The concept of the pared-down hole-in-the-wall, just a take-out window in front of a small kitchen, tickles the imagination of some of San Francisco’s best chefs. A step up from a food truck or a farmers market booth, Jay Foster’s Little Skillet and Ian Begg’s Naked Lunch turn out scrumptious food, well worth eating sitting outside on a loading dock or back at the office.
Now Dennis Leary of Canteen and The Sentinel, his lunch counter, has set up a second to-go operation, this time in a Financial District alley, that offers a wider range of hot and cold dishes — all made from scratch with nice ingredients. From morning bear claws to lunchtime pork and butter beans, every item on the menu reflects Leary’s playful way with American culinary vernacular, and his mastery of technique. Leary’s dishes seduce us with their texture, an act not usually associated with American food.
Consider those butter beans and pork ($8.50) in a lot of smoky, slightly sweet “mole” sauce, served in a waxed Chinese take-out box. More of a chile-and-cilantro infused take on pork and beans, the buttery cubes of pork and the smooth, almost creamy beans practically melt in your mouth. Good eaters sop up every drop with a signature house-baked brioche bun that comes with it.
Lemon chicken salad ($8.25), a fixture on the menu, also is a tactile triumph, the big hunks of chicken breast so moist and juicy, set off by roasted red and yellow peppers, tart artichoke hearts and a bright, lemon-scented vinaigrette. Butter lettuce and baby spinach line the rectangular serving box of this juicy, basil-scented salad.
Leary’s warm sandwiches have rich, saucy fillings that soak into crumbly brioche rolls, often better eaten with a fork. A ground-lamb and eggplant sandwich ($8.25) is like an exotic sloppy Joe, deliciously salty with the tobacco edge of dried chiles and the sweet-tart piquancy of long-cooked tomatoes. The silky meat of braised short ribs — pulled from the bone and submerged in plenty of sweet, hot-and-sour barbecue sauce — also makes a voluptuous sandwich ($8.50), especially with caramelized onions and mayonnaise.
If you’re lucky, a bear claw ($3) will be left from breakfast. Leary has perfected them so that the top is crunchy with sliced almonds, the pastry flaky and the ground-almond filling natural in flavor and moist. Actually, desserts seem to run out early, such as the little foil cups of butterscotch pudding ($3), a jiggly custard with a big caramel punch. A square of tender chocolate cake topped with about a ½ inch of real vanilla buttercream ($3) brings to life the dreams of the little child in all of us. Really, that’s what Leary’s cooking does — he creates the ideal version of dishes we always hoped would taste like this.
This treasure trove of lunch is easy to miss if you do not know what you are looking for — a perpendicular black and gold sign that reads “Au” “79” “196.96655,” the symbol, number and atomic weight of gold on the periodic table. Nothing identifies the window as “The Golden West.” Likewise, the website that contains the weekly menu is at www.theauwest.com. The Gold Rush lives on.
Where: 8 Trinity Alley, off Sutter Street between Kearny and Montgomery streets, S.F.
Contact: (415) 392-3246, www.theauwest.com
Hours: Breakfast 8 to 11 a.m. and lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays through Fridays
Price range: $3 to $8.50
Recommended dishes: Butternut-squash bisque; warm ground-lamb sandwich; warm short-rib sandwich; lemon chicken salad; bear claw; chocolate cake
Credit cards: Visa and MasterCard
Reservations: None, only food to go
Patricia Unterman is the author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at email@example.com.