If anything demonstrates the resilience of the human spirit, it's the way San Franciscans have kept their highly attuned taste buds nurtured and cared for through these months of recession and want. Despite failing corporations and rampant unemployment, we have managed to keep ourselves in boutique nectarines, grass-fed tri-tip, and handcrafted Holstein-milk Appleby Cheshire cheese with a carafe of amusing Pinot Grigio at hand. The key? Avoiding the usual six-course prix-fixe wine-flight hangouts and opting instead for economical yet altogether tasty alternatives like food carts, takeout windows, rogue storefronts, and other venues where talented out-of-work chefs can now practice their craft, guerrilla style. Here, the pleasures of a nourishing bisque or a freshly torched crème brûlée are enjoyed al fresco or in the friendly confines of a shadowy saloon, and traditional blue-collar belly-fillers like burgers and coleslaw are raised to a level any San Franciscan can appreciate.
One of the most intriguing developments is the culinary ascension of the corner-market deli counter. Traditionally, the San Francisco corner store has been a place to satisfy that late-night craving for Entenmann's crumb cake while the attendant deli counter — a Formica-fronted display case glittering with presliced turkey loaf and yesterday's potato salad — has been the hungry singleton's court of last resort. But over the past several months, some of these tucked-away sub shops have been transformed into bastions of singular (if deceptively modest) cutting-edge organic-sustainable pan-Asian pan-Latin California cuisine. Here you're as likely to find carrot-chipotle crema and pineapple-spiced free-range pork on your sandwich as mayo, mustard, and iceberg lettuce.
At Pal's Takeaway, for instance, organically nurtured protein and produce from Riverdog Ranch, Marin Sun Farms, and other impeccable local resources star in unique between-the-bread combos. The counter opened last April in a back corner of Tony's Market, a friendly little grocery tucked among the saloons and panaderias of 24th Street. Pal's salads and sandwiches quickly developed a following for their unexpected yet balanced flavors and lush ingredients: poached king salmon, spice-rubbed pork loin, pickled Nardello peppers, cilantro relish and Catalan tomatillo salsa, even Meyer lemons from a neighbor's backyard.
The daily-changing menu usually features three sandwiches plus a salad or two and a selection of street-savvy local delicacies such as 4505 chicharrones and Who's Your Daddy bacon potato chips. The BET ($7.75) combines shards of applewood-smoked bacon with Blue Heron lettuce, wafer-thin slices of sweet tomato, a hint of peppery mayonnaise, and an exemplary egg salad tangy with mustard, scallions, and Italian parsley. The big, juicy meatballs in the meatball sandwich ($7.75) are made up of coarsely ground Becker Lane pork and Marin Sun beef plus a fistful of fresh herbs, packed into a soft torpedo roll with chopped parsley, nutty Parmigiano, and lots of sweet, lush, oniony tomato sauce. It's a hearty handheld meal to rival New Orleans' finest po' boys. Quetzal Farm Gypsy peppers and Champagne vinaigrette notwithstanding, the cabbage-cucumber-tomato salad ($3.75) isn't nearly as lively as the sandwiches, but it's a fresh, brisk, crunchy palate-cleanser all the same. For dessert, opt for a moist, irresistible chocolate babka ($2) from Green's in Brooklyn or one of Gobba Gobba Hey's pillowy sandwich cookies. We liked the peppery ginger snap with raspberry filling ($2).
Across the Mission at 19th and Valencia streets is Rhea's Deli and Grocery, a longtime neighborhood fixture that went upscale in July with a well-stocked liquor department and an impressive new deli. Housemade aiolis, house-pickled onions and jalapeños, artisan breads from Tartine and Acme, and a striking array of Cowgirl Creamery cheeses are the building blocks of the counter's sandwiches and panini. The tuna sandwich ($7) is a perfectly tasty classic jazzed here and there with capers, mustardseed, and red onion, but two Asian-accented specialties are especially worth ordering. The Korean steak sandwich ($8) features shredded ribeye marinated in garlic, ginger, honey, and soy sauce heaped into a soft Acme roll with fresh onions, grilled onions, pickled onions, melted cheddar, aioli, a cushion of shredded iceberg lettuce, and as much slivered jalapeño as you desire (the medium-grade sandwich is plenty spicy). The bread soaks up all the sweet, sour, crisp, and spiky flavors quite nicely. The katsu sandwich ($7) surrounds the classic Japanese pork cutlet with shredded carrots and cabbage, pickled onions and jalapeños, and a chile-flecked aioli, adding a pleasantly incendiary edge to the sweet, tender pigmeat.
Since late August, the Mission Street Food nonprofit has been operating a high-end burger joint inside Duc Loi, a spacious market at the corner of 18th and Mission streets. What makes Mission Burger's hamburgers ($8) unique is that they're assembled according to the precepts of English chef Heston Blumenthal, one of those molecular gastronomists who likes to serve capsules of green tea in liquid nitrogen. He'll also inject a chicken with brown butter before blanching, air-drying, and roasting it into submission. His burgers are composed of strands of ground brisket, dry-aged short ribs, and salted chuck, resulting in a burger with a (presumably) optimal grain. At Mission Burger, the patties (concocted from Harris Ranch beef in three varieties) are fried in beef tallow and served with sweet caramelized onions and caper aioli on a grilled Acme bun. The result is coarse, salty, dense, and chewy, pink on the inside and black on the outside — more like a reassembled steak than a traditional hamburger. It's ribboned with fat and not unlike a greasy Richmond District piroshki.
A more salubrious lunchtime option is the vegan burger ($7), a flavor-packed patty bursting with roasted kale, chickpeas, shiitake mushrooms, sesame seeds, and crunchy bits of edamame. On occasion, the counter also serves up a creamy, lusty housemade boudin blanc ($7) draped in a dark, smoky, braised-onion relish that accents the sweet sausage nicely. The fries ($2) are nothing special, but the mint lemonade ($2) is terrific: brisk, sweet, and brimming with freshly chopped mint, it's as fragrant and invigorating as a julep or some icy North African cooler. Our taste buds and bellies just might make it after all.