San Francisco Bay Area rss

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

Pig of Sky and Water

augustiner is a huge fan of smoked duck from the Willie Bird store in Santa Rosa. It’s remarkably reminiscent of ham, making one realize that duck is truly the pig of the sky and the waters of the Earth, as augustiner puts it. The flesh is as pink as ham, and it’s just as salty, tender, and rich. The smokiness doesn’t overwhelm the natural flavor of the duck. It’s beautiful on its own (a hot plate of smoked duck tends to disappear in minutes when served to Chowhounds), in sandwiches, or shredded over noodles. The bones make a wonderfully smoky broth or jook, so don’t even think about throwing them away.

Melanie Wong likes the smoked duck breast, an alternative to buying a whole smoked duck. It’s a wonderful thing to have in the fridge or freezer for a spur-of-the-moment appetizer when you have unexpected guests. Slice very thinly and serve cold or at room temperature—think of it as duck prosciutto. “And the best part is to yank off the whole strip of smoked skin (which isn’t good cold anyway) and save it for yourself to make cracklings … these taste like duck bacon!” she says.

Also excellent: the turkey spread, smoky and smooth, without the gloppiness of too much mayonnaise.

Willie Bird Turkeys [Sonoma County]
5350 Sebastopol Road, Santa Rosa
707-545-2832

Board Link: willie bird- pig of sky and water

Thai Contenders

Ton Yong Thai Café is a new Thai restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown. It’s extremely worthwhile, so check it out. The ingredients are fresh, and the cooks aren’t afraid to make dishes spicy when asked, says david kaplan. One of the unusual things about this place is that the dishes, while otherwise very well balanced, are strangely undersweetened—but this can be easily remedied by adding sugar. It’s vastly preferable to the much more common problem of oversweetened dishes.

One of the interesting items served here is macaroni kee mao, a relative of the more familiar pad kee mao. Apparently, it’s common in Thailand to find kee mao made with dried Italian pasta instead of wide fresh rice noodles. Ton Yong actually uses fusilli. david kaplan prefers the pad kee mao but appreciates the variety of spiral noodles. Also try the khao soi, a yellow curry soup with thin fresh egg noodles. The creamy, spicy soup is delectable—adding a little bit of sugar brings out the coconut flavor of the thick broth. It’s light on toppings, with only meat, bean sprouts, and scallion, but the noodles are perfectly cooked.

Another new Thai contender is Green Papaya Deli in Oakland. The menu is tiny, which can be seen as an advantage—it’s easy to order a mediocre dish from a place with an unnecessarily sprawling menu. Lao-style papaya salad is made with pounded, shredded papaya and delicious fermented crab paste. Larb is intensely flavored, with a great balance of sweet, salty, and spicy. twocents likes the sausage, spicy and course-textured, with delicious chunks of meat and fat.

Two dishes, plus three orders of sticky rice, are plenty for three people and come to about $5 per person. The staff will ask you how many peppers you’d like. Five is what daveena orders, which is about a two or three on the five-point scale at Oakland’s Champa Garden. But many spice fanatics order their food with 15 peppers, and daveena has seen people order as many as 40.

Ton Yong Thai Café [Chinatown]
901 Kearny Street (at Jackson), San Francisco

Green Papaya Deli [East Bay]
207 International Boulevard (at Second Avenue), Oakland
510-836-5337

Board Links: TonYong Thai Cafe (SF Chinatown) report
Green Papaya Deli–Lao-Thai in Oakland

Primal Smear

Berkeley Bagel sells a good water-boiled bagel, says rworange, with a satisfying chew and a nice bagel skin. The toppings are also extremely satisfying. Everything is well balanced here; they put just the right amount of smear on each bagel, and what lovely smears they are. The green and black olive smear, with the right ratio of chopped olives to cream cheese, is excellent on the specialty olive bagels, made only on the weekends. Chile cilantro smear is great on a jalapeño cheese bagel (get it toasted to bring out the jalapeño flavor). Also try the honey raisin walnut smear on a super cinnamon raisin bagel. Or have some Acme whitefish spread on your bagel. Or be adventurous and order a kauche, which costs 99 cents and somehow involves a minifrank.

Coffee is inexpensive and good. There are lots of options for vegans here, including vegan smears and three flavors of Tofutti. Bagels are $7.25 for a baker’s dozen. Order at the counter, and when your order is complete, pay at the register. Enjoy.

Berkeley Bagel [East Bay]
1281 Gilman Street, Albany
510-524-3104

Board Link: Albany: Berkeley Bagel on Gilman – Thai Iced tea, Vietnamese coffee, kalauchee, vegan smears, hummus and Acme whitefish spread

The Truly Massive Insider’s Guide to the Cheeseboard

The Cheeseboard Collective is the glorious center of Berkeley cheese culture. It’s easy to get overwhelmed in the place—there are tons of cheeses, tons of other stuff, and massive lines. So to help you out, we’ve compiled all the best Cheeseboard tips. Be aware, though: The cheese selection is ever changing, so some of these items may not be there on every visit.

rworange recommends the fabulous Portuguese thistle rennet cheeses. The best of them all is Serra da Estrela. “When the wheel was cut, both the cheese monger and I went ‘oooh’ at the same time. The oozy interior promised greatness and it was a cheese of greatness.” The Collective’s also got great Gouda and a fabulous selection of Roqueforts.

It carries a bunch of Rolf Beeler’s terrific cheese, including the Gruyère, the Hoch-Ybrig, and the Sbrinz. Beeler hails from Switzerland, so anything from the extended Gruyère family should be fabulous. “He is [blush, toe in dirt] my favorite artisan cheesemaker in the world and visits the Bay Area about once a year,” says maria lorraine.

The Collective sells the best olives that Robert Lauriston has found in the Bay Area. If you’re hitting the green, try the Lucques and the raw picholines; it varies from one visit to another which one is best. Some of the black, oil-cured olives are occasionally too salty, bitter, or rancid, so always taste before buying. He also recommends the Brebiou—a soft, ripe sheep’s milk cheese—and the cave-aged Gruyère. The Collective’s members “take excellent care of their triple-cremes: Brillat-Savarin, Explorateur, Gratte-Paille.” rworange agrees: Other places may carry Brillat-Savarin, but no one takes care of it like the Cheeseboard.

chocolatetartguy has some favorites: The piquant Piave is his choice for a hard, dry, nutty cheese. Neal’s Yard’s Appleby’s Cheshire is beautiful: curdy, crumbly, and tasting of pure, raw milk. Old Quebec is a nice sharp white cheddar.

Other recommended cheeses: Windsor Blue, Memoir Truffled Gouda, Berger Roquefort, Istara, Prima Donna Gouda, fresh cream cheese, and anything from Neal’s Yard. And many, many hounds recommend Red Cow Parmesan.

And more noncheese recommendations: hazelnut shortbread, sticky buns on Fridays (much better than the pecan rolls), and Greek shepherd’s bread on Wednesday, with lots of green olives and kasseri cheese oozing out the side.

The baguettes are the best in the area, says rworange. Great cornmeal cherry scones, too, says dreamsicle.

Fridays, the Collective does unique experimental rolls. There was, for example, an amazing roll with sweet blue cheese and nuts inside yeasty bread.

According to Morton the Mousse, “[T]he best possible strategy is to walk in without knowing precisely what you want, ask lots of questions, and sample, sample, sample. You can sample as much as you want. No matter how big the line is, don’t feel rushed. Even when you know a particular cheese is great, they might have something rare and incredible that you don’t know about. Before you buy anything, ask the counter person if there is a similar, worthwhile cheese that you haven’t yet sampled. For example, I’ve tasted all of their cheddars many times, and I know I like the Black Diamond the best. But a few months ago when I asked for cheddar, the counter person recommended a limited batch, 10 year aged Wisconsin, that they had aged in house for five years. It is the best cheddar I’ve ever tasted in my life, and I would have missed it if I had just asked for the Black Diamond.” Other times, a great cheese will have been sitting around for too long. So: sample, sample, sample.

The only research you really need to do before you go in, he says, is checking the delivery schedule for superfresh cheese. The Bellwether Farms fresh ricotta, for example, arrives Friday afternoon and is usually sold out by Saturday. He recommends calling ahead if you want a fresh cheese.

Chuckles the Clone says you have to watch the help. There are some sensational people who work there: They know everything, they love chatting, and they love handing out samples and finding out what you want. “If you wander in when they’re not busy, you’ll meet one of these people.” But if it’s really busy—like, say, on a Saturday—there will be a much larger staff, many of whom are cheese incompetents. So he says wait a little bit. Watch the staff for 20 minutes before you order anything; the good ones will become obvious. He even recommends grabbing a few different numbers, a little spread apart, so if your number gets called by an incompetent, you can just toss that number and wait for the next number to be called.

The Cheeseboard Collective [East Bay]
1504 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley
510-549-3183

Board Link: Berkeley–The Cheese Board – favorites & tips

New Szechuan Gloriousness

“What a find!” says elise h. It’s Panda Country Kitchen, and it’s got some mean Szechuan—and Chongqing, and northern Chinese—dishes. “The list of house special dishes shows a surprising amount of regional, unusual dishes such as charred fire pork chitlins, chong qing style spicy chicken, chestnut with chicken stew, braised beef tendon, duck cooked with taro, and phoenix pork kidney flower.” The food is delicious, and an incredible bargain. And we do mean incredible: At lunch, three full-size dishes, rice, and soup ran her $14.

Melanie Wong was a little worried by the presence of a subtle, Cantonese-style soup and a Cantonese waitress, but the Szechuan dishes are fully Szechuan. There are plenty of whole peppercorns and dried chile peppers. Shredded pork with smoked tofu is excellent. The small strips of pork are lean but still tender and juicy, and the dish is full of the natural sweetness of the meat. The knife work was not precise, and the pork was not as finely cut as it should be for this dish, but the taste was all there.

Mapo doufu shows off the full flames of ma la’s numb-tingly power. It’s soft and silky tofu, nubs of course ground pork, complex spicing, and loads of Szechuan peppercorn and red chile pepper firepower, for a full-on Szechuan attack.

Eggplant Szechuan is lovely, says elise h: spicy, and a little sweet. It’s a dry-fried eggplant dish, with an acceptable amount of chile oil coating the bottom of the dish, but not a hint of the dreaded gloppy sauce. Dry-cooked green beans are nicely seared.

You may want to request spicier for everything—there is a chance Panda’s giving some visitors the gringo treatment.

Panda Country Kitchen [Richmond]
4737 Geary Boulevard, San Francisco
415-221-4278

Board Links: Panda Country Kitchen
Sichuan Lunch Specials @ Panda Country Kitchen

The Last Real Diner

Tennessee Grill may be the last of its kind in San Francisco, says ML8000. It’s a hole-in-the-wall American diner that makes most of its well-prepared food from scratch. And it’s cheap: nothing over $10, and most of it’s around $7 a plate. It’s the sort of place where single senior men show up every lunch and dinner, eat, and just hang out—an old-school, social sort of diner.

Highlights include chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes, veggies, and sourdough bread. It’s truly cooked from scratch: ML8000 watched as they hand dipped his steak in egg wash and flour. It’s the best chicken fried steak in San Francisco. There’s also great, fresh fried chicken, cooked to order. It’s always moist white meat, with nice, tasty, crispy skin, says jillyju.

The best value here is the Tennessee special burger, says ML8000. It’s fresh beef, char-grilled to order, with fries, for $4.10.

Specials include roast beef, oxtail, roast pork, corned beef and cabbage, and salmon. They’re always good.

Tennessee Grill [Sunset]
1128 Taraval Street, San Francisco
415-664-7834

Board Link: Report: Tennessee Grill

A Large Halo of Crisp Cheese

The Squeezeburger at Squeeze Inn Hamburgers is definitely on the list of excellent cheap things to eat in Napa, says Dan Wodarcyk. A Squeezeburger is one-third pound of beef, fried rather than grilled, on a sesame bun with romaine lettuce, red onion, tomato, mayonnaise, and mustard. Add to this about one-third pound of cheddar cheese, put a bun on it, and then cover the thing for a few minutes to melt the cheese. “What you end up with is a large halo of crisp cheese surrounding the burger,” says Dan Wodarcyk. A Squeezeburger will run you $5.50. Add jalapeños, if you like, for 50 cents. Squeeze Inn also serves fresh-cut, skin-on french fries.

Squeeze Inn Hamburgers [Napa Valley]
3383 Solano Avenue (near Redwood Road), Napa
707-257-6880

Board Link: Squeeze In, Napa Burgers

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Pho Ga

Range chicken hor fun (rice noodle) soup at Huang’s Kitchen will definitely satisfy your craving for pho ga (clear Vietnamese chicken soup) if you don’t feel like waiting in line at Turtle Tower down the street. Huang’s Kitchen promotes itself as serving “Chinese cuisine,” and the proprietors are from China, not Vietnam, but the chicken hor fun soup is pretty much straight-ahead pho ga, with the added attraction of being made with fresh rice noodles, says Melanie Wong.

The soup features a generous serving of tasty free-range chicken, poached and then served off the bone with its firm skin. Chewy, velvety fresh rice noodles flow easily through the clean chicken broth without clumping together. The stock isn’t quite as rich as that at Turtle Tower, but it’s very good, with a taste of bones and just a bit of sweetness in the finish. It comes topped with fragrant chopped cilantro and green onion, with a pho-style serving of bean sprouts, jalapeño, basil, and lemon on the side.

Huang’s Kitchen [Tenderloin]
611 Larkin Street (between Ellis and Eddy streets), San Francisco
415-771-1388

Board Link: Range chicken hor fun soup (aka Pho ga) @ Huang’s Kitchen, SF

Mariquita’s Mystery Box

Lacinato kale, French fingerling potatoes, heirloom butternut squash, Jerusalem artichokes, long red Tropea onions, erbette chard, mustard greens, and Chantenay carrots—Cynsa scored a “mystery box” from Mariquita Farm with generous quantities of all of these and more. Mariquita Farm has a regular community supported agriculture (CSA) program to which people can subscribe, but those interested in what the farm calls “guerilla vegetable deliveries” can preorder a mystery box full of good stuff and pick it up on a Thursday night at the farm’s roving delivery location. (Folks also can preorder specific veggies off the available list on the website, like a bag of pimiento de Padrón peppers for $6.)

The mystery box costs $25, and Aaron was shocked to find out how much stuff is in it—at least three times the value in produce, he says. The selection may be even more varied and interesting than the regular CSA box. And it’s a ton of produce—bunches of greens that stretch rubber bands to the breaking point, big bags of peppers, bunches of carrots larger than those at the farmers’ market. It’s a great deal from a well-regarded farm that supplies some of the top restaurants in the area.

Mariquita Farm
Different locations; check website

Board Link: I love Mariquita’s Mystery Box

Loló

Loló, a just-opened restaurant in the Mission, serves Latin American fusion cuisine with Turkish and Mediterranean influences. The proprietors also own trendy restaurants in Guadalajara, Mexico, says Mari. They use local ingredients and do fusion cuisine well, says dobalina. Panko-encrusted fried shrimp wrapped in thinly sliced jicama (like little tortillas) is exceptional. “Never had anything like it,” says dobalina. Scallops and calamari are cooked perfectly, paired with a complementary sauce that’s flavorful yet subtle. Flank steak is tender and cooked to perfection, with excellent flavor. It’s the most expensive thing on the menu, at $18. Other items are priced around $9 to $12.

Loló [Mission District]
3234 22nd Street (between Valencia and Mission streets), San Francisco
415-643-5656

Board Link: Anyone tried Loló? SF