Why the Bay Area is Known for Trailblazing Food Trends

BY Amy Sherman | July 30, 2019 | Food & Drink Feature Restaurants

San Franciscans have always loved indulging in local food— from the pricey Hangtown Fry created during the gold rush to the massive yet bargain-priced Mission burritos. We are a city of disruption, and while that can mean the demise of beloved institutions such as Lucca Ravioli, it also brings opportunity. The Bay Area is the birthplace of game changers, such as plant-based meat alternatives and pizza robots. Ramen and burgers are unlikely to ever go out of style, but there are other things to get even more excited about. We may not have invented the mozzarella stick, but adding caviar and gold leaf to it? Yeah, we did that.

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Afternoon tea at San Francisco’s Dandelion Chocolate, one of several new area culinary efforts raising cacao to new heights.

Where's the Wagyu? “Wagyu is the latest ‘ingredient crush’ for chefs on the heels of foie gras and all things pig,” says chef-owner Marc Zimmerman of Ittoryu Gozu, a Kobe- style beef-focused restaurant opening this month. Zimmerman says there is also a glut of product on the market due to companies scrambling to import before tariffs kicked in earlier this year.

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Waygu’s established dietary benefits also don’t hurt. Bred for its intense marbling, wagyu is higher in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats compared to other kinds of beef. One of the latest hot spots offering melt-in- your-mouth wagyu is Niku Steakhouse, a Japanese- influenced American restaurant with a high-end butcher shop next door. In April, Epic Steak began offering a wagyu flight with three 2-ounce tasting portions of strip loin (Miyazaki and Hokkaido A5 wagyu from Japan, and imperial wagyu) for $180. The 8-ounce serving of Kobe wagyu at Niku is $305. More affordable options include wagyu steak and eggs at The Brixton and the wagyu empanada and burger, $12 and $18, respectively, at Japanese-Peruvian restaurant Kaiyo.

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Brunch is Blowing Up Speaking of eggs, chefs are no longer hating on brunch. Restaurants seem to be in a battle to capture our attention in the morning with wildly creative dishes that scream for attention. Forget about boring pancakes and bottomless mimosas. Think French toast made with ube bread, macapuno (preserved young coconut), macadamia nuts and vanilla mascarpone at 1608 Bistro; or herbed falafel shakshuka with farm eggs, truffled tomato sauce, cheddar cheese and frizzled leeks at Comstock Saloon. Imagine Prairie’s visually stunning Carolina Gold rice waffle with luscious salted maple butter and a murderous-looking Calabrian XO-fried egg ($17). According to Prairie chef-owner Anthony Strong, brunch is the new frontier. “Brunch doesn’t get enough love,” he says. “Brunch food should be fun. Cooking eggs takes so much skill and attention. It’s my most important meal of the day.” Restaurants are rethinking brunch formats too, serving it on customizable boards at Kantine and Le Marais Bakery, and in a shareable prix fixe menu at Corridor for the bargain price of $20. Another development in late-morning fare are popular snacks and street food elevated into boldly spiced, innovative brunch offerings with great cocktails at chic Indian restaurants such as Rooh, Dosa and August 1 Five.

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#AsianFood Is Instagram making dim sum and Asian desserts more eye-catching or vice versa? Either way, there’s no question that dim sum restaurants and Asian dessert cafes are creating cool new creations that are irresistible on social media. Carolyn Phillips, author of The Dim Sum Field Guide ($14.99, Ten Speed Press), says the Chinese teahouse intoxication took off about three years ago. She believes the appearance of new dumplings has a lot to do with our desire to photograph everything we eat. “Local chefs regularly go to China—either Hong Kong or Guangzhou—to find ingredients, hire chefs and survey the scene,” she says. The cocoa-dusted bao buns that look like shiitake mushrooms and dumplings shaped like animals originated in China and are now a huge hit here. For Instagram-worthy Mandarin style meats and confections, check out the pastry chicks ($2.95) at Chili House SF, the custard piglet buns ($6) at Lai Hong Lounge, the colorful xiao long bao ($9.95) at Dragon Beaux and the black swan taro puffs ($8) from Palette Tea House. Asian desserts are also developing major followings. Pastry chefs at U: Dessert Story, Breadbelly and Stonemill Matcha mash up their classic French skills with Asian ingredients to create unique sweets. Chef Francis Ang crafts stunning desserts with Southeast Asian flavors at Michelin-starred Taj Campton Place. Melding minds with partner Danica Aviles, Ang cooks up modern interpretations of traditional Filipino desserts at their Pinoy Heritage pop-up. Their version of turon, or banana lumpia, is elevated with banana mousseline, passion fruit curd, caramel ice cream and matcha powder. The Instagram story isn’t complete without a stop at Trailblazer Tavern for chef Michelle Karr-Ueoka’s Hawaiian-inspired haupia tapioca, mochi and shave ice.

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The La Cocina Effect While plenty of restaurateurs complain about the cost of doing business in San Francisco, the primarily women of color entrepreneurial chefs from industry disruptor La Cocina are setting the standards for success. Last year, La Cocina businesses generated $16.2 million in sales and created 256 jobs. Since 2015, we’ve seen the opening of El Pípila, which earned a James Beard Award for outstanding restaurant design; in April, Heena Patel of Besharam took over creative control of her restaurant just shy of its first anniversary; and Bini Pradhan opened up Bini’s Kitchen on Howard Street. This summer, one of La Cocina’s early brick-and- mortar graduates, Azalina Eusope, is slated to open her highly anticipated Mahila in Noe Valley. So what’s the secret sauce? La Cocina program director Geetika Agrawal points out that, in addition to offering uniquely delicious food, these businesses have been vetted and have a track record. “They know what their revenue structure is,” Agrawal says.

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Caviar's A Poppin’ Long a mainstay on high-end tasting menus, caviar today is offered to a wider market. Petra Bergstein, co-owner of The Caviar Company, says pricing is competitive on the wholesale front because there are so many caviar companies in the Bay Area. And as costs have come down, demand is rising. Bergstein’s is the only caviar company in the area with a retail shop and tasting room. “What’s really cool is that chefs are getting more comfortable pushing the limits,” she says. “It’s not just a showcase item, but an ingredient in a dish.” She proudly points out a successful collaboration with Humphry Slocombe, the small-batch Ferry Building ice cream company, that paired white sturgeon caviar with white chocolate ice cream for a dinner at Tartine Manufactory.

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Caviar has a strong presence, too, on the menu at Champagne bar The Riddler, where particularly affordable offerings include whitefish caviar with LAY’S potato chips ($25) or on Tater Tot waffles with smoked salmon ($22). At Leo’s, it’s served at happy hour dolloped on tempura lobster, a deviled egg and blini. Since January, Nico has been serving it playfully atop a puree of potatoes and watercress garnished with tiny potato chips ($41). At Chili House SF, the Summer Chinese banquet menu includes crisp Peking duck skin on toast topped with caviar. Creator of the famed 20 Dollar mozzarella stick, Comstock Saloon chef Jason Raffin, who works exclusively with Tsar Nicoulai Caviar, says, “Caviar is sexy; it’s an easy garnish that adds salt and freshness.”

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For a more refined experience, Angler serves a private-batch caviar with grilled parkerhouse rolls and butter. Coi recently launched three preparations, including Traditional, with hen egg, smoked creme fraiche, red onion and buckwheat blini; Land, with roasted chicken and vermouth gelée, cockscomb and chicken skin crackers; and Sea, with congee, sea urchin and California seaweed ($60 to $200 for the service).

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Sixth Street Corridor It may be characterized as gritty, but Sixth Street between Market and Howard is also a surprising treasure trove of diverse and affordable food—thanks mostly to first-generation immigrants. Bini Pradhan of Bini’s Kitchen on Howard at Sixth streets is an unabashed fan of the neighborhood. “La Cocina showed me multiple places to open up my restaurant,” she says.

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“Somehow this space spoke to me and touched my heart. It’s an amazing neighborhood. The people are nice, and they love our food, which is healthy and affordable.” Within three city blocks, there’s outstanding Vietnamese, Italian, Greek, Israeli, Yemeni and Nepalese food. What other neighborhood can claim that? At lunch, mid- Market tech workers are regulars for homemade Italian pinsa (a Roman version of pizza); Israeli savory sambusak pastries; Greek bougatsa, or stuffed pies; Yemeni sandwiches; and Nepalese dumplings. What makes it all so special is not that these businesses are owned and operated by immigrants, but that their food is as delicious as it is affordable.

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Hummus bowls, $8.95 to $17, with fresh Israeli chickpeas at Oren’s Hummus; vegan and gluten-free options are available.

Middle Eastern Comfort Food Arab-Israeli-Palestinian cuisine is enjoying a coming out party stateside, and the common denominators seem to be comfort and chefs who fully embrace their heritage rather than hide beneath the vague label of Mediterranean cuisine. At Beit Rima restaurant, chef and owner Samir Mogannam celebrates classic Jordanian and Palestinian dishes with refined techniques and local seasonal produce. At Oren’s Hummus, there’s sabich and schnitzel and 11 variations of hummus bowls inspired by Oren Dobronsky’s nostalgia for the food of Tel Aviv. On Sixth Street, there’s freshly baked pita at Israeli bakery Frena and, across the street, Yemeni-Mediterranean lamb and falafel sandwiches from Falafelland. You won’t want to miss the fresh pita bar at Shuk Shuka—a pop-up run by a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim with Israeli, Palestinian, Yemeni and Jordanian roots—where the focus is on the culinary commonalities and values that bring people together over shareable platters of Californian- influenced food. While the grub is good, what’s most satisfying is the hospitality. The house is joyful with dinners set to music sung in Arabic.

Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco

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Photography Courtesy Of: Photos by: Eric Wolfinger/Courtesy of Dandelion Chocolate; Gloria Lee/Courtesy of Omakase Restaurant Group; Isabel Baer/Courtesy of Prairie Brunch; Albert Law/Courtesy of Pinoy Heritage, San Francisco August 2019, Caviar Photo Courtesy of Angler; All Other Photos by Angelina Hong/Courtesy of Bini’s Kitchen; Tai Kerbs/Courtesy of Oren’s Hummus