The other night I was biking down Market Street about 11 p.m., looking to fill a quarrelsome belly. I kept arriving as places closed up, while rejecting bad ideas from the devil on my shoulder (“Maybe a 7-Eleven taquito would hit the spot. …”)
Before heading home to make a sad hummus-and-pickle sandwich, inspiration struck. I remembered a scene from months ago, when a friend ordered a life-changing fish sandwich in an alley.
At the time, I had tried to ignore the friend, because he was being loud:
But now, this memory could serve me well. Wasn’t that fish window nearby, and open late?
If you aren’t a bike courier or a kitchen worker, and you don’t troll seedy alleys near Sixth and Mission streets, you may not know about Box.
It’s basically a window in a wall, hashing out booze-absorbent comfort food until 1 a.m. nightly. Adjacent to not-quite-dive-bar Tempest, the crowd can be rambunctious; sobriety is rare.
It’s probably worth mentioning that the chef’s last gig was two years in the kitchen at Michael Mina. Drunken slop, his food is not.
On my first visit, I ordered a pork cemita sandwich (the storied fishwich was not available). While I waited, a soused young scientist offered to data-map my restaurant reviews — “It’s the future!”
While she rambled, a baby-faced magician named Vegas popped up and pulled some playing cards from her ear. And while Vegas showboated, two bearded chaps in ski sweaters were leapfrogging in the street.
It’s a scene!
Entertaining as it was, I didn’t need the sideshow to like that cemita. Threads of ancho-braised pork spilled forth, basting my arms in a fierce salsa roja. Neutral Oaxaca cheese tempered the chili heat, along with avocado, cilantro and sweetly pickled onions.
On a second visit, I powered through a fried chicken sandwich with a side of fried Brussels sprouts. The journeyman sandwich did its job, but I was distracted by the sprouts: leaves feathered out around perfectly chewy cores, in an addictive, salty-sweet chili-lemon grass dressing. Recipe, please.
On a third visit, I checked off more of Box’s greatest hits. The signature chicken-in-waffles, with chicken confit cooked into the waffle batter and a Sriracha maple syrup, was gimmicky but decent (though mine was missing a key ingredient: crispy fried chicken skin on top).
In a city lousy with elaborate burgers, the Box Burger held its own. You’ll notice fine touches like the bacon-shallot gastrique sauce, spinach, Schmitz Ranch chuck and a potato-pepper bun from Panorama.
Goat cheese-bacon croquettes made solid nibblers, while an order of Borracho Nachos were an overload of tequila-braised pork, avocado, creme fraiche, beans and jalapeños, with a fried farm egg canopying the lot.
For the ninnies who don’t like eating nachos off recycling bins (I’m not proud), feel free to bring your food inside Tempest. Afraid you aren’t punk enough? No worries: This bar has been infiltrated by moneyed tech kids, just like everywhere else. No one will fist-fight you.
Chef Stephen Crawford says his target audience is restaurant workers looking for a solid bite after their shifts. He thinks these are the people who best appreciate his efforts to craft top-shelf bar food.
Still, he admits, “Some of my customers are just wasted, looking to put food in their mouths.”