My favorite 2019 dining experiences include both trendy restaurants and long-time strip mall establishments. Despite years of exploring Bay Area dining, I felt a sense of discovery. Both types of eateries showcased how my seemingly cosmopolitan diet overlooks entire cuisines.
In 2019, I studied thalis like textbooks and broadened my understanding of Vietnamese food. Looking past the first pages of Yelp reviews and asking residents about the restaurants important to them, I enjoyed a year of education.
Madras Cafe’s Ghee Masala Dosa: In the busiest restaurants, the pace demands careful organization. Yelp waitlisters jump out of parked cars at the perfect moment, or managers radio in table numbers to hosts across a 300-cover dining room. At Madras Cafe, they’ve calculated the exact timing for serving your food as soon as a table opens up. Fresh, crisp dosa with the perfect tart of fermentation accompany pillowy bright yellow filling. The chutneys carry their flavors of bold chili and coconut with clarity.
Shizen Vegan Sushi’s Rolls: On a spectrum of vegan food from imitating meat products to creating new food items, Shizen lands in the middle. The rolls present novelty, yet draw from the highest qualities of sushi–texture and simplicity. Overall, it’s a bit stronger than the mango nigiri at the New Jersey buffet I frequented in college.
Benu’s Beef Rib Steak: See here. Other restaurants honor Asian ingredients in fine dining, but Benu also worships the traditions and cultural practices behind each dish. Corey Lee’s encyclopedic knowledge of cuisines elevates Benu.
Delhiwala Chaat’s Bathura Chana: Many thanks to Soleil Ho for featuring Sunnyvale’s chaat trucks. Many eateries leverage the appeal of street food and claim to transport diners to faraway markets. Delhiwala Chaat extends a real invitation. The owner immediately pinpointed me as a newcomer, offering me extra everything. Small paper plates painted in green, white, and gold (cilantro, yogurt, and fried dough) fill up every inch of the cramped tables. The chickpeas swim in depth and complexity. The bhatura balloons yet retains a pleasant tenderness that stands up to the chana masala.
Daeho Kalbi Jjim’s Kalbi Jjim: I know LA’s Koreatown wins every Korean food in the US debate. However, in a year where I visited both Sun Nong Dan and Daeho Kalbi Jjim, I found the experiences comparable. Let’s just celebrate the opportunity to gather around a bubbling pot of short ribs with sweet soy aromas in the air. And watch people blowtorch some cheese.
Com Tam Thien Huong’s Dac Biet: Whether eating a tomato fresh off the vine or masterfully prepared sushi for the first time, some bites help you understand a food’s essence. Before eating at Com Tam Thien Huong, I often encountered limp piles of bi that made me wonder why this skin couldn’t just be fried. With this meal, I understood the shredded pork skin’s play on textures and the incredible crunch of properly fried tau hu ky where each layer separates from the others.
Sugar Mama Ice Cream’s Black Sesame Brittle Ice Cream: In an era of Salt & Straw and internationally-inspired ice cream shops, novelty isn’t enough to stand out. Others might serve black sesame, but the added crunch and sweetness of this brittle joyfully evokes both Ben and Jerry’s and high-end Japanese cooking.
Kaita’s Lunch Specials: Kaita calls out to my Asian American soul. I don’t need tempura served in courses, for I’m happy enough with a generous mound of vegetables free from panko breadcrumb hell. The miso soup might not be perfect, but it has a little more body than the unadorned instant version. Hispanic cooks work side-by-side with a Japanese family, and bottles of sake are labeled with scotch-taped notes. Little signals around the restaurant tell the story of this intercultural restaurant and their integrity to serving quality food.
Lopez Heirloom Plants’ Tomatoes: I actually grew something! A great family growing beautiful plants for charity. Check out their plant sales.
Olive Garden’s Loaded Pasta Nachos: Look, it’s alfredo sauce. It’s meat sauce. It’s deep-fried pasta. I still reserve the right to object to wonton nachos. But let’s not overthink things here. These are all things we want. The lasagna chips actually do a great job of straddling the line between light and crispy and thick and durable.