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How I left my heart (again) in San Francisco

By MILLET M. MANANQUIL, The Philippine STAR Published Nov 08, 2023 5:00 am

I actually left my heart many decades ago in San Francisco when it was the first city I saw in the United States.

I was much younger and giddier then. I didn’t know that to cross a busy street, you had to push a button for cars to stop for you. I really loved Ghirardelli chocolates, Thanh Long crabs from Vietnamese restos, riding on a cable car, and sailing underneath the Golden Gate Bridge from the Fisherman’s Wharf. 

Palace of Fine Arts… and wedding memories

I was thrilled to pass through the Crookedest Street in the World—that’s Lombard Street—and I was fascinated when titas said that houses in San Francisco were like paper dolls. And that the postcard-pretty, Greek-inspired Palace of Fine Arts was a romantic site for wedding pictures.

San Francisco ‘s cable cars: Moving National Historic Landmarks

I still have an eye for romantic places, and though I’m a bit jaded now, I still get excited at the mere mention of San Francisco. So when United Airlines sent an invite to join the inaugural flight direct to San Francisco, I quickly packed my bags. I knew I would leave my heart in San Francisco—again. And this time I did things that I missed before.

Time-travel to Alcatraz and interview Al Capone
Author imagines time-travelling in Alcatraz to interview Al Capone

My mind was imprisoned in Alcatraz where I time-traveled—just like in K-dramas—for an imaginary interview with Al Capone…. You were the crime czar of Chicago and yet the community loved you as you fed the needy through soup kitchens—did you enjoy being like a legendary Robin Hood? The Alcatraz seemed like a Club Med, a prison of desire—was it because it had an only-one-prisoner-per-cell policy, 15,000 books, 75 mag subscriptions and good food? Or was it because Alcatraz allowed you to play the banjo with the Rock Islanders every Sunday? Did you ever attempt to escape from Alcatraz like the 36 prisoners who tried—though 23 were captured, six drowned and two were shot to death? 

In later years, the Native American Indians took over Alcatraz when it was vacant, to protest against injustices like the seizure of their aboriginal lands—would you have sympathized with them? ...After my group escaped from Alcatraz, we gained 7,700 steps of free exercise and an entry back to reality.

Ride a hippie van for a san francisco 101 tour
Here, there and everywhere with Tara of San Francisco Love Tours

Two hours in a van painted with images of psychedelic peace, love, freedom and the Beatles brought me to SFO’s most iconic places, with driver Tara of San Francisco Love Tours, who peppers history with her funny dad jokes and ‘60s songs. Why does the clock on the corner of Haight-Ashbury forever read 4:20? Obviously in memory of the counterculture revolution (and marijuana jargon) in this bohemian enclave of famous singers like Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead. At the Sea Cliff, she drove through the homes of celebs like actress Sharon Stone, comedian Robin Williams, legendary photographer Ansel Adams, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, and Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett.

Robin Williams’ home as seem from the hippie van
Mission accomplished:mFinding food, Latin heritage and social justice

If it’s a commissioned work, it’s a mural. If it’s not, it’s graffiti,” said our guide as she led a walking tour of the Mission District which has a hipster vibe and a culture with Latino roots. Most of all, it has about 200 artworks on buildings and walls. My absolute favorite is the Women’s Building, which was painted by seven female artists. Many of the murals/graffiti dwell on issues like social justice. 

The Women’s Building (left) and street graffiti dwell on social justice—or injustice

Mission District may cause a great stir in your soul—and your belly. First on our food trip was Prubechu, which offers whole roasted pig (lechon), as well as roasted Japanese yams, yum! Then to North Point for the well-crafted wine and beer, and naturally I loved the roasted clams. Arepas’ Latin cuisine makes good burritos—and mine was vegetarian. Lastly, Sixth Course, “where desserts can be spiritual, too.” Yes, their ice cream creations looked and tasted heavenly.

Get delicious nourishment for the Asian soul

More than one third of San Francisco’s population is Asian. No wonder that most of the yummiest foods I tasted were Japanese, Chinese and Filipino.

Keanu Reeves with Peter and Kathy Fang at the House of Nanking in San Francisco’s Chinatown

Chotto Matte had opened only a week earlier when my travel mates and I tried it—and it was fully packed with a young, chic crowd. It is on the elegant rooftop with a wraparound terrace of the building formerly occupied by Macy’s in SF’s Union Square. Japanese-Peruvian cuisine came in several courses, each one well-crafted.

Justin Escalante, Sonia Sparks and Joshua Chan at the House of Nanking

House of Nanking in Chinatown was famously visited by Keanu Reeves while filming Matrix 4: The Resurrections, but this is not the only thing that makes it an iconic resto. The father-daughter team of Peter and Kathy Fang cook Shanghainese cuisine with their own creative touch. Peter became famous for ordering dishes for customers himself. Sonia Sparks, Joshua Chan and Justin Escalante filled our table with the resto’s bestsellers which Nanking followers can see on the Fangs’ TV show.

Okoy is okay and soup is souperb at Abaca
Yummy broccoli and luscious steaks at Chotto Matti

Abaca is a proudly Filipino restaurant weaving threads of praises from diners for its creative Filipino-Californian cuisine. Owned by Chef Francis Ang and his wife, director of operations Dian Ang, Abaca has interesting tweaks on dishes like okoy, crispy pata, and lobster noodles. Masarap talaga!

Discover how history meets ‘Star Wars’ at Presidio
Presidio, once a military fort, is now a stretch of greenery and neatly reconstructed structures, including a hotel

San Francisco has over 200 parks, but Presidio is more than a park, as it was once a military fort held at different times in history by the Spanish, Mexican and the US (think Desert Storm during the first Gulf War). Now, Lisa Petrie says, it is an awesome National Historic Site with Tunnel Tops covered with plants, a hotel, private institutions, a beautiful view of the Golden Gate Bridge… and, tada! Yoda, Darth Vader, R2-D2 and other Star Wars characters. Filmmaker George Lucas has acquired control over a part of its green vastness, thus a state-of-the-art digital movie center is being planned to bring artists together. May the Force be with you, Presidio.

Tada! It’s Yoda at Presidio
Try a hotel where cable cars climb in architectural splendor

To be where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars—make it Michelin stars—is to be at Beacon Grand Hotel located right along the Powell/Hyde route of cable cars in the Union Square area.

Jill Plemons and Lance Razon of Beacon Grand with a high intricate ceiling
Lobster a la Eggs Benedict

While basking in its historic legacy since its founding in 1928, the Beacon Grand has been redesigned for the 21st century. Its high ceilings, winding stairways and storied details have been splendidly preserved, says sales and marketing director Jill Plemons.

Escapees from Alcatraz: PJ Cana of Esquire, Cheche Moral of PDI, Myrna Velasco of Bulletin and Millet Mananquil of Philippine Star

And I still cannot forget the Lobster à la Eggs Benedict which food and beverage director Lance Razon presented to me.

Filipino travelers will appreciate the hotel’s location right near the Philippine Embassy.