Bodega, Bodega – What’s In a Name?

I write about San Francisco restaurants and the greater Bay Area food scene. When two restaurants opened with the name Bodega, I had to sort things out.

Sweet potato tacos, burrata, chicken nuggies and fresh bread in North Beach
Sweet potato tacos, burrata, chicken nuggies and fresh bread at Bodega North Beach

Bodega is a pretty common name for food businesses in California and other states. Translated as a small grocery store (like the many bodegas in New York City) in the United States or as a wine shop or cellar in the US and other countries, a bodega more broadly orients around food and wine. In San Francisco, there are two restaurants named Bodega. Let’s call them Bodega North Beach and Bodega Union Square. Both serve food and wine. Beyond that, they are unique unto themselves.

If you have never visited these restaurants, Instagram makes things more confusing. Their Instagram handles didn’t help. North Beach Bodega is @bodegasf while Union Square Bodega is @bodega_sf. (The underscore makes all the difference, I guess.) I visited each to sort out the difference.

Bodega Union Square

Pho Hanoi with chopstick doughnut in Union Square
Pho Hanoi at Bodega Union Square with chopstick doughnut

I had never heard of Bodega North Beach when I first visited Bodega Union Square. Located on Mason Street, where Union Square meets the Tenderloin, Matthew Ho’s Bodega is recognized for its Northern Vietnamese cuisine – it earned Restaurant of the Year honors in 2022 from Eater San Francisco. The long bar is popular for the drinks infused with Asian flavors like makrut lime and yuzu, chrysanthemum and rau ram, or Vietnamese coriander.  Earth, Wind and Lemongrass is a twist on a Lemon Drop, the calamansi, makrut and lemongrass joining in lip-smacking sourness, smoothed by Aperol’s savoriness.  Regulars come back for the chicken rice bathed in schmaltz and faithful rendition of pho ga (chicken pho), available at lunch and Hanoi style whole fish cha ca with turmeric, dill and fresh herbs at dinner.  I cannot resist the banh cuon or fresh rice rolls and, apparently, neither can anyone else: they are available at lunch and dinner.

banh cuon, fresh rice rools with wood ear mushrooms and pork at Bodega Union Square
Bodega Union Square banh cuon, fresh rice rools with wood ear mushrooms and pork

Bodega North Beach

Across town in North Beach on a busy corner of Columbus Avenue, business partners Paria Sedigh and Lalo Luevano run what is essentially a wine bar with a tapas menu, Bodega.  Broad windows face the street and, when the windows are open, the party spills onto Columbus, energizing the local scene. The wine menu leans into the natural trend with cute descriptions. A California chenin blanc is “Key Lime pie, strap in” while an Italian Lambrusco is “fashion and function.”  To eat, the breakfast burrito, available only on Saturday morning, and chicken nuggies get all the social media love, but the smoked trout rillettes and mushroom toast with garlic cream are more interesting pairing options. I could not resist a plate of sweet potato tacos with pickled cabbage and furikake. There’s a burger and Brussels sprouts, too.

sweet potato tacos at Bodega North Beach
Bodega North Beach sweet potato tacos

With the Bodega situation now sorted, what’s your Bodega preference? Interesting wine and small plates in North Beach? Or cocktails and Vietnamese in Union Square? Whichever Bodega you choose, you cannot lose.