EAT LIKE A LOCAL
All you need is $15 and this list
Osha Thai Noodle Café 696 Geary St., at Leavenworth St., 415/673-2368
A young crowd fills this bright Tenderloin restaurant, but the food is much better than you'd expect from a place where you can stumble in until 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. House music thrumming in the background sets the manic pace of the waitstaff, who ask for your order every few minutes until you've waded your way through the hundred or so items on the menu. To cut to the chase, order the tart and spicy larb ($6.50), a mix of ground chicken, pork, or beef with red and green onions, or the perfectly crisp yet tender spicy string beans, served with the same choice of meats ($6.95).
Hang Ah Tea Room 1 Pagoda Pl. (a.k.a. 1 Hang Ah St.), off Sacramento St. between Stockton and Grant Sts., 415/982-5686
Although the freakish lime-green and tangerine walls suggest the restaurant was built during the Day-Glo '80s, Hang Ah is actually Chinatown's oldest dim sum parlor. Once you find this basement spot--down an alleyway next to a playground and tennis court--start sampling its wide variety of dim sum, the savory snacks that are popular for brunch in parts of China. Pork buns (softball-size puffs of rice dough surrounding juicy barbecued pork), deep-fried curried-beef rolls, translucent steamed shrimp dumplings, and pot stickers are particularly good choices. At around $2.50 per order, you can try them all.
Dragon Well 2142 Chestnut St., between Steiner and Pierce Sts., 415/474-6888
Smartly dressed and preternaturally fit young locals chat on cell phones between bites of fresh pea shoots at this lovely Chinese restaurant, where paper lamps cast a soft glow that makes everyone look even sexier than they already are. Remarkably, the artfully arranged plates of minced chicken scattered on lettuce leaves ($8.25) and slices of tea-smoked duck ($7.95) are almost no more expensive than the fluorescent-orange glop at your average Chinese joint. And appropriate to Dragon Well's Marina District setting, chefs have a way with seafood--witness the prawns served in a light white sauce and tossed with crunchy candied walnuts ($9.95).
Q 225 Clement St., between 3rd and 4th Aves., 415/752-2298
If someone were to decorate a salvage yard with strings of Christmas lights and alphabet refrigerator magnets, it might end up looking something like the Inner Richmond's Q. That enigmatic name is short for barbecue, a specialty of chef-owner "Smilin' Andy" Gillen, who can often be spotted dishing up pork spare ribs with baked beans and spicy slaw ($10). The menu is a mishmash of Southern standbys and bold California cuisine that's friendlier to vegetarians than the name would (obliquely) suggest. Those suffering from a fit of childhood nostalgia might opt for the rich and starchy macaroni and cheese, counterintuitively paired with Tater Tots ($8).
The hippest haunts of the nouveau poor
Now that there are fewer people who can charge hundred-dollar meals on their corporate cards, formerly lofty restaurants have jumped on the budget bandwagon, charging common rates for high-power fare.
At the height of the dot-com gold rush, diners reserved ahead for dramatic plates of Asian-French food at Azie (826 Folsom St., 415/538-0918). The soaring interior of this former warehouse is still glamorous, but now entrées like five-spice pork tenderloin go for $15 to $20 instead of $25 to $30, and the lines have disappeared.
When the sleek and dimly lit JohnFrank struggled serving California cuisine, it cut prices in half, renamed itself Home (2100 Market St., 415/503-0333), and coddled diners with comfort food like macaroni and cheese and roasted chicken ($7.95 to $13.95). Drink specials are an unheard-of $3; make reservations or face a long wait.
At Eos Restaurant: (901 Cole St., 415/566-3063), chef Arnold Eric Wong's creative Pan-Asian cuisine has been the talk of the town since 1995. Full meals still cost a fortune, but you can hit the adjoining wine bar for small plates, such as the signature shiitake dumplings ($10) or prawn and lemongrass risotto ($12).
Stylish: Mission residents sip cocktails at Butterfly Lounge (1710 Mission St., 415/864-5585). Instead of swanky Pacific Rim fusion food, it's now about Vietnamese-inspired small plates such as green-papaya salad and grilled snapper with caramelized onions. Feeling rich yet?
The perfect burrito
Chicago flaunts its pizza and Philadelphia its cheese steaks, but in San Francisco, the quintessential quick dinner is the burrito. We set out to find the best one, risking the wrath of locals whose favorite taqueria didn't make the cut.