since i’m leaving town soon, i’m going to do a damn-this-shit-is-delicious tour of my neighborhood and the places i will miss most. i’m prepared to argue to the death (or at least to the pain) that the one-block radius surrounding my apartment is one of the best food blocks in the country. tartine bakery. delfina restaurant. bi-rite creamery. pizzeria delfina. bi-rite market. these establishments devotes themselves to producing and/or selling, respectively, the best french baked goods, italian cuisine, artisanal ice cream, thin crust pizza, and general market products they possibly can, and arguably, the best you can find anywhere. all of them make their creations with top-notch ingredients that are locally or sustainably sourced and organic whenever possible, and infuse their food and their environments with passion, unpretentiousness, attention to detail, and an obvious love for eating, sharing, and enjoying the delicious things in life.
all these places are full of super friendly people who don’t mind waiting while you try the salted caramel and the balsamic strawberry and the honey lavender ice cream before you choose your flavor. even though all these spots usually have lines out the door and down the block, the people who work there are warm, welcoming and fun to chat and joke around with, especially at bi-rite market. since i go there a few times a week, i’ve gotten to know a bunch of the incredibly nice and even more incredibly knowledgeable people who work there, but tonight was the first time i’ve ever met sam the owner.
i stopped by to pick up some salad fixings for dinner and decided to ask for pork belly at the meat counter (i’m slowly stocking ingredients for an iron chef-style bacon smackdown, more to come on that later). the women behind the counter weren’t sure if they had any, so a really nice guy behind me in a bi-rite shirt came up to help. he asked what i wanted it for, so i started telling him about all the bacon-y dishes i’m planning to cook, and he got all excited and pulled me towards the back to show off their house-cured pancetta. then he personally checked for me to see if they had any pork belly in stock, brought us into the walk-in cooler to show the hanging pig parts, and gave a full overview on the whole pigs that come from iowa to bi-rite and how the market turns them into insanely tasty pork products. (fyi – he also confirmed that pancetta is cured pork belly and bacon is smoked pork belly – both are allowed in the upcoming BACON-OFF). when i thanked him and introduced myself, he told us his name was sam, to which i responded with the oh-so-intelligent ‘you’re bi-rite sam?’ yup, it was bi-rite sam. i ended up with a pound of uncured pork belly, some pancetta, and this photo:
i think i embarrassed him to no end by asking to take a picture, and i look crazy goofy because i was so excited to meet him (and, i admit, to be in possession of two pounds of pork belly). it may seem odd that annie and i were so happy to meet him, but until you’ve been to bi-rite, it’s hard to understand what a special place it is. there’s an incredible cheese selection, and there’s always someone really nice standing there to help pick your gorgonzola or give you a taste of some crazy triple creme. i can never walk by without needing to wipe the drool off my face after staring at the wheels of parmigiano.
there’s a beautiful selection of organic, sustainably produced, and/or locally sourced fruits and vegetables from farms all over northern california. the whole produce section is filled with signs telling you that the blackberries were grown at blue moon farm in aptos or the early girl tomatoes are from two dog farm in davenport or whatever. green means organic, yellow means local, and they’ve got a whiteboard with info on what’s new, what’s seasonal, what’s local, and what just tastes amazing.
not pictured is the excellent prepared foods and meat counter, where you can get fresh soup, delicious sandwiches, and dishes like apple-fennel salad or duck leg confit if you want to put together one classy-ass picnic. you can buy whole free-range chickens, grass-fed beef, and pork chops they butcher in house. they’ve got a sustainable seafood counter and informative handouts so you know exactly where your fish is coming from and that it wasn’t overfished or pumped full of antibiotics. then they’ve got a phenomenal chocolate selection, a huge variety of affordable-to- expensive but always delicious wines, great beers, an amazing array of olive oils, an olive bar, an incredible shelf of fresh breads, and that’s on top of all the general grocery products like cereal and homemade jam and eggs and milk and endless other shit. phew.
clearly it’s an amazing place just by virtue of the quality of products offered, but i especially love going there because everyone there is so damn nice. and i’m okay with sometimes spending $5 a pound on tomatoes because i know they were grown without pesticides at some family-run local farm and it just may be the best tomato i’ll ever have. can everyone afford to shop there? no, and i fully agree that if you’re having trouble putting food on the table at all, it’s ridiculous to drop a ton of cash on organic sunchokes. slow food sometimes gets a bad rap for being elitist, and yes, it’s out of reach for most americans to buy organic food much of the time. but i really appreciate that there’s a model for a successful and thriving neighborhood grocery store for people who care, and certainly also have the disposable income that allows them to care, about sustainability in our food systems. i think people who can afford to spend a few more dollars on sustainably produced food should do so, for the benefit of the environment and the people who grow and harvest the food, as well as to minimize the hidden costs of health care and environmental destruction and energy costs that come with industrial food production. this is a big topic that i plan to address more later regarding the production and consumption of food on a larger scale, but on a smaller scale of buying things that are delicious from people who care about food, bi-rite is IT. in an ideal world, everyone would have their own bi-rite on their block to be able to give their money to a thoughtful and socially and environmentally responsible market who passes these dollars on to local farms and producers who take pride in the food they offer. in a truly perfect world, i will move to london next month and miraculously find a flat right next to my very own british version of a bi-rite. if only it were sustainable to deliver my groceries overseas…