I recently had a friend visit the city who’s one request was good, cheap ethnic food. In other words, hole-in-the-wall restaurants in questionable neighborhoods with often less than stellar health department grades. But at the same time, places offering food you would actually write home about, and for less than ten bucks. There’s no shortage of cheap restaurants in the city, but finding those diamonds in the rough takes a little work. So after some careful research, here’s what I came up with:
532 Jones St. (near Geary)
Tel. (415) 928-0333
Shalimar is the very definition of a hole-in-the-wall restaurant: Dimly lit — not for ambience but from exposed 40-watt bulbs and florescent lights — graying walls that haven’t seen a coat of paint in years, worn linoleum floors, a health code grade in the 60s (out of 100) and a location on the edge of the Tenderloin. But it also has some of the best, most authentic Indian and Pakistani food in the city. Witness its many customers from the Subcontinent, families cobbling tables together, and the line that often forms outside. The menu is on a sheet of newsprint, like a broadsheet snipped from the morning daily, and you order at the counter and pay after. I usually get the chicken tikka masala or palak paneer, but everything I’ve had is good, and you’ll be challenged to spend more than $10.
Assab Eritrean Restaurant
2845 Geary Blvd. (at Collins)
Tel. (415) 441-7083
Located on a busy, featureless stretch of Geary and easily overlooked, Assab is small and basic but bright and dare I say cheery. Part of that has to do with the Eritrean family that runs the place, creating a warm, welcoming environment. The food is savory and properly seasoned, the pancakes fluffy yet firm with just the right sourness and the portions generous. It’s also cheap. The best bet is to get the veggie or combo platter and share with your friends. It’s a fun experience, and you won’t leave hungry, or broke.
815 Clement Street
Tel. (415) 387-4011
Dim Sum, by it’s very nature, is cheap. And the Bay Area has no shortage of cheap, hole-in-the-wall Chinese Dim Sum restaurants, including lots of take out places where customers order at the counter. For a sit-down-and-order experience, the best I’ve come across is Happy Garden, a very nondescript Chinese restaurant in the Inner Richmond. Check off your order from a list of items and hand it to the waiter, and back come plates of fresh and flavorful (and not too greasy) pot stickers, steamed buns, dumplings and steamed green veggies. And the prices? Cheap even by Chinese restaurant standards.
1790 Haight St
Tel. (415) 387-6366
This place actually has a tiny bit of ambience, and attracts a mostly young somewhat trendy crowd, so it doesn’t perfectly fit onto this list. But, it’s cheap, it’s in a slightly funky neighborhood, it scored a health code grade of only 80 and it serves some of the best noodle soup in the city. Pho Ga, or chicken noodle soup, is a staple of Vietnamese cuisine, and I’ve been to plenty of cheap Pho restaurants in search of the best. But this pan-Asian restaurant nails it. On those cold nights where the fog chills your bones no matter how many layers you put on, a steaming bowl of noodle soup from Citrus Club warms you up from head to toe.
Kingdom of Dumpling
1713 Taraval St.
If you come expecting a kingdom size restaurant, the kind popular with busloads of Asian tourists, you’ll be sorely disappointed. But what the closet-size Kingdom of Dumpling lacks in dimension (seating parties larger than three is a challenge), it more than makes up for with some of the best dumplings this side of Hong Kong. Don’t expect much in the way of ambience—the only decoration was a banner announcing Kingdom as the 8th best Chinese restaurant in the U.S.—but it’s likely you’ll be too focused on your dumplings or steamed bao to care. And while it’s dingy, it’s not dirty: the place scored a perfect 100 from the health department. Oh, and there’s no bathroom, so you’ll have to hold it.
Good Frickin’ Chicken
10 29th St.
Jordanian restaurant on the southern edge of the Mission has, yes, really good frickin’ Chicken. It also has excellent falafel, crispy on the outside and soft and savory in the center, as well as flavorful humus and baba ghanooj, and rice and salad. The interior is par for the neighborhood—nothing fancy—with folk-type art of Middle East scenes on the wall. And one of the best things about GFC? Mitchell’s Ice Cream parlor is a block away.