The story: The Chairman is the wildly popular food truck serving up Chinese-inspired buns with creative combinations of ingredients in various street food pods around the city. Earlier this year, it finally opened its brick-and-mortar spot in the Tenderloin, the gritty San Francisco neighborhood known sometimes as Little Saigon because of all the pho noodle spots.
Why I went: I’m a big fan of The Chairman’s steamed buns, for their combination of tender protein with often picked vegetables all encased in a pillowy steamed bun (they also make a baked bun version that I haven’t really gotten into), so I really wanted to see what its first restaurant would be like. I checked it out a few times recently (often on Sundays because it’s a bit out of the way for me) to get a sense of the menu.
The vibe: The Chairman has brought the branding of its graphic food trucks into the tiny spot, which has a casual eat or take-out environment. There’s not the crazy lines that accompany its food trucks, but you still get that young, hipster clientele. Because it’s in the Tenderloin, you get a bit of the gritty sense walking to the restaurant, and it’s across the street from the hugely popular Turtle Tower restaurant, and I’ve seen people run over to The Chairman for a bun to snack on while waiting for a table at Turtle Tower.
The booze: Right now there’s no alcohol (although the website hints at beer to be offered sometime in the future), so there’s a variety of fruit drinks. Some are Asian-inspired fruit juices like pink guava soda ($4) made with passion fruit and toasted coriander, but others are almost like popular Asian boba drinks with the added jelly, such as the ginger lemonade I tried ($4) that had lychee jelly cubes in it. I really liked the balance of flavors in the drinks, and the boba-inspired drinks aren’t overly sweet like typical boba drinks.
The menu: You’ll find the standard steamed and baked buns like you get on the truck, and it looks like the only extension on the menu is the addition of bowls (either rice, salads, or noodles). Since I can get the buns at the trucks (including one that parks near my Oakland office sometimes), I tried the bowls, first the noodle bowl ($9) made with purple potato noodles. You can top it with all the same protein found in the buns, so I tried my all-time favorite, the pork belly (additional $2.50). The pork belly was amazing, as usual, and the bowls are decorated with marinated mushrooms, burdock and hijiki seaweed, daikon sprouts, and toasted sesame puree. I wasn’t a fan of the noodles, which were like Korean clear noodles, but with a gummy texture that I didn’t enjoy. I prefer getting the rice bowls ($6.50), which provide more of a traditional Asian texture, with added spicy cucumbers and tempura flakes. I got the spicy chicken rice bowl (additional $1.50).
My favorite dish: The dishes don’t seem to stretch far from the truck menu, so despite the addition of the bowls, I feel I would still consider my favorite the pork belly steamed buns ($3.75 each). The rice bowls are convenient for a more filling dish, but I like the variety of getting several different steamed buns.
The last bite: While it’s nice to know you can always find The Chairman’s restaurant instead of chasing the trucks on social media, the menu doesn’t stray far from what’s offered on the trucks. I wished its permanent spot was more complex than the food trucks. Because of this, I feel I like the experience of eating from the trucks outside rather than wading through the Tenderloin to get my steamed bun fix.
The rating: 2 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: The Chairman, 670 Larkin St., San Francisco. PH: 415.813.8800. Open Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. No reservations. Major credit cards accepted. www.hailthechairman.com
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