The little pearls get their due in classic and contemporary SF dishes
When it comes to tapioca pudding, levels of neurosis tend to equal levels of nostalgia, with the haters depicting the starchy little pearls as "gummy, scary fish eyes" and the aficionados invoking Mom patiently stirring vanilla extract into the sweet milky mixture over a prairie Wedgewood.
Pearl drinks notwithstanding — and haven't all those bubble tea places peaked yet? — tapioca pudding remains a rarity outside of a few Jewish delis and Southeast Asian restaurants. But when you do see it, the all-white comfort food has been getting a foodie and fusion makeover, with infusions of lime, maple syrup, and Grand Marnier; bases of cream, orange juice, or coconut milk (join us, lactose intolerant ones!); real vanilla beans instead of extract (sorry, moms), and purees of passionfruit, banana, and mango. Here are five places that serve their tapioca pudding proudly. Indeed, at a few of them, you either eat your tapioca (or sticky rice) or end your meal on a sour note. You choose. (Diane Sussman)
Oh, Charles Phan — is there no humble Vietnamese street food you can't turn into a sought-after gourmet delicacy? Not even tapioca pudding — to which you added a dollop of mango mousse for extra sweetness, a splash of lemon juice for refreshing tartness, a bit of cream for extra richness, all in a smooth coconut milk base? If there's any criticism to be had, it's that OTD's tapioca pudding is only offered every day at the Westfield Centre outpost (sorry, Ferry Buildingers, you have to wait until summer to get yours). Not nice, Charles Phan, making us traverse the carny ride of an escalator for a bit of tapioca. And while we're at it, here's another criticism: OTD's Ferry Building tapioca comes in prepackaged plastic containers — or is it a compostable composite? — so BYOB (bowl).
845 Market, SF. (415) 541-9913, www.outthedoors.com 
Who says a night on the town can't end in tapioca pudding? At the classic and classy Le Colonial, the French-Vietnamese restaurant in the Financial District, you can have it all. Le Colonial may also be the only restaurant in town that suggests a wine pairing for your tapioca pudding (a 2003 Royal Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos). And, Le Colonial serves its tapioca, infused with coconut, over banana custard. That's right, puddin' heads, you don't have to choose! Sop up the two-fer with Le Col's wonton crisps, and get your textural, salty contrast. Granted, this tapioca isn't cheap ($9). But this is your big night out — go ahead and splurge in your own homey, comfy way.
20 Cosmo Place, SF. (415) 931-3600, www.lecolonialsf.com 
The House, along with lingering traces of the Beats, are two small respites from North Beach's Italian theme-park vibe. Situated in an off-kilter, oddly-painted building on a triangulated corner at Grant and Fresno, the House serves Asian fusion fare like Maine crab cake with pickled ginger remoulade and wasabi noodles with Angus steak. Fusions aside, the House's tapioca pudding may well be prettiest in all the land (take that, shellacked and air-brushed Martha Stewart Living centerfolds). For starters, House decorates its tapioca with a flowery swirl of mango puree that melds into the pudding for a jolt of extra sweetness. But it's not just the artistry that makes it worth the $4 price tag: the pudding is smooth and creamy, with large pearls that have had all traces of gumminess warmed out of them.
1230 Grant, SF. (415) 986-8612, www.thehse.com 
If there's a tapioca pudding that has remained faithful to its pedestrian roots, this is it. No cream, no liqueur, no mousse. Indeed, compared to other places, Phuket's tapioca can seem on the thin side, and the corn kernels for added sweetness and texture are decidedly off-trend. But Phuket has one thing going for it that no other local tapioca purveyor has: it serves its tapioca warm. That's right, the cooks make it just for you. And nothing says "ma-ma" like tapioca right off the stove.
248 Divsadero, SF. (415) 864-8584, www.phuketthaisf.com 
Some days you need tapioca. You need it bad. You need it bad and you sure as hell aren't going to make it yourself. And you're certainly not going to eat another satay dish just to get to the tapioca, or resort to Kozy Shack (not because it's bad — it's good — but because the four-ounce containers are just too damn small and you'd have to eat the whole pack). Those are the days to head to Whole Foods' prepared foods section, where eight-ounce containers of tapioca await. Although Whole Foods takes a classic approach to tapioca, it does up the gourmet ante by using cream (and milk) and a generous helping of vanilla. The result, of course, is smooth, creamy, and sweet — the way you wish your Mom had made it, if she hadn't been saving the cream for something "special."
Various locations, www.wholefoodsmarkets.com