Spice Kit — A Sandwich Shop with Quite the Pedigree

Eat one pork belly bun at Spice Kit, and you're sure to want another.

Spice Kit in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood is not your average sandwich joint.

Not with its state-of-the-art sous vide equipment in the kitchen.

And not with a founder, who used to work at the French Laundry in Yountville, and a chef, who hails from the celebrated Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco.

The duo, which opened Spice Kit two months ago, near the Hotel Vitale, is elevating the bold, irresistible flavors of Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese street food to a higher level with organic tofu, organic greens and high-quality meats. They even make their own paté in-house for the banh mi sammies.

Fred Tang, right, and Will Pacio, left, of Spice Kit.

Chef Fred Tang and Founder Will Pacio, who not only cooked at the French Laundry, but also Thomas Keller’s outpost in New York, Per Se, invited me in recently to try their offerings. (Full disclosure: Will is the brother of one of my former San Jose Mercury News colleagues, fashion writer Nerissa Pacio, who now does the stylish blog, NerissasNotebook.)

How could I refuse? Especially when French Laundry chef de cuisine alums, Corey Lee of the new, nearby Benu restaurant in San Francisco, and Ron Siegel of the Dining Room, have already been in for their fill? In fact, here’s a pic of Siegel placing his order at the counter.

The fast-casual spot offers salads, banh mi and ssams (Korean wraps) with your choice of five-spice chicken, beef short ribs, roasted pork or tofu. The prices are higher than your typical Mom-and-Pop Vietnamese cafe, but the most expensive item is only $7.95. And the caliber of ingredients and cooking really shines through.

Don’t miss the fabulous steamed pork buns ($2.95 each or two for $5), filled with grilled pork belly that practically squirts juice when you bite into it, as well as a smear of sweet, thick hoisin sauce and crunchy pickled cucumbers. The buns, themselves, are delightfully fluffy and unbelievably fresh tasting.

Pork and pate banh mi at Spice Kit.

The pork in the banh mi was again a cut above, marinated in lemongrass, then braised until super tender and juicy — not the least bit dry, which is so often the case with a lot of roast pork at Asian delis. The creamy, rich, slightly musky tasting paté (75 cents extra) made the French roll sandwich even more satisfying.

Ssam -- a Korean version of a burrito -- at Spice Kit.

The ssam is made to order and it shows with its soft, still pliable rice paper wrapper that didn’t suffer whatsoever from hardening, as tends to happen to this delicate, thin wrapper if it sits around too long. Think of it as a Korean burrito, filled with red leaf lettuce, cucumbers, seasoned rice, marinated bean sprouts, kimchi, housemade ssam sauce, and our choice of beef short ribs. With each bite, it was at once crunchy, juicy, tender, spicy, tangy and a little sweet.

For those who want more heat, an arsenal of Sriracha bottles is available at the counter.

Lotus chips ($1.50) are offered as a nice alternative to potato ones. These are dainty in size, crisp and perfectly salted.

Crisp lotus chips that are pretty hard to stop eating.

With the exception of the refreshing calamansi limeade ($1.95) offered, there are no nods to Pacio’s Filipino-American heritage on the menu. He has mulled over some possibilities, he says, including hearts of palm lumpia. But he worries that with so many Filipino specialties being fried, it might be too unhealthy to go in that direction.

I dunno. With folks lining up for those lusciously fatty pork belly buns — including a catering order of about 100 of them the day I was there — I think customers just might be willing to put off their diet for a day for food this tasty. In fact, I’d bet on it.

An Update: My Q&A with Will Pacio, Plus His New Palo Alto Spice Kit

Plus: My Q&A with Chef Ron Siegel of the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton

More: Scenes From Last Year’s Incredible French Laundry Holiday Party

More: How to Make Chef David Chang’s Pork Belly Buns

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