Much More Than A Sandwich: Lunching Around SF

Flavor-rich side of grilled onions at Elmira Rosticerria
Flavor-rich side of grilled onions at Elmira Rosticerria

AMAWELE’S SOUTH AFRICAN KITCHEN, SoMa (Rincon Center, 101 Spear St. between Mission & Howard, 415-536-5900)

Amawele's twins welcome in the Rincon Center
Amawele’s twins welcome in the Rincon Center

There’s no “sit down” at Amawele’s South African Kitchen. In fact, it’s a counter in the Rincon Center open only during the week for lunch so unless your office is nearby, order a few items to go. Amawele is the Zulu word for “twins”, chosen by twins Pamela and Wendy Michaelson, who brought their South African favorites from their hometown, Durban, to SoMa in May.

Chicken masala pie
Chicken masala pie

The cuisine is what they describe as native African melded with English, Indian, Dutch and Malaysian cuisines. A short menu, represented by display dishes, leans to the comfort/street food side of things, like a frikadella (meatball) “slap chip roll”. Meatballs are cooked with onions, mint, green peppers, fennel, lavender basil, thyme and packed in a roll with grilled onions and fries ($7.95).

I remember the first time I tried South African dish, bunny chow, years ago, at Amawele’s a hollowed-out loaf of bread packed with a chicken curry or butter-lima bean stew ($8-8.50). Cape Malay rice (vegetarian – $7.50; chicken – $9) is redolent of cinnamon and cardamom, but my favorite item is their chicken masala pie ($6.50), a flaky, creamy pie, redolent of curry… don’t call it “pot pie” as “it contains no pot”, I was informed with a smile.

ELMIRA ROSTICERRIA, Civic Center (154 McAllister St. at Hyde, 415-551-7332)

Elmira's relaxing space
Elmira’s relaxing space

Elmira Rosticerria is a culinary gem near the Civic Center. Whereas the best food in the area has historically been Vietnamese or Brenda’s Soul Food, Elmira is a day time respite for bing cherry scones ($2.50) in the morning or lovely caponata ($8) at lunch, a traditional mix of eggplant, zucchini and red currants on sourdough crostini.

Fernet & Ginger Beer Float
Fernet & Ginger Beer Float

The menu changes constantly, utilizing what’s fresh and seasonal. Salads are blessedly not throwaway – nor merely for health. Case in point: a crispy pork salad ($10) tossed with mixed greens, shaved fennel and juicy Frog Hollow peaches in whole grain mustard-tarragon vinaigrette. Or there might be a rich lampredotto (slow-cooked tripe) sandwich doused in salsa verde on ciabatta roll ($7.50).

Don’t miss the refreshing menthol, boozy kick of a fernet and ginger beer float ($6), where Bundaberg ginger beer is poured over fernet sorbet made exclusively for Elmira by SF’s great Humphry Slocombe. This peaceful space is clearly a foodie’s work break.

CURRY UP NOW, MissionĀ (659 Valencia St. between 17th & 18th, 415-735-3667)

Chaat & Naughty Naan
Chaat & Naughty Naan

Curry Up Now‘s playfulness is its charm. From the food truck that sold a million (I’m sure far more) Indian burritos, to this casual eatery with refillable mango, mint and rose lassis ($3), Curry Up successfully kept Indian food fun.

Irreverence is the name of the game with dishes called Naughty Naan ($9 – tikka masala flatbread) or a dessert of “hot balls on ice” ($5), a traditional gulab jamun on kulfi, aka rose ice cream over fried dough balls.

Chaat & lassis
Chaat & lassis

My picks are Thee Unburger ($7), aloo tikki (an Indian potato patty) or a samosa on a buttered bun doused with chutney and onions, that somehow evokes childhood in a comforting, soft mash alive with flavor. Order from an array of pleasing chaat ($5), or snacks, like one of my favorites, papdi chaat, crisp “chips” topped with chickpeas, chilis, yogurt and tamarind chutney.

Fried cheese cake bites ($5) are creamy-sweet on their own, but they make a uniquely savory dessert over daal lentil halwa ($5), sweet-savory lentils.

Cana's Cubano
Cana’s Cubano

CANA CUBAN PARLOR & CAFE, Mission (500 Florida St. at Mariposa, 415-580-7888)

In roomy Cana Cuban Parlor, it’s transporting sipping a Cafe Cubano ($2.50) or Cortadito ($2.75) coffee… or maybe a customized rum flight ($19-20) served with shots of soda water and fresh-pressed cane juice from their in-house sugarcane press.

Cana's rum flight
Cana’s rum flight

Lunch time offers unexpectedly gratifying sandwiches. A Cubano ($10), of slow roasted pork, black forest ham, dill pickles, Swiss, and mustard on pressed Cuban bread, is one of the better renditions of the classic in the city, while a Cuban fried chicken sandwich ($10) is a crispy pleasure of fried chicken breast in mojo criollo (Cuban white wine garlic sauce), topped with coleslaw.

Empanadas ($10-11, 2 per order) are flaky and warm, whether a picadillo filled with Cuban ground beef and sofrito (tomato, bell pepper, onion, garlic sauce) or veggie picadillo, packed with sauteed crimini, button and portobello mushrooms, manzanilla olives and golden raisins.