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SFO restaurants

Wednesday, Apr 4 2001
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Human beings don't want to eat in airports. We find ourselves in airports, wanting to eat, but we don't always go away happy. Of course, it doesn't have to be that way, and now travelers at SFO have more than a dozen new gustatory alternatives at the recently opened International Terminal, a gorgeous space where clean, flowing, industrial sparseness meets the quiet, cavernous feel of a cathedral. To investigate a few of the more promising locales, my friend Alexandra and I spent two evenings at the terminal. We admired the brilliant green bamboo trees; we checked out a Native American basket exhibit; we got lost, but not for too long; and, of course, we ate. Since I like to state clear opinions in these reviews, I came up with a criterion for the five places we visited based on my own secret to dining while flying -- I make a sandwich ahead of time, and if I can't find anything better in the airport, I eat it. Thus, to earn a passing mark, the following eateries had to equal the satisfaction of a low-cost, zero-hassle sandwich from the Hugunin kitchen. And for the record: I make a mean tuna salad. Let the games begin.

Originally, I was going to begin this review with restaurateur George Chen's tony Restaurant Qi and Water Bar, the only one of SFO's new eateries to have potential as a "destination" restaurant. The setup was stunning, chef Bruno Chemel's French-Japanese menu shone brightly, and the wine list contained a staggering number of three- and four-figure bottles. But Qi's customers were few, and the restaurant has already closed due to a little problem called not paying the rent, according to airport officials.

Thus, if you'd like a bona fide sit-down dinner at the new terminal, drop by legendary party guy Harry Denton's new digs, a smallish alcove located just past the metal detectors in Boarding Area A. I set off every alarm security had and was frisked extensively before reaching the restaurant proper, where a kindly hostess ushered us into one of two lushly upholstered, high-backed booths. (Other options include standard tables or a seat at the bar.) The vibe was soothing, with carefully focused lights trained on gleaming, polished wood as a soft rock soundtrack emanated from the sound system. A trip through the cocktail list yielded a marvelously fruity Bay Breeze (vodka with pineapple and cranberry juices), followed by a blisteringly tart Harry's 'Rita that made us wonder why on earth anyone would blend top-shelf spirits such as Patrón Añejo and Grand Marnier with cheap, pre-mixed sweet-and-sour.

The dinner menu proved more consistent, offering a selection of moderately priced California-style dishes (a seafood brochette, grilled ahi, grilled portobello mushroom, among other things). Our waitress told us she orders the crab and artichoke dip -- and apparently she's been eating well. A hulking round of crusty sourdough brimmed with a warm, scallion-flecked, cream-rich ambrosia that took smashingly to a side of blue corn tortilla chips -- easily a meal in itself. Not everything was flawless, though. A Caesar salad arrived untossed, gobbed with huge, sludgelike smears of dressing, but despite the presentation it still pleased the palate by combining crisp romaine lettuce, cherry tomatoes, olives, and Parmesan with a sharp, salty anchovy bite. Equally tasty was the grilled chicken sandwich -- served on a warm, flaky white roll -- which weighed at least a pound and fused layers of tender chicken, grilled onions, crisp bacon, and red bell peppers with a delicate, smoky tang.

Then came what you might call an interesting culinary moment. As we began our main course -- skewered, juicy gulf prawns and surreally melting chicken tenders in a lifeless kalamata olive/sun-dried tomato marinade -- we noticed that the manager had begun watching a documentary on E. coli on one of the bar's two televisions. Though I'm all in favor of food service professionals educating themselves to better protect the public, I also believe there's a time and a place for everything. At first we tried to ignore it, but then the documentary began showing photos of young E. coli victims and microscopic close-ups of wriggling, writhing bacteria rods, which definitely put an end to our appetites.

In all fairness, I doubt anyone else will encounter such a problem, and the food we tried was definitely satisfactory. Had I been traveling to Hawaii, my sandwich would have survived, and it might even have joined me on the beach.

Reassuringly, we found no televisions in the two food courts near the entrances to the boarding areas. Instead, the courts host restaurants such as Ebisu, an offshoot of the much lauded, perpetually crowded Inner Sunset sushi emporium. The airport setup is a bit more modest -- a half-dozen or so stools set before a small sushi bar where slightly cloudy glass frames a selection of raw fish. You can get 10 sakes, seven udons, or the standard bento box: a tasty seaweed salad, Japanese-style pickles, decent shumai (pork dumplings), and -- the huge disappointments -- warmed-over chicken and salmon teriyaki that may well have been transported from the real Ebisu.

Nothing could be worse than bad bento (except, of course, a dose of E. coli). Sushi seemed a better alternative, and the offerings ranged from nigiri to more than 20 special rolls, prepared (in our case) by a young sushi chef who spent most of his time flirting with two females at the end of the bar. The best thing he produced was a decent "JP" Roll -- diced scallop, green onion, tobiko, and lemon juice. The worst was a "Poky" Roll crafted with yellow onion and mushy albacore bathed in a marinade so overwhelmingly spicy we wondered if the previous day's fresh fish was being disguised. For our third selection, I asked him which was better -- the Rainbow Roll or the Dragon Roll.

He suggested the Dragon, but since Alexandra doesn't like unagi (an ingredient in the Dragon Roll) I chose the Rainbow instead. Despite my order, we received a Dragon Roll. It combined lifeless, limp broiled eel with crab, tempura'd shrimp, tobiko, and avocado. With three more places to visit, we asked for to-go boxes. Our rogue chef sneered at us, as if to say, "Yeah, right."

Though a slightly more helpful cashier provided us with to-go boxes, my tuna salad has never given me so much attitude. Given the high prices and disappointing quality at this Ebisu offshoot, the sandwich would have been a welcome alternative.

Now, let's speed things up. We didn't visit Lori's Diner (24-hour breakfast, diner-type fare), Osho Japanese, Fung Lum, Andale Taqueria, or Il Fornaio. But we did stop by Willow Street Pizza, which offers sandwiches, salads, breakfast, even tiramisu, and bakes its pies in an incredibly expensive-looking wood-fired oven. Pizza options include Thai, barbecue chicken, or more standard choices such as the one we picked: a crisp, thin-crust combo, still glowing with heat, topped with Italian sausage, salami, pepperoni, mushrooms, red bell peppers, and olives.

It was, by far, the best pizza I've ever had at an airport -- and it put plenty of non-airport pizzerias to shame. Had I been traveling to the Big Apple, my sandwich and I would have seen the sights before deciding that (duh) San Francisco is better.

I didn't think dim sum and airports would go together, but the satellite of the Embarcadero's highly rated Harbor Village tested my theory with a dim sum sampler. The result was a pair of wretchedly soggy pork dumplings that may have been rejects from Ebisu SFO, a flavorless steamed pork bun, mediocre pot stickers, and feather-light egg rolls that were a bit light on the stuffing. (I take back my earlier proclamation -- bad dim sum is much worse than bad bento, but still better than food poisoning.) We then tried the special of the day: zesty hot and sour soup, tender Mongolian beef with green onion, a scoop of rice, and a side of stir-fried vegetables.

The verdict: Avoid the dim sum, but thanks to the special, had I been traveling internationally, some lucky nation would have received a visit from a real, live American sandwich.

For our final nosh, we dropped by what was, for me, the most promising locale of all -- Burger Joint. Since I live in the Mission and prefer burritos, I don't eat many burgers, but when I do, I eat them at Valencia Street's original BJ. As with the Mission outpost, the burgers take a few minutes to prepare at BJ SFO, and here, too, they are made with superior Niman Ranch beef, then served with mayo, lettuce, tomato, red onion, and pickles. We ordered a cheeseburger with Monterey Jack and received a tangy, deliriously juicy burger with thick, pepper-dusted fries, plus a chocolate shake so decadent it could have provided dessert for 10 people.

Not only did the burger put my sandwich to shame, but it was also better than those on Valencia.

"No!" cried Alexandra, a big fan of the original BJ. OK, I relented: It was exactly as good, and yet another reason to leave my sandwich at home the next time I take to the skies.

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Greg Hugunin

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