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

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

Let Your Taxi Driver Tip You

“I take cabs all the time, and noticed that most cab drivers love to talk about food. Many are recent immigrants with distinct memories of food in their home countries; cabbies cover enough ground to eat pretty much anywhere they want,” explains pane. “For the past couple of months I’ve been asking for specific recommendations about restaurants and dishes and then eating as directed.”

One cabdriver told him that the Salvadoran restaurants around didn’t seem right. “He said that most Salvadoran places seem too fusion to him: it’s Salvadoran food cooked by Mexicans who know how a pupusa is constructed, but don’t know how it should taste.” So the driver recommended two places.

First is El Salvador Restaurant. It’s a pupuseria. The pupusas are quite good, with nice, crisp, browned exteriors, says pane. The curtido is very nice—quite tart and a bit spicy. Two pupusas, chips, and salsa run $4.50, but the chips are pretty unexciting, actually.

Second is Los Planes de Renderos, which is the cabdriver’s absolute favorite. He eats there every week. It’s small, it’s bustling, there are families everywhere, and it does a lot of takeout. And the food is exceptional. “I am no tamale expert,” says pane, “so take this how you will: this was the best tamale I’ve ever had. The dough was fluffy perfection. The filling was a combination of dark meat chicken, green olives and potatoes. I had a piece of bone and one olive pit in the tamale, but the deliciousness was well worth the choking hazard.”

El Salvador Restaurant [Mission District]
2278 Mission Street (between 18th and 19th streets), San Francisco
415-864-6668

Los Planes de Renderos Restaurant [Excelsior]
12 Persia Avenue (near Mission), San Francisco
415-585-8645

Board Link: Taxi Cab Recs: Salvadoran Food

A Towering Bowl of Matcha Shaved Ice

“When the weather’s warm, a cup of tea and the shaved ice at Kissako Tea revive the spirits,” says Cynsa. So whenever there’s a heat wave—which, for her, means anything above 73°F—she plops down at Kissako and gets her favorites: ginger green tea and a big bowl of matcha shaved ice. The shaved ice comes ujikintoki style, which means there’s a dollop of red bean paste on it. “The green Ujikintoki shaved ice melts creamy and soft on the tongue to contrast with the spoonful of sweet red beans…followed by sips of hot ginger green tea for an additional kick. It’s quite an enjoyable combination of flavors… for a quick interlude between browsing through the Kinokuniya bookstore and my friend’s search for dvds of Korean soaps that play on Japanese tv.”

Matcha latte here is also quite good, says Wendy_san. Unfortunately, the sweets are overpriced and of the same sort you can buy in the nearby grocery store.

It’s hidden under the stairway of the first floor of the Japan Center.

Kissako Tea [Japantown]
1581 Webster Street, San Francisco
415-440-1174

Board Link: Ginger Green Tea and Ujikintoki Shaved Ice

Insanely Great Fresh Tortillas

Tortilleria Jalisco makes fresh, stunning flour tortillas. There’s a little window, and a sweet lady will hand you your choice of amazing tortillas. They are hot, and they are heaven, says kare_raisu.

And it’s owned by women—there’s a nice article about that part of the business.

It’s a tie, kare_raisu says, with the only other truly great tortillas in Sonoma County: La Reyna’s corn tortillas.

Tortilleria Jalisco [Sonoma County]
897 W. Napa Street, Sonoma
707-935-7356

La Reyna [Sonoma County]
8465 Old Redwood Highway #720, Windsor
707-836-9721 or 707-836-9700
Location

Board Link: Tortilleria Jalisco–Sonoma