EAT LIKE A LOCAL
All you need is $15 and this list
To our minds, San Francisco is one of the three top foodie cities in the US (along with New York and New Orleans). We've all heard about California cuisine, and the star chefs that are shaping the dining scene in the City by the Bay. But what about cheap food? Can one get good, interesting grub at an affordable price?
Our expert gives a resounding "yes" to that question and reveals her picks for the best affordable food in town.
The top ten
Red's Java House Pier 30-32, Embarcadero at Bryant St., 415/777-5626, Closed for dinner unless there's an evening Giants game at nearby SBC Park
The pickup trucks in the lot and the crusty old guys in coveralls are your first signs that Red's is no temple to fancy-schmancy California cuisine. Working-class joes in Harley-Davidson jackets fill most of the tables, though suits slumming it also visit this little shack in the shadow of the Bay Bridge. Hot dogs, burgers, chili, fries, and Budweiser are the orders of choice--unless you show up before 11 a.m. (3 p.m. on weekends), when a smattering of breakfast items are served. And since a double cheeseburger, fries, and a beer cost only $6.25, Red's qualifies as one of the best burger bargains in the city, with or without the million-dollar view.
Chez Maman 1453 18th St., between Connecticut and Missouri Sts., 415/824-7166
Diners sit shoulder to shoulder at the counter of this lilliputian Potrero Hill bistro, where the chefs cheerfully toss salads, grill lamb sausages, and cook crepes just inches away. The stools are so close to the grill, in fact, that you won't know whether it's the heat of the fire or the Gallic charm of the chatty proprietor that's causing the warm glow. The small menu is solidly French: the goat cheese salad ($8), croque monsieur ($9), and mussels marinière ($12) would be right at home in a Parisian bistro. So would the French-speaking regulars, who gab with the staff while downing rocket-fuel espresso.
El Tonayense Harrison St. between 19th and 20th Sts., Harrison St. at 22nd St. and Shotwell St. between 16th and 17th Sts
Locals in the know stand on the sidewalk or perch on a concrete ledge next to a chain-link fence to eat some of the best (and most authentically Mexican) tacos in town, served from shiny silver trucks parked on semi-industrial blocks in the Mission. Since there's no menu--just a list of available meats, such as carne asada (grilled steak) and carnitas (braised pork)--it's useful to know that you can get these fillings in a taco, burrito, or torta (sandwich). Most passionate fans of El Tonayense are so devoted to the tacos--corn tortillas folded around juicy meat, hot or mild salsa, and a scattering of chopped onions and cilantro--that they've never even sampled the other dishes. Those with an average appetite could probably handle three tacos, but we wouldn't blame anyone for trying to eat just one more.
It's Tops Coffee Shop 1801 Market St., between Valencia and Guerrero Sts., 415/431-6395
Shortly after this tiny, '50s-style diner in the Lower Haight opens at 8 a.m., haggard partygoers outnumber early risers by about two to one. They continue their flirtation with unhealthy living with a menu that contains, in addition to standard diner fare--buttermilk pancakes ($4.50), Denver omelettes ($7.75)--an entire section devoted to deep-fried sides such as beer-battered mushrooms ($3.95). Each orange-vinyl booth is equipped with a jukebox, but the stools at the counter provide you with the added entertainment of listening to the waitstaff describe their latest tattoos.
Nirvana 544 Castro St., between 18th and 19th Sts., 415/861-2226
One hopes that the real nirvana isn't as loud as this Castro District restaurant, where the predominantly gay clientele flirt to the steady pulse of techno music. Dim lights and walls the color of blood oranges set a seductive scene, but the heated garden patio is the last word in romance. Big bowls of noodles (ramen, soba, or linguine), topped with ingredients such as pan-seared Thai-style chicken ($7.75), salmon chunks ($9.50), or sautéed spinach and tomatoes ($6.75), are a bargain; the same can't be said about the froufrou cocktails ($7-$8.50). Concoctions like Purple Rain--made with vanilla-flavor Stoli, pomegranate juice, and lemon juice--nevertheless disappear lickety-split at the bar, where revelers sometimes stand waiting two deep.
Emmy's Spaghetti Shack 18 Virginia St., at Mission St., 415/206-2086
At the edge of the Mission, this dimly lit room decorated with old-fashioned aprons strung across a clothesline might seem an unlikely setting for San Francisco hipsters to wine and dine their dates. But, somehow, the juxtaposition of the faux corrugated tin roof, colorful artwork by local artists, and a DJ spinning groovy down-tempo music (Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays) works. Maybe the crowd is in a good mood because of the glasses of red wine on almost every table, but the vibe at Emmy's is unfailingly friendly. Enormous plates of spaghetti ($6, with meatballs $8.50) are by far the best deals. Consider sharing one with your honey, along with an appetizer like the winter-greens salad with beets and goat cheese ($8). Desserts, most around $7, are more expensive than you'd expect.