I like the idea of finding wonderful things wedged into odd corners of inexpensive liquor stores that oughtn't really be there. Like when you find that inexplicably cheap bottle of Lagavulin 18-year old in between the Clan McGregor and the Canadian Club, or perhaps when you spot Sammy the Bum wedged in between the tub of $1 black currant schnapps nips and reality.
But certainly the best thing I've found thus far has to be Pal's Takeaway, a simple, nondescript deli counter in the back of Tony's Market on the east side of San Francisco's Mission District.
With barely any signage to indicate its presence, no seating to speak of save for two fold out tables and four chairs, and windows that until very recently had prison-like steal-my-liquor-if-you-can bars on the windows, it's the last place you'd expect to find a great lunch, but let me tell you—there's some serious deliciousness being created behind those $10 jugs of wine.
"I did catering for a long time and owned a couple of night clubs in the '80s," Jeff Mason, the founder of Pal's told me. "But I don't want to talk about those clubs. I really just wanted to open a good sandwich place for a while, but couldn't find the space. I even considered doing a truck."
Eventually, Jeff found his break when his buddies at the excellent Dynamo Donuts across the street told him about the empty deli counter at the liquor store across the street.
It's been a little over two years since then, and Jeff still works the counter every day, making an ever-changing selection of three daily sandwiches and a couple of salads that range from slight twists on classics like the BLT-Zarella with bacon, heirloom tomatoes, heirloom lettuce, fresh mozzarella, and Tabasco mayo, to completely whacked out combos like Lao sausage with San Marzano tomatoes, cucumber-cilantro relish, arugula, and soy-yuzu mayo.
Though the restaurant is only open weekdays from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., creating sandwiches is a full-time endeavor for Jeff. He spends every afternoon at the farmers' market and at various meat and fish purveyors sourcing out ingredients for the next day's menu. He spends the rest of the afternoon and all morning at an offsite commissary roasting meats, pickling vegetables, and making sauces.
More than anything, Jeff's a curator. He seems to have a particular knack for finding truly delicious things, be they meat, vegetable, or bread, and sticking them together. Proudly emblazoned on the top of their menu is Jeff's slogan: "Always vigilant in the search to find some more good fucking stuff to put between two pieces of bread for you."
Guest chefs and products make regular appearances on the menu as well. Like the one above, which had thick, tender slices of crazy juicy fennel-scented porchetta from nearby Flour + Water on Acme bakery bread with chile-spiked mayo, caramelized onions, and arugula.
Or this market driven sandwich with broccoli, roasted red pepper, cucumber, runner beans, and a slew of other vegetables with mayo and goat cheese on wheat. A mashup of turkey rubbed in smoked Spanish paprika, fried onions, tomato, green apple, a torta-style avocado spread with poblanos and a squirt of house-made Thousand Island dressing sounds downright odd on paper, but is astoundingly tasty when you actually deliver it to your mouth, the turkey perfectly moist, the tomatoes ripe, the onions and apples crisp, and the avocado creamy.
Jeff is disarmingly down to earth about the whole thing. I mean, maybe it's just because it's in San Francisco and everybody does local, market-driven food in San Francisco, but still, I was shocked to see a man put so much care and thought into a single sandwich. Running a sandwich shop can be hard work. Running a sandwich shop with an ever-changing menu that is 100% based on what you find at the market each day must be downright grueling. Yet he seemed totally cool about it.
The greatest part of our visit was when he finally asked me who I work for (this was after I ordered one of everything, tasted it all, then began grilling him on his history) and told him Serious Eats. "Oh, you mean the Sandwich a Day guys? Yeah, I like reading that and I always thought it'd be nice to get one of my sandwiches on there. I mean, I steal enough ideas from it."
Sorry Jeff, I'm afraid you're going to have to make do with a whole feature instead.
Anyhow, next time you're in San Francisco, get yourself down to Pal's!