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The Bay Area's 50 Most Essential New Dishes

Rebecca Flint Marx and Josh Sens | July 22, 2016 | Story Restaurants National

Read more from the August 2016 Food Issue here.

When you eat out a lot, as we San Franciscans most assuredly do, you become inured to sparkly, shiny things, to say nothing of heavy-breathing press releases. But sometimes you luck across a bagel sandwich, or a soft-serve ice cream sundae, or a salt-baked trout that opens your eyes, blows your mind, and makes you demand seconds. And sometimes, that epicurean epiphany happens 50 times in one year—which is exactly what happened to us over the past 12 months, and what led San Francisco to amass the following list of ridiculously good new (and newish) dishes. We limited our list to those that made us think differently about food and the lightning-in-a-bottle feeling of dining in the Bay Area. Our picks may not be yours, and we certainly left many qualified offerings out. But there’s nothing here that won’t leave you delighted. And full.

Sababa, Financial District
329 Kearny St. (near Bush St.), 415-800-6853
The Mercer Restaurant Group (AQ, Bon Marché) has gone and Chipotled Israeli street food, and San Francisco is a better city for it. With the May opening of Sababa, Mercer brought us fresh pita birthed by a stone-hearth oven, a slew of vibrant salads, estimable hummus, and, most important, the sabich. The sabich, an invention of Tel Aviv’s Iraqi Jewish community, stars fried eggplant and a sliced hard-boiled egg, stuffed into a pita. It is joyous, it is messy, and it was, at least until this spring, tragically obscure in these parts. And so Sababa’s sabich is cause for celebration, to say nothing of feverish consumption. $10

Lord Stanley, Russian Hill
2065 Polk St. (at Broadway), 415-872-5512
Rupert and Carrie Blease have found something new and personal to say about cooking in San Francisco. Lord Stanley, the Polk Street restaurant that the husband-and-wife chefs opened in June 2015, is informed by the couple’s past work in haute restaurants here and abroad. But such refinement doesn’t come at the cost of seasonal-produce-driven pleasure. Case in point is a little bowl of onion petals, plopped onto wax paper and filled with thumbnail-size pools of sherry-vinegar-spiked onion soubise. Each petal is garnished with a sprig of chervil seemingly plucked from a dollhouse garden. But instead of being precious, it’s an allium joyride, the world’s most elegant French onion dip. And, not incidentally, it’s also delicious. $5

Mister Jiu’s, Chinatown
28 Waverly Pl. (near Clay St.), 415-857-9688
What kind of Chinese food is Brandon Jew cooking at Mister Jiu’s? His own. Jew, who opened his Chinatown restaurant in April, nods to tradition but tells his story: that of an American-born Chinese chef in thrall to his native Northern California. Few dishes better illustrate this than Jew’s salt-baked McFarland Springs trout. Breach its saline sarcophagus and lotus leaf swaddle and you’ll find an entire fish, its flesh as tender as a first kiss. Paired with salty trout roe and a condiment of pestled ginger and charred scallions, it’s a study in verve and comfort, a perfect confluence of old-world and new ideas. $45

Wise Sons Bagel & Bakery, Fillmore
1520 Fillmore St. (near Geary Blvd.), 415-872-9046
A year after a fire destroyed the planned location of Wise Sons Bagel & Bakery, Evan Bloom and Leo Beckerman had to deal with a second conflagration: that of public opinion. Bagels exist to spark disagreement; even before they opened their Fillmore shop in February, Bloom and Beckerman had to shoulder impossible expectations. But the only thing their bagel sandwiches spark is deep pleasure. Case in point is the Bodega Egg and Cheese: A combination of melted cheddar, aioli, and a smooth, fluffy frittata, it hits many primal buttons. As for the bagel itself? It’s chewy, dense, and a deserving vehicle for its cargo. It is, in other words, a bagel. $7

Shed, Healdsburg
25 North St. (at Foss St.), Healdsburg, 707-431-7433
When Perry Hoffman assumed his role as Shed’s culinary director last September, Healdsburg became that much more enticing. Hoffman has made Shed feel less like a bobo agrarian fantasia and more like a fantastic restaurant that just happens to sell $49 hand-forged garden shears. Much of his brand of (very local, very seasonal) brilliance is encapsulated in his mezze plate, a Sonoma-specific riff on the appetizer smorgasbord found throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and Balkans. Depending on what’s available, you may find beet tzatziki, carrot hummus, or creamy farmer’s cheese. It’s food that sings a song of joy and color, and of the impossible beauty of the land outside of Shed’s front door. $15

Volta, SoMa
868 Mission St. (near 5th St.), 628-400-6200
Though the humble herring has become fashionable in certain quarters (read: New York), it’s still a rare breed in these parts. So that’s reason to celebrate Volta, which Staffan Terje and Umberto Gibin opened in January: The French-Scandinavian brasserie’s herring platter is freighted with five variations of delectably fatty fish. You’ll find it pan-fried, pickled, chopped into a beet salad, anointed with mustard-dill sauce and garnished with curried apples, and as matjes, or soused herring. Each accompaniment amplifies the herring’s plentiful charms rather than smothering them, and the fish itself is as supple as a silk glove. $19

1601 Bar & Kitchen, SoMa
1601 Howard St. (at 12th St.), 415-552-1601
At 1601 Bar & Kitchen, one of San Francisco’s only Sri Lankan–inspired restaurants, many of the dishes on Brian Fernando’s menu are modernist departures from the food that his Sri Lankan father used to make. One dish his dad would recognize is the egg hopper, a crisp but pliant coconut-milk-and-rice-flour crepe with a chili-flecked egg at its center. It’s served with a side of chutney-like onion sambal. You tear off a strip of crepe, dip it in the egg, and scoop up some sambal. The result is a joyous riot of flavors, whether it reminds you of childhood or not. $9

Bird Dog, Palo Alto
420 Ramona St. (near Lytton Ave.), Palo Alto, 650-656-8180
The wood-grilled avocado is part of the “raw” section of Bird Dog’s menu, but its charms are such that no one, not even chef-owner Robbie Wilson, should put this baby in a corner. Served halved with wasabi on the side and its seed hole filled with ponzu sauce, the fruit has become one of the restaurant’s signatures since it opened in Palo Alto last November. And that’s no surprise: Not only is it the Platonic ideal of avocado; it’s also a convincing encapsulation of what good can come when California cuisine is reduced to its essence, and then taught how to fly. $14

’Aina, Dogpatch
900 22nd St. (near Minnesota St.), 415-814-3815
’Aina calls itself a “modern Hawaiian eatery,” but it could just as easily be described as a cure for the common brunch. While you’ll find doughnuts, eggs, and French toast at the sunny Dogpatch restaurant that chef-owner Jordan Keao opened in April, there’s nothing rote about them: The French toast is made with taro Portuguese bread, and the eggs—well, the best way to eat them is in the kalbi loco moco. In Keao’s version of the Hawaiian staple, they sit sunny-side up on a heap of braised short rib and short-grain rice. Throw in some furikake, pea tendrils, heart of palm pico de gallo, and some hon-shimeji mushroom jus, and you have yourself a brunch to remember. $19

Amy’s Drive Thru, Rohnert Park
58 Golf Course Dr. W. (near Redwood Dr.), Rohnert Park, 707-755-3629
When is a burger not just a burger? When it’s the burger at Amy’s Drive Thru, the 100 percent vegetarian fast-food flagship opened in Rohnert Park last July by Amy’s Kitchen owners Rachel and Andy Berliner. A sustainable, organic, non-GMO patty made from grains, vegetables, and mushrooms, it’s less a foodstuff than a salvo in the still-nascent but increasingly lucrative battle to revolutionize the fast-food industry. And so it bears emphasizing that it also happens to be really good: flavorful and squishy in all the right places. If that’s what revolution tastes like, then long live the revolution. $3.69

Old Bus Tavern, Bernal Heights
3191 Mission St. (near Fair Ave.), 415-843-1938
Old Bus Tavern is advertised as a craft brewery and restaurant. But a more accurate description of the Mission Street spot, which opened last summer, is shrine to superior cornbread. There are many things to love about chef Max Snyder’s cornbread—the tender crumb, the sturdy crust—but what really distinguishes it is the substitution of fresh masa for cornmeal and buckwheat for wheat fl our. The earthy result is an ideal foil for the honey-miso butter that accompanies it. The butter is topped with chives, sea salt, and puff ed buckwheat, a combination that may sound precious but in reality is goddamn perfect. $6

Whitechapel, Tenderloin
600 Polk St. (near Turk St.), 415-292-5800
“Bar” doesn’t quite describe Whitechapel. “Fantasia” is more accurate: Designed to evoke an abandoned 19th-century London Underground station, Martin Cate’s Polk Street gin bar and restaurant is a rhapsody in steampunk. While cocktails are its calling card, Whitechapel’s Anglo-Dutch-Bangladeshi comestibles have their own siren lure. Consider the mussels vindaloo, a bowl of fat bivalves served in a curry-rich broth designed to be soaked up with the soft-crunchy pieces of naan that accompany it. Topped with coriander chutney, it’s a warming illustration of how far so-called bar food has come in San Francisco, much less in the London public transport system. $19

In Situ, SoMa
151 3rd St. (near Minna St.), 415-941-6050
Corey Lee’s brand-new SFMOMA restaurant is built around a deceptively simple conceit: Its menu is a rotating compendium of dishes from the world’s great chefs, replicated by Lee and his team. But while no one dish can define In Situ, its opening menu is united by surpassing earthiness: Flowers, seaweed, pine needles, and pinecones all have a place at the table. Perhaps the best example of such fl ora-forward dining is Argentine chef Mauro Colagreco’s the Forest: A canopy of black trumpet and chanterelle mushrooms, parsley “moss,” and nasturtium leaves, it shelters a parmesan-cream-endowed quinoa risotto so rich and silky it could qualify as an aphrodisiac. And if a restaurant can convince us of quinoa’s innate sensuality, then, truly, it can bring us the world. $28

Bellota, SoMa
888 Brannan St. (near 8th St.), 415-430-6580
Like its close cousin paella, fideua hails from the eastern coast of Spain and is cooked in a wide, fl at pan. Unlike rice-based paella, it’s made with short, thin lengths of dry pasta. But what you really need to know is that the fideua at Bellota, the regionally nonspecific Spanish restaurant opened by the Absinthe Group in May, is terrific. Chef Ryan McIlwraith stocks his version with squid, clams, scallops, and gulf shrimp, each fatter and sweeter than the last, along with thick spears of grilled asparagus. Everything sits on a bed of noodles and rice that’s been blackened with squid ink and cooked until it’s both tender and crunchy. Served with aioli, it’s a pescatarian fever dream. $40

Injera, Alameda
1301 Park St. (near Encinal Ave.), Alameda, 510-865-6257
There are many dishes to love at Injera, the Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurant that chef-owner Aron Haile opened in Alameda last summer, but perhaps its most constant stunner is its namesake, the spongy, tangy bread that Haile makes from a combination of teff and barley flour. Though it functions largely as an edible plate for a variety of stews and stir-fries, the bread gets the spotlight in kategna, a dish composed of toasted injera that’s been tossed with berbere-spiked butter. Folded into a triangle, it’s hot, crunchy, and rich, proof that where there’s bread, joy isn’t far behind. $7

Indian Paradox, NoPa
258 Divisadero St. (near Haight St.), 415-593-5386
Bhel puri doesn’t seem like the most likely pairing for a Spanish muscat, and that’s what makes Indian Paradox both an anomaly and a delight. Opened in March by engineer turned master sommelier Kavitha Raghavan, the wee NoPa wine bar was created to cure the misperception that Indian food doesn’t pair well with wine. The bhel puri on Raghavan’s short, vibrant menu itself dispels this notion: A combination of crackers, puff ed rice, tomato, potato, mango, and jaggery-and-mint chutney, it’s a hot-sweet-crunchy-savory cacophony that indeed loves the fruity notes of a muscat. Sometimes, strange bedfellows are the happiest bedfellows. $12

Tawla, Mission
206 Valencia St. (near Duboce Ave.), 415-814-2704
Tawla is not a Middle Eastern restaurant: You won’t find hummus or falafel on its menu. What you will find are gorgeously nuanced Eastern Mediterranean dishes. Since Azhar Hashem opened her cheerful Valencia Street restaurant in June, she and chef Joseph Magidow have been illustrating this distinction to great effect with dishes like the samakeh harrah, a whole rockfish impregnated with walnut stuffing, bathed in tahini and olive oil, and dotted with sliced kumquats. A dish hailing from the coastal Levant, it here appears fantastically rich and tender, a beast of no nation but that of lasting bliss. $55

Spaghetti Bros., Marina
3213 Scott St. (at Lombard St.), 415-400-8500
Despite its name, Erik Lowe and Aaron Toensing’s sprawling restaurant isn’t Italian—there’s plenty of pasta on the menu, but there’s also fried chicken and mesquite-grilled fish. But don’t let semantics fool you: The 10-month-old restaurant’s namesake ingredient is also its siren song, sung in alluring notes by a bowl of cacio e pepe. Here, the classic Roman cheese-and-pepper two-punch shows up al dente, rich, and silky. True to tradition, Lowe and Toensing keep things simple, letting the pepper and salty pecorino romano speak for themselves. The topic of their conversation? Deep contentment. $14

Craftsman and Wolves: The Den, Bayview
1568 Yosemite Ave. (at Keith St.), 415-423-3337
William Werner has had a busy year: The baker has opened two new San Francisco locations of Craftsman and Wolves. It’s at his bakery’s Bayview branch, dubbed the Den, that you can taste arguably the most exciting addition to Werner’s empire: pizza, served by the $3 square slice. If you’re lucky, you’ll be there when the eggplant-arugula-purple-onion variety is: The roasted fairy tale eggplants practically melt into the sweet tomato sauce, while the crust displays impressive crackle. As a bonus, you can anonymously buy a slice for someone who can’t afford it through a pay-it-forward Post-it program. This is pizza with big flavors and big heart.

Louie’s Gen-Gen Room, Nob Hill
871 Sutter St. (near Leavenworth St.)
“Gen-Gen” is a made-up word, but the charms of Louie’s Gen-Gen Room, the reservations-only bar that Ravi Kapur and Jeff Hanak opened recently beneath their Liholiho Yacht Club, are real. Chief among them is the menu’s savory furikake waffle, a creation topped with uni, walnuts, and avocado done two ways: coated in the Japanese seasoning and whipped into a mousse. The waffle itself is gluten- and dairy-free, but while that’s nice, it’s not half as compelling as how much all of the dish’s components turn out to like one another. $14.75

3rd Cousin, Bernal Heights
1919 Cortland Ave. (near Folsom St.), 415-814-3709
Back when 3rd Cousin was a pop-up known as Kinfolk, chef-owner Greg Lutes began serving his uni crème brûlée; when the pop-up graduated to a Bernal Heights storefront in November, Lutes kept it on the menu. And no wonder: It’s one of the most sensual evocations of sea urchin San Francisco has to offer. Served with sliced baguette, the lobes come splayed on top of the brûlée’s caramelized crust with royal sturgeon caviar, trout roe, and tobiko. The salty eggs pop as the uni and custard dissolve into a union so heady that it may be illegal in certain states. You may want a cigarette afterward. Or a room. $19

An Japanese Restaurant, Japantown
22 Peace Plaza, Ste. 510 (near Laguna St.), 415-292-4886
A holdover from Kyoshi Hayakawa’s days as the owner of Koo, the Spoonful of Happiness found at Hayakawa’s An Japanese Restaurant is perhaps the most accurately named dish in San Francisco. At the pocket-size sushi spot that Hayakawa opened in November, the spoonful appears as two: One holds sweet uni topped with a quail egg and a sprinkle of tobiko ponzu, while the other bears a velvet hunk of monkfish liver, draped with a thin length of whitefish and drizzled with truffle oil. Savor them both, then try to remember your name. $14

Harvest, Inner Richmond
4811 Geary Blvd. (near 12th Ave.), 415-702-6767
Forget the weed-infused brownies of your misspent youth: Marijuana edibles are going upscale, and nowhere is this more apparent than at Harvest, the sleek dispensary that opened in the Inner Richmond in February. Its inventory adheres to a gentrified-stoner aesthetic, but if you want a taste of this brave new world, it’s best to stick with one of its more humble offerings: a bag of Yummi Karma salt-and-pepper potato chips. Cannabis’s oregano funk finds a natural home here—the effect is like a Kettle chip that has a secret to tell you. Fifty milligrams of THC aside, it’s just a good bag of sturdy chips—albeit one that bears a warning to “keep out of reach of children and animals.” $6

King Tsin, Berkeley
1699 Solano Ave. (near Tulare Ave.), Berkeley, 510-525-9190
It would take a large party and several visits to make a dent in the encyclopedic menu at Berkeley’s King Tsin, which last year underwent a Szechuan regime change courtesy of former cooks from Albany’s China Village. But if you’re going to try just one dish, make it fiery and make it fish. The Szechuan boiled fish, to be precise. In this classic preparation, silken fillets of sea bass are boiled in a bean-paste-and-ginger-seasoned broth and blanketed in dried Szechuan chili peppers. Oil glistens on the fish but doesn’t linger on the palate; each bite is a lovely balance of mild white meat and chili heat. One restaurant’s loss is another’s gain. $14.95

Firebrand Artisan Breads, Oakland
2343 Broadway (near 24th St.), Oakland, 510-594-9213
Soft, chewy, and embedded with chunks of candied ginger, Firebrand’s ginger-molasses cookie is one of those Helen of Troy baked goods, a creation possessed of such beauty that it’s capable of inspiring, if not outright war, then mass movement in the direction of Firebrand’s nine-month-old digs at the Oakland Hive. And while everything on the bakery’s roster is worthy of caloric investment, it’s the gutsy combination of ginger and molasses that offers perhaps the greatest returns. Maybe it’s the crunch of turbinado sugar, or the sweetness-to-spice ratio. Whatever it is, this is a cookie that doesn’t demand analysis. It demands eating. $3.50

Ju-Ni, NoPa
1335 Fulton St. (near Divisadero St.), 415-655-9924
Ju-Ni means “12” in Japanese, and there are just 12 courses of nigiri on the $90 omakase menu at this snug NoPa haunt. All of the seafood is achingly pristine, but what lingers most in the memory is the bluefin tuna, seasoned with the faintest dash of house-cured soy sauce. Bluefin is the bane of the eco-conscious, but this is a farmed variety called Kindai, raised in captivity from the egg. It’s not only more sustainable than its wild cousin but also sweeter, and as close as raw fish comes to melting. They fly it in from Japan. You just enjoy.

659 Merchant St. (near Kearny St.), 415-872-9982
Alfred’s Steakhouse, Financial District
After a short closure and a shift in ownership to the Daniel Patterson Group, the 88-year-old Alfred’s Steakhouse reopened this past winter with its hidebound vibe intact but the steaks now sourced from grass-fed, grain-finished, locally raised cattle. The meat is dry-aged in-house, then seared, as ever, on a mesquite-fired grill. Every cut is a cut above, but the one you really want is the 28-ounce bone-in rib eye, a flame-crusted, table-tilting Flintstonian number. A steak knife is provided, but the meat is so tender that a fork will probably do. $70

Grocery Cafe, Oakland
2248 10th Ave. (near 23rd St.), Oakland, 925-566-4877
In a search for our next great meal, we read the tea leaves and found, well, tea leaves—the fermented kind used in Burmese tea leaf salad. A particularly vibrant version lives at Oakland’s Grocery Cafe. Here, the tableside-tossed salad brims with flavors and textures: You’re hit first by the crunch of the sliced cabbage, peanuts, cashews, and sunflower seeds, then teased by the umami funk of dried shrimp and the perfume of the tea leaves. Topped with shards of toasted garlic and (optional) fish sauce, it’s a winning sensory overload. $9

Teni East Kitchen, Oakland
4015 Broadway (near 40th St.), Oakland, 510-597-1860
Like Grocery Cafe, Temescal’s Teni East Kitchen serves a terrific tea leaf salad—and here Tiyo Shibabaw, an Ethiopian-born chef and Burma Superstar veteran, Californianizes the medley with baby kale. But the dish you’d gladly battle Bay Bridge traffic for is her chicken curry, a cardamom-forward stew that’s seasoned Goldilocks-style: not too fiery and not too mild. The boiled eggs that come with it have a cooling effect, in case your Baby Bear palate can’t stand the heat. $13

Tacos Oscar, Oakland
Oscar Michel has not earned a single Michelin star, but he has attracted a lot of cyberstalkers who track the movements of Tacos Oscar, the Oakland pop-up he runs with his business partner, Jake Weiss. And for good reason: Michel presses fresh tortillas and bedazzles his seasonal, inventive tacos with homemade salsas. Consider yourself lucky if you cross paths with his lengua tacos. The succulent beef tongue is kissed on the grill and garnished with herb salsa and pickled red onions. Order at least two, lick your fingers clean, then go online to find out when they’re serving them again. $3

Mensho Tokyo, Nob Hill
672 Geary Blvd. (near Leavenworth St.), 415-800-8345
At the first U.S. location of chef-owner Tomoharu Shono’s Tokyo-based chain, you’ll find killer waits—and killer ramen. None is more tempting than the spicy maze soba, a brothless tangle of fresh-pulled noodles topped with roast pork, pickled garlic, green onions, and an egg and shot through with habañero flames. When this redolent dish arrives, you mix the ingredients up so that the flavors meld. The noodles, darkened with pork reduction, resist your bite and then give way gently as the sweet sauce clinging to them fights off the chili fires. In other words, it’s worth the wait. $17.50

Ninebark, Napa
813 Main St. (near 3rd St.), Napa, 707-226-7821
No matter where you sit or what you order at Ninebark, the three-story Napa restaurant Matthew Lightner opened last October, you’re face-to-face with the region’s bounty. It’s there in the produce still lifes that frame the open kitchen, and it stars in the must-order dish, an outsize, eclectic pickle plate of such exuberant color that you almost need sunglasses to take it in. Its exact makeup shifts according to the time of year—blushing apples, yellow-fingered Buddha’s hand, green beans flush with nasturtium petals—but it always arrives as a culinary starburst, as sparkling to behold as it is to eat. $15

Miminashi, Napa
821 Coombs St. (near 3rd St.), Napa, 707-254-9464
As the chef-owner of Napa’s first izakaya, Curtis DiFede looks respectfully to the east for his menu, which runs the gamut of Japanese-style pub grub. But there’s still a lot of West Coast in his cooking. The cross-cultural currents inspire winners like DiFede’s riff on pork donabe, a classic clay-pot braise enhanced here with Tokyo turnips and grapefruit kosho, a citrus-chili paste that’s traditionally spiked with yuzu. The result is a rich medley of contrapuntal notes, the pork and turnips playing sweetly against the grapefruit’s bite. To put it in less pompous terms, you’ll pause and say to your companion, “Damn, that’s good.” $28

Leo’s Oyster Bar, Financial District
568 Sacramento St. (near Montgomery St.), 415-872-9982
At Leo’s Oyster Bar, a stylized homage to the two-martini era, oysters arrive in many iterations. You’ll want at least half a dozen on the half shell. But you’ll also want them on the deviled eggs. Chef Jennifer Puccio ornaments each of these zesty starters with a deep-fried oyster, providing crisp and briny balance to the creamy, tangy yolks. The result is a cocktail-friendly party starter, a classic appetizer with a welcome twist. A few hours and a few drinks later, the details of the evening might begin to blur, but you’ll remember how it began. $6 per egg

Locol, Oakland
2214 Broadway (near Grand Ave.), Oakland
In launching Locol, their headline-grabbing, socially conscious counter service concept, Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson have promised to foment a fast-food “revolution.” That’s a lot of pressure to pile atop a burger, though as quickie burgers go, the one at Locol’s Uptown outpost isn’t bad. But there are better items on Locol’s menu, notably the soft-serve sundae, a generous swirl of organic vanilla and chocolate ice cream dusted with toasted almonds and drizzled with caramel and chocolate sauces. A refreshing antidote to all-too-common chemical-tasting soft-serve, it might change your opinion of fast food, even if it doesn’t change the world. $5

Cala, Hayes Valley
147 Fell St. (near Van Ness Ave.), 415-660-7701
Between the taqueria and the upscale cantina lies a vast world of Mexican cuisine. This is the world colonized by Cala, the first stateside project from Gabriela Cámara, a celebrated Mexico City restaurateur. Emblematic of the cooking is the roasted sweet potato, an ostrich-egg-size tuber with sunset-orange flesh and charred black skin, served with coarse sea salt, house-made corn tortillas, and bone-marrow-and-garlic salsa negra. You snag a chunk, sprinkle it with salt, and wrap it in a warm tortilla smeared with inky sauce. The combination is faintly reminiscent of a taco, but also not like anything you’ve ever had before. $19

Popsons, multiple locations
998 Market St. (near 6th St.), 415-658-7554; 330 Townsend St. (near 4th St.), 415-654-5001
With a little effort, any self-respecting restaurant can make a good burger. But a good veggie burger? That’s something else. That’s also what makes Popsons such a pleasant surprise. The fast-casual outfit, which opened a second location, on Market Street, this year, sells a lot of ground beef, but the real revelation is a beet-quinoa-and-walnut patty whose earthy flavors and appealing texture shine even brighter if you forgo the sprouts and truffle cheese, limiting your toppings to onions, pickles, and aioli. This is no soy-based throwaway; it’s a real meal. We’ve got no beef with that. $7.95

Sequoia Diner, Oakland
3719 MacArthur Blvd. (near Loma Vista Ave.), Oakland, 510-482-3917
A few generations back, any diner worth its salt doled out house-baked desserts, and the Sequoia Diner, a Laurel spot opened last year by Andrew Vennari and Sequoia Duende, does that, too. The particularly delicious one we have in mind is the strawberry-plum pie with almond streusel, its crust light and layered, its filling just a pinch more tart than sweet. Pair it with a coffee on a lazy afternoon and it feels just like the old days, except that the coffee is locally roasted, the fruit in the pie is from the farmers’ market, and the server doesn’t call you “hon.” $5

Hina Yakitori, Oakland
4828 Telegraph Ave. (near 48th St.), Oakland, 510-593-2152
Tommy Clearly breaks down birds each morning at Temescal’s Hina Yakitori, leaving almost nothing to waste. Knee cartilage. Neck. Gizzard. Skin. Tail. Name the poultry part and Clearly skewers and seasons it before grilling it over slow-burning Japanese coals. There’s no going wrong, but also no missing the chicken hearts, impaled on wooden sticks and plated with a wedge of lemon. The just-so richness of the meat is a satisfying cross between thigh and liver. To cap your meal, try the tamakake gohan, a traditional final rice dish, its grains splashed with soy and dashi and crowned with a raw Jidori egg. $4

Katalina’s Island Grill and Grocery, Hayward
821 Sycamore Ave. (near Mission Blvd.), Hayward, 510-200-9504
At Katalina’s Island Grill and Grocery, Tongan-born Katalina Pahulu offers a taste of Polynesia free of kitschy tiki bar trappings. Maybe you had lau lau on your last trip to Maui. The Tongan version is called lu pulu, and it’s almost worth crossing an ocean for. Pahulu wraps slabs of corned beef in taro leaves, then slow-cooks the bundles in coconut milk until the astringent leaves turn earthy-sweet and the meat is nearly tumbling apart. The greens-and-corned-beef combo is like something you’d encounter in a Jewish deli, but the coconut speaks to different currents. $6

Italian Homemade Co., multiple locations
41. Italian Homemade Co. 1919 Union St. (near Laguna St.), 415-665-9325; 716 Columbus Ave. (near Filbert St.), 415-712-8874
Pity the panino. It can’t quite compare to the piadine, a grilled flatbread sandwich that originated in the Emilia-Romagna region but now makes a happy home at Mattia Cosmi and Alice Romagni’s Italian Homemade Co. At its two locations—the Marina outpost opened earlier this year—you’ll find a range of piadini, but perhaps the finest option comes stuffed with prosciutto, arugula, and stracchino cheese that stretches playfully when it melts. The sharp bite of the greens cuts through the salt and fat, and the bread isn’t too bready. A panino would be hard-pressed to pull that off. $12

Belotti Ristorante e Bottega, Oakland
5403 College Ave. (near Hudson St.), Oakland, 510-788-7890
Oakland’s Rockridge district is rolling in dough, both the kind you spend and the kind you eat. But unlike other pasta hotspots in the neighborhood, Belotti Ristorante e Bottega feels old country, not upscale or urban chic. The chef, Michele Belotti, who was born in Lombardy, prepares the sort of pastas that people now call “artisan,” which means that they’re the sort that Nonna used to make. An excellent case in point is casoncelli, a Lombardian stuffed pasta plump with beef, prosciutto, pork shoulder, and smoked pancetta and tossed in sage brown butter. There are trendier pasta dishes in the neighborhood, but none more gratifying. $15.50

Little Gem, Hayes Valley
400 Grove St. (at Gough St.), 415-914-0501
Little Gem targets a market that wants its food made properly and lickety-split, at a reasonable cost, from good ingredients, and free of gluten, dairy, and refined sugar. Considering the demands, the Hayes Valley restaurant, which opened in December, does darn well. Particularly appealing is a chef ’s plate of Tuscan-style pork, which stars a slab of slow-roasted shoulder, roasted potatoes, and winter radishes beautified by dollops of beet marmalade. This is Cal-Med cooking as it should be, flavorful and unfussy. $19

The Bywater, Los Gatos
532 N. Santa Cruz Ave. (near Thurston St.), Los Gatos, 408-560-9639
If the name of the restaurant didn’t make the point, the gumbo on the menu should: The Bywater is David Kinch’s Creole-seasoned nod to Low Country cuisine. Kinch himself doesn’t helm the kitchen, but chef David Morgan carries out his duties with Kinchian precision, his exactitude particularly apparent in the shrimp po’ boy. A toasted, buttered torpedo roll dressed with garlic aioli and shredded lettuce, the concoction overflows with crunchy cornmeal-battered shrimp. Marry it with a frozen pomegranate daiquiri and it almost feels like Mardi Gras in a neighborhood that dozes off just after dark. $19

Mosu, Fillmore
1552 Fillmore St. (near Geary Blvd.), 415-735-7303
Mosu is fine dining. Perhaps that’s not surprising; Sung Anh, its chef-owner, trained at the French Laundry and Benu. His Fillmore restaurant is small and spare, and dinner costs $195 per person before tax and tip. In return, Anh rewards you with a tasting menu that is wildly inventive, impeccably prepared, and mad delicious, too. On a recent evening, the 12-course procession featured numerous stunners, but none surpassed a silken purse of black sesame tofu stuffed with sea urchin, garnished with caviar and tiny-diced green apple, and basking in a shallow pool of bonito broth. If there’s a better single bite in the city, we have yet to find it.

The Butcher’s Son, Berkeley
1941 University Ave. (near Bonita Ave.), Berkeley, 510-984-0818< br/> Roast beef. Fried chicken. Pulled pork. Bacon. They’re all at Berkeley’s the Butcher’s Son in faux form, the products of co-owner Peter Fikaris’s exhaustive experimentation with vegan deli meats. A very successful doppelgänger is the ground “steak” and chili-garlic “chicken” grinder, a substantial sub that’s furnished with pickled jalapeños, nut-based pepper jack cheese, and “bacon” made from soy and an Asian root called konjac. Simply put, this is a sandwich that counters the popular notion that veganism is a plot to strip the world of pleasure. What? A grinder isn’t really a deli sandwich? Maybe so. That still doesn’t lessen its virtues. $10.95

Petit Crenn, Hayes Valley
609 Hayes St. (near Laguna St.), 415-864-1744
For the five-course prix fixe menu she serves at Petit Crenn, Dominique Crenn reaches to her Brittany roots and her grand-mère’s recipes. Everything at the bright Hayes Valley spot is served family-style, and there’s plenty for sharing, but a fight might still break out over the Little Gem salad, which, true to French tradition, precedes the cheese and the dessert. Brought to the table in a large bowl, it’s a crisp jumble of chopped Little Gem lettuce and roasted beets, tossed in a bracing caper-anchovy vinaigrette. There is no finer salad in the city. If you’d like to lick your plate clean, feel right at home. $20

La Marcha, Berkeley
2026 San Pablo Ave. (near University Ave.), Berkeley, 510-269-7374
Building on their successful catering business, Emily Sarlatte and Sergio Emilio Monleón opened La Marcha late last year in Berkeley. Its chief attraction? The arroz negra, a squid-ink-stained, saffron-perfumed dark star speckled with clams, fennel sausage, and peas, topped with salmon roe and anchovy breadcrumbs, and streaked with truffle aioli. The kitchen staggers cooking times so that all the elements—the surf, the turf, the grains, the veg—achieve perfect texture, right down to the socarrat, the caramelized crust at the bottom of the pan, without which paella would just be fancy rice. $32

The Perennial, Mid-Market
59 9th St. (near Mission St.), 415-500-7788
When cotton napkins at the Perennial wear thin, they’re sent to a compost bin, where they are fed upon by larvae, which are fed to fish, which are fed to the restaurant’s diners. The eco-conscious cycle is central to a restaurant that aims to cook you dinner even as it tries to combat climate change. It’s not easy being green, but it’s not hard to love an entrée like the grilled trout. Accompanied by sliced parsnips and mussels, it luxuriates in a bone marrow broth that makes for as natural a marriage as any meeting of land and sea. $23

Belga, Marina
200 Union St. (at Buchanan St.), 415-872-7350
It may sound perverse to recommend a vegetable side at a restaurant whose calling card is sausage and beer, but whatever: While the cauliflower at Belga may not be at the top of its list of attractions, it should be. Maybe it’s the crisp-to-creamy ratio, or how it’s combined with golden raisins and chopped almonds and subtly perfumed with vadouvan, a French interpretation of an Indian masala. Whatever the source of its sorcery, it’s a warm, earthy dish that in an ideal world would be sold by the pint. $7

Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco

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