San Francisco Bay Area rss

Restaurant recommendations, new openings, and highlights from the SF Chowhound community.

Do You Know Oakland Has a Little Guatemala?

Oakland has a Little Guatemala. This is fantastic news; all of you should be dancing your pants off.

In the early morning hours, two Guatemalan women sell excellent, excellent, excellent Guatemalan tamales, says rworange. The first is outside of San Miguel, a Guatemalan restaurant. She has a grill going with onion and beef and tamales. Her chicken tamales are wonderful—moist, full of meat, red peppers, olives, and other stuff, and wrapped in a banana leaf. She also has a pot of something that looks like mole but turns out to be dense, liquid beans. It’s very nice, and very different from the usual frijoles. A breakfast feast—tamale, chile relleno, and atole—will run you $6.

The second tamale lady is at La Colmena market. Her tamales are pretty terrific; her atole is the best rworange has ever had. It’s rich and almost eggy, with teeny bits of coconut blended in. The onion-pepper sauce is really, really hot. Tamales and atole are $3.50.

Chapinlandia Bakery is one of the larger Guatemalan bakeries around. It has good basket-shaped baked items, with cream cheese, custard, or pineapple filling. Custard and cream cheese are the best. Cakelike squares topped with sesame seeds are very tasty. And the croissants are distinctly Guatemalan—dense inside, and covered with sugar and cinnamon. They’re sort of like morning buns. And they’re 35 cents each.

Tamales outside San Miguel Restaurant [East Bay]
4729 International Boulevard, Oakland

Tamales inside La Colmena Produce Market [East Bay]
4825 International Boulevard, Oakland

Chapinlandia Bakery [East Bay]
4737 International Boulevard, Oakland

Board Links: Oakland’s Little Guatemala–The early bird gets the tamale … and churrasco
Oakland’s Little Guatemala–Chapinlandia Bakery

Hot, Sour, and Tingly in Cupertino

Szechwan Era doesn’t make many concessions to Americanization, except for its weekday lunch specials. The full menu is replete with Szechuan specialties—many of them quite delicious.

“Husband and wife lung slices” (beef and tendon cold appetizer) does the sour and tingly, ma-la flavor to the hilt, says Melanie Wong. Duskily spiced, it’s a winner. The honeycomb tripe that’s mixed in with the beef and tendon has great texture; it’s cut at the proper angle for a combined tenderness and slight chewiness.

Potato with hot green pepper is a simple dish that requires perfect execution. And it’s done perfectly here, with expert knife work, cooking, and just enough hot pepper to breathe some warmth into the dish, says Melanie. Hot pot with fresh pickle, fish, and lamb is fantastic. Green bean noodle with hot pepper has an acidic bite and refreshing taste—great on a warm day.

There are some problems, too. Water-boiled beef is a big disappointment—tough, monotonously spiced, and lacking ma-la flavors. And pork chitlins are awful—improperly cleaned, and foul tasting.

Szechwan Era [South Bay]
10971 N. Wolfe Road, Cupertino

Board Link: Szechuan Era, Cupertino

Earth-Shakingly Good Vegetables (and Yoga) at Ubuntu

Ubuntu is so good, it makes Carrie 218 regret moving away from Napa. It impressed CHOW wine blogger Daniel Duane to the point of giddiness. And hi standards went a little crazy with deliciousness.

Ignore the fact that it’s surrounded by the wildly famous restaurants of Napa Valley. Ignore that it shares a name with a Linux operating system. (Ubuntu is the word for an African humanist philosophy, so it’s not actually named after the operating system.) If the fact that it’s a combined yoga studio and restaurant bugs you, ignore it. (Although, if you care, you can take in a yoga class before your meal, and some serious yogis seem to think Ubuntu runs a good studio.) Ignore everything else, and just focus on the fact that the food is stupendously, wildly, earth-shakingly good.

It may be vegetarian, but it’s not hippie-drippy, stereotypically vegetarian, says the wary Duane. “Despite the yoga and the vaguely New Age–y name, the menu offers truly first-rate California French-Italian that simply doesn’t have any animal flesh. It’s a curious effect, because nothing else about the cooking calls out vegetarian. Literally nothing. No tofu, no portobellos, not even any tabbouleh. In fact, everything about the food demonstrates a chef absolutely committed to his craft, paying very close attention to the way that that craft is being practiced, and keeping pace with the best in the game.”

There are amazing sea-salt-and-lavender-flavored Marconi almonds to munch on while you peruse the menu. There are flavorful, hearty sunchokes with romesco sauce. There are perfectly sweet beets and Asian pears, with fresh greens and whipped Point Reyes blue cheese. There is the much-beloved cauliflower in a cast iron pot—a hearty cauliflower mélange, held together in custard, and smelling beautifully of curry. There are roast root vegetables with squash purée and farro—the flavor is a complex layering of vegetables. The other standard: potatoes with fennel.

The cooks are masters of the Brussels sprout, too. Various preparations of this vegetable—like roasted Brussels sprouts over grits, with mustard—have been winning over hounds.

Salsa verde is fantastic. Salads are light and delicious. Stuffed bok choy in French pumpkin soup, with lemongrass and basil, is “amazing. Lightly spiced, delicate, truly outstanding in every way,” says hi standards. And pizza with wild nettle and garden kale and an egg on top is the best pizza she has ever had in a restaurant, ever. “We inhaled it!”

Great beverages, too: There are perfectly pulled shots of Blue Bottle coffee, and Racer 5 IPA on the menu, says Doodleboomer.

We have heard only three complaints. First, some folks find the servers are a little inexperienced, though definitely friendly. Second, rightstar thinks it’s terrible that they serve butter with the bread. “Not what you would expect at a place that specializes in healthy vegetable dishes,” he says. And lintygmom walked out of the restaurant before eating anything because of the prices. “I don’t love vegetables enough to spend $9 for cauliflower or $14 for a small, not-the-best vegetarian pizza. Not for lunch.” (Remember that these prices are for tapas-size dishes—you’ll need two or three such dishes to make a meal.) rfneid, though, notes that he and his wife had dinner at Ubuntu and left stuffed, for $68. “Quite reasonable for the quality of the food, which was superb.”

Ubuntu Restaurant & Yoga Studio [Napa Valley]
1140 Main Street, Napa

Board Links: I Am Vegetable, Hear Me Roar! Ubuntu Redux (long)
Ubuntu for lunch
Finally Made it to Ubuntu–The Good and the Bad

The Return of Gumbah’s and the Italian Beef Comeback!

Here’s the story: Gumbah’s served the most beloved Italian beef sandwiches in town. Then it closed, to the sorrow of thousands. But it’s back! One of the former customers from the neighborhood stepped up and bought the place. Before he did, he made certain he could retain the old recipes, the same providers, and the same cook. He loved the place so much, he wanted to bring it completely “back in all its delicious, drippy glory,” says PDXpat. “Even the old familiar, house-made giardiniera was there.”

The cheesesteak is great, too—very much like it was previously and, if anything, a little cheesier. Fries are definitely the same crispy shoestring type. The only disappointment is the onion rings—which were never really that great at Gumbah’s anyway.

There’s been some minor remodeling: The eating area is a little less cluttered, the kitchen is a little cleaner and more organized, and everything’s a bit shinier. But it’s definitely the same old place.

The new place has a new name—West Side Café—but the owner’s leaving the Gumbah’s signs up for a while.

West Side Café (formerly Gumbah’s) [Solano County]
138 Tennessee Street, Vallejo

Board Links: Gumbah’s is Back!
Gumbah’s Italian Beef, Vallejo, why it is worth a trip

Darn Spicy Nepalese

There’s excellent Nepalese and Indian food at Namaste Café of Petaluma (not to be confused with the one in Milpitas). The chef uses the freshest of ingredients and presents the food like the culinary school graduate that he is. drmimi loves the lunch buffet. Best stuff: Nepali momocha (steamed dumplings stuffed with minced lamb, in tomato sauce), palakh murgh (creamed spinach and succulent chicken), samosas, and tandoori murgh. On the dinner menu, vegetable pakoras are fabulous. She also called ahead and got some vegetable dishes prepared vegan-style, sans cream—one roasted eggplant, one mushroom dish—and they were fabulous. Great masala tea, too. And, drmimi says, it’s spicier than Shangri-la’s fare—not just in heat but in the density and complexity of spice flavors.

Shangri-la is the other favorite in the area. “I’ve never had a meal there that I didn’t really love,” says Kathleen M. The people are friendly, the service efficient, and the food high-quality. And it’s spicy, too—as much as some folks can handle.

Namaste Café [Sonoma County]
1390 N. McDowell Boulevard, Petaluma

Shangri-la [Sonoma County]
1706 E. Cotati Avenue, Rohnert Park

Board Link: Namaste Cafe- Petaluma

House-Made Soba

Good homemade soba is beautiful—a dense, wheaty, chewy, perfectly toothsome bit of noodly life. It’s hard to find in San Francisco, but sometimes, Mikaku Restaurant has it. Try its homemade zaru soba: It’s particularly nice, since Mikaku serves the sobayu (the water the noodles have cooked in), says shortexact.

Mikaku doesn’t have its own buckwheat milling machine, so it’s not actually grinding its own flour on the premises—which means that the soba isn’t done in the most strictly, traditionally proper Japanese way. But the chef is enthusiastic about the soba-making process, and he has fans, says K K. However the soba is a special—so call ahead to find out if it’s being served.

The restaurant also has a nice, hearty chawan mushi and light, sweet kobacha, served with sea salt.

Mikaku Restaurant [Union Square]
323 Grant Avenue, San Francisco

Board Link: Housemade Udon or Soba anywhere?

Steak Frites and Moules

Couleur Café has been a longtime favorite for Joan Kureczka, and the menu has just changed for the better. Steak frites are now served with a good, clean red wine and shallot sauce—much better than the muddy, overly rich Roquefort sauce from the old menu. There are lots of new mussel preparations. Moules Potrero is very good: mussels in white wine broth, with tarragon and tomatoes.

The café’s got jillyju’s gold-standard burger, too.

Couleur Café [Potrero Hill]
300 De Haro Street, San Francisco

Board Link: New menu at Couleur Cafe—this place just gets better and better

Carnitas to Dream About

Earl Grey stumbled across Guanajuato Market, where he found an excellent butcher, with house-made chorizo and lard in two colors. And tubs full of mole, and dreamy carnitas. “The carnitas still haunts me,” he says. He’s going to stop on any future trips through Vallejo.

Guanajuato recently opened a taqueria and grill next door.

Guanajuato Market [Solano County]
1652 Fairgrounds Drive, Vallejo

Board Link: Guanajuato Market in Vallejo

Do You Want to Get Slayed by a Stew?

Feijoada is the glorious, long-cooked, ultradense, ultrabeautiful, ultra-hard-core pig stew of Brazil. Typically, your classic feijoada will include pork ribs, pork loin, pig’s tail, pig’s ears, pig’s trotters, spicy pork sausage, fresh linguiça, cured linguiça, and beef jerky. Oh—and beans and greens.

After going a little crazy in the brain for feijoada, rworange tried out three versions of the dish in the Bay Area, which may be a little more than one human should ever be allowed to have in a single month. We pray for her gastrointestinal integrity.

Her clear favorite is 25 West’s. It’s not only the best Brazilian dish she’s had in San Francisco—it’s one of the best dishes she’s had in the Bay Area period. “The purple black beans were loaded with sausage and long-cooked pig parts. The pork tasted like everything good about pig.” And, astoundingly, for all this pork energy, it’s not really that greasy—just rich, tasty, and satisfying. “On a cold rainy day I can’t think of a better dish.”

You get pig’s foot. You get some neck bone that you suck the meat off of. You get crispy bits of bacon. And you get huge hunks of pork, dyed purple-black by the beans.

For those of you who are creeped out by the more unusual pig parts, you may want to try Brazil Café’s feijoada. It’s tasty, but not in the same class as the 25 West version. It does have a noticeable lack of feet, tail, or neck, though. Wusses.

25 West [East Bay]
25 W. Richmond Avenue, Richmond

Brazil Café [East Bay]
1983 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley

Board Links: Death by feijoada crawl part 1 – 25 West Brazil Restaurant … mercy !!!
Death by feijoada crawl part 2 – Nino’s Pizzeria and Brazilian Restaurant
Death by feijoada crawl part 3 – Brazil Café

Sebo Starts Sunday Izakaya

Sebo’s decided to change up its game, and now serves izakaya on Sundays. It turns out, the restaurant’s just as talented with the grilled, baked, and fried pub fare as it is with sushi. A few Chowhounds dropped by for the first izakaya night: Favorites include some home-style classics, like bitter melon with egg, and daikon. The outstanding dishes of the first night were grilled fish collar and marinated eggplant, says felice. And the kakuni is the best version she’s ever had, including in Japan. “[M]ost are overly seasoned, only to be eaten with rice, or not fatty enough. This version was soft, melty, and perfectly salty-sweet.”

shortexact is a natto junkie, and he particularly dug the inari yaki—grilled inari with natto, topped with green onion. His favorite part: two homemade tamago yakis. The tamago is firm yet lightly juicy. “These are among the very best in the Bay Area that I’ve tried; it gives the tamago from Kitsho in Cupertino a run for its money. … Totally subtle, complex and a work of art.”

Prices are pretty great, given the quality of the food: $5 to $8 a dish. The menu will change quite a bit every night.

Sebo [Hayes Valley]
517 Hayes Street, San Francisco

Board Link: Izakaya at Sebo