Top Tastes

Dining at 2 Michelin-starred Saison - interview with Chef Josh Skenes below

Dining at 2 Michelin-starred Saison – interview with Chef Josh Skenes below

My Top Food Articles: June 15-30

Photos and articles by Virginia Miller

From my 15 articles/posts a week as Zagat Editor, I summarize and link to just some coverage highlights here – you can sign up for Zagat’s weekly newsletter for highlights here and follow along on Twitter @ZagatSF, where I post daily.

As I have been for over a decade, I’m on the ground daily looking for early standouts at each new opening, while sharing underrated places and dishes you’ve seen me write about here at The Perfect Spot for years, and, of course, plenty of drink coverage (cocktails, wine, spirits, beer).

My biggest feature article of the last two weeks hit yesterday, in line with Best Thing We Ate lists in each Zagat city around the US – here is my list of the top 12 Best Thing We Ate dishes in the Bay Area this year so far.


Chef JOSH SKENES on SAISON’s New $498 Test Kitchen Dinners and Winemaker Dinner Series

New Bay Area Openings

What to eat at MARLA BAKERY’s restaurant, just open in Outer Richmond

First Look at BELCAMPO MEATS new San Francisco restaurant and sustainable, ethical butcher shop



URBAN PUTT GETS BOOZE – and what to eat one month in at the quirky mini-golf restaurant/bar

Day Trip: Port Costa

If Savannah (or other quirky, historic Southern town) met a California Gold Country Western town, it might feel a lot like PORT COSTA, home to one of the country’s best dive bars and a cosmopolitan restaurant and cocktail bar

East Bay

Early Tastes at PERDITION SMOKEHOUSE in BERKELEY from Mikkeller Bar SF & The Trappist Founder

What to eat & drink at downtown OAKLAND‘s new CAPTAIN & CORSET

Secretly Awesome: TRABOCCO’s pizza and pasta in an ALAMEDA strip mall

Rockridge’s (Oakland) OSMANTHUS renews your fried brussels sprouts crush

Underrated & Established Spots

8 reasons to revisit LOCAL KITCHEN & WINE MERCHANT in SoMa

The 8 BEST HOT DOGS in San Francisco

Unsung Heroes: SF’s best Afghani food for over 20 years at HELMAND PALACE




South Bay/Peninsula

LEXINGTON HOUSE, a destination restaurant and cocktail haven in LOS GATOS

Elegant weekend escape to CARMEL (where your boutique hotel houses a Michelin-starred restaurant)

Silky crudo, standout salads and Carlos Yturria’s cocktails at LURE + TILL in PALO ALTO

Events/Dinner Series

ICHI, Commonwealth and more join STONES THROW CHARITY DINNERS throughout the summer


Top Tastes

Tender ribs crusted in 17 spices

SOUTHPAW Brings It Home

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

SOUTHPAW BBQ, Mission (2170 Mission St. between 17th and 18th, 415-934-9300)

Fried oysters & beer

Road tripping through the South for music and BBQ remains one of my most memorable trips ever: driving through four states, studying sauces and smokers, singing along to Loretta and Conway, George and Tammy, Dolly and Porter, Johnny and June, as the countryside passes by. As I’ve bemoaned before, finding authentic ‘que outside of the Deep South is a rarity. Southpaw BBQ opened late 2011 on Mission Street, a BBQ oasis of the gourmet kind, brewing their own beers in a couple in-house tanks. Welcoming staff and flaky catfish impressed me early on, but watery sauces, dry ribs and brisket, deflated BBQ hopes. Fast forward a year.

Smoked pulled goat & fry bread

With new Chef Max Hussey on board, I’m back, working my way through much of the food, cocktails and beer. As a Massachusetts dishwasher/prep cook, Hussey boldly slipped a resume to Emeril Lagasse at a book signing, moving to New Orleans a month later to eventually become Executive Sous Chef of Emeril’s Delmonico. Melding Southern with San Francisco, he’s cooked at 25 Lusk and Epic Roasthouse.

No regrets drinking Mishi's Regret

Under his watch, BBQ staples (pulled pork, brisket, ribs) have all improved. While ribs look dry crusted in 17 spices, they’re tender, aromatic, addictive. Appropriately fatty beef brisket is smoked for 14 hours. If you must do chicken at a BBQ joint, you could do worse than whiskey-brined. Catfish is still strong, lightly pan-fried and available on a sandwich ($9), which begged for a little more remoulade on melting-soft brioche. Newly-added quail explodes with boudin sausage. Each meat and catfish comes as a platter ($14-19) with hushpuppies and choice of two sides. Choosing sides ($5 each or 4 for $14) is a challenge. Cheddar grit cake hides a juicy hamhock, mac ‘n cheese comes alive with red pepper, sweet potatoes are whipped soft with bourbon, sweet chili-braised Southern greens and a new creamed “lollipop” chard kale make eating greens nearly dreamy.

Brewing beers at Southpaw

Creativity shines in starters like smoked pulled goat ($12) with salsa verde and house pickles scooped up by Southern fry bread, or roasted duck breast and goat cheese rosti ($12). Abandon all, however, for Natchez ($12), named after the Mississippi town, sounding a lot like “nachos”. Think warm potato chips falling apart under pulled pork and black eyed peas, drenched in pimento bechamel and hot sauce. Divine bar food.

Hussey also perfects fried oysters. These delicately fried bivavles exude briny freshness unusual for fried oysters. Currently, they’re loaded with bacon and onions on a sandwich ($11). While BBQ sauces like sweet potato remain a bit watery, lacking in flavor punch for me, Memphis smoked sauce is briskly gratifying. But all praise goes to better-than-ever Alabama white sauce: mayo-based, packing pepper and vinegar bite, it makes just about everything sing. I’d rather fill up on savory options than desserts ($8), but banana pudding with house ‘nilla wafers evokes childhood comfort.

A brand new (dreamy) side: bourbon whipped sweet potatoes

Divine bar food: Natchez

Drink is as important as food at Southpaw. Brewer Phil Cutti started homebrewing in 1995 after shopping at SF Brewcraft. Learning from Speakeasy founders Steve and Mike Bruce, homebrewing led to his own gypsy label, Muddy Puddle Brewing. Southpaw’s small program allows him to experiment with a range of beers and collaborate with other brewers.

Catfish sandwich

House brews ($6) are balanced, readily drinkable crowd pleasers. Posey Pale Ale is subtly hoppy, Pisgah Rye Porter is complex without being heavy, and a Smoked Cream Ale is smooth with a smoke-tinged finish. As active members of SF Brewers Guild, which puts on the fantastic SF Beer Week coming up February 8-17th, Southpaw hosts intimate classes and tastings, like a collaboration beer pairing dinner with San Diego’s famed Stone Brewing on Feb. 11, one of the brewers they feature on their hand-selected draft menu ($6-9 a glass).

Pecan Rye Old Fashioned

In addition to beer, founder/manager Edward Calhoun’s American whiskey selection and cocktails make fanatics like me smile. Growing up in his father’s North Carolina bar, Calhoun honed bar chops in three cities that know how to drink well: Savannah, New Orleans, San Francisco. Playful balance exemplifies the cocktails ($9), whether a Rye Old Fashioned sweetened by pecan syrup or Rescue Blues: smoky Scotch and Combier Rouge dancing with cocoa nib syrup. My favorites? Mishi’s Regret No. 2, hot with habanero, smoky with Mezcal, brightened by lemon and cassis (blackcurrant liqueur), or cheekily-named Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari’s character on my beloved Parks & Recreation) where sarsaparilla/root beer notes of Root liquor intermingle with lemon and Shiraz wine.

Banana pudding

Get educated with whiskey flights ($12-16) grouped in themes like Peated American Single Malts (Seascape, Leviathon I, Corsair Triple Smoke) or Bay Area Whiskey (Cyrus Noble, St. George’s Breaking & Entering Bourbon, Moylan’s Rye), or flights featuring a craft distillery like High West (Son of Bourye, Campfire, Double Rye).

Gracious founder/manager Elizabeth Wells, an Alabama native, sets Southpaw’s down home tone. She moves about the restaurant, attending to needs of each table. Staff follows her lead, ready with a smile, a platter of ‘que and a glass of bourbon. Down home, indeed.

Southpaw's inviting dining room & brewery

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Top Tastes

The glories of barbcue sauce

Hunting for Authentic BBQ in the Bay Area

Growing up in East, West and Middle America, I unexpectedly have a profound affinity to the music and food of the South. Traveling numerous Southern states, my love accelerates. Florida conch and stone crab please, as do Tex Mex and Texas brisket. But when I dream of the South, I think Deep South. Start talking Low Country and Gullah cuisine, or Cajun and Creole cooking, and I become brutally homesick for a home I never had.

Eatin' Brisket

Then there was barbecue. And by barbecue, I mean pulled pork, just as those words are synonymous in the Deep South. Texas brisket? Naturally. Memphis ribs? Hell, yeah. But pulled pork, that tender, shredded, fatty mound of piggy goodness for me is the pinnacle of BBQ. Don’t even get me started on sauces. South Carolina mustard or thick, sweet Kansas City sauce? I’ll take all, thank you. A proper sauce turns impeccable meat into ecstasy.

One of the more memorable journeys the Renaissance Man and I ever took was a two week road trip through four Southern states for BBQ, music, food. Proudly a California girl the larger part of my life, in this glorious state of endless riches, I rarely find barbecue comparable to my Southern exploits… even from those who claim they are Southern natives. There are whispers of true BBQ here, but often something indefinable is lacking. The problem commonly lies in sauces, smoking techniques and woods used, or the meat’s tenderness (I’m sorry: it ain’t real BBQ if it’s not fatty). Even delicious ‘que is missing a certain raw, gut-level sense of place outside the South.

CatHead's picnic tables

Regardless, we have some worthy Bay Area spots to satisfy ‘que cravings. Over the years, Uncle Frank’s is the best BBQ I’ve had in California, which tragically closed last fall. His brisket was thick with fat, served in the back of a dodgy dive bar in suburban, staid Mountain View. In SF, Johnson’s Bar-B-Que cornered Arkansas-style pulled pork, though sadly, it closed as the owner recently passed away.

Of those still open, Bo’s Barbecue out in Lafayette specializes in solid brisket. On a Golden Gate Park golf course is an unexpected gem, Ironwood BBQ, strong on pulled pork. Years ago, Brother-in-Law’s BBQ on Divisadero morphed to Lilly’s and became Da Pitt. Though past its glory days, it’s still a worthy detour, emitting glorious smoke aromas down the street. What of ever popular Memphis Minnie’s? I must admit that despite a love for their rowdy Southern tunes and spirit, I can’t get behind the lackluster meats and watery sauces.

Dining at Cedar Hill

We go through waves of ‘que openings and we’re in the midst of another now. My recent number one was an upscale barbecue/Southern restaurant all the way up in Novato. Southern Pacific Smokehouse unexpectedly closed after merely months of opening, despite the tenderest pulled pork, smoky brisket, plus a killer cocktail and American whiskey menu (best cocktail bar yet in Marin). Their secret was a 2,000 pound Ole Hickory Smoker where meats were slow smoked over hickory wood, then placed in a steam box to temper smoke dominance and impart a tender finish.

Here are five recent BBQ openings:

SNEAKY’S BBQ, 1760 Market Street (at Octavia), 415-431-4200
Sneaky’s BBQ is served out of Rebel Bar from Wed.-Sun. They step outside the traditional with items like Kurobuta pork belly, but more than any other newer ‘que joint, they get Carolina-style pulled pork right – among the best in town. Only down side is price with a single platter of meat and two sides being $17 or a two meat combo $26, compared to $12 and $18 for the same options at CatHead’s BBQ.

Sauces: Vinegar BBQ, spicy jalapeno/habanero, South Carolina mustard, Rooster (creamy version of spicy sauce)

CatHead's smoker

Stand-outs: Aforementioned pulled pork is tops here, as is South Carolina mustard sauce (perfection together). They bring it with Creekstone Farms brisket and baby-back ribs. Sneaky’s is to be commended for using all natural, hormone-free meats, smoked with locally cut almond wood. Sides ($4) include a classic coleslaw, and fresh, not soggy or overcooked, collard greens. Cheeky points for Rebel’s glorified gay biker bar setting with a motorcycle as the room’s centerpiece.

B Side BBQ

CATHEAD’S BBQ, SoMa (1665 Folsom St. at 12th, 415-861-4242)
Nate’s BBQ had quite a following – and coveted home delivery. It recently morphed to CatHead’s BBQ from Tennessee native Richard Park and Pamela Schafer, easily one of the city’s best BBQ options and thankfully still offering delivery. Smokers stand tall behind a long counter. Vegetarians get a nod with cornmeal-crusted BBQ tofu. Mains are wonderfully priced at $7 with a mini-CatHead biscuit and pickles, while a platter with two sides is $12. Of note: their large biscuit is described as the size of a cat’s head

Sauces: Mustard, ketchup based BBQ sauce, North Carolina finishing sauce, habanero, CatHead’s catsup, pepper vinegar
Stand-outs: They had me with Coca Cola-smoked brisket. A subtle sweetness permeates the uber-smoky beef. Ribs are also strong, the best of any place listed. The secret is extra fat, rendering the meat fall-apart tender. All sides ($4 each) are vegetarian, including mustard or spicy habanero slaw. Collard greens taste healthy, a fresh change of pace from traditional collards, though I miss the ham hocks.

B SIDE BBQ, Oakland (3303 San Pablo Ave., Oakland, 510-595-0227)

Old-timey photos line the walls at B Side

Tanya Holland of West Oakland’s beloved Brown Sugar Kitchen opened B Side Barbeque a few months ago, a hip, comfortable space lined with photos of African American cowboys, the air rich with smoked meats (look closely and you’ll see Tanya and her husband in one of the old-timey photos).

Sauces: Hot vinegar, Carolina mustard or traditional
Stand-outs: Pulled pork is tender and lush in Carolina mustard sauce, but they shine with smoked brown sugar-rubbed brisket ($9 half order; $16 full order). Fatty beef sings with sugary crust. Ribs are succulent. A side of fresh, spicy coleslaw ($4), light on the mayo, is a happy companion. Food is prepared with care, a step above many East Bay ‘que joints.

CEDAR HILL, Marina (3242 Scott St., 415-934-5403)

Wood for the smoker in the back at Cedar Hill

The Marina has itself a BBQ restaurant. Small, welcoming and lined with rustic artwork and paraphernalia from Texas to the Carolinas, Cedar Hill is a win for the neighborhood. The ‘que is not as soul-satisfying as in the South, but has plenty to offer with Southern dishes like Cajun shrimp on Anson Mills grits topped with Andouille sausage and piquillo peppers ($17), or sweet tea-fried chicken ($7.50-$19 for a quarter to whole chicken).

Regional Southern paraphernalia line the walls

Sauces: Texas red, KC mop sauce, South Carolina mustard, North Carolina vinegar
Stand-outs: Tender smoked pork ($4.50-16) wins out over Texas beef brisket ($4.50-16), while Memphis baby back ribs ($5-25) were a little dry. Worthy sides ($3.50-$11.50, portion to quart) include a fresh, bright coleslaw, or pit beans glorified with burnt tips. Ruth’s buttermilk pie ($5) with graham cracker crust is a creamy delight. Extra points: they serve bottles of North Carolina’s classic wild cherry soda, Cheerwine.

SOUTHPAW BBQ, Mission (2170 Mission St. between 17th & 18th, 415-934-9300)

Honey Bunny cocktail

Southpaw BBQ has the most welcoming, festive atmosphere of any of the new ‘que joints with house beer brewed right in the dining room, additional beers on draft (like Bruery Mischief, Brother Thelonious, Deschutes Green Lakes), and a playful cocktail menu offering Sazeracs made with Germain-Robin craft brandy and tea syrup.

Sauces: Alabama white sauce, Eastern North Carolina, South Carolina mustard, sweet potato habanero, sweet chili vinegar, Memphis
Stand-outs: Slightly smoky Honey Bunny cocktail (blanco tequila, red pepper, orange and carrot juice, agave) is lively and fun.

Southpaw ribs

Their pimento cheese ($5), served with celery and old school white bread, is not near as addictive as at neighboring Hog & Rocks. Platters ($14-19) come with cornbread and two sides. Much as I wanted to love their ribs, brisket and pulled pork, they bordered on either dry or not as flavorful as other ‘que joints.  Though not barbecue, fresh, flaky catfish ($14) from Louisiana is my favorite here: comfortingly fried and not at all fishy.

Southpaw BBQ welcomes on Mission Street

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Top Tastes

Top Tastes is not a list of all-time favorites (another thing altogether). Instead, I write about the best eats since my last newsletter, often from new openings.


Edamame Hummus

NOMBE, Mission – I was sad to see Nick Balla leave Nombe for another place I love, Bar Tartine. Not because I’m not excited about the Eastern European slant he’s bringing there, but because he had such a flair for and love of Japanese cuisine, well-showcased at Nombe.

Vincent Schofield has taken over as Nombe‘s chef, keeping the izakaya-like heart of the place, despite a more refined decor revamp in black and wood tones. Their strong sake selection remains, but there’s now an expanded wine list (with Cali favorites like Handley and MaCrostie) and beers (like the entire line of Coedo from Japan).

Miso Cod w/ leek/fennel compote

Though I miss Balla’s delicate finesse in dishes like Karasumi, Schofield has, in his initial weeks, maintained the elegant heart behind Nombe‘s Japanese bar food. Bites from yakimono (grilled) to agemono (fried) dishes make ideal accompaniments to sake, wine and beer, as a true izakaya should.

I love straightforward edamame hummus with taro chips ($4) and chicken wings ($9), sweet with honey, perky with lime and fish sauce.

Soy-marinated Quail

The wings have been a staple on the menu. I’d never tried them in earlier visits to Nombe, being focused on grilled options like chicken gizzards or hearts. I am craving, and would go back for, the wings. You won’t do wrong with tender, little skewers of grilled squid & lemon ($5) either.

Of the new menu items, soy-marinated quail ($12) is tender and juicy, getting a subtle kick from mint and chili. Miso cod ($13) was salty but grilled just right with spinach, and a leek/fennel/miso mash I could have eaten a big helping of. Sashimi options (like a silky walu) remain pristine as in early Nombe days.


SMOKIN’ WAREHOUSE BARBECUE, Hunter’s Point – Way, way out on the edge of the HP where warehouses and trucks line the desolate streets, there’s a walk-up window for barbecue.

Smokin''s pulled pork sandwich w/ steak chili

Smokin’ Warehouse Barbecue opened last Fall and though it doesn’t match the glories of the best BBQ in the South, their pulled pork ($6.95 on a sandwich, $9.95 platter) is tender with a decent sauce, enhanced mixed with coleslaw. The sandwich did literally fall apart in my hands but damned if it didn’t hit the spot.

Smokin's sign

Cornbread is better than many similar BBQ hole-in-the-walls, moist and tender, while steak chili ($2.50 small, $3.75 large) with onions and cheese works. It’s a ton of food for little money: platters come with two sides and cornbread, while sandwiches come with a side and cornbread.

For breakfast (or any time), I had fun with a morning chilidog ($3.65): a grilled, split hot dog, lathered in hot sauce and chili, with a hashbrown tucked in next to the dog. And a good, greasy mornin’ to you.

SMOKE BBQ, Hunter’s PointSmoke BBQ parks their adorable truck in another warehouse stretch of Bayview/Hunter’s Point, but closer to the Cesar Chavez side of things. They also park from time-to-time outside my old, longtime home in Noe Valley right on 24th Street (between Castro & Noe). Check Twitter for their locale.

Smoke BBQ's truck

Comparing pulled pork to pulled pork, Smoke BBQ‘s has a little fattier, meatier punch than Smokin’ Warehouse Barbecue’s and just a tinge more authenticity, reflecting the Midwest roots behind it. They cost just a little more: pulled pork sandwich ($8 with one side, $12 as a platter with two sides and cornbread). Their sandwich doesn’t fall apart, also with nice coleslaw contrast.

Somehow, though, the side of coleslaw I got was all vinegar and had none of the balance of the coleslaw on the sandwich? A side of BBQ beans ($2.50 half pint/$5 pint) was the winner with rich broth and fatty chunks of pork.

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