Join us for Tag Along, where local writers, artists, food authorities, and celebrities shine a spotlight on the best food and drinks in their favorite Bay Area neighborhoods.
He may have grown up in a small town in Iowa, but these days Eric Ehler is all about San Francisco. He’s been cooking around the city for well over a decade, running Asian American pop-up Seoul Patch in the early 2010s before opening Gung Ho with a crew of friends (it’s since closed), and eventually landing a job as sous chef at Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant Mister Jiu’s. He’s worked with beloved grocery store Luke’s Local, popular San Francisco brewery Fort Point, and helped launch Lazy Susan, the San Francisco-born Chinese American mini-chain. When he’s not cooking, you can find him skateboarding all over the city — outside of the Ferry Building, through the streets of downtown, and, sometimes, in the basement of his pizzeria Outta Sight or just with pizza dough outside.
But Ehler isn’t just a champion of the city’s restaurants and chefs. He also became a leader in the conversation surrounding sustainable workplace environments for restaurant workers after having a near-death experience in the kitchen in 2018. To say he’s well-loved by those in the city’s restaurant world would be an understatement; hundreds of people from across the Bay Area food community came together to raise money to cover the medical bills he accrued from the incident.
Since opening the slice shop in the Tenderloin, on Larkin Street just north of Golden Gate Avenue, Ehler suddenly finds himself on a new stage: on the front lines of San Francisco’s slow and tortuous recovery from the impacts of the pandemic. He’s posted about the sometimes difficult realities of living and owning a business in the city but mostly maintains a positive outlook. He walks or bikes the streets of San Francisco almost daily on his way to work and makes a concerted effort to try all the neighborhood spots and street vendors he passes on the way. As a result, Ehler’s got a growing list of lowkey spots to recommend and today, he’s taking Eater San Francisco on a crawl of the spots he loves around Outta Sight in the Tenderloin. “I mean, I’m glad I’m down here,” Elher says, as we set off on our tour.
United Nations Cafe
3537 Fulton Street, San Francisco
The day starts just off Market Street at United Nations Plaza. On a sunny midmorning weekday, only a few other people fill the outdoor plaza, and there’s no one in line under the royal blue awning of United Nations Cafe. It’s on the ground floor of a building just steps from the Civic Center Muni and BART station, so easy to see why this makes a convenient pitstop for commuters heading downtown.
The menu spans hot and cold coffee drinks, hot dogs, and sandwiches. But Ehler’s go-to move is to pick up breakfast on his way into the restaurant — he buys three or four sandwiches for the team every couple of days, he estimates. The 6C is a close approximation of a no-frills, New York-style BEC, Ehler says. This one stacks a thick layer of bacon and a “Jimmy Dean-esque” sausage patty over fluffy scrambled eggs and melted American cheese, all on a croissant, all tightly wrapped in white butcher paper. “You can totally get a good breakfast sandwich here,” he says. “You just have to search for it.”
390 Golden Gate Avenue, San Francisco
Next, we head up a couple of blocks to the edge of where the Tenderloin meets Civic Center. Gateway Croissant is a treasured 24-hour shop with a neon sign above the pastry case that advertises “croissants & donuts” — though the “& donuts” portion isn’t lit up. If you’ve got cash, you can have your pick from a rainbow array of doughnuts including crullers draped in chocolate, cake doughnuts with coconut flakes scattered on top, and crackly sugar-glazed holes. “These are just gold-standard doughnuts,” Ehler says, picking out a box of assorted selections to bring to the restaurant crew.
418 Larkin Street, San Francisco
There’s one more stop before we arrive at Outta Sight to drop off sandwiches and doughnuts, and it’s just next door to the pizzeria. By now it’s lunch hour and there’s a line of customers spilling out onto Larkin Street outside Emperor’s Kitchen. “I hope they have char siu,” Ehler says as we get in the back of the queue.
The Chinese restaurant, with its steam trays and menu of one- or two-item combo plates, looks like every other neighborhood takeout spot in the city. But Ehler says the food shows unusual attention to detail. For example, the char siu is made fresh on-site — a rarity he appreciates having helped open Lazy Susan. The staff light up when they recognize Ehler as he places his order (a paper tray of char siu, several veggie egg rolls, plus a portion of sticky General Tsao’s chicken) and he explains they helped his team out when Outta Sight flooded in early 2023. The char siu lives up to the hype: The succulent pork has a glossy red crust and robust sweet-salty flavor. “Peek a little closer and you realize this is a very special place,” Ehler says.
Shovels Bar & Grill
460 Larkin Street, San Francisco
After dropping off breakfast at Outta Sight, it’s time for a drink. Shovels, located on the same block as both Emperor’s Kitchen and the pizzeria, could be easy to miss with its largely unmarked black and red exterior. Inside, the decor borrows from a dark and moody cabaret with embossed ceiling tiles and tufted red booths. The dive is a popular hangout for students from UC Hastings, which is up the block and around the corner, and the robust craft beer list is part of the draw. The taps always feature a number of popular local labels including Barebottle, Original Pattern, Almanac, and Cellarmaker. Between the friendly staff and proximity to Outta Sight, Shovels has become one of his neighborhood haunts — perfect for a post-shift beer and shot of whiskey.
Emperor Norton’s Boozeland
510 Larkin Street, San Francisco
For a more classic vibe, we cross Turk Street and enter Boozeland or, more formally, Emperor Norton’s Boozeland. “I’ve been going to Boozeland as long as I’ve been in the city,” Ehler says, leading us through the dark front room, past the pool table, and out to the small back patio with beers in hand. It’s an industry bar, he explains, and one of his favorite places to bring out-of-towners, who appreciate the locals-only atmosphere. Even on a midweek afternoon, there’s another table enjoying a drink in the narrow alfresco space. “Let’s take a moment to think about the importance of a good Monday-afternoon bar,” Ehler says, taking in the scene.
Hai Ky Mi Gia
707 Ellis Street, San Francisco
Finally, it’s time for a late second lunch. Hai Ky Mi Gia is a short walk up Larkin to Ellis and specializes in Teochew cuisine from the southern part of China; per the restaurant’s website, founder and former head chef Tuan Hua, who opened the restaurant in 1987, emigrated from Vietnam but is ethnically Chinese. As soon as we take our seats a server buzzes by. “So, fried egg rolls, right?” she asks, recognizing Ehler and knowing his usual order.
Before long, the rightly rolled batons hit the table along with two cups of warm, sweetened soy milk that’s made in-house. The rest of the order: #2, the Hai Ky House Special with egg noodles, and a #4, noodle soup with a braised duck leg. The bowls arrive with a clear, scallion and ginger-scented broth on the side so you can pluck out your noodles, protein, wontons, and other fillings and add them to your own bowl — if you’re sharing like we are. “Add a little soup to lube it up,” Ehler says, dispersing the broth among the smaller bowls. The shop also provides soy sauce, black vinegar, and white pepper to doctor up your meal, but it’s the chile crisp oil that’s don’t-miss, he advises.
Typically, Ehler says Hai Ky Mi Gia is actually his breakfast spot — though, since the pandemic shutdowns, the restaurant doesn’t open until 9 a.m. and it’s harder to squeeze in. He knows the neighborhood doesn’t get a lot of positive press, but he hopes he can bring a little more attention to this strip of Larkin that’s become his home away from home since he opened Outta Sight. “This is my list of loves,” Ehler says. “They’re special, they’re a part of my routine, and all integral parts of the community.”