Where I’ve Been Getting Takeout of Late, Part 14
Lily, San Francisco
When chef-owner Rob Lam closed his Butterfly restaurant on the Embarcadero in 2017 after 15 years, he thought it marked the end of his era in San Francisco.
In fact, his Perle Wine Bar opened to acclaim soon after in Oakland’s Montclair neighborhood. But when family friends, sisters Lucy and Lily Lieu, asked him to take a look at a building they had just purchased on Clement Street in San Francisco, he fell hard for the first-floor restaurant space.
The result is Lily, which opened in October — yes, smack in the middle of the pandemic. It is the first restaurant for the two sisters, as well as Lam’s first one centered solely on Vietnamese cuisine rather than pan-Asian or French-influenced fare as he’s done in the past. Both he and the Lieu sisters, all of whom hail from Vietnam, want to present the true, bold flavors of their native cuisine without watering them down like they find so many other area restaurants are apt to do.
They invited me to come by recently to try some menu items gratis. While Lam has visions of offering both a la carte and a special family-style dinner once life gets back to normal, right now Lily offers only takeout at lunch and dinner.
The French Dip Pho Bo Banh Mi ($17) is a mash-up of a French Dip sandwich and deconstructed pho — and it is most excellent. A crunchy yet yielding roll is packed with thinly sliced, melt-in-your-mouth, five-spice-scented roast beef, house-made pate, a smear of hoisin for sweetness, pickled daikon and carrots for crunch, and shallot mayo for creaminess. A bowl of pho au jus dipping sauce is definitely made for more than just dunking the sandwich in. You’ll want to take a spoon to this to get every last drop of the broth that’s cooked with beef and chicken bones for 12 hours.
If rice porridge is your comfort like it is mine, the Forbidden Rice Chao ($17) is sure to be the most complex version you’ve ever had. Thick and creamy, and yes, darkly hued from the black rice, it gets a wallop of umami and fermented depth from XO and black bean sauces cooked into it. Rock shrimp, dried shrimp, and bay scallops add sweet brininess. And yes, you do get slices of golden Chinese doughnuts to garnish.
The pho ga or chicken pho ($15) is the most satisfying one I’ve had anywhere. It’s not a dish that’s found readily at most pho joints, given that pho is traditionally beef-based. This is the kind of homey, satisfying chicken soup you long for when winter is at its peak or you’re fighting a case of the sniffles. I had some leftover broth, and the next day it had congealed in the fridge, a sign of just how much collagen is in this broth made by cooking loads of chicken bones for hours.
The wide rice noodles hide not only moist chicken breast slices, but also a whole chicken drumstick, and another part of a thigh. The garnish deserves extra points because it’s not just cilantro and other herbs, but pieces of crispy chicken skin that act like croutons in the broth. How wonderful is that?
Pork lovers will rejoice over the Bun Cha Ha Noi BBQ Platter ($25). It’s Sakura Farms heritage pork done up in little meatballs and pork belly slices that kissed by the fire of the grill, before getting tossed in a savory sauce with garlic and fish sauce. A pile of lettuce leaves, rice noodles, pickled veggies, and fresh herbs accompany it. You wrap a little of everything in a lettuce leaf to enjoy. There’s no ubiquitous nuoc cham dipping sauce; instead, dunk the bundle into some of the pork sauce for far more deliciousness.
Oxtail Bo Kho ($28) is braised with lemongrass and chili until the meat is silky and fork-tender, and the sauce reduces almost to a gravy consistency. Soft cubes of tofu and sweet potato fortify this comforting stew. It’s served with rice. Not just any white rice, but one that’s got butter in it. Sure, it doesn’t need the butter. But it definitely tastes great that way.
Chef Lam, welcome back.
Pro Tip: Do order one of the creative non-alcoholic beverages, which Lily again goes the extra mile on. The vivid pink Strawberry Sinh To ($8) is made with house-made yogurt, winter strawberries from Lucero Organic Farms, Marin Roots Farm strawberry mint, and a “candy surprise.” (Hint: It pops.) Creamy like a smoothie, it tastes of a fresh, sweet strawberry patch.
The Lime Sinh To ($6) boasts more tang from yuzu and kumquats, as well as a hint of saltiness from salted plum, and more of that fresh house-made yogurt. It’s bracing and refreshing as it gets.
Arsicault Bakery, San Francisco
If you go to Lily, you can also trek to one of the best bakeries in the Bay Area — or country for that matter, as it was named “Bakery of the Year” by Bon Appetit magazine in 2016.
Of course, I’m talking about Arsicault Bakery, whose original location is a mere two blocks from Lily (there’s also now a Civic Center outpost). Yes, how dangerous is that? But really, at a time when we are limiting our outings due to the pandemic, why not be efficient and make it a two-fer, right?
It’s as popular as ever, and you should still get there early for the best selection, as it will often sell out of its classic plain, chocolate, and chocolate-almond croissants long before its 3 p.m. closing time.
Even so, you can’t go wrong here. The plain croissant ($3.75) presents the beauty of this pastry in its purity here with incredible butteriness along with just a hint of salt, which brings out its flavor even more. The ham and cheese croissant ($5.75) ups that saltiness a bit with sweet-salty ham plus cheese. The almond croissant ($5.25) has a big center of soft, intense almond paste. All of the croissants shatter upon the first bite, showering you in golden shards of evidence.
The kouign amann ($4.25) is flatter, made in the more traditional Brittany style. Its sugared, crackling crisp layers are a delight to eat. The sugar-dusted morning bun ($4.50) is full of deep cinnamon flavor. And the crisp-chewy chocolate chip cookies ($3.50) are made with dark Valrhona chocolate chunks.
Pro Tip: When you step up to the window to order, don’t neglect taking a peek at the bagged goodies next to the register. These aren’t listed on the written menu on the window, but they are highly worth your taste buds.
One new item is bags of caramelized puff pastry ($10). If you’re a fan of the bagged “(kouign amann) ends” at my other favorite bakery in San Francisco, B. Patisserie, these are right up your alley. Crisp, layered, caramelized and sweet, they are irresistible. Best yet, they stay fresh and crunchy for at least a week.
Also, if you’re the type that plans ahead, take note that you can place orders ahead of time — if you buy at least one dozen items or one entire quiche.
Johnny Doughnuts, San Francisco, Larkspur, and San Rafael
Founded by Craig Blum, a longtime food industry veteran, who originally envisioned it as a food truck (follow the roving Johnny Doughnuts truck via Twitter), it now has three brick-and-mortar sites that are definitely worth seeking out.
These are artisan doughnuts, but not the kind with overly chef-y, over-the-brink shapes or flavors. Instead, they are classics — done way better with artisan-milled flour from Petaluma’s Central Milling Flour, and dairy products and seasonal produce from local farms.
I had a chance to try three sample doughnuts recently. The Bismark is Johnny’s filled doughnut. These are puffy, yeasty doughnuts with impressive fillings in generous amounts. The Apple Pie has a center loaded with diced apples cooked down to a pie-like filling redolent of cinnamon. It’s like pie and doughnut all in one.
The Wild Berry Jam Bismark is astonishing. Forget the insipid runny jelly that fills most run-of-the-mill doughnuts. This is more of a thick puree of berries that tastes first and foremost of fresh berries, not sugar. This will truly spoil you for any other jelly-type doughnut.
Even the kid’s favorite sprinkle doughnut is no slouch. Sprinkly, as it’s named, is a classic raised doughnut made with potato in the dough to add extra tenderness. This is a lofty doughnut that’s two inches high, covered in dark chocolate and rainbow sprinkles.
Johnny’s also makes a huge apple fritter, cinnamon roll, a Crodough (croissant doughnut), and vegan and wheat-free doughnuts.
Pro Tip: You can order and pay ahead for pickup, choosing a four-pack ($20), six-pack ($30), 8-pack ($40) or a dozen ($60). There’s no guarantee what flavors will be in the assortment. But any are sure to deliver a big dose of bliss.