Pheasant hot pockets, beef cheek ramen, and inventive veggie fare -- your mid-day meal just found flair
APPETITE Lunch-hour quality advances around town with a slew of notable openings or recently launched lunch menus. In a two part series (click here for part two ), here are some of the best new mid-day meals.
Nombe faced a bit of a struggle recovering from uber-talented chef Nick Balla's departure to Bar Tartine. The Mission izakaya now boasts of new executive chef Noriyuki Sugie, who has cooked in NY, Chicago, France, Sydney and the like. With Sugie's cooking, Nombe proves to be as much a gem as it ever was. An excellent sake list and caring service set it apart, but wait till you try Sugie's ramen (thankfully just added to the dinner menu in addition to lunch). There's a lot of great ramen out there, but I tend to be one of the unconverted who registers ramen's comfort factor but can often find the taste bland. I realize once I finally fulfill my dream of traveling to Japan, I may change my mind, particularly if ramen tastes like Sugie's.
Order: Ramen noodles are house made, subtly chewy, with accompanying meat. While I enjoy options like oxtail, my favorite is a heaping bowl of beef cheek ramen ($13). The tender meat is savory and robust... and, oh, the broth! No blandness here — it's layered with flavor. Scallions, mushrooms, umami foam, and soy-marinated egg add extra dimension. If not ordering sake, try the matcha ice milk or lavender oolong ice tea ($4 each) to drink.
2491 Mission, SF. (415) 681-7150, www.nombesf.com 
Laid-back Bernal Heights claims one of the best new lunch spots in town. 903 just opened weeks ago from owners of nearby Sandbox Bakery. As with Sandbox, Asian influences enliven American food. The former Maggie Mudd's space was dim and unmemorable, but they've transformed it with soothing colors, flowers, a communal table, and bench dotted with pillows. There are bento boxes of chicken tsukune or miso salmon, while the bulk of the daytime-only menu is sandwiches and a few breakfast items.
Order: Crispy shrimp balls in a challah hot dog bun ($8.50) may not jump off the menu, but juicy shrimp lightly fried in three crispy balls in a bun are delightful, particularly with garlic aioli, Sriracha, and sweet and sour plum sauce. The one vegetarian sandwich is no afterthought. Baked tofu ($7.50) has more texture and flavor than is typical on a "burger bun" made entirely of rice (which is also available with the Japanese karaage fried chicken sandwich). Pickled carrots, soy tahini, baby greens, and a layer of nori complete the sandwich.
903 Cortland, SF.
The TenderNob has a new destination café in Sweet Woodruff, the casual second space opened by owners of upscale Sons and Daughters. With an open kitchen, high ceilings, muted gray-blue walls, and stools lining rustic wood counter tops, the place feels completely San Francisco, with expected gourmet elevation of sandwiches and casual dishes. Takeout is ideal for nearby workers, but giant, corner windows make it a welcome place downtown to linger.
Order: Pheasant hot pocket ($7) is the most playful of early offerings. A flaky phyllo pastry stuffed with peas, carrots, and, of course, pheasant is warm and comforting. Cream of parsley root soup ($6) nurtures, set apart with green garlic, pine nuts and a welcome tinge of sweetness from golden raisins. A suckling pig sandwich ($9.50) is appropriately tender, contrasted by pickles, though with ghost pepper aioli I expected serious heat (not so). For dessert, a peanut and sweet soy tart ($4).
798 Sutter, SF. (415) 292-9090, www.sweetwoodruffsf.com 
While I enjoyed Rockridge's Wood Tavern from the first time I visited years ago, I didn't exactly rush out after hearing about its sandwich offshoot last year on the same block, Southie. Do we really need another pork sandwich spot in the Bay? But I was pleasantly surprised to find Southie's sandwiches among the better I've had all year. Wine on tap makes lingering at high tables in the narrow space a pleasant lunch respite.
Order: A Dungeness crab roll ($18) trumps most crab sandwiches. On a buttery brioche, it explodes with succulent crab meat. Celery root remoulade and Meyer lemon brown butter elevate it to near perfection. An expensive sandwich to be sure, but there was no skimping on the crab. "Spicy Hog" ($10) is the popular pulled pork sandwich on an Acme roll. Again, it seems everyone is doing a Southern-influenced pork sandwich these days, but Southie's is strong, loaded with coleslaw, pickled jalapeno, and lime aioli.
6311 College, Oakl. (510) 654-0100, www.southieoakland.com 
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