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

Magical Doorway into a Persian Family Kitchen

Woodminster Café is just a sandwich shop. Except on Friday nights, when a little magic door opens up, and the owner’s wife cooks a few Persian dishes. The dishes vary from night to night; there can be lamb kebabs, chicken kebabs, lamb-chicken kebabs. Sometimes there is stew with chicken, pomegranate, and walnut. Sometimes there is stew with lamb and eggplant and lentils in a saffron-infused broth. There’s one stew a night, and if you come back every Friday for a month, you’ll get to taste them all.

Lillian Hsu followed the owner’s recommendation and got a bowl of beautiful lamb stew. “The tender lamb shank meat pulled beautifully off the bone and came with a lovely fragrant broth and a whole roasted tomato, which the owner’s daughter said they grew in their own backyard. We found out from the chef—the owner’s wife—that it was parsley, chives, a ‘spicy vegetable’ whose name she couldn’t tell us, as well as pinto beans. At the end of our meal, the owner’s daughter brought us a complimentary plate of crispy rice remains topped with dribbles of stew.”

The family is absurdly friendly. They will talk you up, give you recommendations, talk about what went into the dishes, tell you what they’re making next week. It is a well-cooked meal, served with love, in pleasant, simple surroundings.

Friday dinners are from 5 to 8 p.m.

Oh, and during the day, they serve the best chicken salad sandwiches in California, says ChewChewChew.

Woodminster Café [East Bay]
5020 Woodminster Lane, Oakland
510-530-1661
Map

Board Links: Woodminster Cafe
Woodminster Cafe–Home cooked Persian food in the Oakland Hills!

Ultrarare Burmese Fermented Tea Leaves, To Go

Good Luck Yogurt is a little yogurt shop in a mall food court, next to a Mervyns, in Newpark Mall. It serves yogurt. And Burmese pickled tea leaves, to go. In regular or spicy.

This is a serious rarity. The process of making this stuff involves fermenting tea leaves in running water for months. Most Chowhounds can only get it by ordering a tea leaf salad at a Burmese restaurant. Some Chowhounds have tried to find out where to get pickled tea leaves for home use by asking their Burmese restaurateur; they have been told that it takes “family connections.” Except here, at Good Luck Yogurt.

A generous package of pickled tea leaves runs you $5, and includes some crispy mix-ins, and plenty of fermented, pickled tea leaves. The counter lady advised Melanie Wong to add fresh lemon juice, dried shrimp, a bit of fish sauce, and chile flakes, if she wanted more of a kick. You can buy house-made balachung (dried shrimp, garlic, and chile condiment) for $4 a half pint.

This stuff is pretty concentrated and powerful; unlike what you might get at a restaurant, it’s pretty much pure tea leaf. You may want to cut it with leafy greens and other veggies. One package of it is about the equivalent of four orders of tea leaf salad at a restaurant.

Good Luck Yogurt [East Bay]
2217 Newpark Mall, Newark
510-745-7788
Map

Board Links: Burmese Packaged Foods @ Good Luck Yogurt

Szechuan, Numb and Tingly

P. Punko’s two favorite Szechuan joints are Zone 88 and South Legend.

South Legend’s menu has some standard items, and some exotica. There is Szechuan pickled vegetable—the perfect appetizer. It’s just a bunch of supercrunchy mixed pickled vegetables in a chile oil. There is spectacular Chongqing fish—pieces of light, white fish, battered and fried to a perfect, greaseless crisp, with a huge mound of red chile pepper and some sort of magic Szechuan fairy flavor dust.

There is shredded pork with fermented fish flavor, with a nice, pronounced, unsweet tang. There are excellent Szechuan cold noodles, with sesame paste and just the slightest tingle of Szechuan peppercorn. There’s a superior version of dry fried green beans. And there is Szechuan-style beef jerky—the only dish at South Legend where the numbing, tingling flavor of Szechuan peppercorns is in abundance.

Zone 88 has more insane exotica, and more brutal use of Szechuan peppercorns. There are Chongqing spicy chicken wings, which are like South Legend’s Chongqing fish, but, unbelievably, even better. Bits of superjuicy, perfectly fried chicken—slightly sweet, very savory, quite numb-tingly, and superhot. It is the world’s best bar food. There is also similarly fried spicy squid—just a pile of crunchy tentacles dusted in magic fairy Szechuan flavor dust.

The Szechuan cold noodles here are less numb-tingly, but spicier than South Legend’s, and also quite good. And there are great wontons in chile oil, with clear numb-tingly notes.

South Legend [South Bay]
1720 N. Milpitas Boulevard, Milpitas
408-934-3970
Map

Zone 88 [Portola]
2428 San Bruno Avenue, San Francisco
415-468-6488
Map

Board Links: Sichuan Excursions: Hangen (Mountain View), South Legend (Milpitas), Zone 88

Perfect Pho

At Turtle Tower, there is perfect pho, says Dave MP. It has genuinely fresh rice noodles and delicious broth—all gingery and beefy, just like Grandma would make if Grandma were from Saigon.

Avoid the beef stew in wine sauce: The wine sauce tastes like cheap red wine, and it’s gloppy.

Good fresh lemonade.

Turtle Tower [Tenderloin]
631 Larkin Street, San Francisco
415-409-3333
Map

Turtle Tower [Richmond]
AKA Vietnamese Restaurant
5716 Geary Boulevard, San Francisco
415-221-9890
Map

Board Links: Turtle Tower Report

The Best Sandwich in the World

Hungry Hippo loves the new sandwich at Sea Salt: a beautiful banh mi baby made from big, fatty, oily pieces of fried eel, packed with the usual pickled Vietnamese sandwich condiments, and stuffed into the same buttery role used for the lobster sandwich. We’re talking pan-fried eel here, big, half-inch-thick hunks of eel, unbattered, unbreaded, and glorious. It has, he says, even surpassed Sea Salt’s trout BLT in his heart of hearts.

It is $12, warns rworange, but totally and completely worth it. It is the only eel she’s tolerated in her life, with the most wonderful silky texture. Packed into the soft sub roll, it is pure “pillowy seafood sandwich satisfaction.”

It is completely addictive. Morton the Mousse has had six of them in the past two months. It is, far and away, the best dish he’s ever had at a Krikorian establishment.

Sea Salt [East Bay]
2512 San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley
510-883-1720
Map

Board Links: Eel banh mi at Sea Salt

Our Spectacular Tour of Pacific East Mall

There is something special about Pacific East Mall. It’s a big Asian mall in the middle of a big Taiwanese community; all sorts of little Taiwanese and other Chinese goodies are scattered throughout the mall.

The most impressive shop in the whole place is Tw Bestway Foods, says rworange. It’s an insanely cool snack shop—where snack includes Taiwanese preserved fruits, pork jerky, and hot jelly drinks. There are a dozen kinds of preserved plums: licorice plums, oolong plums, mint plums, cherry plums, wine plums. There is plum-flavored star fruit, honey sweet potatoes, and licorice lemon with mint. There is bright green sweet and sour mango that’s sticky and crunchy and tangy. There is also beautiful cold plum jelly. It is a sensuous delight—juicy, delicate, and soft. It’s salty, it’s sweet, and it’s a little smoky. It’s jarring, but appealing.

There are bagged flower teas. They also make milk teas with those flower teas—sometimes with hot grass jelly. And it all looks stellarly fresh. Some of it is seriously weird, but if you’re brave and willing, go for it. Some of this stuff is extremely tangy, or bitter, or salty. You might love it. You might retch. Who knows? They’ll let you mix lots of different teas in one bag. Be a palate adventurer.

J&S Coffee & Tea House is the hippest place in the mall, and it sells very good boba drinks, says Sophia C. It’s got the yummiest milk tea, and boasts the most satisfyingly chewy boba. Coconut-pandan-sesame waffles and egg puffs are way yummy, says lj2899. Banh mi, on the other hand, aren’t so good. Neither are the spring rolls, or the sushi.

Sheng Kee Bakery has very good banh mi sandwiches, in all the usual varieties. Its boba tea is good, but the boba itself is less satisfyingly chewy than J&S’s.

Restaurant 168 is definitely a Taiwanese place. Avoid xiao long bau and other non-Taiwanese dishes. Go for stuff like salt crispy chicken with basil, turnip cakes, pot stickers, smoked chicken, three cup chicken, dan dan noodles, seaweed salad, stinky tofu, and single-serving “healthy” soups—they’re all fairly good, says OnceUponABite.

There is an excellent Chinese chestnut cart. Right now is peak season for these, so get them. They are tiny, hazelnut-size chestnuts, imported from China. They are good hot or cold, but you get more flavor nuances cold.

Pacific East Mall [East Bay]
3288 Pierce Street, Richmond
510-527-3000
Map

Board Links:
Richmond – Pacific East Mall–Tw Bestway Foods – Saving the best for last … Taiwanese preserved fruit, pork jerky, hot jelly drinks
Richmond – Pacific East Mall–168 Restaurant, stinky tofu & Taiwanese buns
Richmond – Pacific East Mall–J & S Coffee & Tea House – Ham, pork ear & pork patty sandwich
Richmond–Pacific East Mall–Chinese chestnut cart

Fish Soup Burmese Style

Larkin Express Deli is Dave MP’s favorite new restaurant in San Francisco. Fish noodle soup is amazing: slightly spicy, and supertasty. The brown broth contains bits of ground fish, but it’s not overwhelmingly fishy. And it’s topped with crunchy fried lentils, fried garlic, and cilantro.

Chicken coconut soup is very different—creamy, ever so slightly spicy, and well-flavored. There is tender, dark chicken meat; there is deep, fresh chicken broth. There is balance between the poultry energy and the coconut chi. There is beauty. It comes with the same array of crunchy fried bits.

The owner is sweet, excited, and eager to explain all about Burmese cuisine. Prices are very, very reasonable.

Larkin Express Deli [Tenderloin]
452 Larkin Street, San Francisco
415-474-5569
Map

Board Links: Larkin Express Deli Lunch–Report
Burmese @ Larkin Express Deli

A Little Place for Crêpes

Laurel Street Café is a great budget-priced French place, very Gallic in vibe and very family in feel. Crêpes are truly delicious, says Melanie Wong. She had a daily special—in this case, chicken and mushroom in a chewy, thin buckwheat crêpe, and topped with a squiggle of tangy, grainy mustard sauce. And a delectable bit of carrot flan. The crêpe might not be the prettiest, but it’s about as flavorful as you could hope for.

Crêpes suzette is about as eggy and tender as can be, and comes with a scoop of Ciao Bella gelato.

Laurel Street Café [Peninsula]
741 Laurel Street, San Carlos
650-598-7613
Map

Board Links: Sunday Crepes @ Laurel Street Café

Beef Noodle Like in the Streets of Taipei

ASJ has the best niu rou mian—beef noodle—in the Bay Area, says tanspace. And by the best, he means that it’s the closest you’ll find to the kind of beef noodles you can buy from street vendors in the streets of Taipei.

He explains: “Most Chinese restaurants try to have a version of niu rou mian on their menu since it is such an iconic item, especially for people from Taiwan. It is almost on par with what Ramen means in Japan, but most places cannot do a good version even if their life depended on it. Either they use store bought noodles that turn lumpy, or have watered down broth that tastes worse than instant noodle versions, or the meat is so dry or tough that you’d rather eat beef jerky.”

But at ASJ, they’ve perfected all three components—noodle, broth, beef—and bring them together like no other place out here. ASJ even usurps its sister restaurant, A&J. Its beef noodle is on a level with the now-deceased Fortune Garden’s version.

Also great here is the iu rou xian bing (Chinese hamburger) and the open-ended pot stickers, which have a tasty filling and a nice wrap. Avoid the soup dumplings—they’re not a specialty.

ASJ Restaurant [South Bay]
1698 Hostetter Road #D, San Jose
408-441-8168
Map

Board Links: Best Beef Noodle (NiuRouMian) at ASJ in San Jose

Stromboli Heaven

Lola’s strombolis are just lovely, says rworange. The owner is a master of the crust. They are beautiful creatures, with a great, cheesy pepperoni filling and crust that’s not at all leaden. No sauce.

Parry’s is a joint right out of the streets of New York. Its stromboli is big, and, well, just a classic New York stromboli. There is sauce on the side. In fact, if you want to get closer to the New York trifecta, you can combine your trip to Parry’s with a trip to Gumbah’s, for a glorious Italian Beef—the best in the East Bay. They’re both worth a long trip, assures rworange.

Lola’s [East Bay]
1585 Solano Avenue, Berkeley
510-558-8600
Map

Parry’s Market/Pizzeria [Napa County]
234 American Canyon Road, American Canyon
707-554-4603
Map

Gumbah’s Italian Beef [Solano County]
138 Tennessee Street, Vallejo
707-648-1100
Map

Board Links: Strombolis and Italian Beef in the East Bay-