Best of the Bay 2009: Food and Drink

|
()

Editors Picks: Food and Drink

BEST CRAB TOWER TO HEAVEN

Somebody call the Fish Police — we should be cited for loitering at this convivial Italian seafood restaurant. Following the tradition of cicchetti, exquisite little dishes shared family style, Pesce offers communal creations that bring a playful yet authentic touch of Venice to Russian Hill. It can get a bit loud in the narrow, tiled dining room, but you (and hopefully a date or two) will be ensconced in your own world of flavor as you swoon over rich dishes like the porcini pappardelle with braised duck, delectable white anchovy-topped bruschetta, an inimitably tangy tonno puttanesca, and, if you're lucky enough to visit when it's on the dessert menu, a warm, sweet budin (bread pudding) garnished with seasonal fruits that makes "sharing" a risky maneuver. But the small plate that really sends us soaring is Pesce's justly famous crab tower, less a tower than a little stairway to heaven layered with Dungeness, avocado, cucumber, basil, tomato, and a drizzle of red wine vinaigrette. Alas, it's demolished all too quickly. Care to climb another?

2227 Polk, SF. (415) 928-8025, www.pescesf.com

BEST RECIPE FOR A COMFORT FOOD COMA

Restraint, self-discipline, and moderation have their place. But that place is not Hard Knox Cafe, the soul food kitchen that blithely (and thankfully!) ruins diets and courts cardiac arrest. This is a place of comfort and indulgence, with fried-chicken battered just right, ribs whose meat melts off the bone, and mac 'n' cheese so rich that even Southerners have trouble finishing it. Add in a couple moist, piping-hot corn muffins — worth the visit alone — and you're on your way to a food coma that'll last all day. So clear your calendar, put on your elastic pants, and settle into a cushy red two-seater for an afternoon of collard greens, blackened catfish, and black-eyed peas in portions big enough to sink a cow. We know you want it — and at $10 for an entrée with two sides plus muffins, we know you can afford it too.

2526 3rd St., SF. (415) 648-3770; 2448 Clement, SF. (415) 752-3770, www.hardknoxcafe.com

BEST PLACE TO RIND DOWN

Far from clueless snackers who group their cheeses by color and call it a day, fromage groupies are fervent about their curdy calling — which may be why the San Francisco School of Cheese has been consistently selling out its classes since opening in 2006. Courses cover everything from cheese species (cow, goat, and sheep, of course) to regions (France, Italy, Spain, Australia, and Wisconsin are all represented, as are a bevy of exotic locales off the Mediterranean coast). The courses also cater to all levels (amateurs and connoisseurs alike), and teach beverage pairings (beer, wine, what-have-you). Located on a quiet street in North Beach, the Cheese School offers two-hour evening classes taught by one of 10 instructors in spacious headquarters, all for about $60. Sounds bougie as hell? Sure, but it also sounds delicious.

2155 Powell, SF. (415) 346-7530, www.cheeseschoolsf.com

BEST USER-GENERATED CHOCOLATE

The Bay Area has long been home to innovative applications of technology. But rarely have those innovations been as tasty as TCHO, the experimental chocolate company created by Wired co-founder Louis Rossetto and cocoa guru Karl Bittong. Using software development as a model, the pair first launched the company by presenting chocolates in beta form and collecting consumer feedback. Their system for classifying tastes is similarly scientific, creating a flavor wheel that explains the different flavors inherent in chocolate (such as fruity, nutty, or citrus) and then making varieties that are the purest expressions of those attributes. Now in its 2.0 phase, the company produces sustainably sourced chocolate in a stark white lab-like factory at Pier 17, using manufacturing machinery rescued from an old European castle. But a stop by the adjacent café, where you can sample flavors and hear cocogeeks talk about the production process, illuminates where the science stops and the poetry starts — it's in your mouth.

Pier 17, SF. (415) 981-0189, www.tcho.com

BEST ABUSE BOUCHE

Conan O'Brien's 2007 commercial for a Chinese restaurant that has its front door next to the kitchen and doesn't serve fortune cookies ("No fortune cookies," the actors exclaim. "Yay!") may be fake, but the place he (and Martha Stewart) are pretending to endorse is real: Chinatown's Sam Wo. The institution — occupying parts of three stories — has been serving noodles, dumplings, and stir-fry in its cramped dining room for eons, and is as famous for its odd atmosphere and bizarre customer service as it is for its late-night hours. Too bad famed waiter (and Herb Caen darling) Edsel Ford Fong — known for screaming at customers, admonishing them for not washing their hands, or dumping soup on them — passed away in 1984. But fear not: we've heard reports that current servers have physically removed patrons for sitting in the wrong chair. If you're looking for a place where the customer is always right and the bathroom is always clean, go elsewhere. But for some post-barhopping chop suey, served up with history and maybe some light abuse, there's nowhere better.

813 Washington, SF. (415) 982-0596

BEST CAFÉ THAT SAVES THE DAY

Lazy Saturday mornings in San Francisco haven't been the same since owner David Pinch peeled the Spiderman wrapping paper from Caffeinated Comics Company's windows this spring. Café culture has been heroically transformed. No longer must graphic novel geeks suffer the indignity of stares from those novel readers and crossword puzzle solvers, the coffee house elite whose imagined superiority is evident in every stripe of plaid on their cardigan. Here, Marvel fans can select their comics along with their Four Barrel coffee, browsing until they feel the rush of newfound superpowers — or maybe that's the espresso. Either way, we predict this volatile combination of coffee and comics will have more staying power than Joss Whedon has brilliant ideas.

3188 Mission, SF. (415) 829-7530, www.caffcom.com

BEST IT'S-IT ITERATION

It's hard to argue with the accessible, lowbrow perfection of an It's It — that delightful ice cream and cookie concoction invented in San Francisco in 1928. But if you're looking for an alternative a step or five higher on the culinary chart, look no further than Ici. This Berkeley shop features ice cream and cookies made from scratch with ingredients grown by local farmers, under the watchful eyes of former Chez Panisse pastry chef Mary Canales and her talented crew. Eleven flavors of creams, sorbets, and sherbets are available every day, featuring seasonal ingredients and available in cups, pints, or homemade organic cones — and topped with fresh toppings such as bittersweet hot fudge. Our favorite delivery method is between two delicate fresh-made gingersnaps or chocolate cookies, individually wrapped in foil for easy transport. It's an It's-It for the locavore generation. What's next? An artisanal Big Stick? A sustainably-sourced Otter Pop? We can only hope.

2948 College, Berk. (510) 665-6054, www.ici-icecream.com

BEST HARD-TO-FIND BREAKFAST

There are no official hours at Pastores, the restaurant at the corner of Mission and Cortland that caters only to those in the know (which now includes you). But guessing when (and if) you can get huevos rancheros at this elusive Mission District kitchen is part of its charm. The front door is small and easy to miss. If you find it and then locate the scantily decorated restaurant at the end of a long hallway, you'll already feel as though you've accomplished something. But the real treat comes when your server — also the cook and owner — greets you as if you've entered her home, takes your order, and then places a heaping plate of spicy eggs, salsa, rice, and beans before you. Is that burning sensation simply the homemade salsa sizzling against your chapped lips? Or is it the pride of discovery and serendipity? We're going with the latter.

3486 Mission, SF. (415) 642-5385

BEST BACK-ALLEY WINE BAR

Not all wine connoisseurs are leisure-class snobs with fancy Italian boots, nice homes, and shiny sports cars. Some are the cooks, chefs, waiters, sommeliers, and bartenders who've been serving (deliciously) rotten grape juice to those with money to spend. It's the latter group of experts that cook-turned-wine-guru Chris Fuqua had in mind when he started Hotel Biron, a wine bar with an atmosphere and menu designed to match the paradoxically high-end/lowbrow proclivities of those in the service industry. What does that mean? Beer offerings that range from obscure pilsners to Tecate in a can. Scrumptious meat and cheese platters. A mind-blowing wine list. And an unpretentious location next to a row of Dumpsters down a mid-Market alleyway. All of which adds up to the perfect nightly hangout for those with one foot firmly planted on either side of the American dream.

45 Rose, SF. (415) 703-0403, www.hotelbiron.com

BEST "RESTAURANT" WITHIN A RESTAURANT

It isn't Lung Shan's eggrolls or its all-you-can-eat buffet that has foodies in skinny jeans forming a line outside the restaurant on Thursday and Saturday evenings. In fact, none of the patient patrons — who sometimes wait more than an hour for a table — are here to eat at the Chinese restaurant at all. Sure, they sit in its dining room and enjoy food that comes out of its kitchen, but on these nights, Lung Shan becomes Mission Street Food, a restaurant within a restaurant that features different culinary talent each time. The phenomenon has earned a fanatical following despite — or perhaps because of — the things it lacks: a set menu, a space of its own, a regular chef. Each evening sees different deliciously playful dishes, like the Milky Snixertweers Kat, a terrine of candy bars and vanilla ice cream. Prices are low (most entrées hover around the $10 mark), and the profits are donated to charity. You don't need a cookie to tell you that's good fortune.

2234 Mission, SF. Missionstreetfood.blogspot.com

BEST RECESSION-PROOF SUSHI

Common wisdom suggests that sushi can be either cheap or good, but never both. Ichi disagrees. The Bayview-based company run by Erin Archuleta and her partner Tim, a veteran sushi chef, prides itself on providing restaurant-quality, sustainable (when possible) sushi in unconventional settings, all at low prices. Most locals know Archuleta's rolls, nigiri, and specialty items from catered nights at Bender's, the Knockout, Mr. Barbershop, or 111 Minna, where fresh fishy delights can be obtained for less than $5. But Ichi also provides lunchtime service for clients at Google, YouTube, IDEO Design, and 826 Valencia. Whether you're looking for happy hour eats in the Mission or an alternative to a croissanwich platter at your office party in the Finanical District, you can't beat Ichi in sushi-bang for your ever-dwindling bucks.

(415) 822-4024, www.ichisushi.com

BEST EAST BAY IMITATION OF WEST AFRICA

There may have been a time when authentic Senegalese food was just too exotic for the Bay Area palate — but that time has long passed. At Lam Toro, nothing has been watered down for American tastes, from the spicy kick of habanero relish to the bones you're expected to pick out of your fish entrée. For an extra bit of authenticity, call ahead to have dishes like ceebu jen (fish sautéed in a tomato-spiced rice, considered the national dish) or yassa (chicken or fish simmered in a garlic, mustard, and lemon sauce) served family-style on a large plate in the middle of the table. Then enjoy hibiscus and ginger drinks while dining among a diverse crowd of West Africans, Afrophiles, and Peace Corps alumni. A fantastic East Bay complement to San Francisco's Bissap Baobab, this bright, cheerful eatery is the perfect place to experience Senegalese hospitality without needing a passport.

2432 Telegraph, Oakl; (510) 832-1010

BEST CUSTARD IN A CUP

Sure, the mole at La Oaxaqueña Bakery and Restaurant is the shizzle. And the mammoth Mexican pizzas, along with other regional specialties served in this glaringly-lit hole-in-the-wall, are muy excellente. But it's the housemade flan that really gets our locomotora running. Far from the boring dessert most of us have learned to ignore, this version is creamy and silken with intense vanilla flavor, lightly sweetened by a perfect puddle of caramel sauce. You won't even care about the uninviting, disposable, cafeteria-style plastic containers the flan comes in — once you've licked 'em clean.

2128 Mission, SF. (415) 621-5446

BEST WAY TO GET PHAT

It's no secret that the West Coast trounces our Eastern comrades on numerous fronts — weather, culture, blondes. But alas, there has always been the cheese steak factor, the one superior trait that your Atlantic Ocean-based relatives can hang over your head as cause for return eastward. Thankfully, Phat Philly's has removed that weapon from your family's arsenal. The 24th Street eatery features fresh Kobe beef, 12-inch Amoroso rolls shipped from Philly, and a cheese selection that includes Whiz, the glorious liquefied dairy product that covers steak and onions like a radioactive landslide. Not only is Phat Philly's classic cheesesteak perfectly dialed to East Coast standards, but the restaurant's menu also boasts an impressive range of other tasty options, such as crisscut waffle fries, steakhouse chili, and buffalo wings smothered in Mr. Pibb's barbecue sauce. Add in a toppings bar of various peppers with limitless soda refills, and you may never have to visit your relatives again.

3388 24th St., SF. (415) 550-7428, www.phat-philly.com

BEST MOUTHFUL OF ZEN

The tea-mongers' invasion of San Francisco is gaining momentum. Samovar Lounge has added its third venue to the fold, and all of "Zen Valley" is abuzz. Perched on the top of Page and Laguna, this branch of the tea empire is crafted from reclaimed wood and iron, including a long bar of wind-fallen redwood, and features a variety of teas sure to reclaim even the most jaded coffee palate. With a full spectrum of artisanal whites, greens, and blacks, plus edibles such as delicate lavender cookies, hearty Japanese maki bowls, and winsome sandwiches, Samovar's emphasis on taste, texture, and traditional tea service both tantalizes the senses and engages the mind. Surprising, refreshing, and invigorating, a trip to Samovar is a bit like visiting a spa retreat for the tongue.

297 Page, SF. (415) 861-0303, www.samovarlife.com

BEST HOMEMADE HANGOVER FOOD

The original Moulin Rouge was known as a place for drinking and debauchery. Our favorite S.F. version is a friendly, family-owned diner perfect for recovering from such shenanigans. The husband-and-wife team serves up legendary omelets and corned beef hash in portions hefty enough to soak up last night's alcohol, while teetotalling friends who've joined you for breakfast won't be disappointed by cream cheese-<\d>stuffed thick-cut French toast. And everyone will appreciate being able to get a meal and coffee for less than $10 — especially when you won't know how much you spent at that Tenderloin bar the previous night until you go back to pick up your forgotten credit card.

887 Geary, SF. (415) 928-0158

BEST WAY TO PRETEND TO EAT NONEDIBLES

Debbie Goard is to cake what Karl Lagerfeld is to cloth. Both have the eye of an artist, the hands of a sculptor, and a fondness for classic quilted Chanel bags. But while Lagerfeld's denim and sequin satchels may look good enough to eat, Goard's purse cakes actually are. The Oakland-based baker behind Debbie Does Cakes specializes in turning any object — and we mean any — into an edible masterpiece. She's made a giant iPhone cake for Apple, tiny replicas of cosmetics for Benefit, and a three-foot version of San Francisco's Union Bank of California to commemorate its 100th anniversary. And those are just the corporate jobs. Her Flickr account proves she can turn flour, sugar, and eggs into severed feet, rice cookers, dead rats, and just about every type of toy dog known to humanity. In fact, we're willing to bet she could construct a confection of Lagerfeld himself.

www.debbiedoescakes.net

BEST PRE-GAME DOG

As Mission Bay continues its dull development in the shadow of AT&T Park, it is good to know that there are still some real-deal holdouts from a time before the neighborhood devolved into generic condo chaos. The Java House has been serving up delicious blue-collar fare for sailors and longshoreworkers since 1912 (before Willie Mays was even a pup), retaining its prime location along South Beach Harbor within pitching distance of the ballpark. Stop by for top-notch, pregame burgers and chili dogs — without the major league price gouging — or a breakfast of pancakes and eggs, all still served up by owner Philip Papadopoulos. Affordable, delicious food with history and a view? That's a home run.

Pier 40, SF. (415) 495-7620, www.javahousesf.com

BEST DRIVE-BY BURRITO

Serving first-rate organic Southwest-style Mexican cuisine, Green Chile Kitchen has grown so popular for its fantastically fresh plates of blue corn enchiladas, green chile stew, and $2 bottles of Pacifico that seats are often in short supply. This is particularly true during peak feeding hours, when locals have grown inclined to bring along the entire family for one of Green Chile's whole Fulton Valley rotisserie chicken meals (with cheesy mashed potatoes and fresh calabacitas). Luckily, for those who can't wait for their grilled Niman Ranch pork burrito, the cozy NoPa eatery provides drive-by service. Just call in your order and cruise by the restaurant. Someone will run your grub curbside. Eager eaters and drive-through fans may never eat at Taco Bell again.

601 Baker, SF. (415) 614-9411, www.greenchilekitchen.com

BEST JAPANESE PIZZA

There are many cuisines you'd probably never want to see featuring pizza, though after you've tried okonomiyaki, you'll realize that Japanese isn't one of them. Okonomiyaki, served hot at Mifune Don at the Peace Plaza in Japantown, is a savory and highly addictive little pancake made with a flour-based batter that includes yam, cabbage, dashi, and eggs, then topped with ingredients such as mochi, seafood, and kimchi. Like pizza, the whole thing is often accompanied with cheese; unlike its Italian cousin, it sometimes includes mayonnaise. Though this description may sound revolting, the Osaka specialty is extremely difficult to dislike. And Mifune Don's version is the best you'll find this side of the Pacific.

22 Peace Plaza, SF. (415) 346-1993

BEST COOKING CLUB FOR COOL KIDS

Cook Here and Now is not just a statement, it's a newfangled take on the old-fashioned potluck. This underground cooking and tasting club gathers for periodic food-a-thons in a donated kitchen space, often the Zocalo furniture store in Bayview. And while the movement has gained national attention — last year CHN appeared in Travel + Leisure and Food & Wine magazines, and it has inspired similar cooking clubs as far away as Melbourne, Australia — locally the group has remained under the radar. (Which is just as well, because attendees are ferociously loyal, and each event tends to fill the 40-or-so seats mere minutes after being announced.) Attendees must sign up in advance and agree to prepare part of the community meal based on a theme or ingredient. Then they shop for ingredients, bring kitchen tools to the meet-up, and spend nine hours cooking, chatting, drinking, eating, and cleaning — all in the pursuit of one-upping each other with well-sourced ingredients, cooking technique, and culinary wow.

www.cookhereandnow.com

BEST WAY TO GET FIRED UP

We are unfathomably fortunate to be rolling in great, rustic, old world bread in the Bay Area, never needing to suffer the indignities of spongy-goo crumbs and lifeless crusts that are the cruel fate of other carb-loving gastro-regions. Although we're surrounded by many good bakeries, there is only one choice for King of the Loaves. That's Oakland's Firebrand Artisan Breads. This latest addition to the East Bay bakery scene crafts its incredible bread (the rye is our hands-down fave among baguettes and batards) in a wood-fired oven, which results in the crispest, heartiest, most robust crust that yeast, water, and grain can yield. It's dense, rustic, and unparalleled. Plus, the shop's a heckuva lot closer to San Francisco than Freestone's Wild Flour Bakery in West Marin.

1552 Beach, Oakl. (510) 594-9213, www.firebrandartisanbreads.com

BEST PUCKER FOR PENNIES

Candies imported from Mexico and South America have gotten a bad rap in recent years. But that's no reason to overlook the confection entirely — particularly when such an outstanding specimen is made in the East Bay: Dulceria Miriam's tamarind candy. Situated next to the cash registers of many a Latino market are the unpresumptuous plastic jars of Dulceria Miriam's candy, whose sweet pucker cannot be beat. The ingredient list is deceptively simple: fresh tamarind and sugar, sometimes with the addition of salt and/or cayenne. But the way this independent candymaker cultivates this brown, sticky magic is a sour-candy fan's greatest dream. Whether the dessert is stuck to a plastic spoon and wrapped in a wad of plastic (the messiest and the best) or served hard and chewy on a stick, the full-blown tropical flavor makes you salivate for more. And all that tang for a mere couple of quarters? Not since the first Pac Man arcade games have we found this much joy for this little coinage.

BEST "TACO" IN THE CASTRO

When considering eating in the Castro, most of us are more likely to think of attractive dining rooms and steep prices than impressive Indian cuisine. But one argument against this neighborhood's culinary reputation for style above substance is Kasa Indian Eatery. This 18th Street eatery provides an attractive atmosphere along with delicious food, particularly the kati roll: Calcutta's street food answer to the taco, featuring four flaky, ghee-laden wraps filled with flavor-forward curries. Particularly impressive are the veggie options, including bhangin bharta, a smoky-sweet eggplant mash punctuated with the pop of fresh peas, and karahi paneer, a toothsome cheese tossed with silken green peppers in a light tomato sauce. But carnivores won't be disappointed with (free-range) chicken tikka, or one of the other rotating meat-based specials. And the rolls are just five bucks a pop. Affordable, edible, and attractive food in the Castro? The only thing better would be if they delivered to your neighborhood. Oh wait. They do.

4001 18th St., SF. (415) 621-6940, www.kasaindian.com

BEST LATE NIGHT PIG-OUT

Any restaurant open seven days a week until 3 a.m. deserves serious awesomeness points. But Pizza Zone & Grill not only has late hours (including delivery until 2:45 a.m. every day), but pizza that's actually pretty damn good. Slices are made to order and come double-sized, so they're always fresh and big enough for your post-bar belly rumblings. And if you're not in the mood for pizza, you can also order burgers, sandwiches, salads, and appetizers. Right across from Zeitgeist and only blocks from the rest of northern Valencia's watering holes, this convenient family-owned fueling station may forever eliminate your need to visit Taco Bell Heights' namesake landmark. You're welcome.

178 Valencia, SF. (415) 701-7300, pizzazoneandgrill.com

BEST MID-MORNING MENU

There's breakfast, and then there's brunch. Breakfast was invented to fuel your work day on the farm, or fight last night's hangover, or maybe to make the price of your stay at the Comfort Inn seem like a better deal. But brunch is an indulgence, suggesting leisure, pleasure, and good company. One of our favorite spots for this meal-between-meals is Mission Beach Cafe. With a poetic menu, clean design elements, a sunny dining room, and the blissful absence of club music, this Guerrero Street stop is the perfect spot for a morning(ish) meal that's stylish without trying too hard. Sip Blue Bottle coffee while you wait for a pulled pork sandwich with onion citrus relish, or soufflé pancakes with blueberry compote. Or simply eye those waiting in line (seating can take as long as 30 minutes on a weekend) while you imagine the beef brisket hash or spiced fried eggs with horseradish crème fraiche that are coming your way. And since this special meal takes the place of two regular ones, you might even consider your $15 entrée a bargain.

198 Guerrero, SF. (415) 861-0198, www.missionbeachcafesf.com

BEST FIELD TRIP FOR THE FRAT BOY IN ALL OF US

There are benefits to drinking local beers, beyond getting locavore points and microbrew cred. The best thing about having a brewery in your very own city is the chance to see how that most awesome of libations is made. Anchor Steam gives tours of its Potrero Hill facility every weekday — 45 minutes of walking and 45 minutes of tasting. Groups witness the whole process, including bottling, while getting a full history of Anchor's trademark steam beer that's been made in San Francisco since 1896 (though the current recipe has only been around since Fritz Maytag bought the business in 1965). The tour is something like a grade-school field trip mixed with a post-college wine tour. You'll get all the educational (and mind-altering) benefits without the boredom (or the school-bus smell). Don't believe us? Tours are so popular they are booked solid three to six weeks in advance.

1705 Mariposa, SF. (415) 863-8350, www.anchorbrewing.com

BEST SUSTAINABLE SHORE THING

Beach fare tends to fall into two food groups: snacks and beer. But where do health nuts go when they want to fuel up for sun and sand? A feel-good option for smoothie-drinking vegans and sustainability-conscious locavores alike is Judahlicious, a registered green business that serves sandwiches, raw vegan desserts, and fresh sandwiches hearty enough for a day of riding gnar gnar breaks or light enough for an afternoon of displaying brand-new hemp bikinis. Hippie jokes aside, though: we love that this independent business supports local organic farmers, uses compostable and recycleable products, and hand-sorts waste to contribute to organic soil for a small, native-plant nursery in the city. And it doesn't hurt that the food is delicious.

3906 Judah, SF. (415) 66-JUICE, www.judahlicious.com

BEST WAY TO BRING HOME THE BACON

It's just too easy making sexual jokes about how much the three women who own Avedano's love their meat. Besides, the trio who revamped a century-old butcher shop are nothing if not serious about their mission to serve curious carnivores. Co-owner and Sociale executive chef Tia Harrison and her partners have combined the traditions of a classic meat market with the sensibilities of sustainability to create a neighborhood butchery perfect for the eco-conscious-yet-bacon-loving city that spawned Meatpaper. The shop not only sells what's for dinner, but offers classes on everything from butchering a suckling pig to handling a hacksaw — after which students take home $100 worth of fresh meat. But don't think all this dedication means the Avedano's ladies have no sense of humor. A recent sign board read, "Nothing Beats Back Fat." Uh, that's what she said?

235 Cortland, SF. (415) 285-MEAT, www.avedanos.com

BEST BELLYFUL WITH BELLY DANCE

Some pundits will argue that belly dance is rarely, if ever, a regular part of African and Middle Eastern dining; they say, in fact, it's a rare or underground activity made mainstream for Aladdin-loving tourists with Arabian Nights fantasies. To them we say, so what? Sometimes we want our dinner with a bit of Disney flair — particularly if the food itself is authentic and delicious. A perfect example is Al-Masri, the Egyptian eatery in a far-flung corner of the Outer Richmond whose cuisine and décor say "fertile crescent" and whose entertainment says "for Americans." Talented ladies jiggle their hips while you fill your stomach with towering columns of eggplant, perfect pyramids of spice rice, lamb kebabs, and lentil stew. What could be more festive? More delicious? More of a pleasant departure from the predictability of taquerias and mariachis in the Mission, and creperies and easy listening in the Castro?

4031 Balboa, SF. (415) 876-2300, www.almasrisfca.com

BEST PLACE NOT TO ORDER A COCKTAIL

Heaven's Dog is nirvana for cocktail lovers — which is exactly why you should never order a cocktail here. Don't get your usual. Don't examine the drink list. Instead, look the bartender in the eye and confidently say these three words: freedom from choice. By doing, so you'll be putting the fate of your drink order in the hands of the ridiculously talented bar staff, which specializes in flawless, bespoke libations. When your drink arrives, be it a Biarritz Monk Buck or a Bumble Bee, your guide — who is not only a master bartender but also a font of liquorous wisdom — will serve it up with a side of fascinating history. This is one bar that control freaks and those who fear change need not belly up to, but people with a little faith will be deliciously rewarded with the best drink they've ever had the good sense not to order.

1148 Mission, SF. (415) 863-6008, www.heavensdog.com

BEST FOOD CART WITH A CIVIC HEART

What would the pop-up food stand be without Twitter? In the case of the Creme Brulee Cart, it would be less of a community service organizer. Thanks to the micro-blogging tool, fans of Curtis Kimball's fine desserts can find out where in the city he's selling his lavender or orange Creamsicle-flavored delights (all costing less than a BART ticket to Berkeley). But lately, it's also how Kimball is getting the word out about My Dolores Park, a new project focused on reclaiming — and cleaning up — the Mission's favorite sunny-day stop. We're fans of all three of the newest pop-up restaurateurs, including Murat from the Amuse Bouche Cart and Kimball's brother, the Magic Curry Man. But we have a particular soft spot for the guy who's dedicated to expanding hipster bellies and their civic engagement.

www.twitter.com/cremebruleecart, www.twitter.com/mydolorespark

BEST HAM 'N' EGGS 'N' HAM 'N' HAM 'N' HAM

In this town, necessity isn't the mother of invention — eggs are. But whom should we credit for S.F.'s extensive ovo-innovation? Dr. Seuss, whose Green Eggs and Ham may have presaged the pesto or avocado scramble? Whatsisname Benedict (or was it Benedict Whatsisname?), who put the English muffin under the ham and hollandaise? The Mexicans, who added chili and tortillas and begot chilaquiles? The Jews, who threw unleaveded bread into the mix and made matzo brie? Locally, we're voting for the Pork Store Café, home of the best nouveau melding of somethin' 'n' eggs so far: the Scralifornia. Although the concoction of eggs, salsa, feta cheese, and avocado doesn't seem particularly Californian (well, OK, the avocado does), the result transcends mere scrambles and statehood. Of course, the Pork Store didn't get its name by doing right only by vegans. Word is that the ham, chorizo, pork loin, bacon, and other homages to the pig also go down real easy. Scralifornia, here we come.

1451 Haight, SF. (415) 864-6981; 3122 Valencia, SF. (415) 626-5523

BEST FROZEN YOGURT OF THE FUTURE

Remember when we used to refer to froyo with two separate words, flavors were limited to chocolate and vanilla (or, if you in a particularly exotic suburb, peanut butter), and people behind a counter decided how much to put in your cup? Times they are a-changin.' And we like it. Especially at Icebee, the cheerily strange frozen yogurt shop behind the Westfield shopping center. Not only can you get delicious dessert made with live and active cultures (apparently, they do survive freezing) in flavors like green tea and mango (and plenty others — take that, Pinkberry). But the serve-yourself setup means you decide exactly what ratio of yogurt to toppings you want in your biodegradable cup. At 46 cents an ounce, you only pay for what you get, whether it's a mere taste of blueberry yogurt and fresh fruit as a post-shopping refresher or a full serving of New York Cheese Cake with candy toppings as consolation for the crappy movie you saw across the street.

829 Mission, SF. (415) 882-7800, www.icebeeyogurt.com

BEST NEW SPOT FOR GETTING YOUR YAYAS

When Yaya closed, we thought our city's steamy affair with Iraqi chef Yahya Salih was over. Lucky for us, the Middle Eastern gourmet is back with Jannah, a casual new eatery between Poleng Lounge and Papalote in the Western Addition. Under murals depicting blue sea and sky, diners can dig into traditional-sounding food that's anything but predictable — all for under $11 a dish. We love the standards — hummus, baba ghanoush, and kebabs — but are even more delighted with juices made from fresh fruits, raisins, and mint; dips like mama ghanooge (accented with carrot and cardamom) or hudhud ghanoush (turnip and dates); and a savory phyllo dish with seafood, fava and garbanzo beans, and sun-dried lime. Desserts are equally revelatory, like kahi phyllo pockets stuffed with warm cardamom-redolent cream. Best of all? Now that our relationship with Salih is secure, we don't have to roam the city for some embarrassing Yaya rebound.

1775 Fulton, SF. (415) 567-4400

BEST COMFORT CARB

Every culture has their comfort soup ingredient. Jews have matzo balls. The Japanese have miso. The ... well ... everyone ... has noodles with chicken. But when it comes to belly-warming, tear-clearing supper on a spoon, it'd be hard for any culture to compete with that Chinese specialty, the wonton. When the fog rolls over the Richmond, or a metaphorical mist chills your heart, there's no better place to cure what ails you than Shanghai Dumpling King. The steaming bowls of wonton soup are big enough to feed two, which means either a chance to administer a double dose of self-care or an opportunity to share with a friend (misery loves company, as does a good meal). If you're sharing, you may have room for dim sum, graciously served for dinner. By the time you finish the BBQ pork buns and fresh, simple, perfectly chewy wontons in savory broth, you'll hardly remember whatever misery sent you seeking Shanghai in the first place.

3319 Balboa, SF. (415) 387-2088

BEST LUNCH ON A LOADING DOCK

Ambiance is overrated. That's what you learn by lunching at Kitchenette, the new eatery located in the oft-overlooked Dogpatch neighborhood. Instead of spending time and money designing a glitzy post-industrial space, the chef-owners behind Kitchenette opted for a real-deal industrial loading dock with a commanding view of the long-term storage facility across the street, allowing them to spend more time and money on what really matters: the food. A new menu, posted online the night before service, is available Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m., or until the food runs out — which it often does, particularly on Taco Tuesdays, when lucky eaters chow down on corn tortillas filled with Niman Ranch pork carnitas topped with guacamole, salsa, and cabbage. Each lunch menu offers a superb veggie option (in the form of a salad, sandwich, or bento box) — as well as one for carnivores — alongside two or three additional snacks and a Cookie of the Moment (Hello, maple bacon snickerdoodles!).There's really only one word that does Kitchenette justice: yum.

958 Illinois, SF. www.kitchenettesf.com

BEST BURGERS OVER 40

Not all burgers are created equal. You know it, we know it, and Hamburger Haven does too. Think about it: Anybody can heat up a patty, slap it on a bun, and call it grilled gold. But that doesn't mean it's going to taste good. It takes a lot of effort, love, and time to create a true masterpiece. Which is exactly what Hamburger Haven has been cranking out since 1968. Hamburger Haven does breakfast, dinner, and dessert, but the real focus here is on burgers. BBQ sauce-<\d>slathered, chili-drenched, Reuben-inspired — you name it and Hamburger Haven does it better than anyone else in the city. Which partially explains why the place has been around so long, but not entirely. The simple down-home charm of H.H. is what we appreciate. From the decor, to the service, right down to the presentation, Hamburger Haven is a no-nonsense burger shack where the only frills you'll find will be mashed inside your buns. Simple, pure, haven-ly.

800 Clement, SF. (415) 387-3260

BEST PLACE FOR A PARISIAN DINNER DATE

On a charming, leafy Castro block, one with the spirit of a European neighborhood, sits L'Ardoise Bistro, a real-deal French bistro that effortlessly marries casual intimacy with romantic intrigue. Gracious French staff, closely set tables, and a chalkboard (the restaurant's namesake) evoke your most beloved Parisian dinners, replete with the effortless sexiness that we love in a city like Paris. But what places it among S.F.'s beloved classic bistros, like Chapeau! and Clementine, is heartwarming food. Your date can't help but cozy up to you after perfectly cooked coq au vin, duck leg confit, or seafood gratin. Escargot, pommes frites, and charcuterie also abound, with plenty of French wines to pair with. And the love needn't dissipate once you get the check.... Portions are generous and the highest priced dish on the menu is $19. Viva la romance!

151 Noe, SF. (415) 437-2600, www.ardoisesf.com

BEST WABI-SABI AND COFFEE

We're not sure if Hollow, the new café in the coffee-shop-deprived Inner Sunset, is actually an example of wabi-sabi design principles. But it's undeniable the shop embraces simplicity, an affinity for nature, and an appreciation of the unconventional — the essence of the Japanese aesthetic philosophy, which the co-owners (an interior designer and freelance programmer) wholeheartedly appreciate. In fact, everything about Hollow is modest and unconventional: its tiny space; its earthy palette of green, brown, and silver hues; its limited selection of quality delicacies (truffles, cashew cookies) and Ritual espressos (no drip coffee here); and its selection of rustic trinkets for sale (birdcages and nests, African masks, antlers, retro matchboxes, and alchemist vases). Whether you know about Buddhist-inspired art forms or not, you'll find that this cabinet of caffeine and curiosities is an exquisite sanctuary in the Inner Sunset.

1435 Irving, SF. (415) 242-4119, www.hollowsf.com

BEST FREE BBQ

Everyone knows the best hangover busters are a good, protein-heavy meal and a bit of hair of the dog. Problem is, those who need relief most tend to be the ones who spent the most money getting themselves hungover in the first place. What to do when you only have enough cash for beer or food, but not both? If it's Sunday, go to (the aptly named) Bender's. Every week the Mission dive provides free BBQ, including meat and veggie options. At $2, Pabst Blue Ribbon is so cheap you can afford to have hair from several dogs. And for those who live close enough, just hop on your fixie and take advantage of indoor bike parking. Just remember to pace yourself, because tomorrow lunch is gonna cost you.

Sundays, 3–7 p.m. 806 S. Van Ness, SF. (415) 824-1800, www.bendersbar.com

BEST GYPSY WOMAN WITH A PERMANENT ADDRESS

Is it the sexy, swanky décor that makes Gitane so appealing? The genius bartenders who whip up tasty tipples with a smile? The bacon bonbons and fresh bread served in a deceptively small dining room that feels both grand and intimate? Yes, yes, and hell yes. We didn't know what to expect when the founders of Café Claude opened this gypsy-themed restaurant, but were delighted to find that the designers and chef took elements from gypsy culture and the countries where gypsies — or rather, the Roma people — have historically lived, and combined them into a lovely, unexpected, and unpredictably consistent mélange. Grab a date for a cocktail (perhaps the Gypsy, Gitane's twist on the St. Germain's elderflower trend) or dinner (if they're on the menu, order the melt-in-your-mouth ribs), or simply stop in for a glimpse at the bar's reflective ceiling or the mezzanine's illuminated brick wall. Portions are ample enough that you may not have room for dessert — but no matter. An evening at Gitane feels decadent, sensual, and indulgent enough.

6 Claude, SF. (415) 788-6686, www.gitanerestaurant.com

BEST WAY TO EAT ROSEMARY'S BABY

It's hard to remember life B.H.C.: Before Humphry Slocumbe. Sure, we have plenty of amazing ice cream, and suffer little for want of a good local scoop. But when fine-dining veteran Jake Godby applied his experience at Coi, Fifth Floor, and Boulevard to the art of ice cream, the results were nothing short of great. Stunningly original flavors like Secret Breakfast — a creamy heaven of bourbon and cornflakes — have become the new standard. And we expectantly follow Twitter waiting for postings of the day's latest flavors, which could range from Peanut Butter Curry to Laphroaig Scotch Rye, and Red Hot Banana to Rosemary's Baby (rosemary and pine nuts). Sure, those $7.50 pints add up, but what you're getting for that costly juice (as in Jesus Juice, a flavor featuring Kermit Lynch Côtes du Rhône and Coke Classic flavor) is rich satisfaction mixed with a splash of adventure.

2790 Harrison, SF. (415) 550-6971, www.humphryslocombe.com

BEST SECRET SAZERAC

San Francisco suffers no shortage of well-made classic cocktails. The revival that began more than a decade ago — perhaps the final remnant of the 1990s swing revival — is still pouring it on, and terms like "sidecar," "bitters," and "Pimm's" are ubiquitous on most upscale bar menus. For any gimlet greenhorns anxious to navigate the fraught waters of classic cocktailia with no potential embarrassment or pocketbook deflation, we recommend the generous, spacious, yet still mixology-audacious 83 Proof. Whether you order the Proof's fancy basil gimlet (with a gentle splash of ginger Cello) or a sturdy, manly Manhattan (with a dark, house-candied Maraschino cherry), the attentive bartenders and companionable atmosphere will put you in a comfortably adventurous mood. If it's a slower night, the staff may even mix you a kick-ass sazerac, the legendary, labor-intensive ur-cocktail from New Orleans made with rye whiskey, bitters, and sugar in an absinthe-prepped glass. Slink in on a Monday and ask nicely.

83 First St., SF. (415) 296-8383, www.83proof.com