My Top 10 Eats of 2019
So many places opened in 2019; and so many places closed. Be it astronomical housing costs to an extremely tight labor pool and the rising price of ingredients, the Bay Area remains a challenging landscape for restaurants.
Still, they somehow manage to put their best forward day in and day out. Here are my favorite eats of the year (in no particular order) — the ones I still dream about, and the ones I’d race back for in a heartbeat. Enjoy! And cheers to even more delicious morsels in 2020.
- Doughnuts at Verjus in San Francisco. From the creators of Quince and Cotogna in San Francisco comes this natty wine bar that you never want to leave. From its clever movie marquee menu board and burgundy ceiling so glossy you can see yourself in it to its impeccable bistro-style small plates and spotlight on natural wines, this place oozes cool. But it’s the doughnuts, served hot, that stole my heart completely. Dusted in cinnamon sugar, these cruellers are so ethereal that they are like biting into thin air. Served with bowls of dark chocolate and Meyer lemon curd, they are perfection. They may be breakfast food, but there’s no better way to end a San Francisco night.
2. Pizza at East End in Alameda. One of the pleasures of working on my newest cookbook, “East Bay Cooks: Signature Recipes from the Best Restaurants, Bars, and Bakeries” (Figure 1) was getting to know so many talented chefs and restaurateurs in the East Bay. East End is a true find, a neighborhood gem that everyone wishes was in their own actual neighborhood. They do everything with care, particularly the pizzas. Co-Owner and Co-Chef Paul Manousos is a singer and musician, but a bona fide pizza maestro, too. He and Co-Chef/Co-Owner Jacob Alioto turn out crusts that are thin yet sturdy, crisp and chewy, and boasting the tang of long fermentation. It’s the kind of pizza I could happily eat every week, especially if it comes topped with a copious amount of hen of the woods mushrooms.
3. Barbecued oysters at Tony’s Seafood in Marshall. Admittedly, I’m more of an oyster-on-the-half-shell kind of gal. But this venerable seafood shack has swayed me on the merits of barbecue-sauce dolloped ones cooked on the grill till bubbling. Founded in 1948 by a local fisherman, Tony’s Seafood was taken over by Hog Island Oyster Company, which undertook a massive renovation on the building that sits on pilings anchored into the bedrock of Tomales Bay. Barbecued oysters have long been a signature at the restaurant, and Hog Island had supplied them for years. Its version of the barbecued oysters is less tomato-dominated than before, but with a big wallop of smokiness, and generous amounts of garlic and butter. Kick back with a platter — or two — as you lose yourself in the tranquil vista of the deep blue waters.
4. Roti at Nari in San Francisco. There are so many things to gush over at Pim Techamuanvivit’s newest Thai restaurant — from the creative cocktails all named for prominent females in Thai literature to the multi-faceted dishes with pull-no-punches flavors that make you feel as if you’ve never truly tasted Thai food until now. So I feel a little sheepish for singling out, of all things, the flatbread. But the roti made here is a marvel. It’s so flaky, so buttery, and so layered that it mimics French viennoiserie. If I could order a dozen in a pink box to take home, too, I most certainly would.
5. Turmeric fried catfish at Tay Ho Oakland. I’ve eaten at this Vietnamese restaurant twice — and each time I’ve had this incredible “La-Vong”-style fish dish. When I go back a third time, I have no doubt that I’ll order it again, too. It’s just that good. It’s like fish ‘n’ chips — Viet-style. Picture moist catfish fillets cooked to a deep golden with a serious crunch, flavored with turmeric, then given even more oomph with a hail of fried shallots, roasted peanuts and fresh dill fronds. You don’t get fries with it, but a mound of rice vermicelli, lettuce leaves, fresh mint, and a lively pineapple-anchovy sauce to tie it all together with a hit of tangy fruitiness and salty umami. Whether you assemble everything in a lettuce wrap or make a noodle bowl out of it all, you just can’t go wrong.
6. House Szechuan dry fried chicken wings at Square Pie Guys in San Francisco. The square (OK, actually rectangular) Detroit-style pizzas get all the buzz here. And rightly so, because they are a cheesy wonder created with delightful crisp edges and a thick yet airy focaccia-like foundation. Fried chicken wings — done Szechuan-style, no less — may have no legitimate right to be on a Midwest-influenced pizza menu. But count your lucky stars that they are here. Chef Danny Stoller was inspired by the wings at his favorite El Cerrito Chinese restaurant. His version is indeed crisp as can be and yet not greasy at all. Japanese togarashi adds a noticeable palate-tingling prickle of heat. They may be a smidge salty, but in just the right way, making you lust for yet another bite even while you’re still chewing the first.
7. Crispy porca at Teleferic Barcelona in Palo Alto. With flaming cocktails, pulsating music, and chants of “Hola!,” this place is a party any night of the week. Take your pick of skewered tapas carried temptingly to tables by servers. Indulge in a cooked-to-order paella made with the coveted socarrat or caramelized rice layer at the bottom. But don’t skip out on these fleshy, juicy pork belly chunks that are roasted in the oven for hours until tender, then finished on the grill to give their fat cap a sublime crunch. It’s what bacon dreams of being.
8. “Today’s Soup” at Dad’s Luncheonette in Half Moon Bay. To be honest, my husband and I did the long drive here especially for the raved-about hamburger sandwich and mushroom sandwich. They did not disappoint one iota. What we didn’t expect, though, was to be so thoroughly entranced by the soup, of all things. We almost didn’t order it. I mean, “Smoked Mushroom & Pea” didn’t necessarily scream out at me like, say, a kouign-amann would. But it being one of those misty, cool coastal mid-mornings, we decided to warm up with a cup. We should have known better. We should have known that Chef-Owner Scott Clark, who hails from Michelin three-starred Saison in San Francisco, wouldn’t make humdrum soup. No, this was chock-full of big pieces of maitake mushrooms, charred snap peas, and carrots, with leaves of fresh spinach laid over the top when ordered so they retained their vibrancy. All of this was afloat in an intensely flavorful broth fortified by the smokiness of the smoked mushrooms. I’d make the drive to Half Moon Bay again just for more of this or any other soup he made.
9. Memoni chicken samosas at Zareen’s in Palo Alto (or Mountain View). Though I’ve mindlessly eaten my share of samosas over the years, none have excited my taste buds like the ones here. These make you sit up and take notice. Pakistani-born Zareen Khan based them on her mother’s recipe. They are fried to order, arrive almost too hot to pick up, and ever so flaky and crisp. What’s more, they fill you with warmth from their sweet, earthy, and heavenly fragrant spices. As does this fast-casual restaurant run by a woman who not only bought a home on the Peninsula just to rent out rooms to her employees for modest amounts so they didn’t have to endure unbearably long commutes, but who has become an outspoken champion on the rights of women and immigrants.
10. Pastel de nata at Pastelaria Adega in San Jose. When a bakery gets its start all because of one baked good, that specialized treat better be all that — and more. At the new bakery by renowned Portuguese restaurant Adega in San Jose, the pastel de nata or Portuguese custard tarts definitely deliver on their promise. Pastry Chef-Owner Jessica Carreira, who spent many years working in Portugal, went through much trial and error before landing on just the right formula and technique for her tarts. The eggy, supremely creamy custard with burnished top that sits in a flaky, crackling crisp crust bakes up in a special Portuguese oven. Carrerira said she’s always wanted to have her own bakery. Sweet tooths like myself are rejoicing that thankfully such dreams do come true.
More: My Top 10 Eats of 2018