Monday, December 27, 2010

A Classic in San Francisco’s Universal Cafe

The Definition of California Brunch
2814 19th St. (between Bryant and Florida Streets), San Francisco
Potrero Hill
PH: 415.821.4608
Dinner, daily except Monday; lunch, Wed.-–Fri.; weekend brunch
Major credit cards accepted; reservations only for dinner

One thing about the holidays is that I get to catch up with a lot of friends whom I hardly see during the rest of the year, and one of my favorite things to do that I also don’t get to do much during the year is weekend brunch.

And when it comes to weekend brunch, there’s no better place than the Universal Café. Opened in 1993, this industrial homage to classic American dishes with a seasonal twist has been drawing crowds on the weekend to this area of the city between Potrero Hill and the Mission.

During the dot-com boom, Universal Café was surrounded by newly minted restaurants competing for the newly minted Internet millionaires. And after the dot-com bust, Universal Café is still a beacon for refined comfort food while others have come and gone.

I visited for Sunday brunch recently with my friend Hector. We got there early and the restaurant was nearly full, so we got a seat at the marble counter. Soon after we ordered, the crowd started forming at the entrance and the sign up list.

The limited menu still resembled what I remembered when I visited years ago. Of course, management changed a few years ago when the original owners sold the restaurant to three longtime employees. The kitchen is now headed by Chef Leslie Carr Avalos, who has sprinkled a lot of seasonal ingredients like persimmons and chicory onto the menu.

I ordered what sounded like the house special: a fried egg with house fruitwood-smoked local ham, served with two cauliflower-potato fritter and wild arugula ($17.75). Even though I have a big rule of not eating deep-fried foods, I admit the cauliflower-potato fritter is what caught my eye. I love cauliflower, so I broke my deep-fried rule just this once.

You can’t really see the fried egg in the photo because it was perfectly cooked to a thin sliver of whites that only turned golden after the first cut of the fork that spilled out the oozing yellow yolk. The ham was ham (can ham really taste any different?) but of course the cauliflower fritter (two of them) was the highlight. It actually seemed to have a lot of breading, but it had a comfortable side to it.

Speaking of comfort, Hector ordered what looked like Southern comfort breakfast food – the poached eggs and buttermilk biscuits with sage sausage gravy with sweet and sour onions ($14.75).

Our server brought out a plate of house potatoes that she placed between us and we shared. It was very crispy on the outside, but mushy on the inside like they’d been overcooked. Hector says they were probably deep-fried. I should have guessed.

While the food had a few ups and down, it still has that finesse that makes anything look good, and it still has the draw that makes this spot popular after all these years.

I’ve been to Universal Café a few times in the past, but since I’ve only visited for brunch this time around and didn’t check out dinner, I’m just doing a mini review and not giving my usual rating. But since Universal Café is a classic, maybe it doesn’t need a score.

Universal Cafe on Urbanspoon


Charles Curran said...

Seems pretty 'Pricey'. I'll take Sears Fine Food any Sunday.

Hungry Dog said...

I love Universal Cafe-it's one of my favorite places in the city. Somehow, although it is popular, it's not quite as mobbed as some other places. I always enjoy the food.

Carolyn Jung said...

Now, THAT looks worth waking up to, especially those smothered biscuits. Happy New Year, Single Guy. Wishing you more glorious meals in 2011.