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Not too many years ago, the intersection of Church and 30th streets had a distinctly end-of-the-line, Hooterville flavor. It was there that Muni's J-Church streetcars ran out of track and had to turn themselves around for the voyage back to Market Street. The restaurants were a motley crew too, a helter-skelter bouquet of old, dimly lit places Italian, Burmese and a few brash arrivistes, such as Valentine's and Café J.
Nowadays the southbound J takes a left and disappears for hours, like that model train Monty Burns once gave Bart, briefly his heir, on The Simpsons. ("Where does it go?" Millhouse asks in awe as the toy train chugs into a tunnel, and Bart replies, "I don't know, but it'll be gone for three hours, and yesterday it came back with snow on it!") The expansion of public transport is doubtless a good thing, especially in times like these, but the growth of the J line has certainly helped end the backwater days at Church and 30th. In the past few years there has been a tremendous efflorescence of upmarket restaurants south of 26th Street, including Incanto, Bistro 1689, La Ciccia, Pomelo, and Pescheria (from Joseph Manzare of Globe).
A small lacuna in this splendid list but a striking one, considering Noe Valley's reputation as the city's baby belt has been a place families could eat with small children. Outer Church's resurgent restaurant row is very much tilted toward hip young adults with money. The baby-stroller set does most of its prowling along 24th Street, with Savor serving as a kind of Grand Central Station for people with little ones. Of course there was Hungry Joe's, an old-time, greasy-spoon hamburger joint yet the nearest relation to Hungry Joe's wasn't Savor but Herb's, a place where I've never seen many baby strollers or children.
But now that the Naser brothers (Eddie, Anis, and Kamal) have reinvented Hungry Joe's as Toast complete with fresh paint the color of sunshine, brilliant new windows, and a shiny redo of the lunch counter the outer Noe neighbors need no longer herd their tykes, tots, nippers, and other small folk up the long blocks to 24th Street. Toast, launched early in September, is much snugger than Savor, and although it doesn't serve crepes, the menu does offer pancakes from dawn to dusk and beyond.
If the place also lacks Savor's rear terrace, where fantasies of being in Nice can plausibly be entertained, it offers plenty of sidewalk seating by way of compensation. This small amenity is already attracting a big brunch crowd on warm weekend afternoons. And lovers of toast will not come away disappointed. Toasted bread, a simple pleasure that really can't be improved upon, is standard issue for many of the restaurant's broad array of sandwiches, and while this might seem like a minor detail, minor details have a way of making the difference between good and merely mediocre cooking.
The only untoasted bread we came across was the little loaf of sliced baguette that appeared shortly after we were seated one evening. It was butterable, of course, but it also made nice chunks for dipping into a surprisingly excellent lentil soup ($4.75) dotted with diced carrots and celery and shreds of tomato but also bewitchingly perfumed with an eastern Mediterranean, perhaps Turkish, bouquet of spices. I definitely detected paprika (we associate paprika with Hungary, but the spice was brought there by Ottoman invaders) and possibly sumac. Another small detail that made a noticeable difference.
And yet another: pepper jack cheese, with its agreeable fruity sharpness, along with cheddar in the grilled cheese sandwich ($7.25), whose slices of white bread had assumed pale golden sheen, sign of a quick turn in oil rather than a toaster. And more: heavy gratings of parmesan, a wealth of nicely oily croutons, and a garlicky vinaigrette over perfect romaine leaves in the side Caesar salad, which is a 75¢ upgrade for most of the sandwiches. The corned beef in the Reuben ($8.75) seemed to have been house-cured, judging by the juiciness of the meat and the liveliness of the bits of fat still attached to it. Corned beef has nothing to do with corn, incidentally, except that the cattle might have been fed it in their last days. "Corn" refers to the coarse salt with which the meat is cured; the word used to mean "grain" or "granular" hence "corn snow."
I did find the ground beef in the patty melt ($8.50) to have been slightly underseasoned, but this deficit was made up by plenty of excellent sautéed onions and slices of (toasted!) rye bread. The side of fries, though not of the elegant French matchstick variety, was flawless and must be counted among the better versions in the city. Like the Reuben, the bacon cheeseburger ($8.50) was made with Niman Ranch beef 1/3 pound's worth but the quality of the meat was largely eclipsed by the intensity of the toppings: a heavy mat of melted cheddar cheese and lengths of well-crisped bacon.
One evening we sat near a young family whose little girls, while waiting for their evening pancakes, were crawling over everything like monkeys up on the table, down the back of a chair, across the floor, making little squeaks and yips all the way while their parents patiently shepherded them back toward civilization and kept a conversation going between themselves. The gist of their remarks seemed to be: When will the pancakes arrive, and perhaps, Will we be toast by then? Answers: soon and no, everybody happy. *
Mon.Sat., 7 a.m.9 p.m.; Sun., 7 a.m.4 p.m.
1748 Church, SF