When assembling a picnic spread for your next outdoor-eating excursion, it’s important to keep a few basic principles in mind: Foods should be reasonably portable and easy to share with a crowd. (Bonus points if you can eat it with your hands.) It should taste good at room temperature or hold up well in a cooler full of ice. Most importantly, it should be delicious — and, ideally, take advantage of the diverse food cultures we’re lucky enough to have in the Bay.
After all, here in the Bay Area, we know how to assemble a cheese and charcuterie spread as well as anyone. But real ones know that in this community of immigrants and friends of immigrants, we picnic with pork buns and garlic noodles. We’re loading up big sacks of banh mi and reheating tamales in a pot on the grill.
Here, then, are a few of my favorite spots to load up on picnic foodstuffs.
Banh Mi at Duc Huong
2345 McKee Rd., San Jose
A good banh mi is equal parts umami-laden and lightly refreshing, decadent and budget-friendly, and sturdy enough to hold up for hours — all characteristics that make the Vietnamese sandwiches canonical Bay Area picnic fare. Apart from the general high quality of ingredients at Duc Huong, two other things set this South Bay mini-chain’s banh mi apart: the fact that you can order half-size sandwiches (so you can try multiple flavors or preserve stomach space for the rest of your picnic spread) and the option to upgrade any sandwich so that it comes on garlic bread. (You heard that right.) Thanks to its multiple locations spread across San Jose, Duc Huong banh mi have been my portable meal of choice for everything from a rainy-day hike at Castle Rock State Park to a drive-in Marvel movie at the West Wind (a kind of “picnic” in its own right). They’ve never let me down.
Kimbap at Roll House
3486 El Camino Real, Santa Clara
If your biggest takeaway from the hit K-drama Extraordinary Attorney Woo was that kimbap is one of the world’s most appealing foods, then Roll House is the restaurant for you — especially when planning your next outdoor snacking excursion. Is there a more perfect finger food? Roll House, an exceedingly cute mom-and-pop on Santa Clara’s main drag of Korean strip malls, is notable for being one of the only Bay Area restaurants that specializes in Korea’s answer to the Japanese sushi roll. It’s also one of the only spots that makes its kimbap fresh to order, in about a dozen different sesame oil fragrant, super-sized varieties — including less common varieties like pork belly or fried shrimp. A worthy kimbap alternative: the prepared foods counter at Hankook or one of the Santa Clara/San Jose area’s other Korean mega-markets.
Afghan Naan at Maiwand Market
37235 Fremont Blvd., Fremont
Nearly everyone who walks into Maiwand Market is here for the bread — fragrant, dimpled slabs of Afghan naan, speckled with sesame seeds and as long and cozy as a baby’s blanket. Served hot and fresh from the lively Halal market’s squad of double-decker pizza ovens, the bread is one of the crown jewels of Fremont’s vibrant Afghan food community. It also happens to be the ideal complement to any multicultural picnic spread — delicious whether you’re dipping it in jam or hummus or loading it up with choice cuts of charcuterie. Since you’re stopping at Maiwand anyway, you can also grab some more traditional accompaniments like cilantro chutney, or even freshly butchered goat if you plan on firing up the grill.
Salmon and Crawfish Musubi at Takahashi Market
221 S. Claremont St., San Mateo
One of San Mateo’s most nostalgic food destinations, Takahashi Market dates all the way back to 1906, when it opened as an all-purpose general store catering to the area’s already burgeoning Japanese community. These days, it’s best known for its lunchtime roster of hearty Hawaiian plate lunches and one of the most robust assortments of musubi you can find on the mainland. No one would fault you for bringing a big tray of classic Spam musubi to the cookout, but the pro move is to splurge on a few of the seafood musubis: The one loaded with salmon, crawfish and tobiko is a god-tier picnic item.
Señorita Bread at Ling Nam Starbread
980 King Dr., Daly City
If your goal when planning any potluck or group picnic contribution is to have the whole party burst into spontaneous applause upon your arrival, then a big box of señorita bread — the people’s choice! — is a surefire bet. Who doesn’t love a pillowy, sweet, buttery roll, still slightly warm from the oven? It’s for good reason that Starbread is a Bay Area institution, with locations scattered throughout the region anywhere there’s a sizable Filipino community. Arguably the most high-profile of these bakeries, the Daly City Ling Nam location still hasn’t returned to its pre-pandemic 24-hour baking schedule, but the shop’s convenient, on-the-way-to-the-airport location makes it a great stop-off — even when your picnic destination is, say, on the other side of a six-hour flight.
Korean Short Rib Bento at Bart Grocery
108 Olivos Ave., Daly City
For the public transportation–dependent picnicker, Bart Grocery is, true to its name, conveniently located just a short walk away from the Daly City BART station — or, if your picnic plans skew toward the sea, less than a 10-minute drive to the beach. Of course, bento boxes of all shapes and varieties make for wonderful, self-contained picnic meals, and Bart Grocery’s are a particularly indulgent exemplar of the form. The kitchen specializes in homestyle Korean barbecue, all of it quite tasty, and the generous, well-charred galbi (beef short rib) plate, in particular, is one of the tastiest and most affordable around. The fact that the place doubles as a convenience store makes this a one-stop shop for your beer and Asian snack needs as well.
Empanadas at Chalos
2240 Taraval St., San Francisco
Just a stone’s throw from Ocean Beach, Chalos is an ideal stopover on your way to a classic San Francisco beach picnic, where braving bone-chilling wind and fog is a standard part of the experience. Thankfully, the Argentine empanadas here will warm you up from the inside. The baked empanadas are as solid as they come, but at Chalos, all 15 flavors are also available as hand pie–like fried empanadas — the light, crispy, flaky stuff of dreams. Order an assorted baker’s dozen if you’re feeding a crowd (I’m fond of the carne picante and the oozy, cheesy mushroom variety), and snag a box of churros too if you want something sweet to round out your picnic spread.
Barbecue Pork Buns at Lung Fung Bakery
1823 Clement St., San Francisco
Perhaps you’ve noticed a recurring theme, which is that great picnic food often involves some kind of meat or other savory filling that’s been swaddled safely inside of rice or bread. In that regard, the baked barbecue pork buns at the Richmond District standby Lung Fung Bakery are one of the pinnacles of the form. These are probably my favorite char siu bao in the city — slightly crisp and beautifully golden-brown on the outside with a lush, extra-meaty interior. As an added bonus, Lung Fung’s egg tarts are also top-notch. Cash only.
Tamales at Tamaleria Azteca
5751 Market St., Oakland
While we can all agree that a pot of steaming-hot tamales makes for elite-level picnic eating, the Bay Area tamal scene is so varied and broadly excellent that it’s hard to pinpoint a single favorite. But for the classic, corn husk–wrapped Mexican style, I keep coming back to North Oakland’s Tamaleria Azteca. Its meat tamales, in particular, are hard to beat: The lard-enriched masa is unimaginably fluffy and moist; the pork or chicken is always unimpeachably tender. Remember to ask for a bag of salsa roja, but don’t try to be a hero: Even a small dollop is hot enough to test my limits. Vegetarians and sweet tooth possessors should call a day ahead to see if the delicious — but elusive — sweet pineapple tamales will be available.
Oysters at Tomales Bay Oyster Company
15479 CA-1, Marshall
If you’re willing to pack a cooler full of ice, there are few items you can bring to a picnic that are more luxurious than a few dozen West Coast oysters ready to be shucked and slurped right off the half-shell. My longtime favorite oyster spot is Tomales Bay Oyster Company, a few miles north of Point Reyes Station on Highway 1, where I’ll order at least a dozen extra-small Pacifics — buttery, delicate and sweet — for each oyster eater. The seaside oyster stand used to be one of the Bay Area’s best picnic spots in its own right — a place where families from across the multicultural Bay Area used to spend the day grilling, shucking and shooting the breeze. Sadly, those on-site picnic grounds got shut down a few years back, but the oyster company has put together a handy guide to the area’s many other pristine picnic destinations.
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