Another year, another 365 days of satisfying the appetite. Which eats do I still dream about? Which would I go back to just for another sublime taste?
These are my Top 10 dishes of the year (in no particular order). Here’s to 2019 — and more unforgettable meals to come!
1. Korean BBQ Beef Rib at Belcampo in Oakland’s Jack London Square. This Brontosaurus-size rib would be ample enough not only for Fred Flintstone, but Wilma, Barney and Betty, too. It’s an entire beef rib brought to the table — whole. It’s aged 28 days for deep flavor. It’s marinated in soy sauce and mirin. It’s slow braised until the sticky meat is so tender that you could eat it with a spoon. Then, it’s glazed with gochujang for a kick of fermented peppery flavor. Since Belcampo raises, slaughters and prepares all its own meats, you know the quality is impeccable, too.
2. Biscuits at JuneBaby in Seattle. There are many fine biscuits in this world. What this James Beard Award-winning “Best New Restaurant of 2018” does is show you biscuits in a way you never thought possible. Yes, they are oh-so buttery. Yes, they are flaky. But what you don’t expect is just how miraculously layered they are — almost like a croissant or fine laminated pastry with a crisp exterior that encompasses not just the top and bottom, but the sides of the biscuit all around. These are tall, almost regal in appearance. Spread on some pure can syrup for biscuit nirvana.
3. Triple Coconut Cream Pie at Dahlia Bakery, Dahlia Lounge and other Tom Douglas restaurants in Seattle. There are few desserts — or even dishes — that elicit a response like this. Start rhapsodizing about this iconic pie to anyone who’s ever had it, and their eyes will widen, their mouth will salivate, and their demeanor turn fairly breathless. This pie stops you in your tracks. It’s triple coconut, as in the crust, in the filling, and as a garnish with big shards all over the top. It’s a mountain of creaminess somehow supported by a super thin crust. It’s as rich as it sounds, but not cloying in the least. There’s a rich coconut flavor in every luscious bite. Even if you’re not that wild about coconut pie to begin with (me, included), this pie will turn you.
4. Chocolate Spread Bread at Manresa Bread in Campbell. Is this breakfast? Lunch? A snack? Whatever it is, it should not be missed. Sure, the French have been noshing on chocolate bar-topped baguettes for generations. This is not that. This is somehow more refined and fun at the same time. A thick slice of freshly-baked levain gets adorned with fanciful squiggles of a dark chocolate spread that’s a cross between ganache and pudding in consistency. The final flourish is a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt. It’s entirely vegan, too. You tell yourself you’re just going to take a bite, that you can’t possibly eat this entire decadent slice by yourself. Yet you will polish it off in no time flat and dream about the next you can enjoy it again.
5. The “Original King” at Ramen Nagi in downtown Palo Alto and Westfield Valley Fair mall in Santa Clara. I’ve had plenty of top-notch ramen, but never any in which the tonkotsu broth tasted like distilled and concentrated pork belly in liquid form. Think about that for a second. Not just a nicely flavored broth. But a broth that personifies the most succulent cut of the best pork in every slurp — without being too salty or too greasy. If that weren’t enough, the noodles, made fresh every day with egg powder to color them yellow, possess not only lovely chewiness and springiness, but honest to goodness flavor all on their own. This Tokyo noodle chain, finally staked a claim in the Peninsula and South Bay this year. It offers a lot of variety, including ramen broth made with squid ink, and with basil and parmesan, which I have tried. The tonkotsu remains my favorite. After all, perfection just can’t be beat.
6. Udon at Marugame Udon in San Francisco. I have a serious noodle habit. But hey, there could be worse vices. And how can one resist cooked-to-order, fettuccine-thick, chewy, udon noodles that you can enjoy hot or cold, and customized just how you like them? You pick up a tray and wind your way through the cafeteria-like line, ordering your noodle bowl, then grabbing whatever type of tempura or musubi that catches your eye along the way for an extra price. After paying, you lug your tray to the complimentary toppings bar to garnish your udon however you like. Any place that offers a mountain of freshly grated ginger to grab at will is my kind of place.
7. Bucatini with Bacon at Pasta Armellino in Saratoga. I will never pass up house-made pasta. But so often, when you throw bacon into the mix, it overwhelms. It gets too salty. It can be a grease bomb. Not so with this tangle of silky strands, tinged green from spinach. Somehow, this place gets the proportions right. The pasta picks up a wonderful smokiness from the bacon, sharpness from aged Gouda, and velvetiness from a cured egg yolk. Everything works in step. So much so that you can’t stop twirling another fork-full and another. But what do you expect when you have a Michelin-starred chef as the founder (Peter Armelino of Plumed Horse right across the street.)
8. Crepe Cake by Anton SV Patisserie. It’s not only breathtaking in looks, but at 20 layers high, it’s an engineering marvel to boot. Anthony Tam quit the tech industry more than two years ago to start making his exquisite crepe cakes out of a Milpitas commercial kitchen. He hasn’t looked back since. Perfectly level and boasting intense, unique flavors, these crepe cakes are nothing short of dazzling. Five flavors are offered. I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite. But I will say the black sesame, with its bodacious nuttiness, makes me swoon. If you can’t afford to order a whole cake ($88), try it by the slice at one of these cafes.
9. Qochon Vegan Noodle Soup at Qochon in Fremont. After so many porky noodle bowls this year, one of my most favorite soup noodle dishes just happens to be porcine-free. In fact, there’s no meat in it at all. It’s vegan. It’s also gluten-free because the noodles are made from rice flour. The broth is flat-out fabulous. It has deep resonance, thanks to 20 different kinds of vegetables, some of them simmered overnight to extract as much flavor as possible. There’s not only complexity, but a delightful purity to it. The restaurant is hidden away in an office park, so there’s not much foot traffic. It’s a place you have to seek out specifically. Do so, especially for this vegan pho, and you won’t regret it.
10. Suppli at Che Fico in San Francisco. There are so many things to like at what has become the hottest new restaurant in the city. Chief among them are these little bites served in paper cornets. Suppli are like elongated, quenelle-shaped arrancini. The bronzed, formidable crunchy exterior hides a creamy rice center oozing with fontina and sweet tomato sauce. It’s a little like pizza meets risotto. Or shades of a glamorous Hot Pocket. Or just the best snack ever.
More: My Top 10 Eats of 2017