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Behind the Legend of Frog Hollow Farm

Cherries hanging from the tree
Rainier Cherries

I drove about 75 minutes out of San Francisco, over the hills and through the burbs, to pay a visit to Farmer Al and the staff at his beloved Frog Hollow Farm. I was excited. I am, after all, a fan.

Farmer Al has called Frog Hollow Farm his pride and joy for 36 years. The El Cerrito native spent time in Hawaii as a Social Studies teacher before trying his hand at farming. He started growing some basic varieties of fruit and vegetables in Hawaii and then moved back to the Bay Area and eventually set up shop in Brentwood. What started out as 150 fruit trees has now become 3500 trees on over 133 acres.

Peaches on trees
Peach Trees

Frog Hollow Farm is known for their “legendary” stone fruits, as their tagline says, including nine varieties of pears in the fall through January, three varieties of cherries and four kinds of apricots in May, thirteen varieties of peaches, eight kinds of nectarines, and six kinds of plums and pluots through September.

The stone fruit he and his staff grow are all certified organic and known by chefs and culinary professionals as the best you can get. Celebrity chefs like Richard Blais, Tyler Florence, and Alice Waters are avid fans. Food lovers and connoisseurs are just as loyal, which explains their popularity at Bay Area farmers markets and their Ferry Building store and café in San Francisco.

Jars of apricot preserves
Jars of warm apricot preserves

Organic and sustainable aren’t just words here, they’re a way of life. Not a bit of the land is wasted. Smaller areas are devoted to heirloom tomato plants for their CSA program members. He’s even planted wildflowers like California poppies so he can do his part to help increase the wild bee population. They even take all their “unmarketable” fruit (those with bumps and bruises but are still perfectly delicious) and make it into their now famous conserves and preserves. When I paid a visit to the kitchen, the jars of apricot preserves on the counter were still warm. Sitting next to them were trays and trays of still unbaked apricot and cherry tarts that were going to be sold in their San Francisco Ferry Building café.

Tray of apricot and cherry tarts
Tray of apricot and cherry tarts

So what makes their fruit so “legendary?”

According to Farmer Al, it all starts at the beginning. “We hoe all the soil by hand. We have about 20 field staff throughout the year, and more during the busy season.” And his attention to detail when it comes to the care of all his plants is unwavering. “We started making our own compost out of unusable fruit and shaved trees, along with seaweed, kelp, and fish to naturally fertilize the soil.”

Farmer Al has made it his life’s work to dedicate himself to quality fruit and produce. His commitment to his mission is obvious. There are no shortcuts here. That means no chemicals, no poisons. Period.

Al and Millie
Farmer Al and Millie

While I was getting my private tour of the farm from Farmer Al and his young daughter Millie (the farm is not open to the public), he was visited by an Insurance Assessor who had obviously visited his fair share of farms in the area. The first words out of his mouth were, “I’ve never seen cherries as good as the ones I’ve seen here.”

Farmer Al went on to say that it all had to do with how he paid attention to all his crops. He gave them “just the right amount of fertilizer. Not too much. Other places have overcompensated because of the weather this year.” His continued research and years of experience have given him the tools to produce exceptional fruit.

No one is immune to Mother Nature’s wrath, though. The abundance of rain was not kind to his apricot harvest this year. He planted nine acres that were completely lost.

But the folks here have no time to dwell. Cherry season has wound down, unaffected by the unpredictable weather we’ve had. They’ve now begun their busiest time of year: peach season.

Millie with a Peach
Millie with a Peach

Frog Hollow allows for their fruit to get good and ripe before picking. Most supermarket fruit is picked before it’s ripe so it can survive the long trek from farm to store and “hopefully” get riper during the journey. That doesn’t jive with Farmer Al.

“Just because it’s organic doesn’t mean it tastes good. Quality fruit means flavor, sweetness, juiciness.”

It’s that level of quality, along with their commitment to their community and loyal fans, that sets them apart.

“You can’t fool people with the quality of your food. I wouldn’t be doing my job it I wasn’t focusing on our environment and the food we give our kids. We like to maintain a personal level of care with our fruit and our community.”

And it shows.


Frog Hollow Farm
Frog Hollow Farm fruit can be found at Whole Foods Markets and various Bay Area Farmers Markets.
Their retail store and café is located at 1 Ferry Building #46 in San Francisco.

*On Saturday July 23, Frog Hollow Farm is hosting “Peaches and Tango: A Dinner in the Orchard” w/Top Chef Richard Blais and live music, benefiting The Edible Schoolyard.

Posted in Dinner, Food, Lunch, Review, San Francisco, Travel

Is Tyler Florence’s Wayfare Tavern Worth the Hype?

Open kitchen at Wayfare Tavern
Open kitchen at Wayfare Tavern

Okay, I’ll admit it: I was never a big Tyler Florence fan. Sure, Forbes recently reported that he’s worth more than 50 million dollars, but I always saw him as more of a television personality than a chef. Before 2010, he never even ran his own restaurant and now he’s got THREE in less than two years! (Wayfare Tavern, Rotisserie and Wine, & El Paseo) He’s clearly cashing in on his television fame.

These days, he’s getting plenty of press attention, both good AND bad. And I haven’t taken the critic’s giddy reviews over his flagship restaurant, Wayfare Tavern, very seriously. He used to be a spokesperson for Applebee’s for goodness sake. It must be his over 290,000 fans on Twitter making a big deal about this new hotspot for local celebrity sightings. They’re the ones raving about how the Fried Chicken and Macaroni and Cheese are to die for.

Wait, did you say Fried Chicken and Macaroni and Cheese? Maybe I should check this place out.

The atmosphere of the restaurant is classic old world San Francisco with its golden eagle emblem, black and dark colored wood accents, brushed metal plates and cushy booths. The service is as welcoming as Tyler Florence’s television persona, itself. Our server was at once knowledgeable, warm and genuinely excited about the food coming out of the kitchen. All this positivity was starting to wear off on me.

The menu is a greatest hits compilation of sophisticated American comfort food with a slight French slant, ranging from Deviled Eggs to Steak Tartare to Pork Hash.

Avocado and Hearts of Palm Salad
Avocado and Hearts of Palm Salad

The meal started with a homemade popover that was light, tangy and just plain impressive. Then we ordered the Organic Butter Lettuce Salad with the Palace Hotel’s Green Goddess dressing, and the Avocado and Hearts of Palm Salad with shaved red onions, cucumbers and lime-cilantro dressing. The Green Goddess dressing and radishes were the perfect foil for the delicate butter lettuce. But it was the combination of the fresh, citrusy dressing and creamy, buttery avocado that really sang to me. It was a delightfully bright yet simple salad.

Buttermilk Fried Chicken
Buttermilk Fried Chicken

Then came the much hyped Buttermilk Brined Fried Chicken that came with a mound of fried herbs, including rosemary and sage, and a wedge of lemon. I’d seen Tyler Florence make fried sage on his show Tyler’s Ultimate, but never expected to enjoy the mellow almost nutty flavor to pair so well with the chicken’s perfectly thin, crisp crust. The flavorful chicken benefited from the buttermilk brine, creating a moist, tangy meat. I’ve tried a lot of fried chicken at various places around San Francisco, but this was clearly the best in my book.

Macaroni and Cheese
Macaroni and Cheese

We paired the chicken with an order of Macaroni and Cheese, made with jack cheese and perfectly toasted garlic breadcrumbs; and fresh local Grilled Asparagus with chive blossoms.

The Mac and Cheese was smooth and creamy, just the way I like it. I’m not a fan of baked, clumpy, greasy versions of the dish. And the mild yet distinct garlic flavor was prevalent in the breadcrumbs, which is a good thing. I wish, though, that the cheese had more kick and depth. The jack cheese didn’t give it enough flavor power like I’d hoped. Regardless, it was still a decadent pleasure.

Carrot Cake
Carrot Cake

Since we were clearly going for gluttony, we finished our meal off with three different desserts: the Key Steamed Lime Pudding Cake with Buttermilk Ice Cream, Gooseberry Goat Cheese Cheesecake, and Carrot Cake.

The goat cheese cheesecake was a bit intense for me, though it was lightened by the gooseberries. And though the buttermilk ice cream was absolutely delicious, the pudding cake was a little grainier than I’d expected. I wanted something smoother, though the flavor and creaminess was there.

The most impressive dessert was the Carrot Cake, not because of the cake itself, though it was rich and moist the way it should be, but because of the pool of carrot syrup that surrounded it. Everyone at the table wanted to drink it straight! It tasted like spiced cider, rich with cinnamon and cloves. It was sweet, spicy and heavenly.

I’d mentioned to our server in passing that one of my dining companions was celebrating a birthday, and she smiled and proceeded to bring over my friend’s dessert with the obligatory lit candle on it. But it was the accompanying notecard signed personally by Tyler Florence, that impressed us. He wasn’t even in town let alone in the restaurant at the time of our meal, but it’s these personal touches in the service, the food, and décor that make this restaurant standout.

notecard signed personally by Tyler Florence
Notecard signed personally by Tyler Florence

I didn’t want to prove myself wrong, but I have to say, I enjoyed every minute of it. And yes, I might just have become a fan of Chef Florence.

Wayfare Tavern on Urbanspoon

Posted in Dinner, Food, For Kids/Parent, Lunch, Peninsula, South Bay

Ramen Roundup

Many Americans tend to associate instant ramen with college dorm life, poverty and hangovers. And who hasn’t had a meal of Cup-O-Noodles born out of desperation and lack of resources?

But in Japan, ramen is comfort food. It’s what many consider their national dish. And after the recent Earthquake and Tsunami, ramen served as a sign of normalcy and nourishment. Ramen houses are everywhere in Japan, and it’s one of the most affordable and filling meals you can get there.

These days, especially in the Bay Area, ramen is becoming somewhat of a “trend“. Recently, I’ve also noticed more places serving up different variations of the dish, all of which are fairly common in Japan.

Here are a few ramen houses outside San Francisco that serve three distinctly different versions of these tasty soup noodles.

Shoyu (soy sauce) Ramen w/pork & kimchi from Santa Ramen

Santa Ramen – 1944 S. El Camino Real, San Mateo, 650-344-5918

This place serves up the classic bowl of Japanese ramen with the typical three broths to choose from: miso (soybean paste), shoyu (soy sauce), and pork. It used to be THE place for Japanese natives to get an authentic bowl of ramen, but since moving to their newer location in a strip mall, the quality has declined.

Their broth and pork slices used to both taste like they took hours to make. However, on my most recent visit, the pork was actually cold. The noodles still had their classic chewy texture, but lacked depth and flavor. I was glad I had decided to add a little corn and kimchi for extra texture and kick. It’s still a decent bowl of noodles, but the joint’s lost some of its luster.

Kuro (black garlic) Ramen from Maru Ichi

Maru Ichi368 Castro St, Mountain View, 650-564-9931

I chose this place for two reasons: 1) they make their own noodles in house, 2) they’re known for a specific kind of ramen called “kuro” ramen, or “black” ramen. The black color comes from the browned garlic and was a kind of ramen developed in Japan in the 1960’s, as the menu describes. The black garlic oil sits on top of the pork broth like an oil spill. It looks more like a film of dirt and soot floating on top of the bowl, but thankfully it doesn’t taste that way. The rich garlic flavor is distinct but didn’t completely overwhelm. You do, however, have to be a fan of garlic to enjoy the rich, hearty broth.

Their housemade noodles are thinner than most, but you can taste their freshness. It’s something you don’t usually get at other ramen houses. It’s worth trying just to compare the difference in texture and flavor. Overall, Maru Ichi’s kuro ramen definitely wasn’t your usual bowl of ramen, and it was a nice change from the usual.

Garlic Pork Ramen w/corn from Dojo Ramen

Dojo Ramen – 805 South B St, San Mateo, 650-401-6568

This place is actually in the spot where the old Santa Ramen used to be, and is owned by the same folks. But the differences are vast.

They specialize in something called “sutamina” ramen, which literally means “stamina” ramen. I’d call it “extreme” ramen because of the loads of garlic, spice and heat (which you can request to be even spicier), amount of fixings, and sheer fattiness of the broth. It’s like ramen on steroids. Everything is bolder and richer. And don’t come here if you don’t like spicy food.

The meat that comes with the Garlic Pork broth variation is impressive. There were two big thick slices of pork belly that could serve as an appetizer at a four-star restaurant. I was kicking myself for not ordering extra. It was simply wonderful; fatty and meaty, just like the broth.

And the noodles were the most impressive of any of the other places I visited. Their texture was perfectly chewy without being too firm or too soggy, and had great flavor.

So even without the “sutamina” label, Dojo’s was my favorite bowl of ramen simply based on the strength of its noodles and broth, which is really the sign of a superior bowl of ramen no matter where you are.

*This article is cross-posted on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.