Best bites of 2011 a tough call in San Francisco

Courtesy photoHave you had the steamed pork buns at Spice Kit yet? If you missed them in 2011

Courtesy photoHave you had the steamed pork buns at Spice Kit yet? If you missed them in 2011

Diversity peppers this year’s best bites. The range seems particularly wide, though as usual, I had a terrible time narrowing the list to just 10. Not included but should be: ramen at Izakaya Sozai, shrimp and grits at Criolla Kitchen, the moto pizza at Ragazza, kakiage — deep-fried vegetable fritters — at Chotto, the sloppy bun at Bun Mee on Fillmore, quail with mushrooms at Txoko, fried chicken at Beast and the Hare … stop me.

This was the year of the food-truck explosion, with almost daily encampments around The City, and the biggest on Friday nights at Fort Mason — 30-plus trucks and tents. A mini-vendor scene also popped up at Terminal 2 at the San Francisco airport. Unfortunately, you can only get a Cowgirl Creamery sandwich by flying American or Virgin America.

Spice Kit
405 Howard St. (at First Street), S.F., (415) 882-4581
The magical texture of the steamed pork buns (two for $5) at this high-minded Asian street-food shop comes from advanced cooking techniques and quality ingredients. Fluffy buns with sweet hoisin sauce are stuffed with thick slices of melting kurobuta pork belly with crisp edges, pickled cucumber and scallion. Don’t miss the beef short rib ssam ($7.95), an Asian burrito in rice paper, or taro chips ($1.50).

1058 Folsom St. (between Sixth and Seventh streets), S.F., (415) 552-7687
I can’t get the Gold-N-Berg-N-Stein ($10) at this new sandwich shop out of my mind: corned beef, pastrami, Kosher salami, Muenster cheese, house slaw and house Thousand Island on a warm French roll. Soft, salty, buttery, piquant and creamy, this thick sandwich is transcendent. If you can get beyond it, try the mind-expanding “lrb” ($10): chicken salad, Kosher salami, Muenster, house cherry peppers, pickled onions and special sauce.

Sichuan Home
5037 Geary Blvd. (between 14th and 15th avenues), S.F., (415) 221-3288
I will cross town for a bowl of Red Chili Oil Won Tons (No. 84, $6.95), dumplings filled with juicy pork that stand up to an exciting if modulated chili-spiked broth. I even will have them before a lunch of thick, chewy, dao chow noodles (No. 91, $5.95) with star anise-braised beef stew in a red chile broth. Consider a haystack of julienned lotus root, fried taro sticks and Chinese chives fragrant with toasted pine nuts (No. 32, $7.95) at this treasure trove of best bites.

Beachside Coffee Bar and Kitchen
4300 Judah St. (at 48th Avenue), S.F., (415) 682-4961
The Irish breakfast sandwich ($6.95) at this cheery cafe by the ocean is a triumph: a soft bun called a bap filled with black and white puddings (uncased sausage), ham-like Irish bacon and grilled pork links, grilled tomato and a fried egg. Owner Buffy Maguire knows to serve it all day, as she does all breakfast items, such as the country sausage sandwich ($7), a big, moist patty of house-made pork sausage slathered with sauteed peppers and onions.

Craw Station
1336 Ninth Ave. (between Irving and Judah streets), S.F., (415) 682-9980
Accept the drippy, messy, finger-burning challenge of extracting the succulent tail meat from a pound of crawfish ($11.95) cooked in a spicy Cajun boil, and then mopping up with toasted french bread ($1.50). Start easy with deep-fried catfish fingers ($9.99) or impeccably fried oysters ($8.99 for six), their lethally hot brine captured inside the craggy coating. For dessert, walk toward Golden Gate Park to Park Chow for coconut cream pie.

3215 Mission St. (near Valencia Street), S.F., (415) 821-1918
In a town full of handcrafted burgers, I have yet to find one that lives up to Locavore’s cheeseburger ($15), dripping, dressed with house-cured bacon, grilled onions and aioli, accompanied with thick golden french fries. Also notable are crispy fried duck wings ($10), with soft, rich flesh that develops from being first cooked slowly in duck fat. The kitchen, headed by Jonathan Merritt, is inspired by local products.

The Broken Record
1166 Geneva Ave., S.F., (415) 963-1713
The food that comes out of this kitchen located at the back of an Excelsior dive bar is astonishing: Texas toast ($6), thick slices of puffy white bread, toasted on the griddle, cut in triangles and smothered with cream gravy, moist chicken and house-made sausage. The textures stay discrete; the flavors are deep and balanced; the affect, light. It somehow tastes like the best hot turkey sandwich you could ever imagine. And then there are the pork fries ($8).

Mr. Pollo
2823 Mission St. (between 24th and 25th streets), S.F., (415) 374-5546
You really have to search for this hole in the wall where mad genius Manny Torres Gimenez makes a transcendent arepa ($6.50), a Venezuelan-Colombian street dish. He splits a griddled masa cake horizontally and fills it with chicken (my favorite), peppers, onions, avocado, white cheese and a vinegary cilantro-chile salsa. Chewy and crisp, contrasted by the herby, succulent filling, it enthralls to the last messy crumb. If you have the time, also try his three-course $15 prix fixe.

Cinderella Russian Bakery and Cafe
436 Balboa St. (at Sixth Avenue), S.F., (415) 751-9690

Order pelmeni ($7.95), dumplings with hand-made noodle wrappers filled with onion-scented ground beef, in rich chicken broth; or vareniki ($6.99), half-moon shaped boiled dumplings stuffed with mashed potatoes, topped with fried onions. Both come with sour cream. Made of humble ingredients, these soulful Russian dumplings are the ultimate comfort food.

1007 Guerrero St. (at 22nd Street), S.F., (415) 826-8822
The lush beyti adana ($16) at this pretty new Turkish restaurant starts with a flat, grilled kebab of ground lamb and beef, juicy and lubricious, wrapped in thin, soft flat bread. This cylinder is sliced into fat pinwheels, which are set on end and topped with spicy tomato sauce and yogurt. Some think that this dish is meant to be shared.

Patricia Unterman is the author of many editions of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Guide.” Contact her at

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