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Hungry Palate

Betty Lou’s Seafood & Grill

The Betty Lou’s Seafood & Grill trio Betty Pesce, Hector Chaparro, and Louise Taylor. Photo: Ernest Beyl

Back in september, i reported that three comrades from the popular seafood restaurant Sotto Mare on Green Street in North Beach — Hector Chaparro, Betty Pesce, and Louise Taylor — were planning to open a restaurant just a few blocks away on Columbus Avenue. And now it’s happened.

The eagerly awaited Betty Lou’s Seafood & Grill opened late last year at the highly desirable intersection of Columbus and Grant Avenues in a prime space formerly occupied by Viva Pizza. Those sounds you may be hearing in the old neighborhood are shouts of rejoicing. News gets around fast in North Beach. And Betty Lou’s has been a success from the minute it opened.

SIGNIFICANT NEIGHBORHOOD ADDITION

Sisters Betty and Louise are third-generation Portuguese from Hawaii, and Hector is from Temascalcingo, Mexico. All three are well known and well liked. Hector was executive chef at Sotto Mare since it was opened in 2007 by master restaurateur Gigi Fiorucci and became an instant classic. Betty was the longtime principal server there. Louise managed it with a deft hand and a welcoming manner. Gigi Fiorucci is their brother-in-law. You learn something in a family like this where grandmothers spent a lot of time at the stove stirring sauces.

From my point of view this is the most significant North Beach restaurant opening since Original Joe’s took over the corner of Union and Stockton Streets in 2012. When the Duggan family opened Original Joe’s it was a game changer. The North Beach restaurant scene was getting a little scruffy around the edges. Instantly, Original Joe’s breathed new life into the scene. Then about a year ago the U.S. Restaurant reopened and added not only panache to the neighborhood, but some great food as well.

And that’s what I think is happening now with Betty Lou’s. It’s bringing some much-needed revitalization and excitement to Broadway — that southern boundary of North Beach now known more for its louche nightlife than for its fine dining.

EXPECT TO BE DAZZLED

But let’s make this clear: I maintain there’s plenty of business for good restaurants in North Beach — just as there is in the rest of the city. So there’s every reason to believe Sotto Mare and Betty Lou’s Seafood & Grill will coexist happily. Both add to the North Beach dining experience that locals and visitors expect. But at Betty Lou’s expect to be dazzled.

Let’s get to the business at hand and talk about the food at Betty Lou’s Seafood & Grill. If you read the Marina Times regularly, you will recall it has a system of awarding diamonds in its restaurant reviews rather than stars. For this review I toyed with the idea of awarding Betty Lou’s Seafood & Grill four diamonds — the top. I decided against this, and I’m awarding it three diamonds. I was afraid four diamonds would result in my never being able to get a table there.

CLASSIC CIOPPINO

Two signature dishes I believe are the key to Betty Lou’s overwhelming success — classic cioppino ($45) and Mike’s wok crab ($38). Both serve two diners easily. These are so deliciously dominant that I want to order one or the other every time I visit. But I don’t, so I’m able to play around in other sections of the menu.

Cioppino — believed to have been created in early San Francisco by Italian-American fishermen from the ciuppin or buridda of their home country — is presented at Betty Lou’s in a large bowl full of Dungeness crab, prawns, mussels, clams, San Francisco Bay shrimp, and calamari. It’s a real indulgence. The seafood swims in a superb spicy red broth. Hector’s cioppino is balanced delicately between being a fish stew and a fish soup, and it’s a winner. It’s not a thick soup like chowder. But Hector does an estimable New England clam chowder (cup $5, bowl $8). It’s thickened with potatoes, not flour. No bacon to subvert the clam flavor.

MIKE’S WOK CRAB

Mike’s wok crab ($38) — Betty Pesce’s husband, Mike, who has a fine palate, developed this extraordinary dish. Fresh Dungeness crab cooked in a Chinese wok, with red pepper, scallions, onions, ginger, hot peppers, a bit of soy sauce, the crab “butter,” and a lot of love. It reminds me of the incredible chili crab served in Singapore food stalls. But this is better because it’s made with the freshest of fresh local Dungeness crab.

OYSTERS, CLAMS, AND BACCALA

A fine way to get you going at Betty Lou’s is to order a few oysters or clams on the half shell. West Coast oysters ($1.75), East Coast oysters ($2.75), Little Neck clams ($1.75). When it’s available, an order of baccala ($9) makes a good starter, too. It’s not on the menu and Hector doesn’t make it every day. Baccala is salted cod that’s been reconstituted by rinsing it over three or four days. Hector cuts it into chunks and cooks it in olive oil with tomatoes, onions, green peppers, and capers. Smear it on crusty Italian bread and you’re set for what comes next.

OTHER NOTABLE CHOICES

Calamari fritti ($18) — lightly breaded and crisp, not a trace of greasiness. Served, of course, with tartar sauce and red cocktail sauce.

Mini crab cakes ($18) — with a mustard sauce, and served with a lemony arugula salad.

Sand dabs ($24) — small and boneless, crisp on the outside, tender and mellow on the inside.

Bone-in, rib eye steak ($30) — This is one of two nonseafood entries; the other is a Parmesan or piccata chicken dish. The admirable steak is a big one (16 ounces), marinated in olive oil and various spices. Easily serves two. When rare, the way I like it, it’s beefy and full of flavor.

There are also various seafood cocktails, salads, pastas, and risottos — all commendable.

Betty Lou’s serves wine, beer, and soft drinks. The wine list is modestly priced: house red and white wine by the glass ($6), red wines by the bottle ($35), and white wines by the bottle ($32–$35). (If you want something a bit more authoritative to launch you before your lunch or dinner, you can pop up a few doors along Upper Grant and rediscover the pleasures of the Saloon, established in 1861, making it the oldest bar in San Francisco at its original location.)

Betty Lou’s Seafood & Grill: 318 Columbus Avenue, daily 11 a.m.–10 p.m., 415-757-0569, bettylousf.com.

AMBIENCE

Warm and welcoming. In the evening, the pale salmon-colored lighting is low, just the way you probably like it in your own place. There are two adjoining levels of seating for 49. The lower level overlooks Hector working in his open kitchen, and that’s a level of theater cuisine I enjoy.

SOUND LEVEL

Moderate. No problem in talking to your buddies. You don’t have to shout.

NOT-TO-MISS DISHES

Cioppino, Mike’s wok crab, sand dabs, bone-in rib eye

steak, crab Louie, and clam chowder.

WHAT THE DIAMONDS MEAN

Ratings range from zero to four diamonds and reflect food, atmosphere, and service, taking price range and type of restaurant into consideration.

OUR REVIEW POLICY

We conduct multiple visits anonymously and pay our own tab. (In this case, your reviewer is known to the restaurant’s proprietors, and I don’t know any way to avoid that. But I always pay my own tab.)

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