Cheap Eats San Francisco, the summer edition, is here. You know that eating out in San Francisco can be very expensive. Many restaurants charge $15 for an appetizer, $28 for a main dish, and $10 for dessert, but what do you get for that? Most of the time, nothing special. Multiply that by two and you’re spending $106 only for food. Now, add wine and you’re up to $150 – $175. Wine prices are ridiculously high compared to Paris, Amsterdam and Rome, cities that aren’t exactly known for discount dining.
Then, there’s the tip (gratuity). Unlike in Europe and Asia, American servers expect a tip no matter how bad the service. Your server will expect the standard 15 percent. If you give less or nothing at all, you’ll get the dirtiest looks this side of the Pacific. It is rare to experience outstanding service in San Francisco. (Note: in Amsterdam the service is usually abysmal, but at least you don’t tip!) This leads me to conclude that the presence or absence of tipping has nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of service (see Japan, where you don’t tip and the service is outstanding).
Fortunately, there are places to get very good (often ethnic) food in the city for not that much money. Here’s my current list of favorites (subject to change later if I find new ones or need to delete those whose standards have slipped). It’s not an exhaustive list of everything that’s cheap and good in the city. I list few places in the Sunset or Richmond because I rarely go out there. Neither are the places listed below particularly notable for the quality of their service. On the other hand, it’s not much worse than in the “fancy” places in town.
Important: Not all the dishes in the restaurants listed below are great. I have identified the ones that stand out for me, so if you order them, you’ll be fine.
Restaurants in our Cheap Eats San Francisco list
(1) Ruchi: homestyle South Indian food in the south of Market (SOMA) district. For dinner, order the idli ($4), greens pullakoora ($8), eggplant curry ($8), and Nellore fish curry ($12); for lunch, try the fish thali ($11.95) or vegetable thali ($8.95), which are large platters filled with the curry, rice, naan bread, dal, pickled vegetables. The neighborhood isn’t pretty (elevated motorway a few meters away), but not too creepy either. Decor is simple and clean.
(2) Burma Superstar: Burmese food in the Richmond district. Try the tea leaf salad and samusa soup. Difficult to find parking on Clement Street, but try a few streets up (California St.). Packed at lunch, long queues.
(3) Miss Saigon: Vietnamese restaurant in downtown SF. The green papaya salad is divine. Pho soups are also very good. But the best things on the menu are the smoothies. Try the avocado or lychee smoothie with tapioca balls. Neighborhood is very dodgy, lots of homeless and mentally unstable people walking around. But the restaurant is clean and the service is good. Only one block from Bloomingdales.
(4) Katana-ya: a pearl in the Union Square shopping district (where really awful tourist food is served). Specialty is ramen. Three types of broth available for your ramen, with a variety of toppings (average price of bowl of soup is $10). The soups are filling and delicious. Always packed, a queue out the door most of the time. This is only one block from Union Square so if you are shopping downtown, stop by for lunch or an early dinner. Open till 3am so also very good if you are ravenous after dancing the night away.
(5) Old Jerusalem: best hummus ($6.50), musabacha (hummus with chick peas, cilantro-parsley-olive oil sauce, paprika) and baba ghannoush in the city. Shish kebab with rice ($11.95) is very good value and delicious. Turkish coffee is excellent. Location: Mission Street at 26th, not the best neighborhood. Interior is plain, dark and uninspiring. Another good reason to go: Mitchell’s Ice Cream is just a few blocks away (make sure you get the avocado or ube [purple yam] ice cream).
(6) Bai Thong: recently opened Hayes Valley restaurant serving northeastern Thai cuisine (lime sauces and dressings rather than curries). I tried it the other day and was impressed. Make sure you order the dishes with “lime dressing” or anything with lime. I highly recommend the Lime Tilapia and Larb salad, and of course, the sticky rice with mango dessert.
(7) Moya: a terrific Ethiopian restaurant in downtown SF (9th St at Mission) that has received rave reviews. Very inexpensive lunch items.
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San Francisco Food Carts
The San Francisco food cart and taco truck phenomenon continues to gather force as locals cut down on their dining budgets and restaurants continue to increase their prices. The food carts don’t show up in the same place so you’ll have to subscribe to their Twitter feeds to find out where they will be on any given day. Here are my favorites.
(1) Adobo Hobo: amazing Filipino chicken adobo; sometimes he will have vegetarian adobo. Served with rice ($5).
(2) Pizza Hacker: excellent pizza ($12) with toppings such as gorgonzola cheese, figs, and more.
(3) Gumbo Cart: delicious, very piquant gumbo ($5).
(4) Los Compadres taco truck: lunch only, this truck is parked at the corner of Folsom and Spear. My favorites are the vegetarian burrito ($5) and the 3 tacos with beef ($4.50). Order them spicy.
(6) Tanguito: Argentine empanadas ($3.50) served out of a taco truck around Fisherman’s Wharf.