Econ 101: Fill a need and they will come.
Mutsumi Takehara — mother of two, elite pastry chef and owner of the Sandbox Bakery in Bernal Heights — wanted a place in her neighborhood where parents and kids could have a good time eating together. Her bakery started that mission two years ago, but 903, her restaurant down the block, completes it.
The tiny space has an open kitchen with an ordering counter and only 15 seats around three communal tables in the back, not counting the high chairs lined up against the wall. Thai chef Nute Chulasuwan and Mexican chef Miguel Rosas play in the kitchen, each day creating dishes for the daily-changing menu.
With Takehara’s Japanese sensibility, 903 becomes a United Nations of cooking: Japanese, Thai, Mexican.
And American, because Mutsumi’s contractor husband, Mike Bradsord, is responsible for moist smoked brisket and chickens that turn on the rotisserie he installed. Some dishes insouciantly fuse two or three national cuisines, though others represent just one.
A Bernal Heights local made me try a rice burger — what? — filled with Japanese fried chicken ($8), the inclusion of which is a good reason to order anything. Turns out that the crisp, juicy chicken bits with sliced tomato, spicy Asian greens, soy lemon vinaigrette and Sriracha hot sauce — layered between two smoky, crunchy-surfaced cakes of Japanese sushi rice, all girdled with a strip of seaweed — make a spectacularly integrated sandwich. I can’t stop thinking about it.
Another lunch netted a warm, juicy, smoked brisket sandwich ($8.50) on toasted rye bread from the bakery, spread with hot, sweet yuzu-miso mustard. The thick-sliced crumbly rye was so light, the meat melted into it.
I didn’t think pulled chicken with Thai peanut sauce and cucumber salad on pain de mie (white bread from Sandbox) worked as a sandwich ($8.50). Its coconut milk richness would taste better with rice or noodles.
But a slice of green tea sponge cake, which packs a real green tea wallop, with a spoonful of red bean paste and a pouf of sweetened whipped cream ($4), is a revelation.
At dinner, look for pork gyoza ($6), straight-ahead, pan-fried Japanese dumplings with succulent ground pork filling.
A deep bowl of thin glass noodles with braised shrimp ($10) goes intergalactic when you pour in a condiment of lemon juice, fish sauce, garlic and chilies.
Crispy rice salad ($8) — made of crumbled, deep-fried rice balls tossed with peanuts, ginger, onions and chili — suggests a great Thanksgiving stuffing. Each bite brings both crisp and soft bits with plenty of spice, the perfect side for mahogany-skinned rotisserie chicken ($18 for whole, $12 for half).
Many Bernal Heights neighbors call ahead for family dinners to go.
Others come in for early evening supper. The kids nibble on exceptional sweet potato fries ($4), while mom and dad sip glasses of wine.
No wonder 903 was mobbed from the start. They had hoped for a soft opening, but were so overwhelmed they had to close for two weeks to buy more plates, finish their kitchen and catch up on smoking brisket. Now everyone is waiting for Mike to build a parklet in front of the restaurant. Then the kitchen might have to find more plates.
Patricia Unterman is the author of many editions of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Guide.” Contact her at email@example.com.
Location: 903 Cortland Ave., San Francisco
Contact: (415) 678-5759
Hours: 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Tuesdays-Sundays for breakfast and lunch; 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays-
Saturdays for dinner
Price range: $6 to $12
Recommended dishes: Smoked brisket with rye bread, crispy rice salad, Japanese fried chicken on a rice burger, crispy shrimp balls on a challah bun, braised prawns on Thai glass noodles, rotisserie chicken
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa
Reservations: Not accepted; food to go