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Terminal 2: Foodie Culture Hits SFO Airport 

Wednesday, Jun 8 2011
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"Attention on the concourse," said the polite voice on the loudspeaker. "Paging William, Howell? William, Howell? Maybe you're at the bar? Or perhaps Pinkberry,? If you don't report to the gate in one minute, your flight may leave without you."

The speaker was hazarding a smart guess: A good chunk of the travelers passing through Terminal 2 seem to require a preflight froyo from Pinkberry or a pint of Anchor Steam at Lark Creek Grill. The smallest of SFO's three domestic terminals, which reopened April 14 after significant renovations, has received more than its share of national attention for its LEED Gold-certified status, its light-drenched interior, its Fritz Hansen Egg chairs — and its food court.

The new terminal requires its restaurant tenants, some familiar and some new to airports, to serve hormone-free dairy products, cage-free eggs, and sustainable seafood. The intensified focus on airport food makes sense, given the disappearance of the in-flight meal and the gastrotourists who flock here just to eat. (Hey, if Las Vegas greets visitors with a bank of slot machines ...) As a dedicated Virgin America flyer, I've passed through the terminal several times in the past month, ordering dishes off the stands, timing the waits, and asking myself: Is this good compared to the low standards of airport food, or worth eating in its own right?

Apart from Peet's Coffee, the most familiar concession in the terminal is Andalé, a Mexican stand with sister locations around the airport. The menu board lists burritos, tacos, enchiladas, and other antojitos. Unfortunately, the quality of Andalé's food was familiar, too. Not only did the combo plate ($12.95) take 15 minutes to prepare — easily the longest prep time I encountered — when I opened the compostable plastic container I found a chile relleno saturated in oil and a crisp taquito containing flavorless chicken smothered in crema and queso fresco, along with firm, bland beans and firm, bland rice.

Another familiar name to San Franciscans is Plant Cafe Organic, which has three vegetarian-leaning restaurants around the city. The wraps, bowls, and baked goods at the airport include options for vegans and gluten-free diners, two groups of people who normally have to content themselves between flights with a bag of chips and bottled apple juice. Grab-and-go salads like the mixed greens with beets, shaved fennel, goat cheese, and balsamic vinaigrette ($10.50) seemed perfectly fine, the standard iceberg-in-a-plastic-box salad updated for the Ferry Building regular. But a "seasonal" fruit bowl ($5.50) layered tart, chalky mango and nominally fruit-tasting pineapple over wan strawberries, while a bowl of steamed quinoa ($10) topped with gray-green vegetables and a few cubes of tofu ($3 extra) was smothered in a stingingly tart ginger sauce. Edible, yes. Healthful, yes. Enjoyable? Not for $13.

Live Fire Pizza, in the back of the Napa Farms Market complex, was certainly an improvement over Sbarro. The stand bakes or reheats its sandwiches and pizzas in an open-mouthed oven whose inner dome is photogenically licked by gas flames. Were it located 10 miles north, outside the boundaries of the mysterious airport half-world in which it exists, there'd be little demand for a four-cheese pizza ($10.50) whose cracker crust could barely support the cheese pooling on top, or a fire-blackened baguette stuffed with pulled pork ($10.95), big chunks of roasted meat tossed with a few spoonfuls of sweet sauce and not enough of anything else.

But the rest of the Napa Farms Market — a hybrid gourmet food shop, cafe, takeout food emporium, and wine shop curated by Oxbow Farm Market founder Steve Carlin, airport-concessions firm Tastes on the Fly, and wine bar Vino Volo — was exactly the kind of California cuisine showcase the terminal promised. The marketplace is stocked with the host gifts San Franciscans normally pick up at the Ferry Building to take to their classier Arkansas aunts: locally produced caramel popcorn, jams, and dried fruits, as well as chocolates from TCHO, Acme breads, Cowgirl Creamery cheeses, and bottles of Northern California wine. Vino Volo, the attached wine bar, offers glasses and tasting flights as well. Reminding travelers that they are in farm country are a few forlorn heads of cauliflower and butternut squash, quickly ignored in favor of a drinks case filled with kombucha and coconut water and a bright display of Kara's cupcakes.

At the front of the 5,000-square-foot market is an Equator Coffee stand, the Marin roastery's first retail location. Its staff hadn't mastered the pourover system enough to justify paying more for a single-estate Rwandan coffee, but the normal brewed coffee made for better drinking than Peet's. At the back of the market is the Tyler Florence Rotisserie, which opened a month after the rest of the market. My flight departed between lunch and dinner, so by the time I visited, the meats had been off the spit for a few hours. I managed a few bites of porchetta ($12.50, with two sides) before the thick layers of fat in the roast pork got to me, and the Fulton Valley Farms chicken ($12.50 for a quarter bird with a sauce and two sides) had dried out, requiring hefty doses of a herb-bright salsa verde to eat. But the sides — properly roasted spears of asparagus showered in Parmesan shavings, baked orecchiette in a dense cheese sauce — were so good I picked at them all through a flight to Seattle.

What else would I eat if I went back? The California roll and four-nigiri combo I picked up at Wakaba Sushi & Noodle, for one. It was about as good as the prepackaged sushi Whole Foods sells at lunchtime, which is to say, perfectly respectable when eaten over the Rockies. And while I had to wait 10 minutes for a cheeseburger ($9.75) from Burger Joint, the only Terminal 2 stand constantly surrounded by ticketholders, the burger I received when my number was called constituted real food by any measure: a fat Niman Ranch patty tinged with grill smoke; a toasted bun for clutching; and stubby, crisp fries.

Perhaps the best thing I ate at the airport was the snapper sandwich ($13.95) at Lark Creek Grill, which was meltingly tender, doused in a shallot-flecked tartar sauce, and pressed into a light, glossy brioche roll. The grill, whose decor is a Twitter-era update of Prairie Style, is one of the terminal's two sit-down restaurants with linen napkins and proper service. En route home from Las Vegas, I spent a pleasant half-hour at Cat Cora, the other full-service stand, recovering from the flight with a pint of Trumer and a couple of lamb chops ($14). Had I eaten the chops at a local restaurant, I might have raised my eyebrows at the price, but after a weekend of casino margaritas and lousy scrambled eggs, the chops, cooked rare and topped with a dab of chunky romesco sauce, were as welcome as a warm washcloth and a shoulder massage.

Terminal 2 does represent San Francisco's obsessive restaurant culture better than the other terminals. With 12 food stands and 10 gates, though, it's not clear whether each of the tenants will attract enough volume to survive — especially since it's not possible to pass from Terminals 1 or 3 to Terminal 2 without going through security. If you're stuck at SFO for an extra couple of hours, waiting for your delayed United flight to leave, should you brave a long walk and two luggage scans for a snapper sandwich and a glass of Pinot Grigio? Ask yourself this: Will a greasy breakfast burrito content you all the way to Cleveland?