When you’re only in a city for a few short days and want to pack in as much as possible, one of the best options is to go on a food tour. Not only do you get to eat a variety of foods in a short amount of time, you also get a history lesson, a cultural lesson, and exclusive access to the owners/restauranteurs of the places on the tour. My only goal on vacations is to eat as many delicious things as possible, but until I figure out how to give myself 10 extra stomachs to be able to EAT ALL THE THINGS, I’m always on the lookout for anything food-related that meets my food-eating needs.
After countless hours of research and scouring the pages of the interwebs, I came across Avital Tours, a locally-owned and operated boutique tour company that specializes in walking food tours that are not just about food (as important as that is on a food tour, obviously), but an experience where you get “a behind-the-scenes snapshot of a famous San Francisco neighborhood by telling its story through its people and great food (and drink, of course!)” (they say it way better than I can articulate myself).
We booked ourselves on the North Beach Food Tour, mainly because I saw that the tour ended with hand-filled cannoli. All I need in life is a good cannoli. It was a beautiful Thursday afternoon, perfect for walking and eating. We met up with our guide Leila, a 5th generation San Franciscan with an extensive library of San Francisco knowledge and the rest of the group, a family from Alaska and a family from Perth, Australia. It was a good mix and good size group for this type of tour. After obligatory introductions, we headed to our first destination.
Barrique is a one-of-a-kind wine bar that specializes in serving hand-picked wines straight from the barrel. The concept is simple when you think about it – cut out the middle man, the bottling, the marketing, and you’re able to lower the overall cost of wine without compromising quality. They’ve been open for about 4 years and only serve a particular wine until the barrel runs out. Once it’s gone, it’s gone; you can’t go back again later and expect that they will have the same selection. That keeps it quite interesting as they continually mix up their offerings. Their pricing is anywhere from $6 to $14 per glass, which is a bargain when you think about how expensive wine can get depending on what type of select.
I’m by no means a wine expert. I’m not even much of a wine drinker. I think I’d call myself a wine tolerator. That sounds terrible, but my palate has a hard time warming up to wine and I find that most of them taste the same. In an effort to be more open-minded and to try to mature my palate to match my age (hah), I tried the wine that they were offering to us, a 2011 Dry Creek Zinfadel. All I can say is that I didn’t have that immediate reaction of “ick”. I actually quite liked it. Don’t ask what notes and undertones I detected because that’s completely out of my league. Just know that this self-confessed wine tolerator actually enjoyed it.
To go along with our wine sample, they offered me a substitution for the cheese (because apparently wine and cheese pairings are a thing, right?) in the form of some charcuterie. I really appreciated that they made this substitution for me (you can specify any dietary requirements/restrictions/weirdness at the time you book and they do their best to accommodate you). The rich, fatty sausage went well with Zinfadel so the pairing was a success for me.
One of the owners spent quite a lot of time with the group telling us about Barrique, how they source their wine, and the story behind how it all came to be, as well as answering any questions we had. This kind of backstage access is rare – if not impossible – when just visiting off the street, so this is one of the clear advantages of booking on a food tour.
A bit buzzed and appetites whetted, we headed off to our next destination.
Tommaso’s Italian Restaurant
Tommaso’s is rich with history and so many interesting stories. Originally called Lupo’s back when it opened in 1935, they were the first restaurant on the West Coast to operate with a wood-fired brick oven; the original is still in operation today. The name changed to Tommaso’s when the original owners sold the restaurant to their long-time chef, Tommy. The current owner, Agostino, who was our host that evening, is good friends with Francis Ford Coppola (who dined at Tommaso’s frequently) and has even appeared in a couple of movies. You can really feel the rich history and family-run vibe in Tommaso’s, which has become a San Francisco institution.
The wood-fired brick oven – hot stuff!
We were treated to 2 different types of pizza – a simple cheese and spinach, and the classic pepperoni, with the best kind of pepperoni that curls up into little bowls – yum! They were simple and done just right, with a crispy, chewy crust, and delicious fresh toppings. There was something comforting about these pizzas, like you could feel the love and good vibes coming straight from the dough. Yes, that does indeed sound crazy.
The two slices were substantial enough to satiate us for the walk to our third destination.
Pena Pachamama is one of the most unique places I’ve been to. It has a colourful past, first starting as a speakeasy, then turning into the famous Ernie’s, regularly frequented by celebrities and political figures alike. Nowadays, it’s owned and operated by the husband and wife team of Eddy and Quentin Navia, a lively hotspot serving traditional Bolivian dishes and organic raw foods (plus vegan and gluten-free), along with live musical performances. Eddy is a renowned and accomplished Bolivian composer, and Quentin (who was our host) is the founder of Sukay and heads the Pachamama Band. She is a warm, lovely, and engaging woman, who shared with us a bounty of fascinating stories while we enjoyed the food offerings.
Pachamama is famous for their kale chips. Even as a lover of kale chips, I gotta admit that I’m getting kinda sick of seeing them everywhere. But these kale chips.. oh my. First, they’re raw. Yup – they’re not baked or fried! They’re dehydrated. They’re also organic and vegan, made with cashews and other vegan-friendly ingredients. They’re super crispy and incredibly flavourful. What they do with kale is pure magic.
We also got a small sampler plate. My best guess for the items are as follows: organic salad with plantains and avocado, pan-baked yuca frita with vegan cashew cream sauce, organic oven roasted potatoes, and foccacia pizza. My favourite thing on the plate was the yuca frita (the small, blurry square). SO DELICIOUS! It was sweet, it was savoury, it was soft, it was moist… mmmmm… it was even better than traditional yuca frita, which is fried. If we had had more time in San Francisco, I would’ve gone back to have more of the yuca frita and try some other items. They make organic, raw, vegan, and gluten-free food taste amazing, and that is some feat.
Feeling energized and ready for some more, we headed for our next stop.
Buyer’s Best Friend Mercato
Buyer’s Best Friend Mercato is a specialty wholesale shop that sells a variety of local artisanal products. This store is really up my alley, with beautiful displays of unique and glorious food items that were just begging to be taken home. This is serious eye candy for the food lover.
We tasted a couple of different balsamic vinegars, both of which were delicious. This is not your cheap grocery store balsamic; this is the real deal.
We also sampled agave sea salt caramels covered in chocolate (which also happen to be certified gluten-free and kosher), and caramel popcorn. We enjoyed the caramels so much that we picked up a few boxes to take home, one of which didn’t even make it back to Calgary.
We also got a chance to check out the rest of the store and do some shopping, but we behaved ourselves and stuck with the chocolate caramels in the end. I would definitely go back on my next visit to check out all the goodies. On that note, Pachamama actually sells their kale chips at this store and you can order them online. Seriously, try them – you will never go back to baked or fried kale chips.
Loaded up with goodies, we headed off to our last stop and my most anticipated part of the tour.
A. Cavalli Cafe
A. Cavalli Cafe is an historic North Beach establishment with roots that go all the way back to 1880, when it was first conceived as a library by its founder, George Cavalli. Over the years, the Libreria Cavalli moved locations a few times, finally settling in its present location in 1934. As the demand for books declined, the libreria was sold and reinvented into a cafe by a new owner. Since then, Cavalli Cafe has been serving its authentic, Italian-style espresso to its loyal patrons. But what I was there for were their famous hand-filled, made-to-order cannoli, which were waiting for us on the counter when we arrived. LOOK AT THEM ALL. They’re glorious masterpieces.
The only way to truly enjoy cannoli is with a coffee (which was amazing, by the way). Cavalli Cafe makes the cannoli shells fresh daily and the ricotta is imported from Italy. They’re finished with orange zest and chocolate chips on either side.
Oh yes, these cannoli were well worth the wait. The shells were crisp, just as they should be. The ricotta filling was smooth and creamy, without being overly sweet (that’s what the chocolate chips are for), while the orange zest provided a welcome brightness to round out all the flavours.
We both enjoyed these so much that we went back the next evening while waiting for a table to open up at a nearby restaurant. Yep, we had dessert before dinner, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.
With that, the food tour was over. Three hours whizzed by quickly, our heads were full of San Francisco facts and the hosts’ personal stories, and our bellies happy with just the right amount of fullness. We had a great time with the group and Leila was an awesome guide – warm, energetic, chock-full of knowledge, and had great rapport with each of the hosts. She followed up with us via email after the tour and even remembered my fondness for bacon and recommended a few other places to check out for food and sight seeing.
I highly recommend Avital Tours as a fun and delicious way to explore San Francisco. This was our first ever food tour experience and it did not disappoint. Go and check it out – your belly will thank you!