If anything can unite San Franciscans it's an affinity for things that are simple and small. We like our cars Smart and our apartments cozy (the latter probably out of necessity). We like our food from locally owned stores and farmers’ markets – not from supermarkets. And when we eat out, it's not at corporate chain steakhouses or cheesecake manufacturers with menus as big as the phone book. It’s all about the food, the diner, and the experience.
This is especially true at San Francisco's smallest restaurants, the true holes-in-the-wall, where the chef is not only cooking the food, but is the server, cashier, and owner of the place.
I have somewhat strict criteria for what constitutes a hole-in-the-wall: capacity of no more than 15 when packed to the gills, less than 10 is even better; no staff member has any fewer than five unrelated responsibilities; and bonus points for a chef-owner who also does the dishes and takes out the garbage. I want to hear the sizzle of oil on the pan and see the flash of a flaming flareup on the burner while I'm sitting at my table – and if I can’t, there’d better be a damn good reason. With that, I’m off to rub elbows – literally – with my fellow San Francisco micro-diners.
With hundreds and hundreds of reviews on Yelp, Burmese soul food kitchen Yamo is about as secret as oxygen, but it’s perfect for my mission: The restaurant has just eight stools, the food is made right before your eyes, and if you don't know where to look, especially at night, you can miss it. At least that’s what happened to me on a Wednesday evening around 9:30. I paced around 18th Street and almost walked back across Mission the wrong way when I saw Ramona, one of the Yamo cooks, talking on her cell phone outside the narrow, unlit storefront.
I follow her in and, lucky me, am able to grab a seat at the counter. My shoulder bag smacks the head of a young mustachioed gentleman sitting near the doorway as I shimmy within the six inches between the wall and the seats.
"You ready?" asks a woman doing simultaneous double front-of-the-house/back-of-the-house duty, as she hands me a menu. I beg 15 seconds to actually, you know, look at the menu, and that's all I need – Yamo's tea leaf salad and cold noodle plate (with special house sauce) are legendary, as is the black bean fish. Since this is an official visit, I go excessive, adding a bowl of curry fish chowder to my taster’s menu.
The woman comes back to take my order, but doesn't bat an eye in response – she's too busy listening to the shrieks of another coworker (there's four total) who can't figure out how she put a plate of cold noodles in front of a patron who apparently ordered something else. "They had water! They had grass jelly! Pay attention!" All the while Ramona, who is blocking the narrow passageway to the bathroom in the back, is occupied with the task of shredding a pile of carrots through a mandolin.
The black bean fish comes out first; the tilapia or catfish, damned if I know, is firm without being chewy, just spicy enough, and has a distinctive kick. I get through three bites when the tea leaf salad is dropped off, and that's the real winner, a crunchy, spicy, delightful treat.
Shortly after moving to San Francisco, I found a favorite spot to wait for the bus in my adopted neighborhood, the Excelsior. From there, I could peek into the window of what had to be the tiniest restaurant I'd seen in my life, Los Planes de Renderos Pupuseria Y Restaurant. Inside were two card tables with two or three steel folding chairs that looked like they'd been lifted from a church basement.
"That's the kind of place I moved here to eat at," I would declare to myself, just before electing to eat somewhere else. I was afraid to go in because I didn't speak Spanish and wasn't sure what a pupusa was.
Five years and three neighborhoods later, I at last get myself to head in. A pupusa, I know now, is a round, flat pocket made of cornmeal and stuffed with cheese, and sometimes vegetables, meat, and beans. At $1.75 each, it’s a meal fit for a miserly glutton's budget.
Both of the restaurant’s tables are occupied. I prepare to order take-out from the kitchen – the doorway into which is currently occupied by a sweatshirt-wearing teenager locked in conversation with one of the cooks – when I encounter someone walking down a flight of stairs I never saw from outside: There’s an upstairs dining room!
I decide to bend my rule about watching my food while it’s being cooked because I don’t want to put off eating here again. I climb the stairs and find myself in a room that’s small enough to give some folks claustrophobia. There's a young man, maybe 20, with an older woman and a young child in the intimate room. They're eating what look like plantains, which seem to be a favorite of the younger kid who's digging in with aplomb.
The pupusas arrive – hot, steaming, bursting with innards. As I dig in I find myself longing for a beer to wash it down, but there's none served here and no staff around to motion to if there was; I’d have to walk downstairs if I wanted something. On my last bite, I mentally cross off Los Planes De Renderos from my list of places to try. I’d be back again.
Cordon Bleu Vietnamese Restaurant is a tiny one-person operation in Nob Hill that makes simple, good food. Its owner, Katie, simultaneously runs the front and back of the house; it's she who greets you from behind the counter as you walk in, takes your order before turning around to grill your chicken, and makes pleasant small talk with you while you eat it.
There's no cordon bleu at Cordon Bleu. There is five-spice chicken, which is, according to the menu, “the best five-spice chicken outside of Vietnam.” I can get a half-chicken for $9 here or a quarter-chicken with kebab meat and imperial roll for a little less. I go for the latter, while my dining partner – who’s a bit late, explaining that the signage on the tiny awning out front looks like it said “Gordon Bleu” – takes the half-bird.
We sit in back at one of three tables in the place as we watch Katie put our birds on the grill. It’s 9:30 on a foggy evening, but the inside of the restaurant is a pleasant bright oasis, with only the sizzle of the chicken competing for attention with your thoughts and the muted noise from the street. A young couple breathlessly breezes in, taking a seat at the counter before asking, “Are we in time?”
“Plenty of time,” Katie assures them.
It’s only minutes before she puts the plates before us – and such plates they are. The chicken is piled on rice topped with meat sauce and some greens; the whole stack is multiple inches, enough food for two people. The chicken is imbued with a subtle, hearty flavor. The fact that I find myself gnawing on the bones about ten minutes later is a testament to the chicken’s tastiness. The rice and meat sauce are pure satiating, home-cooked goodness, simple enough that you should be able to guess what is exactly in it but tasty enough that you don’t really care.
“Where are you from?” one half of the young couple is asking Katie, who answers that she is originally from Hong Kong. “Do you speak Thai?” he asks (she doesn’t; she speaks Cantonese as well as English and some French), before trying out some phrases for everybody’s benefit.
The young linguist is still trying out phrases with Katie as I pay the bill. “See you soon?” she asks as I walk toward the door. You bet.
Park your bike and troubles outside, there’s no room for them or your friends at Yamo, where flying solo isn’t a problem. If you’re going after sunset, write down the address, as there are no neon signs to light your way. Take the bus down Excelsior and keep your eyes peeled when you get off: A step away from Mission Street lies Los Planes De Renderos, where you can get a taste of San Salvador. Listen to the clatter of the cable car; five-spice chicken lives near the rails on California Street at Cordon Bleu Vietnamese Restaurant.