A Fine Mess
In the end, there are really only two types of people. On one side are those decorous individuals who actually have table manners, like ones that they literally possess. These polite few lift pinkies, take sensible bites, and push back from their plates with clothes so clean that, well, you could eat off them. They are estimable, model members of society.
And then there is the other type. Sticky whirlwinds of napkins, condiments, and misused flatware. Parsley firmly lodged in between teeth held within a face smeared with sauce, all sitting atop a body covered in a thin film of whatever menu item offered the smallest ratio of price to tonnage. These messy martyrs are not afraid to sacrifice anything in search of a great meal, be it wardrobe or reputation. Fearless? Perhaps. Shameless? Most certainly. Friends, let it be known now and forevermore: I am one of them.
Don’t believe me? Well, read on and discover five of San Francisco’s messiest – and most delicious – meals, complete with photographic evidence. Welcome to bib country.
Barbecue is dear to messy eaters everywhere precisely because it is by definition greasy, saucy, and sticky. The fare at the Smokin' Warehouse Barbecue fits this description to a T. In fact, this Bayview gem’s meat verges on the platonic ideal of barbecue: an irresistible mix of smoky, juicy, and sweet.
There’s a lot to like about Smokin' Warehouse Barbecue, but paramount among its attributes is the literal truth of its name. This is not so much a “restaurant” as a window in the side of a warehouse, located in an actual warehouse district. Parking is ample, free, and not limited to the sides of the street. The owner of Smokin' Warehouse Barbecue also runs the fire alarm testing company that takes up the building’s upper floors. His love of cooking led to the creation of a catering company in the ground floor kitchen and that, in turn, gave birth to the blessed window.
Amazing things emerge from this portal. Wonders like a classic “three way” tray of meat, in this case brisket and double pork ribs, accompanied by creamy mac and cheese, baked beans with sweet morsels of pork, and shockingly hearty steak chili. The rib meat fell off its bones, mostly into my mouth, and the brisket inspired the platonic paean above. Just as impressive was the Monster Burger, a feat of carnivorous architecture that consisted of a half-pound beef patty topped with cheese, bacon, and – I swear – pulled pork. Every bite produced new jets of sauce and grease, each of which contributed to the calamity on my napkin.
My next adventure in grubby gastronomy took me to Chinatown, where the ineffable R & G Lounge offers up three floors of hospitality – and one wonderfully messy specialty of the house: salt and pepper whole Dungeness crab. I was but one of many there to sample this delicacy, and indeed there can be quite a wait despite the imposing size of the place. Have a drink and relax, the food is well worth it.
Whole crab is normally a bib-worthy meal in its own right, seeing as how it requires hands-on participation from the eater. But R & G’s version crosses into unique territory due to its preparation. You see, the whole thing is fried – shell on – and then served in the traditional way with crackers and tiny forks. Imagine! Not only are there gouts of broth and bits of crab flying around, but also grease and breading as well.
It is such a magnificently dirty process that even the truly mannered would have to abandon any attempts at gentility and dig in. Remember: The wet-naps are there for a reason.
But let us not forget the taste of the dish itself. Amazing. The good folks at R & G didn’t fry the crab just to construct an especially sloppy eating experience. There was intent here. This technique locks the moisture inside the shell, leaving wonderfully tender meat. This is the sort of meal you should eat with a prospective mate, just to ensure he or she won’t go all squeamish when the chips are down. But maybe don’t wear your favorite seersucker trousers.
We’ve all seen some dandy try to eat a chicken wing with a fork and knife, only to surrender to the traditional, manual approach. Truly a case of form triumphing over style – or perhaps function over substance?
Regardless, if wings are your goal then Wing Wings in Lower Haight should be your destination. Founded by head chef Christian, who used to work at the right honorable Little Skillet in SoMa, this tiny storefront has been churning out meaty, tempting wings for the past six months. Your order of 6, 10, 25, or even 100 comes slathered in 9 different sauces, including classic buffalo, tangy BBQ, and the evocatively named “Angry Korean.”
There is other fare on the menu as well – most germane to our topic being a pillowy biscuit, delightfully drenched in chicken gravy. Take-out is popular, as is delivery, but if you don’t eat on the premises then you would miss the opportunity to be serenaded by classic rap emanating from one of the establishment’s many equally classic boom boxes. So, you know, caveat emptor.
Looking to establish a proper base of knowledge, I ordered my wings with the eponymous Wing Wing sauce. It was tart, sweet, and just a little spicy – an enticing mix. It was also very liberally applied, at first just on the wings, but subsequently on my ersatz bib and hands as well. Add in the obligatory side of blue cheese and things got downright epic. A beautiful disaster, as you can see.
The hamburger you have been dreaming about lives in the Tenderloin. You know this burger: as tall as it is wide, piled with various and sundry toppings, just dripping with condiments. The sort of burger that cannot be put down once you begin eating, lest it collapse under its lofty ambitions. The sort of burger that makes the plate below it look like the scene of a crime of passion. The sort of burger that requires not just a mouth opened wide, but also steadfast resolve. And, well, torque.
The purveyor of this sacred feast is Pearl's Deluxe Burgers, a charming hole-in-the-wall that boasts five tables, one bathroom, overflowing condiment caddies, flimsy napkins, and free refills. Go at lunch and it will be packed. Wait for a seat: hefting Pearl's burger on the go would be an impossible feat. Atlas himself would wait for a seat.
The thing about Pearl's Deluxe is that the burgers are as irresistible as they are unstable. The thick juicy patty explodes with flavor, offset perfectly by crisp lettuce, fresh tomatoes, sharp onions, and whatever else you can imagine. (There is even a “King Burger” topped by a hot dog, which to me implies that “king” is being used in the Elvis sense of the word, rather than the royal one.) The fries are thick and crunchy, and almost as good as the burger. There are shakes as well, but my belly was beyond full. It was also covered in the evidence that I had enjoyed my meal. You will too.
Listen, we have had fun so far. That’s four amazing and messy meals. You can stop now and still retain some shred of self-respect. Or you can continue on with me to the most disgustingly wonderful meal I found in San Francisco. It’s your choice, I won’t be mad. Not everyone is built for this sort of peril.
Still with me? Excellent. Welcome, my grubby brethren, to Craw Station. A Creole-style seafood joint right in the heart of the Inner Sunset, Craw Station is the sort of restaurant where it’s not a question of whether there will be a shellfish antenna in your drink by the end of the meal, but rather how many. Here crawfish, shrimp, clams, and crabs are served by the pound. You choose among the four styles of sauce and within minutes the friendly servers plunk down a heavy-duty plastic bag filled with your food.
Then they bring you a bib, a wet nap, a roll of paper towels, and a bucket for your shells. Whatever happens after that is between you and your god.
Regardless of creed, all can agree that the food is incredible. I sampled both the house Cajun crawfish and the shrimp with garlic butter, and would be hard-pressed to choose a favorite. The former featured a beguiling mix of cumin and chili pepper, while the latter was utterly luxurious. I also enjoyed the house noodles, which are prepared Asian-style, with soy, garlic, and rich fish roe. Visit with a crowd and try everything. Just don’t plan on going anywhere afterwards other than home to do laundry.
Think you know a spot with messier, more appetizing food than these five? Let me know in the comments! But please abide by the sacred rule of the Internet: pics, or it didn’t happen.
The Smokin' Warehouse Barbecue is at 1465 Carroll Avenue in Bayview, right near the Muni. Head over to 631 Kearny Street in Chinatown to visit the R & G Lounge. Lower Haight is the place for Wing Wings, which is located at 422 Haight Street. Pearl's Deluxe Burgers waits for you at 708 Post Street in the Tenderloin. And Craw Station is just off the Judah line in the Inner Sunset, at 1336 9th Avenue.