Chili House, San Francisco
Some like it hot. And if they do, they head to Chili House in San Francisco’s Richmond District for Sichuan and Beijing specialties, most of which will make you feel the burn — in an albeit delectable way.
You know what you’re in for when you see menu items such as “Pork Chop with Explosive Chili Pepper.” Even so, when I was invited by the restaurant to try some of its dishes for takeout, I was game — and at the ready with a yogurt drink to douse the flames, just in case.
Chef-Owner Li Jun Han cooked for two Chinese presidents before immigrating to the Bay Area to open Chili House, as well as Z&Y Restaurant in Chinatown.
The Beijing pot stickers (4 for $7.95) are not the usual half-moon shaped ones you’re familiar with. Instead, these are long and slender wrappers rolled around a pork filling. You could even pick them up with your fingers to dunk into the accompanying black vinegar-soy sauce.
Tan Tan Noodles ($10.95) look innocent enough with a heap of tender wheat noodles crowned with minced pork. But what lies beneath? Why, a pool of red chili oil. Mix it all up well for a devilishly good tangle of spicy, porky goodness in every bite.
Szechuan Chili Lamb ($18.95) will turn the heat up, too, with tender slivers of lamb, thin slices of onions, and cilantro — all tinged red from house-made chili oil and redolent of cumin.
Northern Sichuan bean jelly is like a spicy version of finger jello — firm, cold squares enveloped in spicy chili oil with boiled peanuts and diced cucumber. I know that sounds odd, and to be honest, it might not be to everyone’s palate. You most likely will be perplexed upon the first bite, but you will find the dish thoroughly intriguing in the way that it both heats up your mouth, but then cools it off.
The sliced pork belly in garlic sauce ($9.95) was novel to me in its presentation. The pork belly was very thinly sliced, then rolled up with equally thin cucumber slices. It’s almost like a cigarette cookie cut into shorter pieces, then smothered in a garlicky, spicy sauce.
Tender Fresh Fish Filet Boiled in Szechuan Pickled Mustard Broth with Tofu ($24.95) is practically a meal in and of itself. It’s a load of tender fish slices with tofu chunks, pickled mustard greens, two types of mushrooms, and cellophane noodles, all in a mildly spicy, slightly tangy broth. It’s delicious, and really hits the spot in winter.
The only non-spicy dish we tried was the tea-smoked duck ($21.95), which was indeed smoky, succulent, and licked with the tannic taste of black tea.
Pro Tip: Chinese food keeps well for leftovers the next day, so do order extra. Just be warned, though, that chili oil-laced dishes tend to get hotter the longer they sit. So tomorrow’s leftovers will likely be more incendiary.
Chili House is also known for its Peking duck ($48.95), served with hoisin sauce, green onions, and pancakes. And you can order it to-go. Just give the restaurant at least one hour’s notice in order to prepare it.
The Tamale Factory, San Jose
If it’s the holidays, then you know it’s tamale time. And in San Jose, that means a trip to The Tamale Factory.
Owner Claudia Lopez was only 19 when she took over this beloved hole-in-the-wall after graduating from San Jose High School in 1995. It’s now an institution, specializing in tamales, and little else beyond salsas and atole, a corn-and-masa hot beverage.
If you go at this time of year, do expect a line out the door, but it’s orderly and moves fairly quickly.
You can also pre-order online: a half dozen tamales is $18; a dozen is $33. Choose from: chicken, pork, jalapeno and cheese, sweet, and corn — all hand-made with fresh masa.
The chicken one is especially wonderful, with tender shredded meat enlivened with a spicy red sauce, surrounded by a fluffy dough that tastes of sweet heavenly corn. The pork one is a slightly less spicy, and richer tasting.
Pro Tip: Tamales freeze well, so if you’re making a trip there, it pays to buy extra to stash in the freezer to enjoy for weeks to come. Yes, you can microwave them to eat, but do yourself a favor and take the little extra time to steam them. It leaves the tamales moister, the way they should be enjoyed.
Maison Alyzee, Mountain View
We might not be able to travel right now, but we can still indulge our sweet tooth with a taste of Paris.
Laurent Pellet, a former Sony CFO, opened Maison Alyzee in downtown Mountain View in 2018, because he missed the patisseries he grew up with in France.
The blackberry nest ($5.50) is especially memorable. It’s a danish made with crisp, buttery croissant dough. At its center is a layer of almond paste topped with whole fresh blackberries.
The bi-color gianduja-chocolate croissant ($5.35) is a looker with delicate thin piped stripes all over the top. It’s filled with delicious house-made Nutella made with Valrhona chocolate and hazelnuts.
The canneles ($3.50) have an almost honey-like flavor to them. They’re not as burnished as others, so if you love that caramel taste bordering on burnt, it’s not quite evident here. The texture is wonderfully chewy inside.
For a chocolate lover’s treat, don’t miss the Harmony ($10), a gorgeous individual dessert consisting of a crunchy praline disk on the bottom, topped with a dark chocolate brownie layer, then milk chocolate mousse, and finally dark chocolate ganache. A molded spiral of chocolate decorates the top, along with a tiny bit of silver leaf for extra bling.
Pro Tip: The patisserie’s fine baguettes are available daily, but its whole wheat boules, made with organic rye and whole wheat flours, and decorated with a signature “M” baked into the top, are only sold on Saturdays and Sundays. So, plan accordingly.