The Lunch Hour
The lunch hour advances around town with a slew of notable openings or new lunch menus. Here are some of the best lunches from new chefs or recently opened spots (most opened in the last one to six months).
NOMBE, Mission (2491 Mission St. at 21st, 415-681-7150)
Nombe faced a bit of a struggle recovering from uber-talented chef Nick Balla’s departure to Bar Tartine, eventually landing on new executive chef Noriyuki Sugie, who has cooked in NY, Chicago, France, Sydney and the like. With Sugie’s cooking, Nombe proves to be as much a gem as it ever was. An excellent sake list and caring service set it apart, but wait till you try Sugie’s ramen (thankfully just added to the dinner menu in addition to lunch). There’s a lot of great ramen out there, but I tend to be one of the unconverted who registers ramen’s comfort factor but can often find the taste bland. I realize once I finally fulfill my dream of traveling to Japan, I may change my mind, particularly if ramen tastes like Sugie’s.
Order: Ramen noodles are house made, subtly chewy, with accompanying meat. While I enjoy options like oxtail, my favorite is a heaping bowl of beef cheek ramen ($13). The tender meat is savory and robust… and, oh, the broth! No blandness here – the broth is layered with flavor. Scallions, mushrooms, umami foam and soy-marinated egg add even more dimension. If not ordering sake, matcha ice milk or lavender oolong ice tea ($4 each) to drink.
903, Bernal Heights (903 Cortland at Gates)
Laid-back Bernal Heights claims one of the best new lunch spots in town. 903 just opened weeks ago from owners of nearby Sandbox Bakery. Similar to Sandbox, Asian influences enliven American food. The former Maggie Mudd’s space was dim and unmemorable, but they’ve transformed it with soothing colors, flowers, a communal table and bench dotted with pillows. There are bento boxes of chicken tsukune or miso salmon, while the bulk of the daytime-only menu is sandwiches and a few breakfast items.
Order: Crispy shrimp balls in a challah hot dog bun ($8.50) may not jump off the menu, but juicy shrimp lightly fried in three crispy balls in a bun are delightful, particularly with garlic aioli, Sriracha and sweet & sour plum sauce. The one vegetarian sandwich is no afterthought. Baked tofu ($7.50) has more texture and flavor than is typical on a “burger bun” made entirely of rice (also with their Japanese karaage fried chicken sandwich). Pickled carrots, soy tahini, baby greens and a layer of nori (seaweed) complete the sandwich.
SWEET WOODRUFF, TenderNob (798 Sutter St. at Jones, 415-292-9090)
The TenderNob has a new destination café in Sweet Woodruff, the casual second space opened by owners of upscale Sons & Daughters. With an open kitchen, high ceilings, muted grey/blue walls, and stools lining rustic wood counter tops, the place feels completely San Francisco, with expected gourmet elevation of sandwiches and casual dishes. Take-out is ideal for nearby workers, but giant, corner windows make it a welcome place downtown to linger.
Order: Pheasant hot pocket ($7) is the most playful of early offerings. A flaky phyllo pastry stuffed with peas, carrots, and, of course, pheasant is warm and comforting. Cream of parsley root soup ($6) nurtures, set apart with green garlic, pine nuts and a welcome tinge of sweetness from golden raisins. A suckling pig sandwich ($9.50) is appropriately tender, contrasted by pickles, though with ghost pepper aioli I expected serious heat (not so). For dessert, a peanut sweet soy tart ($4) is peanut-y goodness.
WISE SONS DELI, Mission (3150 24th St. at Shotwell, 415-787-3354)
I said it a year ago when Wise Sons Deli was merely a pop-up: it is refreshing to have this quality level of Jewish food in San Francisco. Just like their pop-up locations, lines still run out the door in their brand new brick and mortar location (in fact, good luck finding “off” hours to drop in). How can I not be delighted to have fresh-baked loaves of rye bread, corned beef hash, and matzo brei available six days a week (they’re still at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Tuesdays)?
Order: Chocolate babka bread is downright dreamy ($3.50 per hefty slice; sometimes available as a bread pudding). Earthy/sweet chocolate and crumbly crust are better than coffee cake.
A mild chopped liver ($7) is appealing even to those skittish about liver. Challah French toast ($9) is fluffy and sweetened with orange butter and maple syrup. House-baked bialy fills a bagel void, layered with cream cheese ($3) and seasonal smoked fish like salmon or smoked trout ($8/11). They address my craving for whitefish salad with smoked trout salad ($9), wisely using a more sustainable fish choice. Don’t forget hand-sliced pastrami or corned beef and an egg cream soda. One can only hope a meaty, moist pastrami bread pudding I sampled at an opening party shows up on the specials board.
SQUARE MEALS & BATTER BAKERY, Russian Hill (2127 Polk St. at Broadway, 415-674-1069)
Square Meals is just what Polk Street needed: a friendly neighborhood café with eat-in, delivery or take-out foods and dinners, delectable baked goods and sweets from Batter Bakery (who they share the café with), Ritual coffee, a wine happy hour, and board games to play in a mellow setting. Offerings include cool, subtle soba noodles with crab, mint, chili and escarole ($24 a lb.), lasagna, pork schnitzel, flank steak, falafel patties.
Order: The lunch highlight is a daily changing sandwich, like tender halibut enlivened with strips of bacon and silky caramelized onions ($13). Don’t miss Batter Bakery’s Sand Angel cookies, a glorified, denser Snickerdoodle.
SEOUL PATCH in ROCKETFISH, Potrero Hill (1469 18th St. at Connecticut, 415-282-9666)
Rocketfish is a Potrero Hill sushi restaurant, but by day, it’s a Korean fusion (yes, I used the dread “f” word) pop-up, Seoul Patch. A few menu items rotate, with a couple traditional Korean dishes in the mix. Eat in at Rocketfish’s bar top or roomy booths.
Order: Their fried chicken sandwich ($10) with daikon slaw has been an early favorite, and with good reason. The fried chicken is blessed with subtle Asian spices, crispy breading giving way to juicy meat within. Their sandwiches can suffer from not enough sauce or contrast, translating to dry, as in the case of a Korean BBQ Pork Sando ($8.50) with avocado, tempura onion ring and a pickle.
Though spicy pork was well prepared, the sandwich needed a sauce to tie it together. Traditional Korean dishes, like Bibimbap ($11 – a rice bowl with bulgogi beef and fried egg), are better elsewhere. I prefer a green onion pancake ($5.50) that recalls Japanese okonomiyaki: chewy and moist, it’s dotted with bacon and kimchi, drizzled in kewpie (Japanese mayo with vinegar) and oko sauce, both typically used on okonomiyaki.
SOUTHIE, Oakland (6311 College Ave. at 63rd, Oakland, 510-654-0100)
While I enjoyed Rockridge’s Wood Tavern from the first time I visited years ago, I didn’t exactly rush out after hearing about their sandwich offshoot last year on the same block, Southie. There are hundreds of excellent sandwiches in SF and I needn’t cross the bridge for yet another pork sandwich. But I was pleasantly surprised to find Southie’s sandwiches among the better I’ve had all year. Wine on tap makes lingering at high tables in the narrow space a pleasant lunch respite.
Order: A Dungeness crab roll ($18) trumps most crab sandwiches. On a buttery brioche, it explodes with succulent crab meat. Celery root remoulade and Meyer lemon brown butter elevate it to near perfection. An expensive sandwich to be sure, but they did not skimp on crab. “Spicy Hog” ($10) is their popular pulled pork sandwich on an Acme roll. Again, it seems everyone is doing a Southern-influenced pork sandwich these days, but theirs is a shows strong, loaded with coleslaw, pickled jalapeno, and lime aioli.
NEW ENGLAND LOBSTER, South San Francisco (170 Mitchell Ave., South SF, 650-873-9000)
Industrial South San Francisco near SFO is certainly not the place most of us would head for lunch – and not for lobster. Look for a new, bright red truck off Mitchell Avenue, outside seafood/shellfish source, New England Lobster. The best lobster rolls I’ve had have been on the East Coast (overflowing rolls at Pearl’s Oyster Bar in NY’s Greenwich Village have been excellent for years). Despite the New England moniker, New England’s lobster meat is not the most flavorful nor is the bread that dreamy buttery brioche used in the best lobster rolls, but they are satisfying sandwiches, particularly if you ask for drawn butter to drizzle over them.
Order: Lobster corn chowder ($5) is essentially a creamy bisque dotted with corn and chunks of lobster. It’s decadent with a lobster roll (the one other option is a crab roll). If you happen to be nearby or need a bite before a flight, this is a fun, unusual option.