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23 Dishes Every Real San Franciscan Must Eat

Required noshing for local food lovers
January 22, 2018
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by Trevor Felch

There are hundreds of dishes that feel authentically local to San Francisco — but which dishes define the city right now? We've decided on 23, both traditional favorites and new classics. Golden Gate Bakery's egg custard tarts and b. Patisserie's kouign amann don't have much in common but represent a strong sense of time and place. The same could be said of the old-world House of Prime Rib and modern fare at Rich Table and State Bird Provisions. We also give a nod to food-truck pizza, outrageously good chicken wings, our favorite ramen and the city's ultimate burrito. Giants fans hungry for seventh-inning-stretch garlic fries, we've got you too. 

Carnitas burrito at La Taqueria
"The best burrito in San Francisco" is one of our city's hot-button issues. For many, the question is "What is the best burrito after La Taqueria?" The legendary bench seating–only taqueria by the 24th Street-Mission BART station has been crowned the best burrito in the country by national publications and locals alike. Some prefer the rice-free approach here over other massive Mission-style versions. The real secret may be the meat and the salsa. Just try the salty, crispy carnitas with the fresh salsa verde and you'll understand.
Price: $6

2889 Mission St.; 415-285-7117
 

Tuna poke at Liholiho Yacht Club
Why can't every meal start this way? These pristine, ruby-red squares of ahi tuna — two-bite hors d'oeuvres on nori crackers — are kissed with sesame oil and served to packed crowds at the Tendernob Hawaiian-Cali favorite. The dish leans on the poke bowl craze, while the space itself is a prime example of the pop-up-to-restaurant trend. It’s a perfectly composed, casually elegant bite that hits all the senses with its delicate umami, and may leave you saying "mahalo."
Price: $17.50

871 Sutter St.; 415-440-5446

House of Prime Rib cut at House of Prime Rib
San Francisco isn't a steakhouse town. Our niche for meat and three-martini meals is in Polk Gulch and has as busy a valet station as any in Los Angeles. Night after night, diners enjoy tender, juicy prime rib carved tableside from corn-fed beef that's been aged three weeks. Each meal has potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and a salad tossed tableside — plus a significant dose of nostalgic whimsy that's rare these days. But the real draw here: the beef. This slightly fatty conversation stopper is why we're still a city of prime rib from one house.
Price: $43

1906 Van Ness Ave.; 415-885-4605

Spaghetti at Delfina
Sometimes, the simplest dish on the menu can be the most transformative — and that is the case with the city’s most iconic pasta dish. Yes, we know spaghetti and tomato sauce can inspire yawns anywhere outside of a children's menu. However, since Delfina opened its doors just under two decades ago, hundreds of thousands of diners have had spaghetti revelations thanks to chef Craig Stoll's robust bowl of the pasta with plum tomatoes. The key to the dish’s success: the on point al dente noodles, which are cooked with the sauce to absorb all that sweet tomato umami.​
Price: $12 for a small portion; $17 for a large portion

3621 18th St.; 415-552-4055

Margherita di bufala pizza at Del Popolo
After dazzling street patrons with its snazzy, state-of-the-art truck, Del Popolo is now packing crowds into its hip, wheels-free space in Lower Nob Hill. Surroundings aside, it's all about the whole Neapolitan pies here, with their perfect leopard spot char and slightly puffed crust. Try one first simply adorned with crushed tomato sauce, high-quality mozzarella di bufala and a few scattered basil leaves — it's a margherita that's simple yet flawless.  
Price: $19

855 Bush St.; 415-589-7940

Chocolate old-fashioned at Bob's Donuts
At 3 PM or 3 AM, the homemade donuts from this beloved 24-hour donut destination on Polk Street taste stellar and are made fresh, likely within the hour. Some go for the ridiculous-yet-fun challenge of eating a giant donut in three minutes (for a chance to enter the exclusive hall of fame). But for a classic choice, we recommend the simple, pitch-perfect old-fashioned. It's straight out of the frying oil and dipped in a chocolate sauce, which remains too warm to harden into a glaze as you eat it. The price and nostalgic atmosphere can't be beat, either.
Price: $1

1621 Polk St.; 415-776-3141

Tori paitan ramen at Mensho Tokyo SF
Ramen newcomers are quickly multiplying, but this 2016 opening from a Tokyo-based chain is the city's definitive bowl. An invigorating, salty chicken broth tops the springy noodles and slices of pork and duck chashu meat. Our choice of Mensho is also a nod to San Franciscans' penchant for waiting in line for trendy food. Is this ramen worth a 90-minute wait at 9 PM on a Tuesday? Well, you'll have to try it to know for sure. To us, it's the best bowl of ramen in the city by a distance longer than the line.
Price: $16

672 Geary St.; 415-800-8345

Quail at State Bird Provisions
Quick quiz: What’s the state flower of California? That's a bit of a stumper. However, trivia geeks and Bay Area diners alike know what the state bird is thanks to the eclectic Fillmore restaurant from husband-and-wife team Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski. Much of Brioza’s savory menu is served dim sum style but the tender buttermilk-fried quail is one of the few à la carte "commandables" on the printed menu. It's a comforting plate of the state bird served over sweet and sour butter-stewed onions and topped with shavings of Parmesan, together striking the ideal earthy, salty and sweet notes. Dare we say it’s now the official state dish?
Price: $15 for a half portion; $30 for a full portion

1529 Fillmore St.; 415-795-1272

Salted caramel ice cream at Bi-Rite Creamery  
Kitty-corner to the beautiful chaos of Dolores Park is this orderly line of locals and tourists alike waiting for a scoop of (most likely) salted caramel ice cream. Somehow this specific flavor — sweet, salty and prone to melting — combined with the park atmosphere has become our modern day flower in your hair and Haight-Ashbury situation: It's a rite of passage. Insider tip: Get a pint to go and you can skip the line. 
Price: $3.25

3692 18th St.; 415-626-5600

Custard French toast at Nopa
At dinnertime, take a peek at Nopa’s grill station and you’ll see an overwhelming stream of burgers being assembled. During the equally crowded weekend brunch, it's a similar scene for the custard-soaked, three-inch-thick slices of pain de mie that are the base for one of the most decadent brunch dishes in SF. Each plate is covered by apple compote and is accompanied by whipped cream and maple syrup. The indulgent recipe was created by former pastry chef Amy Brown (co-owner of Marla Bakery) and is now in the capable hands of pastry chef Hannah Ziskin, our 2017 30 Under 30 winner.  
Price: $10 for a small portion; $20 for a large portion

560 Divisadero St.; 415-864-8643
 

Wings at San Tung
The casual, always lively Outer Sunset Chinese spot is our final word on the subject of chicken wings in San Francisco. There is always a wait for enjoying either the wet or regular dry-fried chicken wings, accompanied by a platter or two of housemade noodles. Both versions of the wings are terrific — it’s merely a personal taste if you prefer them with a sweet and spicy caramel-like sauce or just the crispy batter enhanced by lots of garlic and ginger. There's no going back to wings from the bucket after trying the superb ones at San Tung.
Price: $9 for six pieces

1031 Irving St.; 415-242-0828

Toast at The Mill
This NoPa cafe for both Josey Baker Bread toast and Four Barrel coffee has both fans and detractors, with some claiming "$4 toast" is indicative of greedy landlords and gentrification. One thing not up for debate: It's delicious. This is incredible homemade bread — made with, yes, house-milled flour — with toppings ranging from avocado or almond butter to a house "Nutella." In a city that values its bread-making history, it's a must-try.
Price: $5–$8

736 Divisadero St.; 415-345-1953

Grilled ham and cheese sandwich at Tartine
The country loaf at the Mission’s celebrated bakery deserves a prominent spot on this list. It's as perfect and pillowy (and crunchy) a bread as it gets. Want it in a must-try dish? Order a dreamy grilled cheese sandwich using the thick-cut country loaf as brick-sized anchors for gooey Gruyère, Niman Ranch smoked ham and the underlying zesty hum of Dijon mustard. It sounds simple, but this is a next-level grilled cheese.
Price: $14.50

600 Guerrero St.; 415-487-2600

Kouign amann at b. Patisserie
How do you know this glazed croissant creation (a Brittany pastry out of a Lower Pacific Heights bakery) is important? For one, most of the city actually knows how to pronounce it. Proprietor Belinda Leong tempts patrons with cases of everything from elegant éclairs to routine-looking but incredible ginger bread. But the kouign amann ​— with its layers of butter, dough and sugar, with optional chocolate or seasonal produce — is the wheelhouse of the bakery. The dough melts on impact and melts your heart. 
Price: $4.25 

2821 California St.; 415-440-1700

The Rebel Within at Craftsman and Wolves
Hey, we love breakfast sandwiches as much as any other city. But we really love William Werner’s modern, eye-popping muffin version; it has to be one of the most Instagrammed dishes ever. It’s shaped like a muffin — with green onion, Asiago cheese and pork sausage baked in — but dense like a cake. Cut into it to reveal a core soft-cooked egg with an oozy yolk. What a comforting morning meal that looks so humble in the pastry case but is indeed rebellious when cut for its close-up.
Price: $7.25

746 Valencia St.; 415-913-7713
1643 Pacific Ave.; 415-855-1414

 

Dungeness crab Louie at Swan Oyster Depot 
Come very early (or on a rainy weekday) or prepare to wait for this dish: the sweetest, string-free morsels of our beloved local crustacean spread across a bed of not-so-special lettuce. It's the ultimate high-low combination. Add in a pint of cold Anchor Steam, maybe a clam chowder appetizer and lots of witty remarks by the brothers who run the shop, and it’s no wonder this dish inspires two-hour lines. It's the best pure Dungeness crab the city sells, with a big side of character. Speaking of sides, make sure the Louie dressing is served separately because this crab deserves its own spotlight.
Price: $29

1517 Polk St.; 415-673-1101

Sardine chips at Rich Table
Served with horseradish crème fraîche dipping sauce, these thick homemade potato crisps feature a single sardine woven in the center. It sounds like a bizarre, fishy-salty mess, but this is really the perfect palate awakener and has seemingly turned SF onto sardines. Rich Table is the latest in a string of modern restaurants pushing the envelope with gimmick-sounding dishes, but this one proves to be a flavorful winner. Don't forget the equally stellar porcini donuts and raclette fondue to kick off your big night in Hayes Valley.
Price: $2 each

199 Gough St.; 415-355-9085

Pho ga at Turtle Tower
The Tenderloin Vietnamese cafe’s Southern-style chicken pho (pho ga) is our choice meal and many San Franciscans' remedy for fighting a pesky cold or warming up when Karl the Fog is particularly fierce. As comforting as a childhood blanket, the robust chicken flavor in the broth is cleansing and powerful. The bowl is topped by slices of chicken and a host of freshly snipped herbs, while the broth is filled with wide, perky rice noodles. Sick day or not, Turtle Tower’s pho is truly one big, warm hug that we can always count on cheering us up.
Price: $9.25 for a small; $10.75 for a large

645 Larkin St.; 415-409-3333

Cioppino at Anchor Oyster Bar
Poor cioppino. The iconic seafood stew has sadly fallen into tourist trap territory, along the lines of clam chowder in a sourdough bowl, because of countless bland, overpriced versions in North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf. But when composed well, cioppino is a glorious celebration of our region’s bountiful fresh seafood and rich Italian history. This standout version at Anchor, the Castro’s four-decade-old seafood landmark, boasts plenty of crab and various shellfish in an almost overflowing tomato stew fragrant with ample garlic and chile flakes. Don’t forget to soak up the broth with the accompanying garlic bread.  
Price: $38.95 for a small; $59.95 for a large

579 Castro St.; 415-431-3990

Burger at Marlowe
Chef Jennifer Puccio's modern burger classic blends two kinds of meat and two burger styles between two buns. It's part of the spruced-up new burger generation by virtue of the beef patty semi-secretly being 20% lamb meat and slathered with an atypical spicy horseradish aïoli. It’s also a retro old-school burger with its smaller size and just cheddar and bacon as a supporting cast (no funky cheeses or French onion soup compote here). With all due respect to another SF burger that claims the title, this is the city’s best damn burger.
Price: $17

500 Brannan St.; 415-777-1413

Egg custard tart at Golden Gate Bakery
Is Golden Gate Bakery open? Probably not. (It's known for its wildly inconsistent vacation hours.) But it's worth checking for the egg custard tarts that are the Chinatown bakery's runaway signature item. Served slightly warm, with a jiggly interior and Paris-worthy flaky crust, it's regarded by many as the best $2 bite in the city.  
Price: $1.95

1029 Grant Ave.; 415-781-2627

Garlic fries at AT&T Park
What is the one place where San Franciscans of all ages and neighborhoods convene to cheer on a single cause? Yes, AT&T Park, home of the world champions in 2010, 2012, 2014 (and 2018, right?). For our purposes, 24 Willie Mays Plaza is also home to a champion ballpark food: garlic fries. There are better fries in town and there are better uses of garlic, we understand. The best part of the experience? When Buster Posey hits a home run and everyone, fries fans included, high-fives everyone around them. Soon, the whole section smells like fried grease, parsley and freshly chopped garlic. It’s glorious.
Price: $8.50

24 Willie Mays Plaza

Roasted chicken at Zuni Cafe 
Did you really think we’d skip the city’s most iconic dish? Roast chicken is often derided as a "safe" and boring entree. That's not the case at this Market Street classic where countless whole birds emerge daily from the wood-fired brick oven, presented on a warm bread salad that is as much a centerpiece as the moist, smoky chicken. Add this dish to the likes of the city's hills, cable cars, Willie Brown, Herb Caen, “The Catch” and Karl the Fog as an authentic part of the fabric of San Francisco.  
Price: $58 (for two or more)

1658 Market St.; 415-552-2522

pasta
dim sum
burritos
pastries
wings
historic restaurants
roast chicken
toast
pizzas
iconic food
signature dishes