The rich scent of caramelized onions and peppery chicken lingers over a diner counter lined with postcards from around the world — Bali, Ukraine, Ohio. Customers drift in and out on a Tuesday morning, rain splattering the sidewalk outside, and a regular customer rises from their barstool to embrace the familiar fog of San Francisco’s Inner Sunset neighborhood. “See you next week, Pop,” they call over the din, pointing at Art’s Cafe co-owner Chol Lee. He nods as he flips hash browns on the griddle, then turns to unbox marinating bulgogi from beneath the counter.
It’s an ordinary morning at one of San Francisco’s most popular diners, even if a menu that blends Korean and American cuisine might not be what first comes to mind when many think of those nostalgic, mainstay Americana restaurants. In San Francisco, there are certainly diners that lean more traditional: Pork Store Cafe on Haight Street is as classic as they come, as is Eddie’s Cafe on Divisadero. But there’s also a cohort of go-to, fan-favorite diners that slide international ingredients and dishes into those familiar plastic-covered menus.
At Boogaloo’s on 22nd and Valencia Streets, Marvin Gaye and Latin dance music reliably plays overheard and recipes come from Mexico, Honduras, Puerto Rico, and Spain. The restaurant opened in 1994 in an old pharmacy, giving the space its distinctive angular design, and thanks to dishes that showcase classic ingredients from across Central and South America — think yucca, black beans, and lots of vinegar — the Mission District diner became an institution in no time. The same ownership later opened Parada 22 on Haight Street, where the menu is exclusively Puerto Rican. General Manager Miguel Medana started working at Boogaloo’s in 1996 and says that, ultimately, the food is Californian. “We can’t point to one country,” Medana says.
The tofu fajitas are a fitting exemplar of the restaurant’s place in the city’s diverse dining scene. Seared on a griddle right alongside the scrambled eggs, the tofu offers a firm crunch before giving way to a soft interior. For $18, it’s joined by sauteed bell peppers and tomatoes, an army of black beans and rice, three corn tortillas, and a side salad of pickled vegetables with two ultra-indulgent plantains. When paired with a bottomless cup of diner coffee, and as trumpets blare overhead, there are few finer diner options in San Francisco. “We make everything there,” Medana says. “It’s homemade. Biscuits, muffins, soyrizo, fresh-squeezed orange juice.”
Grubstake on Polk and Pine Streets might give Boogaloos’ a run for its money though, as far as the city’s finest diners go. The late-night spot opened in Polk Gulch in 1927 but, in 1989, Fernando and Linda Santos bought the establishment and put their Portuguese heritage on center stage. Their additions — including caldo verde soup and bife à Portuguesa — eventually caught the eye of the spiky-haired political ambassador from Flavor Town, who visited the diner in 2007. So it’s not an overstatement to say the menu’s Iberico Peninsula infusion helped launch Grubstake Diner from a hometown favorite to a nationally sought-after haunt.
Take the linguica sausage and eggs. The simple dish comes with toast and home fries and rings in at $17. But the linguica is a secret ingredient-laden winner, adding dimensions of spice that shock the untrained palette in search of a more basic bacon and eggs affair. The Brazillian and Portugese-developed meat typically contains onion, garlic, and paprika, but Santos wouldn’t even tell Fieri his signature recipe. No matter, as sidling up with a plate at this timeless train car is a gratifying, soulful respite from San Francisco’s chilly weather and rising costs.
On San Francisco’s west side, breakfast fiends flock to Art’s Cafe on 9th Avenue and Irving Street, a Korean American hash brown sandwich dealer since 1989. Though the business closed during the pandemic, new ownership took over in February 2021 with longtime Sunset district residents Chol and Young Lee at the helm. Their son Joe, a server at the shop, says all the Korean dishes are popular, though plenty of customers come in for classic toast and coffee, too.
The phenomenal hash brown sandwiches are the major crowd-pleasers at this neighborhood classic and the dakgogi hash brown sandwich is an umami-filled triumph. A light sprinkling of cheddar cheese works like a hinge on the swinging potato door, closing the sweet and spicy chicken in the middle. Bulgogi and hot link sausage sandwiches are available, too, alongside the “samurai” bulgogi three-egg omelet. Art’s is so popular they share outdoor seating with neighbor restaurant Fresca, though that could change if the city decides to kick the parklet out.
Whether the extra seating goes away or not, Art’s will keep on feeding the diner-goers of San Francisco. The owners at all of these San Francisco businesses say it’s not lost on them their food is nontraditional in comparison to the proverbial Twede’s Cafe of Twin Peaks fame, a destination for cherry pie and two strips of bacon with a jukebox in the corner. But these entrepreneurs represent what makes San Francisco an integral part of the American diner mosaic. The diversity of these menus proves that California’s past and present remain a key part of the nation’s culinary identity — hash browns and scrambles included. “We infuse Korean food into our menu,” Joe says. “But we’re known for our hash browns. It’s a worlds colliding, two-birds-one-stone situation.”