In 2005, I began writing an occasional column called “Not to Miss Dish,” which featured a standout dish I had eaten that month. Every January, food writers whip out their lists of best new restaurants to put the cherry on top of the previous year. When I started writing “The Hungry Palate” I considered doing the same, but then I realized there were a lot of individual dishes that I loved at a lot of different restaurants, some new and some not so new. I guess I was ahead of my time – in 2009, other restaurant critics compiled lists of their favorite dishes, and even the Food Network started a series called The Best Thing I Ever Ate
Most critics offer their lists in January, but I decided to do mine in February because, like many people, my palate is asleep from all that holiday turkey tryptophan from November through the New Year. With the economy still hiccupping, I decided to base this year’s list on dishes under $15. In fact, some of my picks are under $10, and even at that recession-busting price, some are more than a dish – they’re a meal.
Here, in no particular order, are the best 15 things under $15 I ate in 2010 – 10 in the Northside, and 5 that make me want to get outta town.
In the Northside:
Benita’s Baccala: Gigi’s Sotto Mare Oysteria and Seafood Restaurant
552 Green Street (near Columbus), 415-398-3181, www.sottomaresf.com
While Gigi Fiorucci is best known for his fresh-from-the-sea sand dabs and signature cioppino, I often crave Benita’s Baccala (Benita was Gigi’s mother) – robust, reconstituted dried salt cod cooked in olive oil, tomatoes, garlic, black olives, and capers and perfect for smearing on sourdough bread ($8). It’s even better than my Sicilian grandfather’s version, and that’s a big compliment because Grandpa Lorenzo made a mean baccala!
Wayfare Tavern's puréed potatoes
Puréed potatoes with shaved truffles: Wayfare Tavern
558 Sacramento Street (between Montgomery & Sansome), 415-772-9060, www.wayfaretavern.com
There’s a lot to like about Tyler Florence’s first foray into restaurant ownership, including a heaping platter of herb-flecked fried chicken that would be on this list if it weren’t $22. But I would go back just for the heavenly puréed potatoes, piped into elegant swirls and topped with a generous amount of shaved black truffles. It’s decadent, and at $8, a deal considering truffles sell for as much as $130 a pound, but also comforting – my kind of dish.
Chile relleno burrito: La Canasta
3006 Buchanan Street (near Union), 415-921-3003, www.lacanastasf.com
The chile relleno burrito, while it may be built using Alberto’s famous “smashed beans” (they taste refried, but they’re simply cooked in water low and slow), is probably one of the least healthy things on the menu at La Canasta, but it’s worth every gluttonous bite. Alberto uses his family’s recipe for a traditional chile relleno – a tender poblano pepper stuffed with jack cheese, dipped in egg batter, fried, and covered with a mild sauce. But then he takes that traditional chile relleno and wraps it in a tortilla full of beans, rice and salsa (regular/$7.50) or, if you’re really hungry, beans, rice, salsa, guacamole, cheese, and sour cream (grande/$8.85) – it’s basically a vegetarian Mexican version of a turducken. While a few other taquerias make chile relleno burritos, none use the high quality ingredients that La Canasta does, and none come close in flavor.
Artisan foie gras torchon and duck prosciutto
sandwich from Naked Lunch
Artisan foie gras torchon and duck prosciutto sandwich: Naked Lunch
504 Broadway Street (at Kearney), 415-577-4951,http://www.nakedlunchsf.com
OK, at $16 it’s a buck over the limit, but it was $15 when I had it earlier last year, and it’s big and rich enough to feed two people – creamy, sweet liver torchon perfectly complements salty duck prosciutto served on an Acme baguette with butter lettuce, tomato, and a restrained sprinkle of black truffle salt. I’ve split it three or four times with dining companions while also sharing chef Ian Begg’s terrific warm escarole salad with poached egg, bacon vinaigrette and chives (also big enough to share at just $7) and the gourmet chicharrones (that’s right, I said gourmet chicharrones) from 4505 Meats for $3 a bag.
California temaki at Takara
California temaki: Takara Japanese Restaurant
22 Peace Plaza Suite 202 (near Laguna), 415-921-2000 (no website)
Takara is a popular destination for its reasonably priced dinner boxes, which include a comforting cup of chawanmushi (Japanese custard), but it’s also one of the Bay Area’s best-kept secrets for super fresh, beautifully executed sushi and sashimi. The chefs behind the bar, including the owner, work with a traditional Japanese flair that is sadly becoming less common in these days of cookie-cutter sushi spots. I always start my visit with their California temaki ($6.25): not-too-chilled snow crab salad, crunchy cucumber and just-ripe avocado wrapped in the highest grade of temaki nori, which has a glasslike crispness that keeps the seaweed from turning soggy and chewy as lower grades do. I never thought I would find a California hand roll that could top Sushi Sam’s, but it’s right here in the Northside at Japantown’s Takara.
Dolsit bibimbap from Arang
Dolsit Bibimbap: Arang Korean Cuisine
1506 Fillmore Street (at O’Farrell), 415-775-9095
When I go to Arang, tucked away in the Webster Street shopping center near Safeway, I am usually the only non-Korean in the place, including the servers and cooks – a very good sign when it comes to ethnic cuisine. I’ve eaten a lot of dolsot bibimbap, and none compares to Arang’s version. It comes with traditional BBQ beef (they will happily substitute tofu or BBQ chicken), a selection of vegetables (mushrooms, spinach, carrots, bean sprouts), and a sunny-sunny-side-up egg with the white barely set, served piping hot in a stone bowl (dolsot means “stone pot”) with a squeeze bottle of gochujang (chili pepper paste). The hot bowl cooks the egg yolk and the rice continues to cook at the bottom, which is seasoned with a bit of sesame oil to prevent sticking and renders it golden brown with a nutty taste and crunchy chew. The bibimbap is served with miso soup and traditional banchan (side dishes) including baechu kim chi, pickled radish, egg omelet with green onion, and fish cake. You get all of this for $6.95 at lunch and $8.95 at dinner.
Crab fresh from the pots: Fishermen’s Grotto
2847 Taylor Street (at Fisherman’s Wharf), 415-673-7025, www.fishermensgrotto.com
As I always say, anyone who whines that the Wharf is for tourists isn’t from San Francisco because natives know that the place to get crab is fresh from the Wharf’s boiling pots. You’ll only pay a couple bucks more than at a grocery store where it’s often previously frozen, but once you taste the sweetness you’ll be hooked. At the Grotto’s pots, situated just outside their restaurant, for $15 you can get a huge, heavy crab (heavy means more body meat, which is the sweetest of all and far superior to claws and knuckles), and they’ll crack it and clean it, too. I prefer to crack and clean my own because I love the “butter” under the top shell – it’s like the foie gras of the crab. Owned for over 75 years by the Giraldi family, I practically grew up at the Grotto, and there’s plenty of dishes that would be on this list were it not for the $15 limit, including locally caught petrale amandine (pan fried and finished with almonds and meunière sauce); calamari steak doré (dipped in egg batter and sautéed with a light white wine, lemon butter sauce); and the best traditional crab Louie in the City.
Soup dumpling from Shanghai Dumpling King
Wonton soup: Dragon Well
2142 Chestnut Street ( near Steiner), 415-474-6888, www.dragonwell.com
I think Dragon Well makes the best wonton soup in town – plump, thin-skinned dumplings filled with pork, scallion and cabbage swimming in a light chicken broth and topped with fresh mushrooms, spinach and scallions. Unlike wonton soup at a lot of places, it’s not a bit greasy and it doesn’t weigh you down (the wontons are floaters, not sinkers). You can get a small bowl for $4, or for $10 you can get a giant bowl that adds prawns, white meat chicken, carrots, and noodles to the mix.
Sugar egg puffs: Shanghai Dumpling King
3319 Balboa Street (near 34th), 415-387-2088 (no website)
No matter how full I am, it is simply not an option to pass on the sugar egg puffs, (three for $2.95), which are essentially giant doughnut holes. Fresh from the fryer and buried under an avalanche of sugar, the addictive softball-sized wonders are airy and warm, with a moist, eggy center. Sugar egg puffs aren’t easy to find, but I’ve had them at a few other places, and the ones at Shanghai Dumpling King are the best. People do rave about the sugar egg puffs at Koi Palace in Daly City, so, in the interest of fairness, I checked them out. In my opinion, they don’t compare – not nearly as light and a lot greasier.
Xiao long bao: Shanghai Dumpling King
3319 Balboa Street (near 34th), 415-387-2088 (no website)
Shanghai Dumpling King is the only establishment to grab two spots on the list. While I’ve always considered Yank Sing to have the best xiao long bao (Shanghainese “soup dumplings”), after back-to-back visits to both restaurants, those at Shanghai Dumpling King came out slightly on top. Both had thin, nearly translucent skin just taut enough to pick one up with chopsticks and put it on your spoon without it bursting and spilling the liquid gold inside. But Yank Sing uses Kurobata pork, which is called Berkshire or black pig in the United States; it’s high quality and highly prized, but it’s also richer than other pork. Shanghai Dumpling King’s version is a bit lighter, and the price is lighter too – 10 soup dumplings are just $4.95. If you’ve ever wondered how they get the broth in the dumpling, it starts as a gelatin, usually made with agar-agar (a polysaccharide found in the cell walls of some red algae) cut into cubes that become liquid when the dumplings are steamed.
LIllie Mae's southern fried chicken
Southern fried chicken: Lillie Mae’s House of Soul Food
1290 Coleman Avenue (at Brokaw), Santa Clara, 408-227-7685, www.houseofsoulfood.net
Lillie Mae’s recently took over the old Coleman Still space near the San Jose airport, and a friend in the Silicon Valley who knows I am fried chicken obsessed tipped me off. Named for her grandmother, Lillie Mae Gaulden, chef Rhonda Manning had another soul food restaurant called Lillie Mae’s in Santa Clara that closed, leaving loyal fans in despair. Like all great southern cooks, she learned the recipes from her grandmother and her mother, paying careful attention at an early age to the ingredients, seasoning and technique. The folks at Zagat – the once-respected food guide that opened voting up to anyone with a computer, resulting in KFC being named “best fried chicken” – obviously haven’t been to Lillie Mae’s. I ate a lot of fried chicken working on my “Fried Chicken Frenzy” article several years ago, and I’ve also been eating a lot lately while researching “Fried Chicken Frenzy Redux” for a future issue. So trust me when I say that Lillie Mae’s has the best fried chicken in the Bay Area; it blows away renowned, higher-priced competitors like Wayfare Tavern and Casa Orinda. I watched chef Rhonda pan fry her chicken to a crisp golden brown, lovingly turning it to make sure each piece cooked evenly. The result is a thin-coat crust (my preference) lightly seasoned and just salty enough. When you take a bite, the skin offers a delicate crunch and the coating doesn’t come off in big pieces (the problem with thicker breading); inside, the meat is tender and drip-down-your-arm juicy. I’m a dark meat fan, but even the white meat at Lillie Mae’s is moist. For dinner, you get four generously sized pieces served with cornbread and a choice of two sides for $10.95 (at lunch, it comes with one side and white or wheat bread for $6.95) – and if you’re there on a weekend, be sure to try the fried chicken and waffles.
Cheeseburger: Five Guys Burgers & Fries
Multiple locations, www.fiveguys.com
I sang the praises of Five Guys cheeseburgers in January’s “Get Outta Town,” and I’m going to do it again on this list. Since then, I’ve tried several locations (the closest to San Francisco is 23 miles away in Pleasant Hill), and the quality has been consistent at every one. Like I said last month, what makes the Five Guys cheeseburger special is a just-right ratio of toppings (all are free and range from grilled onions and mushrooms to green peppers and barbecue sauce); a perfectly soft, squishy bun; and a patty as thick and juicy as you’ll find in gourmet shops where burgers cost twice as much. In fact, Five Guys has the best cheeseburger out there in the $5 price range, and it towers above, both literally and figuratively, In-N-Out’s cheeseburger with its suddenly scrawny patty. (Has anyone else noticed how thin In-N-Out’s patties are lately?)
Fish and chips from The Pelican Inn
Fish and chips: The Pelican Inn
10 Pacific Way (at Highway 1), Muir Beach, 415-383-6000, www.pelicaninn.com
My favorite spot in the Bay Area for fish and chips, London Bridge in Monterey, has sadly been sold, and the food has gone downhill. I love Piccadilly on Polk Street in the City for their quick and cheap version, but my new favorite destination for fish and chips is The Pelican Inn. Just 30 minutes of windy roads or so from the Golden Gate Bridge, the Pelican Inn nestles among the ocean, Muir Woods, and the great redwoods of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area. When you drive up the gravel path, you feel like you’re in another world – it’s hard to conceive that a bustling city is a short jaunt from this idyllic country setting reminiscent of England’s southwest coast. Set beneath a glass atrium covered in twinkling lights, big white paper lanterns, and fuchsia bougainvillea, the patio (warmed by heat lamps and a wood-burning fireplace on cold days) is the perfect place to relax with a bottle of amber-hued Morland “Hen’s Tooth” English Ale and two hearty pieces of fish. They use farm-raised cod, which unlike the traditional Atlantic cod, is sustainable. Dipped in house-made ale batter and fried to order, the steaming hot fish is firm but flaky and swathed in a puffy, crunchy crust. To my delight, the fish and chips are served on a pile of bright green English peas grown on a local farm, all for $15.
Sushi Sam's 'special unagi'
‘Special unagi’: Sushi Sam’s Edomata
218 East 3rd Avenue (between South B & South Ellsworth), San Mateo, 650-344-0888, www.sushisams.com
I’ve been going to see Sam for his sparkling selection of seasonal fish, including buttery toro, delicate baby hamachi, and arctic char simply dressed with house-made yuzu vinegar (“no soy sauce,” the staff insists) for nearly two decades. A favorite of star chefs like Thomas Keller, owner Sam Sugiyama always goes that extra step, such as flying in freshwater eel daily from a retired eel farmer in Japan. Listed on the menu board as “special unagi,” it’s grilled over coals and dashed with fine-ground pepper ($9) – don’t even ask for the ubiquitous barbecue sauce. Reminiscent of a firm, white fish, it tastes nothing like the unagi you get at other sushi bars, much of which is farmed in China and has an almost mushy texture. If you don’t request “special unagi,” you’ll get the usual unagi, dripping in barbecue sauce (even that’s better at Sam’s than at most sushi bars). Takara may have knocked Sam’s California hand roll off its throne, but his hard-to-find “special unagi” is the best you’ll find anywhere in the Bay Area (and probably in the entire United States).
Crispy ground beef taco: Sancho’s Taqueria
3205 Oak Knoll Drive (at Canyon), Redwood City, 650-364-8226; 491 Lytton Avenue (near Cowper), Palo Alto, 650-322-8226, www.sanchostaqueria.com
Driving through the Emerald Hills, a residential neighborhood in Redwood City, you will swear you are lost, but persevere – just past Canyon Road, pull into the little shopping center to find taco nirvana. Owner Adam Torres is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy and cooked at lauded restaurants Boulevard and The Village Pub before returning to his Mexican roots and launching Sancho’s. There are eight meat fillings, but vegetarians and pescatarians need not fret: you’ll also find grilled veggie, shrimp, and battered or grilled fish options. The crispy shell has an extra wide bottom – a smart tactic that keeps the generously stuffed tortilla from exploding. Torres uses sustainable meats and fish topped with your choice of beans, Monterey jack cheese, tomatoes, salsa, sour cream, and lettuce (you can also get your taco super-sized or even double-decker). The ground beef, simmered with bits of carrot, onion, celery, and garlic and seasoned with cumin, cayenne and oregano, is my favorite – crumbly but not dry, juicy but not greasy, and chockfull of flavor. Depending on the size, prices range from $2.95 to $3.95 per taco.