Infinite Appetite, Finite Budget: The Tenderloin

It all depends on where you draw the neighborhood’s boundaries, but not even the Mission has this much variety crammed into such a dense triangle.

Charred Cucumber. Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane

This is the sixth neighborhood issue SF Weekly has tackled over the past few months, and by far, the most irate feedback we get comes after when we adhere to a particular set of boundaries for the neighborhood in question. We took it on good authority from a Nob Hill expert that that neighborhood is considered to end at California Street, but someone chastised us in all caps that its southern boundary is actually Pine, one block south. (Our guess is that this person lives between California and Pine, and that this person’s identity is also very tied up with being a Nob Hill resident.)

While certainly not as amorphous as the Western Addition, the Tenderloin’s boundaries are a matter of some debate. There are many reasons for this, among them the proximity of poverty and wealth and the fact that even many nonprofit do-gooders admit that the Tenderloin is treated as a containment zone for drug use. Market Street would seem to be the least objectionable border, but even then, both the Tenderloin Precinct and the forthcoming Compton’s TLGB District extend south of it.

With the caveat that this formula will please almost no one, we’re going with Polk, Mason, O’Farrell, and Market streets — a choice that very deliberately omits the Geary corridor, which is a glorious, dive-filled universe unto itself. It’s not that we’re invested in riling people up. It’s that we promise to cover those places another day. For now, here are the indispensable Tenderloin eateries, all jumbled together.

Turtle Tower
645 Larkin St.
The anchor tenant of Little Saigon, this is only one of Turtle Tower’s three locations. The Hanoi-style Vietnamese restaurant has all the pho you could want, but the pho tai (rare beef) is probably the one whose gravitational pull you feel slowly dragging you in that direction. But pho ga with chicken gizzards is not to be missed.

farmerbrown
25 Mason St.
Jay Foster and Deanna Sison Foster’s soul food restaurant at the foot of Mason Street is known for its fried chicken, its catfish sandwich, and its live jazz, but it’s also an excellent breakfast spot for things like an andouille sausage and sweet pepper scramble. While so many places of this ilk lack a full liquor license, farmerbrown goes whole cocktail butchery. Psst, the Old Soul Old-Fashioned is made with raspberry jam.

Pho Hà Nam Nin
701 Larkin St. 
Have you ever had dry pho — i.e., with the broth on the side so you can use it for dipping or however you see fit? Not as well-known as Turtle Tower down the block, Hà Nam Nin has at least 30 soups on its menu, and they come full of fish cakes, chicken, and a ton more. It’s flu season; file this one away under “emergency, urgent.”

Ananda Fuara
1298 Market St.
Long before anybody called the area Mid-Market, there was this “fountain of delight” founded by spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy. Vegetarian-friendly — try the “Neatloaf,” a baked sandwich packed with ricotta, eggs, and tomato sauce — but not dogmatically vegan, it’s been holding down an unloved corner for years. Don’t overlook the saag gosht (a Punjabi dish of lamb with spinach sauce) but be advised Ananda Fuara closes twice a year for a week to honor Chinmoy’s birthday and the anniversary of his arrival in the U.S.

Kin Khao
55 Cyril Magnin St.
There is exactly one Michelin star in the entire Tenderloin, and it belongs to Pim Techamuanvivit. Kin Khao in the Parc 55 Hotel might technically be considered Union Square, but a $60 nine-course tasting menu is firmly rooted in Chiang Mai street food — and some of these dishes are as inventive as it gets, such as a curry mousse in a jar or a mussel-pineapple curry.

Saigon Sandwich
560 Larkin St., no website
Truly, the alpha and omega of San Francisco banh mi. Never mind the awkward pile-up masquerading as a line or the occasional surliness. The special combination sandwich (with pork roll, pâté, and roast pork) is the best $4.75 you’ll ever spend, and if you get it with those shrimp chips that taste a little like low tide, we know you’ll be back.

Mushroom dumplings at Onsen (Peter Lawrence Kane)

Onsen
466 Eddy St.
A combination Japanese bath and Japanese restaurant, Onsen is housed in a former automotive shop whose good bones make the back-lit salt-block window in the dry sauna glow. Not only is it relaxing as hell, the tiny kitchen puts out compelling dishes with an earthy, forest-floor palate. Many of them are available in small or large portion sizes, so you can eat your way through the menu without becoming un-relaxed about how much you’re spending.

George and Lennie
277 Golden Gate Ave.
Third-wave coffee is in pretty short supply in the Tenderloin apart from Equator, but this coffee shop with a liquor license that caters to the maker crowd is notable for its eclectic decor, the cast of characters who frequent it, and for the butter coffee — which is just what it sounds like. It’s a happier ending than Of Mice and Men, too.

Rusty’s Southern
750 Ellis St.
Native Carolinian Rusty Olson knows what he’s doing with a sharp knife, and the proof is in the $17 barbecue plate (hickory-smoked chopped pork shoulder, Lexington red slaw, hush puppies). It’s also in the pork chop, the chicken fried steak, the smoked meatloaf with Benton’s bacon barbecue sauce, and in the “pig grits.” Grasping a pattern here? Olson also has a very respectable wine and beer list, which includes Champagne to go with the deviled eggs, pickles, and cheese on that country plate.

Hai Ky Mi Gia
707 Ellis St., no website
This noodle house flies pretty low to the ground, but if people know only one thing about it, it’s probably this: Get the braised duck-leg with wonton soup. It looks like a lunch but it eats like a dinner. Don’t be sparing with the chili oil, either.

Villon and Charmaine’s
1100 Market St.
On the ground floor and rooftop of Proper, a boutique hotel that opened in 2017, are Villon and Charmaine’s (respectively). A beautiful, brunch-and-dinner spot by Chef Jason Franey and a stunning cocktail lounge from Bon Vivants with beguiling views, they would embody the soul of Mid-Market if the building weren’t 100 years old. We’re eagerly awaiting the arrival of La Bande, the third leg of the Proper triangle.

Gibson
111 Mason St.
Robin Song’s stunning newcomer in the Hotel Bijou’s Deco Revival dining room is dedicated to fire in its most elemental sense, and we’ve been waiting a long time for his return. With a plethora of Gibsons to choose among, and dishes like charred cucumber and a smoked Sonoma duck, this is what decadence feels like — yet every dish stays under the $30 mark.

Jin Mi Korean Cuisine
366 Golden Gate Ave.
Bibimbap for the win. This no-fuss spot has slightly odd hours (9:30 a.m. – 8 p.m., closed Saturdays) but for japchae, an enormous kimchi pajun, and good old fried rice, it’s without equal in the Tenderloin. But about that bibimbap: Go for the seafood dolsot variety, served with a fried egg.

Yemen Kitchen
219 Jones St., no website
Saudi Arabia has been pummeling its impoverished southern neighbor while the United States looks the other way, and there has been an influx of Yemenis into the Tenderloin in recent years. Expats have been coming to tiny Yemen Kitchen long before — and while flatbread and hummus might not move you to tears, when it’s good, it’s good. Don’t miss the immensely satisfying lamb kabsaah (served over rice) with cup after cup of cinnamon-flavored tea.

Brenda’s French Soul Food
652 Polk St.
Jammed isn’t even the word. Having doubled in size a few years ago, then added Libby Jane Cafe next door and also expanded to Divisadero with Brenda’s Meat & Three, chef-owner Brenda Buenviaje still can’t keep up with demand. The beignet flight is what everybody raves about — crawfish being the best — but this is still the gold standard for a hangtown fry. Don’t forget watermelon ice tea, but really, you almost can’t go wrong.

 

For more Tenderloin coverage check out these stories:

A Tale of Two Tenderloin Businesses
Small businesses in the Tenderloin face a unique set of challenges and rewards, which vary, block by block.

Who Lives in the Tenderloin?
It might not be who you think.

Roses from Concrete
Poetry offers a window to the perspective of eighth-graders living in the Tenderloin.

Screaming Queens Cause Scenes at Gene’s
The Tenderloin Museum mounts a theatrical re-creation of the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, with audience members as coffee shop patrons.

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