From the southeast corner of Golden Gate Park, where the Sunset District begins, to its western border at the Pacific Ocean, the architecture is not so much an eyesore as an eyebore.
The Sunset spans more than forty blocks of repetitive single-family homes–a uniformity explained by the fact that most were built by the the same man, Henry Doelger, in the ’40s and ’50s. Most famous for the fog that settles here during the San Francisco “summer,” the Sunset is not exactly a prime tourist attraction (yet).
But where the Sunset fails to titillate the senses visually, it makes up for and more in culinary possibilities. The area is home to a long Chinatown stretch along the Sunset’s main thoroughfare, Irving Street, as well as a plethora of Vietnamese, Thai, Indian and Japanese establishments. The farther out west you venture, the more authentic your dining experience gets.
A good place to start is along 9th Avenue between Lincoln Way, which is the southern border of Golden Gate Park, and Judah Street. Here, you’ll find Curry Village, a dangerously delicious Indian buffet. There are no frills here, but you can eat to your fill on curry, saag, tandoori chicken and samosas. Plus, you can pour yourself as much mango lassi as you’d like, while similarly bottomless supplies of naan and chai are brought to your table.
A recently-opened neighbor is Nabe, which serves various nabemono hotpot sets in an ultra modern ambience. At the end of the meal, the remaining broth is used to make zosui, a rice porridge that absorbs all the infused flavors.
While the meal was undoubtedly delicious–I preferred the more flavorful kimchee and sukiyaki broths to the shabu shabu–Nabe’s mod feel lacks the charm of the hole-in-the-wall experience that characterizes dining in the Sunset.
One such darling of San Francisco natives is Marnee Thai. The 9th Ave location was closed after failing a health inspection on April 3rd of this year, to much dismay. But never fear–it reopened on the following day, and life resumed as usual.
A prerequisite of such popularity is the authentic, bold flavors served here, with a menu that vividly describes the unique combinations of flavors. Potstickers doused in curry; avocado salad with mango, shallots, prawns and a zesty dressing; Thai samosas stuffed with potato, pumpkin and curry. I simply couldn’t order my usual fried noodle favorites with options like these on the menu!
San Tung Chinese is another local favorite that does not disappoint. No fewer than 3,214 Yelp reviews attest to the dominance of San Tung’s dry fried chicken wings. The wings are doused in a honey and white pepper sauce, with enough sweetness and spice to keep lines forming here as early as 4:30pm on weekends.
When exploring less-frequented restaurants, however, Yelp gets dicey. Rice Valley, located on Irving between 24th and 25th Aves., is a Chinese restaurant that offers lobster specials when in season, has a devastating two-star rating on Yelp.
A telltale sign that the management could hardly care to cater to non-locals was the conspicuous absence of them, as well as an ambiance that leaves much to be desired. The decor is perhaps a Chinese take on the Greek diner: tattered vinyl booths, but with lazy susans for better food sharing. With a little insider information and a friend’s ability to read the local Chinese newspaper, we scored lobster garlic noodles for $10. So we got a lot of lobsters.
The farthest outpost I’ve visited so far is Tay Giang, a Vietnamese restaurant at 32nd Ave. Here, the food is so authentic it tastes like it comes straight from your (or your Asian friend’s) mom’s kitchen. It was especially revealing that the catfish dishes are to die for, but the pho is abysmal. Truly the worst pho I’ve ever had. The catfish claypot, though, was delectable.
In short, the lesson learned is that if you’ve made it as far as the Sunset, prepare yourself to try something new. Don’t just go by how spruce the awning is or how many Yelp reviews it’s gotten. Instead, find a place where the background music is cheesy (if there’s any at all), the ambiance fails to impress and the menu clearly specializes in something unexpected. Then order something you’ve never heard of before, and hope that it turns out all right!
Get in touch with the author @jooy8