My Top 10 Eats of 2020
As someone who rarely used to order takeout, I never thought I’d be turning my annual Top 10 list of the year’s best dishes into one centered solely on food picked up at restaurants to enjoy in my own home.
But 2020 has been like no year we’ve ever experienced.
It was more difficult than usual to cull my favorite eats down to only 10 mentions, because every restaurant or bakery that I visited has something wonderful to offer in these most challenging time. What’s more, each place I visited this year deserves an enormous thanks and pat on the back for persevering in this extremely difficult situation.
With 2021 around the corner, and the beginnings of a very slow return to normalcy just inching forward, I hope you’ll join me in continuing to support your local restaurants by getting takeout. Do pick up the food yourself if you can, rather than relying on delivery apps that eat into the already slim margins that restaurants reap from your order.
Without further ado, in no particular order, here are my Top 10 takeout picks of 2020.
- Fried chicken from Pizza Antica at San Jose’s Santana Row (also in Mill Valley and Lafayette). If getting takeout for the past nine months have taught us anything, it’s that fried foods typically don’t hold up well, especially if you live any distance away. One of the rare exceptions is the magnificent fried chicken made here. With a substantial crust that creates an audible crackling noise with every bite, it will hold up nicely even if you live 2 hours away — a miracle in and of itself. Dress it up with the accompanying sweet-spicy honey to gild the lily. Sauteed corn kernels come with, along with the most incredible potato puree that’s nearly as smooth and luxurious — though not quite as much of a butter bomb — as the famed version by Joel Robuchon.
2. Fried rice from Camper in Menlo Park. Who would have ever guessed that I’d find one of the finest versions of fried rice not at a Chinese restaurant, but a farm-to-fork New American suburban one — and that it would be vegan to boot. But Chef-Partner Greg Kuzia-Carmel of Camper hails from New York’s Per Se and San Francisco’s Cotogna, so he has the cooking chops to make just about anything special. This fried rice is wonderfully crisp in some parts, and chewy in others — the ideal mix of textures. What’s unexpected is the addition of tahini for nuttiness, red chili slices for heat, and almost raw sugar snap peas and corn kernels, as well as frilly sprouts all over the top. It all adds up to a homey dish with a surprising dose of exuberance.
3. Brisket from Horn Barbecue in Oakland. My husband’s nickname may be “Meat Boy.” But I am far from “Meat Gal.” So I never thought I’d be swooning over a hunk of red meat. But the brisket at Horn Barbecue — cooked low and slow for 16 hours — is the stuff of carnivore dreams. Juicy, supple, and nearly as soft and unctuous as custard, it is one of the wonders of the world. I’ve never had meat quite like this. It is worth making a special trip and getting in a long line for, which you’ll no doubt have to endure because this place and this brisket is just so in demand.
4. Banana Cream Tart from Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. Come for the levain bread, but don’t leave without the banana cream tart. It sits on one of the flakiest, crispiest crusts ever. It could be fine pastry in its own right. The crust is coated with a layer of dark chocolate to keep it from getting soggy, plus add even more deliciousness. Then, comes a layer of caramel sauce — just because. Next, the smooth pastry cream, and chunks of fresh banana. It’s all covered in a big cloud of whipped cream and a shower of chocolate curls. The chocolate and caramel elevate this beyond the typical banana cream pie. Every bite is dreamy-creamy. The tart comes in a convenient 4-inch size. But after one taste, you might just want to go all in on the 9-inch one next time.
5. Bagels from Saul’s Restaurant & Delicatessen in Berkeley. I don’t know the last time I’ve had bagels this spectacular. Chef Josiah Slone once lamented to me that too many Bay Area bagel shops don’t bake their bagels long enough. I didn’t realize how crucial that was until I tasted the bagels from Saul’s. Right from the get-go, you notice just how deeply mahogany these are on the outside, far browner than most any other bagels you’ve ever had. That translates into a wonderful toasty flavor, along with an incredibly crackling, snappy exterior that gives way to a very chewy interior. These bagels are such perfection that you could easily enjoy them just out of hand and be astonishingly satisfied. But the traditional lox and cream cheese goes very nicely, too. If there can be any benefit to this pandemic, it’s the fact that Saul’s was prompted to take its bagel game to the next level by boiling and baking them on site, rather than buying pre-baked ones.
6. Fukuoka Hand Roll Kit from Ozumo at San Jose’s Santana Row (and also in San Francisco). If you ask most folks, one of the foods they miss most from restaurants is sushi. It’s no wonder since few of us take the effort to make it at home. But Ozumo makes that option not only appealing but affordable. Its standard hand roll kit does all the prep work for you. It comes with already cooked and vinegar-seasoned rice, sliced avocado and cucumber, daikon sprouts, perfectly cut pieces of salmon and toro, fluffy egg omelet, wasabi, pickled ginger, and everything else you need to make your own rolls at home in just seconds. It’s as fresh as it gets, especially since the nori wrapper is still crisp when you eat it. The sushi kit makes for a fun diversion that’s also pretty economical, since for $49, you get enough ingredients to make a dozen hand rolls.
7. Pho Ga from Lily in San Francisco. Chicken pho is not always easy to find on a menu. The few times I’ve had it, the dish has always satisfied. But none more than the one I discovered this year at the new Lily on Clement in San Francisco’s Richmond District. Not only is the broth simmered for 12 hours, extracting potent flavor and gelatin from chicken bones, but the tangle of wide rice noodles hides a load — and I mean load — of chicken. It’s far more than I’ve ever seen in a bowl of pho ga. It brims with slices of moist chicken breast fanned across the top, as well as part of a thigh and a whole chicken drumstick bobbing underneath. The piece de resistance is the garnish. Sure, there’s cilantro, pickled carrots slivers, and other herbs, but more importantly, there are pieces of crispy chicken skin that are almost like croutons. It elevates this bowl of pho to the realm of unforgettable.
8. Khachapuri Adjaruli from Bevri in Palo Alto. Bread and cheese make magic together in many forms across many cultures. But one of the most soulful and satisfying versions is the khachupuri adjaruli at one of the first Georgian restaurants in the Bay Area. This signature puffy, canoe-shaped bread with a cheesy center actually holds up well for takeout, too, packed in a pizza box so it doesn’t get crushed. A separate container of butter and another of a raw egg yolk come with. When you get it home, heat the bread back up in a toaster oven, then plop the butter and yolk in the center. The residual heat from the bread will melt the butter and gently cook the yolk just so. Mix it all together in the cheese, then tear off hunks of the bread to dip into it, kind of like a self-contained fondue. Then, don’t be surprised if you plot a return to Bevri to pick up another in the days to come.
9. Jumbo Prawns “Chili Crab-Style” from Bird Dog in Palo Alto. Since the pandemic hit, this downtown Palo Alto restaurant has taken to offering family-style bundles that serve 2. The inspired themes change every week, and you never know if a particular dish you loved the first time around will make a return visit anytime soon. So, best to snag it when you see it. One that I much enjoyed was “Bird Dog Road Trip to Singapore.” It included the restaurant’s wonderful take on Hainan chicken, along with other complementary dishes, including giant, shell-on prawns of impeccable quality. They were grilled and glazed with a sweet-spicy sauce of tomato, ginger, garlic and Fresno chilies. To get such huge top-notch prawns for take-out was a treat, but even more so because they were covered in a potent, irresistible sauce that sent me on a journey during shelter-in-place, which was no easy feat.
10. Biscuits, Etc. from Flea Street Cafe in Menlo Park. It’s a given that anything you order from this iconic restaurant will be stellar, given chef-owner Jesse Cool’s predilection for fresh, seasonal, sustainable and organic ingredients. But it’s everything else that comes with the meal that truly makes this takeout feel far more special than seemingly possible. There’s the warm note from Cool and her staff tucked inside; a simple, peak-season crudite amuse bouche from the restaurant’s garden; the signature sesame-flecked, buttery biscuits made from her dad’s recipe; the pate de fruits mignardises; and even a mini bottle of hand sanitizer made by Cool with 75 percent alcohol scented with wild flowers and herbs. It’s takeout wrapped up in a big hug.
P.S. One update: In the past few weeks, instead of the mini bottles of hand sanitizer, Flea Street has been including fortune cookies with sweet wishes for the new year — sentiments we all sure could use right about now.