Food Fight! Critic Calls Bernal Heights a “Food Desert”

Jessica Battilana is a local food writer who has penned articles for 7×7, Sunset, Martha Stewart Living, and Gastronomica. Recently, in an otherwise positive review of the new Sandbox Bakery spinoff at 903 Cortland, Ms. Battilana wrote:

We can thank Sandbox Bakery–and owner Mutsumi Takehara–for many things: miso-filled buns, hot dogs wrapped in brioche, saving Bernal Heights from its food-desert status.

Hmmmm. Upon reading this, Neighbor Beth from the Bernalwood Culinary Self-Defense Forces took umbrage…. and sprang into action. Beth’s back-channel exchange with Ms. Battilana transpired follows:

FEB 15, 2012  |  03:48PM EST
Beth wrote:

I take strong issue with TT’s statement that “We can thank Sandbox Bakery–and owner Mutsumi Takehara–for many things: miso-filled buns, hot dogs wrapped in brioche, saving Bernal Heights from its food-desert status.” Food desert? in less than half a mile we have 4 Zagat-rated restaurants, the 331 Marketplace – which has 3 articles on Tasting Table, Avedano’s Market, the Good Life grocery, as well as many other decent, casual places to eat. Has the writer ever actually BEEN to Bernal?

Beth’s note prompted this response from Ms. Battilana:

FEB 19, 2012 | 07:24PM EST
Jessica B. replied:

Hi Beth,

Thanks for your note. I appreciate you taking the time to write. I have actually spent quite a lot of time in Bernal, and while I agree that Avedano’s and 331 are both bright spots, I still think the neighborhood has a long way to go, at least restaurant-wise. Food desert is hyperbolic, of course; I do understand that there are, as you say, many decent, casual places to eat. But a place as great as Bernal deserves more interesting, dynamic, food, like what Sandbox (and now 903) have brought.

Thanks again for reading, and for writing. And if there’s anything else in Bernal that you think I should check out, please let me know!

Well, gentle readers… is there anything that you would like Ms. Battilana to know?

PHOTO: Jessica Battilana

45 thoughts on “Food Fight! Critic Calls Bernal Heights a “Food Desert”

  1. Happy to keep Bernal a “food desert” if it means I can afford to live here. Out with the brioche! Out with the tasty tasty liege waffles!

  2. Wait. I thought the term “food desert” meant that there was actually NO FOOD in the area. As in, no Safeway, no Good Life, no awesome farmers market. Nowhere you can buy healthy & affordable fruits, veggies, meats. A “food desert” is a place where you can only find a gas station that sells Doritos and soda. No where in San Francisco is there a food desert! Especially Bernal Heights. “A food desert is any area in the industrialized world where healthful, affordable food is difficult to obtain.” (according to Wikipedia) I think this whole food fight is more of a food snobbery fight.

    • Yeah, exactly. Calling Bernal Heights a “food desert” only demeans the neighborhoods where finding good, healthy food IS actually difficult.

      • My thoughts exactly Doc – though I suppose it is an upper-class douche-bag food desert. I wonder how much time she spends in the Bayview?

  3. hot dogs wrapped in a brioche were called ‘weenie wraps’ at my school cafeteria in 1964. Sure Bernal is a food desert, by 4-star standards. But it is not a food desert. I also do not think of Sandbox as being the savior from this status. Maybe if they deign to make bread I’ll change my attitude. None of our fine restaurants are SUPER DUPER places. In fact, even in the ‘good food’ category we still don’t have a place that makes a great burrito (though Los Altos makes a fine fish taco). I like our restaurants, but it is true that they are not top of the line eating establishments. I think this writer needs to jump in the time machine and visit 1990 Bernal Heights, and see what a Food Desert really is. Or perhaps some of you would like a review of the Trade Winds Cafe!!

  4. Here, here! If it’s coming from 7×7, take it as a compliment.

    That rag is nothing but a guide for the well-heeled (or more accurately; the people that would like to be well-heeled or think of themselves as such, even though they are more ‘white-shoe’ than well-heeled. We all know that Bernalwood residents are already an extremely well-heeled crowd in the best sense of the word, along with most of their canine compatriots.) to take on a veneer of hipness.

    It is an over-sized glossy guide for conspicuous consumption.

  5. self proclaimed foodies who have lived and eaten our way across some fine dining in Europe..we soooo disagree. We have great restaurants here! Mokis, Piqueos, Vega, VinoRosso, Liberty!!! Sandbox is a welcome addition, but I agree, no saviour! Although they have the BEST chocolate croissants, rivaling the best in Paris!

  6. I’ve lived here since 1993. If you think this neighborhood is devoid of interesting places to eat you should have lived here back then. Keep an open mind. This is still a “blue collar” dominated hood. With lots of chefs trying their best to make it better.

    I’ve lived in Russian Hill, Sausalito, etc. At least the people here are real and know your name.

  7. I love Sandbox and haven’t had a chance to go to 903 Cortland yet. Aside from that, Piqueos is the best restaurant on the Cortland strip. The other spots are are ok to good, not great.

    But Cortland doesn’t hold a candle to La Lengua in the number or variety of places to eat. Ichi, Blue Plate, Front Porch, Lotus Garden, Balompie #3, Pastores, Zolcalo etc. I’m afraid those separatists have the upper hand.

      • Dok, start at the front door of Ichi, walk five paces east, and tell me you’re not on a hill. Cortland, Eugenia, Godeus, Virginia, Fair = Obviously Bernal. You guys get the numbered streets. In the interest of neighborly harmony and commerce, we’ll call it a liminal zone, but if it push came to shove, it would be a delusional La Lenguan who’d try to hold the east side of Mission, when we’ve got the adjacent high ground.

      • Happily it will not come to push nor shove, La Lenguans are a peaceful, if stubborn, people. Independence is maintained through a campaign of strict civil disobedience.

  8. Food desert = No Starbucks! Battilana needs to get out of the Pac Heights cloud and go through the neighbhorhoods and talk to the people who actually live there. Even in the Bayview there are some hot places to eat!

  9. I agree… with those who want to keep our awesome neighborhood & its restaurants not overrun with so many people we can’t get a table! But since these didn’t get noted much by others, I’ll root for Locavore, Taqueria Cancun, Moki’s, Little Nepal and Baby Blues BBQ.

  10. So, the critic admits to hyperbole and then proceeds to rip all the perfectly fine restaurants on Cortland and Mission (er, at least those on the East Side)… She could have easily said “at last, a restaurant in Bernal that’s truly worth driving all way across town (from Pacific Heights) to visit!”

    Sensationalism. Ignore her.

  11. My strong impression of 7×7 is that it caters to its advertisers. If you buy an ad, you’ll get a great review.

    Gourmet magazine praised Liberty Cafe years ago (and it’s now again at least as good as it was then). The NY Times has written about several places on Cortland.

    While I believe it is completely inaccurate to call Bernal a food desert, I’m just as happy to keep our gems a little bit hidden.

  12. I love Piqueo’s restaurant so much and have been so glad to have it opened up over 4 years ago next to me and I love getting my morning coffee at Sandbox. Both really nice family restaurants. The lady has no clue what she is talking about and never been up to our secret cove of community.

  13. Hey, I know Jessica and if there’s one thing she isn’t, it’s a Pac Heights food snob (or a Pac Heights anything!). Yeah, she might be a tiny bit misguided on this particular matter, but she’s a good person…maybe we could stow the pitchforks and torches and exercise our trademark Bernalwood tolerance?

    • By all accounts Jessica is a talented food critic. It might even be said that as she framed her critique in her reply to Beth — “there are, as you say, many decent, casual places to eat” — the comments here have largely validated Jessica’s argument. But that’s not the argument she made in her article for Tasting Table; she made it privately in an email to a reader who called her out for the “food desert” comment, after admitting that her public comment had been hyperbolic.

      Blogging can be a seat-of-the-pants medium, and I suspect that Jessica was under pressure to quickly knock out a piece about 908 Cortland — and in this case that caused her to write somewhat carelessly.

  14. Huh? Bernal a food desert? Then why do so many of our friends who live outside Bernal come here to eat? True there are a few lackluster establishments ( no names) but so many good ones, too. And I would hasten to add that the ambiance/dining atmosphere in most Bernal eateries is relaxed and family friendly, making them quite desirable even if not haute cuisine. (good dining is about more than just the food on the plate) The New York Times did a piece on Bernal life & food! People from all over the world want to do home exchange with us BECAUSE we live in Bernal & have such great walkable/fun eateries. I lived here in 1991, when Bernal WAS really a food desert. If the writer of the ‘desert’ comment was impressed with Sandbox, I can understand why she failed to see the benefits of our other restaurants. Sandbox? Some yummy items, overall weird concept and though we live 1 block away we never go. It adds nothing to my enjoyment of Bernal. And the name has YUCKY connotations anyway. Noe Valley, now there is a food desert to be sure. Name one decent place to eat on 24th b/w Castro & Dolores.

  15. I live in the Mission and have yet to eat at a restaurant in Bernal Heights. I stopped at Emmy’s once, but there were no tables available and I didn’t feel like waiting an hour plus for one so I had a pizza from the Pizza Hut that’s across the street. But that doesn’t really count.

  16. Using Good Life to defend Bernal food is insane. If only Good Life were as nice as Canyon Market in Glen Park.

    Brernal food is decent, but it’s hard to believe people would drive from other parts of town to eat here.

    • Not sure I understand. Good Life stocks a ton of delicious and healthy food. Really the only downside is that it is so expensive.

      • I never notice the prices being high at Good Life, though people always complain. It’s the market I frequent the most, so I don’t have much to compare it to.

        Canyon Market has a full kitchen to prepare food, and it’s a degree or two higher in quality quality, with prices to match. You can get a decent pre-made sandwich at Good Life for $5-6, whereas at Canyon Market they make sandwiches fresh, and they’re in the $7-9 range.

        Recently I heard some people complain about Blue Elephant Thai, which has always done right by me. I go there maybe once every couple months, though.

  17. The thing is, Jessica’s glowing piece on 903 ignores the fact that the food, which is certainly “decent” and “casual,” by no means rises well above that served at Piqueo’s, Vega, or Moki’s, which puts it kind of right in the pocket of an “oasis” that might otherwise be said to exist in the hyperbolic “food desert” of Bernal Heights.

    In fact, I haven’t lived in a food desert as nice as Bernal since I lived off Clement street in 1982.

  18. How come nobody ever gives props to the laid back jungle that is the Deli Pub? When in Bernal me and the kids never miss a chance to stop in there for conversation, jazz, nibbles, and beverages.

  19. Pingback: Bernal Heights Dominates List of Best No-Fuss Places to Eat | Bernalwood

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