Let’s face it: It’s been a while since dining out—and most things in San Francisco, for that matter—could be described as affordable. From the $100 used T-shirts in Haight-Ashbury to Atelier Crenn’s new $4,000 membership program, the Trader Joe’s frozen aisle may be looking better and better when lunch hour comes around.
But there is another way. If you know where to look, San Francisco still offers an embarrassment of economical riches scattered across the city in the form of cash-only Vietnamese kitchens, food trucks and, of course, taquerias. Here are our five favorite lunches under $15.
Those who are crying “doom loop” about Downtown San Francisco often neglect to acknowledge that there are many culinary hidden gems to be found just off Market Street. Tú Lan has, for years, been a mainstay for workers along the Sixth Street corridor. This cash-only hole-in-the-wall serves a selection of nourishing phos, but our hot take is that the best lunch at Tú Lan is its filling and ineffably umami plate of shrimp fried rice.
Roxie Food Center is a picture-perfect foggy bodega. Located on the edge of Balboa Park, the corner store’s namesake sandwich is piled high with ham, salami, mortadella, cheese and artichokes, and it comes wrapped and ready if you decide to wander over to the lawn. But be warned: Roxie offers add-ons aplenty that will push your sandwich over that $15 threshold.
Apparel City | Various Food Truck Locations
Mao Zedong famously endorsed spicy food, declaring, “The food of the true revolutionary is the red pepper, and he who cannot endure red peppers is also unable to fight.” If its menu is any indication, the Chairman—a brick-and-mortar cafe in Apparel City that also has a roving fleet of food trucks—lives Mao’s culinary values through an array of spicy baked and steamed buns. The tender pork belly sandwich is glazed in red miso, tempering the sweet and savory for revolutionaries and casual picnickers alike.
With their young imaginations and minimal incomes, teenagers often know how to sniff out a deal. If you find yourself in the Parkside neighborhood, look no further than Sushi Zen—a bargain Japanese spot frequented by students at Abraham Lincoln High School. Pair a California roll with the “Rock ‘n’ Roll” (eel, avocado and cucumber), and you’ll get a miso soup on the side for just shy of $15. A few years back, SF Weekly discovered that anyone can qualify for the student lunch special, so that’s worth a shot even if you’re not currently in the throes of memorizing the quadratic formula.
Making any kind of declaration about the best taqueria in San Francisco is a true minefield, so in lieu of any sweeping claims, we’ll just make a short plug for a taco joint on Mission and 24th streets. Easily identifiable by its bright yellow awning and matching booths, El Farolito is exactly what you need when you need it—a taqueria steps away from the 24th Street BART station with solid street tacos for $3.25 apiece. It’s also open until 1:45 a.m. for the nocturnal diners among us.
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