For a long time, I tried my hardest to avoid fried foods. It’s not that I don’t like fried foods. It’s just that fried foods have a way of sticking around.
On the hips. On the waist. On every inch of my body.
But then, I married Meat Boy. Yes, with a nickname like that, he made me realize just how many big hunks of meat are naturally accompanied by something crisp, golden, and irresistibly fried. And well, faced with that onslaught, you succumb. You can’t help it.
So I do indulge now and then. But I make sure it’s worth it. In no particular order, here’s my personal list of Top 10 fried foods worth every dang calorie. If there are any other fried temptresses out there that can’t be denied, do let me know.
1. Glazed donut at Stan’s Donut Shop in Santa Clara. The puffiest, yeastiest, most pillowy donuts ever. Even people who have sworn off donuts make an exception for a glazed one here. Because the shop sells so many of them that the supply constantly needs to be replenished, the donuts almost always can be snagged warm, just out of the fryer. These donuts have been an institution since the shop opened in 1959. Seventy cents will buy you one donut and a whole lotta happiness.
2. Calamari with romesco sauce ($11) at Bocadillos in San Francisco. There is fried calamari. And then there is fried calamari. It’s the latter you’ll find at this lively, small-plates, Basque restaurant by renowned Chef Gerald Hirigoyen. With the lightest, crispest coating imaginable, the bite-size tentacles and ring pieces arrive at the table at once tender, crunchy, and ethereal. It will spoil you for any other fried calamari ever again.
3. Sweet potato fries at Taylor’s Automatic Refresher in St. Helena, Napa, and San Francisco ($3.99). Thin and crispy, it’s everything you want in a fry, and then some. The dusting of chili powder adds a nice contrast to the subtle sweetness of the fries. I order these every time I go to Taylor’s. You can’t eat just one. And you simply can’t not order them.
4. Regular or “spicy sauce” fried chicken at 99 Chicken in Santa Clara. This is fried chicken, Korean-style, served in a barest of bare-bones establishments in a strip mall off bustling El Camino Real. It’s fried to order, and arrives almost too hot to handle, in a gossamer breading. Purists will go for the traditional, unadorned chicken. Those who like heat can opt for the spicy sauce version _ the same fried chicken, but coated with a neon-red spicy-sweet, sticky sauce that is unabashedly finger-licking-good. Waitresses provide you with pop-up sponges to clean your hands afterwards. Help yourself to all the pickled daikon, and iceberg-lettuce salad fixings you want. Five pieces of chicken are $6.99 for the regular; $7.99 for the spicy.
5. Fried chicken at Hard Knox Cafe, two locations in San Francisco. This is fried chicken, Southern-style by way of Vietnam. Say what? This charming, always-crowded cafe is all about Southern cooking, perfected by its Vietnamese-American owners. You get three big pieces of fried chicken for $10, with crackling skin, and flavorful flesh. Even the white meat is super moist. If that weren’t enough, you also get your choice of two sides, plus two warm and wonderful corn muffins. You are guaranteed not to leave hungry.
6. White truffle french fries at Alexander’s Steakhouse ($10) in Cupertino. The Giorgio Armani of fries. Stylishly arrayed in a cone, with a spritz of earthy, aromatic white truffle oil, these fries arrive piping hot and as sharp-edged as the Italian designer’s white dress shirts. You feel like you’re eating something very special here. And you are.
7. Tempura onion rings at O Izakaya in San Francisco ($8). Big, bodacious rings of onions stacked up like some culinary ring-toss game, with a feathery coat as crunchy as the best potato chip. Dip them in creamy, garlicky aioli with ponzu. Then, order a second round. You know you want to.
8. Fish and chips ($9) at Go Fish in St. Helena. This is a modern-take on tradition with fried fish (whole smelt, or pieces of sand dab or whatever is in season at the time) alongside matchstick (shoestring) potatoes. It brings out the kid in you, yet still satisfies even the most adult sophisticate. When Meat Boy ordered this at lunch, I couldn’t stop picking off his plate.
9. Shrimp cupcakes ($8.25) at Vung Tau in San Jose. This venerable Vietnamese restaurant made banh khot famous, and still makes the best version of them. These little cupcakes or nests made of rice flour dough are crisped in oil, and filled with shrimp and scallions. Drizzle on a little of the salty-citrusy nuoc cham staple dipping sauce, and it’s perfection.
10. “Dirty dozen” dessert at Presidio Social Club in San Francisco. This is a “secret menu” item, meaning it’s not listed on the regular, printed menu. It’s something you just have to know about in order to ask for it. And aren’t you glad I’m telling you about it? The “dirty dozen” is 12 brioche beignet donut-hole-like balls filled with gooey dark chocolate, with a pot of creme anglaise to dip them in. They are soft, warm, and utterly addicting. They’re not to be confused with the $7 brioche donuts on the regular dessert menu. Those are good, too, but they come unfilled. And you deserve to go for the Full Monty.