San Francisco's Spice Kit serves up sandwiches with a pedigree

Pork buns at Spice Kit
Pork buns at Spice Kit

Spice Kit in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood is not your average sandwich joint.

Not with its state-of-the-art sous vide equipment in the kitchen.

And not with a founder who used to work at the famous French Laundry in Yountville, and a chef who hails from the celebrated Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco.

The duo, which opened Spice Kit two months ago near the Hotel Vitale, is elevating the bold, irresistible flavors of Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese street food to a higher level with organic tofu, organic greens and high-quality meats. They even make their own paté in-house for the banh mi sammies.

Chef Fred Tang and Founder Will Pacio, who cooked not only at the French Laundry, but also at Thomas Keller's outpost in New York, Per Se, invited me in recently to try their offerings.

The casual spot offers salads, banh mi and ssams (Korean wraps) with your choice of five-spice chicken, beef short ribs, roasted pork or tofu. The prices are higher than your typical Mom-and-Pop Vietnamese cafe, but the most expensive item is only $7.95. And the caliber of ingredients and cooking really shines through.

Don't miss the fabulous steamed pork buns ($2.95 each or two for $5), filled with grilled pork belly that practically squirts juice when you bite into it, as well as a smear of sweet, thick hoisin sauce and crunchy pickled cucumbers. The buns themselves are delightfully fluffy and so fresh tasting.

The pork in the banh mi was again a cut above. It was marinated in lemongrass, then braised until super tender and juicy -- not the least bit dry, which is so often the case with roast pork at Asian delis. The creamy, rich, slightly musky-tasting paté (75 cents extra) made the French roll sandwich even more satisfying.

The ssam is made to order, and it shows, with its soft, still pliable rice paper wrapper that didn't suffer whatsoever from hardening, as tends to happen if it sits around too long. Think of it as a Korean burrito, filled with red leaf lettuce, cucumbers, seasoned rice, marinated bean sprouts, kimchi, housemade ssam sauce, and our choice of beef short ribs. With each bite, it was at once crunchy, juicy, tender, spicy, tangy and a little sweet.

For those who want more heat, an arsenal of Sriracha bottles is available at the counter.

With the exception of the refreshing calamansi limeade ($1.95) offered, there are no nods to Pacio's Filipino-American heritage on the menu. He says he has mulled over some possibilities, including hearts of palm lumpia. But he worries that with so many Filipino specialties being fried, it might be too unhealthy to go in that direction.

I dunno. With folks lining up for those lusciously fatty pork belly buns -- including a catering order of about 100 of them the day I was there -- I think customers just might be willing to put off their diet for a day for food this tasty. In fact, I'd bet on it.

-- Carolyn Jung of FoodGal

[Photo Credit: Carolyn Jung]

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