Best Bites in the Castro
by Sean Timberlake
For too many years, the Castro was a dining desert, an anomaly in this foodiest of cities. The merit of many restaurants seemed to be determined more by the hunkiness of the waitstaff than the caliber of the food. Things have changed in recent years, though, and now there are more than a few respectable restos peppered throughout the neighborhood. Moreover, the diversity is unprecedented. I've done some diligent dining in the neighborhood, and so am serving forth a few favorite specific bites in the 'Stro.
Better with Bacon
When Frances opened, the gauntlet had been thrown down, turning the neighborhood into a dining destination. Chef Melissa Perello brought with her some serious cred, garnering the mantle of Food & Wine's Best New Chef in 2004. While executive chef at Fifth Floor, she gained the restaurant a Michelin star, and within a year of opening Frances in 2009, got her star there as well. For all the fanfare, Frances is an amiable spot with approachable food. Be sure to start with the applewood smoked bacon beignets, fried perfectly and paired with a lightly sweet-tangy maple chive creme fraiche. I'm also a fan of their house wine program, custom blends that you can drink what you like for $1.50 per ounce.
3870 17th Street
A Dessert Like You Read About
Last year a couple colleagues were in town for a conference. I was eager to take them to Fable, at the time relatively newly opened, to show off the newest addition to this burgeoning food scene. The meal did not disappoint, but it was the closing note that sealed the deal: a moist, sophisticated parsnip cake. At first it felt familiar, like a simple carrot cake, but the herbaceous flavor of parsnip shone through, enhancing the subtle sweetness of the cake. We spent the previous hour talking food and politics; now we spoke only of the cake. We speak of it to this day.
558 Castro Street
Anyone who knows me knows I have an insatiable craving for spicy foods. Not a meal passes my lips that doesn't have some sort of capsaicin kick applied to it. While most of Kasa's Indian street food-themed menu is mild to my tastes, their turkey kebabs fix my jones, with a sharp, forward chili heat offset with fresh garlic, ginger and cilantro and. Swathed in naan as a kati roll, it makes my favorite quick lunch in the neighborhood. What's that? Add hot sauce? Oh, all right. (Urp.)
4001 18th Street
Chicken 'n' Dumplings
I never thought I'd see the day when dim sum would come available in our humble 'hood, and Mama Ji's a welcome addition. There's a lot to like on the dim sum menu – like fluffy steamed buns with barbecue pork filling; pretty good soup dumplings and shumai; and balls of sticky rice filled with Chinese sausage and mushrooms, steamed in a fragrant lotus leaf – and it's hard to argue with the portions. For a more substantial bite, I'm hooked on the Chongqing chicken, chunks of dark meat and slivers of ginger fried crisp with dry chilies and clusters of long pepper. The resulting oil leaves an angry orange slick on the dish, and as the pieces are slightly more than bite-sized, coats your gums and lips for a lingering tingle of balanced yet persistent burn. The selection of Belgian beers pairs curiously well.
4416 18th Street
Heaven in a Bowl
I don't always need my palate punished. Tiny Eiji tempts me with something so subtle it's sublime. Starting with a single-burner hot plate and a ceramic pot, the soft-spoken server gently stirs a liquid until, magically, it coalesces into a fluffy curd of fresh oboro tofu. Oboro means "cloudy" in Japanese, and indeed, this is like eating a cloud. Try it plain first – soft, silky, faintly nutty, strangely comforting and utterly unlike any tofu you've had before. Then you may accent it with tiny dashes of condiments – slivers of shiso, a few sesame seeds, a grate of ginger – but only enough to balance, not to bludgeon. It's big enough to share, and still leave room for a few of their other delectable bites.
317 Sanchez Street
Saigon on Sixteenth
As far as I am concerned, the banh mi is the platonic ideal of sandwichdom, and oddly named named Dinosaurs gets it just about right, even if they do call it the Special for some reason. The elements are on point: Crisp-crust baguette, pork three ways (pâté, roast, and barbecue), the sweet-sour pickled carrot and daikon known as do chua, fresh cilantro and fat slices of jalapeños. They have variations with shaking beef, chicken and crispy tofu if you must, but for my money I'll stick with the basic.
2275 Market Street (entrance on 16th)
Speaking of Pâté...
Just across the street, Starbelly's menu of pizzas, sandwiches, salads and more is an easy choice, with enough selection to be sure there's something for everyone. It's a go-to for any meal. They manage to toe a fine line of being consistent yet market-driven, with simple, fresh flavors. In the words of a fellow deep-diner friend of mine, though, when it comes to their housemade chicken liver pâté, paired with sweet onion marmalade and grainy mustard, "no one does it better."
3583 16th Street
Having grown up in the Northeast, the somewhat campy maritime decor of mainstay Anchor Oyster Bar harkens back to summers on Cape Cod, which is enormously comforting. It's remained largely unchanged in their nearly 40 years on Castro – just watch the film Milk to see for yourself. Everything is solid here, but they raise the bar for that most San Franciscan of dishes, cioppino, featuring a hearty serving of fresh seafood in a balanced broth with tomatoes and herbs. Don't be daunted if you don't see it on the menu; just ask.
Anchor Oyster Bar
579 Castro Street
Get Your Tentacles on This
Recently relocated from their twelve-year home on Polk Street, Pesce is another fishy spot, in a good way. Venetian fare is the focus here, and the all-day lounge menu offers up a tempting selection of low-cost cichéti, or bar bites to nibble alongside a tipple. The cocktail menu is divided into "Easy" – lighter, tarter, more food-friendly – and "Drinking" for the more serious sippers out there. Do yourself a favor and splurge on at least one regular small plate, though, the polpo. A classic Adriatic dish, tender slices of octopus, boiled potato and celery are tossed in a bright vinaigrette.
2223 Market Street
Blink and you might stroll right past Blush!, the petite wine bar sidled up next to Walgreens. Despite the diminutive kitchen with little more than a convection oven, they manage to turn out some creative dishes. The brunch menu is quirkily waffle-driven, with waffles standing in for bread in sandwiches, in lieu of tortillas in huevos rancheros, and of course standing proudly next to crispy chicken. One of the more unusual applications is in the grilled cheese salad, with squares of waffle grilled with creamy comte cheese, tossed with arugula and pumpkin seeds.
476 Castro Street