Now Playing

Food Editor Luke Tsai Picks His 10 Favorite Meals of the Year

Trawling the Bay Area’s immigrant enclaves and suburban strip malls for extreme deliciousness you don’t need a six-figure income to enjoy.

SLIDESHOW

A $65 omakase meal at Delage doesn’t just consist of sushi. For instance, dinner might start with a seasonal salad.

(1 of 4)

Delage, Chikara Ono’s tiny restaurant in Old Oakland, serves some of the Bay Area’s best sushi.

(2 of 4)

Chef Reem Assil prepares a batch of fresh dough.

(3 of 4)

Why settle for a basic bagel when you can have the khobz sim sim at Reem’s?

(4 of 4)

Read more from the August 2017 Food Issue here.


Years ago
, when a friend first started selling me on the glories of Bay Area living, she didn’t send me on a pilgrimage to the French Laundry or Chez Panisse, or dog-ear a copy of any restaurant critic’s top-100 list. She didn’t say one word about Michelin stars. Instead, she plied me with Laotian crispy rice ball salad in East Oakland and tacos de cabeza from Fruitvale’s seemingly boundless supply of top-notch taco trucks. She brought me to Poc-Chuc for cochinita pibil. And to the now-shuttered Inkas Restaurant for rotisserie chicken and perhaps the most addictive dipping sauce known to man. 

The rest was history: I wound up moving here. And no disrespect to Alice Waters and her cohort, whose legacies speak for themselves, but to this day I’m still convinced that these are the types of restaurants—the modestly appointed, mostly immigrant-run spots—that form the beating heart of the Bay Area’s food scene. This is day-to-day food for those of us who don’t have fat expense accounts and six- or seven-figure salaries (and even, I hear, for some who do). As far as I’m concerned, we aren’t the ones who are missing out. With that in mind, here are the 10 new (and newish) restaurants I visited this past year that got me the most excited.

1. Delage 
If you’re accustomed to big-city sushi prices, an omakase-style restaurant that charges $65 a person is extraordinary from a value-proposition standpoint alone. Even better when chefs as venerable as owner Chikara Ono (AS B-Dama) and Mikiko Ando (formerly of Delica in the Ferry Building) are the ones presiding over the sushi counter. The eight-course meal consists of two nigiri courses interspersed with various salads and cooked dishes—mostly prepared by Ando—that might include translucent slices of Hokkaido scallop tossed in ponzu butter, or a play on a Western crudité, but with slow-cooked summer vegetables and a heady ponzu-and-truffle-spiked dipping sauce not unlike the world’s most luxurious ranch dressing. The highlights, of course, are some of the Bay Area’s best sushi—the fish impeccably cut and texturally transcendent. This is a meal punctuated by bursts of unfettered joy: Each nigiri course culminates in a little rice bowl, which might be crowned with salmon eggs you scoop up with a tiny spoon, or with pieces of fatty tuna and cubes of gelatinized soy sauce. 536 9th St. (near Clay St.), Oakland, 510-823-2050

2. Royal Feast
For serious food enthusiasts, keeping tabs on the latest It Chef’s comings and goings is like a spectator sport. But what about the lead cook at the Cantonese banquet house, or the guy your favorite izakaya brought in from Japan to man the yakitori station—folks whose names rarely make it into the English-language food blogosphere? Thankfully, in the case of Royal Feast, a Chowhound poster was able to connect the dots. It turns out the co-owner is Zongyi Liu, a revered chef making a Bay Area comeback more than a decade after a memorable stint at Sichuan specialist China Village in Albany—and who, not for nothing, once represented Team China in the Bocuse d’Or. Liu’s Millbrae eatery is a tour de force in not one but three distinct styles of Chinese regional cuisine. There’s the often fiery, tongue-numbing Sichuan cooking Liu was known for at China Village. There’s the dough-based cuisine of the chef’s native Beijing—a “thousand layer” beef pancake ($8.95) akin to lasagna in delicate Chinese pastry form, or a scallion pancake ($7.95) made more refined by an accompanying puréed-eggplant dip. Most exciting, though, are the Tanjia Cai, or “aristocrat” dishes, which were the specialty at the prestigious Beijing Hotel restaurant where Liu trained. This was what wealthy Chinese families ate at home during the late Qing dynasty: succulent lamb rib chops ($20.95) that you press into a mix of crushed Sichuan peppercorns, peanuts, and sesame seeds; fish maws with crab meat ($28.95); and napa cabbage and chestnuts ($10.95) braised in a velvety, chicken-stock-based sauce so rich and potent that it lingered in my memory for days. 148 El Camino Real (near Serra Ave.), Millbrae, 650-692-3388

3. Noodles Pho Me
You’ve had pho, maybe dozens or hundreds of times. Even so, you might not have heard of Laotian-style pho, the specialty of the house at Noodles Pho Me, which defies expectations at every turn. This is, after all, a modest, family-run restaurant that starts every meal with an elegant broth tasting—three distinct soups presented in little white cups arranged on a rectangular plate, a kind of noodle-shop take on an amuse-bouche course. As for the pho ($8.25/$9.75), which is based on the kind typically sold by canoe-based vendors in Laos, it’s darker, richer, spicier, and more herbaceous than the typical Vietnamese version. It’s worth adding to your Asian noodle soup lexicon. 377 Bancroft Ave. (near Victoria Ct.), San Leandro, 510-850-5080

4. Reem's
Who wouldn’t want to root for an Arab bakery opening in the heart of Oakland’s immigrant-heavy Fruitvale neighborhood during the age of President Trump? Well, besides Trump. But setting politics aside, let us take a moment to speak a word of gratitude for the actual food at Reem’s, which is reason enough for celebration. Here, I was initiated into the pleasures of the flatbread known as the man’oushe, which is just as delicious brushed with olive oil and tangy za’atar spice ($5) as it is topped with salty nubs of Arabic cheese ($6) or wrapped around scrambled eggs, cherry tomatoes, and goat cheese ($8)—a Cal–Middle Eastern answer to a breakfast burrito. Really, though, everything that comes out of Reem Assil’s kitchen is worth multiple revisits: the spicy, complex shakshuka; the bright zing of the fattoush salad; and the khobz sim sim, which resembles an intensely toasty, slightly malformed sesame bagel. Eat it, eagerly, with a schmear of za’atar cream cheese. What could be more American than that? 3301 E. 12th St. (near 33rd Ave.), Ste. 133, Oakland, 510-852-9390

5. Pho Papa
They say you have to head to Daly City for the best Filipino, Fremont for the tastiest Afghan, and San Jose for, among other things, the most mind-blowing pho. One of the city’s newest contenders, Pho Papa, hits on all the quintessential elements: the strip-mall setting, the older Vietnamese men smoking out front, and, most important, soup that’s so clean tasting and true, I could have wept. To achieve maximal happiness, order the pho dac biet ($9.50/$10.40), with its mix of perfectly cooked meats—fatty, luxurious brisket and nubs of tendon as soft as butter—and ask for the fresh noodles, which are thicker and chewier than the standard variety. Get an order of the beef short rib special ($3.95) on the side: It’s a big hunk of tender meat to pick off the bone, in a bowl of broth that’s so outrageously rich and savory, it tastes like it must consist of 50 percent rendered beef fat. 1611 E. Capitol Expressway (near Towers Ln.), San Jose, 408-270-0600

6. El Ají
Amid all the fears of gentrification and whitewashing, thank goodness the Mission district still has restaurants like El Ají—an unpretentious neighborhood Peruvian spot where Spanish is the dominant language, the prices are eminently reasonable, and the food is homey and flat-out delicious. Like its cult-favorite sister restaurant Cholo Soy, El Ají is home to some of the best ceviche ($9.80) in the city—chili-tinged and shot through with brilliant acidity, with a little extra hot sauce on the side to be applied at your discretion. What I love, too, is the home-style Peruvian fare: meltingly tender, cilantro-marinated lamb shank; uncommonly juicy lomo saltado; and a version of papas a la huancaína—boiled potatoes and a hard-boiled egg enrobed in a mellow yellow aji pepper sauce—that’s exactly the kind of thing I’d want to bring to a late-summer picnic. 3015 Mission St. (at 26th St.), 415-658-7349

7. Taste of Jiangnan
I have eaten at Taste of Jiangnan on a quiet evening when the staff could not have been more gracious and accommodating, despite their limited English-language proficiency, and I have eaten there during an especially busy lunch rush on a day when the restaurant appeared to be short-staffed and service veered toward total chaos. And I would happily eat there two or three times a week, if my schedule permitted it, because the food is good enough that nothing else really matters. This Inner Richmond spot specializes in Jiangnan-style cooking, naturally—specifically the cuisine of Wuxi, which skews a little bit sweet, though dishes like the Delicious Braised Pork ($11.95), aka red-cooked pork belly, are always well-balanced. Anyway, you don’t need to be an expert on regional Chinese cooking to appreciate the deliciousness of such specialties as the deeply savory individual-portion “lion’s head” meatball soup, the golden-brown deep-fried steamed buns, and the salted-egg-yolk-topped steamed egg, served just set and quivering in a little wooden bucket. 332 Clement St. (near 5th Ave.), 415-702-6711

8. Parekoy Lutong Pinoy
It feels like for the past five or six years, we’ve been hearing that high-end nouveau Filipino cuisine is going to be the next big thing. I’ll welcome the dawn of that brave new era as enthusiastically as anyone. In the meantime, though, we should revel in how lucky we are to have a traditional mom-and-pop Filipino joint as good as San Leandro’s Parekoy Lutong Pinoy. This is my go-to spot for fat little pork-stuffed lumpia that come 20 to an order; a version of the fried pork-belly-and-eggplant preparation known as crispy binagoongan that doesn’t skimp on the dish’s characteristic fermented-shrimp-paste funk; and, best of all, a sizzling, gloriously crunchy rendition of pork sisig. 14807 E. 14th St. (near 148th Ave.), San Leandro, 510-614-8112

9. Dad's Luncheonette
When an alumnus of one of San Francisco’s most highly acclaimed fine-dining restaurants (Saison) converts an old train caboose into a little open-air roadside burger shack, the story more or less writes itself. What surprised and delighted me, however, was just how neighborly the place felt, with its comfortable mix of locals and day-trippers, and how few chefly airs there were on Scott Clark’s stripped-down menu. Impeccable sourcing notwithstanding, the paper-wrapped hamburger sandwich ($12)—a variation on a patty melt—reminded me of the kind of burger you might grill up for a backyard barbecue, except juicier and more flavorful and topped with a fried egg with a yolk so runny it’s liable to burst all over your sleeve. And the only thing “fine dining” about the cherry-plumped blondie ($3.50) I had for dessert was how much I immediately wished I had another one. 225 Cabrillo Highway S. (near Kelly Ave.), Half Moon Bay, 650-560-9832

10. Cinco Taco Bar
At a time when it seems like every fast-casual restaurateur is trying to open the Chipotle of X cuisine, this little strip-mall spot is beating Chipotle at its own game with an inexpensive, mix-and-match, assembly-line-style taqueria menu meant for the masses. Part of the joy of discovering Cinco Taco Bar comes from just how unlikely it seems it would be to find great tacos ($2.95) here—in a humdrum shopping plaza adjacent to the Bayfair Center, sandwiched between a pool supply store and a Payless. And yet the food speaks for itself: thick corn tortillas that are pressed to order (by a machine, but still); savory, well-charred al pastor; and, as though to hammer home the point that you aren’t at Chipotle anymore, some of the hottest housemade habañero hot sauce around. 15100 Hesperian Blvd. (near Bayfair Dr.), Ste. 308, San Leandro, 510-674-9215

 

Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco 

Have feedback? Email us at letterssf@sanfranmag.com
Email Luke Tsai at
ltsai@modernluxury.com
Follow us on Twitter
@sanfranmag
Follow Luke Tsai at
@theluketsai