We pull up to the MacArthur BART station in Oakland just as the sun begins to set. My parents and I have driven up to visit my sister in Berkeley for the weekend, but this first evening I’m headed into the city to stay with my best friend Anastasia in her Bernal Heights apartment. The station is under a freeway overpass and crowded with commuters; drums echo angrily from an invisible street performer. My parents eye the scene warily and my mother leans over to zip up my coat—I remind them pointedly that I lived in New York for four years but still feel like a scolded teenager.
Half an hour later I step off the train onto 24th street in the Mission district. There are murals and a McDonalds, the air alive with machismo and more drums (this time upended plastic buckets). I cross the street to avoid lingering hesitantly on the corner and feel the primal thrill of a city after months on the farm and quiet Shepard Mesa.
Stas shares an apartment with an artist in her fifties, and immediately I love it: colorful canvases lounge against walls, books cascade over chairs and shelves, glass jars of beans and grains line the kitchen counters. I examine a beautiful Picasso sketch that hangs over a cluttered shelf. Es maravilloso, Stas whispers, reverting to the fluent Spanish she retained from our high school years.
I start chopping cabbage while she prepares a dinner of sautéed greens, walnuts, and soba noodles, along with a salad seasoned with rice vinegar and sesame seeds. At 8:30 her housemate Annice picks us up for a nearby concert, and we drive down dark, industrial streets that would be hard-pressed to look less inhabited. Suddenly, there it is—a glowing slice of a building with scruffy-haired hipsters and a woman holding a french horn huddled round an outdoor fire pit. A mosaic of art covers the walls inside and soon after we arrive a thin, older man picks up a guitar and starts to sing. His plaintive voice moves between song and spoken word and we sit mermaid-style on the carpet, listening as girls (and boys) in a variety of leggings and artfully sagging boots traipse over us back and forth to the bathroom.
After a long walk and a longer wait we are seated at Plow, a popular brunch joint in Potrero Hill frequented by an embracing pair of muscled Abercrombie models and three separate tables of women in yoga attire indulging in their post-workout gorge. I nibble a bit of everyone’s meal before turning to my own, dipping bites of almond and lemon-ricotta pancakes into runny egg yolk. The pancakes are so tasty I end the meal with only slight menu-envy for the smoky sauce and cilantro kick of Stas’ breakfast choice.
It is both torture and a blessing in disguise that we arrive at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market unable to stomach another bite. The day is bright and breezy with a definite nip in the air—apart from that, it could be the middle of summer. People walk by with bags of oranges and plates of chilaquiles, and grannies of the traditional and tattooed variety root through baskets of radishes and boxes of loose greens. Inside the Ferry Building a barrage of wonderful smells warns you of approaching products before you see them: coffee from Blue Bottle, cheese from Cowgirl Creamery, bread from Acme Bakery. We buy South African Pinotage from one vendor and I stand in line for apple cider sorbet made bitingly spicy with cloves. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good museum or a nice hike. But if you’re starting to suspect that 90% of my travel plans revolve around food, well… stay tuned.
Soba Noodles with Garlic, Walnuts and Sauteed greens
My best friend Stas is a musician, soon-to-be yoga teacher and creator of such delights as chocolate beet cake and avocado pudding–in other words, she is California incarnate. She is also an admirable enemy of food waste: I once watched her eat a bottom-of-the-backpack banana bruised beyond recognition (a tale my entire family enjoys telling with gusto). My version of the lovely dinner she made for us is so simple that I’ve eaten it with relish every day for lunch this week.
1 package buckwheat soba noodles
two cloves garlic, sliced
several handfuls dark greens–kale (Toscano and Red Russian work well), rapini, chard or spinach
liberal splash rice vinegar
red pepper flakes
olive oil and salt
Salt a pot of water and set it on the stove to boil. Heat oil in a saucepan and add sliced garlic, stirring for a minute or so until fragrant but not brown. Roughly chop greens and add to the pan with the rice vinegar, cooking until slightly wilted but still green and robust.
Drop a serving or two of soba noodles into the boiling water. Cook until chewy (overcooking results in a gluey mass), drain, and rinse immediately under cold water. Toast walnuts in a small pan until warm and crunchy (add sunflower seeds as well if you desire). Serve noodles in a bowl with greens spooned on top, and garnish with nuts, red pepper flakes, and a splash of olive oil and additional rice vinegar to taste.