes conversation with strangers. I’m not naturally sociable like Jac is – wherever we go, she always finds someone to have a chat to. On this trip, travelling alone, I constantly found myself in situations where friendly strangers would just start talking to me (I guess they were ‘Jac’!) – at airports, during flights, at the shops… anywhere, really. More than a couple of times I found myself some unexpected company for dinner (don’t worry, always perfectly safe). I surprised myself – I quite enjoyed the interactions. But now that I’m back home I’m back to being my naturally shy, reserved self. By the way – I didn’t offer Gladys a seat at my table at In-N-Out Burger because I wanted someone to talk to… it was just the decent thing to do.
Mentioned in this post
- Washington Street Bakery
- Ferry Building Marketplace
- Pier 39 including more on the sea lions
- In-N-Out Burger
I went to the store on Jefferson Street but there are many other In-N-Out Burger locations.
- Humphry Slocombe ice cream
As well as the Ferry Building store, there’s a Humphry Slocombe in the Mission District.
- San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf
- House of Nanking
My solo USA trip (2014) – about this series
I travelled alone to the United States from late July to mid-August. This trip covered California, Wyoming and Colorado. The primary reason for the trip was to attend a couple of workshops, one on hot air balloon photography and the other on photographing wild horses and cowboys. I also caught up with an old school friend.
- Santa Paula, California, USA – Part 1
- Chasing Balloons, Part 1 – Citrus Classic Balloon Festival
- Chasing Balloons, Part 2
- Santa Paula, California, USA – Part 2
- San Francisco, Part 1 – Golden Gate Hotel (checking in), North Beach by Night walking tour, Sam’s (burger)
- San Francisco, Part 2 – Golden Gate Hotel (breakfast), Hop-on hop-off bus tour. Golden Gate Bridge, Haight-Ashbury, The Pork Store, Painted Ladies, Hearts in San Francisco project, Jardiniere
- San Francisco, Part 3 – breakfast in Chinatown, Ferry Building, sea lions of Pier 39, In-N-Out Burger, Fisherman’s Wharf and dinner with strangers at House of Nanking – this post
- San Francisco, Part 4 – walking around Chinatown, Bacon Bacon truck, Mission District murals, Bi-Rite Creamery and Katana-Ya ramen.
- Wyoming cowboys and staying at K Bar Z ranch
- Wild horses and dining out in Cody, Wyoming
- My first day in Cody, Wyoming
- Denver, Colorado – Part 1 – Mizuna, Cherry Creek North Food & Wine festival, Chihuly exhibition at Denver Botanic Gardens, Argyll Whisky Beer, Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs
- Denver, Colorado – Part 2 – The Curtis, Sam’s No.3, Etai’s, Bistro Vendome, Civic Center Eats, The Buckhorn Exchange, Syrup, Denver public art