Top Tastes

Pican's dreamy smoked brisket meatloaf


Here’s five dishes that made a recent impression, from meaty, current-day classics in Oakland, at a bar brunch, and along Market Street, to fresh new joys in Palo Alto and SF – each bringing a little sunshine to the table.

15 ROMOLO – Fried Chicken Bacon Breakfast Biscuit Sandwich

Free flowing brunch punch specials ($4 per glass)

Brunch at one of the city’s best bars, 15 Romolo, is a pleasure. The well-spaced room tucked off a North Beach alley is blessedly unmobbed. Arrive at opening (11:30am), late by breakfast standards, and you’re likely to secure a table instantly. Greeted with complimentary waffle shots – yes, rounds of waffle bites resting in a mini-pool of maple syrup and boozy rum – you’re then guaranteed impeccable mid-day cocktails ($9-10), like a zippy, frothy absinthe showcase (read: not for the anise/licorice averse), Famous Fizz, made with St. George absinthe, shaken with strawberry-thyme shrub, cream, egg white, finished with seltzer water. Or try a Breakfast of Champions # 2, rich with Manzanilla sherry, Nocino walnut liqueur, maple syrup, coffee tincture and house banana cordial – not cloying but warmly gratifying.

Fab breakfast biscuit sando w/ rye sausage patty

Drinks are a given but one of the many joys of Romolo is that food is never a slouch. This has been true at night of items like their Challah @ Cha’ Boy ($7 – grilled banana, nutella, pickle, bacon sandwich on challah bread) and it’s likewise true at brunch. The one that makes me salivate is the breakfast biscuit sando ($9). In keeping with other brunch dishes, portions are generous, while a moist, green chile biscuit converts, filled with crispy fried chicken, the kind of bacon odes are written to (not too crispy, fatty), fried egg, house pickles, and a vivid arugula walnut pesto. Hash browns accompany, then adding on a hefty, savory house rye sausage patty ($3), I nearly rolled onto Romolo Place post-meal, blissfully fattened.

PICAN – Smoked Brisket Meatloaf

Romolo's waffle shots

Though one can occasionally experience a few highs and lows at downtown Oakland’s upscale Southern sanctuary, Pican (like uneven desserts or cocktails – oh, would that watery, sweet Mint Julep be less syrupy and served in a proper Julep cup), staff are eager to please and their American whiskey list is extensive. New Executive Chef Sophina Uong (of Waterbar, 900 Grayson, Betty Zlatchin Catering), who was helming the kitchen at one of my recent return dinners, introduces vibrant new dishes to the menus.

Pican's blue crab profiteroles

Even as I begin digging into new menu items like playful blue crab profiteroles, my heart belongs to their classic smoked brisket meatloaf ($21). It’s genius, really: shaved slices of Creekstone natural beef brisket are baked into a meaty-yet-light loaf, served with BBQ tomato jam, on roasted sweet corn salad with Cajun cheddar aioli. It’s like mom’s home cooking met an upscale Southern restaurant, then married California creative-fresh, a veritable mash-up of cuisines… which, in fact, sounds a lot like the vision behind Pican’s still satisfying food menu.

RANGOON RUBY – Mango Salad

Rangoon Ruby's brightly fresh mango salad

Merely a couple weeks old, downtown Palo Alto’s brand new Rangoon Ruby boasts chefs Win Aye and Win Tin formerly of Burma Superstar’s Oakland and Alameda locations (respectively), serving fresh, vivid Burmese dishes. The chic, clean space boasts a nice spirits collection (all three St. George gins can be found here, along with Camus Cognac) and tiki-focused cocktails, including lava and scorpion bowls for two or four. Burmese native and owner John Lee says the place has already been packed nightly. While they’re still working out opening and service kinks, Lee presents a gracious, hard-working aesthetic grown from his own experience working from the ground up in the restaurant at San Francisco’s Fairmont.

Rangoon's light fixtures

Beloved Burmese salads ($10-13), from tea leaf to ginger, are done right here – brightly generous. But no matter how many Burmese mango salads I’ve tried, Rangoon Ruby’s is a superior version, with strips of mango atop greens, that fantastic hint of savory imparted by fried onions and garlic, accented with cucumber and dried shrimp. Also try Nan Gyi Nok ($12), a heartwarming mound of rice noodles doused in coconut milk chicken and yellow bean powder, accented by a squeeze of lemon and a hard-boiled egg.

SHOWDOGS – Pickled Hot Link

Pickled hot link

Showdogs corners dogs in a space that continues to improve Market Street’s less attractive blocks, adding on old school sign and sidewalk seating enclosed by hedges since they opened. I have a number of go-to sausages (plus they rock a corn dog), but it’s their pickled hot link ($6.95) that remains truly different. A hot link, plump and pickled in apple-cider vinegar for a couple weeks, it’s tangy, slightly blackened as it’s grilled to order, topped with Crater Lake blue cheese sauce (more of that, please) and arugula leaves.

NOMBE – Chawan-mushi

Chawan-mushi (R) alongside buttered brown scallops

As part of an affordable seven-course Kaiseki dinner ($39.95) at Nombe, chef Noriyuki Sugie perfects chawan-mushi or Japanese savory egg custard. Though numerous izakayas (particularly Nojo) make memorable versions, I was recently hooked on Sugie’s uni chawan-mushi, lush with uni’s sea-worthy, umami notes, woven into a silky, custard, topped with fresh uni, served traditionally in a covered dish. Order a pour from Nombe’s impressive sake list – ask co-owner and sake sommelier, Gil Payne, to recommend a pairing for you – and settle into black booths in the quirky, comfy Mission diner space.

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Top Tastes


Oxtail three ways, a hammy biscuit, gourmet meatloaf… comfort comes in each of these forms at new spots (or in the case of Presidio Social Club, with a new chef) in meat dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner.


AMERICAN EATERY, Embarcadero (1 Ferry Building at Market St., 415-391-0420)

Barrel aged cocktails at Presidio Social Club

Prather Ranch is to be commended for raising sustainable, humanely-reared meats with a whole-animal (let no part go to waste) sales model. I’ve long enjoyed sausages and quality meats from their Ferry Building butcher. A few months ago, they opened American Eatery, providing their meats to go in drool-worthy dishes like Chuck Wagon chili ($6.50), a mixture of pork, pinquito beans, sharp cheddar, scallions and sour cream, or Munich-style white bockwurst sausage ($7) with whole grain mustard sauce and sauerkraut.

American Eatery executive chef Erica Holland-Toll came from the former ACME Chop House and Lark Creek Inn. Long using Prather Ranch meats at her restaurants, she was well-qualified to oversee the Ferry Building menu. Breakfast is playful with unusual offerings like braised pork scrapple ($8), a traditional Pennsylvania Dutch mix of pork trimmings, cornmeal, flour, and spices in a sort of panfried loaf. Their burgers tempt, even at breakfast, particularly The Stonebreaker ($12), laden with cheese curds and meat gravy.

Divine ham & cheese biscuit at American Eatery

I go for their maple smoked ham. Try it in an Acme Torpedo roll ($10) joined by avocado and Eatwell Farms egg, perfected with basil and cheese curds. I’m particularly smitten with the maple smoked ham and cheese biscuit ($8). The thick biscuit cushions Prather Ranch’s thinly shaved slabs of ham, San Joaquin Gold cheese, a fried egg and red eye gravy mayo. Biscuit Bender’s flaky buttermilk biscuit is the right choice – a local baker whose biscuits can also be found at Mission Cheese and Hollow, they wisely make larded and non-larded versions. Ah, lard! Kudos for keeping tradition alive.  I devour the sandwich with a Blue Bottle cappuccino, then sigh with contentment.


O3, Civic Center (524 Van Ness Avenue between Golden Gate & McAllister, 415-934-9800)

O3 sleek, comfortable space

O3 Bistro & Lounge opened in January in the former, transformed California Pizza Kitchen. The sleek, open space in tones of black, silver, purple exudes an Asian cosmopolitan feel with open windows offering a view of busy Van Ness Ave. Not an obvious foodie stretch, the place is busy with the business/Civic Center set. While there’s a range of small plates ($7-12), from hoisin-glazed short ribs to ahi tuna crudo, dinner adds on pricier ($18-28) entrees such as seared scallops with lobster garlic noodles.

O3’s oxtail grilled cheese

It’s fall-apart tender braised oxtail that calls out to me. At lunch and dinner find it in wonton shell tacos ($8-10) with jicama slaw, while at lunch there’s oxtail hash ($13), a mixture of caramelized onions, roasted red bell pepper, and russet potatoes over kimchi dirty rice, topped with bacon dust and a fried egg.  Does it get much more comforting? At a recent lunch I indulged in an oxtail grilled cheese sandwich on rustic, thick slabs of bread, glorified with sweet spice in the form of five spice raisin jam. Braised oxtail any which way? Bring it on.


PRESIDIO SOCIAL CLUB, Presido (563 Ruger St. at Lombard, 415-885-1888)

PSC’s fresh sardines

Long one of the more uniquely beautiful SF dining rooms, Presidio Social Club (PSC) is set in a 1903 military barracks like a sunny, white, 1940’s clubhouse with hints of red and chrome. Grabbing a bar stool for an Anejo Sour or Aviation from bar manager Tim Stookey and crew is a timeless respite. Their rotating barrel aged menu pleases, particularly the Aged Reasons Rye: rye, Punt e Mes vermouth, Cointreau, orange bitters.

Brightly seductive smashed peas

New chef Wes Shaw hails from Texas, working with longtime chef/owner Ray Tang on a new menu that doesn’t neglect PSC classics like a Dungeness crab Louis sandwich ($18) or their above-average mac n’ cheese ($10). But he also adds new life with TX nods, like 8-hour smoked brisket on Tuesdays or marinated calamari, kicked up with butter beans and chiles. Fresh Monterey sardines ($10) come flaky over chickpea puree, shrouded in celery, while cracked Dungeness crab or a platter of oysters (Thursdays are $1 oysters, 4-7pm) remain ideally suited eats in PSC’s crisp space.

Hefty but elegant PSC meatloaf

Surprisingly, two vegetable sides ($6) are among my favorite menu items, both deftly prepared, as fresh and healthy as they are palate-satisfying. Broccoli di ciccio is tossed in lemon with garlic and chiles, while smashed peas in mint oil are brightly seductive. How about that meat? One of the best dishes on the menu remains classic meatloaf ($17), infused with a new life – a seemingly bigger slice than I remember in years past. Like mom would make if mom was a gourmand, the juicy, meaty loaf rests atop a sea of mashed potatoes, crowned with slivered carrots and fried shallots for a pseudo-light finish.

Who’s ready for more meat?

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Top Tastes

Top Tastes is not a list of all-time favorites, rather it’s about the best tastes of the last two weeks (since my last newsletter), often from new openings.

Wall of hot sauces at Hot Sauce & Panko in the Inner Richmond


HOT SAUCE & PANKO, Inner Richmond (1545 Clement St., between 16th & 17th Ave., 415-387-1908)

Hot sauce fun

Pretty much my favorite opening in recent weeks is Hot Sauce & Panko. Not only is the hot sauce collection about the best around (reaching from the deep South to Japan), but just glance through their blog to witness the owner’s quirky hilarity.

As a chicken wing take-out shop selling a wide range of hot sauces, a good 20+ are available to sample at any given time. However, beware: I’ve already run into a sell-out situation when trying to order wings over the weekend… they were all gone by 2pm (at least they handle it with humor on their blog).

I like Lower Haight’s new Wing Wings, but I LOVE Hot Sauce & Panko (plus they’re the cheaper of the two), cooked to order. I walk away with a tub of wings for $19.99, or plenty for two at $14.99. What makes me giddy? Hot Sauce & Panko lets me choose as many of their appealing preparations as I want. I’ve been known to go home with four different types in a $14.99 order.

Hot Sauce & Panko's specials menu

There’s a regular menu offering classic buffalo or honey mustard, or the likes of kuzu salt & pepper wings. I tried wings & waffles together, which you can get as a combo ($5.99) or merely add a Belgian waffle ($1.99). The specials menu gets crazy with mixes like tequila/chipotle/raspberry jam wings or one week-aged cognac/habanero/lime/bitters wings!?

These aren’t typical menu offerings. Favorites are creamy Thai peanut sauce wings, KFC (Korean fried chicken wings), and a “Pucker Your Mouth” special of wings in lime, Thai fish sauce, garlic, blue agave, red pepper flakes with an orange/garlic/ginger/chili dipping sauce. A side of spicy slaw ($1.99) will further push your heat tolerance.

THE DOG PIT, Parkside (1404 Taraval St., between 24th & 25th Ave.)

A Seoul Dog

Vision for the new Dog Pit came from founder Jason’s roots growing up in Flushing, Queens, with its dense Chinese and Korean population (my favorite Chinese & Korean eats in Flushing here). Hot dogs were plentiful in his youth, but quality… not so much. I heard another customer ask about meat source and found it curious that he wouldn’t divulge the source (this is SF, after all), but these juicy dogs taste of good quality (all-beef dogs: $3.50-$4; veggie dogs: additional $1 – made of organic tofu, garlic, paprika).

Ownership is Chinese, but I particularly like dogs nodding to Korea and Japan. Tokyo Dog gets smoky nuance from bonito flakes and seaweed, with wasabi aioli adding creaminess (though could have used a little more aioli and a little less dry seaweed flakes). Seoul Dog is laden with kimchi (of course), pickled daikon, and korrake aioli (“Korrake” translates to croquette, which, in Korean food, is potatoes shredded and served hash-style with the likes of onions, carrots, cabbage).

Dog Pit menu

You’ll find plenty more than Asian dogs, however. Jason is from NY, after all, so there’s the New Yorker with red onion sauce, or a Baked Italia cheesy with mozzarella, plus onions, garlic and tomatoes. There’s a bit of everything on the dog front: Southern dogs with coleslaw and BBQ sauce, Chicago-style, bratwurst and Louisiana hot links.

Though a a new addition to the Parkside neighborhood, The Dog Pit is already one of its most playful cheap eats options.

KIKA’S TREATS: Crunchy Caramels, www.kikastreats.com

Kika's Crunchy Caramels (photo source: http://kikastreats.com)

On a recent night at a Marin “pop-up” drive-in (yes, there is such a thing) watching my childhood favorite, the original Superman, the unanimous top treat in my car was Kika’s Crunchy Caramels ($16 for a box of 9).

Kika’s Treats, a homegrown local since 2006,  makes caramels with coconut palm sugar and that whimsical Kika touch. Dark, bittersweet chocolate and a sprinkle of sea salt tie the caramels together but fun is had as puffed brown rice adds pop and sparkle to what could be typical gourmet caramels/truffles. These babies just won best caramels at SF International Chocolate Salon. Besides being available online, they’re at shops like Bi-Rite, Cheese Plus, and new Little Vine.


AATO KOREAN, Marina (1449 Lombard St. at Van Ness, 415-292-2368)

Aato's entrance

Aato, a new “Korean fusion” restaurant, only just opened. A surprising oasis on busy Lombard Street, decor is tasteful and soothing, while owner Jennie Kim grows herbs in potted plants out front by a little patio strewn with white lights. Despite a pricier menu than one typically sees in Korean eateries ($12-$15 for starters; $13.50-$25 for entrees), Aato is doing things differently, apparent from chandeliers and neutral colors in the dining room, to the use of locally grown, organic ingredients (though common-as-day in SF, unusual for local Korean spots). There’s even chef’s choice, 3-course menus ($32 or $29 for vegetarian), making Aato a bit more upscale.

When it comes to food, I’ve only ordered to-go, a pricey take-out option, to be sure, but each dish was made with gourmet care. The menu continues to evolve in these opening weeks but some initial highlights include Ssam, which literally means “wrapped” in Korean ($25). There’s three versions served with rice, kimchi, veggies and rice paper wraps. I wanted to go straight for Eel Ssam, but Kim talked me into Hangbang (Herbal) Bo Ssam… I wasn’t sorry. Tender, steamed pork, it’s aromatic and nuanced with herbs, expertly prepared and delightful with ssamjang hot sauce and veggies.

Aato's surprisingly elegant dining room

Man-Du Korean Dumplings ($12) are delicately pan-fried, plump with kimchi and shrimp (or veggie), an exemplary appetizer. Jab-Chae ($12) is traditional sweet potato noodles stir-fried with beef and seasonal veggies. They serve Dolsot Bibimbob ($15-16.95, vegetarian to seafood) piping hot in a stone pot (definition of the word “dolsot”). It’s ever my preferred way to have this melange of meat, veggies, kimchi, egg and rice. Seafood Pajeon ($15), the popular Korean pancake loaded with shrimp, squid, oysters and green onion, was satisfying but not my top version (that is currently pajeon at Manna in the Inner Sunset).

Weekend brunch intrigues with the likes of eggs with “Korean-style” hash browns ($9.50), tobiko, salmon, avocado and cheese Fritatta ($12.75), and Man-Du Dumpling Soup ($13). Kudos is deserved for Aato stepping up the quality factor in what I hope will only continue to be ever-diverse Korean options (more on recent Korean openings here).

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Around the Bay

Bratwurst & Steak in MARIN

Photos & Article by Virginia Miller

Sausages, onions and peppers on the grill at Tavern at Lark Creek

Tavern at Lark Creek’s new Biergarten, Larkspur

Darling oompah band plays under towering redwoods

Think towering redwoods, smoky aromas of sausages, onions and peppers wafting from a grill, German beers on tap from a cooler, and a darling oompah band of elderly gentleman playing with spunk and skill. Enter the just-launched this week Biergarten at The Tavern at Lark Creek. For a short jaunt from the city to Larkspur, it feels worlds away.

I arrived the inaugural Sunday, 8/21, to sunny, fresh air and the knowing shade of those gorgeous redwoods that flank the Tavern (more a classic yellow and white house than tavern). The Biergarten will run every Sunday through October 30 (2–5:30pm) outside the restaurant. It evokes Munich beer garden days but with a decidedly California spirit from towering redwoods and elevated beerhaus food.

Idyllic setting at communal tables

House-made pretzels

Chef Aaron Wright grills up smoked beer or chicken apple sausages and garlic bratwurst, juicy and savory, accompanied with grilled onions, peppers and two types of mustard. House-made pretzels come generously dusted with sea salt, or German potato salad helps in soaking up pints of Spaten’s Pilsner and Dark Optimator. Food operates with a ticket system (1-2 tickets, at $5 each, per dish or beer).

When the oompah band raised their steins with rowdy joy, I raised mine, feeling time stop if for a moment, aware of the simple joys of taste, smell, music, camaraderie and nature on a Sunday afternoon.

Spaetzle, bratwurst & beers at Tavern at Lark Creek’s Sunday Biergarten

El Paseo, Mill Valley

Magical walkways leading into restaurant rooms

Tyler Florence and Sammy Hagar’s (yes, of Van Halen) rebirth of El Paseo, the historic, brick-lined labyrinth of a space tucked off an alley in Mill Valley since 1947, has been going strong since March. And if you’ve tried, you know it’s mighty difficult to get a reservation. I have found, however, on a weeknight or Sunday, that slipping into the bar around 7:30pm affords me one of its two cozy tables, while seats at the bar tend to open up pretty regularly.

Despite the fact that I can vouch for the quality of food coming out of the kitchen, the number one reason to go is still that magical space. The enchantment of candlit, brick-walled walkways opening up into one dim, romantic dining room after another, evokes a subterranean wine cellar feel.

Heirloom Tomato Salad

Even the font used for the restaurant name (on plates, knives, menus) harkens to the past, while the straightforward American chophouse menu confirms the old school vibe.

Though nothing here has been revolutionary, an heirloom salad ($15) loaded with yellow and red tomatoes, crispy croutons and thick mozzarella, is fresh, if a little salty, and more artful than expected. A a side of creamed corn ($8) is pretty much Summer goodness encapsulated.

El Paseo floor mosaic at bar entrance

Steaks ($26-29 or $60-90 for two) are juicy, dry-aged (for 38 days) California Holsteins (some come wrapped in bacon). Cravings for beef are satiated. As they are with the Béarnaise burger ($16): medium rare, its tenderness melts between toasted brioche, dripping with caramelized cioppolini onions and Nueske’s bacon.

There’s a worthy wine list, yes, but the one thing missing is a fine Scotch or bourbon/rye cocktail.

All in all, I’d come return again for more meaty, candlit enchantment.

El Paseo’s medium-rare burger

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