It's hard to feel anything except deep despair about this year in the local food industry. Beloved restaurants closed after decades of business, and the pandemic put so many waiters, cooks and dishwashers out of work. Other owners decided to go into hibernation to hopefully preserve their businesses, though they have yet to reemerge.
Looking back at the food I ate (one too many in my car) and the stories I wrote the last 12 months reminded me that it was also a year of resiliency, hope and truly outstanding food made in the face of immense obstacles. Restaurants pivoted to meal kits and to-go cocktails and transformed into retail operations to stay alive. New eateries defied the odds to open. Pop-ups that could share kitchen space with struggling restaurants thrived, creating a new model for future operations. Numerous Bay Area regions, including San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, helped bring attention to the prohibitively costly delivery fees third-party apps charge restaurants by imposing caps on those fees.
The nine meals on this list were memorable in more than one way. They were all delicious but also represented something meaningful about this year in local dining, whether it was mapo tofu at the Sichuan restaurant that almost closed due to early coronavirus fears or the out-of-work chef slinging standout fried chicken sandwiches from his backyard.
All but one of the food businesses mentioned here are still open; order takeout from them — directly, not on an app! — and tip generously.
Mapo tofu at Taste
On March 11, I unwittingly ate what would be my last sit-down meal inside a restaurant for the rest of the year. The day before, I had published a story on Taste, a Sichuan restaurant in Palo Alto. Taste was on the verge of closure after weeks of declining business due to early concerns about the coronavirus — and unfounded ones in particular hurting local Chinese restaurants. I ordered the mapo tofu lunch set and watched as the dining room filled up over the lunch hour, a sole waitress rushing to take orders and fill water glasses.
Owner Sandy Liu told me later that diners had come in because they heard Taste could close and wanted to support the restaurant. I felt genuinely uplifted and hopeful.
Despite the fact that things got a lot more grim than I could have ever imagined over the next nine months, Taste survived a lot longer than Liu thought it would. And that mapo tofu was truly excellent; I've craved its peppery, comforting notes more times than I'd care to admit.
Taste, 423 University Ave., Palo Alto; tastepaloalto.com
Tonkatsu curry at Curry Hyuga
Burlingame's Curry Hyuga made headlines in late March as one of the first new restaurants to actually open during the shutdown. The owners reportedly got their business license 30 minutes before City Hall closed down.
The restaurant specializes in Japanese curry, served over rice with cabbage, fukujinzuke (pickled vegetables) and your choice of protein, including pork and chicken katsu, chicken karaage and korokke (a fried potato croquette). I thoroughly enjoyed the tonkatsu, packaged separately from the velvety, rich curry sauce to avoid a soggy fate, from the front seat of my car. (I definitely ate more food in my car in 2020 than in any year prior, and really hope I won't need to stash as many napkins and stain remover wipes in the glove compartment in 2021.)
Curry Hyuga, 1204 Broadway St., Burlingame; curryhyuga.com
Korean fried chicken at Maum
When Palo Alto's Michelin-starred Maum reopened for takeout this spring, one of the menus paid homage to Korean fried chicken and KFC combo meals. I still think about the perfectly crispy-on-the-outside, juicy-on-the-inside half chicken with beef and anchovy rice, a seaweed biscuit with honey butter, pickled Korean radish and kimchi.
Sadly, this meal serves as a reminder of the restaurants we lost to the pandemic. The owner of Maum later parted with the Korean restaurant's much-lauded chefs Meichih and Michael Kim and tried to pivot before closing until further notice. I really look forward to whatever the Kims do next.
All the pizza at Pazzo
I can't believe it took me until this year to get to Pazzo, which serves standout wood-fired New Haven-style pizza and handmade pastas in San Carlos. Andy Gambardella of the now-closed Gambardella's in Menlo Park opened Pazzo in 2014 in homage to the "apizza" of his youth growing up in New Haven.
The San Marzano and baby clam pies will, guaranteed, embed themselves into your taste memory — the blistered bottoms, the hint of dried oregano and full-flavored toppings enhancing the pizza dough (made daily from a secret recipe). Also, do not sleep on the cannoli.
Pazzo, 1179 Laurel St., San Carlos; pazzosancarlos.com
Double softee with rainbow sprinkles at Mister Softee
This might have been my most joyful meal of 2020: a double softee swirled with vanilla and chocolate soft serve, dipped in rainbow sprinkles. I ate it after chasing down a roving Mister Softee truck, which made for an incredibly fun story about the beloved East Coast soft serve company's arrival on the Peninsula, that iconic tinkling music that triggers an almost Pavlovian response and the delightful pursuit of sugary nostalgia. I loved the impassioned responses I got from people who grew up on Mister Softee and were so excited to discover that it's available in the Bay Area.
"Of course with the Covid there were no trips to Brooklyn this year," one reader wrote. "I miss my family, but I had a little taste of Brooklyn thanks to your article."
Mister Softee NorCal, check social media for daily locations; facebook.com/softeenorcal
Fried chicken sandwich at Cocina Canares
We were inundated this year with fried chicken, and sandwiches in particular. My favorite of them all is one made by an out-of-work cook in his South San Francisco backyard.
After Mel Canares got laid off from his corporate chef job during the shutdown, he turned what had previously been a side hustle — selling food out of his home — into a full-time gig. His fried chicken sandwiches were always his bestseller, and for good reason. Canares double-dredges chicken thighs in a buttermilk and hot sauce marinade for super-crispy chicken, tops it with slaw and a smoky mesquite sauce and serves it on a toasted brioche bun. It's a large, satiating sandwich that's more than worth the drive to South San Francisco.
Canares is part of the under-the-table economy of home-based food businesses across the Bay Area, which surged during the pandemic and brought us some of the most interesting eats of the year. Some of these home cooks became successful enough that they won't go back to their pre-pandemic jobs, including Pepe of Chef Peps Kitchen in East Palo Alto, who sold enough quesabirria and tacos to purchase a food truck this fall. I really hope in 2021 we see local jurisdictions implement the Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operations (MEHKO) Act, a state law that would give more home cooks a path to legality.
Cocina Canares, South San Francisco; check instagram.com/fuckinmel for weekly pop-up details.
Hết Sẩy pop-up
I first tried Hết Sẩy in the Before Times, about a month before the pandemic hit. I stumbled onto the San Jose pop-up's Instagram and was immediately drawn in by what turned out to be some of the most inventive and delicious takes on Vietnamese food I've had, like pâté vit ốp-la, a breakfast dish with homemade duck liver pâté, spiced sausage, pickles, a fried egg and salmon roe that you scoop bites of using toasted levain bread from Midwife and the Baker.
Owners Duy An and Hieu Le's plans to move into a new space this spring were obviously upended but they persevered during the lockdown, hosting pop-ups as they could (including in Palo Alto) and offering weekly pickup and delivery. Their Instagram feed still hooks me as much as it did that first time, the photos as much as the detailed captions explaining each dish's ingredients and significance — just look at this pandan waffle stuffed with caramelized banana or this gà lagu patê vịt (chicken ragu with duck liver pâté).
Hết Sẩy, 695 Lucretia Ave., San Jose, hetsay.square.site
Bakers Against Racism pastries
Some of the best pastries I ate this year were also for a good cause. This summer, Backhaus in San Mateo and Love for Butter in Palo Alto participated in Bakers Against Racism, an international campaign to sell baked goods to support nonprofits that fight racial inequity. A grassroots response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, thousands of professional and home bakers participated in the effort.
John Shelsta of Love for Butter raised $3,000 for the Ecumenical Hunger Program in East Palo Alto and Backhaus donated $1,540 to the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund.
Each of Backhaus' bakers contributed an item that reflected their heritage, all of which I wish would become regular menu items: scallion-topped Japanese milk bread, a soft concha filled with Mexican chocolate, a black sesame Chinese egg tart and a garlic twist studded with lap cheong. Shelsta, who's Korean, made a flaky croissant tart filled with a tangle of kimchi and silky braised short rib.
Backhaus, 32 E. 3rd Ave., San Mateo; backhausbread.com
Love for Butter, Palo Alto; loveforbutter.com
Seared toro at Sushi Sam's Edomata
Eating in the bustling dining room at Sushi Sam's in downtown San Mateo in January feels like a distant memory, but I can still taste the luxurious seared toro. The hefty piece of fatty tuna is lightly seared and brushed with yuzu and sea salt, draped over perfectly cooked rice. Not to be cliche, but it really does melt in your mouth. It's not cheap at $18 for two pieces but after this year, we all deserve a little indulgence.
Sushi Sam's Edomata, 218 E. 3rd Ave., San Mateo; sushisams.com