EAT LIKE A LOCAL

San Francisco

All you need is $15 and this list

By Sharron Wood, Wednesday, Oct 12, 2005, 7:00 PM

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.

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.

The quest begins at the Mission's Casa Sanchez (2778 24th St., 415/282-2400, $4), famous for a onetime promotion that rewarded people who got a tattoo of the Casa Sanchez logo with free lunch for life. Unfortunately for them, these burritos, while tasty, are tame, too heavy on the beans, and not as good as the homemade chips and salsa.

On to a perennial favorite in the burrito wars, Taqueria Cancún (2288 Mission St., 415/252-9560, $3), where huge slices of creamy avocado are tucked in each veggie burrito and the slightly crisp tortillas are warmed on the grill rather than steamed. But we also discover the occasional bits of gristle, enough to keep this one from perfection.

The burrito chaser's next stop is, surprisingly, in the gentrified grounds of the Upper Haight at Taqueria El Balazo (1654 Haight St., 415/864-2140, $6). The juicy grilled meat stuffed in the carne asada burrito, plus the selection of salsas and lime wedges that allow you to precisely adjust for taste, are exceptional. But we pay twice as much as at Taqueria Cancún, so we must resume the hunt.

Back to the Mission District, where the search began. The carne asada burritos at La Taqueria (2889 Mission St., 415/285-7117, $4.50) are slightly smaller than a foil-wrapped doorstop: Unlike the others, they contain no rice, and the unimpeded power of the meltingly tender and flavorful grilled beef--and lots of it--makes these, for price and palatability, the pick of the litter.

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.

The quest begins at the Mission's Casa Sanchez (2778 24th St., 415/282-2400, $4), famous for a onetime promotion that rewarded people who got a tattoo of the Casa Sanchez logo with free lunch for life. Unfortunately for them, these burritos, while tasty, are tame, too heavy on the beans, and not as good as the homemade chips and salsa.

On to a perennial favorite in the burrito wars, Taqueria Cancún (2288 Mission St., 415/252-9560, $3), where huge slices of creamy avocado are tucked in each veggie burrito and the slightly crisp tortillas are warmed on the grill rather than steamed. But we also discover the occasional bits of gristle, enough to keep this one from perfection.

The burrito chaser's next stop is, surprisingly, in the gentrified grounds of the Upper Haight at Taqueria El Balazo (1654 Haight St., 415/864-2140, $6). The juicy grilled meat stuffed in the carne asada burrito, plus the selection of salsas and lime wedges that allow you to precisely adjust for taste, are exceptional. But we pay twice as much as at Taqueria Cancún, so we must resume the hunt.

Back to the Mission District, where the search began. The carne asada burritos at La Taqueria (2889 Mission St., 415/285-7117, $4.50) are slightly smaller than a foil-wrapped doorstop: Unlike the others, they contain no rice, and the unimpeded power of the meltingly tender and flavorful grilled beef--and lots of it--makes these, for price and palatability, the pick of the litter.