Outer Sunset surf Mexican spot Underdogs has made a name for itself as a beachy sports bar known for crispy grilled tacos and a laid-back vibe. But now the restaurant is closing its original location in favor of a new spot on Ninth Avenue, smack dab in the middle of one of San Francisco’s most bustling restaurant districts.
The sports bar then known as Underdogs Sports Bar and Grill opened on Irving Street near 19th Avenue in 2006, inside a former karaoke bar. It was a fairly standard sports bar for its first couple years, serving burgers and fries below a spread of big-screen TVs. But in 2008, Doug Marschke took over the bar, and by the end of the year Nick Fasanella — a taco-centric chef known for his work at Nick’s Crispy Tacos, Tacko, and others — had joined the team, bringing his signature menu of baja tacos and burritos to the spot, which was renamed the Taco Shop at Underdogs.
And so things continued for over a decade. Eventually, Fasanella left the business, Marschke tells Eater SF, and Marschke opened a second location — this one called Underdogs Too — on Taraval Street, just blocks from the beach. That spot, inside a longstanding diner, “has a larger kitchen” than the Irving spot, which allowed the venue to be less of a sports bar and “more restaurant forward,” Marschke says, with an expanded menu that includes a weekend brunch, even as it kept up the Underdogs tradition of full bar service and a notorious Friday happy half-hour during which margaritas are $1.
But businesses with small kitchens that rely on big alcohol sales aren’t built to survive a pandemic, Marschke says, and while Underdogs Too “is in a better situation,” the Taco Shop “has been struggling since March.” Even with understanding landlords (“ours have been great,” Marschke says), the Taco Shop’s tiny kitchen couldn’t keep up with delivery and takeout orders, and its narrow storefront could only hold a few tables for outdoor dining.
Marschke says that the Taco Shop’s lease was also up when he heard that the Inner Sunset location of Nopalito, an upscale Mexican spinoff from the team behind Nopa, had permanently closed. When Marschke says that when he saw the former Nopalito’s “bigger kitchen space, heated outdoor patio” and curb space that would “allow us to do something in front,” his decision was made: shut down the Taco Shop, sign a lease on Ninth Avenue, and start plotting Underdogs Tres, a sit-down restaurant and bar with an expanded menu along the same California meets Mexico themes, but with new items like enchiladas, tortas, and an even more expansive brunch.
Underdogs Tres will be joining a laundry list of boldfaced restaurant names. Its neighbors include a location of Tartine, hip Korean spots like Um.ma and Queens, and a still-under-construction location of pizza mini-chain Fiorella, as well as neighborhood institutions like Marnee Thai and Pacific Catch — all on the same block.
The plan is to open the new restaurant as soon as the Department of Public Health and the Alcoholic Beverage Control allow, Marschke says, with a target of early 2021. “We’re not really touching the inside,” other than making some superficial fixes and adding the big screens that Underdogs is known for. Meanwhile, the Taco Shop’s last day in business will be December 20, Marschke says. After that, its entire staff will migrate to Tres.
While he’s excited about the new venue, Marschke also seems sad to shutter Underdogs’ first spot. “It was really hard to make the decision to leave,” he says, noting that he used to live just up the street and loves that neighborhood. But the Taco Shop “needed to be crowded all the time” to break even, Marschke says, which made it unsustainable in this time of takeout, delivery, and limited outdoor dining. “I don’t think we’ll have a recovery back to normal for a long time, even at partial numbers,” Marschke says. “Maybe it’s crazy to talk about opening a new restaurant in a pandemic, but opening in this different space still seems like a great opportunity for us.