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The Bay Area’s 10 Best New Restaurants (So Far) of 2018

From visionary sushi slingers to down-home gordita griddlers, dozens of new restaurants have joined the Bay Area food bacchanal this past year. These 10 are the best of the best.

SLIDESHOW

Grilled wagyu beef at Pacific Heights newcomer Sorrel.

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Beef skewers sizzling on the grill at Nyum Bai.

Photo: Eric Wolfinger 

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Bar nuts and cocktails at True Laurel.

Photo: Aubrie Pick

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A fried chicken dinner at Minnie Bell’s Soul Movement.

Photo: Aubrie Pick

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Owner Cecilia Chairez works the counter at Mi Zacatecas Mexican Food.

Photo: Eva Kolenko

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A spread of gorditas (top) and tacos at Mi Zacatecas.

Photo: Eva Kolenko

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A bartender prepares a cocktail at Che Fico.

Photo: Ed Anderson

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The crusts of the wood-fired pizzas are sprinkled with a flurry of shaved parmesan.

Photo: Ed Anderson

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At Robin, the J-shaped sushi bar offers the best seats in the house.

Photo: Ed Anderson

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Anchovy with roasted Anaheim peppers.

Photo: Ed Anderson

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A nigiri of crisp fingerling potato and smoked sturgeon caviar.

Photo: Ed Anderson

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A spread of dishes at Dyafa might include a whole roasted fish and Lebanese lamb tartare—both delicious when eaten with the restaurant’s fresh-baked pita.

Photo: Aubrie Pick

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Everything Trout (grilled Mount Lassen trout with cultured cream and “everything bagel” seasoning) at Avery.

Photo: Eric Wolfinger

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Chef Rodney Wages rolls out fresh pasta for his ­tortellini en brodo (next).

Photo: Eric Wolfinger

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Photo: Eric Wolfinger

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Green pea soup at Sorrel.

Photo: Eric Wolfinger

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Jiangnan Cuisine’s braised pork belly (front) showcases a dark, Wuxi-style sauce.

Photo: Aubrie Pick

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Read more from the August 2018 Food Issue here.


Deliciousness doesn’t discriminate.
Here in the Bay Area, the best meal you have all year might come on a special-occasion kind of night, when you’ve pressed your pants and primped your hair and prepared yourself—both emotionally and economically—to throw down $179 per person on an omakase feast. Or it could come at a picnic table outside a remote East Oakland taqueria that specializes in a kind of regional Mexican cuisine you’ve never heard of. You might find it in a steaming bowl of Cambodian rice noodle soup. Or in a fistful of caviar. You might even find it at a bar. One thing’s for certain: You’ll have a hard time finding 10 new restaurants in any other part of the country that offer as varied, and as exciting, a range of peak deliciousness as these.


Nyum Bai

The self-trained chef Nite Yun is not a one-trick pony, even if she first gained notice for a single dish. Yun’s treatment of kuy teav, a rice noodle staple of Cambodian street vendors, was her calling card when she launched her pop-up, Nyum Bai, in San Francisco, and it remained a marquee item when the pop-up morphed into a food stand of the same name in the Emeryville Public Market. Devotees of the dish will thus be pleased to know that Yun’s version, its shrimp-and-pork broth vivified by lemongrass, has traveled with her yet again to a new location, the snug Fruitvale address that once housed the Half Orange. But even better news is that the larger kitchen of the brick-and-mortar space gives the chef more room to strut her Cambodian home-cooking skills.

The culinary ground Yun covers isn’t widely trod upon by Bay Area chefs, but its borders blur at times with the more familiar cooking of Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. In this territory, fresh herbs and fried garlic come jumbled in a salad of cucumbers, cabbage, and banana blossoms. Here, in more than one dish, tamarind’s tang is tempered by the sweetn­ess of palm sugar, the fire of chilies mellowed by coconut milk. That latter pairing is at play in prahok ktiss ($13), an aromatic cauldron of ground pork funkified with fish sauce and fragrant with kroeung, a lemongrass-and-galangal paste that is one of the bass notes of Cambodian cuisine. Kroeung shows itself as well in kuri moan ($14), a cappuccino-colored curry of chicken and potatoes, and in sach ko ang ($11), grilled beef skewers that also betray traces of oyster sauce and honey in their marinade. A side of pickled papaya helps cut the richness.

The daughter of Cambodian refugees, Yun grew up in California, enchanted by stories her parents told her of the pop art and music scene of their Phnom Penh childhood. She nods to that aesthetic through a dining room streaked with neon pink and blue lights. But the more vibrant tribute lies in the contrapuntal flavors of her cooking, a conjuring act that turns out to be her finest trick of all. —Josh Sens
3340 E. 12th St. (near 33rd Ave.), Ste. 11, Oakland, 510-500-3338


True Laurel

Here’s a cocktail-party fun fact about David Barzelay: His last name is an anagram for Lazy Bear, his ballyhooed restaurant in the Mission district. And though Barzelay isn’t quite an anagram for “bar food,” the chef has begun working in that milieu, too. The backdrop for his latest endeavor is True Laurel, a cocktail-centric satellite of the mother ship located in the increasingly vibrant gulch between the Mission and Potrero Hill. Once home to the short-lived Tradesman, the space has been rendered funky-chic. It’s Man Ray meets artisanal mezcal. Across two quartzite bars, True Laurel’s bartenders serve a slew of inventive libations, along with booze-friendly grub of the kind you won’t encounter at most neighborhood watering holes.

The bar nuts ($6) are like bar nuts in one respect: They’re sugary and salty. The main difference is the kale chips mingling with them. The chicharróns, a less greasy version than what comes in a bag, are piled into a bowl over popcorn, then buried in a snowfall of shaved parmesan. Onion dip ($11)? It’s a cocktail-hour standard, though here it’s made with “alliums.” To dredge it up, you’re given a tempura of hen of the woods mushrooms, a classy upgrade to potato chips. Everything the kitchen cooks is collected in two categories, “Small Items” and “Items That Are Also Small”—cheeky phrasing that omits the fact that many of the items are also very rich. You can have your oysters raw, napped in a gelée of citrus and laurel. Or you can have them broiled, their brini­ness intensified in the oven, the bivalves topped with lardo and glistening in herbed-butter glaze.

In tandem with his bar director, Nicolas Torres, Barzelay plans to launch a reservation-only cocktail tasting menu later this summer that will marry clinky drinks with an array of nibbles. In the meantime, it’s easy to make your own pairings. The patty melt ($13), a square of dry-aged ground beef griddled in beef fat, works well with the Quinine Cobbler ($14), a Lillet-and-amontillado-based concoction blasted with Angostura bitters. But let’s not overthink it. This kind of elevated bar food washes down quite nicely with almost anything. —J.S.
753 Alabama St. (near 20th St.), 415-341-0020


Minnie Bell’s Soul Movement

You might not expect a 25-minute wait at a food-court fried chicken stand. Then again, Minnie Bell’s Soul Movement isn’t your typical mall kiosk—in terms of either the quality of the classic soul food that the restaurant slings from its tiny, modestly appointed kitchen or the long-term ambitions of Fernay McPherson, who has emerged as one of the rising stars of the Bay Area food scene.

But let’s not waste any more time not talking about fried chicken: The be-all and end-all of the current iteration of Minnie Bell’s, located in the Emeryville Public Market, is a recipe that McPherson MacGyvered together back when she was running the business as a food truck, chopping up a few extra sprigs of rosemary that she had on hand and tossing it into the marinade. It’s a small addition that packs a big punch, perfuming the fried chicken’s crust with a woodsy fragrance that lingers in your memory. The other trick is that she marinates the birds mostly just in Crystal hot sauce. No buttermilk. No egg wash. The hot sauce alone is responsible, McPherson says, for most of what’s great about her chicken: the crunchy and well-seasoned crust; the moist, tender flesh whose savoriness penetrates all the way through to the bone. Food-court setting or not, this is world-class fried chicken.

Everything else on the menu—the oven-baked mac and cheese with its generous crunchy top layer, the spicy slow-cooked collard greens, the squares of sweet, cake-like cornbread—is appealingly simple and solid. This isn’t a restaurant, or a chef, to put on airs. As a kid growing up in San Francisco’s Fillmore district, McPherson was regaled with tales of the neighborhood’s history as an epicenter of black culture and foodways. She has since vowed to help restore that legacy by opening her own place in the Fillmore. She’s still working toward that goal. In the meantime, some good news: McPherson just installed a second fryer, which should help her crank that chicken out more efficiently—though she’s also adding a weekend chicken-and-waffles special, so you can bet the lines will still be plenty long. —Luke Tsai
5959 Shellmound St. (at Powell St.), Emeryville


Mi Zacatecas Mexican Food

Even by the sparse standards of deep East Oakland, Mi Zacatecas Mexican Food is located in a kind of culinary no-man’s-land: a quasi-industrial stretch of MacArthur Boulevard with no notable landmarks nearby except for the Oakland Zoo. But for Cecilia Chairez, who runs Mi Zacatecas with her two teenage daughters, this little shoebox of a kitchen with a few picnic tables set up on a tented side patio is the end point of a long-cherished dream. She had yearned to open a restaurant serving the home-style cooking of Zacatecas, the state in central Mexico where she was born and raised, and here, finally, she has.

Its humble setting notwithstanding, Mi Zacatecas might be the most exciting Mexican eatery to open in the Bay Area this past year. Part of that is a matter of scarcity: There aren’t any other Zacatecan restaurants (that we’re aware of) in the area—or any places that serve the Zacatecan-style fresh-masa gorditas ($4) that are the restaurant’s particular specialty. Unlike the deep-fried masa pockets you’ll find at other Mexican spots, these are essentially fat tortillas, made fresh to order and sliced open while they’re still hot, then stuffed with whatever filling you favor—steak and cheese, or a stew of pork and nopales specific to Chairez’s home village, Valparaíso. The gorditas themselves are all fluffy lightness and toasty corn fragrance, like the airiest arepa you’ve ever had. For the perfect bite, add a squirt or two of what looks like bright-green salsa and turns out to be not a salsa at all but a zippy, smooth guacamole.

On weekends, Chairez makes what is probably the tastiest barbacoa ($12/$15) in town—tender chuck roast served in a deeply flavorful consommé made with tomatoes, chilies, and a shot of the meat juices. The best part is the accompanying handmade corn tortillas—perhaps the largest you’ll ever see (each the size of a dinner plate). These, Chairez explains, are less a Zacatecas thing and more the product of growing up in a family of nine. You’ll wind up having leftovers, but that’s more than OK: These blistered beauties taste nearly as good when you heat them up the next day. —L.T.
9896 MacArthur Blvd. (near 99th Ave.), Oakland, 510-491-3133


Che Fico

In a notoriously brutal business, chef David Nayfeld is making restaurateuring look easy. Since opening night this past spring, his menu at farmhouse-chic Che Fico, in the Divisadero corridor, has unfailingly drawn the kind of multi-hour waits that locals tend to suffer only for iPhones and ramen. That they’re enduring this for something as familiar as rustic Cal-Italian cuisine makes Nayfeld’s achievement all the more impressive.

A veteran of highfalutin Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan, Nayfeld has here turned his focus to pastas, pizzas, roasts, and antipasti. You could call the cooking simple, but that would be giving it short shrift. Think of it as food that defies nitpicking: At once earthy and artful, it thwarts your most finicky search for flaws. Take those pastas, some dried, some hand-rolled, all verging on perfection. They include triangoli ($23), tricornered pouches plumped with sheep’s-milk ricotta and topped with walnuts, mint, and honey; and spaghetti nero ($24), squid-ink stained and tossed with octopus sugo—a moody composition that’s brightened by lemon and garlic sofrito. Breadcrumbs bring just the right crunch. Equally impeccable are the pizzas, blistered in a wood-fired oven like so many in the city, but set apart by a shower of shaved parmesan around their edges. Entrées, meant for sharing, are elegantly done but inspire an uncouth form of elbows-on-the-table eating: a roasted lamb loin ($45/$85), drizzled irresistibly with its own drippings, and a roast chicken ($29/$51), basted in a sweet-and-spicy agrodolce jus, that leaves the best of friends fighting over the bones.

Fico is Italian for “fig,” while che fico is an expression that means “how cool!” And the atmosphere complies, in a second-floor space with exposed beams, pendant lights, and wallpaper patterned with the restaurant’s namesake fruit. It’s a spiffy setting for a chef whose leanings tilt toward peasant cooking. A small section of the menu is given over to the “cucina Ebraica” of Rome’s Jewish ghetto, which Nayfeld captures in such items as tender corned beef tongue ($14) licked by pickled mustard seeds and salsa verde, and arancini-like suppli, fried orbs of rice plunked in tomato sauce, molten provolone oozing from their cores. Prepared with pizzazz but without pretension, these are fine-tuned upgrades of humble dishes, and for all the social-media readiness of their presentations, they still come off as throwbacks, comforting, familiar. That’s something to keep in mind about Che Fico: Nayfeld isn’t really doing anything so different; he’s just doing it better than anyone else. —J.S.
838 Divisadero St. (at McAllister St.), 415-416-6959


Robin

Rigidly defined, sushi is raw fish, egg, or vegetables on rice. But let’s allow for wiggle room within those strictures. Let’s accept as sushi a marbled slab of tuna belly brushed with emulsified wagyu beef fat, as well as a wispy crisp of fingerling potato dotted with grilled-ramp aioli and a pyramid of smoked sturgeon caviar. Both bite-size beauties—think emperor’s party snacks—appear on the omakase-only menu at Robin, in Hayes Valley, where a not-the-same-old-sushi repast fetches $79 to $179 per person and features a minimum of 15 pieces, delivered in a royal procession.

Orchestrating this feast is Adam Tortosa, a scruffy white dude, who acts as grand marshal of the restaurant’s East-meets-West parade. Tortosa has been marching in this manner for some time, having trained in L.A. under the genre-shirking sushi master Katsuya Uechi. “When you think you know it all, that’s when you really start to learn,” reads a framed note to Tortosa from his mentor that sits on display in Robin’s restroom (an odd place for such messaging, but never mind). Tortosa, it seems, has studied up. One thing he’s learned is that fresh stone fruit pairs well with pristine fish. He passes on that lesson through an unlikely marriage of Mount Lassen trout and yellow peach. Consider its deliciousness a teachable moment. The same can be said of shimmering plum snapper, which is named for the fruit on which it’s farm raised and makes a stunning foil for the red miso–cured egg yolk that Tortosa shaves over it. On it goes like that: mild halibut on a brittle bed of nori, with solar flares of spicy yuzu gel; blowtorch-kissed black snapper blushing with green apples and ground wasabi.

All this plays out in a space that is neither party haunt for sake-bombing tech bros nor monastic temple of unsmiling sushi snobs. There is table seating, but the better place to perch is at the J-shaped bar, where Tortosa and his crew work to a hip-hop soundtrack. By any definition, it’s an expensive evening. By nearly every measure, it’s worth the price. —J.S.
620 Gough St. (near Fulton St.), 415-548-2429


Dyafa

When you name your restaurant after the Arabic word for hospitality, you set a high bar. But walk into Dyafa on a night when the place is especially hopping—say, late on a Tuesday when every seat in the house is filled, and cheerful Palestinian pop music blares from the speakers, and the air is heavy with conviviality and the smell of sumac—and it’s easy to believe in chef Reem Assil’s vision of welcome. If Reem’s California, the chef’s flagship bakery-restaurant in Fruitvale, is the heart of her mission to bring Arab cuisine and hospitality to the Bay Area, Assil says that Dyafa, her collaboration with restaurateur Daniel Patterson on the Oakland waterfront, is more like an artery. Larger and more upscale, the new restaurant has brought her food and her message to a wider audience while staying wedded to the qualities she associates with Oakland: low-key, accessible, communal in spirit.

Moving beyond the man’oushe flatbreads and other baked goods at Reem’s, Dyafa shows a much fuller range of the cooking that you would find in the Levantine region. Still, you’ll be a rare customer if you can resist ordering a second round of Dyafa’s pita, which comes out pillowy, well blistered, and warm from the hearth. It’s delicious when used to scoop up practically anything on the menu: the velvety charred-eggplant dip known as mutabbal ($11); the thick, tangy labneh ($9), which comes drizzled with olive oil; or the kibbeh nayeh ($16), a dense Lebanese lamb tartare that’s thickened with bulgur and brightened with lemon zest. There are larger-format and more obviously showstopping dishes, too, including the crisp-skinned whole roasted fish and the maklouba ($26), a gorgeously layered Palestinian upside-down rice dish.

This is food, Assil says, that’s meant to encourage people to build connections, by reaching across the table to dip their bread into the same shared bowl. It’s the food of feast days and family celebrations. The goal, she likes to say, is “sweet torture”—the feeling of being pleasantly stuffed yet unable to resist taking one more bite. And then another. Perhaps the only regret you’ll have is that you didn’t bring more friends to share in the abundance. —L.T.
44 Webster St. (near Embarcadero W.), Oakland, 510-250-9491


Avery

You should never judge a book by its cover, but you can judge a tasting menu by its first course. At sleek Fillmore newcomer Avery, the $89-per-person prix fixe starts with a clear broth infused with the flavors of seaweed and toasted grains, finished with a spoonful of sweet and nutty clarified burnt-onion butter for good measure. No utensils are provided, so you hold the ceramic bowl in your hands and drink deeply, Thoreau-like—the culinary equivalent of a warm embrace.

This, it turns out, is chef Rodney Wages’s cooking in its essence: conceived with flavors and techniques that lean heavily toward East Asia, displayed with elegant simplicity, and delivered with the conviction that a strong broth game is a better way to convey richness than a procession of heavy butter sauces.

Stark in its dark-wood minimalism, Avery’s dining room doesn’t necessarily exude warmth. But the food has a tendency to stop all conversation and make everything else fade away. One showstopper of a dish is Wages’s take on the Danish doughnut known as the aebleskiver: a savory version topped with roasted-garlic aioli and crispy little bits of fried seaweed and baby shrimp, like Japanese takoyaki spending a semester abroad in Scandinavia. Another is the tortellini en brodo: Each piece of the hat-shaped pasta gushes with a little pop of hot, salty butter and broth when you bite into it—the pleasures of a Chinese soup dumpling packed into a northern Italian vessel.

The restaurant is not without its extravagances—slices of jamón ibérico, osetra caviar dolloped onto and eaten off the back of your fist, and other add-ons that can easily bump a dinner for two well into $600 territory (at which point you might as well opt for the $189 extended tasting). But above all else, this is food that feels inviting and personal in a way that seems possible only at a restaurant in early ascendancy. Many of the Bay Area’s top fine-dining institutions started just this way: a young, hungry chef at the height of their creative powers working a bare-bones kitchen team. The Michelin stars have yet to be delivered; the prices have yet to receive their requisite bump. The chef still works the line every night and, as often as not, carts your food over to the table himself. Each dish feels like a statement of purpose. All of which is to say: The perfect time to go is now. —L.T.
1552 Fillmore St. (at Geary Blvd.), 415-817-1187


Sorrel

Early this spring, when Alex Hong moved his roving dinner party to a permanent location in Pacific Heights, loyal customers from his pop-up days came with him. So did his boundary-blurring, farm-to-table cooking, which he calls New American but others might refer to as Cal-Italian. Whatever the label, it’s food uniquely suited to its new home, an old-money swath of San Francisco where playfulness is fair game but excitement is best served without too much hipster edge.

Where Hong’s pop-up was prix fixe only, his brick-and-mortar restaurant, in the space that once housed Nico, lets you choose à la carte from a built-for-sharing menu that is organized into three untitled columns. It’s suggested that you order at least one dish from each. To smooth your way into the evening, Hong makes a granita of Sorrel’s namesake herb, drops a spoonful of the ice onto an oyster on the half shell, then overlays the combo with a slice of Asian pear. Slurping this is like plunging from a garden into the sea. Earthier options include green pea soup poured tableside over an outsize crouton and a white cloud of grana padano cream. There is also lamb tartare, the meat underpinned by anchovy mayo. You fork-mix it with a side of nuts and seeds and scoop it with a thin, seed-and-salt-dusted cracker that your server describes as an everything bagel and that very much looks and tastes the flattened part.

On the far right of the menu lie the heartiest dishes—the grilled wagyu beef with horseradish, beets, and tempura-battered maitake mushrooms is pretty much a must. But the middle of the list is the Goldilocks column. These are the pastas, and everything about them is just right. In his pre-pop-up career, Hong worked under Michael Tusk at Quince. And like his mentor, Hong rolls his dough in-house and does a range of delicious things to it. He folds it into bean pod–shaped scorza di fagioli, which he lacquers with nasturtium pesto. He thumb-presses it into orecchiette, which he tosses with rich pork sausage sugo and biting florets of broccoli di cicco. By the time you leave the restaurant, you might find yourself regretting that you didn’t order more from the center of the menu. You might also walk out wishing that you owned a place nearby—not only for the soaring real estate values, but also so you’d have a closer place to park. —J.S.
3228 Sacramento St. (near Lyon St.), 415-525-3765


Jiangnan Cuisine

There’s no sauce quite like a Wuxi sauce: glossy and pitch-black, balanced on a knife’s edge between sweet and too sweet. Still, it might have been easier for Wuxi natives Zhanyong Shao and Jean Hua to market their year-old restaurant, Jiangnan Cuisine, as a Shanghainese joint. But the couple were determined to shine a light on the food from their hometown (a two-hour drive from Shanghai) and the entire Jiangnan region. They helped open the now-shuttered Taste of Jiangnan on Clement Street and struck out on their own when they felt that the owner was watering down the menu with generic Cantonese fare.

Naturally, then, the food at their Outer Richmond spot is pure Wuxi. What that means, in part, is that Shao, the chef, is a wizard with soy sauce, rock sugar, and Shaoxing wine—the key ingredients in a traditional Chinese red braise, which Wuxi cooks have honed to special perfection. The Delicious Braised Pork ($13), for example, rewards not just with tender pork belly and creamy-yolked quail eggs, but also with one of the many dark, luxurious, umami-rich sauces that distinguish the cooking here. The Lion’s Head Meatball ($5)—a single, oversize, impossibly juicy orb of ground pork—comes in a thinner and more savory sauce. Spooned over white rice, it makes for a satisfying workday lunch all on its own. Like most everything on the menu, this is unfussy, home-style food whose deliciousness often exists in inverse proportion to its prettiness. And while Wuxi food is known for those sweet sauces, intrepid eaters will find a more nuanced cuisine here: oil-slicked vegetable rice studded with chopped bok choy and salted pork, and plump pork wontons, slippery and pink-centered, served in a briny seaweed-and-shiitake broth.

Still, plenty of customers take one look at the menu, assume that the restaurant is Shanghainese, and ask why they don’t serve xiao long bao. The irony, Hua says, is that the xiao long bao in Wuxi are even better than the ones in Shanghai. Someday they might just add them to the menu. —L.T.
3420 Balboa St. (near 35th Ave.), 415-702-9931

 

Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco

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