San Franciscans are rabid worshippers of the phenomenon of “weekend brunch” where the happy matrimony of a late breakfast and lazy lunch helps to cure many a hangover from Friday night’s partying. Serious brunchers start the day as early as 7 AM though in some of the most popular spots such as Zazie in Cole valley or Mama’s in North Beach. Most brunch places whip up the same old offerings of eggs in different form (read benedict, omelette, frittata or poached) or different combinations of toast, pancakes and bacon, but there are some off-kilter spots offering ethnic brunch such as Hawaiian, Ethiopian, Mexican, Filipino, fusion (Think Japanese meets French) and Japanese (thank you fog city for your diversity!). Today’s post is about my top 10 ethnic brunch spots in San Francisco bringing unique brunch flavors to a city obsessed with this weekend ritual. So let’s get started.
Ethnic brunch Spot # 1 Japanese
Starting off with Okane in the industrial/techie neighborhood of SOMA (South of Market for the non-local), which is a sister restaurant to the tremendously popular Michelin-starred Omakase next door, the restaurant showcases sushi and Izakaya style Japanese cuisine with an emphasis on shareable plates. The fish for the sushi is as authentic as it gets as it is sourced from Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji Fish Market. But what attracted us to this ethnic brunch spot was the Japanese style breakfast that was being offered. There were four choices for the Japanese “Set Menu” or platters, each of which would come along with its own Miso soup, salad, pickles and rice. An entire set menu (”Nagomi”) was vegetarian which S chose while I went for the chicken filled “Kashiwa” well balanced with sides of Japanese curry (peas and Yukon potatoes) and potato salad. All the dishes within the menu are in small portions and are filling on the whole. Highly recommend it to folks sick and tired of having the same eggy breakfast/brunch and looking for a different kind of brunch experience.
Next comes Cassava, the highly popular and cute as a button ethnic brunch spot in Outer Richmond. Named after the starchy tuber that yields tapioca when powdered, the name is a giveaway of its eclectic menu, with asian influences. The Japanese set breakfast is a menu staple, but other items keep on rotating here. The menu is kind to vegetarians since there are several meat free options such as the burrata squash with toast that S had for lunch (I went for the Japanese breakfast) and given how the menu states that dietary restrictions will be taken care of, I guess vegans can have a good time too if they request the eggs to be removed. My Japanese platter came along with pickled vegetables, miso soup, home made bean sprouts kimchi, koshihikari rice (popular variety of rice cultivated in Japan) and sesame sake marinated kale. We washed it down with some home-made celery-carrot juice for S and mint infused black tea for me. There are good dessert options there as well (such as pomegranate and earl grey panna cotta) but we skipped dessert. As usual our meal was delicious and the service was quick and efficient. Reservations are highly recommended since this spot is insanely popular.
Ethnic brunch Spot # 2 Filipino
UPDATE: Elena Una is permanently closed as of April 2017, try Borobudur instead for yummy Indonesian cuisine.
San Franciscans rejoice, cause you no longer have to trek to adjoining Daly City to get your fill of some delicious Filipino grub, aka mouthwatering sisigs, adobo and lumpia. Elena Una, the latest in the line of culinary newcomers is a beautiful little Filipino kitchen providing many such tasty treats to us San Franciscans craving for that fare. Located in the Marina/Cow Hollow neighborhood on Fillmore (between Lombard and Chestnut streets), this is a small, yet spacious eatery with wooden ceilings, exposed brick walls, clean and minimalist decor and extremely comforting, tasty food. The Sunday brunch was a delight of sorts for us, who are bored of trying the same old eggy American fare that are offered all over with little to no variation. The food here showcased classic filipino cuisine as appetizers, mains (with sweet alternatives such as the filipino chocolate porridge Champorado) and not to be missed dessert, along with an impressive array of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks (think all kinds of tea served with a pot of honey instead of sugar).
We skipped the appetizers and moved on to the mains since neither one of us are big brunch eaters. Mine was the staff favorite Pacham fried rice that was greasy meaty affair topped with cherry tomatoes, edamame and double poached eggs while S went for a soy-ginger vinegar glazed tofu-mushroom adobo with brown rice and egg scramble. The portion sizes are great for one person and both our dishes were super yummy! A tasting of S’s vegetarian adobo revealed spicy, tarty flavors while my rice bowl was the greasy, comforting food laced with meat, annatto (filipino tropical berry like fruit) , chili oil and cilantro. Do ask for some of their pandesa, i.e., fluffy bread rolls, you will not be disappointed. Finally, end your meal with some Halo Halo ice-cream (ice cream topped with all kinds of fruits, red beans, jellies), the house speciality being the halo halo milk panna cotta with ube. The sweetness of the panna cotta topped with such colorful toppings is the perfect way to end a meal.
Ethnic brunch Spot # 3 Japanese with French influences
Bon, Nene (French Japanese for good little girl) which is essentially Japanese fare with a western flair, is a new entrant to the brunch street in Mission, SF’s largest and most bustling neighborhood. The small restaurant, at the corner of Alabama and 21st street greets with a clean, minimalist decor and retains the charm of this airy, well lit place with wooden chairs and tables, some indoor greens and beautiful black and white photographs adorning the white-washed walls. There is a certain eye to details as was obvious from the “Bon, Nene” name stamped or printed on all decor and table accessories, starting from the billowy curtains to the beautiful cotton napkins to the tiny metal bucket /check-holder. The servers are very friendly and service is efficient. The biggest plus of the menu is the Japanese breakfast comprising of toast with red bean paste jam (home-made) and one that you must order! Having gulped many red bean paste mochis in my life, I made a beeline for this. The breakfast comes with a side of salad, drink (coffee/tea/freshly squeezed OJ) and a sunny-side up egg (which may not be included if you request so). There are several other vegetarian (could be vegan) choices such as tofu bun and potstickers (which we ordered). Their weekday lunch menu has vegetarian and non-vegetarian platters too. I also got some homemade ginger ale to wash everything down. We started off with the potstickers which were hot and fresh, with a tender skin and rich, umami-flavored vegetarian filing. The breakfast toast bread was soft and thick with a thin sprinkling of sugar, kind of like challah bread but very reminiscent of the thick slabs of bread at Indian bakeries. The red bean paste jam was chunky and not too sweet and tasted amazing when spread on the bread. Overall, two thumbs up!
Ethnic brunch spot # 4 Hawaiian
Run to the casual Hawaiian eatery ‘āina in Dog Patch, right across from the famous neighborhood Italian favorite Piccino, which opened up last year to up the city’s brunch game. ‘āina , in native Hawaiian language means “the land which feeds us” and the food is mind-blowing in texture with a riot of colors and true to the island’s heritage of a mishmash of cultures. Owing to years of conquest and immigration, Hawaiian food borrows influences from native Polynesians, Europeans and Asians. The result is a burst of flavors in every bite. I started off with some home made hibiscus ginger lemonade, which was pretty to the eye and packed a punch. Next came a vegetarian hash for S (can be made vegan minus the egg) and a Chicken Katsu with udon noodles, folded omelet (taste so smooth it felt like a flan) with a dash of curried carrot puree and side of grilled veggies with Katsu jelly. We somehow found room to stuff ourselves with the extremely tempting Malasadas, which are Portuguese style beignets filled with guava custard and dusted with powdered sugar (so yummy!). Three cheers to the food, service and ambiance! The icing on the cake are the small, cute postcards that come with the check (i.e. bill) that were painted by the owner’s (Jordan Keao dashing around in a bright red Hawaiian shirt) brother in law and picture his son nibbling on a Spam Musubi. Being a small place, it gets filled up quickly so reservations are recommended or you go in early or 30-45 mins before closing time (we went in at 2 PM and got seated promptly).
Ethnic brunch spot # 5 Italian
Next up, is Montesacro Pinseria-Enoteca, the first Roman pinseria-enoteca debuting in the United States! What is a Pinseria, you may ask? Simple, a place that makes Pinsas, which are not quite Pizzas, but are just as delectable, chewy and yummy! Pinsas are ancient Roman flatbreads, made outside of the walls of Imperial Rome by the peasants and Montesacro is the working class neighborhood of Rome to which this Pinseria pays homage to. Just like a pizza, a pinsa too has toppings but the difference lies in the crust. While pizza crusts run the whole gamut from deep dish to thin crust to fire burnt chewy with the right crunch, pinsa bases are light and airy and the magic lies in the dough. The dough comprises of an imported special flour made from GMO free wheat, soy and rice followed by a 3-5 day lengthy fermentation process that makes it so light and airy.
The Pinseria is located in the gritty neighborhood of Mid-Market (not one of SF’s best spots for tourists) but you leave all the din and squalor behind as you make a turn into Stevenson street were a small Italian tavern awaits you inside an industrial style space. The mood and ambiance is rustic chic meets Industrial charm with wooden benches and green chairs, that might remind one of the Italian roadside taverns where these Pinsas were originally made. I got started with LemonCocco, a drink imported from Italy (coconut drink with a hint of lemon) and then we got ourselves a rapini salad with beets, goat cheese and pistachio. Then we wolfed down two Pinsas (made in an electric oven imported from Italy) since they were so light on the stomach (each serving 4 pieces). One was an eternal favorite Margarita bursting with fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and basil while the other was a vegan pizza with tomatoes and olive oil cured veggies. Both were extremely good for and we loved every bite! Another great spot to go for lunch and to try a taste of Italy, beyond the comfort of a pizza.
Ethnic brunch spot # 6 Mexican
Listing two radically different Mexican restaurants here for ethnic brunch recommendations which are far apart in ambiance, food and concept. First up is the beautiful, airy Cala, a lunch and dinner place specializing in seafood cuisine from Mexico city, started by its famous export, chef Gabriela Cámara. Cala hits just the right spot between our numerous hole-in-the-wall taquerias and super fancy spots with its inviting, open space and a great brunch menu. Although specializing in seafood, the brunch menu had a lot of vegetarian options, such as the chilaquiles and the sopes which we had along with some freshly squeezed grapefruit juice. Overall, another great addition to the San Francisco brunch scene a must visit if you are in the mood to be a little fancy and yet have finger licking Mexican food for brunch!
Second, comes Gallardos kitchen, everyone’s darling mom and pop Mexican brunch spot in the Mission. This insanely popular Mexican restaurant provides homestyle cooking and “sopas” (soups) to die for and is a brunch hot spot. Gallardo’s may be a family operated joint, but the interior’s stylish decor belies any homely vibes (which the food provides aplenty, by the way) with a menagerie of black and white scenes from vintage Mexican movies, which are a treat to the eyes. The menu has meat, seafood and several vegetarian options along with a section devoted to their soups, that is rumored to cure even the darkest of blues and nastiest of hangovers. Plus, breakfast items are served even during lunch. I went straight for the chicken soup (grande size, no less) while S got the vegetarian enchiladas (came with rice and beans) and a glass of El Vampiro (a mixed veggie juice with beets that tasted heavenly). The hot piping bowl of soup with its rich broth, potatoes, veggies, tender chicken falling off the bone, was extremely hearty and satisfying. S loved his enchiladas as well. Overall, lunch was extremely satisfying and we felt lucky to have found our way up to Gallardo’s in the nick of time. Lovers of fuss free, homestyle, no hipster nonsense Mexican food, do stop by Gallardo’s in the later hours of the day to enjoy great service and even better food. One last super important note: CASH ONLY!
Ethnic brunch spot # 7 Peruvian
San Francisco has quite a few Peruvian restaurants, but none quite as trendy, hip, boisterous and celebratory of its cuisine as Mochica, which ironically is in Potrero Hill, one of the quietest neighborhoods of San Francisco (near the eastern waterfront). The restaurant has a funky interior decor, resplendent with colorful murals, photos and chic chandeliors. My first time at Mochica was for dinner and this time, we stopped by for brunch, and both menus are vastly different with the only similarity being extreme deliciousness. The brunch menu, although not as lengthy as the dinner menu, has many options as well. Despite being seafood and meat heavy, there are several vegetarian dishes to choose from. S got the beet salad and smoky mushroom empanada while I settled for a chicken and rice soup in a cilantro broth which was very hearty. We skipped dessert but had our fill of a sweet Peruvian beverage made of purple corn called chicha morada. The restaurant also has an extensive beverage menu with Peruvian beer, wines and of course mimosas and cocktails including the popular Peruvian drink pisco sour. Never once disappointing, Mochica is a hep and happening place to dine at San Francisco, with great ambiance, good service and above all splendid, delicious Peruvian fare. Plus, they also have a happy hour. Go for it!
Ethnic Brunch Spot # 8 Burmese
My favorite low key lunch spot in town has to be Burmese Kitchen, formerly on Larkin street near Civic center and now at its new home in Inner Richmond. Although this place does not have a separate brunch menu, you will be a repeat offender once you dine here for its simple home-cooked meals for lunch and dinner. A small, tidy hole in the wall with a smattering of Burmese decor, the quiet, clean ambiance runs parallel to the food itself in the simplicity and unobtrusiveness. The servers (usually a very pleasant and friendly Burmese lady) are very nice,polite and efficient and the food comes to you within a reasonable time. Their tea leaf salad (either the signature dish or the more vegan one minus the dried shrimp) is a must have, as is their Pumpkin curry, Spicy whole fish (my absolute favorite) and Sambusa soup (S’s favorite). Burmese food is a very distinct cuisine and definitely is influenced by Indian food (east Indian to be more specific). Every time I dine here, I feel a fleeting sense of nostalgia much like the hard-nosed food critic in the movie Ratatouille,such is the magic of this kitchen serving home cooked style food, straight from the heart with no frills. If there is one restaurant that I would recommend for food lovers and on a budget, this place will surpass all your expectations due to the deliciousness of the food and the friendly atmosphere. Their tea leaf salad is also sold commercially because it is SO good! A haven for vegetarians and vegans (lots of meat free and animal free menu items) this place is a must visit for all you foodies out there!
Ethnic Brunch spot # 9 Russian
Cinderella Bakery and Cafe, a charming spot in the neighborhood of Inner Richmond, specializes in Russian (yes, you read that right) baked goods, savory mouthwatering items such as sandwiches, soups, pies , Blinchiki and Varenikis (Russian dumplings). Lots of vegetarian and vegan choices (you can always refuse the sour cream on the side that comes with most savory items) so that no one is left behind. Finally,plenty of outdoor seating so that you can have a great meal with your dogs! There is often a long line snaking out of the cafe,comprising of people waiting to order (mostly to go since its a favorite neighborhood joint) so coming in a little early, i.e.11 A- ish is not a bad idea. You pay at the counter and then pick your seat (cards and cash accepted). Every time I visit, I make sure to order the refreshing Kompot, a house made beverage which has a slightly fermented taste and is super refreshing. Their borscht soup (Russian beet soup), potato Varenikis and Piroshkis (fried pies with veg/non-vegetarian filling) are to die for. Cinderella bake their own bread in-house and offer a bunch of pre-packaged items (soups, salad, strudels etc). Finally,they also have an envious collection of central Asian/Russian desserts.
Ethnic brunch spot #10 Ethiopian
Oasis cafe, a small Eritrean-Ethiopian eatery tucked away in the Sf neighborhood of NOPA (on Divisadero Street)should be your destination for yummy East African food. They have yummy foule mudammas (fava bean salad) as well as shareable plates with injera (Ethiopian bread) and veggie or meat sides.
I hope this post has given you plenty of ideas to expand your brunch world and explore new cuisines. If you want more brunch/lunch ideas you can check out my other blog post here. Happy brunching! For more SF food posts,take a look at my eating on a budget post here and my top 6 SF cafes post here.
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