The nine meals on this list were memorable in more than one way. They were all delicious but also represented something meaningful about this year in local food, whether it was mapo tofu at the Sichuan restaurant that almost closed due to early coronavirus fears or the out-of-work chef slinging standout fried chicken sandwiches from his backyard.
All but one of the food businesses mentioned here are still open; if you order takeout from them — directly, not on an app! — tip generously.
Mapo tofu at Taste
On March 11, I unwittingly ate what would be my last sit-down meal inside a restaurant for the rest of the year. The day before, I had published a story on Taste, a Sichuan restaurant in Palo Alto. Taste was on the verge of closure after weeks of declining business due to early fears about the coronavirus -— and unfounded ones in particular hurting local Chinese restaurants. I ordered the mapo tofu lunch set and watched as the dining room filled up over the lunch hour, a sole waitress rushing to take orders and fill water glasses.
Owner Sandy Liu told me later that diners had come in because they heard Taste could close and wanted to support the restaurant. I felt genuinely uplifted and hopeful.
Despite the fact that things got a lot more grim than I could have ever imagined over the next nine months, Taste survived a lot longer than Liu thought it would. And that mapo tofu was truly excellent; I've craved its peppery, comforting notes more times than I'd care to admit.
Taste, 423 University Ave., Palo Alto; tastepaloalto.com
Tonkatsu curry at Curry Hyuga
Burlingame's Curry Hyuga made headlines in late March as one of the first new restaurants to actually open during the shutdown. The owners reportedly got the business license 30 minutes before City Hall closed down.
The restaurant specializes in Japanese curry, served over rice with cabbage, fukujinzuke (pickled vegetables) and your choice of protein, including pork and chicken katsu, chicken karaage and korokke (a fried potato croquette). I thoroughly enjoyed the tonkatsu, packaged separately from the velvety, rich curry sauce to avoid a soggy fate, from the front seat of my car. (I definitely ate more food in my car in 2020 than in any year prior, and really hope I won't need to stash as many napkins and stain remover wipes in the glove compartment in 2021.)
Curry Hyuga, 1204 Broadway St., Burlingame; curryhyuga.com
Korean fried chicken at Maum
When Maum in Palo Alto reopened for takeout this spring, one of the menus paid homage to Korean fried chicken and KFC combo meals. I still think about the perfectly crispy-on-the-outside, juicy-on-the-inside half chicken with beef and anchovy rice, a seaweed biscuit with honey butter, pickled Korean radish and kimchi. Sadly, it's a reminder of the restaurant experiences we lost to the pandemic. The owner of Maum later parted with the Korean restaurant's much-lauded chefs and tried to pivot before closing for good (at least for now).
All the pizza at Pazzo
I can't believe it took me until this year to get to Pazzo, which churns out standout wood-fired New Haven-style pizza in San Carlos. Andy Gambardella of the now-closed Gambardella's in Menlo Park opened Pazzo in San Carlos in 2014 in homage to the pizza of his youth growing up in New Haven.
The San Marzano and baby clam pies will, guaranteed, embed themselves into your taste memory — the blistered bottoms, the hint of dried oregano and full-flavored toppings. Also, you do not want to miss the cannoli.
Pazzo, 1179 Laurel St., San Carlos; pazzosancarlos.com/home.html
Double softee with rainbow sprinkles at Mister Softee
This might have been my most joyful meal of 2020: a double softee swirled with vanilla and chocolate soft serve, dipped in rainbow sprinkles. I ate it after chasing down a Mister Softee truck, which made for an incredibly fun story about the beloved East Coast soft-serve company, that iconic tinkling music that triggers an almost Pavlovian response and the delightful pursuit of sugary nostalgia. I loved the impassioned responses I got from people who grew up on Mister Softee and were so excited to discover that it's available in the Bay Area.
"Of course with the Covid there were no trips to Brooklyn this year," one reader wrote. "I miss my family, but I had a little taste of Brooklyn thanks to your article."
Fried chicken sandwich at Cocina Canares
We were inundated this year with fried chicken, and sandwiches in particular. My favorite of them all is the one Mel Canares makes in his backyard in South San Francisco.
A corporate chef who got laid off during the shutdown, he, like many out-of-work cooks, turned to what had previously been a side hustle — selling food out of his home — into a full-time gig. His fried chicken sandwiches are his bestseller, and for good reason. Canares double-dredges chicken thighs in a buttermilk and hot sauce marinade for super-crispy chicken, tops it with slaw and a smoky mesquite sauce and serves it on a toasted brioche bun.
He's part of the under-the-table economy of home-based food businesses across the Bay Area, which surged during the pandemic and brought us some of the most interesting eats of the year. Some of these home cooks became successful enough that they won't go back to their pre-pandemic jobs, including Pepe of Chef Peps Kitchen in East Palo Alto, who sold enough quesabirria and tacos to purchase a food truck this fall.
Weekly pop-up on Sunday in South San Francisco; check instagram.com/fuckinmel for details.
H?t S?y pop-up
I first tried H?t S?y in the "Before Times," about a month before the pandemic hit. I stumbled onto the San Jose pop-up's Instagram and was immediately drawn in by what turned out to be some of the most inventive and delicious takes on Vietnamese food I've had, like p
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