The off-menu item: It's like the holy grail of foodinistas who want to prove to all their friends just how "insider" they are. Of course, knowing this, and knowing how everyone loves ordering their In-N-Out burgers Animal Style just because they can, some restaurants actually push their unprinted dishes to everyone who walks through the door ... and you know what those are called? Specials. On the flip side, some secret menu items that existed a couple years ago might not be available if one of the chefs is on vacation, or if the waitstaff just had a total turnover and doesn't know what the hell you're talking about. (This happened to us several times while researching this feature.) But therein lies the thrill. And so without further ado, we bring you our favorite off-menu dishes in a town that's pretty well full of them.
The Widow-Maker Pizza
Where to Get It: A16 Insiders at this Marina favorite know they can order this pie, which comes with chili flakes, garlic, grana padano, mozzarella, pancetta, fennel sausage, calabrian chili, and fresh arugula. There may also be a few more secrets up their sleeves, pizza-wise, but chef Chris Thompson won't talk about it on the record.
Where to Get It: The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen In addition to the "kiddie style" grilled cheese (standard cheddar, non-crusty white bread), Hidden Menu turned us on to this souped-up sandwich which is their basic Mousetrap (cheddar, jack, and havarti on sourdough) with applewood-smoked bacon, roasted tomato, and sweet pickles. It's a little like a Cubano, but more like a Cuban-American.
Fish Head Curry
Where to Get It: Betelnut This is the epitome of off-menu, because not only is it semi-secret, you also have to plan ahead and call at least a day in advance so that chef Alex Ong knows to save or procure the right fish head to make it. It's a Malaysian peasant dish he grew up eating, with a rich Penang curry enhanced with a big fish head, green beans, keffir lime, and sprouts. And even if you don't dig eating eyeballs and sockets, what you lack in meat (the cheeks are the best part) you make up for in serious, funky flavor in the resulting curry.
French Fry Po'Boy
Where to Get It: Boxing Room Call it Cajun poutine on a roll. Call it the ultimate in stoner food. Chef Justin Simoneaux serves this off-menu carb bomb, a New Orleans tradition which is a baguette that's slathered in mayonnaise and topped with French fries, bacon-giblet gravy, and cheddar cheese, and then baked.
Where to Get It: Emmy's Spaghetti Shack Emmy's isn't a place you go looking for variety. It's a place you go for a decent drink, some cheap spaghetti and meatballs, a solid Caesar, and this long-standing secret option: the Italian prostitute's pasta ("puttanesca" means "whore's style" and the recipe likely dates to the 1940s or 50s), with olives, tomatoes, anchovies, capers, garlic, onions, and chili flakes.
Where to Get It: Heirloom Café It made it onto our Best Burgers slideshow for a reason: It's damn delicious. This simple burger — in which mildly stinky Epoisses cheese is blended in with the meat to create a uniquely pungent and complex patty — goes great with a lean Gamay, and it's never printed on the menu. Servers have started mentioning it more as an option, so it is kind of like a permanent special that began as a semi-secret menu item, but it is still referred to as Heirloom's Off-Menu Burger.
The Shawn Michaels
Where to Get It: Ike's Place Named for the recently retired professional wrestler, this off-menu monster at Ike's S.F. location has thinly sliced ribeye steak, bacon, mozzerella sticks, and extra dirty sauce. Personally we think a hangover is required for the prescription of any food containing mozzarella sticks, but hey, go with God.
Where to Get It: Little Skillet It starts with a puddle of sausage gravy. Then comes a waffle, a fried egg, scallions, and cheddar cheese. It's one of the off-menu brunch things you can get out of the tiny kitchen at this SoMa lunch window, and just the name brings a smile to our face. As does sausage gravy. Thanks to Hidden Menu, for the tip off.
The Brass Monkey
Where to Get It: Little Star (both locations) Once upon a time, there was a dude named Mike D. who came in a lot and ordered this combo to-go at Little Star's original, Divisadero location. They write everyone's first name and last initial on the boxes, and after calling out Mike D.'s name enough times after this pizza came out, they decided to name this off-menu combo (deep dish spinach, mushroom, sausage, onion, ricotta, and feta) after a Beastie Boys song. We'd like to point out that it's really just a better, meatier version of the Zachary's classic spinach and mushroom, but don't let Berkeley hear us say that. Sidebar: A Brass Monkey is actually a 40 of Olde English with OJ in it, a.k.a. a poor-man's mimosa.
Bone Marrow Burger
Where to Get It: Luella Another burger that's still off-menu despite being widely known at this Russian Hill spot is the Luella Burger. It's a rich, well-seasoned sirloin patty that's blended with bone-marrow butter and pan-seared, giving it a nice crispness around the edges. It's topped with aged cheddar cheese, and served with Kennebec fries, and you can only get it four nights a week, Monday through Thursday, 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. or until they run out.
Where to Get Them: Namu Gaji There are a few things on Namu Gaji's daytime menu that become off-menu at night (and offered only in limited quantities), including this stoner favorite, Gamja Fries, which is basically Korean poutine. It's a pile of fries topped with bits of short rib, kimchee relish, gochujang, house-made teriyaki, kewpie mayonnaise (Japan's Miracle Whip equivalent), and scallions. Needless to say, they're ridiculously good, and you may just want to order two and get it over with. Also off-menu and not always available: the Loco Moco (a burger with an egg and gravy over rice), and their KFC (Korean Fried Chicken), which you can call ahead and request during dinner service.
Chopped and Mopped Pork Tostaditos
Where to Get Them: Pican Newly installed chef Sophina Uong is doing these pork tostaditos as a secret menu item, and they're topped with green tomato, a rye-whiskey salsa borracho, and curtido — an El Salvadorian cabbage salad. They're a fun, south-of-the-border tangent from the mostly Southern-driven menu.
Where to Get It: Pizzeria Delfina (California Street Only) For a couple years now it's been known among Pacific Heights and Upper Fillmore residents that you can order a meatball calzone at Pizzeria Delfina's California Street location, and it's a beauty. It's filled with their always delicious, on-menu meatballs, mozzarella, tomato sauce, and basil. And you can also ask for it deep-fried, but the baked one really is just as good, and a little less bad for you.
Foie Gras Slider
Where to Get It: Presidio Social Club It's the ultimate in outlaw food right now — even though, technically, the reason they're serving it at Presidio Social Club is because they're on federal land and America has not, thankfully, banned foie gras altogether. It's called the foie gras slider, and that would be a lovely seared slice of lobe on a pretty little bun, topped with whatever the chef desires (in the picture it was pineapple). And in deference to the Presidio Trust, it's not on the menu. But, thanks to the internet, it kind of is.
Rio Grande Cocktail
Where to Get It: Rio Grande Back in his days working at Coco500, bartender Scott Baird came up with this drink one night as a compromise between himself, a tequila fan, and his friend and coworker Justin Simoneaux (now executive chef at Boxing Room), who was a die-hard bourbon fan. It's a mixture of bourbon, Reposado tequila, lemon, lime, and simple syrup, and the rim of the glass gets a mixture of salt, sugar, chipotle powder, ancho chile powder, and Spanish paprika. At Baird's new venture with partner Josh Harris, Rio Grande at A Temporary Offering, there is no drink menu, but those in the know can order this drink, which celebrates the two spirits that form the core of the bar program.
Wild Boar Sausage With Mango Chutney
Where to Get It: Rosamunde Regulars at Rosamunde already know about the burger they serve on Tuesdays, but only some know about the secret, slightly spicy mango chutney they keep behind the counter which goes excellently with their wild boar and duck sausages.
Wild Salmon 'Snack'
Where to Get It: SPQR Chef Matt Accarrino makes this canapé of salted fish and fresh wild salmon using the belly and collar from the wild salmon he buys for regular menu items. He fries them up in a light batter and serves the dish with a Calabrian chili sauce and marjoram buds. "It's something we usually have a limited amount of and never put on the menu," Accarrino says, but you can have one if you ask, especially early in the evening, for nine dollars.
'Doc's Way' Burger
Where to Get It: Starbelly Here's an alternative to foie gras on a burger that we can get behind. (Foie, in our opinion, is a little much as a burger topping, but we digress). It's a slab of chicken liver pate with caramelized onions on the Starbelly burger, and it's named for a bartender named Doc who always ordered his shift meal this way. It's indulgent, yes, but man is that good drunk/hangover food.
The Polar Bear Fight
Where to Get It: Tonic What's better than a kick in the head? How about throwing back a Jager Bomb, then throwing back an Irish Car Bomb, and then having the bartender throw some ice in your face. That's what they do at Tonic if you order a Polar Bear Fight, which is funnier, we think, than the similar concept at Madrone Art Bar called the Ike Turner — which is a shot of Hennessey and a slap in the face.
Pecos Punch #2
Where to Get It: West of Pecos Recently hired bar manager Brent Butler is in the process of making over the cocktail program at this four-month-old Southwestern restaurant from the Brothers MacNiven. And he's already started doing this off-menu mixture of tequila and mezcal with pineapple gum syrup, lime, and rosemary and calling it the Pecos Punch #2 (the on-menu Pecos Punch is a milder concoction with tequila, Aperol, and canteloupe). It's tart, smoky, and a little bit meaty, and we like it.
Boat Noodles With Pork
Where to Get It: Zen Yai Thai We dare say this is the most flavorful lunch you can get anywhere in San Francisco for $2.50. That's the price for a small boat noodle ($3.50 for a large), with your choice of noodles, meat, and a rich, spicy broth with a pork blood base. It's not as gross as it sounds — especially if you've experienced the wonder of Bar Tartine's blood sausage. (Hat tip to Camila McHugh, whose SF Weekly piece about this dish is now advertised on the wall, making it a little less "off-menu.") It's an awesomely earthy and satisfying soup, and it comes with a fish ball and a garnish of chicharrones, so how can you go wrong?
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