San Francisco is a great food city. There's plenty of Michelin-starred restaurants helmed by celebrated chefs. Locally sourced ingredients feature heavily on most menus, and you can find excellent examples of cuisines from all over the world there. It's a city where like to spend money on food, and dining out is a form of entertainment. But is it possible to eat well and cheap in San Francisco?
Of course! You just have to put some research and effort into it. When crafting our under $40 in a day self-guided food tour, I started by researching the best cheap eats in San Francisco. My budget was no more than ten dollars at any one place. Next, I decided what neighborhood I wanted to center in on: did I want to do a day of arepas and tacos in the Mission, or did I want to do pizza and pasta in North Beach?
Eventually, I settled on Asian dishes, mostly Asian-style "pancakes," in the Sunset District. If you're not familiar with the Sunset District, it's the largest neighborhood in San Francisco located in the western central part of the city. It can be further divided into three parts: Inner Sunset, known for its diversity of restaurants; Central Sunset, mostly residential; and Outer Sunset, which contains the San Francisco Zoo, Ocean Beach, and Lake Merced. I'm sure a native of San Francisco is going to school me on these distinctions.
House of Pancakes
Our day began in the Outer Sunset at House of Pancakes on Taraval. To get there, we took the "L" Muni line from Powell Street BART station and got off at Taraval and 19th. The restaurant is not even a three-minute walk from the stop. Once there, another customer, sensing probably confused white people, kindly flagged down the waitress/hostess, and under ten minutes we had our beef roll pancake. We took our meal over to a nearby bench at McCoppin Square.
The beef roll pancake is a crisp, slightly chewy scallion pancake wrapped around thin slices of beef, scallion, and a lightly sweet sticky sauce, likely Hoisin based. For one person, it would be a meal, but for the two of us, it was our appetizer to start the day, satisfying but not heavy at all.
Hidden Garden Steps
To build up our appetite again, we walked along 18th Avenue to Kirkham and down 9th. On our way, we passed the Hidden Garden Steps and were afforded beautiful views of the tops of Golden Gate Bridge. If you're in San Francisco, forget the car and walk. I always say it's the best way to see a city but doubly so for San Francisco. Not only is the hilly city a pain in the butt to drive and park in, but the city has so many little charming things you only catch on foot.
Lime Tree Cafe
Our next stop was Lime Tree Cafe, a basement restaurant serving dishes from all over Asia. We went to sample the martabak, an Indonesian dish. This particular version is a roti, a type of flatbread found in India and Southeast Asia, stuffed with ground meat, green onion, egg, and spices. Served along with the martabak was a yellow curry dipping sauce which cut through the rich and meaty filling. Personally, I would have liked a little more spice, not necessarily heat, in the dish and for the roti to be crispier; the grease from the meat had saturated it leaving it soggy. But overall, it was a very tasty dish and immensely satisfying for a lunch under $10. I would skip getting a beverage here though, as a can of soda will run you $2.50.
Cost: $19.24 for martabak and two cans of coke including tip and tax.
Sheng Kee Bakery
After wandering aimlessly through nearby Golden Gate Park, a park that lends itself well to aimless wandering with its winding trails through redwoods and fern groves, we headed up to the original location of San Francisco Bay area chain Sheng Kee Bakery Cafe. Sheng Kee Bakery Cafe specializes in Taiwanese baked goods, including sweet and salt buns, cakes, and pastries.
We picked up a green onion and pork sung toast, Portuguese egg tart, and a regular egg tart from the self-serve area and ate them outside the deli across the street. The green onion and pork sung toast was my least favorite bite of the day, but it was still good. The bun was soft as a cloud and pork sung is one of the world's best unsung ingredients. You may have seen it at your local Asian market in a big plastic tub labeled "pork floss." It would have improved with some warming up.
The Portuguese egg tart, on the other hand, was perfect. The custard was ethereally smooth and creamy and encased in a buttery, crisp crust. The caramelization of the custard further develops the flavor into something more complex than your standard egg custard. It makes me want to go to Portugal and eat a real pasteis de nata.
Cost: $4.64 including tax
Total for the day: $31.45 ($15.73 per person)
So you can see it is possible to eat cheaply and well for a day in San Francisco. I look forward to doing another self-guided food tour in San Francisco. Going through different neighborhoods and trying to stay under budget. What are your favorite cheap eats in San Francisco? Or in your city?