Khichdi Bowls at Besharam. Growing up in an Indian-Burmese household in Southern California with Mexican next-door neighbors/best friends, I was lucky enough to get to eat and experience so many different cuisines and cultures. From mohinga to mole, my eating experience was vastly varied. One thing my mom made often and which I particularly loved was a Gujarati dish called kadhi khichdi in which yogurt, thinned out with water, thickened with chickpea flour and flavored with spices (kadhi), tops a mixture of lentil-laden rice with turmeric and cumin (khichdi). So when I saw khichdi bowls on the lunch menu at Besharam, I was both surprised and filled with nostalgia. But instead of kadhi, there are heartier options to choose from: creamy coconut fish moilee featuring local rock cod, a spicy tomatoey aloo (potato) situation, and a rich, buttery braised chicken leg fortified with a cashew cream sauce. Chef Heena Patel adds edamame to her khichdi for a much-welcomed textural contrast and includes a side of pickles and swipe of date puree for acidity and sweetness, respectively. Besharam, 1275 Minnesota St. besharamrestaurant.com.
Angler Potato at Angler. Angler is chef Josh Skenes’s follow-up restaurant to his three-Michelin-starred Saison. The concept is simple: Skenes brings his ingredient-first ethos, sourcing a superlative seafood-centric bounty that is minimally manipulated and cooked over a wood-burning hearth. Coupled with stellar service (everyone wears suits!), elegant cocktails and a sizable wine list that leans Burgundian, Angler managed to make it on top of Esquire’s Best New Restaurant list for 2018. But one of the best things you’ll eat at Angler comes not from the sea but rather from the earth, ironically enough. The Angler Potato features a single humble Carola spud that is mandolined into what seems like one thousand layers (a potato mille-feuille, if you will), reassembled and cooked on the hearth until crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. It’s then placed over a pool of sauce made with three different cow’s milk cheeses, chives and cream. It’s rich. It’s decadent. It’s delicious. Angler, 132 The Embarcadero, anglerrestaurants.com.
First Thyme Caller at Violet’s. For the longest time, I thought food was the single most important aspect of a restaurant. But I recently listened to a talk by Marco Pierre White, the now-retired British chef who was the youngest chef ever to have been awarded three Michelin stars (which he would famously return, of course), and he prioritizes atmosphere first, then food, then service. The vibe is most important, according to MPW. And it really got me thinking: it’s not terribly difficult to make good food, but it is extremely difficult to create a good vibe—there’s no recipe for that. And when I think of vibey restaurants, Violet’s in the Outer Richmond comes to mind. Sure, it’s always packed, and certainly you’ll have to battle for a bar seat, but with patience you’ll get one. And when you do, you’ll order the First Thyme Caller, a drink made with citrus vodka, hopped whiskey, green chartreuse, pineapple gum and green tea. It sounds like a lot, but it is harmoniously balanced. The drink is garnished with a lemon wedge and a thyme sprig, and it’s served hot to keep you warm on a cold foggy night in SF. Violet’s, 2301 Clement St. violets-sf.com.
Shrimp & Burrata Tortelli at Prairie. What happens when you’re in love with the various cuisines and complex ingredients found throughout the Asian continent but have been cooking Italian food for the last decade-plus in San Francisco? You get Prairie—a fun mishmash of deliciousness by chef Anthony Strong, former executive chef of the Delfina Restaurant Group. Opened in the old Hog & Rocks space in the Mission, it offers hints of Japan with chewy mochi wrapped with guanciale, or bits of Korea with rice cakes topped with a mushroom sugo. But it’s Strong’s love for Chinese dumplings that truly showcases his creativity, talent and confidence in the kitchen. Inspired by siu mai, chopped gulf shrimp bound by its own silky puree is stuffed into a tortelli along with creamy burrata. It’s then boiled and then tossed in a slightly spicy, rich, peppery sauce. The unlikely pairing of seafood with cheese is enough to make your nonna turn over in her grave, but somehow it all works due to the genius that is Anthony Strong. Prairie, 3431 19th St. prairiesf.com.
Arepas at El Arepazo. Arepas are griddled corn cake snacks similar to pupusas that come either from Venezuela or Colombia, depending on who you ask. They’re made by mixing ground cornmeal with water and salt and come in various sizes (the thicker ones come from Venezuela) and also in different forms: some are simply served as is, while others are either partially split or entirely split to make sandwiches with fillings that include meat, cheese or both. Walk down Mission Street and you’ll pass a literal hole-in-the-wall next to a Mexican grocery in between 17th and 18th streets with a large wooden sign that reads El Arepazo. Here they serve freshly griddled Colombian arepas that are partially split and stuffed with various fillings named after different regions in Colombia. I like the La Pastusa, which contains a generous helping of sliced smoky-salty pieces of chorizo. I also like to ask them to add cheese, avocado and a quail egg garnish because I’m probably a little bit drunk and very hungry. El Arepazo, 2169 Mission St. elarepazosf.com.