Heading into fall, there are certain fundamental truths every Bay Arean knows: that summer here is (mostly) a lie. That September tomatoes are sacrosanct. And that the hottest damned day of the year often falls on some random weekday in October. This is the season of not lighting our stoves, when mostly all we want to do is drink aguas frescas inside an air-conditioned room.
Thankfully, our local food scene is well prepared for this seasonal scorching. Here are 10 of my favorite dishes to beat the heat.
Cold Soba at Soba Ichi
2311A Magnolia St., Oakland
Hot days were simply made for cold noodles — or is it the other way around? Either way, it’s hard for me to separate the two, and the few times a year when Bay Area temperatures edge toward triple digits, I start thinking about heading to West Oakland’s Soba Ichi for a plate of soba. The restaurant serves these traditional buckwheat noodles a number of ways, of course, but my favorite is when the noodles are served cold with a dashi-based dipping sauce. Slurping those cold, slippery noodles while the sweat drips down your face: That’s an A+ sensory experience right there. An ice-cold lemon chu-hi also doesn’t hurt.
Cebiche at Pucquio
5337 College Ave., Oakland
On a sweltering hot day, sometimes the only thing I want to eat is chilled seafood — say, a simple poke bowl or a classic, caper-studded “Sicilian sashimi” from Swan Oyster Depot (if I didn’t have to wait in line for two hours). For me, the apex of this genre can be found at Pucquio, an often-slept-on Peruvian joint where every cebiche on the menu is a stone cold killer. You’ll want to get a couple of them to share: The classic cebiche de pescado (made with rockfish during my recent visit) is bright and bracing, super-charged with a zip of citrusy ají limo chile heat. My favorite, though, is the comparatively mellow trout cebiche, which comes topped with crispy trout skin, as well as marinated trout roe that adds an undercurrent of briny ocean umami. Eat with a spoon so you can get a bit of each component in every bite.
Bánh Hỏi Dặc Biệt at Tigon
10086 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito
You might already know that fresh spring rolls are a Vietnamese hot-weather staple — something about the combination of pliable rice paper wrapping, crisp lettuce, fresh herbs and, often, cold meat or shrimp that makes for such a refreshing bite. The bánh hỏi đặc biệt platter at El Cerrito’s criminally underrated Tigon takes this general principle and kicks it up eight or nine notches. The base of the platter is the tidy little rice noodle bundles known as bánh hỏi, on top of which the chef has arranged a huge spread of beef, chicken, shrimp, crispy egg rolls and fried bean curd. You dip a round of rice paper in warm water; arrange your meats, noodles and fresh herbs and vegetables on top; and voilà — a make-your-own spring roll party that’s festive and communal, without anyone having to break a sweat. Note well: The $38.50 đặc biệt platter is probably enough food to feed a family of four, but there’s also an option to pick just one or two proteins if you come in a smaller group.
BBQ Skewers at Fil-Am Cuisine
66 School St., Daly City
Every time I step inside this Daly City meat stick institution, the smell of a summer barbecue hits me like a tidal wave of nostalgia. Fil-Am Cuisine boasts the same kind of sweet, charred meat and friendly Asian aunties that I associate with family get-togethers from when I was a kid. Even the prices seem like they’ve been time-warped from the early ’90s. Connoisseurs of crispy, carbonized edges, this is your spot. And whether you walk away with a fistful of skewered chicken or pork (why not both?), you can’t go wrong. Cash only.
Buticha at Messob
4301 Piedmont Ave., Oakland
My friend and former KQED food writer Ruth Gebreyesus first turned me on to the buticha at Messob. This easy-to-miss slip of an Ethiopian restaurant serves what might be my favorite veggie combo in the Bay — especially the iteration that comes with a scoop of cool, refreshing buticha. At lesser restaurants, this cold chickpea flour dip often resembles an onion-y hummus, or a bland egg salad of sorts. Messob’s buticha is more flavorful by several orders of magnitude, with a texture akin to soft-scrambled eggs and a garlicky punch that had me dipping my injera back into it again and again.
Some Like It Harra at Reem’s
2901 Mission St., San Francisco
There’s something uniquely pleasing about scooping up a cool dip or spread with a hunk of warm, fresh bread. In some ways, that’s the whole organizing principle around Reem’s, an Arab bakery where the hot pita alone is worth the trip to the Mission. One of my favorite ways to eat it is with labneh, a strained yogurt dish that’s a classic hot-weather treat in much of the Arab world. For her “Some Like It Harra,” chef Reem Assil spices up the labneh with garlic chile morita oil, toasted sesame seeds and a jammy soft-boiled egg. Perfect for pita dunking. (Note: Reem’s Mission location is temporarily closed and is expected to reopen after Labor Day weekend. Its smaller kiosk in the Ferry Building remains open.)
Tea Leaf Salad at Mandalay
4348 California St., San Francisco
If you tell me it’s so hot that you just want to eat salad for dinner, I’ll take that to mean we should go out for Burmese food. After all, Burmese tea leaf salads are one of the jewels of the Bay Area’s immigrant food scene. My favorite is Mandalay’s extra-pungent version, which isn’t cut with any lettuce — just cabbage, a huge dollop of fermented tea leaves, lime, shrimp powder and an assortment of nuts, seeds and other crunchy-toasty things. Forget your boring tossed salads: Here’s a salad that manages to be refreshing, nutritious and righteously funky.
Tsukemen at Shugetsu
2944 S. Norfolk St., San Mateo
I don’t know if there’s such a thing as “too hot for ramen,” but if I’m sweating even before I sit down at the noodle counter, I’ll look to see if the menu includes tsukemen, or dipping noodles. Just like the best tsukemen shops in Tokyo, Shugetsu lets you have whatever size bowl of thick, house-made noodles you want (regular, large or XL) for the same price, with the option to request them cold, as is traditional — both for cooling-off purposes and so that the noodles maintain their springy texture. The idea with tsukemen is to dip the noodles into a super-concentrated broth, too salty and intense to drink on its own, coating each bite with the perfect amount of flavor and fat. This is where Shugetsu shines: The rich, tangy dipping broth, blasted with dried-scallop umami, is simply fantastic. Pro tip: When you’ve slurped up your last noodle, ask the server for the “soup-wari,” a kettle of plain chicken soup that they pour into your remaining dipping broth — diluting it just enough so you can drink it like a normal, if uncommonly tasty, soup.
Konbini Tuna Salad Sandwich at Ok’s Deli
3932 Telegraph Ave., Oakland
Deli sandwich weather means a short break from our usual programming of cheesesteaks and hot pastrami: It’s cold cut weather. Egg salad weather. At Oakland’s newish Ok’s Deli, most of the sandwiches have some Asian American twist — and just about every one of them is a certified hit. Lately, I’ve been especially enamored with the deli’s take on a tuna salad sandwich, which takes all of the classic elements — line-caught tuna; pickles, onion and celery chopped super-fine; and lots and lots of mayo — and Asia-fies them ever so slightly through the lens of Japan’s incredible convenience store sandwiches. So, the house mayo is Kewpie-adjacent. The bread is Ok’s delightfully bouncy house-made milk bread. And the sandwich, as a whole? Refreshing as a cool blast of convenience store AC.
Samgyetang at BN Chicken
2725 El Camino Real, Santa Clara
For those who like to zig when everyone else is zagging, consider that in Korea, it’s customary to eat samgyetang — a bubbling-hot chicken and ginseng soup — on the very hottest days of the year. The idea is that causing yourself to sweat more actually cools you down; meanwhile, the medicinal properties of the soup’s ginseng, garlic and dried jujubes help refill your stamina bar. It’s “fighting fire with fire,” as Koreans are fond of saying. And there’s no better place to do it than at Santa Clara’s BN Chicken, an entire restaurant dedicated to the steamy, soul-replenishing pleasures of samgyetang. The soup comes in a stone bowl, which keeps things boiling-hot for the duration of your meal. Rip into the whole Cornish hen to dig into the glutinous rice and aromatics stuffed inside, and dip chunks of the tender meat in salt as you go. And if the hot soup approach isn’t working for you? Not to worry: BN Chicken also serves a top-notch version of the bracingly vinegary, ice-cold noodle soup known as naengmyeon.
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