Look. I know that dining out at some Bay Area restaurants can blow a week’s salary. But you can eat really well, and cheaply, if you pick the right place and the right dish. These are the dishes that draw patrons back time after time, the dishes that put an establishment on the culinary map.
In combing through all the dishes I have eaten during the past year, I found that many stand out: the gorgeous cheese plate at Cav Wine Bar; luscious Peking duck at Great China in Berkeley; the exquisite composed desserts at Bar Tartine; peat-smoked pork shank with colcannon at O’Reilly’s Holy Grail; sun-dried anchovies, peanuts and chiles with a little glass of beer at Betelnut; Yunnan-style steamed chicken in clay pot at Z&Y Restaurant; classic Neopolitan wood-fired pizza at Dopo in Oakland; fried pasta balls stuffed with fresh mozzarella, prosciutto and peas in a spicy tomato sauce at The Last Supper Club; warm frisee salad with lardons of bacon and poached egg at Bistro Aix; roast jerk half chicken with creamy fried plaintainsat Magnolia Pub; pig salad at South Park Cafe. And these are just a handful.
The following are my top 10 bargain bites. All of them were new discoveries for me.
Go directly to the “Noodle in Soup” section of the long menu at this mobbed Chinatown cafe and point to shiu kau soup ($4.95). Shiu kau are large wontonlike dumplings with thin, flappy noodle wrappers in a clear broth slashed with vivid green stalks of Chinese broccoli. The dumplings are plump, filled with small whole shrimp, ground pork, tree ears and black mushrooms. Toasted and pounded dried fish contributes a haunting nuttiness.
650 Jackson St., San Francisco
This Hong Kong-style diner serves East/West comfort food starring some of the best deep frying anywhere. The dish that drives me wild, salted fish and tofu cube ($7.50) sounds challenging — but wait until you taste it. Crisp, dark brown squares of fried tofu, the crunchy crust yielding to creamy interior, are scattered with wok-fried chile and salted fish crumbs. I suggest accompanying it with a cleansing plate of bright green choy sum ($6.95) with long juicy stems and tender leaves in a shear garlic sauce. Many customers head for baked spaghetti with bolognaise sauce ($7.50) — a kid’s dream dish.
349 Broadway, Millbrae
Super-pro Joyce Goldstein consulted on the menu at the buzzing deli-coffee shop in the new Jewish Community Center, and it’s her creamy chopped chicken liver ($5.50), naturally sweet with just the right amount of onion, that grabs me. The Cal Deli’s Reuben, a pile of hot Niman corned beef, melted Swiss, sauerkraut and Russian dressing on buttery grilled rye ($9.95) is a destination sandwich, especially with an excellent creamy red poato salad and as many kosher pickles as you can eat. The Jewish deli has found a home.
3200 California St., San Francisco
This bright, cheery, smartly designed little restaurant in the Mission can have a line out the door during prime dinner hours. Everyone comes for the ultimate thrill, the extra thin and crisp paper dosa ($9.50), a gigantic pancake rolled into a ridiculously long tube that extends well over the plate. An aromatically spiced potato, cashew and onion filling comes on the side instead of inside, along with two chutneys and excellent sambar, which is a spicy vegetable and lentil soup. You tear off a piece of the crisp/spongy dosa, use it to pick up some potato and then bathe it in sambar and/or creamy tomato chutney.
995 Valencia St., San Francisco
Because Alice Craven, the tea guru behind this sunny cafe and shop, believes that tea belongs with food, she developed a menu of light, clean dishes inspired by farmers’ market ingredients. Her charming stove-top cornmeal waffles ($8.50) are baked in antique Civil War waffle irons. They come out crunchy yet tender, glistening with melted butter. Little bowls of creamy yogurt and a pretty fruit salad are served on the side, as is a big dispenser of real maple syrup. The waffles really go with perfectly brewed pots of tea.
602 Hayes St., San Francisco
Star chef Ryan Scott’s exciting salads, sandwiches and hot dishes from the oven all cost under $10 and there are none better in The City. His BLT ($8) comes on grilled levain with melted cheddar, bacon, roasted tomato and romaine. It’s super rich, super big and super delicious. The lighter, a spicy chili and lemongrass chicken salad sandwich ($8) with melted jack cheese, mango, cilantro, avocado and red onions on an Acme roll is sublime.
490 Pacific Ave., San Francisco
This small, homey restaurant specializes in xiao long bao, delicate steamed pork dumplings ($6.50) with thin wrappers twisted atthe top to seal in the juices of the pure pork filling inside. This kitchen makes them a little larger than those in Shanghai, but they’re still luscious, the wrapper delicate and thin, the juices vibrant, the pork perfectly seasoned. I could eat a hundred.
5145 Geary Blvd., San Francisco
Cozy, wood-lined, Oyaji is an izakaya, a Japanese tavern, where regulars drop in for a tall glass of chilled sake or ice cold Japanese beer or a tumbler of shochu, a vodka taste-alike. The menu offers a wide assortment of little dishes that traditionally go with drinks and the big discovery here are fabulous deep-fried croquettes and dumplings, like menchi korokke ($6), golden panko-crumbed patties of minced beef, mashed potato and onions with the universal crunchiness and creaminess of all comfort food. Or try kani cream korokke ($6.75) melting croquettes of bechamel crab and onion. Be sure to compliment charismatic chef/owner Hideki Makiyama on your way out.
3123 Clement St., San Francisco
At this Chinese fast food joint in an Asian shopping center, shoppers drop in for a soothing bowl of preserved egg and salted pork congee ($5.50) with hunks of a warm, unsweetened Chinese doughnut ($1.50) thrown in. It’s the ultimate fast, soothing, satisfying bite. If you’re hungry have a bowl of braised beef brisket ($3.50) with tender meat in a dark, flavorful broth with hunks of daikon that melt in your mouth and whole baby bok choy, a complete meal. You can do your food shopping at 99 Ranch Market, a grand Asian super market, nearby in the same shopping center.
55 Skyline Plaza, San Francisco
Many small, and large plates tempt at this refined, full-service Turkish restaurant, but the dish I can’t live without is called mucver ($5.50), tiny, golden, lacy zucchini pancakes aromatic with dill and mint, and served with an herbed yogurt sauce on the side. Then I’d have Troya’s wonderful version of the Turkish classic, Imam Bayildi ($9.95), small Mediterranean egplants that are charred, thinly sliced and stuffed with a bright mixture of tomatoes, onions and herbs.
349 Clement St., San Francisco
Looking for other restaurant reviews or more fun things to do in San Francisco? Check out the Food and Entertainment section.