Archive for the ‘SF: Polk Gulch / Van Ness’ Category

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Tajine

November 11, 2007

Tajine is a Moroccan restaurant in San Francisco’s Polk Gulch neighborhood. The restaurant used to occupy a small Tenderloin storefront on Jones Street but moved this past spring to a larger space on lower Polk, between Bush and Pine.

Naturally, the restaurant offers a selection of tajines, a signature dish of North Africa, generally slow-cooked in a glazed pot that also shares the name tajine. Also offered is the traditional harira (a lentil soup), kabab plates, salads, sandwiches, and various dishes involving meat and vegetables over couscous. On a recent visit to Tajine, a friend and I shared two dishes, including the lamb tajine:

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The slow-cooked lamb was quite tender in some spots and a little tough in other spots, but it was still delicious, steeped in the spices and herbs. Soft prunes added a sweet fragrance to the dish, and almonds, roasted to enhance their flavor, added a comforting crunch. The whole dish was topped with sesame seeds and was served with a plate of Moroccan bread. The bread was a bit too dry but was still good to mop up the thick sauce in which the lamb and prunes had been stewing.

We also enjoyed the chicken bastilla:

tajine_chicken_bastilla.jpg

Although listed as an appetizer, this dish is easily the size of an entree. Essentially a large fillo pancake, the flaky bastilla is topped generously with a brown and white criss-cross pattern of sweet cinnamon and powdered sugar combined with a savory interior of chicken, egg, and almond. I found the interior of the bastilla to be somewhat under-seasoned, but the diversity of textures and flavors made this is a successful dish.

Mint tea is a serious endeavor in Morocco, so if you visit Tajine, you will want to try out a pot of the mint tea:

tajine_mint_tea.jpg

Served in a traditional pot, poured from a couple feet above the cup, and brewed with a large stalk of fresh mint, this tea is richly sweet and is a very nice treat either during or after the meal.

Although the food can really be quite delicious, my experiences at Tajine have not exactly been a home run. The cooking at the Polk Street location is at the same level as what was offered at the Tenderloin location. However, prices have risen considerably since the move, and to my mind, the quality of the total experience has not risen in correspondence with the prices. The service is often friendly, but sometimes indifferent, and repeatedly forgetful — either portions of my meal have been forgotten, or I have heard diners around me reminding the server that some portion of their meal had been forgotten. I am usually completely willing to overlook this for meals under $10, especially if it happens only occasionally, but now that Tajine’s entrees are in the double-digit range, it is easy to spend $20+ per person here including tax and tip, even without a salad or appetizer. (Note: diners should keep in mind that despite these prices, the restaurant is cash only.) At that price point, the “value” of a meal is not only connected to the quality of the cooking, but also the atmosphere and service, and therein lies the disconnect. Basically, the price increases seem to be disproportionate to the dining experience, which is essentially unchanged except for the somewhat larger (but often very crowded) space.

I still enjoy Tajine’s food, but the restaurant has been in a slightly awkward stage since the move to Polk. At heart, it is still a hole-in-the-wall serving tasty dishes. The price increases suggest that it strives to be something more, but that has not really happened yet. Although no longer a bargain secret gem, Tajine is still a nice choice in the area.

RATING:

COST:

1338 Polk Street (between Pine St. and Bush St.)
San Francisco, CA 94109
Phone: 415.440.1718
Hours: Daily, 12:00 noon – 10:00 pm.

Cash only. Takeout available.

Cuisine: Moroccan
Neighborhood: Polk Gulch/Van Ness

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Naan ‘n Curry on Van Ness

May 1, 2007

Naan ‘n Curry, that ever-expanding empire of cheap, mediocre curry restaurants in San Francisco and the East Bay, has, in recent months, conquered more territory and set up a new province — this time, at the corner of Turk and Van Ness, in the border region between Civic Center and the Tenderloin.

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We’ve been going to Naan ‘n Curry restaurants in both San Francisco and the East Bay for years upon years now; they have such a cult following here, it is essentially impossible to avoid them. Whenever going out with friends for a meal, someone is bound to suggest “Well, what about Naan ‘n Curry?” Then someone else will say: “Yeah, great idea!” By that point, the damage is done, and our attempts at countering this train of thought usually fail, especially since their well-placed restaurants are often frustratingly accessible. Anyway, the end result is many trips to Naan ‘n Curry. In a post from last year, in which we reviewed various locations of Naan ‘n Curry en masse, we essentially put forth the following opinion: sometimes Naan ‘n Curry can produce some decently tasty dishes, and other times they are not at at all tasty or well-prepared. All in all, everything averages out to a mediocre 2-star experience. The fare at Naan ‘n Curry is by no means the “best of the Bay.” The obvious draw here is the cheap price, but it is always worth noting that restaurants like Darbar manage to serve superior fare for perhaps slightly higher (but still entirely comparable) prices.

So, given this opinion, why would Short Exact ever go to a Naan ‘n Curry on our own, voluntarily? Well, the main reason is to respond to readers of this blog — not directly, as no one has ever emailed us to specifically ask for a review of the new Van Ness Naan ‘n Curry. However, we’ve noticed that increasingly, many people doing Google searches end up on this site by typing in strings like “naan n curry van ness”, and the like. Now, we haven’t reviewed this particular branch before now, but we have reviewed Naan ‘n Curry, and one of the neighborhoods listed in the side bar at the right is “Polk Gulch/Van Ness.” The combination of these two text strings has led people to this site, even if this restaurant didn’t specifically appear here. At any rate, we felt bad about all the people who came here looking for a Van Ness review but didn’t find it, so hopefully this post will fill in that gap.

Naan ‘n Curry restaurants are never stylish, but this particular branch has a surprisingly fun, comfortable, well-put-together interior. With the branch on O’Farrell (on the border of Union Square and the Tenderloin), this is probably one of the nicer looking branches. The dining protocol is exactly the same, though: study the menu while standing near the doorway, order your meal at the counter, and then bring your own plates, silverware, and water to the table.

We ordered the chicken biryani:

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This dish was acceptably good, and it was of better quality than what we’ve largely come to expect out of Naan ‘n Curry. A recurring problem with Naan ‘n Curry is having to wade through pools of excess oil on the plate, and while this dish was oily, the oil was generally kept in check — although this is at least partly due to the fact that we did not order one of Naan ‘n Curry’s trademark watery curries, opting instead for the biryani, a dish of chicken and rice. The basmati rice added an aromatic touch, and the cumin and cardamom (both should have been more pronounced) managed to permeate through to rather moist, surprisingly tender pieces of chicken, although the dish was a tad oversalted. As the above picture makes clear, the presentation of this dish was not exquisite (with the chicken rather unceremoniously buried beneath the mounds of rice), and this preparation somehow lacked the wonderful characteristic fragrance of an excellent biryani, but overall, this was surprisingly decent. On the grand scale of things, not great, but definitely pretty good for Naan ‘n Curry.

Service seems to be a touch slower than at other branches of Naan ‘n Curry, but we couldn’t say for sure if that’s true in general, since we’ve only made this one visit to the Van Ness branch. At any rate, it’s a little hard what to make of this trip, since it is only one visit. Is this Naan ‘n Curry truly better than the other branches, or did we just happen to stumble upon a decent dish? To be certain, we’d have to go a few more times, but for now, we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. This post is not a ringing endorsement, though, so take it with a grain of sea salt.

RATING:

COST:

690 Van Ness Avenue (at Turk St.)
San Francisco, CA 94102
Phone: 415.775.1349
Hours: Mon-Thurs, 11:00 am – 10:00 pm; Fri, 11:00 am – 11:00 pm; Sat, 11:30 am – 11:00 pm; Sun, 11:30 am – 10:00 pm.

Cuisine: Indian/Pakistani
Neighborhood: Polk Gulch/Van Ness

How to get there: Muni lines 5, 31, 38, 47, and 49.

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Darbar

February 22, 2007

A note on SAVE OUR FAVES 2007: Before launching right in as we usually do, we want to begin by putting this review in context, since it is our contribution to the 2007 “Save Our Faves” meme, which was started by Chubbypanda, an excellent food blogger from Orange County, California; you can read his explanation of the meme here. The gist is that food bloggers write a post to share their favorite mom-and-pop restaurant or grocery store, so that readers can go out to investigate and support said establishment, which does its part to contribute to the individualistic culinary tapestries of our cities, and in turn helps to stop the inexorable March of the Chain Restaurants. If you’re a regular reader, you know we love these comfy mom-and-pop joints, and so Short Exact is honored to have been tagged to participate in this meme by that most passionate of eaters, the witty and charming Passionate Eater (so sue us, we’re not feeling very creative or clever tonight). Darbar is a favorite Pakistani joint of ours, and since we were hoping to review it soon anyway, this is our contribution to the Save our Faves.

Of course, no Save our Faves post is complete without tagging more bloggers to continue the chain. We’d like to tag the following bloggers, who we think would be up for this meme:

  • Kevin, writer of the blog Dive, who unearths treasures found in the grimiest and diviest spots in San Francisco;
  • Sam, writer of Becks & Posh, whose blog posts betray a love of sharing with readers her food experiences in both restaurants and in the kitchen, as well as a deep commitment to helping others through the food blogging community;
  • Sean, writer of Hedonia, whose discerning palate and continual quest for culinary excellence we’re willing to bet has led him to some great hidden spots; and
  • Garrett, writer of the excellent Sacramento-based food blog Vanilla Garlic, who we hope will enjoy Save our Faves as temporary distraction from his nonstop parade of increasingly exotic cupcakes.

These are all bloggers we like to read regularly; so we’re excited to read about the faves that they would like to save, and we hope that they’ll all pass along the meme.

So, without further ado: Darbar.

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Darbar is a restaurant in Polk Gulch, specializing in North Indian/Moghul cuisine, not to be confused with the Polk branch of Shalimar, located directly across the street. Since the owner of Darbar is from Lahore, Pakistan, the menu also contains a number of Pakistani dishes that are less widely found. Standards (such as the frequently demanded chicken tikka masala) are in evidence, but dining at Darbar also provides a great opportunity to try out some less common dishes.

On a recent lunch visit to Darbar, Short Exact and a dining companion ordered two entrees. One was the achar gosht,

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which is a curry of goat meat, featuring mango pickle. This was delicious, and if you’re up for eating goat, we would recommend you try this dish. The pickle and the slight gaminess of the goat were both subtly and very well-complemented by the rich, layered curry.

We also ordered the sarson ka saag,

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a favorite of ours at Darbar, and a dish that we often cannot resist ordering. Unlike the saag/palak paneer one often encounters in Indian restaurants, this dish does not include cubes of paneer (the cheese). In contrast to many inferior restaurants (which use frozen spinach in their saag dishes), Darbar uses fresh mustard greens, and the use of fresh greens makes all the difference in terms of enlivening the subtle tangy sweetness of this dish. The sarson ka saag also has a great whipped, creamy texture, which we love.

Of course, we have to mention one of our favorite starters at Darbar, the chapli kebab,

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which contain finely minced meat and lentils assembled into delectable patties that are subsequently pan fried. For $3.99, one receives two such patties (with a garnish of fresh herbs, as shown in the image), and they are a treat. The meat itself is lean, and it is backed up by a delicious mixture of spices (including cumin, black pepper, and coriander) that packs a punch. The patties were perfectly cooked: crisp on the outside, with a soft, smooth interior. What’s even better, the kebabs are served with a mint chutney, the smooth coolness of which not only adds an additional layer of texture and flavor, but also provides a great sensation in the mouth when combined with the spice from the patties. The chapli kebab is a favorite Pakistani dish that one does not always find in restaurants, and Darbar’s version is such a treat, that it is often difficult for us to resist ordering these. At just two dollars per patty, these chapli kebab are a steal.

We will say, however, that Darbar’s naan is not our very favorite. Sometimes the restaurant achieves a good balance of softer, more doughy texture with crispy blistered sections, but other times, the balance tilts too much in favor of the doughy texture. The naan is definitely not bad, but it isn’t exceptional either.

All in all, we’ve very much enjoyed our meals at Darbar, and each good experience encourages repeated visits. The prices are extremely reasonable (no dish on the menu is more expensive than $9.99), especially when one considers the quality, which is often noticeably better than what one finds at similarly priced restaurants. Also, the service here is downright kind and caring, and it is immediately apparent that the owner not only loves to oversee his restaurant, but also very much appreciates each and every customer that walks through the door. Many people never make it past the rather dense cluster of Indian/Pakistani joints in the “Tandoorloin”, and it really is a shame, because Darbar is only about a half dozen blocks away from the Tandorlooin, and it offers fare of superior quality at the same very reasonable price point. Although the restaurant is not large, it never has quite the hustle and bustle that it deserves — and that is exactly why we wanted to mention Darbar in connection with Save our Faves 2007. We would love to do our part to help keep this gem of a restaurant alive and thriving, so for those of you reading this who are in the Bay Area, we definitely recommend you check out Darbar.

RATING:

COST:

1412 Polk Street (between California St. and Pine St.)
San Francisco, CA 94109
Phone: 415.359.1236
Hours: Daily, 11:00 am – 10:00 pm.

Cuisine: Indian/Pakistani
Neighborhood: Polk Gulch/Van Ness

How to get there: Darbar is located right on Muni line 19 and is less than a block south of the California Street cable car line. Within about four blocks are lines 1, 2, 3, 4, 12, 27, 38, 47, 49, and 76.

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Victor’s Pizzeria

November 19, 2006

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Victor’s is a fun, casual pizzeria and Italian restaurant located in the Polk Gulch neighborhood. Technically, the name of this eatery is not just “Victor’s Pizzeria” (as we’ve titled this review), but rather the full name is “Victor’s Pizzeria & Restaurant.” To be sure, the menu includes a great deal more than just pizza, including all the expected pastas, and standard entrees such as veal picatta, chicken marsala, and chicken parmigiana. The restaurant also serves gnocchi, fettucini, and a selection of seafood based linguini dishes. So there is definitely more than just pizza, and to reflect this fact, we’ve filed this review in both the Pizza and Italian cuisine categories. (One note: the entrees are all priced above $10, which is why the price range of this restaurant could extend into $$ territory.) Nonetheless, the real draw here are the pizza and calzone. The entrees are perfectly serviceable, but they are not unique, and the restaurant itself has very little atmosphere. The pizza here is the strong point, and our favorite way to pay Victor’s a visit is just to grab a to-go slice.

Calling it a “to-go slice” is a bit redundant, because at Victor’s, you are not even allowed to sit down at a table if you order by the slice; tables are reserved for those ordering full pizzas or entrees. When ordering by the slice, one can choose from a couple dozen toppings. Available cheeses are mozzarella and feta; available vegetables include eggplant, mushrooms, olives, tomato, peppers, and spinach. The meats include pepperoni, anchovies, sausage, ham, and salami. In addition, they have a variety of specials; the Victor’s Special is especially popular.

We recently dropped by Victor’s and ordered a standby basic mozzarella slice:

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At $2.50, this was a solid slice of pizza. The crust was perhaps ever slightly thicker than what would one find on a standard New York slice, and it was a bit softer and chewier than we would have preferred, but it was definitely good. The bottom of the slice was pleasantly crunchy and charred, and the slice, as a whole, did a fine job of standing up to folding. The marinara sauce (a nice mix of tomato, parsley, and garlic) is quite flavorful and very herby. To be honest, we would tire of this sauce if we were to order a whole pie, but it is quite tasty for just one slice. The slice was cheesily delicious, but not excessively greasy. Short Exact found this to be $2.50 well spent.

The late night hours on Friday and Saturday make it a convenient choice as a part of a night of revelry in Polk Gulch (although they do close earlier than the bars), and as an extra benefit, they even deliver! Plus, they’ve been in business since 1954, so they must be doing something right. All in all, Victor’s is a solid, comfy neighborhood joint serving up tasty pizza slices; it is definitely a good choice if you’re in the area.

RATING:

COST:

1411 Polk Street (between Pine St. and California St.)
San Francisco, CA 94109
Phone: 415.885.1660
Hours: Sun-Thurs, 11:00 am – 11:30 pm; Fri-Sat, 11:00 am – 12:30 am.

Cuisine: Pizza, Italian
Neighborhood: Polk Gulch/Van Ness

How to get there: Victor’s Pizzeria is located right on Muni line 19 and is less than a block south of the California Street cable car line. Within about four blocks are lines 1, 2, 3, 4, 12, 27, 38, 47, 49, and 76.

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Wayo Sushi

September 7, 2006

Recently, a friend of ours claimed she had found the perfect, hidden sushi gem, named Wayo Sushi, which, despite its location on high-traffic Van Ness, was relatively little known. Little known indeed: Short Exact is familiar with a great variety of hole-in-the-walls, but we had not yet heard of Wayo before this. We don’t like to jump to conclusions without more information, but because of previous not-so-stellar recommendations that our friend has made, needless to say, we were a bit skeptical. Nonetheless, to Wayo Sushi we went.

My friend later revealed that she had not visited Wayo herself prior to this; the claim that she had “found” this sushi gem was a bit misleading, since all she found was that Wayo had garnered many positive reviews on Yelp. I almost yelped in shock when I heard this, because — no offense to the good people of Yelp — but it is not always the case that a slew of positive Yelp reviews equates to a wonderful establishment: and such is the case with Wayo Sushi.

The first thing Short Exact noticed upon taking a seat at the bar was that much of the fish was precut. To say the least, this was not the first thing we hoped to see upon starting our meal, but since we were seated, and since our friend was so eager to try Wayo Sushi, Short Exact decided to see how the events played out, and so did not make a fuss.

We started with shiromaguro sashimi. Rather than a more involved tataki preparation, the sushi chef opted for straightforward sashimi slices. This would have been fine, if it weren’t for the fact that the quality of the fish was not appropriate at all for sashimi. The fish was not unfresh, but it had no depth or subtlety; in fact, it lacked flavor altogether, and it had no soft, melting texture. In addition, the slices were uneven and rough. (It seems like a new knife for our sushi chef might be in order here.) Instead of even, elegantly sliced pieces of fish, we received something that more closely resembled cuts of wood hewn from a tree trunk:

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Next came the tekka maki. We ordered just a standard tekka maki, but to our dismay, we received a spicy roll! One look at and taste of the roll revealed that the spiciness was added not to tease and tantalize our taste buds, but rather to hide what was less-than-excellent quality fish:

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In such a situation, we would have appreciated simple honesty from the chef when we ordered, a statement that the tuna was not as fresh as it could be, and wouldn’t we prefer a different maki, which would feature better fish. Of course we would! But no such explanation was offered, and so our experience with the tekka maki was another letdown, right on the heels of the sashimi letdown.

This was not a promising start to the meal. However, the service was courteous, and really as prompt as it could be, given the fact that the whole restaurant (small though it may be) is served only by one waitress and one sushi chef. And, as it turns out, the meal improved, once we were given our nigiri of hamachi, ika, and sake (which we did not photograph). This fish was not of wonderfully pristine quality, nor were the cuts exemplary: even here, they were still a bit uneven, though nowhere near as rough as the sashimi slices had been. Nonetheless, the nigiri fish was more flavorful and of noticeably higher quality than that featured in the shiromaguro sashimi and the tekka maki. Even if the whole experience was, overall, quite lackluster, Short Exact was pleased that we ended the meal on this relatively positive note.

As you might have deduced from the rather straightforward fish we ordered, Wayo Sushi tends to stock the standard fish found in sushi bars all over this country; it does not make a point to stock seasonal fish, nor does it stock fish from Japanese or other foreign waters. We noticed a series of maki involving mango (which we did not order), so it seems like Wayo has made at least a small attempt at the ever-popular fusion roll. The menu is straightforward, though, and it will be familiar to anyone who has visited at least a few sushi bars. A rather unique quirk of Wayo, though, is that upon request, all sushi can be prepared with brown rice instead of the standard white rice. All in all, Wayo Sushi is a cozy, comfortable restaurant that offers a decent sushi selection at reasonable prices, but sometimes with quite lackluster fish quality. If you’re in the neighborhood and you don’t mind sacrificing quality, it’s an OK option. If not, you might be better off satisfying your sushi craving elsewhere.

RATING:

COST:

1407 Van Ness Avenue (near Bush St.)
San Francisco, CA 94109
Phone: 415.474.8369
Hours: Daily, 12:00 noon – 2:00 pm, 5:00 pm – 10:00 pm.

Cuisine: Japanese
Neighborhood: Polk Gulch/Van Ness

How to get there: Wayo Sushi is located directly on Muni lines 47, 49 and 76, and is easily accessible via lines 1, 2, 3, 4, and 38. In addition, Wayo Sushi is only two blocks from the California Street cable car line terminus.