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San Francisco's 15 Most Underrated or Overlooked Restaurants

By Michael Stabile

I admit from the beginning that this list is biased--no impartial review board, no polls, no scouring the city for the next big thing--but in case you're as gullible as some alterna-weeklies think you are, no one does such a thing. "Best of the Bay"? It's a bunch of glorified interns writing up their favorite picks. And let's not forget that SF Weekly's infamous Readers' Poll once picked Chevy's as Best Mexican Restaurant. (I mean, don't get me wrong, they have a mean fajita--maybe San Franciscans thought the category was best "FreshMex.")

So there. You either trust me or you don't. I eat out almost every night; interns eat ramen. Whom are you going to trust?

We've all heard too many times that we live in the food capital of America. We also, I believe, live in the food-hype capital. Not to mention that everybody has an opinion. There is little rhyme to this list but plenty of reason. Some of the restaurants listed below may be obscure, but more often I've tried to choose places that one sees but passes by.

A few are restaurants that should be filled with a more metropolitan crowd and fewer businessmen. A number have received good write-ups but are often outshone by gushing reviews given to competitors. I suppose the real reason for this list is that I'm sick of mediocre places getting all the attention. I could have created a most-overrated list, I suppose, but it was sunny out and I got that dumb San Francisco happy glow on my face and lost my critical edge. Besides, who wants to be told where not to eat? What good does that do you?

1. Angkor Wat
4217 Geary Blvd. * 415.221.7887
There's no escaping Angkor Wat's constant reminders that, back in the day, the pope ate here. Evidently, the last time His Holiness was in American Sodom, he ordered out Cambodian from Angkor Wat every night. It's easy to retrace his culinary steps: Pope-approved food is marked as such on the menu. Despite my healthy emotional distance from Vatican decrees, I've smartly taken his endorsements to heart (and stomach).

2. Fringale
570 Fourth St. * 415.543.0573
All right, Fringale isn't exactly underrated, considering that it's often placed among the top three French restaurants in San Francisco, but it is overlooked, especially by the young urban gentry its South of Market location was originally intended to attract. Surprisingly, chef Gerald Hirigoyen's Basque-influenced menu pulled staid Nob Hill socialites and skin-stretched ladies of leisure to its under-the-freeway bistro. They cram into it as much for the mop-it-up-fantastic shellfish, house pâtés and superb pommes frites as for the ridiculously inexpensive prices. More denim, I say, and less Coach. This is the best you can get in San Francisco for the least amount of money.

3. L'Osteria del Forno
519 Columbus Ave. * 415.982.1124
L'Osteria's cash-only policy keeps the tourists at bay (or at wharf, as the case may be), while consistently cramming desperate addicts of Northern Italian cuisine into its street-front, hole-in-the-wall location on Columbus. Despite the presence of ever-popular pizza, L'Osteria prepares classic dishes with the utmost simplicity and integrity. White beans and prosciutto "spreckle" is dressed gracefully in olive oil; lamb and beef are skewer-roasted to ensure an incredible suppleness and are matched quietly with rosemary and thyme. Unlike Steps of Rome, Volare or any number of oh-so-Italian trattorias that guilt you into eating there with sidewalk catcalls of authenticity, L'Osteria presents its fare with the humility it deserves.

4. Burger King
16th and Mission streets
Forget the ubiquitous McDonald's and the oh-so-clever Jack in the Boxes and Taco Bells: the flame-broiled Whopper is the best bang for the buck on the planet. Actually, it's the second-best, because the Whopper Junior with cheese, last time I checked, clocked in at $1.27 with tax. Flame-broiling, with its slight undertone of propane, is a delicious match with cheese-flavored cheese. Also, there is, like, a virtual salad on top of a patty that is deliciously meaty. I'm not joking. The most underrated of all the Burger King outlets is at 16th and Mission streets, where I've never been held hostage by a line. I think the only people who go there are homeless, and their eating schedule is less dictated by breakfast-lunch-dinner than the amount of change collected and bottles returned.

restaurant

5. Mama's on Washington Square
1701 Stockton St. * 415.362.6421
Second only to Las Vegas, Mama's on Washington Square has long been one of my favorite reasons to call in sick to work. On the weekends, this gourmet breakfast emporium can have monied descendants from Russian and Telegraph hills lining up around the block for up to an hour. On weekdays, however, the living-room-quaint Mama's is nearly empty. With treats like cranberry-orange bread French toast, creative "M'omlettes" (with ingredients such as prosciutto and salmon), towering club sandwiches and powerful Italian coffee all to oneself, why return to work at all? Despite its tony location, Mama's boasts prices that are as reasonable as those in hole-in-the-wall diners. Sadly, the unadventurous lower-rent dwellers of the Mission, the Haight and the Duboce Triangle are more often convinced to spend the same amount of time waiting outside Kate's Kitchen, the Pork Store or Bugaloo's.

6. Rosemunde Grille
545 Haight St.
I've paid nearly $15 for sausages at finer establishments that don't touch the locally produced and butchered treats at Rosemunde. Nothing veggie here, except the condiments, but the fresh-grilled encased meats range from a savory chicken-and-cherries sausage to smoked lamb and Le Sausage Provence to more traditional bratwursts, knockwursts and Italian sausages, each only $3.75 including tax, grilled onions, hot and sweet peppers, kraut and the occasional chutney.

7. The Elite Cafe
2049 California St. * 415.346.8668
Weight-conscious Upper Fillmore matrons-in-waiting are prone to amble toward the calorie-safe sushi bars and juice joints that have multiplied in recent years like SUVs in the Mission District. The Elite Cafe, a California-savvy but New Orleans-inspired bar and bistro, was one the original settlers of lower Pacific Heights before it was "The Five-Star Neighborhood." Chef Donald Link continually improves upon the Elite's long tradition of filet-mignon hash, gorgeous omelets and gingerly prepared beignets (for Sunday brunch) with spicy gumbos, house-cured trout and rich soups. With its opulent ceiling-fanned, private-boothed dining room, it's a destination restaurant in an otherwise window-shopping neighborhood.

8. Metro Cafe
247 Fillmore * 415.621.9536
I forgot about the juicy glory of cheese steaks until I stumbled upon this oft-overlooked Lower Haight special. All the meat is Niman Ranch and thus contains no subtherapeutic somethings or another and is made from especially-cared-for cows that dine on wheat grass and oysters or some such nonsense. Normally, I couldn't care less about organic beef--Coney Island hot dogs never have such pretensions--but in this case it seems to pay off. Nothing is a better match for the mid-level beers available in the storefront refrigerator than a cheese steak with peppers and onions doused with ketchup. For those more PETA-minded types, Metro Cafe also offers a semidelicious seitan beef semi-equivalent and perfectly fried onion rings.

restaurant 9. Chef Jia's
925 Kearny * 415.398.1626
Tourists and locals alike suffer ridiculous waits at House of Nanking, Chef Jia's renowned next-door neighbor, but North Beach residents know enough to skip the queue and duck into Jia's for ridiculously cheap mom-and-pop Chinese food. Rice plates and daily specials cost just under five bucks and are equal to, if not better than, those at Nanking. Jia excels at mixing sweet, savory and spicy with superstars like honey chile chicken and fried onion cake with peanut sauce. It may not be as dramatic as its showy competitor, but there is less need to distract when your food is tastefully coy.

10. Miyabe
235 Church St.

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11. Warakubune
Church and 16th streets
A pair of unrelated Church Street sushi venues that never get the same ridiculous respect accorded the line-around-the-block Nippon (a.k.a. No Name) sushi. Miyabe, just a half a block away, regularly serves up such delicacies as spicy green-lip mussels, seaweed salad and white tuna, as well as palm-size spider rolls and fantastic cauldrons of steaming udon.

Warakubune (a.k.a. Sushi Boat) offers similarly priced, best-quality fish, with the added bonus of immediate consumption availability. As soon as you are seated, octupi, unagi, squid and asparagus tempura sail by on wooden barges ripe for the plundering.

12. Thai House
2200 Market * 415.864.5006
A few blocks away, Thep Phenom steals all the press in the Thai-eat-Thai world of San Francisco restaurants (just look at its newspaper-clipped window dressing). Meanwhile, Thai House, located at the bustling intersection of Market and Sanchez streets, gets nary a mention in Zagat's, which I find appalling. Sure, it's not as filled with gold-plated vases and waiters in knickers, but time after time I've found the food to be as good as, and often better than, that in its review-hoarding countryman. Thai House's tom ka gai is redolent with lemongrass and chicken. Its pad thai is possibly the best in San Francisco, and its daily specials, like crab-stuffed shrimp, are a wonder to behold, both on one's plate and on one's tongue. A few have speculated that Thai House's edge is the result of clandestine MSG, but I doubt it. And even if it were, I'd still come back again and again.

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Six Most Overrated San Francisco Dining Trends.

Five Most Underrated Restaurant Qualities in San Francisco.

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13. Alamo Square Seafood Grill
803 Fillmore St. * 415.440.2828
Manned by brothers Andre and Patrick Larzul, who act as general manager and executive chef, respectively, Alamo Square has a cozy, welcoming atmosphere and rustic French classics such as salade niçoise, vegetable and fish terrines and crème caramel (which, to give credit where credit is due, has already been recognized by the Guardian as "Best of the Bay"). The restaurant's location off Alamo Square Park has often led locals to misconstrue it as a tourist trap despite the simple presentation and familial attitude that should have made it a neighborhood staple. You'll often find Andre, for example, acting as maitre d' or crouching next to your table and inquiring about the food. Advice is given freely on entree selections, especially if you show uncertainty about which sauce to match with which fish, and you're well advised to heed it. Andre knows his food, knows his customers and knows what works.

14. Tin-Pan Asian Bistro
2251 Market St. * 415.565.0733
Of all the pan-Asian noodle-crazy Market Street cheapies, Tin-Pan is one of the few worth the attention. The crossing from Cantonese to Thai to Vietnamese to Szechuan-Hunan is as difficult and multi-anchored as the Bay Bridge, but Tin-Pan achieves consistent results with panache and style. The service is friendly, if flirtatious, and it's unfortunate that some of the fire of the better dishes is too often overlooked in favor of people-watching and posing, but Tin-Pan distinguishes itself from the myriad of similar restaurants whose only consistency is their failure to deliver.

15. Enrico's
504 Broadway * 415.982.6223
There may be slightly better food to be had in the city, but nothing in North Beach matches the relaxed elegance of Enrico's. Outdoor heated seating and a frequent jazz quartet may seem rather staid elements of the area's dining, but the combination of Enrico's quiet sepia tones and stellar mojitos (worthy of El Floridita) consistently attracts local luminaries such as Francis Ford Coppola and Sean Penn (who later go on to drink the night away in the back room of the Tosca Cafe, down the block on Columbus). Sumptuous cioppinos, gratins and risottos help fulfill diners' expectations, but no one (including The New York Times) can pass off the casual glamour of a resident star often neglected by locals.

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From the April 12, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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