A visit to San Francisco isn’t complete without stopping at one of these humble hole-in-the-wall eateries that locals swear by.
San Francisco has long been considered the Paris of America’s west coast: a culinary destination regarded for its organic markets, fresh food stalls and white linen, fine dining establishments.
But it’s down the side streets, along the alleyways and in grungier parts of town that you’ll find the real soul of this city’s incredible food scene, with humble hole-in-the-wall eateries that have become culinary staples.
Notable for their cramped seating and no-nonsense service, there are dozens of tiny eateries serving brilliant, memorable food in San Francisco.
You’ll find comfort food that won’t break the bank in the Mission with its traditional taquerias and North Beach with its Italian-inspired pizza, pasta and seafood.
Simple, affordable and delicious food.
There’s super authentic Russian, Korean, and Japanese food in the Richmond and Sunset neighbourhoods and Vietnamese delights in Little Saigon, near the Tenderloin.
Of course, San Francisco boasts more restaurants per capita than any other city in the United States, so I’m really just scratching the surface with this blog.
But if you’re a fan of simple, affordable and delicious food without too much fanfare, then you are certain to appreciate some of these suggestions.
Here are just a few of my favourite no-frills eats in San Francisco.
Yuet Lee Seafood Restaurant
You could say I’m addicted to this place: I always visit when I’m in San Francisco and have been known to cancel reservations at much fancier restaurants just to dine here.
I first discovered Yuet Lee, on the fringe of Chinatown, back in 2008 but I’ve been drawn back to this iconic late-night Cantonese hot spot on more than half a dozen occasions since.
I was there again in February, and it’s every bit as good as I remember. (Although I heard the facade of the restaurant was re-tiled last year because a car crashed into the wall.)
Located at the corner of Stockton and Broadway (main image), Yuet Lee is one of the best dives ever with garish green décor inside and out. Just look for the Coca-Cola advertising on the facade.
Open until 3 am, and gloriously un-touched for most of its 40 years, Yuet Lee is a no-fuss kind of place that is popular with hungry locals, late night revellers and those working the late shift, like taxi drivers.
It’s the place to come with friends when you want to share clay-pot chicken, salt & pepper squid or tender roast duck while sipping on a frosty Tsingtao beer.
At the back of the menu is a list of rice plates, dishes so simple the chef can knock them out in 90 seconds.
One dish that has constantly caught my eye over the years is the Shrimp with Scrambled Egg Rice (pictured), served in a starchy chicken stock. So I couldn’t resist ordering. It was simple, delicious and filling and at just $6.50 more than affordable.
Don’t expect overly-attentive service by the wait staff: they do their job and they’re quick and efficient but they rarely say a word. It’s the food you’ll remember.
Yuet Lee is closed Tuesdays, but if you dine before 6.30pm on Monday, Wednesday or Thursday there’s usually a discount. Ask when you’re seated. They also have free wi-fi.
For authentic and unassuming Mexican food, Tacqueria Cancun in the Mission district has made quite a name for itself.
It’s a bit of a cult favourite with a large, loyal following and has been receiving its fair share of accolades in recent times, from Best of the Bay to SF Weekly‘s Best of San Francisco for their $8 to $10 burritos.
With paper cut-outs dangling from the ceiling, bright yellow walls and stained terra cotta tiles this is definitely my idea of a cheap and cheerful Mexican diner.
The burritos are literally the size of your arm and are bursting with rice, cheese, sour cream and avocado and your choice of meats. Tacqueria Cancun is cash only, but there’s an ATM on site.
Cordon Bleu – Vietnamese
It sounds like a French cooking school, but Cordon Bleu at 1574 California St (near Polk), is a cleverly branded Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall that serves incredible five spice chicken, shish kebab and imperial rolls like I’ve only ever imagined.
It’s also famous for its $5 lunch special.
This is comfort food at its best, the sort of honest and reliable food you’d expect to find on the back of one of the city’s famous food trucks.
Most people order based on a number system of 1-5, that includes, according to the menu, “Possibly the best chicken you will ever have outside of Vietnam.”
Vietnamese fare is big in San Francisco, which is hardly surprising given more than 13,000 Vietnamese people live in the city, many of them in Little Saigon or Sài Gòn Nhỏ, a corner of the Tenderloin boxed in by Ellis, Polk, Turk, and Hyde Streets.
There are so many delicious Vietnamese restaurants in San Francisco that I could dedicate an entire blog to them.
You’ll find cafes and tiny stores selling fresh and affordable banh mi sandwiches – a baguette of pork, coriander (cilantro) and pickled vegetables with mayo. Saigon Sandwich at 560 Larkin St has been in the neighbourhood for 30 years and gets rave reviews.
Mong Thu Café at 248 Hyde St recently reopened after a refurb and also does an impressive bún mắm, a Vietnamese-style gumbo soup.
Swan Oyster Depot
This no-frills counter nook has to be the cosiest seafood shack in San Francisco, and it serves the city’s freshest catch every day.
It’s another of those comfort food restaurants that I’m constantly drawn to when I visit San Francisco.
The narrow, 18-seat counter which is an easy cable car ride down California St to Polk St – has been around since 1912 (with just two different owners) and is loved by locals and tourists alike.
In its original location and virtually untouched since it first opened, Swan Oyster Depot draws a constant stream of people for its Dungeness crab, oysters and clams on the half shell ($12) and its $2.75 Boston clam chowder.
I loved the Classic Combination Salad at $21 (pictured), which was enough to feed two.
If you’re hungry, you can get a double seafood cocktail that’s served in a sundae glass. But if you’re really hungry, you can get a “supreme” cocktail that’s served in a large chowder bowl. Just ask.
There will never not be a line at Swan Oyster Depot. So, if you arrive later than 10.30 in the morning prepare to wait.
You can always skip the line and get a takeaway order. Ask for a combination salad sandwich – they’ll hollow out a piece of sourdough and stick a combination salad in between.
No only is this one of the coolest and oldest deli’s in the United States (est. 1896) but they also make their own brand of salami that is sold nationwide. It also won a gold medal in Italy.
With a name like Kebab King, you’d think this place was all about Middle Eastern fare. It’s actually a simple Indian/Pakistani stalwart serving up curries, biryani and tandoori dishes – as well as kebabs and pizza.
It’s definitely not the sort of place you go for the atmosphere (it’s very divey, in a greasy spoon kind of way), but do go for the tasty and satisfying late-night Indian eats. It’s actually open til 2am on Sundays.
As one reviewer wrote on Yelp: “As far as hole in the walls go, this place serves the neighborhood purpose of providing the late night carb-overload.”
For me this place has a Seinfeld “Soup Nazi” vibe about it, which adds to the charm.
The lady seems to serve who she wants, and tells different stories to different people about what dishes she has left. It’s fascinating to watch late at night.
This Indian/Pakistani restaurant is deep in the Tenderloin. It looks pretty nondescript both on the outside and the inside, but the food is pretty good.
They serve one of the best aloo gobi (cauliflower with potatoes) I’ve tasted, and the Pakistani chicken curry (chicken Karahi) was rich and flavoursome.
The place has changed hands since I was last here. The previous chef-owner Guddu Haider sold up back in 2012, but not much has changed.
At $8 or $9 a plate, the food is still cheap, authentic and super tasty.