Turk and Leavenworth
San Francisco, CA
A restaurant just broke my heart.
Since I started school, I’ve been on a bit of a culinary expedition to try eateries convenient for lunch between classes. The Tenderloin is full of those little hole-in-the-wall eateries that could be wonderful and could be abysmal, and there’s not really any way to tell unless you give it a try. I noticed, on one of these walkabouts, a hand-lettered awning which read “Biryani Chapati”; I thought, “Cool! Indian food!” (Now, I imagine some of the locals will be saying, “You madman, why would you eat at a dubious Tenderloin eatery when the ever-fabulous Naan N’ Curry is mere blocks away?” I’m funny like that sometimes. (On a wholly separate note, Biryani Chapati turns out to be Pakistani.))
I was briefly confused upon arriving by the big CLOSED sign at the top of the front window and the small OPEN sign at the bottom, but I figured I’d take the open door as a hint. The staff, in traditional downscale ethnic restaurant style, were all sitting around a table chatting when I came in. I wasn’t really sure what the idiom of the joint was: should I sit down? Order at the counter and take out? Order at the counter and sit down? The guy who seemed to be in charge was headed behind the counter, though, so I walked over there. He handed me a folded paper menu, and cheerily offered to explain their offerings. “We have chicken curries, lamb curries, we can put vegetable…” (I do have to hand it to them, though; it was actually a pretty clear menu. I’ve been in Indian places where the distinction between certain dishes was … subtle at best.) I ordered chicken biryani and an order of naan, and he invited me to sit.
We’ve got some fine examples of the po-ass decorating style in the Tenderloin; one of my favorite places near campus is dark, rowed with cafeteria tables, and they store random supplies in the bottom shelves of the soda fridge. Biryani Chapati, however, may be the purest example of the form yet. They barely have a counter; I think they don’t even have a cash register. Bare white walls are adorned with construction paper butterflies. My table was at a slight angle. I was a little concerned. But everything was clean, and the carafe of water was a nice touch.
When the food arrived, I was still reserving judgment. The naan looked disappointing, like a whole wheat tortilla, and the biryani, while generously portioned, was nondescript. In the eating, however, I was impressed. The biryani was spicy, but not painfully so; the naan was much better than it looked. The chicken was tender and falling off the bone (indeed, my only complaint about the food would be that I’m not a huge fan of chicken dishes with unexpected knobs of bone, authentic though they may be). About halfway through my meal, they brought out what I assume was probably raita, but serving an ordinary portion of raita in a massive soup bowl looks a bit weird. I failed you, my audience, in not trying it, but as I said, it looked weird, and I don’t like raita that much anyway. The staff was extremely attentive; the manager asked me several times if I wanted more naan, because I could have more free of charge. I suspect the red carpet treatment would be on account of my being their lunch rush; I came in at 12.30, and no one else came in while I was there.
This last bit is what makes me sad. My lunch was six bucks (they didn’t even charge me for the naan, so I overtipped), and I was the only customer for at least half an hour. Maybe they do a brisk delivery business, but I suspect they won’t make it. Nice folks, making pretty tasty food, but the skankier end of the Tenderloin just isn’t prime foodservice space.