SF's Best Cheap Eats
Chow Down. Or, if $5 is just too much, here's our guide to the best $1, $2, $3 and $4 snacks in town.
A la Turca (Tendernob)
A la Turca will turn six in July, so some of you probably already know about this Tendernob Turkish restaurant and its pides—tender little slippers of yeasted dough filled with salty cheese, meat or vegetables (our favorite is the version with cheese and sucuk, a type of spiced beef sausage), or have eaten the beyti kebap—tender ground lamb wrapped in lavash, cut into rounds and drizzled with thick yogurt and a tomato-pepper sauce. But if you haven't, consider this your formal invitation.
Must Order: Tiny little tri-cornered dumplings called manti and filled with ground lamb, topped with garlicky yogurt and browned butter and served only on Sundays. 869 Geary St., 415-345-1011, alaturcasf.com
Assab Eritrean Cuisine (Inner Richmond)
What separates a good restaurant from a great one, as we all know, is whether the place has soul. At Assab, there's no doubt—it's evident in the ebullient server (with a smile full of gold teeth) who instructs you how to eat your meal (with your fingers, using the sour injera bread as a scoop) and the chef-owner, Matheos Yohannes, who walks from table to table greeting guests. Everything is served family-style on large platters—we love the mild stewed zucchini, brown lentils and spicy beef zigni, complemented (and cooled) by generous dollops of rich yogurt.
Must Order: The okra stew and a bottle of Ethiopian lager. 2845 Geary Blvd., 415-441-7083
Balompie Café #3 (Outer Mission)
The newest location of Balompie Café (which joins the 21-year-old Capp Street original and the year-old SoMa outpost) is filled with good sounds—the hum of soccer on the television, the sizzle of yucca hitting the deep fryer and the thwack of masa dough between the palms of the Salvadoran woman hand-forming the very things you came here for—pupusas. As at the other two locations, you can order classic versions, stuffed with loroco (a Salvadorean vegetable) and cheese or ground pork and served with a crispy cabbage salad called curtido, tangy with vinegar and shot through with dried oregano. But unique to the new location is the list of specialty pupusas, which includes a shrimp-and-cheese pupusa and another filled with prosciutto and cheese—a cross-cultural triumph if ever we've seen one. Also unique to number three is the draft beer (including feel-good small producer Fat Tire), which only makes a meal here that much more satisfying.
Must Order: The Salvadorean sampler—a pupusa of your choice, fried yucca and a pastel (a meat-filled, deep-fried empanada-like snack). 3801 Mission St., 415-647-4000
Bill's Place (Outer Richmond)
Enter the Twilight Zone, where the burgers arrive by default medium rare (the beef's ground in-house), where crystal chandeliers hang above red-vinyl counter stools (and those stools, thankfully, have backs) and where the Giants are always playing on TV—no matter what season it may be. Though Bill's is the epitome of a family-friendly joint, we've never yet seen a child misbehave here. Maybe that's because within these half-century-old walls, the year 1959 never really came to an end.
Must Order: The Giants Burger (cheddar cheese, bacon and avocado), of course, with fries. 2315 Clement St., 415-221-5262, billsplace.qpg.com
El Cachanilla (Mission)
Though El Cachanilla has a dining room, it's all about the taco window. Through this portal pass some fine tacos—they're smallish and antojito style, and you can choose from fillings that range from tame (carnitas) to adventurous (eye). At $1.50 a pop, you can afford to get a few, topped with self-service condiments such as guacamole and pickled jalapeños, and still have money for a bottle of Mexican Coke. Sit at one of the rickety tables on the sidewalk, where you'll be joined by cowboys, cool kids and cracked-out crazies—in other words, just another day in the Mission.
Must Order: The spicy, greasy chorizo taco. 2948 21st St., 415-550-9410
Five Happiness Restaurant (Inner Richmond)
The unassuming facade of Five Happiness—located next door to the famous Irish pub Abbey Tavern and a stone’s throw from the celebrated Asian-food corridor that is Clement Street—belies its spacious interior, bedecked with the typical red-and-gold Chinese motif and the requisite tank of good-luck koi. We come here to feast on generous seafood dishes, such as deliciously eggy shrimp with lobster sauce and the signature hot garlic chicken wings (with their sticky-sweet glaze, they really are finger-lickin’ good) alongside rollicking tables filled with inebriated businessmen.
Must Order: The off-the-menu Shanghai-style noodles appeal to purists—cloaked with a garlic-and-soy sauce and boasting a nice wok char (but without meat or seafood to distract from the soul-satisfying experience). 4142 Geary Blvd., 415-387-2626
Gaspare's Pizza House and Italian Restaurant (Outer Richmond)
Although the menu lists 27 different varieties of pie, and though the crust is properly thin and the base tomato sauce not too sweet, the pizza here isn't really (gasp) the point. You come to Gaspare's to relive a) your East Coast childhood or b) your fond memories of the movie Moonstruck. This Outer Richmond relic has all the ingredients: Chianti in straw-wrapped flasks, table-side jukeboxes with a time-warp playlist (Dean Martin, Chubby Checker or Mario Lanza) and murals of (on the east wall) Sicily and (on the west) SF. It's also the perfect venue for kids.
Must Order: Number 11, the classic pepperoni pizza. 5546 Geary Blvd., 415-387-5025, gasparespizza.com
Halu (Inner Richmond)
This teensy, sea-foam-green Japanese restaurant is more than a little bit rock 'n' roll. The window displays old Beatles posters, and the front door has a sign that says "Imagine Peace." Step inside, and over the racket of a powerful hood sucking up the smoke from the grill you might hear the music of local Randy Clark playing. This all makes sense once you learn that Halu is a dream realized for musician Shig Komiyama (a member of the Shitones and a former drummer for Hot Tuna) and his wife, Mimi. Their homespun, classic izakaya menu includes ramen, but don't miss the delicately crisp kushi katsu, including one made with chicken and basil, as well as the butterflied yakitori chicken wings, served in the traditional way with nothing but salt and a squeeze of lemon.
Must Order: The gingko-nut yakitori. 312 Eighth Ave., 415-221-9165
Jake's Steaks (Marina)
A handful of places in town sell Philly-style cheesesteaks, but what makes Jake's stand out are the authentic details: Amoroso rolls shipped from the East Coast and your all-important choice of cheese on each sandwich—American, provolone or Cheez Whiz (don't knock it till you've tried it). Other classic staples—waffle fries, chicken tenders, buffalo wings—round out the basic menu; there are six beers on tap, and there's always a game on the tube. Weekends find the place filled with homesick East Coast transplants yelling for their favorite team. Bonus: For dessert, try some Tastykakes—you'll never touch a Hostess Twinkie again.
Must Order: The traditional-style "Whiz With," chopped steak combined with sautéed onions and drenched in melted Whiz. 3301 Buchanan St., 415-922-2211, jakessteaks.net
Kasa Indian Eatery
Kasa Indian Eatery (Castro)
Earnestness pours forth from this taqueria-cum-modern-Indian-restaurant in the Castro, where lawyer-turned-mother-turned-chef Anamika Khanna prepares home-style kati rolls—which, for lack of better comparison, are a bit like an Indian burrito. House-made roti bread is wrapped around your choice of six fillings (from grass-fed lamb curry and chicken tikka to wok-fried paneer cheese with peppers and onions), dolloped with fresh chutneys and accompanied by raita—the result is a handheld triumph with bright, fresh, homemade flavor. Thali plates, like a deconstructed version of a kati roll, are also available, and include all of the above ingredients sided with fragrant basmati rice and lentil dal, presented on the traditional segmented stainless-steel platter.
Must Order: Three kati rolls for $11.95—after two visits, you will have tried them all and can pick a favorite. 4001 18th St., 415-621-6940, kasaindian.com
Katana-Ya (Union Square)
This tiny, two-year-old Japanese restaurant—which sits in the shadow of Jack in the Box and across from the A.C.T. theater—is about the late-night ramen call. What flavor Katana-ya lacks in decor is made up in spades by the delicious broth, thick with noodles custom-made for the restaurant. Purists go for the traditional soy broth with slices of pork shoulder, but you can also choose from a salt or miso broth with additions ranging from kimchi to green onion. The kitchen’s last call is 1:15 a.m. and, most important, beer is available.
Must Order: The spicy miso broth with tofu is a guaranteed fog melter. 430 Geary St., 415-771-1280
Lahore Karahi (Tenderloin)
One of the many Pakistani joints in the 'Loin, this intimate spot differentiates itself with full table service and a dedicated owner—Guddu Zulsiqar—who runs his restaurant like a one-man band. The food he cooks from his Punjab homeland is solidly home style, and although the menu offers the usual curries and biryanis, it also has a few stars, such as a sizzling platter of tandoori fish, fragrant with a "secret spice" blend (he won't divulge it), tart with lemon and showered with cabbage, and the off-the-menu goat curry (available with advance notice). This is no curry in a hurry, so schedule in some extra time.
Must Order: An off-the-menu beef curry called nahari, typical of Zulsiqar's Punjab region. 612 O'Farrell St., 415-567-8603, lahorekarahirestaurant.com
Muracci's Japanese Curry & Grill (Union Square)
Imagine—a city filled with single-subject restaurants, each with a myopic focus on its particular specialty. (Or is that Tokyo?) At Muracci's, the thick, savory curry sauce—think a Japanese version of gravy—is it, served forth from a shoe-box space on Kearny Street. Muracci's curry has the appeal of something homemade, and you can try it paired with various meats or tofu, or poured over noodles. Yes, there are other items on the menu besides curry, but we'd advise against them. Why mess with success?
Must Order: Tonkatsu curry: A thin piece of fried, panko-breaded pork, served with curry sauce, rice and Japanese pickles. 307 Kearny St., 415-773-1101, muraccis.com
Nicaragua Restaurant (Mission)
If you've wearied of the taco, you'll be happy to discover Nicaragua Restaurant, a bare-bones, family-owned joint, where the simple, rustic food is prepared to order—heaping plates of carne deshilachada (shredded beef with a sweet, tomato-based sauce) sided by the trifecta of beans, rice and pickled cabbage; ceviche; and giant bowls of mild sopa de albondigas (meatball soup), accompanied by freshly made tortillas.
Must Order: Fried plantains, topped with deep-fried, salty Nicaraguan cheese. Brilliant. 3015 Mission St., 415-826-3672, nicaraguarestaurant.com
There might be no other place in the city that serves a seven-course, prix-fixe dinner in a chic little space (well, chic for the Tenderloin)—for $13.95. Although the menu at this friendly and efficient Vietnamese restaurant includes everything from clay pots to soups, most customers come (and often queue up) for the "Seven Flavors of Beef," which comprises paper-thin beef cooked in many ways, accompanied by a plateful of herbs and lettuce plus rice paper—not so much a carnivore's paradise as a summer-roll heaven.
Must Order: Save room for the fried bananas and coconut ice cream. 655 Larkin St., 415-776-3234
Pastores (Outer Mission)
Falling in love with Pastores is inevitable, but we'll warn you that this love will not be without heartbreak. Because someday soon you'll head to the hinterlands of the Outer Mission, ready to chow down on the best chiles rellenos, chilaquiles and homemade mole in the city, only to discover that Irma Calderon (the chef-owner who takes your order, cooks and serves your meal) has already closed up shop for the day. Try to consider the unpredictable hours and inconvenient location a charming part of the quest. And call ahead.
Must Order: It's all about the weekend Mexican breakfast here. 3486 Mission St., 415-642-5385
Pearl's Deluxe Burgers (TenderNob)
First off, SF needs no schooling from Marin on burgers. That said, the folks behind Pearl's Deluxe on lower Nob Hill have an impeccable grilling pedigree, having founded first Phyllis' in San Rafael and then Pearl's Phatburgers in Mill Valley. At this hole-in-the-wall (just a few tables and no atmo at all), the juicy Meyer Angus burgers come in two sizes—half-pound regulars, as well as quarter-pound "minis"—the sweet-potato fries are slender and comely, and you can substitute buffalo for beef for just $1.50.
Must Order: The Prized Pearl (with blue cheese, sautéed onions and bacon). 708 Post St., 415-409-6120
Pho Garden (Inner Richmond)
At this latest entrant into the pho wars of San Francisco, the menu skews toward traditional rather than ambitious or modern, which is just fine by us. You can count on the pho ga, which has a light, fragrant broth and generous shreds of chicken, and comes with a plate of fresh herbs, bean sprouts, lime wedges and chiles. You can also depend on fresh spring rolls, plump with shrimp, pork and vermicelli. Can't decide? The affable waiter will pull up a chair to discuss your order, expounding on the relative merits of lemongrass chicken with vermicelli and the Vietnamese crepe.
Must Order: This is a pho restaurant. Do the right thing. 2109 Clement St., 415-379-8677
The Pizza Place on Noriega (Outer Sunset)
It's mostly surfers hanging out at the Pizza Place on Noriega, scarfing down slices, emptying pitchers of PBR and affably eyeing newcomers as they walk through the door. The joint, owned by childhood friends (and ex-Bostonians) Kevin Baryza and David Ashin, is way out on Noriega near the ocean, but we'll go the distance for iceberg salads with excellent homemade blue-cheese dressing and East Coast–style pies—especially the Rotten Robby, a winning combination of sausage, mushrooms, pesto, jalapeños, tomato sauce and cheese.
Must Order: The roasted cauliflower with chile flakes, black olives, orange zest and parsley. 3901 Noriega St., 415-759-5752, pizzaplacesf.com
Roadside BBQ (Inner Richmond)
SF might not be the kind of place where locals debate the relative merits of tomato- versus vinegar-based sauce. But that doesn't mean we don't love our smoked meats, and thankfully Roadside BBQ offers just that. Owned by a San Rafael native, this no-frills, order-at-the-counter joint has a little California lightness to it, but the ribs, brisket, chicken and pulled pork are classically smoked over hardwood until tender, then sided with old favorites such as sweet-potato fries, corn muffins, mac-and-cheese and grilled corn on the cob. Grab a handful of Wet Naps and get going.
Must Order: We're partial to the brisket sandwich—tender meat piled high on a soft bun and topped with vinegary coleslaw. 3751 Geary Blvd., 415-221-7427, roadside-bbq.com
Sai Jai Thai (Tenderloin)
Occasionally when we're out investigating a new restaurant, our mind wanders back to feasts we've had at Sai Jai Thai and we find ourselves wishing we were there instead, joyfully digging into spicy green-papaya salad, lush fish curries and positively addictive barbecued pork shoulder. Seated in the simple, pink Tenderloin dining room, an extra chair holding the surplus food that won't fit on the table, we're happy as can be.
Must Order: Though the barbecued pork shoulder is available in various permutations, we like it best sliced and served over the fried rice, studded with fluffy bits of egg. 771 O'Farrell St., 415-673-5774
Shanghai House (Outer Richmond)
Unassuming, fluorescent-lit and far from everything save for the Balboa Theatre, Shanghai House still warrants a trip. Ask for the "Chinese" menu in order to get the Shanghainese specialties, chief among them the small, tender xiao long bao (soup dumplings), the sweet-and-sour ribs luxuriating in a molasses-thick sauce and the rustic, chubby handmade noodles with chunks of carrot and cabbage. Come for dim sum and the restaurant will be predictably crowded, but the patient diner is rewarded with fresh-fried Chinese doughnuts.
Must Order: Vegetarian goose—tofu skins topped with rich mushroom sauce. 3641 Balboa St., 415-831-9288
Shin Toe Bul Yi (Outer Sunset)
When a chef (particularly A16 chef Nate Appleman) tells you where to go for dinner, you go—and you order exactly what he tells you to. Which is how we ended up at Shin Toe Bul Yi, shivering in the cold rain while waiting for a table in a restaurant that resembles nothing so much as a rumpus room, circa 1974. Here’s our excuse: The fried chicken made us do it. Miraculously crisp, with a faint hint of Korean red pepper, this is something worth driving across town for—and the green-onion pancakes and robust tofu-and-kimchi stew, complimentary fried mackerel and big bottles of Hite beer aren’t half bad, either.
Must Order:Isn’t it obvious? 2001 Taraval St., 415-566-9221
Sultan (Union Square)
If there was ever a reason to get over your fear of the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet, you'll find it here. For only $10.95, the second incarnation of this Indian restaurant owned by a family from Mumbai (which opened in its new location last October) puts out an impressive spread of some of the most delicious Indian food in town. Made with all organic ingredients, the 20-plus options, served in copper chafing dishes, rotate daily but have included everything from khadai chicken to vegetable tawa with fenugreek and paneer to idlys (those soft little pucks made for soaking up your spicy sambar). Dinner is no cheap eat, but for good reason: Sultan is intent on serving some of the most ambitious Indian food in town.
Must Order: If the okra masala with tomato and ginger is set out, get it. 340 O'Farrell St., 415-775-1709
We liked Tajine when it was a six-table affair in the Tenderloin, and we still like it now, in its slightly larger incarnation closer to Nob Hill. Owner Mohamed Ghaleb is still in the kitchen, and you can still order plates of garlicky zaalouk (sautéed eggplant and peppers puréed to the consistency of a thick dip) and sweet-savory chicken b’stilla, dusted with confectionary sugar. Get together a group and request the private room, where you can pop open bottles of your own wine (it’s BYOB, with no corkage).
Must Order: Anything with house-made merguez sausage and a silver pitcher of sweet mint tea. 1338 Polk St., 415-440-1718, tajinerestaurant.com
Tortas Los Picudos (Mission)
Though we do love the newer, spiffier La Torta Gorda a block away, it'd be a mistake to pass up Tortas Los Picudos. Here, the signature Mexican super-sammies are huge, the fillings are griddle-fresh and the accompaniments (mayo, cheese, jalapeños, tomato, onion, lettuce, avocado) are in ideal proportion. The carnitas torta, filled with chunks of pork, may be the best $7 thing you ever put in your mouth, and the chorizo-and-eggs combo is the ultimate hangover cure.
Must Order: If they've got it, order the pineapple agua fresca. 2969 24th St., 415-824-4199
Turtle Tower (Tenderloin)
It says something that Slanted Door chef Charles Phan is a regular here, but he’s not the only pho aficionado on heavy rotation at this Vietnamese restaurant, which specializes in steaming bowls of the soup laden with rice noodles delivered fresh each day. But unlike many other spots around town, here the pho isn’t served with the expected basil, bean sprouts and hoisin sauce. Instead it’s made Northern style, with onions, cilantro, lime and slices of fresh chile. The chicken pho is tops; as for the more traditional beef-based pho gai, we’re partial to the brisket-and-tendon combo.
Must Order: Get a plate of boiled chicken to accompany your pho. 631 Larkin St., 415-409-3333
Udupi Palace (Mission)
The opening of Udupi Palace has heralded a kind of culinary dance-off. This new South Indian restaurant—San Francisco’s second—is a mere block from the city’s first, Dosa. The restaurants serve similar food (including, yes, the thin, oversize crepes of note) and have similar taglines: Dosa bills itself as “your destination for Dosa,” while Udupi claims to be “a place for Dosas.” We’re of the mind that a little healthy competition is a good thing, and welcome another place for uthappam (lentil-and-rice pancakes with assorted toppings), vegetable curry and tamarind rice.
Must Order: No matter what you order, get a side of fried batura bread. 1007 Valencia St., 415-970-8000, udupipalaceca.com
Underdog (Inner Sunset)
Think of the offerings at Underdog as bad food made good—sausages, hot dogs and condiments have been upgraded to organic status; crisp "tater tots" are baked, not fried, and you can have your meat (or vegan alternative) on a white or wheat bun. The space is fairly cramped and has only two tables—hope for a sunny day in the Sunset so you can take your dog on a walk to the park.
Must Order: A Let's Be Frank hot dog with a side of tots. 1634 Irving St., 415-665-8881
Won-Ton House (Outer Sunset)
College-age couples seeking shelter from the fog flock to Won-Ton House on Noriega: Apparently, huddling over a bowl of the place’s signature soup (swimming with pork-and-shrimp wontons gently seasoned with Chinese Five Spice), is like the Sunset equivalent of ordering a chocolate malt with two straws—a no-fail recipe for love. The rice porridge with shrimp is bland, in a good, comforting, feed-a-fever kind of way, and the red-bean drink is a sweet thirst quencher.
Must Order: Get à la carte servings of the tender barbecued pork and roast duck to add to the simple soups and porridges. 1325 Noriega St., 415-753-6688