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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Tender's Elia Varela Serra Talks About Food in the 'Loin

Posted By on Wed, Nov 23, 2011 at 11:30 AM

The Tender's editors, Elia and Miquel. - ANNA RASCOUËT-PAZ
  • Anna Rascouët-Paz
  • The Tender's editors, Elia and Miquel.

Alas, the Tender is going dormant. Elia Varela Serra and her husband Miquel, who've maintained the site for two and a half years, are soon moving to Spain, where Elia was raised. They're leaving the site up, but their daily posts will end this week. Before she leaves, I took the opportunity to chat with Elia (aka "evarels" on the blog) about the Tender -- and her favorite food recommendations in the neighborhood.

SFoodie: How did the Tender come to be?

Elia: My husband Miquel and I already had personal blogs. He's a Web developer, and I'm a journalist by training. Every time local websites referred to our neighborhood, it was always "the gritty Tenderloin," always repeating the same jokes and stereotypes. We just got tired of it, and wanted to show some love for the Tenderloin. So we started The Tender on a whim. Then we realized it was a lot of work to keep up. At first, we put up one post a week,

but as time went by, we got to know the local businesses, and the blog helped us meet the neighbors and locals.

Where are your favorite places to shop for food in your neighborhood?

When I first moved here [six years ago] from Europe, where you have a full supermarket in every neighborhood, I went to Whole Foods [on California] for everything. As time went by, I realized you can get everything locally in the neighborhood. The Civic Center farmers market is great, and much more affordable than Ferry Plaza.

Although I buy most of my produce at the farmers market, the grocery store where I buy most of my other supplies, like rice, noodles, and pork, is Hiep Thanh (724 Larkin St). My second favorite is Tuong Phong Market (628 Ellis). For chicken or beef, as well as some Middle Eastern breads and great frozen phyllo dough, I like Salama Halal Meat (604 Geary), but sometimes I go to the Jerusalem Market (1100 Sutter), since they sell baklava and falafels individually at the counter, as well as bulk spices. Whenever I cook Indian food at home I buy the ingredients at the New India Bazzar (1107 Polk), where they have great parathas and rotis.

And your favorite restaurants?

The neighborhood has so much to offer. For Thai, Lers Ros is our favorite, and for Vietnamese, it's Pagolac -- that was one of the first places in the neighborhood that I really liked, and now I know the owner. When it comes to Indian and Pakistani, it's Lahore Karahi. And although we tend to go out more for Thai, we go to Burmese Kitchen when we're in the mood for green tea salad.

I'm not a big coffee drinker, but I'll go to the coffee shops for sweets, like the caramels and biscuits at Hooker's Sweet Treats, and the kouign amanns at Farm: Table. Two easy-going, basic places I like because of how friendly the owners are: Ariana Cafe (842 Geary), where I get falafel, and Mango's Cafe, which has the best serrano ham sandwiches in town. And although everyone swears by the banh mi at Saigon Sandwiches, I prefer the ones from Them Ky.

Have you seen any changes in the food scene over the six years you've lived in the Tenderloin?

In some ways, it hasn't changed much -- a lot of the ethnic restaurants have been around for a long time. Even if the owner retires, there's someone to take it over. A lot of building owners want to keep small businesses that have been around for a long time as tenants, so they help each other out. One change, I guess: When I first moved here, there was nowhere in the neighborhood to get good coffee, third wave coffee. Then Farm: Table opened, then Little Bird (now closed) and Hooker's. 

Not so much has changed in how the neighborhood looks, but it seems as if [San Franciscans] are less afraid to come to the neighborhood to hang out. That's just a personal impression. My friends who didn't live here used to want me to come to their neighborhood or the Mission, even when we invited them. That's not the case anymore. There's even some coolness associaed with the Tenderloin.

Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie, and like us on Facebook.
Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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Jonathan Kauffman


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