A rogue wave of eateries has washed over San Francisco like a tsunami, leaving a beachhead of little places that have found purchase in cracks between the rocks. This opportunistic new kind of operation makes use of existing restaurant kitchens and dining rooms during their downtimes.
Some chefs find a tiny spot in a high-rent part of town to install a service counter, but cook in a catering kitchen in cheaper space. Or, restaurateurs outfit a truck and serve on the street, using online networking to tell fans where they are. Others set up booths at farmers markets.
These spontaneous, low-overhead operations pass on their savings to grateful eaters. The beauty of this populist movement is that much of this food is imaginative, shopped for daily and made by refugees from fine dining establishments.
Take away service, a dining room, employees, decor and high rents — and nothing but pure cooking remains. We’re back to the culinary basics. This proliferation of bare bones new eateries is one of the few upsides of a grinding recession.
Naked Lunch — a sandwich counter in North Beach started by Ian Begg, a talented young chef at the now-closed Cafe Majestic — embodies the ethos of this new wave.
Five days a week, he creates three or four different sandwiches so surprisingly multifaceted, they deliver the pleasure of a whole meal.
The menu changes daily and is posted online. The only constant is a signature foie gras torchon and duck prosciutto sandwich ($15) on a buttered Acme baguette with lettuce, tomato and a few drops of truffle oil. Though it sounds over the top, it’s not — it’s rich and provocative. You get a balanced hit of everything in each bite.
Two of my favorites come on a soft, round Acme bun. One is filled with butter-basted local rock cod, paper-thin slices of marinated cucumber, aioli, capers and a healthy layer of arugula ($9). The condiments act like tartar sauce.
The other is a fried chicken sandwich ($8) with thick, moist hunks of fried but not battered chicken thigh with shredded lettuce and cucumbers. The dressing on this one is creamy and a little sweet.
The way these sandwiches are built, everything smooshes together symphonically.
Begg also gets a vegetarian sandwich to deliver animal satisfaction. My favorite, roasted butternut squash and chevre ($8), comes on crisp, olive oil-rich focaccia with shaved fennel, balsamic vinegar and a whisper of rosemary: A fabulous sandwich.
Small and elegant salads ($5) are proportioned to accompany a sandwich or soup. One day, alternating paper-thin rounds of beet and apple were mounded on white china and showered with tiny leaves of frisee and sliced celery, all in a bright, tart vinaigrette.
If lobster cappuccino ($6) pops up on the daily online menu, better get over there. Although served in a white paper cup, this bisque — redolent of lobster and shell with a frothy top — could headline a posh dinner menu. A glass of buttery chardonnay would be perfect with it, but at Naked Lunch, you have to settle for housemade cranberry-lime cooler ($2) — a little too sweet with the food but fine as dessert.
I don’t know how long Begg plans to dispense three-star sandwiches from Enrico’s kitchen, but I plan to eat as many of them as I can, happily sitting next to other Naked Lunchers on Enrico’s protected outdoor patio.
Patricia Unterman is author of the second edition of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
IF YOU GO
Location: 504 Broadway, San Francisco
Contact: (415) 577-4951; www.nakedlunchsf.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays
Price range: $5 to $15
Recommended dishes: Butter-basted rock cod sandwich, fried chicken sandwich, butternut squash and chevre sandwich, lobster cappuccino
Cash only; no reservations, but diners can phone in orders to go.