It’s been the buzz across San Francisco’s western neighborhoods for months: Who is behind Sunset Squares, that Instagram-based pizza delivery service for unique square pies, pillowy focaccia, and sharply constructed salads? Many assumed it was another pandemic pop-up from an unemployed chef, cooking DMed orders from home, processing payments via Venmo, and hoping to avoid the long arm of the food-regulatory law. But the truth is more complicated: Sunset Squares is actually the brainchild of longtime SF chef Dennis Lee, who, with his brothers, owns the Namu empire of restaurants (Gaji, Stonepot and Street Food), a side project that he’s now turning into a full-on business from inside a massive SoMa space.
Lee, a longtime Sunset District resident, says that it all began when — like so many of us — he started experimenting with sourdough at the beginning of the pandemic, making dough with his kids. “Then we started messing around with pizza,” Lee says, eventually developing a square style “independent of any research.”
The result is something entirely new, a type of pizza that Lee has yet to name, though “one blogger called it neo-Detroit,” he says. But though “we’ve gotten good response from Detroit natives,” Sunset Squares pizzas aren’t Detroit style, not really. For one thing, there’s the crust, a wild-yeast dough that yields a firmer and springier bite than a Detroit crust. Then, there’s the baking process: while Lee says that most Detroit pies are baked twice (the crust is baked, then topped, then baked again), Sunset Squares pies are baked all at once, making for a more cohesive flavor throughout every bite. Finally, Lee says, “we don’t use traditional ‘square’ pans,” which explains why the outside of each slice is less rigid and caramelized than one expects from a standard Detroit slice.
All in all, Lee says, its a “proprietary process,” one born from months spent in lockdown, then refined when he started shilling the pies via social media, delivering to residents of the Sunset (and, eventually, beyond), but refusing to identify himself (even to reporters).
As the run-and-gun business grew, Lee brought other chefs aboard (one’s from Detroit, another’s from Chicago, Lee says, and he’s looking for more as you read this), taking over the kitchen at 59 Ninth Street. Some might recognize that address as the former home of the Perennial, Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz’s 5,000-square-foot, sustainability-focused restaurant, which shuttered in early 2019.
In July 2019, the Lees announced that the space would be Namu Gaji’s new home. The plan was, Lee says, to evolve their other locations into the fast-casual Stonepot model, with the SoMa location as the new home of the flagship, fine-dining Gaji. “But with COVID, that didn’t happen,” Lee says, in a common refrain for restauranteurs the world over.
And it’s time to make things official for Sunset Squares, Lee says, which is why it’s now launched an ordering system via Tock that will allow advance orders for Thursday through Monday, via pickup or Doordash delivery (the latter of which Lee confirms is not limited to specific neighborhoods or distance within SF). There’s also a “live” ordering option on Doordash that allows immediate delivery, but it will only offer a limited number of items, so “if you want to roll the dice you can order live,” Lee says, and “if you want to be sure to get your pizza, use Tock.”
Fans of the indie experience needn’t worry about Sunset Squares hotting the big time, Lee says, as the menu will continue to feature all its standard offerings as well as some “great new ideas we’re doing as specials” like a pie topped with housemade mapo tofu and a thin crust honey butter pie. There’s also a pizza dog (a Zoe’s dog smothered in two cheeses, mustard, pizza sauce, and onion baked in a sourdough pizza roll) and a bulgogi beef and kimchi pie, complete with Kewpie mayo and bonito flakes. In other words, there’s plenty of plain pie choices for the conservative, and wilder picks for the more adventurous.
It’s a thoughtful, ambitious menu — one you’d expect from a veteran of the restaurant scene like Lee, whose first SF spot opened in 2006. That “pedigree,” as Lee put it, is one of the reasons for the longstanding secrecy around Sunset Squares’ ownership. “SF is really small,” Lee says, “and I’ve been here doing things for a long time ... there’s pros and cons to me being me” and launching a more casually-run and experimental venture.
But now, Lee is ready to step into the spotlight with this new business, even though he doesn’t know how long it will continue, even as he says he’s already thinking about how to launch a slice-based operation inside bars or corner stores. I’m just “trying to appreciate life day by day,” Lee says. “If people want the pizza they’re going to continue to want the pizza.”
Sunset Squares is available for preorder via Tock, with pickup at 59 Ninth Street and delivery within San Francisco available from 4-8 Thursdays and Fridays, and from noon-1 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Limited same-day delivery is also available via Doordash.