The Best Dishes I Ate in 2021

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A plate of Somali-style goat suqaar—a kind of stir-fry—on a table.
A plate of roasted goat at Jubba, the Bay Area's only Somali restaurant. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

When I worked for a glossy magazine, I was sometimes taken to task for my predilection toward only ever writing about food that consisted of different shades of brown—monochrome food that couldn’t be photographed beautifully enough, I was told, to carry a big, splashy feature story.

Is it surprising, then, that this year—all of us still in the thick of a stressful, world-altering pandemic—all I wanted to eat was brown food? Which is to say, the comfort foods.

The truth is, 2021 also marked my return to a handful of posh, trendy restaurants—both for takeout and in person—but very few of them made any lasting impression. Instead, all I could think about were big pots of meaty stew, redolent with spice. Japanese curry ladled over rice. Pork chop bento boxes. Noodle soups in which a large number of bones simmer for hours.

It was that kind of year. For me, that also meant that it was an especially delicious year. Here, then, are my 10 favorite things I ate in 2021, presented in roughly chronological order.

A fried chicken sandwich in a plastic takeout container.
Hina's Yogenbori fried chicken sandwich is a Tokyo-Nashville hybrid. (Luke Tsai)

1. Yogenbori hot chicken sandwich at Hina Yakitori

808 Divisadero St., San Francisco

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Remember the stage of the pandemic when every fancy Bay Area restaurant converted into a fried chicken sandwich shack? That’s what it felt like, anyway. I must have eaten a dozen different versions, but the one that sparked the most joy, by far, was the immaculately crunchy Nashville-Tokyo hybrid that Hina Yakitori chef Tommy Cleary cooked up, tossing boneless thighs in hot oil and a shichimi togarashi spice mix after they’ve been fried. Sitting in my parked car on a cloudy spring afternoon, I must have eaten the whole sandwich in about two minutes flat. Named after the shop that invented shichimi togarashi back in the 1600s, the Yogenbori hot chicken has been off the menu since Hina resumed in-person dining, but Cleary promises the sandwich will be back sometime in 2022.

2. Bo kho tacos at Pho Vy

401 International Blvd., Oakland

If quesabirria was the Bay Area dish of 2020, then 2021 was the year when it seemed like every meaty, stew-y dish got quesabirria-ized, regardless of culture of origin. In the case of Pho Vy’s extraordinary bo kho tacos, it just made sense: The restaurant’s Vietnamese-style beef stew was already one of my favorite cold-weather dishes in the East Bay. Piling the tender, star anise–tinged beef onto a griddle-crisped tortilla and topping it with melted cheese and sweet carrot and daikon pickles simply multiplies the comfort quotient. The cup of bo kho broth (the “consomé”) on the side—for dunking—is optional but highly recommended.

A bowl of rice topped with braised pork belly, egg and pickled greens.
The lu rou fan at Mama Liu hit the right notes of Taiwanese American nostalgia. (Luke Tsai)

3. Lu rou fan at Mama Liu

Various locations in the South Bay and Peninsula

This was the year I reconsidered my long-held skepticism about the Bay Area’s Taiwanese food scene, mainly by venturing outside the Oakland-San Francisco bubble to find delicious pork chop rice, fan tuan and Taiwanese breakfast burgers in places like Fremont, Milpitas and Cupertino. What struck the biggest chord of nostalgia, though, was the tub of braised pork belly—or lu rou fan—that I bought from a food truck called Mama Liu. Ladled over white rice, the tender hand-cut belly brought me straight back to happier, pre-pandemic times, when I’d scour the streets of Taipei in search of that classic, quintessentially Taiwanese taste.

Overhead view of jollof Indomie: Indomie instant noodles tossed with vegetables and topped with plantains and scrambled egg
Indomie jollof: a classic breakfast for thrifty Nigerian university students. (Luke Tsai)

4. Jollof Indomie at Jolly-Jolly Coffee & Kitchen

1498 7th St. Ste. B, Oakland

I have been eating instant noodles my entire life, and it never once occurred to me to have them for breakfast. So it was that the jollof Indomie at West Oakland’s Jolly-Jolly expanded my mind to a whole new world of delicious possibilities. In Nigeria, the simple stir-fry of Indomie brand instant noodles, diced vegetables and spices is a breakfast staple for thrifty college students. Jolly-Jolly’s version comes with a little egg scramble and fried plantains, which made for such a tasty combination that I still think about the dish on almost a weekly basis.

Overhead view of a takeout container of garlic noodles, roasted mushrooms and crispy pork belly.
The entire menu at Noodle Belly is built around garlic noodles. (Luke Tsai)

5. Garlic noodles at Noodle Belly

1014 Fruitvale Ave., Oakland

I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a plate of garlic noodles I didn’t like, but the version at Noodle Belly—whose entire menu is built around the butter-soaked carb—reminded me of just how great the iconic Bay Area dish can be: chewy, crisp at the edges and slicked with a garlicky secret sauce so singularly delicious, the restaurant’s employees all have to sign NDAs. It didn’t hurt either that all of the adornments were just as stellar—the cubes of luxuriously fatty fried pork belly; the thick, meaty slices of roasted king trumpet mushroom.

An earthenware bowl of beef barbacoa, with tortillas wrapped in a dish towel on the side.
The barbacoa at Mi Zacatecas marked the return of an old favorite. (Luke Tsai)

6. Barbacoa at Mi Zacatecas

6633 Bancroft Ave., Oakland

The Bay Area’s only Zacatecan restaurant had the misfortune of scheduling its move to a new location right around the time the pandemic hit, effectively shutting the operation down for an entire year. But I’m happy to report that Mi Zacatecas is very much back in business, still serving the finest gorditas in the Bay. The first time I sat down inside the restaurant’s new, more spacious East Oakland digs, it was on a weekend, which meant there were glistening bowls of beef barbacoa, unspeakably tender and rich, served with handmade tortillas still hot off the griddle—a luxury I’d nearly forgotten about after a year of takeout.

A man in a flannel and hat tends to chicken on a grill on an overcast day
What a Chicken's outdoor grill, seen here at the Santa Rosa Flea Market. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

7. Char-grilled chicken at What a Chicken

706 E. Washington St., Petaluma

A quick pit stop on the way home from a little weekend Sonoma County getaway wound up being the best meal of the whole trip: What a Chicken’s spatchcocked, char-grilled birds were devastatingly juicy and full-flavored, and the pork ribs were just as good—a triumph of slow, careful cooking. Add rice, salsa and excellent, piping-hot tortillas, and you have yourself the ideal family-style meal.

Sliced gyro meat next to a pool of yogurt in an aluminum takeout container.
Richmond Kebab's iskender kebab is a textural delight. (Luke Tsai)

8. Iskender kebab at Richmond Kebab & Gyros

15501 San Pablo Ave. Ste. J, Richmond

Somehow I’ve lived in Richmond for four years and never knew the city was home to some of the tastiest kebabs this side of Fremont. This unobtrusive strip mall kebab shop features a habit-forming red pepper sauce and the most exquisitely tender, flavorful chicken. But the star of the menu is the Turkish-style iskender kebab: gyro meat sliced thin, slathered with tomato sauce and re-crisped, then served on a bed of crispy diced potatoes—a textural delight—with a pool of yogurt on the side.

Meat and vegetables sizzling on a hot flat-top grill.
One of the signature dishes at Jubba, in San Jose, is the beef suqaar, a kind of Somali stir-fry. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

9. Roasted Goat Cutlet Plate at Jubba Restaurant

5330 Terner Way, San Jose

If I lived in San Jose, I would order the goat plate at Jubba, the Bay Area’s only Somali Restaurant, at least once a week. Like so many of the restaurant’s dishes, it’s presented as a stir-fry, essentially: tender, well-charred chunks of goat meat tossed in a tangy, tamarind-based sauce, with caramelized onions, bell peppers and—to my surprise and delight—water chestnuts and baby corn, which I’d previously only encountered in Asian food. Get it with the immaculately seasoned herbed rice and save a little bit of everything for leftovers. Somehow everything tastes even better the next day.

A spread of raw meat and seafood next to a Japanese-style tabletop charcoal grill.
The outdoor yakiniku setup at Fish & Bird. (Luke Tsai)

10. Yakiniku at Fish & Bird

2451 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley

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My most spur-of-the-moment splurge meal of the year came on a recent chilly evening in Berkeley, when a group of us decided to spring for Fish & Bird’s yakiniku set, which costs $75 a person and is best ordered with at least a half hour advance notice so the staff has time to adequately heat up the binchotan charcoal for their traditional Japanese tabletop grills. Out on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, we grilled spot prawns, perfectly plump scallops, beef tongue and—the peak of luxury—richly marbled slices of A5 wagyu rib cap, which only needed the slightest kiss of the flame before we dipped them in salt and sesame oil. We slathered onigiri in yakiniku sauce and slowly turned them on the grill until their outsides were charred and crispy. If there’s a more festive, thoroughly enjoyable outdoor meal to be had during these pandemic times, I haven’t found it yet.