Guardian Guide: Comfort food and joy

Pub date December 11, 2006
SectionFood & Drink


Wintertime has descended, which means it’s high time for wonderfully unhealthy, heavy eating (a food coma is as close to hibernation as you can get). The chilly nights practically demand that you keep yourself in extra cuddly form, but at least you can hide your pale, flabby body under coats and sweaters. As we know, San Francisco’s Victorian and Edwardian apartments can be hella drafty, so when your fingers feel like frozen Vienna sausages and you need a break from wrapping presents, here are some hot spots around town guaranteed to warm you — and fill you — right up.

Nothing gets you toasty like a big bowl of soup, so count your lucky stars there are Vietnamese pho joints all over this foggy, damp city. The finest of them all is Turtle Tower, where you get some of the best pho in the city, and it’s ridiculously cheap. At the first sign of a cold, get yourself a bowl of their pho ga (chicken noodle) soup — you’ll score a pore-cleaning blast of steam as you slurp the delicate hand-cut noodles. You can really sweat a cold out with a bowl of the beef soup, like the pho soc vang — and feel free to go nuts adding some spicy, sinus-clearing sriracha to it.
631 Larkin, SF. (415) 409-3333

The Japanese have turned noodles into an art form (it’s right up there with bonsai), but it’s a shame so few eateries in our Japanophilic town give them much respect. One place that knows how to rock the ramen right is Suzu, nestled in the bottom of the Japantown Kinokuniya complex. It’s a small space, but the options for bowls of tender udon and silky ramen are varied and numerous. Some swear by the chicken kara-age (fried chicken), but the mabo ramen is the truly irresistible choice: tofu and ground pork in a somewhat spiced broth. Slurp.
1581 Webster, suite 105, SF. (415) 346-5083

The only snow we tend to get is in the bathrooms at the clubs, but you can still make like Hans and Heidi and head over to this quirky chalet for a winter wonderland night of fondue. Take your pick from a variety of cheese and beef fondues and start dunking chunks of baguette (carbs and calories be damned). You can even choose extra sides for dipping, such as apple, sausage, and mushrooms. But a ticket to ride to this alpine fantasy comes at a price — not quite a Swiss bank withdrawal, but still: cheese fondue is $34 for two, beef is $44 for two, and sides are $4 each — and if you have your heart set on some chocolate fondue for dessert, you’ll pay $16 for two. (“Edelweiss” not included.)
2323 Van Ness, SF. (415) 885-6116

The French have it down with soupe a l’oignon gratinée. Really, what’s not to love about crusty bread, sweet golden-brown onions, chicken and beef broth, a whisper of brandy, fresh thyme, and melted Gruyère cheese? It’s the original meal in a cup, or bowl for that matter. And one of the better bowls of this wonder stuff can be had at Absinthe, working a très charmant brasserie environment to accompany a menu of Frenchie classics. Finish or, heck, bookend dinner with some primo cocktails from the bar, and you’ll leave toasty and a little toasted.
398 Hayes, SF. (415) 551-1590,

The Germans practically invented hefty food, and if there is ever a time to scarf down some schnitzel or sauerbraten, these cold-ass months are it. Two East Berlin lasses run this homey neighborhood joint and will ensure you are well fed without totally lightening your wallet (entrées clock in at less than $15). And vegetarians, achtung! Now is the time in Sprockets when you eat, since there are a rather tasty vegetarian schnitzel and a meatless cabbage roulade on the menu, both served in generous portions with mashed potatoes. Bonus: this place is always warm and packed with friendly bodies, partially due to the seriously legit beers on tap. Prost!
381 S. Van Ness, SF. (415) 551-7181,

Ahhhhh, chowdah. There’s a reason anglers are able to keep fueled and warm on the stuff — it’s hot, filling, and hearty, and the boys at Bar Crudo are happy to make sure you leave feeling like a nautical warrior, even if you work for Google. This rich and savory chowder has fresh clams, cod, squid, and potato, plus some hunky hunks of smoky bacon, all in a cream-loaded broth that makes you grateful you’re not lactose intolerant. Order up an ale from the extensive beer list, and you’ll be calling yourself Long John Silver in no time. Oh, wait, he was a pirate.
603 Bush, SF. (415) 956-0396,

So your socks are soggy and your nose is runny? Let’s pretend you’re maxing and relaxing at a balmy locale instead. Poleng’s tropical feel, complete with batik, a water wall, and other island-evocative decor, should help. And for some weird reason, it can also feel quite stuffy, so the resort fantasy isn’t too far-fetched. Thanks to the talented Filipino chef, you can feast on an array of Asian small plates that are as delish as they are affordable, such as fried chicken adobo wings, lumpia Shanghai, and garlic crab noodles. Don’t miss the tea service, which is almost as effective as self-warming seats in a Saab.
1751 Fulton, SF. (415) 441-1751,

San Franciscans know wintertime is all about Dungeness crab. And when there’s crab, there’s a bowl of the quintessential San Francisco treat out there with your name on it. Not Rice-A-Roni, friend — cioppino. Belly up to the counter at Tadich, and you’ll get a big steaming bowl of clams, prawns, scallops, bay shrimp, crabmeat, and white fish, with garlic bread on the side. You can also warm up with a bowl of its various chowders or some Chesapeake Bay oyster stew. For those who have never had a Tadich experience, just know the long-standing waiters here are about as salty as your Saltine cracker, so don’t try any funny stuff, kid.
240 California, SF. (415) 391-1849

Luna Park is already a favorite of comfort food junkies for its warm goat cheese fondue, oven-baked mac ’n’ cheese with broccoli and applewood-smoked ham, and other stick-to-your ribs savories for less than $20. But this holiday it’s time to release your inner kid, the nice one who wants to decorate cookies (not the bad one who throws rocks)! From Dec. 10 to 25, you can come in and decorate your own gingerbread man and Christmas tree cookie with all kinds of candies and toppings. You can also warm up like an adult with a mug of Santa’s Little Helper, Luna Park’s brandy- or whiskey-spiked eggnog. It comes with a bar of dark chocolate, perfect for stirring and eating naturally.
694 Valencia, SF. (415) 553-8584,

This friendly little eatery is well-known around town for its killer brunch, but a lot of people are just learning about its ridiculously affordable dinners too, thanks to the new owners. Chow down on homey neoclassical American faves such as slow-roasted lamb shank, roasted free-range chicken, and Shiraz-braised short ribs, with not a single dish more than $16 in that little roundup (and you get some fab veggie sides). Any place that serves chicken potpie is a champ, but how about chicken hash, for dinner? Uh, yeah, bring it on. Fill up on the homemade bread too.
500 Presidio, SF. (415) 441-2238,

Most San Francisco fireplaces have been converted into receptacles to store crappy gas heaters, but there are a couple spiffy restaurants around town that understand the importance of a good, crackling fire. Nothing quite tops the fireplace at Kokkari, which does double duty as a rotisserie for various meat treats such as spring lamb, whole Red Wattle pig, duck, goose, and goat. (No Duraflame here.) Meanwhile, newcomer Terzo has a cozy hearth that complements its slick and attractive space; its extensive menu of Mediterranean and seasonal small plates supplies some old-world hominess.
Kokkari, 200 Jackson, SF. (415) 981-0983,; Terzo, 3011 Steiner, SF. (415) 441-3200,

A steamy room isn’t normally considered an asset, but when it’s nippy out, nothing quite beats the front room of Woodward’s Garden for snuggly respite. The open kitchen cranks up the ambient temperature and sends out seasonal and substantial dishes such as pork chops, lamb shanks, and homemade ravioli. Depending on what’s cookin’, you also might walk out smelling a little smoky, but don’t say we didn’t warn you.
1700 Mission, SF. (415) 621-7122,