The San Francisco Chronicle has proclaimed the Bay Area's "best culinary bangs for their bucks" in the annual Bargain Bites round-up. Remarkably, 13 of their picks for the best cheap eats in San Francisco are within only four blocks of our San Francisco City Center Hostel!
Of the 62 restaurants rated best bargains in the city, 13 are within four blocks of the newly renovated hostel which, by the way, also features a new professional-grade guest kitchen complete with two Viking ovens with gas ranges (for your post-farmer’s-market pleasure).
So, in addition to beautiful, comfortable surroundings (the hostel is a restored 1920s hotel), guests can enjoy some of the best, most affordable Turkish, Mediterranean, Thai, Indian/Pakistani, Vietnamese, or Moroccan food the city has to offer. It just goes to show that, with a little advice from locals, you can eat cheap AND eat well in this culinary capital -- and if you’re staying at the City Center Hostel you're well poised to do both.
Here are the Chronicle's recommendations for restaurants near the hostel. To be considered, 90 percent of the restaurant's menu has to be $10 or less, with two people able to eat dinner for $30 or less.
A La Turka
Warm Turkish decorations set the mood for the food. There's plenty of good meze to nibble, especially carrots with garlic-yogurt sauce and lemony stuffed grape leaves. Anything with pide is also a good bet, especially when the crusty homemade bread is used as a wrapping for various fillings. The more traditional dishes vary in quality, but the kebabs are usually a safe bet. Adana kebab, a spicy ground lamb kebab, and beyti kebab, wrapped in lavash and served with yogurt, are especially good. Creamy rice pudding is divine.
Vitals: 869 Geary Blvd. (at Larkin); (415) 345-1011. Lunch, dinner daily. Reservations and credit cards accepted.
Gyro Kebab offers good and affordable Mediterranean specialties such as the vegetarian sampler plate, including hummus, baba ghanoush, haydari (seasoned feta and yogurt puree) and more served with pita bread. The house specialty is kender kebab, with thinly sliced braised beef and lamb in spiced tomato sauce over bread, also satisfies. Though the under-seasoned chicken gyro disappointed, Gyro Kebab comes through on the whole with quality food at a good value in a friendly and comfortable atmosphere.
Vitals: 637 Larkin St. (at Ellis), San Francisco; (415) 775-5526. Lunch, dinner nightly. Reservations and credit cards accepted.
This new Vietnamese restaurant is a keeper. Its palm-wall fans, bright lime decor and French love songs on the sound system give it some style. The imperial rolls, or cha gio, are some of the best around. They are non-greasy and taste great wrapped in lettuce leaves, garnished with a bit of mint, rice noodles, pickled vegetables and dunked in nuoc cham. The pho is very good. Five-spice chicken with rice or garlic noodles is terrific.
Vitals: 601 Larkin St. (at Eddy), San Francisco; (415) 776-3999. Lunch, dinner Monday-Saturday. Reservations accepted. Cash only.
Naan 'n' Curry
This Indian/Pakistani chainlet packs 'em in night after night with a menu that includes deliciously spicy curries like chicken vindaloo and daal ghosht (lamb with lentils), rounded out by less fiery dishes from the tandoor oven. The perfectly puffed and blistered naan, daily specials, flavorful rice biryanis, and a whole page of vegetarian selections are sure to please anyone's palate. Self-serve raita and bottomless chai tea are provided, gratis.
Vitals: 398 Eddy St. (at Leavenworth); (415) 775-1349. Two other locations in San Francisco, plus two in Berkeley. Open daily. Reservations at Eddy location only. Credit cards accepted.
A cut above the neighboring pho places, this small Vietnamese restaurant has a fresh new look to go with the very fresh food. The extensive menu covers many ubiquitous Vietnamese dishes and excels at sugarcane shrimp, barbecued pork and a lemongrass tofu stir-fry. Save room for the expertly fried banana with taro ice cream and peanuts for dessert.
Vitals: 655 Larkin St. (at Eddy); (415) 776-3234. Lunch, dinner Tuesday-Sunday. Reservations accepted. Cash only.
This pho specialist in the Tenderloin stands out from the pack for the quality of its soup and the freshness of its meat. Most noodle soups run $5-$6; spend 50 cents extra for "separated raw steak" and they'll serve you a plate of it on the side along with an additional small bowl of soup, thus saving you from clouding or cooling the broth in your main bowl. Non-beef eaters will enjoy the seafood rice noodle soup ($6.30) or special chicken rice noodle soup with young eggs. Beware, there's a 25-cent charge for ice water.
Vitals: 431 Jones St. (near Ellis); (415) 673-3163. Open 8 a.m.-7 p.m. daily. No reservations. Cash only.
People don't flock to this hole-in-the-wall for service or decor. They come for the stellar French bread banh mi stuffed until bursting with a choice of roasted pork, chicken or pate. Get it with the works, jalapenos, pickled carrots and cilantro, and wash it down with a can of young coconut juice. Then split and eat elsewhere, since there's nowhere to really sit.
Vitals: 560 Larkin St. (at Eddy); (415) 474-5698. Breakfast, lunch, early dinner daily. No reservations. Cash only.
Sai Jai Thai
This Tenderloin nook is a gem. The tangerine orange and buttercup yellow dining room is bright and lively. The staff is friendly and accommodating. Sure, you could start with a plump chicken satay and move on to thin velvety noodle ribbons with tender carrots and broccoli and be perfectly happy. But don't be afraid to experiment, especially with the fish, which comes in fresh every day. For just a little more money you get a lot more with the tilapia, which comes steamed with chile, garlic slivers and lemon. The Thai pancakes are a sweet ending not to be missed.
Vitals: 771 O'Farrell St. (at Larkin); (415) 673-5774. Lunch, dinner daily. Reservations and credit cards accepted.
A fixture of the Tenderloin, this Indian/Pakistani dive has survived the push and pull of competitors springing up nearby. Though it has a reputation for brusque service, this has mellowed in recent years. You still order at the counter and pour your own mug of milky chai, but a friendly server delivers cutlery and the food. The food, such as bhuna gosht, a mahogany-red lamb curry with ginger and onions, is powerfully flavored. Palak paneer is spicier, with a rich, concentrated spinach sauce. Share a glass of intense mango lassi to wash it all down.
Vitals: 532 Jones St. (near O'Farrell). Also at 1409 Polk; 3325 Walnut Ave., Fremont; (415) 928-0333. Lunch, dinner daily. No reservations. Cash only.
Tajine Moroccan Restaurant
From the moment you enter this wonderful Tenderloin hole-in-the-wall, you are in the realm of owner-chef Mohamed Ghaleb. Before we even ordered, he sent over a steaming bowl of harira, a spicy lentil soup gussied up with tomatoes. Dive into serviceable chicken bastilla in phyllo while lively Moroccan music plays on a boom box. One of his best dishes is the "dajaj mqali" a chicken leg and part of the breast stewed with preserved lemon and olives. The brochette royale, a combo of lamb, chicken and kufta kabobs served with soup and salad, is well worth $10.50.
Vitals: 552 Jones St. (near Geary Street), San Francisco; (415) 440-1718. Lunch, dinner daily. No reservations. Cash only.
Thai House Express
No matter which location -- the Castro or the Tenderloin -- look for nicely portioned Thai dishes in a modern locale. There are many basics, like a buzzing green curry, beef salad or tofu and chile stir-fry, but look for some of the more unusual choices like kao soy, a curried noodle dish, to get a taste of some regional Thai street food not often seen in restaurants here.
Vitals: 901 Larkin St. (at Geary); (415) 441-2248. Also at 597 Castro St. Lunch, dinner daily. No reservations. Credit cards accepted.
Almost every one of the small tables in this brightly lit spot has a bowl of steaming pho on it, for good reason. Hand-cut slippery rice noodles and a rich, clear broth that isn't overly spiced make all the difference in the quality of the bowl. The meat, if opting for the beef version, is very fresh. Insiders know to ask for the rare beef on the side. Condiments are sparse, as is the style in Northern Vietnam, but the squeezes of lime and various chile pastes are all that's needed.
Vitals: 631 Larkin St. (at Willow); (415) 409-3333. 8:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Wednesday-Monday. No reservations. Cash only.
Stay at our San Francisco City Center hostel.