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On the Menu Off the Airport Near SFO
June 2, 2016 -- If life is what happens while we're busily making other plans, life on the road is what happens while we're between flights.
So it was that I found myself for a week in the city of Burlingame, where San Francisco International Airport is located, instead of San Francisco proper. My flights never changed--I arrived from New York near midnight and returned from SFO seven days later exactly as scheduled--but everything else in between, on the ground, did.
I never got to San Francisco. All my meetings and other plans were scrapped. It was all Burlingame, all the time, living a life on the road between flights.
But here's the funny thing: I ate damn well in Burlingame. And it reinforced my long-held belief that there's almost always a better place near an airport than any place you can find in the sterile confines of an airport terminal.
Next time you have a few spare hours before a flight from SFO, consider these places before anything you'd choose at the airport.
SOUTH INDIA MEETS CALIFORNIA COOL
Just five miles down the 101 from SFO's front door is Rasa, widely considered the Bay Area's best Indian restaurant. It even boasts a Michelin star.
The three-year-old restaurant is nominally focused on South Indian dishes, which means fewer curries, more intricate preparations and more subtle spices and sauces. But Rasa really shines when it fuses its South Indian instincts with the best California culinary sensibilities.
One example: vada pav, called Bombay Sliders here. The garnished potato patties nestled on crunchy, toasted Parker House rolls are seductively spiced and absolutely addictive. It's a big step up in taste and presentation for a dish that started as a quick snack for harried Mumbai rail commuters. Other standouts on the so-called small plates menu? Rasam, the classic tomato broth, and crispy idli (rice and lentil cakes) topped with yogurt, tamarind and chutney.
You'll also find plenty to love among Rasa's dosa and uttappam choices. The basil-infused dosa and the kheema uttappam pancake are especially tasty. There are solid entrees as well, almost all with a unique Rasa twist.
Given the prices, however, service is a bit too slack and sloppy. But the multi-level room is modern and attractive. There are good wines and plenty of Indian beers, usually the best pairing with Indian food. And do make a reservation. This place has a reputation and is always crowded.
THIS FITS FLYERS TO A T(EA)
Full confession: I know absolutely nothing of Burmese cuisine. So, naturally, I was attracted to Rangoon Ruby. The name is too delightfully silly to ignore, reviews were quite good and, like Rasa, it's a 5-mile zip up the 101 to SFO. (There are four other Rangoon Ruby branches scattered around the Bay Area.)
The culinary star at Rangoon Ruby, as it apparently is in every serious Burmese place, is the tea leaf salad. It's a heady mix of fermented tea leaves, fried garlic, beans, peanuts, sesame seeds, lettuce, tomato, jalapenos and dried shrimp. The ingredients are presented separately and mixed at your table. The dissonant components somehow come together for a crunchy, savory and intensely flavorful dish unlike anything I've ever tasted. I have no basis of comparison, of course, but it doesn't matter if Rangoon Ruby makes the best or worst tea leaf salad on the planet. To a newbie, it was fabulous and a dish I want to sample many more times.
To be honest, without consulting my notes, I can't remember much about the other dishes on the menu. Burmese food, it won't shock you to know, is a rice-based mash-up of Thai, Chinese and Indian cuisines. Many of the flavors, sauces and preparations are similar although Burmese dishes use more fruit. I liked Rangoon Ruby's take on spicy and garlicky string beans, for example, and the curries and stews were comforting.
The dining rooms are casual, comfortable and not too fussy, perfect for a relaxing pre-flight meal. The staff is excellent and attentive, sure to offset the distracted service you'll probably get on your next flight. And there's a deep cocktail and wine list, both of which are de rigueur for California, of course.
But it's the tea leaf salad that keeps me thinking of Rangoon Ruby. Want more ... soon.
FAST FLIGHTS ...
Unexpectedly shut out for another dinner as Rasa, I had a meal at a gentle and inexpensive Thai place called Narin. The small, immaculate dining room was comforting and comfortable and all of the classic Thai dishes were nicely done. Would I go out of my way to visit again? No, but I'd rather eat at Narin than any place at SFO. ... If you're a sandwich fiend, a dive called Little Lucca in the Burlingame Shopping Plaza should not be missed. It's actually more of a disgusting hole than a dive, yet lunch lines stream out of the door. You get a huge loaf of bread--they call it a roll--with your choice of proteins and veggies. It's all swaddled in a blizzard of toppings and a special garlic sauce. My sandwich, made with the local specialty Dutch Crunch loaf, not only served two, but there was enough left over for dinner. Alternately, sneak a Little Lucca sandwich past the TSA and treat half of your next flight.
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