Aug
15
2014

Top Tastes

Urchin Bistrot Mussels-Virginia Miller

Mussels cooked escargot-style at Urchin Bistrot

My Top Food Articles: August 1-15

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).

New Bay Area Openings

First Look: What to Eat & Drink at Modern French Bistro, URCHIN BISTROT, in the Mission

First Look at PLIN, Italian Newcomer in the Mission

Hidden New Seafood Gem in Bernal Heights: RED HILL STATION

FERRY PLAZA SEAFOOD – Reborn in North Beach

Every Friday: 25 NEW RESTAURANTS TO TRY IN THE BAY AREA

Underrated & Established Spots

SF’s Most Underrated Italian Food ‘Hood

$10 Lunch: DINING ON CHINESE HAKKA CUISINE in Outer Richmond

Unsung Heroes: LUCCA RAVIOLI in the Mission

Secretly Awesome: TONGA ROOM‘s bao, Spam fried rice and Tiki cocktails

Secretly Awesome: CHOLO SOY’S PERUVIAN COUNTER

HOG & ROCK‘s Late Night Korean Pop-up

NorCal

7 Top FOODIE ROAD TRIPS Around NORTHERN CALIFORNIA

Events

The 6 Best Things We Ate at OUTSIDE LANDS

The Best Things We Ate at EAT DRINK SF 2014

The LAST STREET FOOD FESTIVAL in the Mission – What to Eat

TASTE OF SONOMA Weekend Happens Pre-Labor Day

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May
01
2013

The Latest

Blair Warsham's bao at American Bao Bar

Blair Warsham’s bao at American Bao Bar

ASIAN NEWCOMERS:
From Food Truck to Pop-Up

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

Dining at Nabe

Going Japanese hot pot at Nabe

The Bay Area already boasts some of the best Asian food in the US, in a diverse range of categories. Though I can’t recreate the settings from the months I spent traveling Southeast Asia, I can find some of those flavors… and many more from places I long to visit… authentic and complex here in the Bay Area.

What follows are noteworthy dish/es, including fresh dumpling and Malaysian street food interpretations, from six new Asian restaurants (two being pop-ups, one a food truck) open a few months or less.

KOJA KITCHEN, Food Truck

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Koja & Kamikaze fries

One of the best food trucks to come along, well, maybe ever, is Koja Kitchen. While they make a steady run around the Bay Area, I catch them in my own ‘hood at Off the Grid Haight. Koja ($6 each) are essentially sandwiches where “bread” is toasted rice patties. My favorite is sweet, ground bulgogi beef, mixed with sautéed onions, sesame vinaigrette slaw, and their house red sauce.

I’m most in love with their crosscut fries (the Kamikaze Combo works best at $10.50 for koja, fries and a drink). The fries are elevated by soft, ground Korean bulgogi beef tossed with sautéed onions, kimchi green onions, house sauce and Japanese mayo… a sweet, savory mound of comfort.

AMERICAN BAO BAR, Mission (pop-up locations below)

Visionary XLB dumplings

Visionary XLB dumplings

Chef Blair Warsham traveled through Southeast Asia, taking inspiration from street food-rich countries like Malayasia to create the dishes in his current pop-up, American Bao Bar. Check Bao Bar’s Facebook page to confirm pop-up dinners, but currently they’re at Nombe on Monday nights and Southpaw BBQ on Tuesdays.

Soup shots & shrimp chips

Soup shots & shrimp chips

Changing dishes arrive in a filling $35 tasting menu, which started strong recently with red curry chicken XLB soup dumplings. Warsham’s XLB (xiao long bao, aka Shanghai soup dumplings) are tender, the dumpling wrappers chewy, al dente, encasing vivid curry and fowl. This is XLB like you’ve not had it before. Three bao or “hot buns on a plate” are stuffed with cumin lamb belly, grilled chili paneer and crispy five-spice smoked pork, the former a tad dry, the latter being my favorite.

IMG_7147

Rice disc holding an egg

Visually striking crispy rice forms a disc around an egg, served with hen and spring vegetables, while chicken is wrapped in plantains, inflected with a savory banana sambal sauce. Shrimp, pineapple and coconut pop on a shrimp chip accompanied by shooters of creamy Malaysian bouillabaisse, my other favorite after the XLB.

Dessert from Batter Bakery is understated perfection: mini-ice cream sandwiches, like chocolate five spice caramel ice cream in chocolate cookies, or oatmeal coconut cookies filled with gloriously tart kaffir lime sherbet.

HOUSE of PANCAKES, Parkside (937 Taraval between 19th & 20th Ave.; 415-681-8388)

Stunning dumplings

Stunning dumplings

Service is slow and Parkside is out of the way for many, but House of Pancakes serves delights worth trekking out for. Yes, there are Asian pancakes aplenty, but it’s the house-pulled noodles and fresh, al dente dumplings that enchant. Pancakes ($3.95-7.95) are solid, particularly simple green onion pancakes… but not the highlight. Think hand pulled noodles and dumplings.

Watching noodles hand pulled through the kitchen door is mesmerizing, as it is at Martin Yan’s new MY China… but House of Pancakes’ noodles ($6.95-7.95) are far more gratifying: think chewy comfort in broth, served with likes of lamb or seafood. The dense joy of the noodles carries over into impeccable, doughy dumplings ($5.95-8.95), filled with lamb or pork and chives, even fish of the day. Other than painfully slow service, House of Pancakes is one of the more exciting hole-in-the-wall Chinese eateries to come along in awhile and added to my favorites list.

HUTONG, Cow Hollow (2030 Union St. at Buchanan; 415-929-8855)

Chicken liver

Chicken liver

When I moved to SF at the beginning of 2001, restaurants like Ti Couz and Betelnut were on my regular dining circuit. Thankfully, the spirit of ever popular Betelnut remains, as does Chef Alex Ong. Betelnut was recently reincarnated as Hutong, with artful graffiti and bolder dishes fusing his Malaysian childhood, once part of a “secret” Blackboard Eats menu. But as of last week and one day after a negative review from the Chronicle’s critic, Michael Bauer, Hutong switched back to Betelnut. I’m disappointed as I witnessed promise in the more ambitious menu that was still working out kinks.

Highlights were on the raw/crudo side ($12-14), like sea bream in chili-lemon soy with radishes and mizuna, ahi tuna in apple-mustard sauce, or tombo tuna dotted with creamy wasabi, tobiko and lime. The raw great, however, was briny oysters icy dotted with Sriracha-lemon granita ($1.50 each). Chicken livers tossed with onions in black pepper sauce ($6.50) were on Ong’s secret Blackboard Eats menu, evolved into a seamless, meaty liver dish. Giant whole Gulf prawns ($3.74) were plump, wrapped in bacon and dipped in chili jam, while thin slices of lamb belly ($8.88) in jalapeno vinegar, a mainstay from Betelnut, are not at all gamey but clean, savory.

Avocado salad

Kale salad

A wise move at the short-lived Hutong, one I wish more restaurants would embrace, is offering four salads ($8.88) that couldn’t be labeled “throwaway”, but boast interesting combinations beyond being merely nutritious. Roasted beets derived texture from cardamom yogurt, contrasted by salted plum vinaigrette, while the now ubiquitous kale salad arrived with Asian pears, cucumbers, roasted peppers, avocado in a bright lime-mustard dressing.

Hutong was still finding its footing with some misses (overly sweet cocktails, for one), but it seems rather than continuing to find ways to stay fresh and age into a new decade, they are reverting back to the past one.

NABE, Inner Sunset (1325 9th Ave. between Irving & Judah; 415-731-2658)

Nabe's sleek space

Nabe’s sleek space

Another hot pot outpost, Nabe (its name derived from nabemono – pronounced “nay-bay-mo-no” – referring to nabe cooking pot/hot pot) is a Zen-yet-hip space lined with empty sake bottles, benefiting from sweet service and sustainably sourced Snake River Farms meat.

To start, Kurobuta pork gyoza ($7) are pan-seared dumplings exhibiting the right contrast of crispy and chewy, dipped in chili ponzu. A nabemono set ($19 regular/$24 large) comes with choice of meat, udon noodles and generous, assorted vegetables. I like shabu shabu choices of Washugyu beef or Kurobuta Berkshire pork in spicy miso broth – there’s also seafood (shrimp, salmon, scallops, clams) in dashi broth.

Generous side of veggies comes with hot pot order

Generous side of veggies comes with hot pot order

The crowning moment of this interactive dinner is included: a traditional Japanese finish to hot pot/shabu shabu as our server explained, rarely seen in the States. Our server removed excess broth from our finished hot pot, retaining just enough for flavor. She then filled it with rice, stirred slowly, cracked an egg in it, stirred awhile longer, then topping with shaved nori (seaweed). It’s called zosui, a rice soup/porridge akin to Chinese congee (or jook) but with more flavor. As breakfast the next morning, it was perfection – I  stir fried the leftover zosui with more egg.

SSISSO, Japantown (1700 Post St. at Buchanan, 415-441-1522)

Those excellent chicken wings

Those excellent chicken wings

In soft opening mode merely a couple months, Ssisso (Korean word for “seesaw”) is still sorting things out. With traditional and non-traditional Korean dishes, plus cult classic Frozen Kuhsterd for dessert, one can’t help comparing to other local Korean joints. Haemul pajeon ($9.95, $12.95), the ever addictive seafood pancake that turned me on to Korean food as a teen in NY, is gratifyingly (but not overly) greasy and crisp here, though I prefer versions at restaurants like Manna in the Inner Sunset.

Pajeon

Haemul pajeon

Similarly, I think of Aato’s japchae – sweet potato noodles stir fried with beef, soy, onion – when trying Ssisso’s one-note (salty) version ($9.95 lunch, $13.95 dinner). Early on, the best dish remains one from downstairs karaoke lounge, Playground: fried Ssisso chicken ($9.95 lunch, $14.95 dinner), a superior pile of wings doused in sweet soy and loads of garlic. Put a plate in front of me and I’ll devour.

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Jan
15
2013

Top Tastes

Muguboka's killer hae-mool (seafood) dolsot (stone pot) bibimbop

Of Banchan, Ramen & Squid Innards

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Delicious banchan spread at Muguboka

Authentic Asian cuisine of every category is one of California and the Bay Area’s strengths, with constant new openings from hole-in-the-walls to hipster hotspots. Busy dining at a slew of Asian newcomers, like the Richmond’s mellow Daigo Sushi, or Szechuan outpost Chili House, these three restaurants stand out for one (or a few) reasons.

MUGUBOKA, Inner Richmond (401 Balboa St. at 5th Ave., 415-668-6007)

An acquired taste at Roku: shio-kara (fermented squid & innards)

Passing Muguboka many a time over the years, I meant to visit but never did until recently. What I found is a humble, all-day respite serving an impressive array of banchan (mini-dishes accompanying a Korean meal), whether kimchi or myeolchi bokkeum (crispy mini-anchovies). Free, generous banchan and bottomless tea make even upper teens-priced entrees a deal. Dining alone, I attempt to finish the banchan… and fail. There’s a plentiful selection of soups and stews featuring tofu or Korean sausage, and dishes like go dung uh gui (broiled salted mackerel), or hae-mool pajeon, those ever-fabulous seafood-green onion Korean pancakes. I finish with a complimentary, cool pour of sujeonggwa, a sweet Korean punch alive with cinnamon, ginger, peppercorns, dried persimmon.

Best dish: Muguboka serves a mean hae-mool (seafood) dolsot (stone pot) bibimbop ($16.95), the scorching stone pot arrives sizzling with rice, egg, squid, shrimp, mussels, veggies and nori on top.

Best suited for: A mellow setting with copious amounts of Korean food. Expect two meals for the price of one.

RAMEN SHOP, Oakland (5812 College Ave. near Birch, 510-788-6370)

Show-stealer: wild nettle fried rice

Open just since the beginning of the year, this is an early word on Oakland (Rockridge, to be exact) hotspot, Ramen Shop, packed since day one with long waits (no reservations). A short, ever-changing menu offers three types of ramen, one dessert and a handful of appetizers so it’s possible to try the entire menu in one visit. Chez Panisse alums, Sam White, Jerry Jaksich and Rayneil De Guzman already have a hit on their hands, if crowds are any indication. Though early Yelp comments are trending towards the frustrated-to-spend-$16-on-a-bowl-of-ramen kind, this is quality ramen… house-made noodles, salt-cured eggs, ultra-fresh ingredients. Meyer lemon infuses shoyu ramen ($15) with bright dimension, while spit-roasted chashu (literally pork roast, often known as char siu) adds heft to particularly flavorful spicy miso ramen ($15).

Spicy miso ramen

But my favorite aspects aren’t ramen. Meyer lemon shows up again in unique kimchi/house pickled Napa cabbage ($5), to winning effect, a spirited contrast to chili. Then, wild nettle fried rice steals the show (see “best dish”). The third best element is liquor. While wine and beer work quite nicely, it’s a rarity (I can’t think of any other local example) to see cocktails with ramen. Straightforward, refreshing mezcal or rye-based punches ($10) make fine ramen companions, as does a classic hi-ball ($12) of Hibiki 12-year Japanese whisky and soda. A nutty-tasting black sesame ice cream sandwich ($5) in brown sugar cookies is the right finish.

Best dish: Easy… wild nettle fried rice ($9) interlaced with Monterey Bay squid and Llano Seco pork is as comforting as it is gourmet.

Best suited for: The joyous convergence of ramen and Japanese whisky – and for those with time on their hands.

ROKU, Castro (1819 Market St. at Octavia Blvd., 415-861-6500)

Roku yakitori

Opened in October by JapaCurry‘s Jay Hamada, Roku sits at busy Market and Octavia. Similarly bustling inside, groups of friends down Japanese beer and fried chicken in the form of karaage ($7) or chicken nan ban ($8), the latter a specialty of Kyushu, Hamada’s hometown island in southern Japan. Under warm wood walls graced with unframed, vintage Japanese posters, I opt for the likes of house-made noodles and mochi bacon yakitori (though I couldn’t help but long for FuseBOX’s supreme bacon-wrapped mochi).

Hotate butter w/ membrane skirt & stomach intact

During opening weeks, I went straight for dishes I’ve never tried, like shio-kara ($4): room temperature, fermented squid swimming in its own innards. Salty and gummy, it is, as the menu states,”an acquired taste.” Likewise, hotate butter ($12) topped with the vivid orange of tobiko/fish roe is unexpected. Scallops are sautéed in butter, but unlike most of our Westernized experiences with the succulent bivalve, the stomach and membrane skirt are left on around the scallop flesh. Call it umami, call it funky, the taste is more accurately both.

Though I find preferred renditions of classic izakaya dishes elsewhere, it’s items like the seafood salad (see “best dish”) or rare dishes for a bold palate that make Roku interesting.

Refreshing seafood salad

Best dish: Surprised to prefer a seafood salad ($13) in an izakaya, this one is laden with red king crab and smoked salmon, tobiko, boiled eggs, yellow bell pepper and tomatoes over romaine, bright in a yuzu wasabi dressing.

Best suited for: The hardcore who want authentic dishes they won’t find on typical menus. Also for groups of friends.

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Aug
15
2012

Top Tastes

An array of Korean banchan (bites) accompanies BAP sets at FuseBOX

KOREAN SNACKS

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Grilled shishito peppers at FuseBOX

The nation has become increasingly enamored with kimchi and all things fermented. California long being home to some of the US’ densest Asian populations, this side of the palate is staple vs. exotic novelty. As San Francisco’s population consists of as many Asians as Caucasians, it’s no surprise that we are blessed with an endless wealth of authentic Asian food, though Korean has been one of the few not at the forefront. Historically, NY and LA, both areas I’ve lived in, are the strongest/densest for Korean food in the US.

Aria’s fried seaweed rolls

Age 18 was the first time I ate Korean food. My girlhood best friend since my New Jersey days had begun dating her now husband when we went out to dinner with his family. From Flushing, Queens (read about my top Flushing Korean BBQ joint), every meal with his Korean family was the real deal (i.e. not places a Caucasian would go). My first impression of Korean food was: red. The usual array of panchan or banchan (mini-dishes often accompanying a Korean meal) arrived doused in red sauce, each bite fiery with heat. Though I wasn’t hooked immediately on kimchi as I am now, I wasn’t averse to it as I was doenjang (fermented soybean paste) at first, which took me longer to appreciate. As a novice that day in NY, the dish I fell in love with was dolsot bibimbap (meaning “stone pot”), a popular melange of rice, meat and veggies, served in a sizzling stone pot topped with an egg. Though a common Korean dish, in a non-descript NY basement, this superior version spoiled me for all bibimbap.

FuseBox mantra: “I bleed kimchi”

Despite a dearth of Korean BBQ joints in SF and a concentrated Oakland Korean population, it hasn’t been until the last few years I’ve witnessed restaurants offering far beyond BBQ. From the forward-thinking “fusion” of Namu Gaji to the home-cooked joys of To Hyang, Nan, Manna, and Aato, we’ve seen a steady growth in Korean openings in recent years. In Oakland, good times are had at what regulars refer to as the “porno bar” due to the Korean film posters lining the walls (nothing explicit), Dan Sung Sa. Fried chicken and rounds of Korean beers in a comfortable dive atmosphere evoke a Korean speakeasy, ideal with a group of friends. It’s reminiscent of long-timer Toyose, a similarly relaxed, tucked away SF spot in an Outer Sunset garage.

Here’s two stand-outs in another wave of openings exemplifying the gourmet fun of Korean snacking and casual eating, ideal with cheap beer and good friends.

ARIA KOREAN AMERICAN SNACK BAR, Tenderloin (932 Larkin St. between Post & Geary, 415-292-6914)

Aria’s cheery Tenderloin welcome

The Kim family has moved into what was Old Chelsea Fish & Chips with Aria Korean American Snack Bar. The closet-sized space is still dingy on a bustling Tenderloin block, but the Kims have infused it with fresh life, greeting with smiles and a record player stocked with Tom Jones and Sintra LPs. Mom and Pop Kim run the place, though their son and his girlfriend have come up from LA to help them get going.

Aria’s crave-inducing, boneless fried chicken

They have a hit on their hands with their Korean Fried Chicken (9 pieces – $6.99-7.99, 16 pieces $12.99-13.99). It feels like everyone is doing KFC these days, but these boneless, overgrown nuggets are special: crispy-tender, fried in cottonseed oil. Dip in earthy-sweet “spicy sauce” and an addiction is born. Mama’s acidic sweet and sour radishes are just the right accompaniment to clean the palate and perk up the taste buds.

There’s an array of fried snacks, from mixed veggies (carrots, sweet potato, zucchini, onion) to fried seaweed rolls packed with potato and glass noodles ($5.99, 8 pieces). Another of Mama Kim’s recipes is Korean hot and spicy rice cake ($5.99), blessedly chewy, it sits in – what else? – a spicy, red sauce. The Kim family’s good cheer and authentic, fried bites make this the kind of snack bar every neighborhood should be so lucky to have.

FuseBOX, Oakland (2311 A Magnolia St. at 24th, 510-444-3100)

Ridiculously good bacon-wrapped mochi

Tucked away in a sunny courtyard off desolate West Oakland streets is FuseBOX, a truly exciting haven for Asian “fusion” – only open Wednesday through Friday (11:30am—2:30pm) though dinner is promised soon. You could deem it Korean food served Japanese izakaya style, although it’s mashup of both and beyond. Open just over three months, this cash-only respite from Sunhui and Ellen Sebastian Chang offers daily robata bites ($1-3) on the specials board. Granted, these are merely bites, but the joy is sampling a range of grilled vegetables and meat.

FuseBOX’s sunny courtyard

From the spare, industrial interior boasting merely a few tables to rice ($2) purified with binchotan (Japanese white charcoal), it’s clear this no typical Asian  eatery. There is, of course, KFC ($5), although here it is lightly fried, spicy chicken wings more akin to Buffalo wings than the aforementioned boneless chicken at Aria. BAP sets ($6-10) offer meat or veggies alongside rice and panchan or banchan (mini-dishes often accompanying a Korean meal), which rotate daily. Spinach roots or French breakfast radish crowns are brined in mustard, nori (seaweed) and sesame leaves are pickled in soy, white zucchini or green mango in vinegar. Kimchee comes in multiple forms, like bok choy and kale.

Refreshing, cool corn tea made in house

The aforementioned robata specials are grilled on wood skewers, from okra and snap peas, to tender chicken thigh and back oyster cuts. The best bite of all? Bacon mochi ($2.50). The mochi is sticky, subtly savory and gummy, satisfying on its own merit – until you reach the bacon and accompanying mustard seeds. Sigh. I’d eat this fantastic bite for breakfast, dessert – basically any way at all. For bigger appetites, there’s sandwiches ($8) like a Tokyo po boy laden with fried chicken, red cabbage slaw, house mayo and pickles.

To drink there’s a bracing, cool roasted corn tea ($1), chilled and nearly creamy with fresh corn flavor. Other drink options include Tang (yes, Tang!), house barrel aged soju, and neighbors like Alameda’s Rock Wall wines or beer on tap from Oakland’s Linden Street Brewery. As their hours expand, I’ve no doubt FuseBOX will become more crowded than its three-day lunches already are. There’s no place like it.

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Jun
01
2012

The Latest

A special of buckwheat gnocchi, pan seared in black garlic gastrique

NAMU GAJI: A Melding of Asian Cuisines

NAMU GAJI, Mission (499 Dolores St. at 18th, 415-431-6268)

Namu Gaji's small, cozy new dining room

Though Namu Gaji is brand new, the presence of Namu and the Lee brothers, Dennis, David and Daniel, has been felt in San Francisco for years. Since 2006, the Lee Brothers have been weaving Korean, Japanese and a mixture of Asian cuisines with California spirit in the original, now shuttered Richmond restaurant and eventually Namu’s Ferry Building farmers market stand where they serve food Tuesdays and Saturdays. In early April, they opened their Mission incarnation, Namu Gaji.

Its kitchen is in direct view of the small dining room, as Dennis Lee and Chef de Cuisine Michael Kim (Craft Los Angeles, SPQR) cook at a grill fired with binchō-tan, a low smoke, Japanese charcoal. The Lee brothers’ aunt (direct from Korea) will oversee a house fermenting program, bringing with her bacteria strains from the family’s Korean village. They do the usual sourcing from local farms, but in an unusual slant, have commissioned farmer Kristyn Leach to farm exclusively for them on a one acre plot at Baia Nicchia Farm in Sunol, where she’s growing rare Korean chiles and herbs – quite a treat.

"Fish Parts": ahi tuna roe, salmon belly & spine

I already miss the chic, spare Richmond dining room compared to the cramped Mission space, despite its striking communal table and tree branch sculpture weaving dramatically from the ceiling. Granted, the Dolores Park location is prime real estate, particularly when it comes to daytime take-out, perfect for picnicking in the park, possibly my favorite way to enjoy Namu Gaji. But the Mission is saturated with hip dining destinations in a way the Richmond, one of our great underrated food neighborhoods, is not. This was an understandably strategic move, but the new space gets progressively warmer and noisier as an evening evolves. For those who don’t enjoy yelling through dinner, I’d suggest dining early, although do note the actual dinner menu doesn’t start till 6pm.

Uni & veggie tempura

In multiple early visits, truly unique dishes flow from the kitchen. The menu is grouped in categories like raw, broth, salad, crispy, grill and comfort, with a handful of key choices under each heading. The “raw” section is pricey ($18), but raw King salmon, topped with pickled red onion, a dollop of whipped yuzu cream, and shiso (Japanese herb from the mint family) is generously portioned, bright sashimi. Uni sure is fantastic fried (what isn’t?) as tempura ($14) alongside fried shiso leaf, lemon zest, and market veggies (which on a recent visit was fava bean and yellow onion), dipped in a ginger tsuyu sauce. Grilled octopus ($14) is a tad bland compared to other grilled octopus dishes around town, though pleasingly plated with English peas, spring onion, fried garlic, and that fabulously pungent Korean chili paste, gochujang.

Complimentary banchan (fermented vegetables) to start

It gets exciting with an off-menu special of buckwheat gnocchi, pan seared in black garlic gastrique, with English peas and pea shoots (can you tell peas are in season?) This non-traditional gnocchi is earthy, lively, playful. “Fish parts” ($18) arrive on a wood slab, generously portioned and artfully arranged, more hearty than fussy. The fish parts change but one night dined on impeccable wild salmon belly and spine, with caramelized, crispy-sweet skin. Its partner requires a more adventurous palate: ahi tuna roe, cured and grilled. A dining companion bluntly called this large hunk of meat what it was: a giant fish egg sac. If you didn’t know, however, you’d think the pink, meaty fish a more savory, funky cut of salmon. Either way, I was delighted to be served something I’d never had before – a rarity in any dining community.

Addictive gamji fries

One evening after a 90 minute dinner, I waited nearly 30 minutes after all dishes had been served (and eaten) for a dessert which my sweet, adept server kept informing us was about to arrive. Though next time I’ll skip dessert under those conditions, I was pleased with shaved ice ($8), or shave ice as it’s known in Hawaii, which you can order doused in Four Barrel coffee and cocoa crumbles. My top choice is in coconut cream with coconut crumble and strawberries. The ice is creamy soft, feathery… and quickly devoured.

Coconut cream shave ice

The brothers’ Korean heritage shines best in their street food-style dishes, available at the Ferry Building Farmers Market as well as during the day at Namu Gaji, ideal taken across the street to Dolores Park. Their beloved nori “tacos” ($3) and okonomiyaki ($10 lunch, $16 dinner) still delight, while BBQ belly and Korean BBQ-style marinated chicken thigh ($10) are packed into pan de mie bun layered with Swiss cheese, soy glazed onions, pickled daikon, aioli, Dijon mustard – a buttery, fatty pleasure of a sandwich. Gamja fries ($10), essentially organic fried potatoes piled with short ribs, kimchee relish, gochujang, kewpie mayo and green onions, are the fast food of your dreams. KFC ($12) is a quarter of a Marin Sun Farms chicken tossed in sweet & tangy sauce with dashi gravy. Each of these heartwarmers not only satiate but illuminate best why the Lee brothers have become an SF staple.

Bright, fresh raw salmon

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Mar
15
2012

The Latest

Beef cheek ramen lunch at Nombe

The Lunch Hour

Photos & article by Virginia Miller

The lunch hour advances around town with a slew of notable openings or new lunch menus. Here are some of the best lunches from new chefs or recently opened spots (most opened in the last one to six months).

NOMBE, Mission (2491 Mission St. at 21st, 415-681-7150)

Salmon nori rice & oxtail ramen

Nombe faced a bit of a struggle recovering from uber-talented chef Nick Balla’s departure to Bar Tartine, eventually landing on new executive chef Noriyuki Sugie, who has cooked in NY, Chicago, France, Sydney and the like. With Sugie’s cooking, Nombe proves to be as much a gem as it ever was. An excellent sake list and caring service set it apart, but wait till you try Sugie’s ramen (thankfully just added to the dinner menu in addition to lunch). There’s a lot of great ramen out there, but I tend to be one of the unconverted who registers ramen’s comfort factor but can often find the taste bland. I realize once I finally fulfill my dream of traveling to Japan, I may change my mind, particularly if ramen tastes like Sugie’s.

Excellent sake menu

Order: Ramen noodles are house made, subtly chewy, with accompanying meat. While I enjoy options like oxtail, my favorite is a heaping bowl of beef cheek ramen ($13). The tender meat is savory and robust… and, oh, the broth! No blandness here – the broth is layered with flavor. Scallions, mushrooms, umami foam and soy-marinated egg add even more dimension. If not ordering sake, matcha ice milk or lavender oolong ice tea ($4 each) to drink.

903, Bernal Heights (903 Cortland at Gates)

903′s comfortable space

Laid-back Bernal Heights claims one of the best new lunch spots in town. 903 just opened weeks ago from owners of nearby Sandbox Bakery. Similar to Sandbox, Asian influences enliven American food. The former Maggie Mudd’s space was dim and unmemorable, but they’ve transformed it with soothing colors, flowers, a communal table and bench dotted with pillows. There are bento boxes of chicken tsukune or miso salmon, while the bulk of the daytime-only menu is sandwiches and a few breakfast items.

Order: Crispy shrimp balls in a challah hot dog bun ($8.50) may not jump off the menu, but juicy shrimp lightly fried in three crispy balls in a bun are delightful, particularly with garlic aioli, Sriracha and sweet & sour plum sauce. The one vegetarian sandwich is no afterthought. Baked tofu ($7.50) has more texture and flavor than is typical on a “burger bun” made entirely of rice (also with their Japanese karaage fried chicken sandwich). Pickled carrots, soy tahini, baby greens and a layer of nori (seaweed) complete the sandwich.

SWEET WOODRUFF, TenderNob (798 Sutter St. at Jones, 415-292-9090)

Sweet Woodruff’s open kitchen

The TenderNob has a new destination café in Sweet Woodruff, the casual second space opened by owners of upscale Sons & Daughters. With an open kitchen, high ceilings, muted grey/blue walls, and stools lining rustic wood counter tops, the place feels completely San Francisco, with expected gourmet elevation of sandwiches and casual dishes. Take-out is ideal for nearby workers, but giant, corner windows make it a welcome place downtown to linger.

Pheasant Hot Pocket

Order: Pheasant hot pocket ($7) is the most playful of early offerings. A flaky phyllo pastry stuffed with peas, carrots, and, of course, pheasant is warm and comforting. Cream of parsley root soup ($6) nurtures, set apart with green garlic, pine nuts and a welcome tinge of sweetness from golden raisins. A suckling pig sandwich ($9.50) is appropriately tender, contrasted by pickles, though with ghost pepper aioli I expected serious heat (not so).  For dessert, a peanut sweet soy tart ($4) is peanut-y goodness.

WISE SONS DELI, Mission (3150 24th St. at Shotwell, 415-787-3354)

Wise Sons brick & mortar location

I said it a year ago when Wise Sons Deli was merely a pop-up: it is refreshing to have this quality level of Jewish food in San Francisco. Just like their pop-up locations, lines still run out the door in their brand new brick and mortar location (in fact, good luck finding “off” hours to drop in). How can I not be delighted to have fresh-baked loaves of rye bread, corned beef hash, and matzo brei available six days a week (they’re still at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Tuesdays)?

Order: Chocolate babka bread is downright dreamy ($3.50 per hefty slice; sometimes available as a bread pudding). Earthy/sweet chocolate and crumbly crust are better than coffee cake.

Pastrami bread pudding

A mild chopped liver ($7) is appealing even to those skittish about liver. Challah French toast ($9) is fluffy and sweetened with orange butter and maple syrup. House-baked bialy fills a bagel void, layered with cream cheese ($3) and seasonal smoked fish like salmon or smoked trout ($8/11). They address my craving for whitefish salad with smoked trout salad ($9), wisely using a more sustainable fish choice. Don’t forget hand-sliced pastrami or corned beef and an egg cream soda. One can only hope a meaty, moist pastrami bread pudding I sampled at an opening party shows up on the specials board.

SQUARE MEALS & BATTER BAKERY, Russian Hill (2127 Polk St. at Broadway, 415-674-1069)

Square Meals’ welcoming cafe

Square Meals is just what Polk Street needed: a friendly neighborhood café with eat-in, delivery or take-out foods and dinners, delectable baked goods and sweets from Batter Bakery (who they share the café with), Ritual coffee, a wine happy hour, and board games to play in a mellow setting. Offerings include cool, subtle soba noodles with crab, mint, chili and escarole ($24 a lb.), lasagna, pork schnitzel, flank steak, falafel patties.

Square Meals’ namesake book

Order: The lunch highlight is a daily changing sandwich, like tender halibut enlivened with strips of bacon and silky caramelized onions ($13). Don’t miss Batter Bakery’s Sand Angel cookies, a glorified, denser Snickerdoodle.

SEOUL PATCH in ROCKETFISH, Potrero Hill (1469 18th St. at Connecticut, 415-282-9666)

Rocketfish is a Potrero Hill sushi restaurant, but by day, it’s a Korean fusion (yes, I used the dread “f” word) pop-up, Seoul Patch. A few menu items rotate, with a couple traditional Korean dishes in the mix. Eat in at Rocketfish’s bar top or roomy booths.

Seoul Patch’s fried chicken sandwich

Order: Their fried chicken sandwich ($10) with daikon slaw has been an early favorite, and with good reason. The fried chicken is blessed with subtle Asian spices, crispy breading giving way to juicy meat within. Their sandwiches can suffer from not enough sauce or contrast, translating to dry, as in the case of a Korean BBQ Pork Sando ($8.50) with avocado, tempura onion ring and a pickle.

Korean pancake

Though spicy pork was well prepared, the sandwich needed a sauce to tie it together. Traditional Korean dishes, like Bibimbap ($11 – a rice bowl with bulgogi beef and fried egg), are better elsewhere. I prefer a green onion pancake ($5.50) that recalls Japanese okonomiyaki: chewy and moist, it’s dotted with bacon and kimchi, drizzled in kewpie (Japanese mayo with vinegar) and oko sauce, both typically used on okonomiyaki.

SOUTHIE, Oakland (6311 College Ave. at 63rd, Oakland, 510-654-0100)

Excellent Southie sandwiches

While I enjoyed Rockridge’s Wood Tavern from the first time I visited years ago, I didn’t exactly rush out after hearing about their sandwich offshoot last year on the same block, Southie. There are hundreds of excellent sandwiches in SF and I needn’t cross the bridge for yet another pork sandwich. But I was pleasantly surprised to find Southie’s sandwiches among the better I’ve had all year. Wine on tap makes lingering at high tables in the narrow space a pleasant lunch respite.

Lobster roll at New England Lobster

Order: A Dungeness crab roll ($18) trumps most crab sandwiches. On a buttery brioche, it explodes with succulent crab meat. Celery root remoulade and Meyer lemon brown butter elevate it to near perfection. An expensive sandwich to be sure, but they did not skimp on crab. “Spicy Hog” ($10) is their popular pulled pork sandwich on an Acme roll. Again, it seems everyone is doing a Southern-influenced pork sandwich these days, but theirs is a shows strong, loaded with coleslaw, pickled jalapeno, and lime aioli.

NEW ENGLAND LOBSTER, South San Francisco (170 Mitchell Ave., South SF, 650-873-9000)

New England Lobster’s new food truck

Industrial South San Francisco near SFO is certainly not the place most of us would head for lunch – and not for lobster. Look for a new, bright red truck off Mitchell Avenue, outside seafood/shellfish source, New England Lobster. The best lobster rolls I’ve had have been on the East Coast (overflowing rolls at Pearl’s Oyster Bar in NY’s Greenwich Village have been excellent for years). Despite the New England moniker, New England’s lobster meat is not the most flavorful nor is the bread that dreamy buttery brioche used in the best lobster rolls, but they are satisfying sandwiches, particularly if you ask for drawn butter to drizzle over them.

Order: Lobster corn chowder ($5) is essentially a creamy bisque dotted with corn and chunks of lobster. It’s decadent with a lobster roll (the one other option is a crab roll). If you happen to be nearby or need a bite before a flight, this is a fun, unusual option.

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Mar
15
2012

Wandering Traveler

Maki sushi-like presentation of Peruvian causas at Picca in Culver City

The Latest in LA FOOD

Spending nearly half my life in Southern California, I continue to explore LA’s best foods, often miles – and hours – apart. My latest return, staying in a modern, neutrel-toned suite with retro spirit at the new, peaceful respite of Hotel Wilshire, yielded more edible hits (and a miss).

Last issue I explored more LA cocktail havens. This issue it’s all about food, from brand new spots to a few classics.

BACO MERCAT, Downtown LA

Baco’s own soda pop

Of my recent LA travels, Baco Mercat was one of the more gratifying (and fun) meals. In a historic building downtown, Baco exists in a narrow space with high, airy ceilings. The casual restaurant feels almost cafe-like with a bar and unique menu concept. A “baco” is essentially a sandwich of pita bread (chewy inside, crispy outside) overflowing with fillings like oxtail hash or beef tongue schnitzel.

My server pointed me to “The Original“: pork belly and beef carnitas in an almond-chile-garlic-based salbitxada sauce (a Catalan recipe). The meat is tender, as one would expect, and the sauce nutty and spicy. Only an excess of greens throws of the sandwich.

Baco’s Original Baco sandwich

I was surprised to prefer the vegetarian offering, “The Fava Fritter“, lined with falafel, feta cheese and poblano peppers, in a Spanish, tomato and bread-based salmorejo cream. Baco also offers a few coca (flatbreads), and plenty of mini sides and salads, like a spicy green papaya, cabbage, lime salad ($6).

Playful Baco decor

Other highlights? Banana cream cannoli (desserts $7 each) enlivened by cardamom and butterscotch. Playful cocktails like gin-pop! made of their house Baco soda pop, gin, bitters, ginger. Sweet and sour house sodas like black mint (I wish the celery soda tasted more of celery). They also serve the already popular new Handsome Coffee (and sell their beans), started by three former Intelligentsia guys.

FUNDAMENTAL LA, Westwood

Dreamy vanilla cream soda

New Fundamental LA (opened last summer) easily vies for LA’s best sandwiches. In a spare space lined with communal tables., everyone orders the early crowd favorite: a chicken torta ($9) laced with tomatillo salsa, cotija cheese, crema, pickled jalapenos and guacamole.

But I fell in love with their take on one of the best sandwiches in existence, the Cubano. Their Cuban torta ($11) is pig happiness with pork, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard, and further decadence with a fried egg and pickled jalapenos. Soft yet crispy bolillo bread makes it, each part of the sandwich in perfect harmony.

Fundamental’s Cuban Torta

Sandwiches rotate with further joys like meatloaf on brioche ($11) layered with celery root puree, pickled cabbage, and, to seal the deal, fried brussels sprouts. For dinner they offer a variety of small and large plates in addition to sandwiches.

Warm potato salad is one of the better I’ve had lately ($4). Yes, its warm, accented by hickory smoked bacon, eggs, creme fraiche, excellent with chunky blue cheese.

Though they offer fun beers, like The Alchemist/Ninkasi/Stone More Brown Than Black IPA, Fundamental’s must-order drink is their Vanilla Cream Soda ($3). Dreamy and creamy, it is easily the best cream soda I’ve had.

PICCA, West Los Angeles

My favorite dish at Picca: Locro de Quinoa

LA has a winner in Picca, a new-ish Peruvian restaurant. It is, hands down, the best Peruvian I’ve had in LA, and that includes Mo-Chica. Last issue, I wrote about LA cocktails, some of the most fun being at Picca, from a menu by Julian Cox.

Picca with Sotto below

One of my favorite Peruvian dishes, causas (basically a soft potato mound garnished with ingredients), come in a variety of renditions. They arrive small, looking every bit like maki (sushi rolls). I was taken with a spicy yellowtail causa ($7) dotted with spicy mayo, green onions and wasabi tobiko, as well as a shrimp causa ($6) with pickled cucumbers and yuzu kosho guacamole. Then there’s skewers (anticucho) such as juicy, grilled scallops ($9) given a kick from aji amarillio aioli and wasabi peas, or anticucho corazon ($8), tender beef hearts in creamy rocoto pepper walnut sauce.

Scallop anticuchos

Tiraditos are another favorite of mine, essentially sashimi-like platters of fresh, raw fish in South American sauces. Picca’s thinly-sliced seabass tiradito ($13) is simple and pure: pristine fish doused in soy, lemon and sesame oil with a dollop of sweet potato puree.

Pork rib crostini: sweet potato puree, feta cheese, salsa criolla

My top entree was not one I expected to fall in love with: Locro de Quinoa ($13), described as quinoa pumpkin stew. It’s far better than it sounds. Parmesan cheese, crispy tomato (yes, crispy), fresh corn, and a fried egg crown this bowl of comfort. Finishing one, I immediately craved another.

SOTTO, West Los Angeles

Grilled pork meatballs over snap peas, Pecorino, bitter greens

Last issue, I wrote about the delightful Kate Grutman and her cocktails at Sotto. Thankfully, Sotto’s food is no slouch and rounds out the experience. Of course, we’ve seen dozens of these Neapolitan pizza, gourmet Italian venues line the streets of San Francisco in past years. Sotto is not exactly revolutionary, but there aren’t (yet) many like it in LA with a couple exceptional bites worth noting.

A hefty chunk of rustic house wheat bread is the sort of bread I’m used to at home and can be ordered with olive oil or burratta cheese, but I recommend fatty, satisfying lardo pestato ($7) slathered on a slice. They do a fine Neapolitan pizza but not the best, and certainly no Pizzeria Mozza if you’re talking LA pizza.

 Better than it looks: squid ink fusilli

What I found more exciting was their pasta. Sure I’ve had squid ink pasta many a time, but their squid ink fusilli lunghi ($16) is chewy, dark noodles enlivened with pistachios, mint and bottaraga (Italian salted, cured fish roe) – a brighter, more vibrant version than typical one-note squid ink pasta dishes.

I’ve heard complaints about distracted service – the place is continuously mobbed (I was pleased to find my nearby dining companion to be actress Maya Rudolph). But sitting at the bar I was well-taken care of. It’s the best perch from which to sip rare Italian amari and savor Italian pork meatballs.

MEZZE, Mid-City West

Mezze’s atrium and olive tree

Mezze‘s open, airy dining room with a pristine, white kitchen within view welcomes immediately. Under a glass-ceiling, an olive tree stands in the center, evoking a Mediterranean garden patio. Drinks include a handful of cocktails, well-selected wines and beers, including a few limited edition bottles from the OC’s Bruery, and a robustly red house cherry coke ($6).

Chef Micah Wexler was just nominated for a James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year. He works deftly with Mediterranean food keeping it light, flavorful and gourmet without being fussy. An array of colorful beets ($12) is playfully contrasted by crunchy, fried chickpeas, while dollops of sheep’s milk yogurt add creamy sensuality. An exemplary beet dish.

Excellent beet dish

An Arabian classic shakshouka ($13) is a heartwarming bowl of eggs, onions, tomatoes, and in this case, sweetbreads, with yogurt and pita to scoop up the stew-like dish. Egyptian Rebel fries ($13) are crowd pleasing, reminiscent of Canadian poutine, the fries covered in heirloom beans, beef brisket, Syrian cheese. Wood-fired Merguez flatbread ($14) is crispy thin dotted with fontina cheese and tomato jam, gently spicy with aleppo pepper.

Wexler indeed shows “rising star” promise, and I would gladly return for more.

SON OF A GUN, Mid-City West

Pretty if unexciting Son of a Gun cocktails

Son of a Gun was a royal letdown. I should have known. The can-do-no-wrong chef duo of Jon Shook & Vinny Dotolo already won LA over with their uber-popular Animal restaurant, which I found overhyped when dining there at the beginning of 2010. I should have learned my lesson, but staying at Hotel Wilshire merely a mile away, the New England-influenced seafood menu and charming fishing decor propelled me there regardless of my hesitations.

After braving the annoying no reservations policy and an early line pre-opening to then sit at a noisy communal table, unable to hear my friends, I found my server knew nothing about their cocktails ($8-12). It should have been a warning to stick with wine from their celebrated menu and sommelier. But cocktails looked good, running the standard classics from a Boulevardier to an Aviation. But execution was flat, signified by the modern classic Penicillin, which here tasted watered down, lacking in Scotch or ginger punch.

Miniscule bits of burrata & uni

To add insult to injury, we all left feeling ripped off – a problem I rarely complain of, though I eat out at good 10 times a week. I usually prefer small plates both to sample more and finding greater creativity than in a traditional meat and veg entree format. At Son of a Gun, “small” plates is an understatement.

Delicious but small shrimp toast sandwich

A mini-lobster roll with lemon aioli sounds like a steal at $7, but in two bites, it’s done. Shrimp toast sandwich ($11) is utterly delicious,  saucy with Sriracha mayo, but is the smallest $11 sandwich I’ve ever seen. Even a tiny scoop of pimento cheese with chips is $10.

Their popular fried chicken sandwich ($11) loaded with spicy B&B pickle slaw, is the one “normal-sized” sandwich, but is an obvious rip-off of the supreme Bakesale Betty’s fried chicken sandwich, which was around years before… and is superior.

Mini lobster rolls

Don’t expect any better by ordering higher-priced plates. An unexciting alligator schnitzel ($18) or insanely miniscule and odd uni, burrata, radicchio “entree” ($19), even a refreshing finish of frozen lime yogurt with graham cracker crumble and toasted meringue ($6), were all quite small. Four of us left hungry and annoyed, $200 later. Dropping $100 per couple with drinks is understandable, but rarely do I get so little for that at a casual restaurant.

Next time Jon and Vinny open another restaurant, I’ll know what to do.

KOBAWOO HOUSE, Koreatown

Bossam pork platter

Korean food in LA… you hear so much about it. The hype is warranted on volume of restaurants and food options alone. I can’t say I’ve yet had a Korean meal in LA that blows others way out of the water, but please do tell me where I must go.

On my latest visit, I was perfectly content at Kobawoo House, a family style dining room lined with wood and communal tables. Be forewarned: there’s a wait even on a weekday at lunchtime (thankfully, Bourbon Street Cafe – below – is next door so you can grab a coffee while you wait).

Delicious seafood pajeon

Seafood pajeon is a giant pancake of goodness, laden with octopus, squid, scallions and the like. Definitely up there in terms of great pajeon – and the size of a two to three person pizza. Their popular bossam ($15.99 small, $24.99 large) is tender pork steamed in a variety of spices with lettuce leaves and different ingredients to wrap it all up in. This is interactive food at its best. Miso stew is a soybean paste stew that arrives so boiling hot, it wasn’t till near the meal’s end I was able to take a (still hot) satisfying slurp.

Kobawoo is an ideal place to fill up for less (the Renaissance Man and I could not finish all we ordered for $35) with a group of friends or family on quality Korean food.

Snacks & Desserts

BULGARINI GELATO, Culver City & Altadena

Down a desolate walkway next to a grocery store: LA’s best gelato

LA isn’t the ice cream city SF is. Though I enjoy LA’s Scoops and Pazzo Gelato, you won’t find the shining equivalent of Humphry Slocumbe, Bi-Rite or even Mitchell’s here. But LA does have Bulgarini Gelato.

Leo Bulgarini’s obsession for perfection shines best in his nut gelatos. A Roman native, Bulgarini and his Pasadena-born wife, Elizabeth, hunted for the best ingredients for two years in Italy, studied two months with a third-generation Sicilian gelato master, then on to Milan to perfect their gelato-making skills.

Their Sicilian pistachio is unlike any other. Same goes for Kona macadamia nut. And Mandorla Sicilian almond. It tastes as if Bulgarini uses double the amount of nuts anyone else does, allowing for a nutty intensity greater than in even the best of pistachio ice cream. Macadamia nut is my favorite but taste each if you can.

Bulgarini’s lucious gelato

Sourcing coffee from Naples, cocoa from Santo Domingo, and hazelnuts from Oregon, quality is evident in these expensive gelatos. I liked other flavors, like Florentine chocolate with salt, but prefer general flavors at any of the aforementioned SF shops.

However, each of Bulgarini’s nut gelatos are better than any I’ve had throughout Italy or the US. A glorious excess of nuts takes on a textured but creamy body. Perfection.

SIMPLE THINGS SANDWICH & PIE SHOP, Mid-City West

Welcoming Simple Things

Mini-pies ($2.50 each, plus small $5.50 or full size $20) aren’t life changing at Simple Things Sandwich & Pie Shop, but they are fun, particularly key lime. There’s other baked goods and daily-changing sandwiches, salads and soups. The bright white and grey space is accented by yellow lamps, as cheery as the friendly servers. It’s a worthy sweets stop when on 3rd Street, with a far smaller selection but a more peaceful setting than always-mobbed Joan’s down the block.

TAMARIND AVE. DELI, Hollywood
There’s Jersey-style deli sandwiches, including pastrami, brisket and salumi, at Tamarind Ave. Deli, tucked off a non-descript Hollywood street. But that’s not worth going out of your way for. Rather, the joy is an impressive collection of classic, old-timey American sodas lining the walls of this charming, little take-out spot.

FONUTS, Mid-City West
I must admit I’d rather have a traditional donut than what the new Fonuts is calling (rather cheesily) “faux donuts”. But if I think of them as baked donut cakes, they are quite good. Crowd-pleasers include maple bacon and strawberry buttermilk.

Coffee & Juice

Sodas at Tamarind Ave. Deli

Coffee favorites in LA this time around? Bourbon Street Cafe in Koreatown with its Asia-meets-New Orleans-meets-third wave coffee offerings, from siphon to pour-over.

In Mid-City West (near West Hollywood), Commissary prepares coffee right, featuring three different beans from small coffee brands, including our own excellent Sightglass Coffee in San Francisco. I enjoyed a cup made with Victrola beans from Seattle (while at Commissary, don’t forget to pop into fabulous butcher shop Lindy & Grundy next door).

Commissary coffee

Spring for Coffee is a closet-sized shop in Downtown LA selling some of the West Coast’s best coffee beans, more than half of them from SF (from Blue Bottle to Ritual). They make a proper cappuccino and espresso, too.

On the juice tip, Sustain Juicery, a tiny shop downtown in LA’s garment district, is expensive ($7 each) – as any quality juice shop is – blending refreshing, bright winners like the classic green: kale, spinach, apple, celery, cucumber, parsley.

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Jan
15
2012

Top Tastes

At Amante: answer the question above the Chubby Noodle counter

3 First-Rate Cheap Eats Spots

Article & photos by Virginia Miller

Our city is loaded with amazing cheap eats. Here’s three new places worth adding to your go-to list.

CHUBBY NOODLE, North Beach (570 Green Street between Columbus & Jasper Place, 415-361-8850)

Habit-inducing spicy garlic noodles

Chubby Noodle easily counts as a best cheap eats opening of 2011. In the back of comfortably retro Amante bar, order at a kitchen window (illuminated in neon by the word, “Hungry?”). Then slide into roomy booths to fill up on fresh, daily ceviche, Hawaiian tuna poke ($11), and heartwarming red miso ramen ($9 with pork and poached egg; $11 with shrimp). From owners of the excellent, neighboring Don Pisto’s, I expected good, but it’s better than good.

Fresh Hawaiian tuna poke on tostadas

Whatever you do, don’t miss organic, buttermilk-brined, Mary’s fried chicken (5-piece wings or strips $9; 2 piece drum & thigh meal $7). It’s American fried chicken with Asian attitude, dipped in habit-forming, creamy sambal dipping sauce. Tender chicken strips are an elevated, gourmet version of chicken tenders from childhood.

Korean tacos on flour tortillas

House kimchi is no slouch, working its gently heated wonders as a side ($4) or on a kimchi kobe beef hot dog ($6). Besides the fried chicken, my other top dish is spicy garlic noodles ($8). Chewy and homemade, they’re oozing with garlic, oyster sauce, and a little jalapeno kick. Their Korean pork tacos ($9) aren’t carbon copies of the usual trendy dish. Instead of shredded pork, chunks of Niman Ranch rib chop imbue beefy heft, contrasted by Korean pickles, yogurt sauce, and arbol chile vinegar.

Don’t opt for Italian next time you’re in North Beach. Opt for Chubby Noodle. You won’t be sorry.

ROOSTERTAIL, Pacific Heights (1963 Sutter Street between Fillmore & Webster), 415-776-6783

Window-seating at Roostertail

Roostertail is, yes, another rotisserie joint. But only weeks into opening, and a few visits later, I’m impressed with friendly staff who exude a warm welcome even when merely grabbing take-out (note: they just launched curbside pick-up with pre-paid phone orders). The space boasts silver countertops and bright red stools, festive with beer and wine on draft.

When it comes to rotisserie, I’ll take dark meat, thanks ($5.75-$18.50, quarter to whole birds). The organic, juicy meat is delightful with their garlicky green sauce. Husband/wife team, Gerard Darian and Tracy Green, get their mainstay right.

A pulled pork sandwich ($10.75) is a solid sandwich pick, on an Acme bun topped with fresh coleslaw unencumbered by mayo. Tiny chicken wings didn’t excite (I prefer Hot Sauce & Panko‘s creative, meatier wings), nor did the cheesesteak sandwich. But there’s brisket, five different sandwiches or hefty salad options, along with soulful sides ($4-$5.50) like brisket baked beans or brussels sprouts with bacon.

I keep going back for the rotisserie.

GALETTE 88, Financial District (88 Hardie Place at Kearny, 415-989-2222)

Birch trees inside

There’s a Ti Couz-shaped hole where my Brittany crepe hunger resides.

Through the years, crepes didn’t get better than at the now-defunct Ti Couz. At the end of an alley off Kearny, the new Galette 88 isn’t exactly a replacement. There’s note quite the same depth of buckwheat earthiness. Their French galettes (aka buckwheat crepes; savory: $6-10, sweet: $5-6) are even thinner, still crisp, a little less flavorful, but nonetheless worthwhile. Gluten free and healthy, they’re made with only three ingredients (water, sea salt, buckwheat flour made from buckwheat which is a plant, not a grain), loaded with fiber, vegetable protein, calcium, iron.

Order Four Barrel coffee, Mighty Lea tea, or hard cider and choose a crepe. Bruce’s choice ($10) is my first pick, layered with smoked salmon, caramelized onions, and capers, topped with avocado slices, greens, and a tart/sweet lemon chive creme fraiche. Light yet filling, the zesty lemon sauce makes it.

Bruce’s choice, a smoked salmon crepe

Bleu Velvet ($9) is a savory/sweet choice of blue cheese, browned apples, arugula, honey, toasted almonds. Dessert crepes (lemon sugar, roasted apples with salted caramel, chocolate with candied orange peel, or nutella), made with eggs, milk, wheat flour and sugar, lacked the subtle chewiness and flavor of Ti Couz’ wheat dessert crepes.

Dessert crepes

But in their absence, Galette 88‘s crepes contend for the best in town.

It’s already one of the more pleasant FiDi lunch options (with just-added dinner, Wed.-Fri.): casual, order-at-the-counter ease, the owner flitting about, ensuring water cups are filled and everyone is content. The space is minimalist with live birch trees towering in one corner and a decidedly Mission air… rare in FiDi.

Galette 88 may not fill that Ti Couz-shaped hole, but it definitely satisfies Breton crepe cravings.

Inside Galette 88′s spare, hip dining room

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