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Table Talk: James Beard Taste America, Tasty Vegan Tacos and Banh Mi

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Crispy lemongrass fish banh mi at Little Vietnam. (tablehopper.com)

Don’t miss this year's James Beard Taste America gala at the Fairmont, plus some hot tips on delicious vegan tacos (really), a Vietnamese fried fish banh mi, and a new $13 lunch at Tacolicious.

James Beard Taste America Is Bringing an All-Star Culinary Cast to Dinner

James Beard Taste America returns to the swanky Fairmont. (Marc Fiorito, Gamma Nine)

James Beard Taste America event info
Fairmont San Francisco
950 Mason St., San Francisco
Friday, October 26
6pm reception, 7:30pm dinner
Tickets start at $375 for GA, use code TABLETALKJBFTASF18 for $25 off a GA ticket 

On Friday, October 26, James Beard Taste America SF returns to the swanky Fairmont to host a very special evening. It begins with a reception, featuring cocktails and hors d’oeuvres from local chefs and restaurateurs, including Reem Assil (Reem’s, Dyafa), Alexander Hong (Sorrel), David Nayfeld (Che Fico), Adam Tortosa (Robin), and host chef Oscar Gonzalez (Fairmont, San Francisco).

Then it’s time to be seated for a special dinner prepared by Taste America Visiting All-Star Abe Conlon (Fat Rice, Chicago) and Taste America Local All-Star Val Cantu (Californios, San Francisco), with bread service provided by Avery Ruzicka (Manresa Bread), and wines curated by Kimberly Charles and Ziggy Eschliman.

There’s going to be both a silent and lively auction with Andrew Freeman, and yours truly will be his wing-woman on stage when it’s bidding time. Capping off the night will be a dessert reception featuring Melissa Chou (Mister Jiu’s), Nick Muncy (Toothache magazine), Angela Pinkerton (Theorita), and Michel Suas (B. Patisserie).


Can’t make it? There will also be free cooking demos and book signings with James Beard Award winners Abe Conlon (Fat Rice, Chicago) and local writer Bryant Terry at Sur La Table Union Street on Saturday, October 27 starting at 10am.

The Vegan Tacos at Chisme Are So Good That Even Meat Lovers Will Be Impressed

Chisme Cantina
882 Sutter St., San Francisco
Open Mon–Thu  11:30am–10:30pm
Fri–Sat 11:30am–11:30pm
Sun 11:30am–8:30pm

The vegan jackfruit tacos at Chisme. (tablehopper.com)

I love it when I go somewhere and the vegetarian options prove to be better than the meats. But when the vegan options beat everything, well, that’s what I call a happy surprise. Chisme is a Lower Nob Hill cantina that has been open for one year and is actually an import from Chicago. It’s a new style of taqueria, with creative, fresh, and lighter options than your usual SF taqueria selections. Their menu caters to all kinds of diners, from gluten-free to vegan, and you won’t feel like your selections are a consolation prize.

Their tacos come two per order, so ideally you can go with a friend who will mix and match with you. The hands-down winner and most exotic of the bunch is the jackfruit ($9 for two tacos), which comes fried in such satisfyingly crisp and juicy little pieces that are almost meaty, plus the unexpected addition of nori (dried seaweed), shredded cabbage, and it’s all topped with a verdant mint sauce — the taco transported me immediately to somewhere in the tropics. 

The fried eggplant ($9) was well-seasoned and fried with a hearty breading and came nestled inside with some spinach, a peanut mole, and a bunch of shaved red onion. Like the jackfruit, the eggplant had fun texture and flavor, but the taco was not as abundant. I personally would like the corn tortillas (from local masa superstars La Palma) to be warmed up more (I love them blistered off the plancha), but I can see how they’re keeping things healthy. I’m also a lover of hot sauce and think Chisme should offer a clever housemade hot sauce on the tables.

The eggplant and skirt steak tacos at Chisme. (tablehopper.com)

The skirt steak ($12) also featured the peanut mole, and came in a saucy combination of chipotle and caramelized onion, with a hearty scoop of guacamole and queso fresco crumbled on top. It was honestly the least impressive of the trio flavorwise — the steak was cut in ungainly pieces, and was lacking salt and a little hit of acidity that the other two had in spades (the squirt of lime I added wasn’t enough) — but it was definitely hefty. It just needed a little more pop.

Mariachi honey bears from fnnch! (tablehopper.com)

The menu is pescatarian-friendly (I’m coming back for the shrimp and mahi-mahi tacos), and you’ll see creative touches like coconut ranch, and a bunch of unique sides, including cauliflower ceviche or a bowl of creamy mashed potatoes and poblano chile. Local BareBottle beers are available on draft, and there’s coconut horchata too. The space has cheerful turquoise doors, a mariachi honey bear mural by fnnch, and an upbeat soundtrack, with a friendly staff to match.

Move Over, Filet-o-Fish, It’s Time to Meet the Crispy Lemongrass Fish Banh Mi

Little Vietnam Cafe
309 6th Ave., San Francisco
Open Wed–Mon 9am–5pm

The crispy lemongrass banh mi at Little Vietnam. (tablehopper.com)

We are so lucky to have so many awesome Vietnamese banh mi sandwich shops around the city, offering what has to be the best sandwich deal in town (although I honestly feel guilty about not knowing where the meats are from — I make an exception for the occasional banh mi, I can’t stay away). In the Inner Richmond, there’s a little sandwich and pho shop called, appropriately enough, Little Vietnam Cafe. It does a brisk to-go business, but there are about six seats at a window counter, one two-top inside, and a few tables out front. Just like the name says, it’s tiny. 

The banh mi sandwiches here are serviceable (especially for $5.95): there’s a grilled lemongrass pork version that is pretty good, even better with the add-on of a fried egg (don’t worry about forgetting to order it, the lady at the counter will totally up-sell you), but the winner sandwich is their crispy lemongrass fish (+ $1.50), which is currently cod. And the up-sell you need to add is Peter’s Special, a steep $1.50, but this funky lemongrass and dried shrimp sauce are what will give your banh mi the jam (they already put some in it, but you’ll want more). I wish they had some dill to add, it would bring this sandwich over into some cha ca la Vong territory, but it’s close enough. I actually added some fennel fronds I had at home because I’m a kook like that.

There’s also pho and bun rieu on the menu, but I’ve never had time to try it. Vegetarians have some great options here, from the crispy tofu banh mi to spring rolls in the refrigerated section to the spicy vegetarian pho they make here (which a friend of mine loves).

Be sure to check your order before you leave, mistakes happen here with some regularity. You don’t want to leave with someone’s crispy tofu sandwich when you ordered the crispy lemongrass fish, trust!

Check Out Tacolicious’s New $13 Lunch Specials

Tacolicious (various locations)
Available Mon–Fri 11:30am–2pm

The fried chicken/milanesa torta on the new Tacolicious lunch menu. (Tacolicious)

Looking for something new to add to your lunch routine? Tacolicious just launched a new $13 lunch menu, offering tortas, bowls, tacos, and more. You’ll find a classic fried chicken torta (Milanese-style) with pounded and crispy fried chicken, pepper jack, jalapeños, and crunchy cabbage, and there's a very Californian cauliflower torta with griddled Oaxaca cheese, piquillo peppers, and special sauce. You suffering from a hangover (or the hangries)? There’s also a hamburguesa with griddled ham and pickled jalapeños, inspired by a burger on the streets of Mexico. Every torta comes with a side salad (Marina Girl or kale salad), which you’ll definitely need with that hamburguesa.

You’ll have your choice of protein for the bowls, which come with midnight black beans, rice-o-licious (it really is great rice), avocado, red cabbage, pickled onions, and cilantro. You can also add chile con queso, which is probably one of the best add-ons in the history of add-ons for just $1. 

Another option in the $13 lunch deal is to choose two tacos, and if you want to get your weekend started, there’s the prix-fixe power lunch: a taco, shot, and a beer. Arriba!


Can’t get away from your desk? You can order delivery via Caviar, and that code will give first-timers $10 off your first two orders.

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