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CultureFood & DrinkGood Taste: A year of eating internationally, at home

Good Taste: A year of eating internationally, at home

Indonesian-Texas BBQ in Alameda, regional Chinese in Los Angeles, Palestinian in NYC— highlights from the last 12 months bring the world closer.

Welcome back to Good Taste, a menu for the Bay Area food world. This week, a reflection on how 2023 treated your columnist after months spent eating intensely in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and New York City. In short, I most appreciated the experiences of learning about different culinary perspectives from around the world without using a passport.

Bay Area

Dino rib, smoked fried chicken, and jalapeño-cheddar sausage at Fikscue

I spent a lot of time outside of the Bay Area in 2023, but was still fortunate to be introduced to some delightful local restaurants, food trucks, and cottage vendors. Taking stock of the year, it’s apparent that the experiences that made the most positive impressions all brought something from the world to our region.

On Christmas Eve eve, I joined the line forming outside of the new Alameda restaurant Fikscue at 11:30am for a noon opening. I’m not a line-y person whatsoever—I prefer to hop in via the VIP list, to be honest—but I’ll wait in this one again any time. The Indo-Tex craft barbecue spot, as the restaurant is billed, sells out in a few hours every Saturday and Sunday. Fik Saleh came out to offer some meat samples to everyone in line before opening, and told me that he and his wife, Reka, were offered the Park Avenue restaurant space by surprise, from another chef who decided to close after a few months in business.

My friends and I bought several delivered plates of barbecued beef made into Indonesian dishes like rendang and balado from the Saleh family from their Gurih Table pop-up over the last few years. Of all the many pandemic-generated food businesses I got a chance to support, I am most thrilled to see them growing quickly in a permanent space.

Stir-fried quail with pancakes at Blue Whale Restaurant & Lounge

I may not be able to afford to eat there again anytime soon, but I am enamored with the Malaysian and Chinese menu of the new Blue Whale Restaurant & Lounge in San Francisco, which is billed as the casual sister of Empress by Boon in Chinatown, which I haven’t been able to check out since it has remained in a pricey tasting menu format. I’m fortunate to have become acquainted with chef Ho Chee Boon’s cooking when he was at the now-defunct SF location of Hakkasan, which often invited groups of press people to lunch, so I knew it would be worth splashing out for dishes such as Iberico ham xiao long bao and stir-fried quail with Guilin chili sauce, peanuts, and pancakes. Everything is preciously portioned, but is pure craft. I hope I can return someday to do more swooning.

Ohlone salad by Cafe Ohlone

I continue to be deeply moved and inspired by Cafe Ohlone, which will reopen in the spring as a permanent fixture at UC Berkeley after a pilot year there. A January meal there to take pictures for author Mary Ladd’s Forge Project profile of these visionaries reconfirmed the emotional impact of dining here. Founders Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino also have plans to acquire land in the East Bay this year to build an education center, native garden, and more eateries. Keep an eye on this most important effort among the openings and comebacks of 2024. The original citizens of the Bay Area have always been here.

Mee goreng seafood weekend special at Killiney Kopitiam

It was exciting to finally get a chance to try Killiney Kopitiam, Singapore’s oldest cafe that opened in 2020 in the Bay Area in Palo Alto, and I long to return for more sweet kaya toast and a runny egg to dip it into, plus a big plates of mee goreng seafood noodles, a weekend special, and sweet, creamy coffee. The Chronicle reported that the Palo Alto location closed on Dec. 26 and will move to Westfield Valley Fair in Santa Clara in the spring; the Walnut Creek location remains open.

Malai paneer pizza from Mr. Singh’s Curry Pizza
Mochi pizza at Mochiko Mochi Pizza

I’ve been a good customer for Mr. Singh’s Curry Pizza in San Francisco for the few months that it’s been open, though I haven’t made it past the extensive Indian pizza section to check out the Italian options yet. There’s also a huge menu of Indian-spiced chicken wings to consider. The puffy, crispy classic crust with toppings such as turmeric cauliflower and spicy paneer has been my go-to, but there’s also a thin crust option on all pies. With all respect to Zante’s Indian Pizza for popularizing this combo in the city, this is a most welcome addition to the other side of town.

Although I don’t have a gluten free diet, I am looking forward to the next time I can try Mochiko Mochi Pizza. The shop is new in Burlingame and already softly open in Palo Alto as well, so there may be a great rice flour takeover in ‘24. The rectangular pies are fun to eat, and balance a crispy bottom with a chewy interior.

White rye donuts with sturgeon caviar supplement at Birch & Rye

A press invitation to dine at the modern Russian restaurant Birch & Rye, which opened in SF in 2022, made me reconsider a life-long aversion to rye bread and rye-derived cooking; I just had no idea how delicious it could be, and I am glad to now know the error of my palate. A quietly excellent restaurant with national accolades, chef Anya El-Wattar hopes that more potential customers will take note locally.

Seafood mixto ceviche at Parche

Another hosted invitation came from Parche, a new Colombian restaurant in Oakland that impressed me with a wide range of options for gluten free diners; it’s since become my top recommendation when asked about great gluten free spots, and is a restaurant I highlighted in a rare opinion piece, “Eating in the shadow of New York.” Beyond the high quality menu, the heart of this place is wonderful, too.

LOS ANGELES

Black pepper crab bun at Monarch
Snow crab croquette sando by Katsu Sando

I spent over two months on and off working from Los Angeles in 2023 and have plans to publish a lot about Southern California this year. Reflecting on the last 12 months, my favorite part of California to eat in has been the San Gabriel Valley, which offers a real education in regional Chinese cooking, Italian sandwich construction, Vietnamese delis, and mom and pop Mexican and Mexican-American traditions. My favorite openings from the past year there are Monarch in Arcadia, which serves Hong Kong and Taiwanese flavors in a stunning, butterfly-themed space; and Katsu Sando, a Japanese sandwich shop that expanded from Smorgasburg to San Gabriel. 

Beef pancake sandwich at DongTing Noodle

Some good new casual Chinese and Taiwanese spots, DongTing Noodle, Supita Tart Specialists, and the Odd One Out tea shop have popped up on my favorite eating street, Sawtelle Avenue, which comprises the heart of LA’s original Japantown. A favorite since college, I’ve been researching the eateries on Sawtelle extra heavily over the past five years for future publication. If you’re unsure of where to eat when visiting the westside of LA, it’s really fun to take a grazing trip to Sawtelle, where there honestly aren’t a lot of bad spots.

[Photo: Crispy lobster curry at ĐiĐi]

It’s been fun to explore the growing cannabis consumption lounge scene in West Hollywood, which has granted over a dozen licenses to businesses wanting to move into this space — check out the Irie restaurant at PleasureMed for the best culinary representation of this new movement. West Hollywood also has some excellent non-infused restaurants that opened in 2023, including ĐiĐi, a Vietnamese spot serving crispy lobster curry and bánh xèo tacos to a hip-hop soundtrack, and Uchi, a hotspot from Austin that offers a creative global take on sushi.

Stay tuned: I’ll share more observations about eating in Los Angeles in a future Good Taste column.

NEW YORK CITY

I also spent a cumulative four weeks over two trips to New York City, which were my first journeys to the East Coast in five years. Among many calories consumed, I sipped tamarind mint slushies at a newly-opened and James Beard guest chef-anchored international food hall called Market 57, visited my favorite vegan-friendly deli Ni’s Japanese Delicacies in Essex Market (which moved to a spacious new home in 2019), ate Nigerian potstickers at the Afro-Caribbean restaurant Tatiana by celebrity chef Kwame Onwuachi, and snuck a pocketful of rainbow-hued Malaysian steamed layer cakes procured from Lady Wong Pastry & Cakes in the year-old Singaporean street food hall Urban Hawker into a taping of Colbert with Talking Heads, consoling myself with them when the band didn’t actually perform. 

There was a lot of lost time eating in Manhattan and Brooklyn that was made up over these two visits, and the restaurant that made the most positive impression on me is the new East Village location of Ayat, a Palestinian restaurant with six locations in NYC and in Allentown, PA. My friend Jay Smooth and I decided to go there for dinner to offer support when it had been deluged with fake, racist Yelp reviews. 

“I’m here to tell you: these people are lying about some GOOD ass food,” he wrote in an instantly viral Tweet. You can just tell by his photos that he’s speaking the truth.

Wherever you are, if you are able, please support food vendors who share some of themselves and their origins with us—it’s at least one way to bring the world together.

Tamara is the publisher of California Eating and the Creative Jobs newsletter for job listings.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

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