best unknown places to eat in SF
April 18, 2008 10:11 PM   Subscribe

What's the best hole-in-the-wall restaurant in San Francisco?

I love trying new restaurants, but my budget can't support any of the fancy ones I've been hearing about and I'd rather not wait two hours for a table on a Friday night anyway, so... what's your favorite little hole -in-the-wall restaurant in (or near) San Francisco?
posted by logic vs love to Food & Drink (24 answers total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
Sunflower Vietnamese at 16th and Valencia. Friendly service, can get crowded, but nothing approaching a 2 hour wait. More like a 10 minute wait, at the busiest of times. And you can always get take out, which is really fast. There's also two locations, which are physically connected (i.e. share a kitchen). The takeout location (which does have a few tables) is on 16th street. The main dining area is on Valencia street. The restaurant forms an L-shape, right on the corner of 16th and Valencia.

If you like tofu then make sure you get the deep fried tofu, it's really good with the lemongrass filling.
posted by mto at 10:28 PM on April 18, 2008

Tajine restaurant used to be extremely tiny and delicious, though I've heard rumors that it moved to a larger location. It's probably still great though, and not too pricey. Give it a try.
posted by you're a kitty! at 10:51 PM on April 18, 2008

Cordon Bleu Vietnamese is a yummy but ridiculous hole-in-the-wall.

Also check out the sketchy Indian/Pakistani places in the Tandooriloin (Shalimar/Chutney/Pakwan).
posted by rajbot at 11:38 PM on April 18, 2008

House of Nanking if you order off the menu. Just tell Peter to bring you whatever is good, and whether you prefer American spicy or Chinese spicy. It's a little bigger than a hole in the wall, but the ratio of quality to size is very high.
posted by Leon-arto at 11:38 PM on April 18, 2008

Cinderella Bakery & Café
posted by RavinDave at 11:42 PM on April 18, 2008

Katana-Ya. Great bento, sushi, and ramen, and open late. Had lots of good bites here.
posted by symphonik at 12:03 AM on April 19, 2008

I always like to go to the Crepevine at 624 Irvine Street when I visit SF. There are other branches too.
posted by essexjan at 12:31 AM on April 19, 2008

Most of the places on SFGate's annual Bargain Bites roundup are small/hole in the wall spots. On that list, I really like Assab, Lahore Karahi, Moishe's Pippic, Saigon Sandwiches, and Turtle Tower. Skip Burma Superstar if you don't want to wait - that place has the most ridiculous lines of any place in SF.

Some other spots not on that SFGate list:
Cafe Zitouna - super tasty tajines with large portions. They also make a terrific b'stilla. If you've never had it, it's shredded chicken meat with eggs, saffron, ginger, honey, and almonds wrapped in phyllo pastry, baked, and dusted with sugar and cinnamon. Small but elegant sit down cafe with a North African touch.

Hard Knox Cafe - just plain good old-fashioned Southern/soul food. Everyone I know from Southern states it's the best place in SF. It can get popular on weekends but the wait is usually reasonable. A 2-story location is supposed to open in Outer Richmond soon.

Asian American Food Company - OK, so not a restaurant but this is the place to go to buy frozen Chinese dumplings. All the dumplings and won tons are handmade by 4 old ladies in the backroom and they're all freshly frozen and sealed in bags of 22 for $7-8 per bag. When you want to eat them, just get a pot of water boiling, dump in a few, and they'll be ready when they float to the top. Shouldn't take more than a few minutes. Once you eat these, dumplings and wontons anywhere else will taste like crap. Hope you can live with that though. They also run a restaurant in Parkside that serves the same dumplings but you might as well just DIY for less.

Shanghai Dumpling King / Shanghai House - two Shanghainese restaurants with almost the same menu located just 2 blocks from each other. Which is better is up for debate but you really can't go wrong with either.

Helmand Palace - Afghani. Trust me, it's good. I'm tired of writing reviews. Just read them on Yelp :)

Mi Lindo Yucatan in Mission and Noe Valley - Mayan cuisine. Very fresh, light-tasting southern Mexican. I prefer the Mission location but others like the Noe Valley one.

Chapeau! - best bang for the buck French bistro. The food is superb and the prices are great when you consider how expensive it is to eat French classics elsewhere in SF. I put it on the same scale as many of the other much more expensive, 3/3.5-star French restaurants.

Primo Patio Cafe - Carribbean cuisine served in a open-air patio that's invisible from the street. Get the Jamaican Jerk Chicken with fries on the side. They make this tangy, sweet, savory red sauce for dipping the fries that I swear is laced with crack. The Jerk Lamb, Fried Snapper, and Fried Catfish in entree and sandwich form are also to die for. Here is what it looks like from the outside. Memorize it because it's easy to miss from the street. On warm, sunny days this place can't be beat.
posted by junesix at 1:26 AM on April 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

Oh, if you have trouble getting a reservation at Chapeau (shouldn't happen but just in case), they bought out Clementine and it has almost the same menu as Chapeau. But I prefer the small, intimate bistro feel at Chapeau over Clementine's larger space.
posted by junesix at 1:30 AM on April 19, 2008

Sorry, one more, I can't believe I forgot this one.

Coco's Crawfish - Cajun crawfish boil sold by the pound, just like in Louisiana. It's bagged with a savory, garlicky broth along with pieces of sausage and corn for dipping. Great place to go with friends, drink beers, and just hang out while picking apart crawfish with your hands and getting messy. Last few times I was there, I noticed the crawfish were getting huge since we're heading into crawfish season.
posted by junesix at 1:37 AM on April 19, 2008 [4 favorites]

What? No love for Tu Lan or Shalimar? The former's a true hole-in-the-wall of Vietnamese persuasion, once visited and recommended by Julia Child herself! The latter's Tenderloin location epitomizes the hole-in-the-wall experience with fantastic Pakistani food served in squalor. Squalor I tell you! Shalimar also has a couple of other locations, but they are definitely lacking in the squalor department. I also have to wonder if having a website detracts from a restaurant's hole-in-the-wall credibility.
posted by ooga_booga at 1:57 AM on April 19, 2008

i've got about a million favorite hole in the wall places in sf! i keep thinking of new ones, and i've been sitting here for an hour at least trying to remember them all.

truely med makes fantastic mediteranian food, there are several across the city - i've tried more than one and they're all good. the mission outlet (next to the roxie theater, 16th& valencia) is the very definition of a-hole-in-the-wall-with-amazing-food. most people seem to get the fallafel but my fave is the chicken souvlaki. spend an extra dollar and get it "deluxe". grab about a hundred napkins, youll need them.

my fave pizza-by-the-slice (or a whole pizza if i'm getting delivery) is marcellos pizza in the castro. it's exceptionally delicious.

i lived in the mission for years, and my fave burrito place is the taqueria can-cun at mission & 19th. it's got mixed reviews on yelp, but me and my friends love it. it's spicy and greasy (like it should be), with a selection of delicious house-made salsas, and exceptionally good, flavorful meats for your burritos/tacos etc

also, i'm seconding the indian spots in the tenderloin, i've eaten at the shalimar and the food is great, reminded me of my 8 months in india (in a good way) and several friends recommended chutney as well.

and while it's been too long to remember which little place is the most exceptional on the block, i've never had a bad meal in those little divey vietnamese restaurants in the tenderloin (mostly around o'farrell and polk) - it would probably be worth visiting a handful and choosing the best of the lot for your regular pho needs. while not to dismiss sunflower and cordon bleu (both of which i've eaten at and liked) the dingy cafes in little vietnam are true holes-in-the-wall, with dirt cheap prices, authentic vietnamese quisine, and loads of "ambience" (ie. flouro lighting, dirty old paint, little old ladies behind the counter who cant speak english, etc). which may or may not appeal, but it's how they do it back in hanoi.

seconding house of nanking too - it's great. but there are a few other lesser-known gems nearby as well you should know about. off jackson, between stockholm and grant, there's several small restaurants down ross and saint louis alleys that are quite cheap and delicious. i'm sorry i cant remember the name of my favorite there (if i ever knew it) but just go down ross alley off jackson - it's on the right (if you're headed downhill) just 3 or 4 shops down from the main street. it's spotlessly clean, white/light-colored interior, has about 6-8 booths and a handful of tables, small, brightly lit with zero ambience other than a couple paper decorations and the various specials written in chinese on squares of paper stuck to the walls, and a gold cat waving at you. around lunch and dinner rush it's packed with mostly chinese people, and an inevitable token table or two of caucasians. everythings good there but i LOVE the scallops. dont eat at the next one down though (darker, food's not as good)

oh, oh, and one more! the big dim sum places on wenthworth @ jackson: just go on sunday ~11am/noon (dont get there too late or they'll have run out of the best stuff!) and pick one that's packed to the gills - actually they arent really holes in the wall, they look fairly upscale, and the prices aren't really rock bottom either. but it's great, interesting food for fairly cheap - i think i used to spend $10-15 with a beer, sharing enough food with a few friends to fill myself up thouroughly...

i could go on. does country station sushi @ mission and 17th count as a hole-in-the-wall? you couldn't eat there for $8, but it's funky as hell and very reasonably priced for a sushi place.
posted by messiahwannabe at 2:51 AM on April 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

definitely Tu Lan and Shalimar on Jones Street.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 2:59 AM on April 19, 2008

oh yeah, i'll chime in on tu lan, i shouldn't have forgotten it. there's this one vietnamese place on OFarrell that's maybe better, but i cant remember the name, so screw it. anyway tu lan is in fact very delicious. but read those yelp reviews so you know what you're getting into, location wise!
posted by messiahwannabe at 3:14 AM on April 19, 2008

Take thee to yelp.

I'm going to apologize in advance because I never remember the name to anything. My personal haunts:

1) Again - Hard Knox Cafe. Soul food by way of Asian immigrants to the American South, then the Bay Area. Great value. Tried the Front Porch recently, and while very good, I found it pretty expensive.

2) Pakwan, and the neighboring Chinese, Tapas, and Crepe places on 16th. You could eat your way up and down that part of town blindfolded with good odds of bang for buck. Also, really good southern Indian at Dosa on Valencia (but spendy and no Indian customers) and a East German food at Walzwerk on Van Ness.

3) Again, just about any Vietnamese place in the Tenderloin. I'm partial to Lee's and Mangosteen, and don't care much for Saigon Sandwiches, but you'll find your own favorite soon enough. Same thing with burritos.

4) Burma Superstar is fantastic, but go at an off time to avoid the crazy lines.

5) Others will disagree, but I've yet to find a Thai, pho, or pizza place I really like in the Bay Area, but I've spent time in Thai town in LA, Orange County/San Diego, and I grew up in Chicago, so there. There's passable versions of Thai and pho around. The pizza here is an abomination.

6) The Hawaiian drive-ins aren's as good as in Hawaii, obviously, but they're still pretty good and cheap. L&L is solid, Hukilau if you want to go up market.

The bad news is there's pretty much no unknown good places in SF. We're all appreciate food too much, and communicate too well. The good news is unlike Chicago or LA, there TONS of outrageously good mid-level dining here, and arguably as good or better low-level. In fact, I think the competitive environment is such that places can't afford to be bad. I almost never decide to go anywhere, any more. I just sort of wind up some place, and maybe 1/8 times do I walk away thinking I didn't get good value. I almost never walk away thinking some place was bad.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 8:22 AM on April 19, 2008

I really don't think anything right of the Richmond or Sunset is that unknown in general - everyone knows about the Wednesday goat curry at Shalimar, the discount baguettes at Lee's in the TL, and so on - I'm having trouble not picking apart the list so far. For instance (not to single it out) Dosa was pretty sub-par microwaved Sysco fare when we were there, and I think you can get better examples at any food cart on the street in NYC.

Head down to, like, 40th and Taraval for Old Mandarin Islamic. Try Irving for Underdog (any of them). Wander around. See what's up in Glen Park. Head over to Luka's in Oakland.

If your average Baby Bjorn-sporting sad hipster can get there without driving their BMW SUV, it's probably not a hole in the wall at this point.
posted by kcm at 8:36 AM on April 19, 2008

Seconding Pakwan for excellent tandoori and curries, an easy stroll from the 16th Mission BART station.

Near the 24th Mission BART stop is El Taco Loco, which has another branch on Mission near 29th, near the Safeway, Walgreens and Cole Hardware (making it excellent for lunch during weekend provisioning trips). Their carne el pastor puts everybody else's to shame. Also excellent salsa verde (I think it's avocado-based, like a diluted guacamole) in the salad cart, and good horchata and tamarind drinks.

Ali Baba's Cave on Valencia at 19th is a nice place for falafel, shawarma and other Middle Eastern treats. I don't know how it stacks up against other Middle Eastern places in SF (regrettably, I don't know any), but if you're in the area it's a good option, especially if you're all burritoed out.

For dim sum I like a place on Clement Ave near 6th, whose name I can't recall but it's right across the street from Green Apple Books. (Not to be confused with the joint next door, which serves stir-fries out of big pans - this is a dim sum place with big round steamers stacked up at the counter.) Most of their business seems to be takeout but there are tables; you might end up sharing a table during the lunch rush but that's part of the no-frills experience. Everything is fresh and tasty, and the utter lack of ambience tells you that they put all their effort into the food.
posted by Quietgal at 9:36 AM on April 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Tapas, and Crepe places on 16th.

I really don't think those qualify as hole-in-the-wall. They're slammed on weekend nights, and aren't cheap. Same goes for Luka's in Oakland.

Reviews are very mixed, but if I want cheap food with no wait on a Friday night in the Mission, I go to the Rite Spot (Folsom at 17th). I'm alway pretty happy with the cheese raviolis or the burger. Divey, no frills, but cozy and decent. Also second Shalimar, and dim sum on Clement st (there's a few, all cheap, mostly good).
posted by oneirodynia at 11:32 AM on April 19, 2008

There's a FANTASTIC ethiopian place somewhere along Haight St... Not from San Fran so I can't give you any details... =\
posted by expletivization at 1:32 PM on April 19, 2008

The pizza here is an abomination.
It's hardly unknown/hole-in-the-wall, but have you had Arinell?
posted by juv3nal at 2:31 PM on April 19, 2008

Pizza? Try a slice from Marcello's at Market and Castro. A big, yummy slice and a beer costs, like, $6.
posted by mudpuppie at 4:26 PM on April 19, 2008

There's a FANTASTIC ethiopian place somewhere along Haight St...

That would be axum cafe, and yes, it is FANTASTIC. Usually not much of a wait either.

Also in Lower Haight are Hanabi which has really solid Japanese food at very reasonable prices and is rarely crowded, Love N Haight Deli which does awesome sandwiches, especially if you're a veggie and like fake meat (but my meat eating friends like it there too), cu co's for the best burrito you can get out of the mission (i'm sure someone's gonna disagree with that but man, those are good burritos), and Thep Phanom which does really good Thai food and is usually not very full.
posted by christy at 7:52 PM on April 19, 2008

Hoang Dat, in the Tenderloin. Meatball bánh mì. I just wish they were open after 4-ish.
posted by hototogisu at 8:59 PM on April 19, 2008

SF is really one of those cities where you can cruise around on foot and discover your own "hole-in-the-wall". You might try Clement St. for Asian food, or Irving & 9th for more standard fare (near the park too)...West Portal is kinda more "traditional SF" (not far from the zoo and beach), the Castro boasts real culinary arteests, but downtown is overrun with tourists all looking for that special hole-in-the-wall. Don't miss the Irish bars everywhere (Taraval and 19th is a good place to start), the Haight is overpriced and overrated (but good for scoring...erm, appetite enhancers) and yes, the TuLan is not to be missed and it's right downtown. Stay away from Fisherman's wharf for food...but the sights are pretty cool. Forget the pizza, even in North Beach. Some kind of quirk of nature disallows good pizza to be made outside NYC.
posted by telstar at 12:37 AM on April 20, 2008

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