A plane ticket to San Francisco International can be a real bruise to the bank account. But the city’s diverse eats means you can get mind-blowing meals for not so much. If you can’t afford a table at the Cliff House or Thomas Keller’s French Laundry -- where a prix fixe runs half my weekly salary -- here are some life-changing meals you can get for less than $30.
1. Bar Tartine for lunch
Located in the eclectic Mission District, Bar Tartine is the off-shoot of the famous Tartine Bakery & Cafe. It goes without saying, but the bread is fantastic and whatever pressed between them at lunchtime is equally so (a la the sandwich depicted above). The menu changes daily, so you might not be able to get the mind-blowing chicken sandwich I had -- shredded chicken tossed with Asian-style dressings (a bit of citrus and cilantro, reminiscent of a Thai larb salad) and pressed between two neat sheets of iceberg lettuce. The whole thing was served on a soft white sandwich bun.The sandwiches ($12 to $13) seem tame enough on the menu, but they’re Primanti-size portions. I was skeptical of the sprouted-rye bread with chocolate- and hazelnut butter ($5) as a dessert, but the thick, substantial bread served as the perfect counterpoint for insanely rich chocolate butter.
Bar Tartine: 561 Valencia St., 94110.
2. A dumpling tour of Chinatown.
Even though San Francisco’s Chinatown has become a bit of a tourist trap, it is still ground zero from some of the Bay Area’s best dumplings. There are a number of sit-down restaurants here, but one of my favorite activities is to head to the spots where the dumplings are piled up in the front in big steam baskets in the front and just order whatever looks mysterious. My favorite are the sticky rice ones that come wrapped in lotus leaves. Since there’s often a language barrier, it’s always a surprise what’s tucked inside the sticky ball of rice. We tried a few places and eventually Yelp led us to Good Mong Kok Bakery, where we got to sample every single dumpling for a grand total of $7.
3. Mission Chinese
Located in a storefront in the Mission, Mission Chinese an irreverent, hip twist on traditional Asian dishes. Pork belly comes with pineapple spears, a cloying Hoisin sauce and little cocktail umbrellas. Fried rice comes with salted cod instead of the traditional lapcheung (Chinese sausage). Rice porridge is specked with bacon. The restaurant is dark, with Chinese paper dragons looming ominously above. And naturally, they play gangsta rap. If you have trouble finding it, look for the crowds of hungry diners who may or may not be helping themselves to pre-meal beers in paper bags. (It helps that there’s a well-stocked convenience store down the street.) Entrees range from $12 to $19.
Mission Chinese: 2234 Mission St., 94110
4. Una Pizza Napoletana
This place was recommended by a fine pizza maker in his own right, a guy I know only as Baker Rick. Baker Rick fanatically insisted I try this place, run by the equally fanatic Anthony Mangieri. Though Mangieri is a bit of a celebrity now, he makes all the dough and all the pies. All of it. And in case you’re skeptical of that, he does it all in full view in a gorgeous tiled dome-shaped oven in the middle of a drafty, high-ceilinged space in SOMA. That means he’s a busy man, but still not too busy to pose with diners for photos. There are only five kinds of pies, but each we tried was perfection: a heavenly dough with the right amount of gristle and chew with high-quality toppings to match.
Una Pizza Napoletana: 210 11th St., 94103.
5. Venice Gourmet
My family set out for a somewhat harrowing trip across the Golden Gate Bridge on bikes and stopped in for a snack at Venice Gourmet. A "snack" for a family of ravenous biker went something like this: a chewy sourdough baguette, a bit of pate, some turkey slices, varsious kinds of cheese and smoked salmon. We enjoyed our petite picnic at this quaint deli right on the water, where we feasted on the astounding view and made the seagulls jealous. The do-it-yourself deli was reasonably inexpensive. Pre-assembled sandwiches are $6.95 to $9.95.
Venice Gourmet: 625 Bridgeway, Sausalito, 94965
Moriah Balingit photos