Every time I mention to someone that I go to school in San Francisco, I am inevitably reminded about how amazing the food is here. There’s no disputing that; there’s gourmet food galore, there’s tiny places that churn out bizarrely delicious fusion, and even the fast food has been elevated to the level of concerned, appropriately spiced gastronomy.
USF, unfortunately, is stuck in a culinary no fly zone, a strip of residential blocks between Divisadero and Arguello that has almost no fun, intriguing food. This problem is only amplified past ten, when not even the Taco Bell on Geary is open. Mel’s is too cutesy and Nizario’s too dull, and Lucky Penny? Really? I’ve had frozen meals that radiated more warmth and soul than anything that greasy spoon can dole out.
Next time you’re feeling like a plate of awesome at the witching hour, hop on the Muni and check out one of these spots. Your taste buds will be grateful.
1) BOX KITCHEN
431 Natoma St.
Open until 1 a.m. daily
You have to be a tad gutsy to go to Box Kitchen during their late night hours; there’s a rowdy bar next door, a surplus of homeless people clustered across the street, and you’ll have to eat either sitting on the curb or propped up against the three foot long outdoor counter. Natoma is a small, dimly lit alley that’ll remind you vaguely of the street where MJ gets attacked in the first “Spiderman.”
So why go? Because past the doorway, Box Kitchen produces some of the most luxurious fast food in the city; Sriracha flavored hot wings, porky chicharrones with salsa and lime, and of course, the obligatory burger with garlic fries. Be sure to get the potato skins, shells of roasted Russets topped with crispy pork belly, Gouda cheese, Mexican crema, and perfectly oozy fried quail eggs. The dish elevates a sleazy appetizer into a salty, fatty, sinfully rich snack. Eat it past midnight and you’ll feel like the city’s trashiest, and happiest, mega-foodie.
2) TOMMY’S JOYNT
1101 Geary Blvd.
Open until 2 a.m. daily
Anyone who believes that San Francisco is stuck in some sort of free-range, vegan, prix-fix, heirloom-variety nightmare should plant themselves on the corner of Van Ness and Geary on a Saturday night, and look at the line of people flooding out of Tommy’s Joynt, jostling to get their hands around a roast beef sandwich. A sixty-year-old bar, deli, and cafeteria located on the cusp of the Tenderloin, Tommy’s Joynt satisfies San Franciscans’ desire for late night meat-fests, doling out almost anything a carnivore could dream up at one in the morning.
Craving some buffalo stew? A surprisingly killer plate of spaghetti and meatballs? A complete Thanksgiving dinner? Tommy’s Joynt serves them all, quickly and usually for about ten bucks. Stop by next time you catch a movie at the AMC across the street, or better yet, sneak in a pastrami sandwich. You’ll save on popcorn and make everyone else in the theater angry that they didn’t think to do the same thing.
3) ORPHAN ANDY’S
3991 17th St.
Open 24 Hours
Why is it that every time I need to get some diner fare, I am forced into a sticky linoleum booth at Mel’s? If I have to eat another plate of pancakes surrounded by framed publicity shots of Ron Howard, I think I’ll go insane. I’ve haven’t seen American Graffiti, but too many late night breakfasts at Mel’s are convincing me it’s as unremarkable as the diner’s 2x2x2 plate.
Next time I get a hankering for breakfast past midnight, I’ll spring for a Lyft and head for the Castro. Orphan Andy’s, a cozily compact diner nestled around the corner from the Castro Theatre, has everything I want in a 24-hour restaurant: chili cheese fries, drag queens, neon lights, brusque waiters, and a ceiling decorated with colorful dragonfly kites. The place also has the best plate of bacon and eggs in the city, served with a side of defiantly onion-y home fries, crisp on the outside and tender on the inside.
For a true Castro experience, pick up a realistically phallic macaroon at Hot Cookie around the block. Good luck finding one of those at Mel’s.
4) TAQUERIA CANCÚN
2288 Mission St.
Open until 1 a.m.
(2 a.m. Fri and Sat)
I’m sorry San Francisco, but despite your ability to foster tech startups and win World Series, Los Angeles still has you beat when it comes to Mexican food. We Angelinos wander around the Mission, the city’s only bastion of tortas and tamales, and weep over undercooked beans, turkey “carnitas”, and salsa that tastes like it just got spooned out of a Pace jar.
LA transplants, take heart; Taqueria Cancún gets us. Wait in a line, choose a meat from the list on the wall, choose a corn-based delivery system (burrito, taco, quesadilla, whatever), and wait for your number. Five minutes later, you’ll be digging into the best Mexican food in the Mission. I recommend the lengua, beef tongue coarsely chopped and stuffed into a warm tortilla with a sprinkling of snappily aromatic cilantro and onions, a must for any halfway decent soft taco. Top it with as much of their tangy salsa verde as you can bear. Also, be sure to order some horchata, a sweet rice drink ladled out of a giant plastic pitcher sitting next to the register.
5) ARINELL PIZZA
509 Valencia St.
Open until 2 a.m.
Most pizza in San Francisco is good, some of it sublime. Unfortunately, once the dinner crowd shuffles off, the options dwindle rather quickly. With Little Star and Tony’s both closing at ten, I have two options—an overpriced (if delectable) slice from Escape from New York or a cheaper slice of cheesy cardboard from Nizario’s. I finally made it out to Arinell Pizza in the Mission, where they serve one of the best slices of pie in the city, only charge a couple bucks for a slice the size of a kite, and even have the courtesy to stay open late on weekends.
The shop is about as Spartan as a pizzeria can hope to be. It’s cash only, has two flour-covered employees, and the entire store is roughly the size of a box of Converse. There’s a radio blasting second-rate metal, and about four feet behind the counter sits the oven, radiating heat and turning out pizzas the size of manhole covers. It’s an amazing setup, thumbing its nose at every rule of feng-shui, yet operating in inexplicable harmony.
There are only two pies available, the basic cheese and a thicker Sicilian slice. You can get toppings added to your slice, sure, but why ruin perfection? Take your oddly scalene slice, fold it in half so you look like you know what’s up, and wander down Valencia. It’s late. You have pizza. You’re in San Francisco. Take a bite of that cheese slice. Does life get much better?