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.
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.
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.
Apologies to Chef Anthony Secviar for my plating skills — or lack thereof — on his sublime takeout food from his Protege restaurant in Palo Alto.
Because, yes, it’s possible to enjoy Michelin-starred food to-go in the comfort of your own home.
And getting takeout does offer an alluring plus: the chance to enjoy one of the restaurant’s “family meal of the week” options. I’ve had the pleasure of dining several times pre-pandemic in the lounge of the restaurant, where an a la carte menu is offered. But before, the only way to indulge in a multi-course progressive meal was to book a table in the intimate dining room for the tasting menu.
The “family meal of the week,” however, is a much less expensive variation with typically about four courses or dishes, including dessert. For instance, the one offered last week, which I got, was $75 per person.
It began with shaved Brussels sprouts salad, the crisp julienned leaves tossed with an almost equal amount of grated cheese, as well as pomegranate seeds, walnuts, and crunchy, salty, porky bits of pancetta for a dish that hit every taste bud.
With a 13-foot-long custom grill that dominates the kitchen, downtown Palo Alto’s Rooh serves up contemporary Indian cuisine licked by plenty of flames and smoke.
It also mixes in some very unconventional ingredients in its dishes, such as goat cheese, cheddar cheese, polenta, and Japanese togarashi. But executive chef Sujan Sarkar, who oversees this Palo Alto restaurant along with its sister San Francisco outpost, somehow makes it all work.
To get a feel for what this grill can do, order the roasted eggplant ($14). It’s as smoky tasting as the best baba ganoush, with an equally spoonable texture. The whole slender eggplant is covered in cumin-scented yogurt, pickled onion, cilantro and pomegranate seeds.
Garlic naan ($15) is the perfect vehicle to spread this creamy roasted eggplant on. Or smear it on the pao ($16), pull-apart, fluffy soft rolls that come with a sweet-tangy, chunky heirloom tomato kut.