It’s been another month of excellent food from the 10 plus meals I eat out a week, ever hunting for the best.
Prime example: I’m as in love with Chubby Noodle as ever — from its early days in the back of Amante (when I dubbed it one of the top openings of 2011), to its rowdy, packed Marina restaurant (one of my top 10 openings of 2014). I recently enjoyed their good-time, 15 item weekend brunch for $37 per person, with rousing rounds of sake cocktails, dim sum, jook, ramen and stir fry.
On the cheap eats front, I’ve been glad to stop in to the new brick-and-mortar Koja Kitchen in the Inner Richmond, long one of my top food trucks. Here I fill up on Japanese-Korean tacos, bowls and “burgers” on fried rice “buns.” I also savored the affordable, multi-course Venezuelan dinner at Coco Frio, which serves one of my top cocktails now.
Here are my top 10 October dishes and new openings, some from newcomers, others from established restaurants.
1. Oro’s Fried Pig Ears
Oro just opened mid-September in Mint Plaza and after two visits already, trying both a la carte and tasting menu ($75) options — with tip and tax conveniently included in all menu pricing — it is already a win for San Francisco. Jason Fox of Commonwealth — who I’ve long considered one of our top San Francisco chefs — crafts dishes both vibrant and exciting right out of the gate (congrats on his long-deserved Michelin-star win for Commonwealth last week).
There a number of standouts initially, from bites like sea urchin, scrambled egg and pickled jalapeno on toasts ($6), to the most tender lamb hearts on a mini-skewer ($5), marked by plum, eucalyptus and tart yogurt. Desserts ($12), particularly salted date ice cream, dreamy with sesame, chocolate granola and toasty cardamom marshmallows, likewise delight.
But I was stopped in my tracks during my second visit with Fox’s fried pig ears ($13), dipped in whipped buttermilk and fermented chili sauce with a fresh accent of celtuse. I’ve had some memorable fried pig ear dishes before, but this one outshines them all, both in the tender-crispy-chewy contrast of the pig ears, and the lively “dip” that takes them to another level.
2. Mourad’s Heirloom Beans
On a recent return, I was delighted by a number of dishes, including Mourad’s fascinating, artful take on (boneless) chicken wings ($18), accented by squash, pomegranate, gooseberry, harissa and buckwheat. But I wanted to swim in heirlooms beans and tomato ($9) under warm, decadent feta mousse and za’atar spice crumble. It’s like the comfort of Thanksgiving, making you wish sides were always this good.
On the dessert side ($12 each), pastry chef Melissa Chou continues to turn out her award-winning desserts. Trying them all recently brought a few highlights (hard to resist those beignet-like sugar puffs) but I made note of the unique take on pumpkin expressed in creamy-crisp layers with caraway and chicory, partnered with sorghum molasses ice cream.
3. Cala’s Trout Tostada
Having Gabriela Cámara, the chef and restaurateur of Mexico City’s Contramar, open her first US restaurant, Cala, in SF is a win. Mexico City (MX) is one of the more exciting dining cities in the world right now. I’ve been impressed by the forward-thinking Mexican cuisine I experienced at numerous restaurants around MX, quite different from the rest of Mexico and even the country’s second biggest city, Guadalajara. The engaging Cámara started the raw tuna tostada craze that one finds everywhere in Mexico City’s chic restaurants.
And she has brought that here to a 1919 former garage, now an airy space where lounge music, skylights and white walls impart soothing cheer. The seafood-centric menu isn’t merely Contramar, part 2. She is going sustainable and local so there is an SF slant to her upscale Mexican cooking (and tip and tax are included in dish and drink costs, in keeping the welcome trend). Tostadas are on the menu — currently, it’s silken trout on mini-tostadas ($16), accented with chipotle, slivers of avocado and savory fried leeks. It’s the perfect snack: sashimi with a Mexican twist.
Though almost better for a table (rather than two) to share, a massive sweet potato ($19) is another standout — charred and crisped on the outside, the earthy char plays with a lush bone marrow salsa negra that melts when swiped in the hot potato, then all is scooped into tortillas. There is something elemental and rustic about this dish that stayed with me.
4. 1760’s Pork Sisig
I’ve loved 1760 from day one — and visited many times for the excellent food, wine list and cocktails. Now new executive chef Carl Foronda (formerly of Sushi Ran, Pres a Vi), whose menu just launched in October, brings influence from his Filipino heritage and elevates 1760 classics like lobster ceviche ($19), now in tartare form with accents of caramelized coconut, pineapple and kaffir lime.
His minimalist pork sisig ($14), a sizzling pork head and liver dish traditional in the Philippines, takes a light hand with bits of pig, sieved egg, heirloom tomatoes and ginger aioli. You get all the savory, fatty goodness yet still feel as if you’ve eaten light. Consider this chef one to watch.
5. Dirty Habit’s Biko
At Dirty Habit, the talented team, including bar manager Brian Means and executive chef David (“Baz”) Bazirgan, continue to turn out quality. Baz’ dishes, whether crispy sweetbreads with kimchi and pineapple or his signature confit octopus (currently with Yemen spices), continue to be a downtown draw.
Executive pastry chef and sous chef Francis Ang called on his Filipino roots in a dessert that wowed me during a recent visit. I have far more of a savory tooth than a sweet one but this is one of the better desserts I’ve had this year. Biko is a Filipino dish of sticky rice sweetened by brown sugar and coconut milk. Ang’s version is lively with passion fruit, mango and coconut, tasting of island breezes and soulful comfort.
6. Whitechapel’s Farmers Cheese and Naan
Much hype has surrounded the opening of Whitechapel, from Alex Smith, Martin Cate and John Park, and rightly so. After 3 visits already pre- and post-opening, it is an international gin destination with over 100 cocktails in a leather-bound menu and over 350 gins, including vintage rarities dating back to 1930s.
Set in a Disneyland-level-elaborate space (this comes from Smugglers Cove minds, after all) that evokes a Victorian-era London underground station and gin palace, chef David Murphy’s food (formerly of the excellent Uchi in Austin) is also worth a visit. British, Dutch and Bangladeshi influences evoke both the category of Dutch-Indonesian cuisine common in Holland and Amsterdam, and the Indian-influenced pub spirit of London.
Their house naan — served with two different dishes — is ridiculously good: warm, substantial. A cast iron skillet of fluffy farmer’s cheese ($15) is marked by turmeric oil, yogurt-roasted carrots and cilantro, scooped up with that naan.
Tasty bites include bitterballen ($9), essentially fried Dutch meat balls I had everywhere in Amsterdam, and “fish and chip” ($13), a flaky, large fried cod over a “chip” or large, fried potato disc, lovely in garlic aioli and “curryracha” (a house curry Sriracha-style sauce).
Brain and toast ($13) is a happy surprise: calves brains fried like sweetbreads on sourdough toast, perked up with bits of white anchovy and spicy pickles. Two other worthwhile dishes: mussels vindaloo ($19) and “a brace of quail” ($26), or an artful (small) arrangement of quail and Dutch stroopwafels (waffle-like cookies).
7. Cafe Du Nord’s Cioppino
The newly reborn Cafe du Nord is certainly a worthy cocktail destination, as I’ve shared more than once before, but the food — from Chef Thomas McNaughton (of Flour + Water and Central Kitchen) — deserves some attention, too. Particularly in the Viking Room with live jazz.
To book a table here with food, cocktails and live music recalls supper clubs of another era, evoking the spirit of New Orleans by way of 1940’s-50’s San Francisco. The food speaks to that era but with modern finesse, whether a gratifying Caesar salad or perfect Parker House rolls (my favorite bite here). But the cioppino ($27) is a re-imagining of the Italian-American, San Francisco-born dish. McNaughton’s version is all fresh fish and shellfish in bright tomatoes with a hint of chili, sopped up with a rustic bread, toasted and slathered in aioli.
8. The Crafty Fox Ale House’s Sausage Sandos
Open in July in the former Woodward’s Garden space (which I was sad to see close but the owners recently opened Gardenias with a similar ethos), The Crafty Fox Ale House is a sunny, airy pub, open to the street with a front bar room and two small dining rooms in the back.
Service is friendly yet laid back to the point of slow, but with some staff from Ireland and Scotland, it feels like an authentic pub, one stocked with excellent craft beers, from sours to saisons, on draft.
The quality of the food is one the pub’s surprises, though be aware of the limited lunch menu (evenings it’s the full menu). Fish & chips ($18) hit the spot, as does the comforting Crafty Fox cheeseburger ($12) with sharp cheddar. Sausage “sandos” showcase sausages on a French roll ($10) made by someone who works at nearby Foreign Cinema. They’re plump, juicy and packed with flavor, allowed your choice of two toppings: roasted peppers, kohlrabi sauerkraut, grilled onions or hot peppers. It’s hard to go wrong with any of the sausages, whether a smoky-sweet maple pork sausage or a wild boar sausage accented by port and caraway.
9. Scotland Yard’s Egg Muffin Sandwich
Yes, it’s in the Marina and the crowd and vibe feel are typical Marina, but friendly staff, a killer burger and brunch egg sandwich make Scotland Yard, which opened in August, work. The multi-room, Victorian-influenced decor and back patio — despite too flat screens — appeal.
The number of incredible burgers in this town are legion, and Yard Burger ($15 – double smash burger add $4) with its 5.5 oz. patty of Weber Ranch beef, bone marrow aioli, cornichon remoulade and aged cheddar, stands among the greats. I especially loved the brunch goodness of their egg muffin sandwich ($14) on a sesame seed bun. The soft bun and over easy egg meld together, contrasted by bacon, American cheese, Worcestershire-marinated tomato and serrano Sriracha for a little heat.
10. Barbacco’s Suppli
In bustling Barbacco, regional Italian menus are one of their strengths. Last month, they announced Miguel Peffer as their chef de cuisine who has worked up the ranks and been with the restaurant since it opened in 2010.
Regionally, they just launched their Sicilian menu (my heritage on my mom’s side), but I recently caught the last days of their Campania menu with rare delights from that southern region of Italy, namely suppli ($9), fried carnaroli rice croquettes that ooze cheese and goodness. Pairing this fried comfort with Campania wines — like the dark berry and leather notes of a 2014 Marisa Cuomo “Furore Rosso” blend of Aglianico and Piedirosso grapes ($12/30/48) — or their fantastic section of funky, unusual orange wines — was a crowd-pleasing beginning to a Barbacco meal.