Day 5: Tea Garden, Richmond

The cafes in Hayes Valley are some of the best in the city – not necessarily because the coffee is the best, but because of the sleepy air of urban harmony that wisps through the neighborhood in the morning. There’s nothing better than sitting on a quiet, sunny street while sipping espresso and munching on a pastry, watching as people open up shop, walk the dog, smoke the first cigarette, or read the morning headlines.

The city buzzes and roars around you, tingling back to life – but everyone in Hayes is still respecting the morning peace.

Such was Tuesday morning at Cafe La Vie, a tiny coffee shop on Octavia with garage doors that fly open on beautiful mornings to blur the lines between cafe and street. The coffee was excellent, as was my blueberry danish, and sitting outside in the warm spring air brought a moment of stillness to our quickly-evaporating trip.

The first time we visted Golden Gate Park we rented bicycles, which kept us from entering the Japanese Tea Garden (mind that if you make a trip and only have limited time). But we had heard that the place was amazing, an absolutely must-see, so we made another trip up that way.

The entrance fee was $4, but well worth it. We were lucky enough to come when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom, and the garden was lush and green – loose pink petals floated in the air and trickled down small waterfalls as visitors sipped tea in the teahouse. Even though it was a weekday, the garden was pretty busy, but not so much that we couldn’t steal away to a quiet corner and savor the wafting scent of wildflowers.

Feeling rejuvinated, we decided to bus it to Chinatown for lunch – but without a particular place in mind. For future reference, this is not something I would recommend doing; Chinatown booms with a plethora of restaurants, and finding a particularly mind-blowing place is difficult to do without prior knowledge. Reader, learn from my mistake and consult a local.

We did wind up at a so-so place called The Pot Sticker that had particularly good sesame chicken, but nothing to write home about. The more remarkable thing about the restaurant was the group of Chinese women earnestly praying at the middle table following their meal – after about 10 minutes of ceaseless whispered prayer and random “amens,” they all stopped, stood up and said smiling goodbyes …

After lunch we poked in Chinese grocery stores for a bit, where I went round two with some Li Hing Mui. The salty/sugary dried plum candy I bought in Chinatown was stronger than the other kind I had tried, to a dizzying, mouth-puckering degree. After a couple tries, I had to pitch it, for my tongue’s health.

Having plans to walk across the Golden Gate, we bussed it up to North Beach and Crissy Field – but we overlooked a couple aspects. 1) The Golden Gate is considerable walking distance from Crissy Field and 2) my girlfriend doesn’t do heights – she later said she wasn’t sure what had made her agree to the bridge in the first place. We ended up lounging on the beach and watching guys with huge kites and surfboards strapped to their feet fly across the waters of the bay.

Later that night, Janice’s cousin (a SF local) took us to Brothers Korean BBQ (형제갈비) in the Richmond District, which serves up a variety of meat cooked over wood chip coal, a delicious method rarely used even in Seoul. The food was absolutely phenomenal, all the right spices and varieties of panchan, or traditional Korean side dishes. Most Korean joints in the US water down their flavors in an attempt to please Western palates, but the result is really just shitty food – Brothers does none of that. The jjigae (stew) is spicy, the kimchi is strong, and the meat is juicy – I almost wept with joy, but i was too busy eating.

But perhaps my favorite moment in SF was what followed the meal – wandering around nearby Green Apple Books. This wooden maze of a bookstore is full of new and used treasures, and is divided into two stores: one with books, and another for music and DVDs – the selection is astounding in both. Letting my eyes drift over the bindings with a full belly was serene; I could’ve spent days bookworming there, flipping through the photography books and letting my fingers walk over jazz CDs – ah, time always moves too quickly.

We headed down the street to pack more deliciousness into our stomachs in the form of Japanese dessert crepes, a delicacy we ran into several times in the city but had yet to try. Pick your filling – I recommend strawberries and Nutella – and the crepe gets grilled up and folded for an on-the-go dessert.

The night fittingly ended at a pub called The Bitter End, just across the street from the crepe joint. Danielle and friends were there, already in the midst of a tense round of bar trivia. I wasn’t much help with the questions, as I was already too puzzled on how to pour more Anchor Steam into my overloaded belly. But the announcer was hilarious and good times were had, laughing and chatting until we fizzled out into the slumbering city.

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