Last year when GQ Magazine said that San Francisco was experiencing the US's most exciting food movement, it just solidified what most people already knew: San Francisco is a food lover’s paradise. In a city that some claim has more restaurants per capita than any other major city in the US, it’s no surprise that cuisine options are nearly as varied as they are abundant.
But let’s face it, most people can’t afford to eat at the likes of Gary Danko or Boulevard very often (if ever!), especially budget travelers. Luckily The City has some incredible cheap eats. From classic greasy spoon diners to Burmese food to burritos, the following are San Francisco staples that have been keeping its broke residents and visitors well-fed for years.
There might only be seven or eight seats in this tiny Burmese restaurant, and they are coveted ones! That’s because the ladies who work there throw down some seriously excellent eats. Nothing on the menu costs more than $6 and you can wash down your mango chicken with a whole fresh coconut for an additional $3.50. Sounds like a winning combination for fighting a hangover.
Golden Coffee (Nob Hill/Tendernob)
Golden Coffee is a typical greasy spoon diner that truly gives you the most bang for your buck. You can get eggs, bacon, hashbrowns and toast all for just $4.50. They also generally have a few copies of the San Francisco Chronicle lying around, so it’s a good place to leisurely start your day.
While the neighborhood is less than desirable (to say the least), the sandwiches at Saigon Sandwich are the jam! And at $3.75 for a big, yummy banh mi it’s hard to resist. The Tenderloin may be dodgy, but not dodgy enough to keep people from lining up to get their Vietnamese food itch scratched.
Open since 1912, Red’s Java House has served everyone from sailors to soldiers to stevedores to Anthony Bourdain. Amongst Red’s many admirable qualities is its back patio. There aren’t a lot of places in the world where business men, bikers and tourists can all hang out in harmony, munching on burgers in the sun on a deck on the bay. Plus it’s crawling distance from the ball park for before or after a Giants game. Oh, and those burgers? You can get one with a beer for around $7. Thanks Red!
El Farolito (Mission)
The story goes that the burrito (at least in the current form) was invented in the Mission District. Whether or not that’s true is up for debate, but what is definitely true is that El Farolito makes a killer one. Whether you’re a vegetarian or a carnivore, this is the go-to taqueria at nearly any hour of the day. On weekends El Farolito stays open until 3am, allowing everyone pouring out of the many Mission bars to soak up their booze with some Mexican food.
Kingdom of Dumpling (Outer Sunset)
Nothing pairs better with a trip to the ocean than some incredible dumplings. Even if you’re not heading to the beach (because honestly, it’s San Francisco, and that beach is cold), Kingdom of Dumpling is certainly worth the trek to the Outer sunset. Dumplings come in orders of 12, the most expensive ones being only $6.95. Bring a couple friends and have yourself a dumpling orgy. It’s less weird than it sounds.
With locations scattered throughout the city and across the bay, Naan-N-Curry has come a long way since being a single, tiny restaurant in the Tenderloin. A good part of this success is probably due to their fantastic chicken tikka masala. Sure it’s Whitey’s favorite Indian dish, but who cares? It’s delectable. You can get a plate of it and a naan for $8 and it’s plenty of food. Alternatively you can stop into the Union Square location and hit up the buffet for $7.99 at lunch and $9.99 at dinner. And the best part? The Union Square spot is open until 4am.
Orphan Andy’s (Castro)
It’s not an article about San Francisco unless the Castro is included and it’s not a list of SF’s classic cheap eats without Orphan Andy’s. This great diner has been open 24/7 since the 1970s, and nearly everyone who has been in The City for a while has an Orphan Andy’s story. The chicken fried steak with gravy is absolutely out-of-this-world and is the remedy for both being too hungry or too hung-over. And when your waiter has a beard to his chest and is wearing a utility kilt, you know you’re in San Francisco.
Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, has written travel guides for Lonely Planet but is probably best known for his print and online guides to living cheaply in San Francisco and New York and his recent book Young, Broke & Beautiful: Broke-Ass Stuart’s Guide to Living Cheaply. Follow Stuart on Facebook and Twitter.
This article was first published in June 2012 and was updated in August 2012.