What happens when two highly trained French chefs — veterans of such temples as the French Laundry and the Ritz Carlton Dining Room — turn their talents to Asian street food? Spice Kit, a brilliant fast-food concept based on hand-held meals from Korea and Vietnam.
Like Charles Phan at the Slanted Door, founders Will Pacio and Fred Tang use high-quality, sustainably produced local ingredients, and they apply cutting-edge cooking techniques to the preparation of meat and poultry fillings — the centerpieces of their short menu.
Consider the beef short rib ssäm ($7.95), arguably one of the best pieces of food in town. A ssäm is a wrap, the size and shape of a burrito, but that’s where the comparison ends.
Spice Kit’s ssäm wrapper is translucent rice paper, super thin but strong, precisely layered with cucumber, red leaf lettuce, sticky rice, bean sprouts, housemade kimchee and lots of short rib, lush from a Korean kalbi-style marinade.
Butter-tender yet pink and juicy, the meat was probably cooked sous-vide — vacuum packed in plastic pouches and poached in a water bath at low temperature for a long time (the Spice Kit menu says 24 hours) — to achieve this magical succulence. Grilling to order adds yet another stratum of flavor.
Each bite plays soft against crunchy, savory against clean, mild against spicy — amusing the mouth to the last morsel. The ssäm is a perfect meal — not too much, not too little — and while the flavors are big and exciting, they are refined.
You can go back to the office after devouring a Spice Kit ssäm with a clean shirt and fresh breath, a street-food breakthrough.
As luscious as the ssäm is Spice Kit’s steamed pork bun ($2.95, or two for $5). Better get two, because you won’t want to stop after one.
Thick slices of extra fatty kurobuta pork belly with crisp edges and a melting interior come in a warm white bun dressed with sweet hoisin sauce, pickled cucumbers and scallions.
This is over-the-top sensuous. Until Spice Kit, the best version came from David Chang’s Momofuku Ssäm Bar in New York. Spice Kit saves you a trip.
I also adore wondrously succulent five-spice chicken in a fluffy salad ($6.90), the juicy, aromatic breast cut into big hunks.
Only on the bánh mi, the classic Vietnamese pork sandwich ($7.75), do Spice Kit and I part ways. The requisitely airy French roll is actually over-filled with delicious roast pork and a recommended smear of house made pork pate (75 cents extra). Plus, the traditional garnish of shredded carrots and daikon pickle is over-vinegared.
The sandwich doesn’t meld like the ssäm, or the version at Saigon Sandwich on Larkin, the best bánh mi in town. I’m in awe of Spice Kit’s clear and simple ordering system, its immaculate open kitchen, and the speed and efficiency of the service.
The shop, with some indoor seating at sleek wooden tables and window counters, opens onto a contemporary plaza and sculpture garden with tables in front of a glass sided office building.
The setting fits Spice Kit’s 21st-century sensibility: street food made with conscientiously sourced ingredients, precise proportions and advanced cooking technique.
Frankly, Spice Kit’s ssäm, buns and taro chips are about as good as any food can get.
Patricia Unterman is the author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Location: 405 Howard St. (at First Street), San Francisco
Contact: (415) 882-4581, www.spicekit.com
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays
Price range: $1.50 to $7.95
Recommended dishes: Beef short rib ssäm; five-spice chicken salad; steamed pork buns; lotus chips; ginger peanut slaw
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, American Express
Reservations: Not accepted, food to-go