Wookiee Hut Cuisine presents:
Swan Oyster Depot
1517 Polk Street (between Sacramento and California Streets), San Francisco, CA
415.673.1101
Review by SuSu, MaceVindaloo, Diasala









It's maybe unusual to be eating shellfish for breakfast, but you'll want to take our advice on this! We've been here for lunch, and the place has a long, long line out front. You can tell this is a regular occurance because the Sees' Candy store right next door has a handwritten plea scribbled in their window, "Please do not block our door!" Obviously, they feel that their business has been affected by the hungry hoards waiting for a rickety stool along the worn marble counter.

It looks like a very old fashioned, dowdy ice cream parlor. There are piles of papers and receipts and things around the old wooden cash register, there is no room walk (customers and workers move through here in a crab-like sidle), there is only one door. There are pictures from the past on the walls and sports memorabilia and community-based commendations. They've been here a long, long time. It's not conveniently located, but you can get here via the California Street cable car, which you can pick up downtown. It's fun, and less arduous than walking up that long hill, far from any wharves.

At breakfast, all the produce and provisions are brought in, and the countermen are at work filling the orders for the day. This is an old school fish market which supplies other businesses all around the city. There are two shiny red pick-up trucks out front emblazoned with the swan that represents this business. But no matter what time, they are happy to take your order for a sit-down meal.

There are only about 20 seats at the counter, and if your timing is wrong, you can be waiting quite a while for those 20 people to finish up before you can take a place. The men who work here don't rush anyone, and there really is no need to — people order food for as long as they sit here, and does it matter to them whether it's your order or that of the guy before you? They are even handed and consistent about everything, democratic and not favoring one customer over another or jumping people up in line. It's quite refreshing.

Swan's menu is ultra simple — they do salads where shrimp, squid, crab, lobster, or a combination of these are piled generously atop a bed of nicely shredded lettuce. The lettuce is not sliced into coleslaw style ribbons, but are chunky and about the same size as the seafood. It's dressed with cocktail sauce or louis sauce, which is like a pink tartar sauce. We all got the latter — the richness of the mayonnaise based sauce and the tangy relish pieces were the perfect foil for the cold, crisp lettuce and the sweet, hefty toothsome morsels of seafood.

They also do a "Boston style" chowder, which in not thickened with a roux. In fact, when we got our bowls, the cream used in the milky soup had split and curdled a bit, since there was no binder in the briny broth to hold it together. It didn't affect the flavor nor the texture — it's was simply the tastiest, most ocean-y chowder we'd ever tasted. You probably could not find this classical broth in the town it was named for, anymore.

There are also oysters and clams on the halfshell, served with a red cocktail sauce, or a mignonette sauce of red onions, cracked pepper, and wine vinegar. But honestly, perfect and creamy kumamotos, briny malpoints, and medium sized rich tasting bluepoints really didn't need embellishments of any sort. They tasted clean and distinct, and one of us greedily at a dozen oysters and half a dozen little necks without any trouble at all.

They will also cook lobsters for you, but everything here is basically cooked up in advance and served either chilled (the salads) or held warm in a bain marie. They even differentiate between clean ice and the ice used to hold fish ... the soda uses the same shaved ice as they use to ice down their fish and seafood. Fortunately, the ice in our beverages was clean!

While waiting in line for seats, the counterman closest to us offered us beverages and chatted a bit. It wasn't at all an acknowledgement or apology of the necessary wait, just a nice gesture toward people who looked like they might beat other diners off their stools as we waited! Diplomacy is a good thing when encountering passionate customers.

Another benefit of coming early — you get samples of their nicely smoked fish, also on the menu, and you see the men and women who come in to get their orders for the day. It's an old, old place in Nob Hill, near the less-expensive-to-rent but less serviced (by public transportation) Russian Hill area, and it has its characters and local legends. Everyone is friendly, and when it comes time to tote up the tab, they'll ask YOU what you had and do the calculation on the back of a napkin. They'll give you a receipt it you ask, but it's the commercial fish order invoice.

While not cheap — good quality seafood never is — it's not unreasonable. We've been there a few times now, since we insist on going there any time we're in San Francisco. The last time, 3 chowders, 3 crab louis, a dozen oysters, a half dozen little necks, sourdough bread, oyster crackers, and 3 sodas ran us $127. It sounds high, but it's a bargain for seafood this fresh and properly prepared, with confidence and a lack of artifice. Not to mention not having to do any of the work of picking the meat out of carapaces. Also, consider that one of us is such a oyster cracker hog that he emptied the quart-sized communal bowl twice while eating his chowder!

And before you leave, they'll give you a businesscard with instructions on the bottom: "Dip in water and be surprised!" Their businesscard is a sponge! Hahaha! We love this place!


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