By Omar Mamoon
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Breakfast has long been heralded as the most important meal of the day, and dinner's supremacy in the daily meal lineup isn't questioned, but poor little lunch so often sits between them like a neglected middle child. Especially the type of midday meal that more and more office workers are having these days — a mediocre sandwich or salad wolfed down at the desk in the pale glow of the computer screen. But even in the Financial District, San Francisco's closest thing to midtown Manhattan, there are places that rise above the deli and fast-casual rut; places where lunch can become the most exciting meal of your day.
Soup Junkie opened last summer as a long-awaited brick-and-mortar from the popular pop-up. Like the name suggests, soup's the main focus of the short menu, but it's not your normal assembly-line dispensary of humdrum tomato and chicken noodle. The tiny storefront on Market serves FiDi's best pho ($9.50), replete with a velvety, slightly sweet broth and high-quality beef, but it's the crab and tomato soup, bun rieu ($9.50), that has the addicted crowds lining up every day.
The traditional Vietnamese soup is made from owner Hung Lam's mother's recipe, with a faintly spicy broth made with fresh crab for a hint of seafood freshness, like a sea breeze a few blocks from the beach. I'd happily drink the broth on its own, but when poured over the rest of the ingredients (packaged in a separate bowl to prevent sogginess on the trip back to your office), it's extraordinary — the briny flavors play off the ethereal crab omelet and mini-pork meatballs tangled in rice noodles, mint, and stewed tomato.
The shop also sells sandwiches, including an excellent pork banh mi whose braised pork belly, chicken liver pâté, and house-made mayo have the texture of a pulled pork sandwich ($8); a juicy chicken banh mi with a complex and flavorful five-spice glaze that makes the usually boring protein eminently interesting ($7); and a fried tofu and jicama sandwich ($6) worth converting to vegetarianism for, at least during the lunch hour.
The neighborhood's sandwich king is The Sentinel, a slip of a café just south of Market that has a line from the moment it starts serving lunch at 11:30 a.m. The frazzled workers behind the counter move with superhuman speed, however — all the better to serve more of their intriguing daily selections that tweak the usual sandwich suspects.
Instead of tuna, there's trout salad ($8.75): The flaked trout's fishy flavor is held in check by the just-right amount of mayo, and it's flecked with dill and the occasional sweet surprise of a golden raisin. The pear and chutney ($8) is a play on the plowman, piled high with spiced stewed pears, white cheddar cheese, and butter lettuce on a shiny seeded bun — it hits all the right sweet and savory notes.
Meaty options abound as well, like the lamb and eggplant ($9), a cross between ratatouille and a sloppy joe that has a surprisingly delicate fruity edge thanks to the stewed eggplant. Corned beef and cabbage ($9) is a longtime customer favorite, and it's easy to see why — the sandwich is almost too big to hold in your hands, piled with house-made corned beef on a sourdough bun. Daily specials sell out quickly, like a recent dish of three wonderfully dense pork meatballs on a bed of grainy, just-creamy-enough polenta.
The Sentinal's chef/owner Dennis Leary, of Canteen and Golden West, originally started the place because he wanted to buy House of Shields next door — he named it The Sentinel because he was watching over the storied bar. Little did he know he'd also be watching over the lunchtime desires of downtown workers.
Onigilly got its start at La Cocina, and after success at Off the Grid and other pop-up-friendly spots, opened its restaurant on Kearny last fall. Owner Koji Kanematsu's singular focus is onigiri, seaweed-wrapped rice balls that are a popular and ubiquitous snack in Japan. They're made with organic brown rice seasoned with nothing but sea salt and your choice of filling — a light, healthy choice for lunch.
The menu is confusing at first glance, but it's easy to master once you get the lay of the land. Choose from the list of 20-plus toppings, ranging from vegetarian (pickled plum, sauteed lotus root, teriyaki tofu), to seafood (miso tuna salad, spicy shrimp, unagi) and meat (kurobota ham, ginger-honey beef, spicy bacon). You can order the toppings in a three onigiri "set" which comes with a green salad and edamame, or have them atop a rice bowl or cold tofu-yam noodles ($8.75).
If it's your first visit, the signature onigiri are the way to go — little packets of rice and flavorful fillings encased in crispy nori (though eat quickly; the longer you wait, the soggier the seaweed gets). Unlike sushi, the brown rice tends to fall apart outside of the wrapping rather than stick together; like sushi, these rice balls will only fill you up before a few hours before you're hungry again. But a break from other quick-and-cheap downtown institutions? That's priceless.