Outerlands, a small cafe that cooks simple, inventive food inspired by local and organic ingredients, is just about the hottest thing going in the windswept Outer Sunset. Anyone who drops in for lunch comes back for dinner. Everyone who eats dinner returns for Sunday brunch. Outerlands pulls people in the way that clean, 10-foot waves draw surfers to Ocean Beach, a few blocks away. Once you get into it, you can’t stop.
The 30-seat corner restaurant, lined in weathered wood, has an open kitchen that bakes its own bread. These big rectangular loaves with thick, crunchy crusts and a soft, white crumb are the foundation of lunch and the beginning of my seduction.
A huge grilled cheese sandwich ($8 for sandwich and soup combo) on thick slices of crisp, buttery levain, oozed with full-bodied gruyere and cheddar. I dunked hunks of it into a pureed onion soup that captured the essence of caramelized onions — pure genius. The sweetness of caramelized onions also worked magic in a vivacious open-face sandwich of thinly sliced smoked Black Forest ham blanketed with melted cheddar, swiped with grain mustard. A sharply dressed green salad played counterpoint. We drank mason jars of iced lemon-ginger-apple cider ($3), very gingery and exciting.
I came back the next night when the rustic interior was lit with votives and a current of ocean air blew through the transom on its way to the kitchen hood. After a short wait with $7 glasses of biodynamic Bott Geyl Alsatian white, a table opened up and we were allowed to order at the cash register, set our own table with brown paper napkins, and pour ourselves water.
A green salad ($7) attempted to balance Fuji apples, pine nuts and cultured raw sauerkraut, interesting but too tart. A deep bowl of tortilla soup ($7/$9) was a model of its kind, based on pure flavored chicken broth punched up with shreds of toasted tortilla, avocado, a little melted white cheese and corn. A squeeze of lime brought everything into focus.
Pork and beans Outerlands style ($10) turned out to be a light, tasty ragout of fresh shell beans with braised pork shoulder scented with rosemary in a lovely, clear jus. Braised greens ($7) — tender chard and melting new potatoes, full of olive oil and mild toasted garlic — goes with everything on the dinner menu.
The one dish that didn’t work for me, a fish stew ($13.50) in a smooth pureed tomato and fennel broth, went overboard with orange. Desserts ($7) are a must. A thin, flaky puff pastry tart layered with thinly sliced apples gets vanilla ice cream and thick caramel sauce. And, I licked the last smears from a tumbler of airy espresso-chocolate mousse topped with salted pecans and whipped cream.
At breakfast, many come for a puffy Dutch baby — a bowl-shaped baked pancake with golden sides and a tender floor paved with thinly sliced apples ($8).
Community ethos runs strong at Outerlands. Portions are huge; prices miraculously low. Vegetarians and ingredient purists feel right at home here. Everything can be shared — but don’t expect extra plates, or reservations or someone to answer the phone.
“Bare bones” best describes the level of service and comfort, but the friendliness of the staff and generosity of the cooking makes everything OK. No territorial conflicts here, just plenty of good vibrations.
Patricia Unterman is the author of the second edition of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at email@example.com.
Location: 4001 Judah St. (at 45th Avenue), San Francisco
Contact: (415) 661-6140
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday for lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., dinner 6 p.m. to close; Sunday brunch 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Price range: $2.50 to $13.50
Recommended dishes: Black Forest ham sandwich, pureed onion soup, tortilla soup, shell beans with pork, apple tart, chocolate espresso mousse, Dutch baby
Credit cards: Visa and MasterCard
Reservations: Not accepted