Playing Tourist

If someone complains to you that there’s nothing going on at any given second in SF, they’re lying. Hop on a bike and pick a direction — you’re bound to stumble onto something good.

America’s Cup! The catamarans were incredibly powerful and majestic and although we had no idea what they were doing it certainly seemed impressive [turns out they just had to do laps around two buoys, but with all the varied tacking strategies it looked more like an oversized kindergarten soccer game than a professional race].

The 16th Avenue Tiled Steps Project, aka the Moraga Steps, are a secret treasure tucked in what Google Maps calls Golden Gate Heights [huh?]. Inspired by a decorated staircase in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the mosaic was designed by local artists and made by residents of the neighborhood — 163 steps depicting a sweeping progression from ocean to sunrise. Continue climbing at the top to Grand View Park, which, as the name implies, offers a panorama from Sutro Tower to the Presidio.

Snack time! [when isn’t it??] Pitstop at Beachside Coffee Bar and Kitchen for a fried oyster po’boy and mac and cheese.

Up the coast to Lands End and the Legion of Honor. With an organ concert in the Legion providing mood music, I could pretend we had teleported to Italy; clambering down to the rocky beach and watching tankers pass under the Golden Gate Bridge was a reminder of the fantastic place we really were. Cheesy, huh? But true . . .

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No Fried Butter Here: SF Street Food Festival

Ah, another year of delicious food come and gone and we’re back at San Francisco’s culinary mecca, where proud local chefs strut their stuff with portable deep fryers and super-sized tubs of spices, and success is measured in the length of the queue willing to wait for your showstopper. It’s the perfect venue to sample a restaurant that would otherwise gobble up a month’s rent [and require a reservation two months in advance – here’s to you, State Bird Provisions] or necessitate a trek across the bay [Oakland? what?]. Sure, you might pay $8 for a single pork belly slider, but goddamnit it’ll be some tasty pork!

The runaway success of the day was from Oakland’s Hawker Fare, sweeping the competition with the variety of flavors squeezed into a tiny rice bowl, including an Asian-ish sausage patty, sesame-dressed cabbage, and pickled jalapeño, daikon, and carrot slices. Even the hot sauce offered was NOT Sriracha — the same old Thai import? so ho-hum — so props for that innovation.

Claiming the spot for the most primally soul-satisfying item, undoubtedly condemning under charges of gluttony, was the fried garlic bread smothered in burrata from State Bird Provisions. A warm blanket of oil, cream, salt, and garlic . . . take a crunchy bite, let the cheese ooze into the crevices of your mouth, sink deep into the velvet armchair beside a crackling fire that is conjured in your mind, and sigh with contentedness.

I’m probably supposed to be all fired up and indignant about the invasion of a certain food stand from Portland, Oregon, but can I really complain if they serve up good eats? Check out this crawfish boudin ball from Swamp Shack and swear you wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole, and then go ahead and order two. They were like Italian arancini, but packed with jambalaya and bits of crawfish and dredged in a flour coating for a classic Roy Rogers fried chicken crunch [R.I.P. Roy Rogers of Long Island – you were the only fast food I liked as a kid, probably because you were the only one my parents frequented so I thought you were a normal restaurant]. A touch more Creole seasoning in the rice and these would have been an outright homerun.

Also: Beijing Restaurant’s Chinese hamburger, Lali’s Georgian chicken blintzes, Hella Vegan Eat’s fry bread tacos, and luring out the fat man within [I had a serious hankering for the fried and the meaty – thankfully most selections were only one of those].

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MC: Were you checking me out from The Summit?

w4m – San Francisco (mission district)

I was walking north on Valencia early Friday afternoon, meandering home after gorging on Arizmendi pizza — bright tomato-red pants, scarf, carrying a bag of cookies for later. You were waiting to order at The Summit [aka 780 Cafe], half turned around to look outside, and I thought you did a little double-take as our line of sight switched from side window to open door — black t-shirt, maybe a messenger bag, dark hair.

The thing is, I was wearing super cool aviators that lend me that “you can’t tell what I’m thinking, but wouldn’t you like to know?” swagger, so I couldn’t actually see inside very well or determine if we were making eye contact when, you know, you couldn’t see my eyes. Besides, maybe you were just checking out my friend . . .

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Play with your food!

I’ve never stopped being a kid, so “indulging your inner child” or other gratuitous excuses for adults doing fun things seem totally silly to me. Admittedly I haven’t had a mashed potato-throwing fight in a long time, but that doesn’t mean I don’t do cartwheels down the sidewalk, make a beeline for the stacks of wood blocks in the toy store, and plaster myself with 25¢ temporary tattoos.

So offer me a combination of Jell-O molding, poking squishy things with my fingers, and crazy noises and I am all in! Playing with your food doesn’t get much better than this . . .

Noisy Jelly was created by Raphaël Pluvinage and Marianne Cauvard, students at Les Ateliers-Paris Design Institute [École Nationale Supérieure de Création Industrielle]. To play, you dissolve a bit of agar agar powder in water in a mold and add the provided food coloring; ten minutes later your jelly is ready to rock! With the jelly on the game board, you can prod, pinch, and smush to your heart’s content, each touch inducing different sounds.

To get technical, the game board is a capacitive sensor — a thin piece of wood lined with metal foil hooked up to an Arduino — and the jellies are nodes of varying conductances — determined by the different salt concentrations in each color as well as the molded shape. Touching the jelly modulates the capacitance detected by the Arduino, and this signal is then translated into sound via Max/MSP [a “visual programming language” with an add-on to allow the manipulation of digital audio signals in realtime – don’t ask me how to use it].

I love this! You can’t have survived to whatever age you are without having made a tray of Jell-O jigglers, waggled one in someone else’s face, and pretended it was a slice of brain or an alien tentacle. Now not only is the jelly alive, it talks back to you! It’s playful, it’s sciencey, it works like magic, and it has the irresistible mystique of something that doesn’t quite fit into our familiar physical world. Forget volcano kits or writing my own mobile app, I’m putting this next on the DIY list!

[All photos here were linked from Raphaël’s website; additional info and images can be found on his and Marianne’s websites and their press kit]

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How’d we end up in Sausalito?

The best kinds of weekends are the ones that surprise you. Or maybe, more accurately, the ones in which you allow yourself to be surprised — when you put in a little impetus up front [take a different route home from work, say, or wander aimlessly through new neighborhood] and then let the currents carry you where they may.

So it was that an innocent bike ride with MJW up to the North Beach festival in June extended into a cruise along the Embarcadero and Crissy Field and then, “while we’re over here,” a detour to the edge of the Golden Gate Bridge and finally, “since we made it this far,” an impromptu jaunt across the bay to Sausalito. The views were gorgeous — the miraculously fog-free afternoon offering a glistening cityscape — and the ride leisurely, winding down from the bridge into a former military post, through a wooded neighborhood, and emerging onto Sausalito’s bay-front main street.

I suppose I had a vague notion of a yacht-clogged harbor and New England clam shacks, but Sausalito was both more and less cliched than I expected. We locked up next to the rows of rented Blazing Saddles bikes near the ferry dock — the ferry subsists on tourists too tired to propel themselves back to the city — and passed an entrepreneurial taxi equipped with a bike rack offering the same cross-bay ride. Downtown was flooded with Hamptons-esque boutiques and kitschy seafood restaurants; kids slurped ice cream and wove around pearl-wearing middle-aged couples out for an early dinner.

Continuing north, though, the vibe shifted back in time. A single-screen theater advertised the latest family-friendly release. A fleet of Hobie catamarans piled on the lawn of a small wharf, awaiting checkups. And we stumbled into the magical Galilee Harbor.

An independent community of artists, boat builders, and all sorts of creative types, Galilee is a jumble of wildly painted houseboats on the fringe of town. At the entrance to the dock, a small garden of herbs sprung from wine barrels and scaled driftwood trellises, and a clothesline flapped with baby clothes faded to varying shades of pink. A yellowing piece of paper in a glass case welcomed visitors and invited us to take a tour [the older, historically-significant boats even had information plaques posted in front]. Why thank you, we’d love to!

As we poked around, two little girls in shorts and Toms hopped off the dock onto a half sunken hunk of wood and squatted around bits of seashells. The other adults passing through asked the girls if they could swim, and I laughed to myself. I grew up like that too, playing in and around the water with whatever toys washed ashore. Swimming was akin to walking, and walking around was as good as any game. Seeing kids playing in SF still surprises me — concrete and music festivals and vintage designer duds don’t add up to adolescence in my mind — but Galilee harkened back to familiar roots . . .

A marriage proposal? A grounding? Wish I knew Jamie well enough to guess.

When the road ran out of attractions, MJW and I, like the tech-drowned SFers we are, turned to Yelp for our next move. What’s this? Something called “Le Garage” on the waterfront of what looks like an industrial wharf? Oh wait, a French bistro, with stellar reviews?

Of course we couldn’t resist. MJW was sold on the moules frites [actually just on the mussels in white wine, but when the waiter suggestively asked about fries, well, one must honor the classic combination] and I had the day’s salad special, with blue cheese stuffed figs and crispy pancetta. Everything was fantastic, of course, right down to the crusty bread wrapped in newspaper and the heavily-accented French bartender I ogled while we ate.

Wholly unprepared for nightfall, we raced home against the fading sun and cold ocean wind; just one sacrificial stop made to snap this photo from the Golden Gate Bridge before hurrying on.

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