Here’s a San Francisco story: a former KFC in the Mission is recycled into a hip little diner called Spork. An experienced and inventive chef, Bruce Binns, playfully riffs on fast-food style with a menu based on fresh ingredients accompanied by a fun, affordable mini-wine list.
The skeleton of KFC lurks beneath the cork floor, the gray walls hung with giant digital photos of fingers and numbers, and the partially open kitchen behind a new curvy sea foam counter and stools. Square front windows remain, as does the bulbous polystyrene roof, spray-painted gray. Waitresses wear gray polo dresses with red belts; waiters, gray polo shirts and black pants. Customers sit in retro-utilitarian plywood chairs at rubber-trimmed Formica tables, in low booths and banquettes. Kitchen venting has become a canted light fixture in the dining room. Part of the fun is figuring out what was what, and what is new.
The namesake spork happens to be a holdover from KFC, an all-purpose utensil half way between a spoon and a fork, used in jails and fast-food joints. Only a few dishes at Spork can actually be eaten with one — certainly not the elegant little fruit salad with slices of juicy yellow peaches next to a mound of mild whipped goat cheese and a pile of dressed watercress ($6). It’s dreamy, as is a version with cherries, goat cheese and a swatch of balsamic gelee ($6). For some reason a simple bibb lettuce salad ($7) was blandly underdressed both times I tried it.
Yellowtail sashimi ($11) gets a presentation with lots of exciting textural variation — a smooth citrus custard, crunchy flying fish roe, punchy daikon sprouts, a splash of wasabi-infused vinegar. Completely opposite, gnocchi gratin ($8) comes with a spork to scoop up tender dumplings, tomato sauce with bits of sausage and ricotta — comfort food.
If you’re lucky, a plate of warm pull-apart dinner rolls with honey butter will arrive sometime during the meal, depending on when they emerge from the oven.
The star dish for most Spork diners, me included, has to be the “in-side-out” hamburger ($14), two thick grass-fed beef patties (from Estancia, which imports Uruguayan beef) separated by a slice of bun slathered with special sauce, all of which sits on dressed lettuce and tomato, the pile topped with melted Tillamook cheese and a mohawk of finely chopped grilled onions. For this, you have to use knife and fork — not spork. Fingers work for smashed, twice-cooked red potato halves with crisp edges.
Steak au poivre ($18) brings a nice-size portion of tasty grass-fed beef, sliced, with buttery mashed potatoes and carrots. Next time I’d ask for the medicinal green peppercorn butter on the side.
Thick, al dente, fresh egg pasta ribbons get different treatment each night. What’s not to like about morels, fresh peas and truffle cream?
For dessert, have ethereal hot beignets rolled in cinnamon sugar ($6).
The small space lends itself to a manageable, pared-down menu. Limited hours of operation mean that the A-team can always be there. Given the realities of city-mandated wage and benefit packages, this will be the shape of many future San Francisco restaurants. If they’re as pulled together as Spork, the model just might be sustainable.
Location: 1058 Valencia St., San Francisco
Contact: (415) 643-5000; www.sporksf.com
Hours: 6 to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 6 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday
Price range: $6 to $11 for firsts; $14 to $19 for seconds
Recommended dishes: Fruit and goat cheese salad; yellow tail sashimi; in-side-out burger; fresh egg pasta, beignets
Credit cards: MasterCard and Visa
Reservations: Not accepted
Patricia Unterman is author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide” and a newsletter, “Unterman on Food.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.