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If you live in the Bay Area, you're sure to get this sooner or later: Friends or family from out of town are planning a visit to the area, and they want your advice on where they should eat. I never have a set response to this question; it elicits a series of queries from me, related to price, location, and appetite. There's the high-roller who is willing to spend lots of time and money on dinner, the intrepid seeker-out of ethnic dives, the family with picky children all with different needs.
A recent visit by my Los Angeles-based friend Mary to San Francisco added an extra thrill, in that I was welcome (and happy) to join them. Mary, her mom, mother-in-law, and a sister-in-law were going to be ensconced downtown for several days of tourism interspersed, they hoped, with some iconic yet affordable S.F. chow.
Although we managed to hit a number of S.F. highlights during our first day together, in my mind, the main event was dinner. I'd reserved a table for an early dinner at Out the Door, the new, cheaper-and-easier-to-access sister establishment of S.F.'s famous Vietnamese restaurant Slanted Door, in the Westfield Centre. Though not without some trouble: The phone at Out the Door was never answered during a five-hour attempt one day, so I resorted to calling the Slanted Door, not easy in itself, and had them make the reservation for us.
San Francisco, CA 94103
Region: South of Market
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Universal Cafe, Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., dinner Tuesday through Sunday from 5:30 to 9:30, brunch Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Closed Monday. Reservations accepted for dinner only. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: fairly easy. Muni: 9, 27. Noise level: high.
Cellophane noodles with crab $14
Chicken claypot with caramel sauce $14.50
Beef bavette with leeks and chili $10.50
Thai basil panna cotta $6
Ginger tapioca $6
Grilled asparagus with sizzled egg $10
Tagliatelle with chicken liver bolognese $17
Roast chicken with polenta and parsnips $18
Grilled bavette with onion rings $22
Apple and rhubarb crisp $7
Universal Cafe, 2814 19th (at Bryant), 821-4608, www.universalcafe.net.
There was no one at the host stand to greet us when we arrived. Mary spent the time admiring the take-out menu over the open counter just inside the Westfield's basement food court. (Excuse me, concourse level!) But eventually we were led to a boomerang-shaped aluminum-colored table tucked away in one corner of the vast modern room.
There are nine categories listed on the long, one-page menu: rolls/ salads, starters, sandwich/buns, vegetables, soup, vermicelli/noodles, seafood, meat, and dessert. Prices range from $3 for a steamed chicken or vegetarian bun to $17 for petrale sole with chili lime sauce, but most hover in the $7.50 to $14 range, gentle indeed. Lots of menu items looked good to us, but there were certain Slanted Door specialties we had to try. We started with fresh spring rolls: fat pink shrimp gleaming through the rice-noodle wrapper, also containing sliced pork and fresh mint, and helped along considerably by dipping in the sweet peanut sauce served alongside. They had sweetly cut the four rolls in half, unasked, to make them easier to share among the five of us. The shredded green papaya salad, with strips of tofu, pickled carrots, roasted peanuts, and the cilantro-like rau ram, was refreshing but could have used a sharper dressing.
Again, the server had kindly asked the kitchen to cut the Saigon roast pork sandwich in chunks so that we could sample it easily; the quality of Out the Door's pork is superb, but I find that almost any banh mi dive around town does a more interesting, multilayered sandwich; Out the Door accents the pork only with cucumber, rice-wine-vinegared carrots, and cilantro.
But everything else we ordered was fabulous. The iconic Slanted Door dishes, such as the chicken claypot moist pieces of boneless chicken bathed in a complex, dark caramel sauce, and cellophane noodles with lumps of local Dungeness crab, black trumpet mushrooms, and asparagus were as delicious here as on the Embarcadero, and much cheaper. We also enjoyed crispy egg noodles with rock shrimp, braised squid, yellow chives, and mung bean sprouts, and Niman Ranch beef bavette with leeks, ginger, and dried red chilis, a heartier, chewier, spicier version of the Door's shaking beef made with filet mignon. The stir-fried pea shoots, we thought, could have used more garlic and caramelized shallots.
All the desserts were stellar: panna cotta in swirled sauces of Thai basil and mango, a rich flourless chocolate cake served with a puff of Vietnamese coffee mousse, warm sesame sticky rice dumplings, and especially the spicy ginger tapioca pudding. We'd had a miraculous feast for about $35 a person. I envisioned becoming a happy regular here.
On the next day, the ladies touristed alone. I picked them up for a dinner at the Universal Cafe, which I'd chosen as an echt-S.F. restaurant, a little off the beaten track, which serves seasonal, fresh New American cuisine from the open kitchen that takes up half of its cozy quarters. But we found time on the way to swing by Dianda's Italian-American Pastry Co. (2882 Mission, 647-5469) and pick up some almond horns, chocolate-coated custard-filled macaroons, and almond tortes for the girls' breakfast the next day.
We ran riot through most of the Cafe's entire menu (which evolves nightly) of eight starters (from $5-12) and six mains ($16-22). We started with two big beautiful, bright salads: baby arugula topped with half an avocado and fried almonds dressed with aged balsamico; and frisée with crumbled marinated sheep's milk feta, Minneola tangelo sections, fresh mint, and capers. We also enjoyed sleek, sharp marinated Monterey Bay sardines, served with slivered fennel, parsley, Meyer lemon, and nicoise olives. The purée of late-winter vegetable soup, though lushly creamy, never yielded up much flavor, despite its garnish of tiny croutons fried in duck fat. The star of the appetizers were the grilled asparagus topped with a sizzled farm egg (a sexy way of saying sunny-side-up) and a salsa verde made with preserved lemons. We also nibbled on crisp frites scattered with fried herbs, including fragrant thyme, served with garlicky aioli.