"Is this a pop-up?" my dining companion shouted in between mouthfuls of a peppered duck chow fun ($11). The dish was so finessed it could have been on one of Iron Chef Chinese Chen Kenichi's winning menus, perhaps in the "Battle Fowl" episode. My friend could be excused for the confusion and the yelling. Though hunkered down at a corner banquette of the North Beach bar Amante smack in the middle of the post-work rush, we weren't jonesing for a cocktail. We were there for Chubby Noodle, the tiny Asian fusion eatery tucked in the back.
To be clear, Chubby Noodle isn't a pop-up. Rather, it's one of a small number of new local kitchens inside established bars, serving expertly prepared upscale grub that would be unrecognizable to your fried-mozzarella-loving Uncle Fred.
Chef-owner Pete Mrabe's ramen ($10) is the only version I've tried outside of New York's Ipuddo that has me considering buying into the national ramen craze. It's not that the ingredients, including fresh corn and pickled spinach, were unique. They're not. Instead, it's near-perfect execution: springy noodles, rectangles of crackly tender pork belly, a quivering poached egg floating on the surface, waiting to be detonated by the poke of a chopstick. Roasted pork and chicken bones along with a few dashes of Togarashi, a Japanese red chile pepper, fortified a deep, zesty nine-hour broth.
I'd return for the ramen alone but that would mean missing other must-order dishes, like the Korean pork tacos ($9), house-made thick flour tortillas loaded with nuggets of Niman Ranch rib chop, Korean pickles, and a mouth-searing Arbol chile vinegar. A pool of yogurt sauce cooled the whole thing down. Pork belly reappears in a crock of fried rice ($9), moistened by a healthy dose of funky house-made kimchi and the trickling yolk of a fried egg.
Mrabe clearly knows his way around a deep-fryer. A popcorn bucket full of fried, buttermilk-brined chicken wings ($9) arrived at the table hot yet greaseless, and each wing provided a shattering crunch. For 5-year-olds and the bone-averse, fried chicken strips are also offered. Less sexy but equally flavorsome was a trio of translucent egg rolls ($7) stuffed with beef and glass noodles and livened up by a sharp plum sauce. Only a ho-hum tuna poke ($11) ruined the winning streak, though the accompanying fresh chips were yet another gem from the fryer.
Across town at Clooney's, a true Mission dive not for the hipster or the faint of heart, former Starbucks manager and first-time restaurateur Justin Navarro slings more traditional pub food classics from a pint-size kitchen, appropriately titled The Galley. Not content to do the city's umpteenth version of deviled eggs, he goes way old-school with a hard-boiled version ($3), pickled for two weeks in a jar of Mexican yellow peppers and their juices. Not hardcore enough for you? How about a heap of off-brand pretzel sticks underneath? Typically, I don't bite into anything that's tinted neon yellow, but in this case my faith was rewarded with a buzzing heat along with the pleasant childhood familiar chalkiness of the yolk.
Sandwiches are cut into quarters so that regulars never have to put down their drinks. The signature French onion sandwich ($8) was a rugged combination of roast beef, oozy provolone, and a mound of caramelized onions that spilled out of two slices of buttery grilled white bread. Reminiscent of cheesesteak, it's perfect for soaking up alcohol. Just as hearty was a grilled mild cheddar cheese ($6.50) bulked up by a few slices of cracker-crisp bacon and thinly sliced green apples. We took our server's advice and used the accompanying pickled cauliflower as a palate-cleanser. Navarro jokes that his grilled peanut butter and jelly ($5) serves dual purpose as the lone vegetarian entrée and dessert. However, fresh-ground peanut butter and homemade strawberry jam proved this lunchbox classic to be more than an item of convenience.
As I picked up one of the baby back ribs ($9), meat started evacuating the bone, creating an impromptu second course of pork debris drenched in a not-too-sweet, barely smoky sauce. With no silverware in sight, I licked every last bit from the bargain-basement paper container the ribs were served in. And that sauce? After sampling numerous new barbecue establishments during the past year, it ranks near the top. So it was a great surprise when Navarro revealed that his sauce was store-bought (he wouldn't reveal the brand), with a little mustard and cider vinegar mixed in.
If décor is at all of importance, neither of these places is for you — unless you love enormous flat screen televisions and tight seating arrangements (though Amante's faded booths may have been swanky once upon a time.) Service is of the "take a number and we'll deliver it to your table" variety, and dirty plates, or in The Galley's case, paper cartons, pile up quickly. But with prices topping out at $11, you can't really complain.
So is deluxe bar food a lasting trend? I don't think so. Unlike trucks, carts, and pop-up space, there's a scarcity of local taverns with kitchen facilities attached, meaning that operations like Chubby Noodle and The Galley are difficult to copycat. And that inimitability, along with some pretty remarkable, distinct food, is part of their grand allure.