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Judge VardiganLunch in SOMA (SF)

A lot of people complain about lunch options in the area south of Market sometimes known as Multimedia Gulch. I'm one of them. But a good lunch can be had down here, and the departure of some Web companies has shortened lines at venues previously unapproachable between noon and 2.

Here are 13 places. Please recommend any you think we should add.


Hotel Utah (American bar fare)
500 - 4th St., at Bryant

Recently reviewed as a dinner option, the Utah does most of its füd business at lunch. The menu seems to change on occasion, which is fine -- staples like burgers and macaroni and cheese are always there. Things I've enjoyed are the burger, mac & cheese, chicken pot pie, roast beef sandwich, and turkey sandwich. It's not the cheapest, but split an order of fries and you'll come in under 10 bucks.

Cha-Am (Thai)
701 Folsom St., at 3rd St.

This place is top-notch, and the lunch specials run as low as $5.95. If you're lucky you'll get your water in those little silver cups. I love those. Pad Ga Pow with steak or chicken is a consistent winner here. There's a spicy tofu plate I also really like. Be advised that many dishes are very spicy. Take their word for it when they say it on the menu.

H R D Coffee Shop (Chinese, American)
521 - 3rd St., near Bryant

It pains me a bit to write this one up. See, I haven't patronized the HRD Coffee Shop (often called "Chinese diner" in the neighborhood) in probably a year. Prior to that I averaged a couple visits a week. I split my time between the meatloaf with mashed potatoes and broccoli (Tuesday's special, under 5 bucks) and the spicy tofu with vegetables (an obscene bargain at $3.35). I was happy and thrifty. But then I hit a wall. One day I approached the HRD, paused -- and walked on past. Now I don't even like to smell it when I quick-walk by. Hard to explain. It happens sometimes -- I blame no one but myself. Give it a try. They have a dizzying array of Chinese and American diner staples, including a complete "turkey dinner lunch" that runs $4.99.

Caffe Centro (Sandwiches, salads)
102 South Park

I go here a lot. I haven't burned out on it yet, partly because it's one of the places you couldn't get near when the entire population seemed to eat lunch in South Park. It's on the high side, price-wise, but you're paying for healthy, fresh ingredients. The salads are the stand-outs here, especially the Nicoise (under 6 with tax), the bread salad, and the pasta portofino ($6.78 with tax). There are also rotating daily specials -- my favorites are macaroni and cheese and tuna noodle casserole. Sandwiches are also good if you're not in for the big salad commitment. The people working there are very nice and know my name by heart. "Judge Vardigan!" they call out when my order is up. Not really. They use my other name.

Pepito's (Taqueria)
24 South Park

I used to go here a lot but then I soured on it, and hardly go at all anymore. However, it's had a renaissance in my lunch-mind of late. In fact just today I had a very good grilled chicken burrito (under 5 bucks). But they use this really orange cheese, which I find suspect. Finely shredded orange cheese, suspiciously similar to Safeway cheddar. I don't claim that other taquerias are using top-shelf cheese, but something about the orange stuff here makes me frown when they toss it on. And they charge for chips. That's wrong. Dirt wrong. And they put them in a zip-loc bag. And I don't know why they do that.

Olympic Deli & Restaurant (Diner)
372 - 5th St., between Harrison and Folsom

This may be a bit off your usual path, but it's worth a special trip now and then. Long-rumored to be a scaled-down Pork Store Cafe (the menus are remarkably similar), Olympic has been a secret little gem for reader-eater Jon Stross and I since Judge McClure introduced us to it four years ago. Breakfasts are excellent, if you don't happen to be lunching there. (I think you can get the breakfasts at lunchtime too.) For lunch, I recommend the tuna melt or patty melt. I think these come in around $5.95, fries included. But you'll pay a bit more with tip (there's table service).

Victor's (Taqueria)
210 Townsend St., between 3rd and 4th

This remains, to me, not much of an option between 12 and 2. It may be my aversion to queuing up in cramped spaces, but I've never been able to go in there when there's a considerable line. If you're like me, leave your office at 1:45 and you should be in the clear. If you're more resilient, go any time. Get something with their grilled chicken, either a burrito or the "dinner plate," which comes with a char-grilled chicken, beans, rice, sour cream, guacamole, salsa, and warm tortillas. The burritos come in around 5 bucks, the dinner plate 7.

Correction! They've knocked out the wall that imprisoned me, leaving the ordering area light and breezy! Go there at any hour, neuroses-free.

Primo Patio Café (Caribbean)
214 Townsend St., between 3rd and 4th

This is a nice little outdoor eatery a couple doors down from Victor's. I treat this as a kind of special event place, and never get take-out from there (unlike most of the places in this report). Go with a couple people on a warm Friday and enjoy a snapper sandwich with fries, which is the only thing I've ever ordered. Others seem to like the jerk chicken sandwich or entrée. The fries come with a nice dipping sauce uncannily reminiscent of bib winner Johnny Reno's secret taco sauce. The snapper sandwich runs $6.95 and the entrees are a bit more, so that's another reason I don't wind up here more often.

Brickhouse (Sandwiches, salads)
426 Brannan St., between 3rd and 4th

To me, Brickhouse will always be the little video store that could. It first opened about four years ago as a video and DVD rental place whose name I regrettably forget. Being so near my office, it made returning movies easy. My late fees plummeted. But I seemed to be the only person in there, every time. Hundreds of movies, one renter. The math didn't seem in their favor. I worried. Soon they wisely added a coffee stand to the front of the store. A few months later, gone were all the movies. Not too long after that they were serving sandwiches, and now it's a thriving full-service deli and salad shop. Called Brickhouse. Yeah, lousy name. But I say good for them. They could have bailed when the dot-com [fill in catastrophic term] happened, but they saw it through to success. Sandwiches are quite good ("full-on" turkey, tuna melt are both fine), slightly overpriced ($6.95 for some), and the service is rather slow, but I think that's because they're making everything on the spot. (Note: They also do a nice catering plate for lunch meetings.)

Chavo's (Taqueria)
595 Bryant St., corner of 4th

Damn the proximity. If Chavo's weren't mere steps from my office I'd surely have avoided many a bloated, churning workday afternoon. In my early days in the area I think I enjoyed the Chavo's burrito, which I no longer understand. Now I don't go in at all. Other people do though. I witness incredible lines when I walk past, and I want to ask these people, "How?" Sheer laziness? Perhaps. The food here is very heavy, the meat is weird (except the stewed chicken, that's not bad), they rarely offer grilled chicken, the tortillas are off, and the salsa gives me painful heartburn. If you're after a burrito, walk an extra block or two for Pepito's or Victor's.

Somaz (Diner)
474 - 3rd St., between Harrison and Bryant

Due to a recent unwillingness to eat French fries in the middle of the day, I've been avoiding Somaz, but it's darn good. Pretty much everything comes with fries at this bright dineresque lunch spot. The owner, Maz, is a definite winner. When they first opened he would wow the crowds with little magic acts involving patrons' money. Someone's money must have permanently disappeared because he doesn't do that stuff anymore. But he's always jovial and he's down with the cops, who are always in there, especially in the morning. Tasty choices are the turkey burger, regular burger, and BLT. Everything's 5 or 6 bucks including fries.

Bill's Kitchen & Teriyaki (Japanese)
475 - 3rd St., between Harrison and Bryant

Five years ago I loved Bill's Kitchen. During my days at Miller Freeman I dined here frequently with reader-eater Stron, and I recall the meals wistfully. We shared our tales of workaday woe over plates of salmon teriyaki, which is what I always got. They give you a decent piece of salmon, rice, an orange slice, a few small cucumber rolls, a tiny salad, and miso soup. Not a bad little deal. Back then I think it was $4.95 but it may be more now. Again, this is a place I burnt out on. Also, I recently witnessed guest judge Ninja try in vain to eat a ruinous mound of teriyaki chicken. Eventually he put down the chopsticks and fell silent. That's one lunch hour he'll never have back. I haven't returned since. But lots of people still go there -- give it a shot.

Cafe Bosse
1599 Howard Street, SF

Having canvassed the greater Civic Center area for a palatable salady lunch, I tell you with authority that this place is THE place. It's one of those deals where you pick out your greens (romaine or spring this-n-that or whatever) and your toppings (you get at least 5, more if you get a larger salad) and your dressing, and they toss it for you quick as you please and it's real nice. You can add chicken. The salads are big, and evenly coated with dressing. It's a pleasant, busy place. If you are craving comfort food, they have that too: one time I saw a scalloped potato casserole that was buried under a crumbled bacon topping. -- Magistrate Louise







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