Details: The quality of a neighborhood should influence, but not define a dining experience. The Turk & Larkin Deli is located in such an awful neighborhood that the dining experience is spent contemplating the worries and disconcerting observations from the walk to the restaurant, and then realizing that the gauntlet must be run again in order to return from whence one came. I patronized the establishment twice, and I have a better memory of the icky things I saw on the sidewalk, the body parts I would have preferred not to see, the assorted foul smells and menacing solicitations for money (and other things), than I have of the food served at the deli.
I am not delicate, prudish, or sheltered. I worked for six years in downtown San Francisco, so I know the difference between normal city realities and a dangerous neighborhood. One of my visits was with a friend who manages a business South of Market facing Jesse Alley (no picnic itself), and he heartily confirmed that this is a horrible neighborhood. On each visit I approached the deli walking several blocks from different directions. Same story both times.
Once safely inside the deli, the fare is fine, but it is no culinary oasis. On one visit, I asked the proprietor to recommend a specialty of the house, and she suggested roast chicken, which I ordered along with ravioli and a side Caesar salad. The chicken was enjoyable. Hot, juicy, and tender. But realistically, it is similar to the roast chicken you get at Costco. And you are not risking your life to get a Costco chicken.
It appeared to me that, aside from the chicken, everything served warm gets that way via a microwave. Fine, but not the hallmark of a quest for excellence. I opted to stay away from the chicken sandwiches, because the pre-cooked chicken breasts in the deli case had what appeared to be charred chunks of ash scattered on them. I didn’t want to crunch into a piece of ash while eating microwaved chicken. It would be quite easy for an employee to notice the ash chunks and brush them away (or not allow them to be there in the first place), so it was disconcerting to think that no one cared to do so. It also indicated that the deli might not always be catering to discerning customers.
On my second visit, with the memory of having just passed within inches of a shouting match between a barely dressed toothless elderly woman and her angry business associate still fresh in my mind, I noticed that the wall menu identified the hot pastrami pita sandwich as a house specialty, so I ordered that. My companion ordered another house specialty, the bacon sandwich. We both enjoyed our sandwiches, but neither of us felt that we were experiencing something exciting, innovative, or delectable. Both sandwiches were warmed via the aforementioned microwave, which means that they likewise cooled artificially fast. And I think that the avocado in mine might have been a more interesting element in the sandwich if it had been spared from the microwave and served fresh.
The proprietors were very friendly and helpful. When you engage them in conversation, you definitely get a "down home" feeling about the place. On both my visits I beat the lunch rush, so my service experience was smooth, but a significant line forms shortly after the noon hour.
The drinks were standard convenience store soft drinks / juices in cans and bottles, so there is nothing to explore or discuss. The dessert option is plastic-wrapped cookies, which the proprietors admitted they did not make, so I did not try them. The décor is unintended retro, back to maybe the early '70s (i.e., walls covered in sheets of faux wood paneling).
Conclusion: If you happen to work in this neighborhood, and if you don’t have much time for lunch, then you might thank your lucky stars that there is some place nearby that serves basically decent food. But otherwise, the prudent policy would be to stay away. I would never want my wife or parents to have to walk though this area. The food will do, but it is nothing to seek out.
DJ and Budding Actor
2223 Restaurant and Bar
Reviewed Turk and Larkin Deli:
Thursday February 11, 2010
Turk and Larkin Deli is a Tenderloin neighborhood throwback to 1979 when proprietors Mike and Jean birthed this local institution. They seem to put their heart and soul into everything they do, including cooking, preparing, displaying, and serving a wide array of food from their lengthy deli case. And how a married couple manages to spend their whole adult life in such close proximity behind the same counter and still have it run like a well-oiled machine with a smile on their faces and their sense of humor intact is truly a testament to their devotion and compatibility. I actually felt really lucky to be dining in what the photos on the wall reveal to be not only their family business, but more of an actual member of the family.
From the minute you walk in, the feeling is of a cafeteria of yesteryear. Sheets and sheets of laminate and Formica adorned with brass rails surround you. For some reason, I can imagine this place in an episode of Streets of San Francisco, and perhaps it has been (I’m sure some trivia nut will look that up). And what you hear on the street in the Tenderloin is true: if you ever need a uniformed officer at lunch hour, this is the place to find one. In fact, it’s in the shadow of the Federal building, so the clientele can get interesting, I’m sure.
From what my three dining mates and I observed, a large percentage of their customers opt for a meal to go, but a few other tables were occupied besides ours. Therefore, conversation was easy to manage with minimal distraction or interference. In fact, there don’t seem to be any tables for more than three diners. We pulled a chair from the next table, but had to carry our trays back to the counter to accommodate four place settings. The dining area is essentially neat, not the cleanest ever, but certainly not gross either. Mike and Jean appear to be the only ones working, and are probably too busy serving customers to bus the tables. Fortunately, most people seem to take care of their own mess, but not 100%, and there were a few tables with refuse left behind. The food itself tends to be messy (or "gloppy," as a friend described it), and the thinness of the napkins justifies using three or four for a meal.
The food is a mix of typical American deli fare with some Middle Eastern and Russian favorites thrown in for variety’s sake. Their menu uses some handy and cost-effective pairings, such as half sandwiches with a combination of two or three of the plentiful salad choices. To accompany my delicious homemade meatloaf sandwich (which was huge for a half version), I opted for the Caesar salad, which was fresh and well dressed, and the Greek salad, which was a bit of a disappointment. Using canned ripe olives as opposed to some Greek variety, such as Kalamata, is a shortcoming in my opinion. And it was not very well dressed, nor was the dressing very flavorful. The falafels are better than average, and stuffed with fairly moist falafel balls, a zesty hummus, and drowned in their homemade tahini sauce with chopped tomato and cucumber. Their twist on hot pastrami is served in a pita, but there are no grilled sandwiches available on the menu. But they do have that classic swirled rye bread, a staple in old style delis.
The beverage selection at Turk and Larkin Deli is quite vast, but it’s a good idea to pick yours before you reach the counter. The line gets long and moves fast, and you don’t want to have to cut back through it to grab a cold one. Alternatively, just beyond the register, they do provide a water cooler and cups to serve yourself. Dessert items are available at the counter when you pay. They not only have baklava, cookies, and pecan bars, but a full candy and gum selection that rivals the corner market. They use outside vendors for the sweets, and evidently put some consideration into the purchasing; a testament to their quest for quality. For example, Jean shared with us that the peanut butter cookies and pecan bars come from The Nutty Cookie in Emeryville. Others were described as "homemade" (but not by them); the chocolate chip cookie definitely being a highlight. And at $1.25 for a reasonably large cookie, they are half the price those at some local coffee houses.