Grit and Grub in San Francisco’s Tenderloin

Grit and Grub in the Tenderloin (cont.)

Brunch

  • Dottie’s True Blue Café
  • 522 Jones Street
  • 415-885-2767
  • Open Wednesday through Monday 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., closed Tuesday
  • Reservations not accepted

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Homemade baked goods like whiskey-pineapple coffee cake, fudge pecan brownies, and buttermilk-dill bread are the specialty of this creative diner serving breakfast and lunch. The most popular entrée—moist black bean cakes with juicy salsa fresca and grilled cornbread—is worth the acclaim.

Daily specials include things like an omelet filled with rosemary-lamb sausage, tomato, roasted garlic, spinach, and goat cheese ($10.50), and sweet potato–cranberry French toast with toasted pecans and real maple syrup ($10.95). No matter what time you arrive, even minutes before closing, there’s always a long line.

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VIETNAMESE

  • Turtle Tower Restaurant
  • 631 Larkin Street
  • 415-409-3333
  • Open Wednesday through Monday 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., closed Tuesday
  • Reservations not accepted

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One of a string of inexpensive restaurants in a heavily Vietnamese portion of the Tenderloin known as Little Saigon, Turtle Tower is the place to come for pho ga, a.k.a. chicken noodle soup ($6.75 for a large bowl). The small, brightly lit spot does a brisk business at lunch (it’s also open for breakfast, but closes on the early side for dinner). Unlike most of the other places serving pho in the neighborhood, Turtle Tower makes a plainer northern version with nothing but chicken (white and dark meat, skin on) and noodles in the broth, served with lemon on the side, as opposed to southern style, which incorporates bean sprouts and hoisin sauce. The quality of the ingredients makes Turtle Tower’s pho stand out: broth as rich as Thanksgiving gravy, noodles that taste homemade (they’re actually freshly made to order by a private supplier, and are amazingly smooth and slurpable), and flavorful, generously cut free-range chicken.

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  • Sing Sing Sandwich Shop
  • 309 Hyde Street
  • 415-885-5159
  • It’s seemingly impossible to find anybody who will say exactly when the restaurant opens and closes, but if you go to Sing Sing for lunch after 11 a.m. and before 2 p.m., it should be open
  • Reservations not accepted

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You can get Vietnamese sandwiches, or banh mi, all over the neighborhood, including at Saigon Sandwich Shop, the reigning champion. That place is great, but we prefer Sing Sing, not just because it makes a damn fine sandwich, but also because of its quirky ambiance and the fact that you don’t have to wait in line.

Sing Sing is packed with climbing plants and fake yellow roses, sketchy-looking dudes smoking in the back room (despite the “No Smoking” signs posted on the walls), mirrors, Christmas tree lights, plastic lawn furniture, and red-and-white-checked tablecloths that have seen better days. Unlike other Tenderloin sandwich shops, Sing Sing offers only one choice of banh mi, which you wouldn’t know, as you won’t find a printed menu anywhere. You simply order “a sandwich” ($2.25) and “coffee” (hot or iced). As for the former, you get a marvelous little crusty baguette, three kinds of pork products that the owner says are all homemade (head cheese, pâté, and sliced barbecued pork), scallions and cucumber (aberrations from the typical banh mi), pickled carrots, jalapeños, cilantro, and a generous dusting of salt and pepper, for 25 cents less than you’ll pay at most other spots.

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  • Lee’s Sandwiches
  • 625 Larkin Street
  • 415-929-6888
  • Open daily 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
  • Reservations not accepted

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If you really want to feel like you’ve stepped into a foreign country, hit the San Francisco outpost of the Lee’s Sandwiches chain for dessert, or simply for eye candy. Not to be confused with Lee’s Deli, a mediocre American and Chinese food chain, this glaringly lit lunch counter and packaged-foods emporium is bound to give you sensory overload. You’ll find exotic smoothies (avocado; pennywort and green bean; soursop), hot desserts (banana and taro root stewed in coconut milk), vegetarian banh mi, fresh buns, and row upon row of plastic cups filled with colorful sticky rice concoctions. You’ll also find pennyroyal drink, fresh sugarcane juice, and basil seed custard. You have to check this place out.

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PAKISTANI/INDIAN

  • Lahore Karahi
  • 612 O’Farrell Street
  • 415-567-8603
  • Open Monday 5 to 11 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
  • Reservations not accepted

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The last time I ate at this tiny spot, a patron muttered on his way out, “Best restaurant in all of Northern California.” For a region that has produced Zuni Café, Chez Panisse, and the French Laundry, that’s one helluva statement. But it’s not indefensible.

The specialty at Lahore Karahi is tandoori fish ($10.95): ultrafresh and brightly spiced, with generous amounts of coriander and piquant lemon. For $1.25 you can get an accompaniment of killer cinnamon-flavored basmati rice. The garlic naan ($2) is addictive, also topped with coriander, sesame seeds, turmeric, cilantro, and chile; and the mango lassi ($2.50) is so creamy and rich it could be a dessert. The unsweetened chai is free, and the place is open pretty late (unlike most restaurants in San Francisco).

Only a low counter separates the small dining room from affable chef-owner Zulfiqar “Guddu” Haider in his kitchen, and he cooks every order from scratch. (The service is, therefore, slow.) You can watch him tossing naan dough as if he were making pizzas, skewering chicken chunks and placing them in the tandoor oven, and flinging pans of pitch-perfect butter chicken ($6) and lamb vindaloo ($7) onto the stove. Just walking in the door will make you ravenous, as you smell the savory charcoal goodness of the tandoor oven.

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FINE DINING

  • Fish & Farm
  • 339 Taylor Street
  • 415-474-3474
  • Open Monday through Wednesday 5 to 10 p.m., Thursday through Saturday 5 to 11 p.m., closed Sunday
  • Reservations are essential

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A few restaurants with sophisticated wine lists and classically trained chefs have made a go of it in the Tenderloin, our favorite being Fish & Farm, located in the same building as the Hotel Mark Twain. Its focus is seasonal local produce, meats from within 100 miles, and sustainable seafood. You’ll find dishes like grilled focaccia panzanella with whipped fromage blanc and marinated heirloom tomatoes ($11), roasted Monterey Bay sardines with ginger-stewed cherry tomatoes and wild arugula ($11), and lamb chops with apricot purée, minted cranberry, and Romano beans ($28).

The dining room, done up in chocolate brown, turquoise, and nautical flotsam, is sort of The Believer magazine meets Maine lobster shack. It’s small and perfect for dates, but you may have to wait in the bar because its staff is chronically befuddled by the reservation system. Luckily, your wait is sweetened by both the wine list, which includes several interesting biodynamic options, and the great cocktail menu, full of crafty concoctions of muddled herbs and berries.

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