The wagyu abura soba at Noodle in a Haystack might be the best ramen dish in the Bay Area. (Luke Tsai)
I used to think that deliciousness was something that could be measured in absolute terms — that, even with elements of subjectivity, a dish’s taste came down to some combination of the skill of the cook and the quality of the ingredients.
Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about how much external circumstance is tied to many of my fondest food memories. Sometimes the food tasted better because I'd eaten it standing up — the only proper way to eat street food, after all. Sometimes deliciousness snuck up on me in an unusual, unexpected place. Oftentimes a loved one or dear friend was involved.
This year, too, as I thought about the best dishes I ate, it really felt like I was compiling a list of my most memorable experiences of the year — not just the tastiest bowl of stew, but the one I ate in the park with my bare hands. Not just a good sandwich, but one that I devoured in quiet contemplation on one of the rare weekends I had to spend on my own, doing whatever I pleased.
With that caveat, here are the 10 best things I ate in 2022, presented in roughly chronological order. I think you'll find them pretty delicious too.
1. Bakso at D’Grobak
865 Marina Bay Pkwy. #865, Richmond
One of the pandemic’s silver linings has been the rise of the meal kit — a dish’s component parts packaged into neat compartments for you to assemble and heat up at home, avoiding the usual limp-tortilla and soggy-noodle pitfalls of takeout. In the case of the Indonesian pop-up D’Grobak’s bakso noodle soup, it’s like a magic trick transporting you to a street stall in Indonesia: the rich smell of beef fat and white pepper that wafts up as you warm the broth. The crisp, charred exterior of the bone-in short rib you’ve briefly reheated in the oven. The bounce of the signature bakso meatballs. The jiggle of soft tendon. What else is there to say? The dish tastes like home.
2. Banh mi dac biet at Duc Huong
2345 McKee Road, San Jose
Sometimes you want cloth napkins, “still or sparkling” and a dozen courses of beautifully composed plates with complicated garnishes. Other times (maybe even most of the time), you just want to pull up to the drive-in theater and eat banh mi on the hood of your car while watching the latest Marvel movie with your kids. In that case, you might as well head to Duc Huong, which almost certainly deserves to be in the conversation for best banh mi in San Jose — and, therefore, the best banh mi in the Bay — even if it isn’t your personal pick. The local mini-chain has five locations, each with a briskly efficient line out the door and the kind of fresh-baked baguettes and masterfully constructed sandwiches that are well worth the wait.
I love how Duc Huong offers a small, half-size option that allows an indecisive banh mi orderer to try two or three different sandwiches. When in doubt, though, go for the dac biet, with its hefty slices of headcheese and other cold cuts, and the precise balance it strikes between its bright pickled veggies and earthy swipe of pâté. For me, it was more satisfying, even, than a big tub of buttered popcorn: The trailers had barely ended, and I’d already finished every last bite.
3. Khorkhog at Dumpling House Mongolian Cuisine
2221 San Pablo Ave. #6, Richmond
I’d wanted to try the dish that had been described to me as “the real Mongolian barbecue” for several years. Then, in June, the kind Mongolian family that runs Richmond’s Dumpling House brought me to a park in the East Bay hills and showed me how they make the slow-cooked whole lamb dish known as khorkhog the traditional way — over a live fire, inside a heavy-duty, old-school pressure cooker that’s been sealed tight and filled with blistering hot rocks. We tore off hunks of meat and ate with our bare hands, scooping up pieces of carrot, cabbage and rutabaga that had soaked up the same savory lamb juices that were dripping down our chins. And while I cannot promise you the exact same experience, I can tell you that you can, in fact, order an indoor version of khorkhog at the restaurant. All you need to do is call a few hours ahead and bring at least three or four hungry carnivores with you to share the bounty.
4. East Coast oysters at Rocky Island Oyster Co.
1440 Harbour Way S., Richmond
A freshly shucked Pacific oyster is a lovely thing. But when Rocky Island Oyster Co. opened in Richmond late last year, it was with the express purpose of introducing Bay Area shellfish enthusiasts to a new love: the East Coast oyster. Specifically, oysters from the area near owner Danny Pirello’s hometown on the Massachusetts shoreline. And I must admit: It didn’t take more than a single slurp to turn me into a convert to the pleasures of these crisp, briny-sweet beauties (saltier and more substantial than, say, your typical Kumamoto), which I’d have happily made an entire meal of with no other addition than a lemon wedge and a little tub of mignonette. Of course, the waterfront outdoor seating area’s immaculate vibes and million-dollar view of Bay made everything taste even sweeter.
5a. Three Sisters’ Salad at Wahpepah’s Kitchen
3301 E. 12th St. #133, Oakland
I have said on the record many times that I do not, as a general rule, particularly care for salads. Maybe it’s more accurate to say I don’t like the kind of endlessly monotonous, Eurocentric salads made up of nothing but raw vegetables. Give me all the nuts, seeds and other assorted crunchy things! Mix in some cooked ingredients, fish sauce or fermented tea leaves, or big chunks of meat and cheese. The Three Sisters’ Salad at Wahpepah’s Kitchen, a new indigenous-owned restaurant in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, was the perfect antidote to my bland-salad doldrums. I loved all of the different textures from the variety of raw and cooked elements: the quinoa, amaranth, chopped nuts and, of course, the traditional “sisters” themselves (heirloom corn, beans and squash). And the dressing — a maple reduction mixed with chili oil — was such a memorable combination of sweet, spicy, smoky flavors that the only word that came to mind was one I almost never use to describe a salad: It was thrilling.
5b. Market grain salad with harissa grilled chicken at 2207
2207 Macdonald Ave., Richmond
No, no one has taken me hostage: I do in fact have (count ’em) two salads in this top 10 list. This one’s an old favorite recently brought back into the rotation now that my neighborhood takeout lunch spot, 2207, has reopened — on a preorder-only basis — after shutting down for the first two-plus years of the pandemic. The restaurant makes a fabulously beefy patty melt and some of my favorite fried chicken in the Bay, so it’s saying something that the one menu staple I keep coming back to is a market grain salad. It comes loaded not just with your usual mixed greens, but also cooked grains, thick slabs of feta, chicken thigh meat with the impeccably crispy skin still attached and whatever gorgeous produce happens to be in season — pomegranate seeds and slices of persimmon, perhaps, or sweet corn and ripe stone fruit if you’re lucky enough to snag this during the summer months. The tahini-based dressing is a little bit sweet, a little bit spicy and, like everything else about this salad, just right.
6. Wagyu beef abura soba at Noodle in a Haystack
4601 Geary Blvd., San Francisco
Noodle in a Haystack’s legend preceded it. From its roots as an underground supper club run out of its founders’ home kitchen, San Francisco’s most ambitious and eccentric ramen shop had acquired a reputation for serving the Bay Area’s best ramen by a wide margin — and, perhaps, some of the best you can find outside of Japan — years before its tiny Inner Richmond storefront debuted earlier this spring. I am simply here to tell you that the place lives up to all of the hype, even if the $175 price tag (for a 10-plus course tasting menu) isn’t for everyone.
I could write separate, well-deserved entries about the deviled egg opener (supercharged with fish powder, fish roe and crispy chicken skin), the crab and tofu soup or the fried pork belly. But suffice it to say that the ramen dish they were serving on the night of my visit — a soupless version featuring thick, springy noodles coated in a rich sauce made with rendered wagyu beef fat — was so delicious that it left me completely speechless.
7. Chicken fried steak at Marvin’s Breakfast Club in Novato
1112 Grant Ave., Novato
Let us take a moment to praise the short-order breakfast cook, whose workmanlike ranks have probably brought as much pleasure to my life as any Michelin star–chasing chef. This was the year I discovered Marvin’s Breakfast Club, a Platonic ideal of the short-order breakfast genre in Marin County, with its dependably crispy hash browns and its classic roster of omelets and Benedicts, each item as steadfast as your most dependable old childhood friend. What I love best is going to Marvin’s as a solo diner on a lazy Sunday, sliding into a counter stool with a paperback and ordering the chicken fried steak. This is a monstrous, supremely comforting plate of food, piled high with crisp, battered steak, runny-yolked eggs, country gravy, hash browns and buttered toast. I’ve been known to (against all odds) finish the entire thing, cross the bridge back home to the East Bay and immediately curl up for a nice long nap.
8. Taiwanese barbecue at Good-to-Eat Dumplings
1298 65th St., Emeryville
In Taiwan, Mid-Autumn Festival isn’t just an occasion to eat mooncakes; it has also become the unofficial national day of grilling, when folks young and old gather in riverside parks or crouch on the sidewalk over makeshift grill grates set over cement blocks or car tire rims, gorging themselves on meat skewer after well-charred meat skewer. This year, newly opened Taiwanese hotspot Good-to-Eat Dumplings celebrated Mid-Autumn Festival by firing up the grill and bringing this tradition to its Emeryville back patio, serving a slew of oversized grilled chicken breasts, sweet Taiwanese-style sausages, corn on the cob slathered in Taiwanese barbecue sauce and big bowls of lu rou fan for good measure. Needless to say, all of the food was delicious — but beyond that, watching the long queue of diners waiting in line for Taiwanese barbecue in the restaurant’s little backyard, the smell of charcoal wafting in the air, I felt closer to my home country than I had at any other point of the pandemic.
9. Galbi and beef neck at San Ho Won
2170 Bryant St., San Francisco
San Ho Won might be the most affordable among multiple-Michelin man Corey Lee’s fleet of San Francisco restaurants, but few diners would mistake it for an everyday kind of place. As a destination for celebrating that job promotion, or stimulus check, or unusually generous New Year’s red envelope? The charcoal barbecue spot is pretty darn great — especially if grilled beef is your indulgence of choice. Here, even more than at your average Korean barbecue joint, each order of beef neck and thick, double-cut galbi is the product of literal sweat labor: The grill masters spend the whole night on their feet, toiling in the smoke in front of red-hot charcoal. The first time I ate at San Ho Won, it was to celebrate an unexpected windfall of my own — and so, every precisely cut, crisp-edged, impossibly tender piece of meat felt like the luckiest kind of gift.
10. The ‘O.G.’ at Delirama
1746 Solano Ave., Berkeley
The best sandwich I ate in the Bay Area this year came on thick slices of fresh-baked rye bread griddled in enough butter to raise eyebrows. It was loaded with coleslaw (more mustardy than sweet), with Thousand Island dressing and gruyere cheese. And because I’d ordered the sandwich “husky,” with extra meat — since that’s the kind of sandwich eater I am — it came practically overflowing with Delirama’s claim to fame: house-made pastrami so flavorful, so lusciously fatty and crisp around the edges, that it set a new Bay Area standard for the deli classic from the first day the restaurant opened. This is a sandwich that commands your full attention — and requires short breaks to finish the whole thing. Let the record show: I was up to the task.
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.