I used to live just a dozen blocks from Valencia Street in San Francisco. Monkey went to school on Valencia. This street was gritty. A mixture of cultures—probably the most melting-pot-ish part of San Francisco, given that most of it is populated by white Caucasians. The coffee shops were a bit grimy; the clothing boutiques generally sold secondhand items; a few cool bars and restaurants popped up here and there. Hole-in-the-wall juice bars. Fast food joints. Fruit and vegetable stands. This was not a shiny part of town.
However, all that has changed. As I drove down Valencia the other day on my way to dinner at Al’s Place—a reservation I had made last year (enough said)—I couldn’t believe my eyes. Mostly gone is the griminess. Glossy brand new stores are everywhere. A mini Chase bank. High-end fashion boutiques. 10 commuter buses whizz by every 15 minutes. I realize I am not sharing anything new. I’ve read about this transformation. It just hit me over the head when I drove a road that I had traveled so often during the late 90’s and throughout the first decade of the 2000’s.
But such is the march of progress. And when that march brings restaurants with it, I am duty-bound to check out those eateries and save you the trouble, or send you in their direction. On this occasion, I am happy to report that Al’s Place is a bright spot on a block of Valencia, near Cesar Chavez, that is mostly residential and still thankfully boasts a couple of dive bars.
Located on a corner with wrap-around windows, the exterior is cheery, painted in Caribbean-blue paint. The interior is simple. Beech-blond tables and chairs, white walls. Expect to see lines out the door.
The menu is eclectic and hard to put your finger on. There are unfamiliar items: chawanmushi (which turns out to be a Japanese savory custard) and a blend of spices and ingredients that is unique and interesting, and most importantly, super tasty.
To start, there are a number of ‘snackles’ ($7 each) from vadouvan almonds, and radishes and butter, to mushroom broth chawanmushi with apple and pistachio. We ordered all of these, and while the almonds and radishes were good, the latter was great. Trying to separate out all the elements in the custard was a fun challenge in itself.
Next there are cold/cool and hot/warm dishes to choose from. For us, the lightly cured trout, crispy potato, smashed turnip, bagna cauda ($16) – pictured above – and then the black kale, hedgehogs, fig leaf/miso, eggplant mayo, yuzu (also $16). The combination of flavors is often unexpected and always works – at least with the dishes we ordered.
In addition to sides, there are also a number of limited availability protein plates. We ordered smoked brisket from the sides selection ($15). While not the prettiest of dishes (and apologies for the low light and resultant poor photograph), it was divine. Sufficiently fatty, tasty; anything but over-cooked, yet falling apart. A great treat.
Al’s Place doesn’t have a full bar, but it does offer wine-based cocktails, in addition to the wine list. Our total check came to $170, which included three glasses of wine, and a dessert, which was also surprising and good. Micro greens atop seasonal citrus and some kind of coconut pudding (below).
All in all, Al’s Place lives up to the hype (which seems to be increasingly rare) and while not cheap, it’s certainly worth a visit for a special occasion.
Al’s Place is at: 1499 Valencia St. SF, CA 94110 (at 26th Street)
Tel: (415) 416-6136