San Fran Chow: Trapped in America's Nicest (?) Food Court

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Westfield Food Emporium
865 Market St., San Francisco, CA 94103
Web: Westfield Food Emporium
Phone: 415.512.6776
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"So why did we bother writing on Buffalo Chow about a food court in San Francisco? Westfield's Food Emporium shows what the future of convenience dining could be here."

To some, the very idea of eating at a food court is repulsive: at most malls, these collections of chain mini-restaurants serve little more than fourth-rate sustenance to keep local workers alive long enough for their next shifts. But there are legitimately good - even great - food courts, at least, outside of Western New York. We were stuck in one for six meals this past week as we traveled on business to San Francisco, California, and though it can't come close to dethroning our favorite such collective venue (Singapore's Lau Pa Sat), the Westfield Food Emporium demonstrates how setting higher culinary standards, slightly higher prices, and superior levels of sanitation can transform lowest common denominator dining into something upscale and worthwhile.

The Westfield Shopping Centre on Market Street in San Francisco is only blocks away from the Moscone Center, which we typically visit several times a year on Apple-related business for iLounge. Years ago, we tended to return too often to cramped dining quarters at Sony's nearby Metreon, but more recently stumbled across the Food Emporium, a collection of much nicer restaurants at the basement level of Westfield's anchor tenant Bloomingdale's. They are joined by a reasonably sized, contiguous seating area where the tables are cleared of dishes as you eat, then wiped down when you leave; this keeps them surprisingly immaculate by food court standards. Pleased by our initial visit, we've subsequently stopped by once or twice per trip, but this week, our colleagues just wanted to keep going back, giving us the unusual opportunity to work through quite a few of the restaurants found inside. Here are the meal highlights, with desserts in a separate article.

Coriander Gourmet Thai: Our favorite restaurant at the Food Emporium is this legitimately good Thai place, which mightn't live up to its Gourmet billing but certainly takes the cuisine more seriously than any other food court Thai shop we've seen in the U.S. As you stand in the inevitable line in front of the attractively designed, wood and steel counter area, you're presented with a selection of numerous, attractive metal heating vessels filled with recently-prepared dishes: eggplant and tofu, green curry chicken, spicy basil chicken, pumpkin curry chicken, pad thai, rendeng beef curry, tom yum soup, and many others, alongside white and fried rices. In our many experiences at Coriander, everything's at least good, and sometimes better; we ordered a two-item combo of soft, beautiful Eggplant and Tofu plus crispy, sweet Spicy Basil Chicken for $9.50, and added a nice if slightly thin Green Curry Chicken for $3.50 more. Each item was tasty, if not perfectly fresh; the real superstar was an open container of dried Thai hot pepper off to the side of the counter, available to give any dish you order an authentic kick of spice. This may well be the best such spice additive on the planet, preserving both heat and crispiness even when it's submerged in a curry, giving dishes sub-baby tooth-sized pockets of zing. Coriander was a close second in popularity to Buckhorn Grill, below, but certainly was our top pick on flavor; it's fantastic by food court standards.

Coriander Gourmet Thai Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Buckhorn Grill: Quite possibly the most popular restaurant amongst our group of five people, Buckhorn Grill hooks passers-by with a tray of cube-shaped medium rare tri-tip samples that are so surprisingly succulent that even our steak-saturated palates were enticed to try a meal here; after one sample each on the first day, it seemed like hardly a meal passed without someone bringing back a Buckhorn sandwich or plate of meat. As one location of a small, Northern California-based chain, Buckhorn Grill's menu consists primarily of thin- or thick-sliced Angus tri-tip and chicken breasts, each marinated for juiciness and flavor, then assembled into either sub-style sandwiches or plates of meat with sides. We really enjoyed the 10-ounce Dad's Cut of thick-sliced, Char-Roasted Sirloin Tri-Tip ($16; a 6-ounce plate is $13), served with grilled vegetables and mashed potatoes, plus a properly-named Traditional Caesar Salad (side portion, $4.50; full, $7), with an authentic, creamy dressing. Comrades kept going back for the Chipotle Border Buck ($7), a thin-sliced tri-tip sandwich with a mix of spicy chipotle sauce and pepper jack cheese, as well as other heavily-sauced sandwiches. Thanks in large part to the meats, everything we tasted here was good; Buckhorn's marinade recipe and preparation transform the typically lowly tri-tip cut into something consistently and surprisingly delicious. Now we know that it's possible.

Buckhorn Grill on Urbanspoon

Mr. Hana: To call Mr. Hana bad would be a little severe, but by the standards of its competitors at Westfield, this limited menu Japanese restaurant is a definite pass due to high prices and nothing special food. While we ordered the Teppanyaki plate ($11) this time - a dish with cooked prawns, steak, and chicken served under a teriyaki glaze and over white rice - it was more to see whether Mr. Hana actually excelled at anything than out of real interest in the items; we'd previously tried and been unimpressed by other, more traditional Japanese dishes here, such as the Unagi (Eel) Bowl and Spicy Tuna Bowl. Our Teppanyaki was forgettable, leaving us hungry, and all of the items here seem to have too much rice and too little flavor for their relatively high prices. The only good thing we've had here was a bowl of seaweed salad, which was far more generous than we'd expected for the $3 asking price. Still, we won't be going back; $15 with tax is a lot to pay for a nothing special meal.

Mr. Hana on Urbanspoon

Out The Door: Located in one corner of the food court but not truly a part of it, Out The Door is actually a satellite location of San Francisco's well-known Vietnamese restaurant The Slanted Door. Tastefully and impressively decorated with different modern interior walls and stainless steel tables, Out The Door serves a very short menu of largely Vietnamese classics - Pho soup, Bun vermicelli noodles, Spring (Imperial, fried) Rolls and Summer (unfried) Rolls - from a somewhat pricey but generally authentic menu. A pork version of the room temperature noodle dish Bun ($10.50) arrived absolutely loaded with perfectly grilled, marinated meat, atop a very fresh bowl of bean sprouts, sliced lettuce, scallions, and thin white rice noodles; beef ($11.50) and chicken ($10.50) versions ordered by our group were a little less generous on their meats but otherwise substantially the same. The overpriced Imperial Rolls ($8.50) arrived with lettuce, mint, and vermicelli to make wraps, but the deep-fried pork and rice paper rolls themselves were light on flavor, aided only by the traditional sour dipping sauce. There wasn't anything wrong or especially great about our meal here, the second or third we've had at Out The Door with similar results, but we love the venue; it's worth visiting if you're with a group that needs guaranteed seating and attendants, or after you've had, say, four other recent meals in the food court.

Out the Door on Urbanspoon

Sorabol Korean BBQ & Asian Noodles: Last but not least of the bunch was Sorabol, a better than decent, small California-based chain Korean restaurant location. Much like Coriander, Sorabol serves you from a collection of mostly pre-prepared dishes on a nice-looking steam table; the items are worth noting more for the fact that they're capable of being served in this way at all than that they're especially good. This is a place where you can assemble a plate of Kalbi beef short ribs, spicy pork Dwaeji Bulgogi, and similarly spicy sliced squid and vegetable Ojingo Bokum, described here as spicy stir fried calamari, for around $12, thus, we did. As on previous visits, the food was a 2.5 out of 4 by absolute standards, the chewy, slightly sesame oiled Kalbi obviously not fresh off the grill and the other items possessing maintenance warmth rather than that of a broiler or pan. It was all very edible, but not memorably good. Yet seen in the context of food court food, which has certain timeliness requirements and diminished quality expectations relative to what you'd expect from a sit-down restaurant, Sorabol's offerings are more like a standout 3 out of 4. We've actually had worse meals at more expensive Korean places in Buffalo, say nothing of the supposedly cheap ones, which serve meals for about the same prices you'll pay here. By comparison, the only things missing are the typical Korean side dishes, here offered as a "salad" as a $3.50 add-on. We'd revisit again, but Coriander is a stronger option for Asiaphiles.

Sorabol on Urbanspoon

Other Notes: Though we were genuinely interested in other restaurants here, including the intriguingly upscale Andale Mexican Restaurant and Asqew Grill, we weren't willing to shell out premium prices for their offerings; the latter place's multicultural skewered meats merely made us lust for the real things at other venues in the Emporium. Catch Isle, a seafood restaurant, seriously disappointed a member of our group who went for a Shrimp Sandwich, and Bristol Farms, a large specialty grocer located immediately next to the Emporium, also caught our eyes but not our dollars with a wide variety of fresh and pre-prepared foods, many on steam tables or under heat lamps.

So why did we bother writing on Buffalo Chow about a food court located in San Francisco? Simple; Westfield's Food Emporium shows what the future of convenience dining could be here, and certainly will be elsewhere: rather than large chains of mediocre little restaurants like Panda Express, you could be eating at one venue from a smaller chain of pretty good shops run by people who aim to deliver something closer to a real restaurant experience, minus the wait staff. The food, rather than gravitating towards bland pizzas and McDonald's, could easily - well, with some work and the right entrepreneurs - switch over to wood-fired dough and steakhouse-quality sandwiches, a way for tired restauranteurs to get away from focusing on the service and come back to making really good food. Our bills averaged $15 per restaurant, which is high by food court standards, yet our group kept coming back for more; this is the sign of a business strategy that works. All Western New York really needs to make this happen is the right venue, near a critical mass of customers. Will we be so lucky?

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Comments (1)

Bob Levens :

I ate in the Andale on the Sunday I arrived in SF - I had the Baja Fish Burrito and while it was filling, the fish was a bit scarce inside it. I did have the same burrito when we first discovered this place in Jan 08, so was a little disappointed the re-acquaintance was not up to the memory!

Catch Isle? Poor. I was the 'victim' of the shrimp sandwich and it turned out to be nothing more than a bun with a prawn cocktail slapped into it.

After you all left I went into the Bristol Farms and grabbed some fruit salad and juice - guilt about not eating some fruit every day made me do it! The hot food in there even looked interesting and the pastry counter could have piled several pounds on the old waistline!!

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