5 San Francisco Appetizers That Are Cheap Yet Delicious

San Francisco is home to such a diverse spread of cultural dishes that the SFGATE food team can’t possibly cover them all at once. Since the cost of living hits our food budgets the hardest, we tried to cover as many affordable snacks as our stomach would allow. Together we sampled everything from playful Nepalese tapas with spicy tamarind water, the crunchiest patatas bravas imaginable, and even got the scoop behind a North Beach favorite in the form of a cheesy stuffed golden pepper.

If you’re a foodie at heart and want to keep your appetite sated on a budget, we’ve got you. Here are some of the city’s tastiest snacks that are good for your wallet while filling your tummy.

Impeccably crispy little potatoes

The patatas bravas at Red Window in North Beach.

Madeline Wells/SFGATE

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There is no better place to be on a summer evening in San Francisco than Red Window. The sun-drenched parkland of Spanish restaurant North Beach and the colorful, plant-filled indoor seating are equally appealing, but a recent visit gave me the best of both worlds: a covered table by the open window. While enjoying low-proof sherry cobblers with a friend, we snacked on a variety of tasty tapas: smoked salmon crostinis, crispy mushroom skewers, roasted carrots with salsa verde, and chilled octopus with romesco and potatoes. The highlight, however, was the patatas bravas ($10). That’s because these are no ordinary patatas bravas.

Instead of the usual fried potato pieces, Red Window’s patatas bravas are actually made from a baked potato cake of 50 thinly sliced ​​layers, which is then diced and baked. Eight of these aesthetically pleasing golden brown cubes are then presented to the lucky diner with a generous drizzle of aioli and peppery bravas sauce. The result is arguably the crunchiest bite of a potato imaginable, shattering every right angle in your mouth to reveal the tender insides. To maximize the deliciousness, each bite should be dipped in as much sauce as possible (I don’t make the rules). The seafood rice dish we ordered as a starter was also delicious, but I don’t think about that when I go home in the evening – it’s those incredibly beautiful, impeccably crispy potatoes. That’s a winning appetizer in my book. — Madeline Wells

Red Window, 500 Columbus Ave., San Francisco. Open Monday to Thursday from 5pm-9pm; Friday, 4.30pm – 11pm; Saturday 10am – 11pm; Sunday 10 am – 9 pm

Studded with herbs

Red Thai Curry Meatballs at Madam Racecar in the Mission District.
Red Thai Curry Meatballs at Madam Racecar in the Mission District.

Nico Madrigal-Yankowski/SFGATE

Deep in the suburbs of the Mission, there is a new cocktail bar, Madam Racecar, in the former Asiento building. The painted exterior features a galaxy of eclectic gadgets floating through several tentacles of blue, maroon, and teal spirals that cover the entire facade. Beyond the visually stimulating exterior, Madam Racecar is owned by former Asiento owner Debi Cohn. Cohn, together with bar manager Sven Forner, created a small but powerful menu of appetizers that pair extremely well with their amazing cocktails. One that stood out was the Red Thai Curry Meatballs for $12.

The beef meatballs, pierced with toothpicks for easy picking and pop-in-your-mouth ability, were studded with spices that reminded me of a merguez sausage. The velvety red coconut curry had diced jalapenos all over, evoking memories of a softer, subtler version of ballpark nacho cheese. It was spicy. The meatballs were tender. It was a huge pleasure to munch on while sipping the mezcal-focused Lion Oil cocktail on offer under the watchful eye of a wonderfully quirky mist of trinkets. — Nico Madrigal-Yankowski

Mrs. Racecar, 2730 21st St., San Francisco. Bar opening hours from Monday to Thursday from 5:00 PM – 12:00 PM; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m.-2 p.m. Kitchen open Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m.-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5pm-11am Closed on Sundays.

Play nice

The PaniPuri at Piroo is an interactive appetizer where customers pour tamarind flavored water to spice up every crunchy bite.
The PaniPuri at Piroo is an interactive appetizer where customers pour tamarind flavored water to spice up every crunchy bite.

Steph Rodriguez/SFGATE

Step into Piroo on Polk Street, a new restaurant serving Nepalese flavors scented with garlic, ginger, and cumin, for an intimate dining experience with a handful of delicious appetizers, including the PaniPuri ($9). Eight crispy rounds are hallowed in the center and are filled with savory potato filling speckled with red onion. The friendly waitress explained how to eat this interactive dish: swirl the carafe of tamarind-flavored water to mix all the spices, then pour the earthy liquid onto each delicious dome.

Each bite packed a satisfying crunch from the firm outer shell, followed by the tender, well-seasoned potatoes and plenty of heat and clarity from the tangy liquid. It’s always fun to play with your food, and at Piroo, guests can choose the spice level of the tamarind water to pepper each flavorful round to their heart’s content. I went with spicy, of course. Opening in March, Piroo is a welcome addition to the corner of Polk and Post streets, offering Nepalese tapas, sweet and sour raspberry-ginger lemonade and an extensive wine and craft beer list. Pro tip: Grab a window seat to enjoy your meal from one of the best indoor spots. — Steph Rodriguez

Piroo, 1101 Polk St., San Francisco. Open Monday to Thursday from 4pm to 10pm; Friday and Saturday 12:00 – 12:00 Closed on Sunday.

Cheese covered delight

Trattoria Contadina's roasted golden peppers are filled with three cheeses and have long been a favorite with customers in North Beach.
Trattoria Contadina’s roasted golden peppers are filled with three cheeses and have long been a favorite with customers in North Beach.

Michael Achach

Like many success stories, this one was unintentional. Some 25 years ago, a pair of chefs in the kitchen at the lively Italian eatery Trattoria Contadina in North Beach began repurposing Mediterranean ingredients to recreate dishes from their native Mexico and Guatemala. They sliced ​​a golden pepper and stuffed it with three Italian cheeses (bel paese, asiago and mozzarella), simmered it until it was gooey, then topped it with a homemade tomato cream. Even if you dissect them with a sharp knife, the bites of cheese-coated pepper pour out of the fork, resulting in a quick two-handed performance with a slice of sourdough. The remaining bread absorbs the tomato cream to finish this antipasti with an almost spotless plate.

The roasted pepper made its debut at informal staff dinners but quickly gained admiration. In the beginning, however, there was fear of it being on the menu; although composed of Italian ingredients, this is nothing you would find in Rome. The outlier has now become a predominant fixture on Trattoria Contadina’s menu. While you would never find this appetizer in Italy, the fusion of culture and cuisine (with a touch of coincidence) makes this an undeniably San Franciscan dish. — Silas Valentino

Trattoria Contadina, 1800 Mason Street, San Francisco. Open Wednesday to Sunday, 5pm-9pm Closed Monday and Tuesday.

New Orleans soul

The softball-sized fritters sprinkled with cayenne pepper at Brenda's French Soul Food in the Tenderloin.
The softball-sized fritters sprinkled with cayenne pepper at Brenda’s French Soul Food in the Tenderloin.

Zach Zafran/SFGATE

If you’re not a fan of seafood, I know a dish that might make you change your mind. (It changed mine!) The original location of Brenda’s French Soul Food is just a few blocks from City Hall. When I told some friends that I was going there, just the mention of the popular restaurant seemed to vicariously excite them. When I arrived I immediately saw why. Despite it being the busiest lunch time, Brenda’s staff made me feel like I was in the south with their hospitality, seating me right away and checking in consistently. With the skylights beaming down as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell played in the background, I decided to order the crawfish fritter ($4.50 each, but I ordered two), aka the best fritter I have ever eaten.

Admittedly, I’m not well versed when it comes to beignets, but my best guess is that Brenda’s ranks highly among beignets connoisseurs. The crispy outer shell delivered a great savory pastry taste, followed by a run-up with its softer interior. The cayenne pepper tasted perfect in the interior of the seafood, and neither flavor overpowered the other. The outer dough was never dry, but kept its texture until it crumbled gracefully with every bite, with scallions and plenty of cheddar creating a pleasantly chewy texture. After completing both I was satisfied, but eager to indulge in more soul food. And at the end of the day, isn’t that the point of an appetizer? — Zach Zafran

Brenda’s French Soul Food, 652 Polk St., San Francisco. Open every day except Tuesday, 8am-8pm


Editor’s Note: This article was corrected on July 7, 2022 to reflect that Madam Racecar is owned solely by Debi Cohn.