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A ride across the bay delivers San Francisco visitors to the center of the Bay Area food scene.
We had it all figured out: I would ferry across from Vallejo to the San Francisco Ferry Building Marketplace, meet Mike at the gangplank, and we’d go straight to the Cowgirl Creamery Sidekick Cafe & Milk Bar and take our place in line for the famous raclette. Mike had heard about it from a work friend and described it to me in awed, secondhand detail: “There’s this giant half-wheel of cheese they heat and scrape with a knife onto a hunk of good sourdough bread . . . they do it on Saturdays during the farmers market. You could ferry over.”
I’m not crazy about boat rides—easy to quease, land legs slow to return—but I wanted to see my husband, who had been working weekends in San Francisco on a temporary gig, and we always love a good foodie outing. (Who doesn’t?) He had been telling me for weeks we should do the Ferry Building’s Saturday farmers market, and now this raclette he’d heard about was way too tempting to resist. So I carved out enough time for a day trip one Saturday.
I could have driven in, but it seemed silly to pay bridge tolls and hassle with traffic and parking when the boat would drop me right there. I drove to Vallejo and paid $5 to park in the garage across the street from the ferry terminal. Another $28 and I had a round-trip ticket on San Francisco Bay Ferry. A one-hour jaunt is hardly enough time to work up to sick, and even though gray rain battered the fogged-up windows and the boat rocked a little passing East Brother Light Station, I was perfectly happy researching the Cowgirl Creamery raclette on my phone. Turns out it’s made from the Marin County-based creamery’s organic Wagon Wheel cheese—a 16-pound circular hard cheese that’s aged for two months and reputed to disappear readily from a cold cheese board and to take on a tart, brown-butter nuttiness when melted. At the raclette cart, they broil half a Wagon Wheel and scrape the melty surface, mounding it onto sourdough slices with pickled onions and butter pickles, and grinding some black pepper over it. A plateful costs about $6. I exited the boat hungry—happy to see Mike in his plastic rain jacket at the end of the ramp—and eager to go get some gooey cheese.
“Bad news, hon,” Mike said after hugging me hello. “No raclette today.”
“There was a sign posted. Fire marshal shut them down on Saturdays. Turned out it was so popular that they decided it was a public safety hazard, having so many people lined up inside on the same day as the farmers market when it’s already so mobbed. They’ve moved it to Sundays, 2 to 5 p.m.”
Well, we weren’t going to be there on Sunday. Still, we didn’t let it ruin our Saturday. Whether there’s raclette or not, no one goes home hungry from the San Francisco Ferry Building Marketplace.
Grilled cheese sandwich from Cowgirl Creamery Sidekick Cafe & Milk Bar
The ferry building opened on the Embarcadero at the base of Market Street in 1898 and immediately became famous for its clock tower and its fancy two-story arched corridors, where the sun streamed through skylights and as many as 50,000 people a day scurried to and from the ferries into and out of San Francisco. Once the Golden Gate and Bay bridges opened, the ferry building became largely obsolete, and the Embarcadero Freeway, built in 1959, uglified the street around it and cut off the other waterfront piers as well. The Loma Prieta earthquake, in 1989, called the freeway’s integrity into question—a ready excuse to begin tearing the eyesore down two years later—and waterfront development blossomed. In 2003, the renovated ferry building reopened as a vibrant food hall, with restaurants, markets and food-centric boutiques lining the interior nave, and became an immediate draw for visitors, locals, even San Francisco’s celebrated chefs. Today, it’s an urban hub that teems with activity, especially when the farmers market sets up in the surrounding plaza on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. The biggest market happens year-round on Saturday, when some 100 vendors show up rain or shine to peddle produce, locally raised meats, poultry and eggs, seafood, fresh pasta, cheeses, bread, jams and jellies, and plenty of handmade items such as soaps, lotions and crafts.
We started inside at Blue Bottle Coffee for a couple of pour-overs—stiff and dark in a plain-Jane brown cup—and worked our way up and down the nave, accepting samples of G.L. Alfieri’s cinnamon chocolate almond brittle, and olive oils and balsamics from Stonehouse’s lineup of tasters. With so much to try, we couldn’t commit to sitting for a full meal anywhere, although The Slanted Door beckoned with its menu packed with Vietnamese specialties. I pointed out to Mike something unexpectedly delicious on the menu that I’d shared with some friends on another visit: the Vietnamese crepe, which was like an omelet, packed with bean sprouts, gulf shrimp, pork shoulder . . . just an incredible mix of flavors and textures. We also admired Hog Island Oyster Co., where the packed bar overlooks the Bay Bridge (how cool this would be at night, when The Bay Lights, the art installation by Leo Villareal, shimmers on the water) while you gulp chowder and slurp oysters that came straight from nearby Tomales Bay. Other options included Gott’s Roadside, which we’ve frequented in Napa for ahi poke tacos and killer burgers and fries; MarketBar brasserie (better when you can sit outside and people-watch on the Embarcadero); and Bouli Bar, with a woodfired oven that sends a warm and smoky aroma wafting through the nave.
The fun for us was in sharing the bites: a plump pork bao from Imperial Tea Court’s cart in the hallway, an Italian doughnut shaped like a cigar—packed with orange-tinged chocolate cream—from Le Bonta Italiane and a pillowy empanada stuffed with wine-braised lamb from El Porteño. A cup of Humphry Slocombe ice cream (the flavor was Secret Breakfast: vanilla topped with bourbonflavored cornflakes) followed by a gorgeous lavender macaron from Miette Patisserie, split while we stood before the strange mushrooms on display at Far West Fungi. “Those look like something out of The X-Files,” a guy behind us told his friend. We gnawed on beef jerky and beef candy from Prather Ranch—where Mike debated whether he should buy his brothers Praise the Lard T-shirts to match his own—and sprang for artisanal chocolates from Recchiuti. (“I’ll get a fleur de sel caramel and you get a mocha.” We each took one bite of each—gone.)
Despite the rain the day we visited, the farmers market was in full swing outside, with covered booths lining the Embarcadero and tucked along the sides and crammed behind the ferry building. It runs from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., and we were tickling closing time, so the crowd felt manageable. We think the rain might have deterred less hardy folks, but we pulled up the hoods on our plastic coats and declared we wouldn’t melt as we shared a plate of oysters fresh off the barbecue at the Hog Island booth, sopping up the broth with hunks torn off an Acme sourdough batard we’d trotted out from the indoor counter. After that, we were stuffed, so we cruised the rest of the booths pretty quickly, sniffing soaps, trying a few tester lotions and asking questions about the difference between pastured and free-range eggs. The rain picked up, and Mike suggested we might melt after all, so we ducked back inside, pulled off our hoods and noticed a crowd forming outside Cowgirl Creamery. Had Mike gotten some bad information? Was the raclette table back in action?
Turned out no, it was simply a cheese tasting—a Cowgirl rep shaving paper-thin slices off something hard and aged and handing them around. It was delicious and reminded us that there’s always room for a little more, and then we saw the grilled cheese sandwiches coming out of the cafe . . .
“We could split one,” I said.
“OK,” said Mike, looking a little hesitant.
“What? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Just . . . keep in mind, honey, when we come for the raclette—I want my own.”
Next Sunday, we’re going.