San Francisco in 10 Years, 10 Spots & 20 Songs

A look at the bridge from Marshall's Beach
Climbing rocks to catch a glimpse of the great Golden Gate from Marshall’s Beach

This October marked my 10th anniversary in San Francisco. Yes, I’ve seen this city change dramatically, and, yes, it has become grossly expensive. The streets are a messy dichotomy of new construction and rotting feces. Beloved spots are hastily transforming into faceless condos, while too many of its people miss out on its quirks and quaintness because they’re staring down at a screen. But enough has been bitched about regarding growing economic disparity, greedy landlords, corporate takeovers, Zuckerberg and Google buses, “bro”-grammers and millenials swooping into a city whose history they don’t give one damn about it. I’m not here to add to that circular conversation, or romanticize San Francisco’s more culturally stimulating “better times,” or to yell at these kids to get off my lawn (I’m just an expat from the Midwest, after all). Continue reading “San Francisco in 10 Years, 10 Spots & 20 Songs”

Coffee: The New San Francisco Treat

Coffee is a way of life for us here at Big and Small Travel. Many a night, Julian and I lie awake, excited for the morning when we can savor a wonderful cup of joe. But it’s not just simply the thought of the steam warming the face or the bold, earthy liquid flowing through the digestive tract, warming the heart and awakening the mind. And it’s not about the caffeine… not always, at least. It’s the whole cafe experience that goes with this morning ritual, from ordering it (even from the crankiest and snobbiest of baristas) to taking that first comforting sip. Here, we attempt to give you a practical and thorough guide to San Francisco’s most famous coffee brands, spots, and trends. The city’s coffee scene has quickly grown in just under the last decade, especially since the launch of local favorites like Blue Bottle and Ritual back in 2005.

Below, Julian covers 10 local coffees. He evaluates each brand by flavor, body, and acidity. As the scene continues to blossom, this is by no means a comprehensive guide, but a trusty snapshot into the great variety of coffee options available in the City by the Bay. Battle Mountain are based around the Russian Hill, Twitterloin, TenderNob neighborhoods, so first up is our nearby pick: Equator Coffee. —HandstandSteph

Equator Coffee | Overall Rating: 9.2   Acidity: 5.5   Flavor: 9.5   Aftertaste: 8.5
Equator Coffee was started by Brooke McDonnell and Helen Russell in a Marin County garage in 1995, well ahead of the third-wave coffee revolution that would hit San Francisco in the 2000s. Their first cafe didn’t open until 2013 in Mill City (pictured), and they opened their San Francisco location, situated in the Warfield Building on 986 Market Street (near the infamously dubbed Twitterloin). More importantly, their coffee is exceptional, created with a whole lot of care for the beans themselves and where they are sourced from. We tried a cup of the Colombian single-origin as well as their house blend; both were smooth, rich, and velvety. Self-described as a “concierge” roaster, Equator focuses on wholesale coffee sales, but their cafes offer a unique experience with helpful and knowledgeable baristas. There is a variety of coffee sold at Equator, many with beans from Colombia, as well as places like Rwanda, Yemen, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The owners are dedicated to providing good working conditions to every farm they work with as well. Overall, Equator has a fantastic mission with exceptional coffee. We think it’s a great pick, especially for those that prefer darker roast coffees.

Coffee! Coffee!
Contraband Coffee Bar on Larkin Street in Russian Hill

Contraband Coffee | Overall Rating: 7.2   Acidity: 8   Flavor: 8   Aftertaste: 6 
Contraband is on the forefront of coffee in the Bay Area, serving beans from Latin America to New Guinea to Yemen — not typically your standard fare. Contraband makes coffee a science, even employing a precision coffee brewing contraption called the Blossom, designed by a former Apple designer/NASA engineer, which specifically calibrates for a “more nuanced” cup of coffee that offers less astringency and bitterness, and more sweetness — be prepared to pay a pretty penny for this selection, though. Overall, Contraband serves quality coffee that is acidic and generally strong. To our taste buds, though, the beans seems “over-roasted” because of the complex and wild nature of their selection. I give Contraband a 7.2, an above-average score that also takes into consideration price and presentation.

Ritual
Ritual Cafe on Valencia Street in the Mission

Ritual Coffee | Overall Rating: 8   Acidity: 8.9   Flavor: 8   Aftertaste: 7.7
Another popular Bay Area brand, Ritual defines coffee as a “delicious, sweet, and complex fruit.” Ritual’s coffee has bite and is generally on the more bitter and acidic side of the coffee spectrum. Ritual uses fair trade beans from Latin America and Africa, where they work intimately with their coffee bean producers. Ritual prides itself on craftsmanship by utilizing a Hario V60 pour-over station to exquisite effect. I’m generally a classic dark roast guy, but I appreciate the way Ritual specializes in light roasted single origin coffee beans and also features “seasonal” espresso beans. The Ritual espresso or macchiato has an expressive and covertly nutty quality that perks you up with the right amount of acidity, flavor, and body. Ritual were one of the pioneers of the artisan coffee movement in SF, and their passion and social consciousness has contributed much to their success..

Sight Glass Cafe in SOMA, San Francisco
Sightglass Cafe on 7th Street in SOMA

Sightglass Coffee | Overall Rating: 7.5   Acidity: 8.9   Flavor: 8.3   Aftertaste: 6.9
Sightglass has carved its own space in a more desolate part of SOMA. If you like Blue Bottle (mentioned below), you’ll probably love Sightglass. The cafe’s grand industrial space is wonderful and ideal for working. I usually opt for the Colombian coffee called Finca Las Florestales that they describe as having “sweet flavors of grape juice, mango, and guava … complemented by a syrupy body and pluot-like acidity.” This acidity is what gives the coffee its brightness and, more significantly, its liveliness. Sightglass also offers beans from Latin America and Africa. The acidity and berry notes are the major components to Sightglass’ specialty light roast, so as a fan of darker roasts I typically prefer a bolder brew.

Four Barrel Cafe in the Mission loves playing records especially classic rock.
Four Barrel Cafe on Valencia Street in the Mission shows off an impressive vinyl collection

Four Barrel | Overall Rating: 8.7   Acidity: 7.0   Flavor: 9.7   Aftertaste: 8.1
Four Barrel’s home in the Mission is complete with roasters, vintage machines, and even turntables. Coffee and records go well together — and Four Barrel’s vintage ambiance goes well with their old-fashioned roasting methods. The cafe offers no Wi-Fi, which means tables are thankfully free of Macs. This is definitely a place to enjoy a great cup of coffee over a good conversation. A Four Barrel cup of coffee is clean, sweet, and complex, with just the right amount of acidity. Four Barrel has a diverse selection of beans that span the globe; I’m partial to the Latin American varieties. They pride themselves on having an “artisan” approach. As it says on their site, “We hold our roasters’ dedication to the constantly changing variable of coffee in high regard.” This means they’re coffee is always smooth, bold, and goes down easy.

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Blue Bottle | Overall Rating: 7.9   Acidity: 8.7   Flavor: 7.3   Aftertaste: 7.6
Blue Bottle has become an institution in the Bay Area. The company originated in Oakland, Calif., where its founder was sick of ubiquitous “grande eggnog lattes and double skim pumpkin-pie macchiatos.” The name is inspired by Central Europe’s first coffee house (The Blue Bottle) — an awesome story; read here. It’s important to note that Blue Bottle serves beans that’ve been roasted within the last 48 hours. The coffee is strong and vibrant and the body is nice and full, with a clean yet acidic finish. As referenced above, their signature light roast has potent berry notes that may turn off fans of darker roasts. Still, Blue Bottle continues to grow, even expanding to New York. Overall, their coffee is worth the typically cheaper price tag, especially for those craving more acidic and fruity tones.

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Contraband Coffee Bar on Larkin Street in Russian Hill

Highwire Coffee | Overall Rating: 8.2   Acidity: 5.8   Flavor: 8.7   Aftertaste: 8.1
Highwire Coffee is based in Oakland, however it is available at Craftsman and Wolves in the Mission area of San Francisco. Highwire Roasters proclaims to “love the guts in a cup of fully developed coffee” and “the subtleties that speak to its place of origin.” The core espresso blend I had was full of body, smooth, and perhaps the least acidic coffee I’ve ever had in the Bay Area. Highwire offers darker roasts that are more akin to a typical cup of coffee found in many European countries. However, their philosophy is that light, medium, and dark roasts are all delicious in their own special way. Still, their blends are typically more balanced and less acidic than those favored among the “third wave coffee” scene, led by Blue Bottle and others. Highwire is also available in Oakland at Nido and Hive, the Place to Bee.

Philz at Van Ness, San Francisco
Philz Coffee on Van Ness Avenue near Civic Center

Philz Coffee | Overall Rating: 6.1  Acidity: 6.5   Flavor: 6.7   Aftertaste: 5.7
Philz has also become quite an institution in the San Francisco Bay Area. They pride themselves on their artisanal and high quality coffees, and the unique experience of ordering the coffee itself. While you typically pay first for coffee at most cafes, Philz has reversed the process. At Philz, the experience is friendlier and funkier than many of its contemporaries. The coffee is made to order, and the menu can be quite intimidating for newbies, especially with wacky names like Jacobs Wonderbar. You can request a roast, flavor, and sweetness that is exactly to your liking. But a major drawback here is that they don’t offer espresso — a purist coffee lover’s delight. Still, Philz has mastered the art of the fresh pour-over coffee. They feature several different blends, from light to medium to dark roasted, and even offer multiple decaf options, along with flavors like mint mojito. What makes Philz unique is that you can carefully craft and tweak your coffee until you’re 100% satisfied — which often just seems to be more of a headache after the already overwhelming ordering process.

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Bicycle Coffee | Overall Rating: 6.8   Acidity: 7    Flavor: 8.9    Aftertaste: 8
Bicycle Coffee, based in Oakland, is readily available throughout the Bay Area, especially at funkier alternatives like Revolution Cafe in the Mission and Another Cafe near Nob Hill. Bicycle Coffee, whose beans come mainly from Central America, is dependably smooth. To a newbie, it may seem moderately strong since some medium roasts can be bitter. However, the beans vary seasonally and every cup of coffee depends on your barista, too. The round, oak notes and caramel hints dominate in a typical cup of Bicycle coffee, a reliable morning pick-me-up.

Chromatic Coffee | Overall Rating: 8.0   Acidity: 8.9   Flavor: 8.3   Aftertaste: 6.9                    First, we stumbled across Iron & Steam Espresso Bar and were dazzled by the 60-year-old Gaggia lever machine. Unfortunately, Iron & Steam Espresso bar is closed, but Chromatic Coffee, based in San Jose, is  readily available in the SF Bay area. Chromatic coffee sticks to the back of your throat and penetrates your digestive system in a powerful way. The taste and flavor are very strong with bold hints of cacao bean — it’s almost as if you’re drinking rich, raw hot chocolate. In essence, the tiger mottling effect comes from the crema, the thin and dark golden-brown layer atop the espresso shot. This crema contains emulsified oils, created from the machine’s high pressure, which disperses gases within the liquid. Much of the shot’s aromatic and nuanced flavors is pronounced in the crema. Overall, I was impressed with Chromatic Coffee and their devotion to unique singe-serve coffees from ethically sourced beans. It may be worth a visit to Santa Clara to check out their home base.                    

With those 10 options, I feel lucky to live in such a vibrant and happening town for coffee, especially since this scene has only come about in the last decade. And I’m happy to see a recent return to more dark roast coffees in the area. It’s important to note that the darker the brew, the higher the coffee is in beneficial phytonutrients, which not only help in the carmelization process but also increase antioxidant activity. All that said, in the end, all we desire is a fine, reliable cup of coffee to start our day. Fortunately, San Francisco offers a plethora of choices. Stay tuned for an upcoming post in which I will review international brands, featuring powerhouses like Nespresso and Illy.

Trip Daze: Calistoga’s Mud, Wine, and Good Times

A diorama of Calistoga's heyday, from the Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History
A diorama of Calistoga’s heyday, from the Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History

Ok, I admit that my knowledge of the town of Calistoga pretty much stopped at its sparkling mineral water line — a favorite purchase for a refreshing gas station treat. And though I’ve driven through the Napa Valley town on numerous occasions — always noting “Dr. Wilkinson’s Mud Baths” and other signs touting spa bliss — other wine locales in the area had managed to always lure me away. So when researching a quick weekend trip from San Francisco, Julian and I had decided to bypass the more populated Sonoma and Napa and try out Calistoga, home to hot springs, vineyards, and old tourist destinations (or traps depending on how much of a geological nerd you may be) like the Petrified Forest and the Old Faithful Geyser of California (okay, that’s definitely a trap with its sad petting zoo as its best attempt to entice the kiddies).

ACCOMMODATION:

The Sunburst Calistoga
We had come across a new hotel, the Sunburst Calistoga. Its sleek yet retro décor — and, better yet, its promise of mineral water pools — made it a favorable accommodation choice. (Not to mention the Living Social deal I found just a few days after our initial Internet discovery of the place.) Turns out the Sunburst advertised discounted prices across every major deal site — including Groupon and Travelzoo — so we arrived at the motel-like structure on the edge of town to a fully packed house. This meant service was slow and the pools crowded (so much for a relaxing dip in the mineral pools — which smelled more of chlorine than anything else). The Sunburst could benefit from a tighter pool policy (don’t allow outsiders, for example), another employee at the front desk during peak times, and a more robust and fresh breakfast spread). But overall the rooms were comfortable, and the brightly colored, ’50s-hinting décor cute and functional. The location was ideal, and the price was right — especially for Napa Valley — at just $130 a night. A stay during the week may be your best bet here.

Lounging in the lobby of the Sunburst Calistoga
Lounging in the lobby of the Sunburst Calistoga

MUST-DO’s:

Tamber Bey Vineyards
Down the road just a few blocks from the Sunburst is Calistoga’s main drag, dotted with olive oil shops, tasting rooms, restaurants, and cafes. We recommend stopping by the Visitors Center at 1133 Washington Street to get discounts on attractions like wineries and hot springs, and great advice from the helpful staff. Our best find here was a 2 for 1 tasting coupon at the spacious and serene Tamber Bey Vineyards — one of the highlights of our trip. Their fairly new location (relocated from St. Helena late in 2013) is set amongst an expansive 22-acre equestrian paradise. Grabbing a sunny seat outside means you’ll find yourself flanked by horse stables, but even if you’re not the equine type (me, not so much), this never distracts from the tasting experience, which they make truly comfortable here. Splurge and get the cookie and wine pairings (it’s worth the extra $10). The cookies are made by a grad from the nearby Culinary Institute of America, and expertly paired with the wine selections.

Tamber Bey Vineyards
Tamber Bey Vineyards

Golden Haven Hot Springs
Now, of course, no trip to Calistoga is without a little pampering. We chose Golden Haven Hot Springs because of their great deal on a couple’s mud bath and free use of their mineral pools (at $64/person). Golden Haven follows the “traditional” mud bath process, and the place feels a bit haunted by miners and hippies past, but that only adds to the mystical experience. As newbie mud bathers we were a bit hesitant climbing into the tubs, especially when told the bottoms’ll burn ya! But once comfortably settled in the mix of mud, clay, and Calistoga hot spring water, it’s like floating on a heated quilt full of tiny, densely packed beads massaging your every crevice. Your body won’t sink, but your mind pleasantly will. After about 15 minutes, you shower off, slip into your private mineral hot tub, and then get escorted to a softly lit room where you’re wrapped in a warm blanket and encouraged to take your mind to far-off lands.

Golden Haven Hot Springs
Golden Haven Hot Springs

Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History
Once that mud-high fades, one last stop in town should be at the Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History. It’s a charming little spot dedicated to one of the more fascinating personalities of Gold Rush times: pioneer, promoter, entrepreneur, and California’s first millionaire, Sam Brannan. Just seeing the timeline of this guy’s life is worth the $3 donation. I’m shocked there hasn’t already been a Hollywood movie depicting his life of Mormonism, multiple marriages, deadly shoot-outs, lucrative investments, and eventually bankruptcy. The museum is named after Ben Sharpsteen, an animator for Walt Disney, and so you’ll also find a good stock of Disney memorabilia.

Listening up in the Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History
Listening up in the Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History

Lastly…
While Calistoga may not have the same luster it did when Brannan opened his original Calistoga Hot Springs Resort some 150 years ago, it still has a rustic kind of charm without the hoity-toity Napa pretensions. Strangest thing, though: I didn’t come across one bottle of Calistoga water…

*BONUS FEATURE*
FOOD HIGHLIGHTS in ST. HELENA

The Model Bakery
Less than 10 miles southeast of Calistoga is the decidedly chicer town of St. Helena. Here, the dining options are aplenty and a little more varied than in Calistoga. There’s a good cluster of restaurants, cafes, olive oil shops, and boutiques along and around Main Street, so it’s best to park and take a stroll around the ‘hood. Food must-stops include the Model Bakery, whose claim to fame is their fluffy, hearty English muffins — and I can vouch that you’ll think twice about ever getting a package of Thomas’ after biting into one of Model’s. And though the wealth of pastries, breads, cakes, and pies, will have you more than salivating, they also offer sandwiches and salads packed with fresh, seasonal veggies to offset any sugary indulgent.

Prosecco at Himalayan Sherpa Kitchen
Prosecco at Himalayan Sherpa Kitchen

Himalayan Sherpa Kitchen
For dinner, I highly recommend the Himalayan Sherpa Kitchen. The owners here are from Nepal and offer a wide assortment of traditional Nepali and Indian dishes. The service was impeccable — gracious and efficient — but the food is what really left a lasting impression. It’s a delicate balance bringing together the rich spices of this type of cuisine; when done best, the flavors lie waiting under your tongue, slowly colliding, until your taste buds pop with delight — and we happily experienced that here. The naan bread (you can also get with basil or cilantro) was optimally soft on the inside, crispy on the out. The Saag Paneer was rich and creamy, and the Tandoori Tikka chicken breast was tender and spiced just right with the peppers and onions — both go well with a glass of prosecco. All of that was plenty for two people. Full and satisfied, a belly-easing mint tea was our perfect nightcap.

Top Trips, Vol. II: Palm Springs / Joshua Tree

I vowed to make 2012 a year to fully embrace my endless wanderlust. I think I did a pretty decent job. Here, I’ll attempt to prove just that. I’ll be running down my top travel adventures of 2012 … slowly but surely. In no particular order, here’s Vol. II, a trek south and inland to Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park.

Joshua Tree Lean
Julian’s Joshua Tree Lean

There’s something mystical yet menacing about the desert. Maybe it’s all that dry air sucking out all the bullshit. Bullshit can’t survive in the desert — the sun would rot it too quickly, or, on a chilly night, the wind would just carry it all the way to, well, a place like L.A.

Continue reading “Top Trips, Vol. II: Palm Springs / Joshua Tree”