Top Tastes

Skool's entrance

Top Tastes, rather than a list of all-time favorites (another thing altogether), are among the best eats since my last newsletter, often from new openings. Many don’t make the cut, being a revisit previously written about or simply not as stand-out as dishes mentioned.

Spice Kit Ssam/Bahn Mi

Besides visiting newcomers Fondue Cowboy and Spice Kit (great for those working nearby for fresh Ssam, Bahn Mi and Pork Buns, if not necessarily worth a trek across town), here are new openings (and one classic) from the last two weeks:


SKOOL, Potrero Hill – On a sunny afternoon during Skool’s (soft) opening week (June 21), I wandered over to this new fish haven run by husband and wife duos, Toshihoro and Hiroko Nagano (of my beloved Bushi Tei) and Andy and Olia Mirabell (of Blowfish Sushi).

Crab Sandwich

The Zen-peace of the patio, enclosed in gorgeous Japanese foliage, is brightened by orange Aperol umbrellas. Inside it’s sleek, Japanese minimalism in the form of warm, brown woods and gentle lighting.

They’re expecting their liquor license any day, which means dinner is not far behind – it’s lunch only at the moment. They make good sans alcohol with fine teas, Illy coffee and virgin drinks like Teacher’s Pet ($4): apple juice, honey water, topped with ginger foam and a basil leaf. I almost don’t miss my cocktail. Ginger Mule ($4) doesn’t fare as well as there’s not enough ginger, mostly just soda water.

Skool's sunny patio

First visit, I ordered a hefty “lunch box” Crab Sandwich ($13), Dungeness crab tossed in a light mayo with yuzu whole grain mustard, topped with avocado, butter lettuce, tomato, and a poached free range egg. Freshly generous, the only part that didn’t work for me was the dense but bland Filone bun – I would have preferred a thinner bread as this one drowned out the goodness between it. It comes with a salad and soup of the day: a light carrot-ginger.

Zen-like garden

I came back for the Washugyu Sandwich ($15) with coffee-marinated washu-beef, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, caramelized onions, pepper cress and wasabi aioli. All the notes came together pleasingly but there was not quite enough beef compared to bread and a little too many onions. Ceviche ($10) is nicely presented with hirame, kampachi, serrano chile, brown popped-rice but was sorely lacking in flavor. Squid Ink Spaghetti ($14) intrigued with Monterey squid, shrimp, garlic tomato compote, shiso and Enoki mushrooms. But the red curry/lemongrass dashi I was excited to have it coated in was all too subtle. I barely got any curry though there was a nice whisper of lemongrass. Dessert was a seductively jiggly Lavender Panna Cotta ($6), surprisingly light, drizzled with a honey vanilla bean sauce.

I definitely sense Bushi Tei freshness and creativity at work here but it seems quite uneven after two visits, needing to work out kinks. I could see it become a neighborhood classic, because how can you not fall in love with that patio?

** Note: this place is actually mid-range in prices but since it’s just a lunch spot so far, I’m filing it with casual eats.

Rancho's eclectic decor

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You could sip Kombucha on tap (Rose Black or Lavender Green, for example). Or shockingly strong coffee from fair trade, organic Thanksgiving (which, so far, I’ve only seen at Gather in Berkeley). Then there’s quality beers on draft, like Brother Thelonious.

Unique Rancho tables

Maybe you need a daily shot of Vitalah Oxylent Ozygenating Multi-Vitamin drink ($1.75)? They’ve got it. Or, from a non-soda drinker herself, my new preferred cola, the intriguing, spiced, almost savory Taylor’s Tonics (made locally): Chai Cola or Cola Azteca ($2 a bottle).

I like the offering of Aghan Bolani (flatbread – $5), even if it’s made at a local farmers market purveyor rather than in-house. What makes it fun is your choice of four different sauces drizzled on top. I had Pumpkin Bolani with Sweet Jalapeno, Sweet & Sour Carrot, Lentil Curry, Garlic Mint Cheese.

Yes, this quirky space is off-the-beaten-path and pretty much all over the place concept-wise, but it’s unlike any cafe I’ve seen and as I chat with the friendly owner who has long dreamed for and planned this space, I want to see it succeed.

HOOKER’S SWEET TREATS, TenderNob – The name continually prompts the obvious jokes, but all that aside, Hooker’s Sea Salt Dark Chocolate-covered Caramels are as addictive and bitchin’ as everyone says. Don’t be swayed by lesser versions. These are truly in their own league and I’m delighted they now have their own shop… especially one so charming.

Hooker's Sweet Treats

Visiting opening day, I found it’s not merely a storefront for the caramels (expensive at $2 each, $7 for 3, or $20 for 10), but also for wonderful coffee and capuccinos from Sightglass, serving the first of their own roasted beans here (returning the favor since Sightglass first sold Hooker’s caramels).

They bake bread pudding daily (always wins points with me), a nod to the owner’s Louisiana roots (another point!) The space is cozy, with one communal table that gazes lazily out a window framed by a leafy tree, and turn-of-the-century country kitchen decor of dark blue and wood. Along with microscopic Farm: Table, there’s now two linger-worthy, coffee mecca cafes in this neck of the ‘Loin.

Baan Thai's Apple Curry

BAAN THAI HOUSE & WINE BAR, Inner Sunset – Though Baan Thai House may be another Thai restaurant in the Sunset, opening without much fanfare this Spring, it’s mod interior and wine list set it slightly apart from Thai hole-in-the-walls and take-out joints. I appreciated the playful difference of Apple Curry at lunch ($8 with salad), particularly satisfying with salmon added ($2), bell peppers, basil leaves in a slow burn red curry sauce. The skin puckered on the tender, baked red apples, delivering a hint of sweetness to the savory offerings.

BURGERS: Old School vs. New

ROAM ARTISAN BURGERS, Cow HollowRoam opened June 21, at a pre-opening party I tasted through all four burgers: grass-fed beef, bison (lean, meaty), turkey and veggie.  All come with various topping choices, whether fried egg or veggie.

Roam Artisan Burgers

Veggie impressed, even as I never consider veggie burgers a replacement for “real” burgers. This is, rather, a unique, veggie sandwich with patties made primarily of quinoa and beets, loaded with avocado. Straus Creamery shakes are lush in flavors like Salted Caramel and Matcha Green Tea. Kombucha on tap is refreshingly smooth. House sodas were a highlight, particularly the sweet, puckery tart of Meyer Lemon. Sweet Potato Fries cooked in maple syrup may be my favorite item as this casually chic new burger lounge.

GRUBSTAKE, TenderNob – When nothing but old school will do, I always leave satiated at Grubstake, from their comforting, quirky rail car setting to juicy burgers (try Gold Rush Blue – $8.25, or Nugget with bacon and fried egg – $9.25) and non-greasy but quite fried onion rings. Don’t forget their Portuguese menu.