The Poor Taste Guide to Alamo Square/North Panhandle

The Poor Taste Guide to Alamo Square/North Panhandle

Home to the famous Painted Ladies Victorian houses, the breezy and bulbous hill of a park facing them, and an assortment of emerging independent businesses, Alamo Square is both classic San Francisco and a neighborhood in flux.

The actual borders are shaky, at best. The hood is also part of the greater Western Addition section of the city and bleeds into North Panhandle, sometimes shortened to simply “NoPa,” though this title tends to infuriate longtime locals. The area is also, confusingly enough, also occasionally described as “Divisadero Corridor” — because the bulk of the neighborhood’s cute coffee shops, tasty restaurants, and cheap-yet-fun bars dot Divisadero Street.

That’s enough of a geography lesson for now. The most important thing to note about Alamo Square/North Panhandle is the sheer diversity of its shops — everything from hipster soul food at Blue Jay Café to all-you-can-eat vegetarian Ethopian dishes at Waziema, which turns into a buzzing bar after dinner hours.

Not to be confused with the neighborhood itself, NOPA is also the name of, arguably, the area’s best known restaurant — at least its most celebrated by food critics and gourmands. NOPA, which specializes in organic wood-fired dishes, has a knack for winning foodie awards and topping “Best of” lists in all the major city publications. The chef/owner Laurence Jossel previously helmed the menus at Chez Nous and Chow, and his rotisserie has been idolized in print countless times. The ever-changing menu boasts rustic meals like rotisserie herbed chicken with green beans or Moroccan vegetable tagine with lemon yogurt. NOPA is, however, a bit pricier that most joints here and you’ll definitely need reservations.

If you are in search of more economical Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine, there’s nearby Ziryab Grill. With a curved archway and inviting street-level patio, the restaurant serves main dishes like falafel wraps, seven-layer mussaka and braised lamb. But the best deal at Ziryab is the large mazza plate, which can feed two, and offers a taste of every appetizer. There’s warm hummus with spices, blocks of feta, cooked fava bean foul, rice wrapped in grapeleaves and spicy baba ganoush. You can also smoke fruit-flavored hookah in Ziryab’s small front courtyard.

For vegans and vegetarians, a stop at Herbivore is essential. The café, with both a front porch and back patio, can hold an impressive amount of customers for this neighborhood. While the meals are completely meatless, the dishes on the expansive menu are creative and many recall classic home cooking. For breakfast there are blueberry donuts or the Southwestern Tofu Scramble topped with vegan sourcream, among a full menu of early bird options. For lunch and dinner Herbivore offers comfort foods like the lentil loaf with mashed potatoes or a huge platter of mac-and-cheese with broccoli.  Herbivore also offers a dozen or so sandwich options dressed with pesto, nayonaise, or garlic aoli topping.

If you prefer meat but your thrifty date sticks to vegetarian dishes, you can check out the rainbow-colored food joint, Jay’s Philly Cheese Steak. This is the second location for Jay’s — the first is across town in the Mission District. Not only does the fast-food style diner make cheese steaks with a surprising variety of toppings, it also created a shredded seitan version of the iconic sandwich. This is by no means a healthy vegetarian sandwich; it’s greasy and therefore tasty just like its meat counterparts. Jay’s also has the most garlicky garlic fries you’ve ever eaten, each piece generously covered with the nostril-tingling topping. An added bonus: Jay’s stays open in time with the nearby bars.

And there’s certainly no shortage of places to imbibe in Alamo Square/North Panhandle. You can swing by Fly Bar for fruit and soymilk-infused sake and soju cocktails, or Mini Bar for the harder stuff. There’s also Bar 821, sweet-toothed Candy Bar or Madrone Art Bar which hosts art shows, live comedy and dance nights. Hard to say exactly where it originated, some pinpoint it to the formerly $1.50 (now $2) beers at always-packed Beanbag Café, but sometimes it seems like every bar on the block is competing for best happy hour prices. Which is never a bad thing for the patrons.

For a quality cup of coffee, you can also swing by Beanbag, or hit up Cafe Abir which is connected to a wine shop and sushi restaurant. There’s also Mojo Bicycle Cafe which doubles as a bicycle repair shop and serves beer and wine, which can be sipped on its newish “parklet” front patio.

Mojo is across the street from the Independent, a recently revamped but still relatively low-priced music venue. The Indy saw artists such as Caribou, Rogue Wave and Cake take the stage this past year and appears to be gathering another exciting lineup for 2011 including The Stone Foxes and Elephant 6. Dark, moody and beautifully decorated with hints of deep red velvet, the Independent provides a great atmosphere for watching live music  and they don’t overcharge at the bar.

Alamo Square/North Panhandle is always changing, often for the better. Newer businesses on and slightly off Divisadero Street like upscale pizza place Ragazza, seafood joint Bar Crudo and Nopalito (NOPA’s rustic Mexican offshoot) keep reinvigorating the area’s sundry spirit. Perhaps a new, all-encompassing neighborhood name is in order.

The Poor Taste Ten:

1. Pork Chop at NOPA: Brined for hours in brown sugar, NOPA’s pork chop has been lauded for its “tender juiciness” by the SF Bay Guardian and described as “the best plate of food I can remember” by a reporter with the Financial Times of London.

2. Bangkok Crepe at Beanbag Café: With spinach, bell pepper, green onion, mushrooms and peanut sauce, this crepe has a unique texture and flavor, both sweet and savory.

3. Falafel wrap at Ziryab Grill: Crunchy and filling, with tangy tahini dressing on the side. Deeply brown fried falafel patties, pickles and chopped tomatoes all wrapped in warm lavash bread. Choose fries or a salad on the side.

4. Sake 5-0 at Fly Bar: A sweet and nostalgia-inducing cocktail of sake, pineapple juice and soy milk. Tastes like ice cream bars eaten on sunny days in the park.

5. Mozzarella and Pesto Sandwich at Mojo Café: Gooey and delicious with tangy pesto and basil, sliced heirloom tomato and mozzarella served on a baguette.

6. Barbecue Seitan Sandwich at Jay’s Philly Cheesesteak: The texture of this will blow you away. The salty shredded seitan with crunchy lettuce and gobs of tangy barbecue sauce on a crispy french roll create the perfect sandwich fusion. Grab extra napkins.

7. Oysters at Bar Crudo: Fresh, but cheap oysters at $2.50 a piece. While the stylish spot has a bold seafood menu, its basic oyster is the perfect starter.

8. Homemade Veggie Burger at Herbivore: In a world of veggie burger sameness. Herbivore’s mix of veggies, grains and soy protein stands out above the rest. The light patty is both tasty and satiating, and comes served with vegan potatoes or macaroni salad.

9. Free movie night at the Independent: Is there anything better on a Monday evening then kicking back at your favorite local venue with cheap booze and a free film screening? I think not. The Indy screens quirky recent releases, after the films have left theaters but often before you’ve had a chance to watch them through Netflix.

10. Sunday Farmers Market: Little by little this market grew from a very small batch of stands, to an actual flourishing Farmer’s Market. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still got plenty of room grow. But now there’s an abundance of organic fruits and veggies, a fish stand, a French bakery with freshly baked loaves, a florist and, usually, some pleasant guitar accompaniment.