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Pomelo is a delight: A neighborhood restaurant worth traveling to, it offers simple, high-quality international food for almost no money.
The restaurant is very small, with walls the color of lemongrass. About half the seating is at the counter, which looks onto an open kitchen in which various types of noodles are constantly being plunged into and removed from boiling water -- Pomelo's focus is on noodle dishes, with just a few other ventures. Each dish is named after a city: Bangkok, Lima, and Nagano are some of the more familiar. Coincidentally, this is in accordance with one of the Paul Adams Suggestions for a Good Restaurant: Provide the customers an obvious subject for conversation. Geography -- believe me -- allows for virtually risk-free date banter.
The menu is split into Side Trips and Destinations. The Side Trips, which are smaller and cheaper and listed first, rove from Suwa ($2), a large portion of excellent and very opaque miso soup, to Palermo ($3), decent basil-y bruschetta, to Strasbourg ($1), two slices of top-quality sourdough, served with butter.
San Francisco, CA 94122
Region: Sunset (Inner)
The Strasbourg is an implementation of another clever restaurant strategy: Sell something that's usually free for very little -- the customers will think it's a great deal! (Wow, a $1 appetizer! How often d'ya see that?) Selling the bread wouldn't work in a restaurant of the bistro mold, of course, where tradition and expectations are very clear, but Pomelo is unpredictable enough that it goes over just fine here.
The Gilroy ($3), consisting of bok choy juicily sauteed with chile flakes and a great deal of garlic (get it?), is delicious, but make sure your companion tries at least a sample, or you may be a garlic bachelor(ette) that evening. The salad rolls ($4) are well-executed specimens, too, redolent of mint and basil, and stuffed with shrimp and chicken. And the Pomelo ($3) is your chance to taste the restaurant's namesake fruit. It's sliced into a refreshingly tart green salad, with jicama for additional crunch. None of the Side Trips are at all heavy or imposing, and provide a nice stimulation to the appetite.
And so we reach the Destinations. This menu section is made up of soups, noodle salads, other noodle dishes, and grain-based entrees. The Pusan ($5) is a cold salad of slippery glass noodles and wakame in a faintly sesame-flavored dressing. It's succulent enough, but not outstanding -- it'd make a good shared appetizer. The Nagano ($6) is just the Suwa writ large, with perfectly done chewy udon. More of a meal is the Tokyo ($7). It's a deep bowl of dark, meaty, mushroomy broth teeming with nutty soba noodles and marinated tofu or chicken chunks. The broth is interesting enough to carry the diner through a whole bowl without becoming tedious.
Soup fans who weary of East Asia may appreciate the Damascus, a (presumably Syrian-style) thick, rustic lentil soup with greens whose lemonyness accentuates the flavor of the marvelous lens-shaped beans. Non-soup choices include the Bologna ($8), which is, as one might expect, a pretty traditional penne Bolognese, with good beef flavor leavened by a significant amount of parsley. The Cremona ($7) is a perfect summer (or spring) dish: fettuccine very lightly sauced with fresh vegetables -- yellow zucchini, asparagus -- and delicately perfumed with lavender and lemon. A short distance away we find the Manila ($7), a nest of thin rice noodles fried up with vegetables, bits of chicken, and shockingly sweet sausage. Its flavor is decent but monotonous, one of the restaurant's few disappointments.
Pomelo presents an innovative solution to the problem of which dessert to get: The restaurant only offers one, the Manaus ($3), which comprises two scoops of sorbet or gelato. (This correspondent hypothesizes that it's Howler brand.) The chocolate-hazelnut is really good, but that's what you'd have ordered anyway. Also the mango. (Another suggestion: Offering one dessert option, while resourceful, displays not quite the level of cleverness evinced by those places that offer four. The latter strategy almost forces tables of four to order one of each, for symmetry, even if they don't all necessarily want any dessert.)
A meal at Pomelo is refreshing; the restaurant's impressively inexpensive and delicious. And the variety of dishes means that there'll be something for everyone, even a quinoa pilaf for the entrenched noodle-hater. But remember -- it's a good idea to show up early, because it doesn't take many people to fill the place up.
92 Judah (at Sixth Avenue), 731-6175. Open Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; daily 5:30 to 10 p.m. Reservations not accepted. Payment: cash only. Muni: 6, 36, 43, or 66, or N Judah on Irving. Parking: difficult; lot on Sixth between Irving and Judah. Noise level: busy.