SFoodie's countdown of our 92 favorite things to eat and drink in San Francisco, 2011 edition.
I was a kid growing up down the Peninsula, spending summers with my grandpa at the Bay Meadows racetrack, getting coached in how to bet a trifecta or where to find the three-fingered guy who seemed to know which fillies were running hot that day. Afterwards, he'd take me to Swensen's for ice cream. Together we'd lick cones, closed up in grandpa's caramel-colored Caprice, the one with the dashboard tinted pale amber with nicotine. I liked Rocky Road.
Earle Swensen opened his first ice cream shop on Russian Hill in 1948. By 1964, Swensen began franchising his concept, five years after Richard Campana started working at the Hyde Street original. Swensen passed away in 1996, and Campana bought the shop nearly three years later, though the Swensen's chain had transferred to a company with far deeper pockets. Nowadays it's owned by IFI, a franchising corporation based in Canada, near Toronto. President and CEO Aaron Serruya tells me the Swensen's name has faded in North America, where there are only 30 shops, but worldwide it's thriving, with a total of 410. "In certain markets in Asia we're the McDonald's of the country," Serruya says. "We have a higher average gross in Singapore than any other chain." Go figure.
The Russian Hill original, meanwhile, is one of the few shops still run semi-independently (Richard Campana still owns it), one of only 10 Swensen's worldwide allowed to make its ice cream on site, using Earle Swensen's original recipes. "You're chocolate lovers there in San Francisco," Serruya says, and I imagine him poring over a spreadsheet of raw cone-sale data. "Huh," I say, thinking about that Rocky Road. "I guess we are."
In fact, it's two other chocolate flavors I'm drawn to these days.Swiss orange chip has a cocoa base, tiny chips with the irregular shapes of playground bark, and a big, old wallop of orange essence. It seems to tint the ice cream a shade like patina'd bronze, and though it's initially thrilling, the orange oil starts to feel hot in your sinuses. Swensen's best flavor? Sticky chewy chocolate, made with both cocoa powder and what must be some particularly viscous chocolate syrup, tarry enough to yield a wonderfully stretchy body to the finished ice cream. It coats your tongue, is neither too sweet nor too bitter, and avoids the high-butterfat ponderousness of modern superpremiums ― the perfect ice cream for the front seat of a Caprice, or the walk down Hyde Street, the crockery-rattle sound of the cable car mechanism in your ears. Swensen's Ice Cream: 1999 Hyde (at Union), 775-6818. Dishes in our series so far:
92: Goat tacos from El Norteño 91: Faux shark's fin soup at Benu 90: Esperpento's alcachofas a la plancha 89: Poco Dolce's olive oil chocolate bar 88: Decantr's chicken-liver mousseline 87: Outerlands' levain bread 86: Fraîche's frozen yogurt 85: Gyro King's spinach pie 84: Tandoori fish from Lahore Karahi 83: Braised oxtail and daikon from Namu 82: Golden Gate Bakery's custard tarts 81: Commonwealth's cured foie gras with umeboshi purée 80: Star Stream's Liège-style waffle 79: Mexican hot chocolate from La Oaxaqueña 78: Meatball sandwich from Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe 77: Cheesecake from Zanze's 76: Chicken pepian at San Miguel 75: Macau iced coffee at Vega/Special Xtra 74: Comstock Saloon's Pisco Punch 73: Hai Ky Mi Gia's duck leg noodle soup 72: Sauerbraten at Walzwerk 71: Boudin noir at Cafe Bastille 70: Blackstrap molasses gingerbread at Lotta's Bakery 69: Plow's crispy potatoes 68: Prospect's Catcher in the Rye 67: Pork banh mi from Little Vietnam Cafe 66: Nakaochi at Ippuku 65: Sidekick's chocolate spritzer 64: Farmhouse Culture's horseradish-leek sauerkraut 63: Destination Baking Co.'s challah 62: Cotogna's roasted carrots 61: Hard Knox Cafe's chicken and waffles 60: The Rebel Within from Tell Tale Preserve Co. 59: The Slanted Door's Whiskey Cocktail 58: Carnitas burrito from Taqueria San Francisco 57: Sakura mochi from Benkyodo 56: Birria at Gallardos 55: BBQ pork skewers at Fil-Am Cuisine 54: JapaCurry's katsu curry 53: Vegan flan at Gracias Madre 52: Cinderella Bakery's pelmeni 51: Locavore's maple andouille sausage 50: Lumpia from Hapa SF 49: Moonlight Brewing's Reality Czeck 48: Filetti pizza at Una Pizza Napoletana 47: Pupusas revueltas at La Santaneca 46: Khoresht ghaymeh at Maykadeh 45: Los Muertos at Gitane 44: Sandwich cookies from Sweet Constructions 43: Nicasio Valley Cheese Company's square 42: Nopalito's quesadilla roja 41: Croissant from Sandbox Bakery 40: Cultured's burdock kasu-zuke pickles