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Saturday, February 16, 2008

SF Restaurant Roundup: Hungry? Need A Quick Bite to Eat? These Neighborhood Joints Are For You!

Ever been hungry & just wanted to eat out somewhere, anywhere where there was good food, an open table & the staff ratio was not three to one (3 staff members for every patron).

Where there wasn't a full-time sommelier & the person who greets and seats doesn't require a dossier on all your culinary experiences to decide if you qualify for admission or, worse, look at you like you're one of the less lovable Martians because you showed up with the ridiculous expectation of being able to have dinner there without scheduling it 6 weeks in advance.

You know the kind of a place I mean, a restaurant where they sell the food, not the chef's latest cookbook; and want you to eat, not revel in the glory of gastronomy. Where the cooks just cook, the servers just serve and nobody is vying for a spot in latest rendition of Bravo's Top Chef.
You sit, you order, you eat; all within a 45-60 minute window. Where you can meet a friend for a quick bite without being forced to make plans that would make General MacArthur look like a flower child of the 1960's Haight Ashbury vintage. Everybody doesn't have to know your name but maybe it's easy enough to get into that you can go regularly and they recognize you by sight.
San Francisco is a small town. Maybe the joint is within walking distance, maybe it requires a cab or a quick drive; but, it's reliable; and, while not every dish is Michelin star worthy, there are some dishes that are really worth the effort of putting down that takeout menu, getting off your coach and going there.
My list will not include the so-called neighborhood spots like Spruce or A-16 which are supposed to be neighborhood joints and do offer bar service to the undeserving reservationless; but, are really just wolves in sheep's clothing.
Burma Superstar, the darling of good, cheap eats will not qualify because it takes over 15 minutes to get a table most nights. I just can't wait that long when I'm hungry & its cold & foggy out. Which is why Eliza's, Ebisu, Yank Sing & the scrumptious pizzeria, Little Star with its amazing salads & namesake deep-dish pizza (the Little Star) will be excluded.
Take out is the best bet at those places (except Yank Sing, dim sum to go is insane, don't do it!)

My list includes the best dishes to order in a place that may not have a lot of curb appeal or offer many other dishes worth eating but is always relatively easy (within 10 minute wait) to get a table for two even if you do have to order at the counter and bus your own table. Of course, there are also a few "white cloth" places, too. But, I include only the sketchiest of descriptions so click on the restaurant's name to be redirected to their websites for further info.
With the exception of La Taqueria, most of these restaurants are in the northern part of San Francisco which is, essentially, my backyard. A more complete list will be posted as I work my way around the city more frequently. Here they are:
  • The smoked salmon pizza with roasted yukon gold potatoes, leeks and drizzles of creme fraiche always has people seated at tables nearby ask me what I ordered at Rigolo Cafe.
  • Phenomenal desserts & good risotto (don't order the gnocchi) at Street
  • Fish tacos, grilled or batter-fried baja-style, with an agua fresca to drink and some tortilla soup to start at Nick's Crispy Tacos
  • The tacos & the pastry-like cheese quesadilla have achieved legendary status at La Taqueria and you'll be glad you went. Burritos are good, too & free of rice but stay away from the carnitas.
  • Yes, I know it's part of a chain but I love the salmon skewers with spinach salad at Askew Grill
  • Try a little chicken satay, the pumpkin curry (vegetarian version is the best), coconut rice or Rice with Chicken and yellow curry at Little Thai
  • Can't go wrong with anything in this tiny Marina spot but the wakame salad, ahi poke & unagi bowl at Pacific Catch are standouts.
  • Yes, yes another chain but it's a huge place (i.e. really easy to get a table) & a beautiful spot for Sunday brunch: yummy frittatas, fried calamari, crespelle, tosto francese with mascarpone, or any pizza at Il Fornaio; bonus, great mimosas made with fresh orange juice. Pastas are uneven, stay away from anything that seems overly ambitious because it is. Good starters, though.
  • Good for breakfast, grilled burgers and hot sandwiches; the variations of eggs benedict, breakfast burrito & skillets are the faves at Polker's Gourmet Burgers but go early if you want breakfast on the weekends & make sure you buy your coffee at nearby Peets or Starbuck's & bring it to breakfast because Polker's coffee is the pits. Don't worry the staff is used to those to-go cups of coffee brought in from elsewhere.
  • The rooms are huge, pretty & allow you to be easily accommodated even the multi-level bar area is roomy; order the lemon basa at Ana Mandara.
  • The pizzas, salmon cosy, beet salad & any dessert at Rose's Cafe
  • The farmer greens main salad with add-ons, fresh roast turkey sandwiches and the everyday is Thanksgiving sides at Pluto's
  • The falafels, California burger and steak fries at Barney's Gourmet Burgers
  • The rotisserie chicken is meltingly tender or, order the maya burrito & agua fresca (free refills) at Andale Taqueria. Don't forget to stop by the salsa bar with all kinds of fresh organic housemade condiments.
  • The breakfast burrito, Sol's bagel, Apple & Gorgonzola Toast and the Berkeley Bowl at The Grove either the one on Chestnut or on Fillmore.
  • The sushi and sake at Hime. The rolls are insanely large so be prepared to share.
  • Anything at Garibaldi's. They do it all well, and, unlike their close neighbor on Spruce Street you can actually eat at a table there (except Saturday night). Believe it or not, the bill of fare and execution of the dishes isn't much different than Spruce. The interior isn't as glamorous as that other place but it's no dive, either.
  • Pres a Vi is huge, easy to get into & has great small plates plus they have finally relaxed about pushing their flights of wines by the glass.
  • Great naan & free chai at where else? Naan-n-Curry
  • The Fog City Diner, tourist destination that it may still be because of those long ago Visa commercials, is pretty reliable and never more than a 10 minute wait. The grub is fresh, if not inspired, keep it basic (burgers, raw bar, sandwiches, salads, pasta, mu-shu pork burrito, calamari, pot roast) & you'll be OK. I've never had a lousy meal though on occasion I have had bad servers.
  • Chef Jia's Chinese restaurant in the financial district will satisfy your Chinese food jones & never have you waiting for a table like the over-rated House of Nanking next door. Interesting combinations of Hunan style cuisine, good fish & definitely veggie friendly.
  • The bar at One Market. Huge lounge area, great people watching both inside & out, can get crowded with patrons waiting for the tables at the restaurant but you can probably squeeze in 2 people anytime. It's not the full menu but get the great martinis, wines by the glass, the big fries, chickpea fritters, Caesar salad & who knows maybe a table will open up while you wait. My review of the restaurant coming soon.
  • MarketBar in the Ferry Building. Sit outside in the enormous & sunny streetside patio with fab vistas for lunch, inside for dinner and revel in fresh from the market produce & meats with Mediterranean-inspired menus that change frequently & showcase the seasonal. Lunch is busiest especially on market days and good luck with parking at night (valet available at lunchtime) but if you're in the area anyway or can't get into Slanted Door this is a good option.
  • Sam's Grill is old school San Francisco seafood. Fresh & simply prepared with crotchety old waiters who may lack charisma but know how to get your food to the table.
  • Want some amazing steak frites, tomato soup in puff pastry, smoked salmon carpaccio or maybe a little cassoulet? Then Jeanty at Jack's is your bistro. Located downtown in a landmark building and owned by the renown Phillipe Jeanty of Napa's Bistro Jeanty fame and the original chef of Domaine Chandon's restaurant in Yountville (I know I said no all-star chefs but the staff is relaxed here). It's a classic that isn't too tough to get into (though not the best choice if you're a vegetarian).
  • B* Star Bar, little sister of Burma Superstar, has the tea leaf salad, the rainbow salad and the samusas but is also trying to separate itself from it's older sibling as younger siblings often do, by trying to become more of an asian fusion place; sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much but if you and your friends are tired of waiting to get into Burma Superstar then walk a couple of blocks east & eat here. You won't be sorry. Nice outdoor patio in back.
Tally Ho, Hark Fo'ward!! Happy Hunting!

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