Can't Believe I've Never Been: Irma's Pampanga

Welcome to Can’t Believe I’ve Never Been, a new, semi-regular series where food writers who’ve never got a chance to eat at El Bulli keep the same mistake from happening twice by visiting some lesser-known S.F. spots.

After biking, walking, and driving past it hundreds of times in the years that I’ve lived in San Francisco, I finally had lunch at Irma’s Pampanga on 16th Street and South Van Ness. The corner has been in the news lately, as the vacant lot across the street was set to be luxe condos and its now slated for an all-affordable development. It’s the precise kind of small business that tends to suffer from sudden changes to a neighborhood’s fabric, but maybe now Irma’s will stick around for a while.

[jump] Having been around since 1990 (with a 1999-2003 hiatus) Irma’s is not entirely under-the-radar. Apart from a highly visible location at a fairly major intersection, it pops up at various Asian street festivals and had a booth at Pride a few years back. There were only five or six people in there, which meant lots and lots of empty seats, but speedy service.

And for the record, “Pampanga” is a province of the Philippines.

I got the special combo, a plate of pancit (noodles) with Shanghai lumpia (fried pork spring rolls), and some barbecued pork on a skewer. When I said yes to the offer of sauce, the woman behind the counter dunked the skewer into the vat whence it came. (For the lumpia, I also helped myself to some Mang Tomas All-Purpose Sauce, made from pork livers.)

Let’s talk about the décor, which ain’t much: linoleum tile, wood paneling, utilitarian tables and chairs, colored panels behind the counter, a row of windows with sheer white curtains tied in the center, and Filipino soaps on TV. And there’s a ghost bike chained directly in front of the door. While I was leaving, a woman dashed out ahead of me because she’d parked in the red zone and an Interceptor was eyeing her SUV warily. Apologizing profusely, she merely waited until the meter-mister had moved on before blithely heading back into finish her lunch. Kudos to you, brazen diner!

I wouldn’t say that I loved my meal, which had the homogenized, cooked-in-big-batches-and-kept-warm-in-smaller-batches qualities of middling Chinese takeout, with slightly different ingredients. (Maybe next time I will venture into whole fried fish territory.) But you really can’t beat the $8 price tag, or the authenticity. Hopefully, Irma’s finds a new fan base in the seven stories’ worth of new neighbors its about to get, and sticks around for a long time.

Irma’s Pampanga, 2901 16th St., 415-626-6688.

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