Number 1: Bar Tartine's Blood Sausage

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Albert Law
SFoodie's countdown of our favorite 50 things to eat and drink, 2012 edition

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The lengths to which chefs like Bar Tartine's Nicolaus Balla are going to ensure the authenticity of their creative vision are reaching the poetic. In age when he could order up an entire menu from Sysco, it's a pre-industrial -- even Benjamin-inspired -- act for Balla to culture dozens of types of pickles, cure his own meats and fish, bake his own bread (well, that's courtesy of Bar Tartine owner Chad Robertson), and recycle the bread yeast into beer.

So it goes without saying that the blood sausage Bar Tartine serves is made in-house. It pays homage to the sausages Balla ate in Hungary, the country that most inspires his cooking here. He stuffs the sausage with a forcemeat of pig blood, ground meat and skin, pork fat, buckwheat flour, and brown rice. The fat links, roasted until they sizzle, are meaty rather than custardy, and fervidly spiced. Unlike the blood, which tints the filling a purplish cocoa color, shades its flavor with an underlying richness, perhaps a hint of iron.

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Number 2: Steamed Sea Bass with Lime and Chile From Lers Ros

Categories: SFoodie's 50
Kimberly Sandie
Lers Ros' steamed sea bass with chile and lime.
SFoodie's countdown of our favorite 50 things to eat and drink, 2012 edition

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Tom Silargorn has a flair for the dramatic. His soups are all served in ringed Mongolian hot pots, blue flames and sparks shooting up through the tube at their center; every day you order tom kha gai feels like July 4. And his best seafood dish, the steamed sea bass with chile and lime (pla kra pong nuang manow, arrives in an elevated chafing dish shaped like a fish. Flames underneath keep the milky broth the fish floats in bubbling, its perfume smelled halfway across the room.

And what a perfume! The description "chile and lime" sounds almost austere, but the profusion of herbs covering the surface of the fish give a better indication of its baroque flavor. Thick slices of garlic, green onions, and flecks of minced shallots. Skinny birds-eye chiles in red and green. Chinese celery stalks, looking more like flower stems than their Western counterpart, and their toothy leaves. Underneath the herbs, of course, can be sensed the rumbling funk of fish sauce.


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Number 3: Koo's Spoonful of Happiness

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Albert Law/porkbellystudio
Koo's Spoon of Happiness (yes, it's really two spoons of happiness).
SFoodie's countdown of our favorite 50 things to eat and drink, 2012 edition

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When Kiyoshi Hiyakawa opened his Inner Sunset sushi bar Koo in 2004, he hoped to escape the cutely termed, Americanized rolls of his former employer, Tokyo Gogo, and instead offer a more traditional selection of fish catered toward sushi purists. For the most part, he's succeeded. However, Koo's most popular, and in our opinion most enchanting item has perhaps the most gimmicky of names: Spoonful of Happiness.

"Spoonful" should be plural, as Hiyawaka actually creates two spoons separated by a shot of house sake.  We opt to start with the ladel of sweet uni topped with a quail egg and spiked with a dash of tobiko ponzu. It slides down the throat all too easily, leaving an aftertaste of tart brine. Next, we shoot the sake straight down in a single gulp, utilizing its palate-cleansing capability, not to mention an instant buzz, before continuing on. Finally, we slurp spoon number two, a small hunk of ankimo (monkfish liver) sheathed in a thin slice of whitefish and finished with a few droplets of truffle oil. Fortunately, the truffle oil doesn't overwhelm the ingredients, but instead adds to the earthiness of the monkfish liver, stirring up pleasant memories of a Jewish grandma's chopped liver. 

Each of these bites taken separately, including the shot of sake, easily charms the taste buds. Experienced all together though, the Spoonful of Happiness is a prime illustration of how a little bit of fusion and a lot creativity can really triumph.


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Number 4: Falafel From Sunrise Deli

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Iann Ivy
A falafel platter from Sunrise Deli.
SFoodie's countdown of our favorite 50 things to eat and drink, 2012 edition

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An awful lot of restaurants like to make "Best [blank] in San Francisco" claims. The list of self-proclaimed "best burgers" is so long at least 21 of the places advertising them must be lying. (If it weren't for independent evaluation authorities such as SF Weekly, who could you believe?) But when Sunrise Deli proclaims itself -- on its sign, its website, and its new food truck -- "Best Falafel in Town," the restaurant is actually telling the truth.

When you enter the deli's 28-year-old original location in the Outer Sunset, chances are good that one of the cooks will be standing over the fryer, shaping scoops of ground chickpeas into precise disks to drop into the oil. The fryer rarely seems to see any downtime, because there's a constant stream of people coming in to the cafe to buy the chickpea fritters by the dozen. Hot -- which they often are -- the falafel have a lacy, grainy exterior that seems to collapse as it crackles. The jade-hued insides stay soft and moist, not saturated with oil, the flavor inflected with cumin and parsley.

You can buy falafel-stuffed pita sandwiches at Sunrise, but they're better by the platter, where you can swipe the fritters through a pool of the deli's lemony, herb-flecked tahini sauce. And if you pick up a few dozen falafel to take home, remember to calculate your finders' fee appropriately. Pluck one out of the bag to eat on the way out the door, and you may soon find you've hit the 25 percent mark before you're a couple of blocks on your way.


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Number 5: Smitten's Chocolate Ice Cream

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Jonathan Kauffman
Smitten's chocolate ice cream with almond brittle.
SFoodie's countdown of our favorite 50 things to eat and drink, 2012 edition

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The Kelvin, as Robyn Sue Goldman has named Smitten's proprietary ice-cream-making machine, looks like a KitchenAid redesigned by the Nutty Professor. When you order up a scoop of the chocolate ice cream, the staff will pour a small cup of thick cream into the bowl of the machine and flip a switch. It begins shuddering and turning, spewing forth smoke, thanks to the liquid nitrogen that is flowing into the bowl, freezing the ice cream almost instantly.

Goldman switches up the stand's flavors on a near-daily basis, but her basic chocolate ice cream, made with TCHO chocolate and cocoa powder, is the most opulent. It has a deep, potent chocolate flavor whose impact almost approaches hot fudge sauce. By the third spoonful, you begin to notice that there's a little salt in there, too, which engages parts of your palate that most ice creams don't.

But it's the texture that makes the ice cream so marvelous. Kelvin produces ice crystals so minute that the ice cream seems to have been thickened and enriched rather than frozen. Aided by the fat from the chocolate, it tastes more custardy than custard, more buttery than a pat of softened butter. It melts quickly, this ice cream, so that you have to devote yourself to the scoop, spooning it up before the effect fades away. Which is rarely hard to do.


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Number 6: Josey Baker's Black Pepper-Parmesan Loaf

Categories: SFoodie's 50
Jonathan Kauffman
Josey Baker's black pepper Parm bread.
SFoodie's countdown of our favorite 50 things to eat and drink, 2012 edition

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Josey Baker is an improbable success story, a guy -- science educator by day, bartender by night -- who happened upon a talent for baking bread one day when a friend gave him some sourdough starter. Baker started baking as a hobby, then started writing funny little blog posts about the baking hobby and selling loaves out of the Mission bar where he was working. The bread CSA he started up grew big enough for him to quit his day job, and his bread garnered so much love that his customers let him take a few months off to travel around Southeast Asia without killing the business.

As Baker prepares to open Mill, his new bakery on Divisadero, he's still baking out of Mission Pie a couple days a week and selling bread at Bi-Rite. Baker makes traditionally, naturally leavened breads, but he's been unafraid to experiment with flavors since the early CSA days, and one of the enduring successes of that period is his black pepper and Parmesan bread. 

Slice through the crust, your knife scattering shards everywhere, and you reveal a lattice of bubbles swirling through the crumb like a wave caught mid-crash. You can't necessarily see the chunks of Parmesan embedded in the bread, but you can smell and taste them -- the cheese intensifies he subtle tang of sourdough and amps up the bread's umami. A faint smell of pepper turns into a prickling spice as you chew. It's a bread made for spreading fresh cheeses on, or drizzling olive oil on and toasting for bruschetta. It's bread worth waiting -- a week, a few months -- for.


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Number 7: Hakka Restaurant's Stuffed Tofu

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Jonathan Kauffman
Hakka Restaurant's pan-fried stuffed tofu.
SFoodie's countdown of our favorite 50 things to eat and drink, 2012 edition

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Look over the large parties dining at Hakka Restaurant and you'll see any number of Hakka and Cantonese feast-day dishes: chicken stuffed with sticky rice, pork belly with preserved vegetable, fried crab with salted egg yolks. Chef Jin Hua Li executes them all beautifully, which is why SFoodie's favorite dish at Hakka Restaurant is one of his homiest: the pan-fried stuffed tofu.

You sense the care he puts into the dish only when you taste it, first sliding your chopsticks through the soft tofu, revealing its quivering, custard-like texture. It's a pain to scoop out quarter-sized divots from that tofu, and then pan-fry it without ripping big chunks off of the tender squares. And yet the stuffed tofu isn't a delicate dish; the olive-sized ball of ground meat in the center of each tofu cake turns out to be pork mixed with ginger and salted fish -- a wallop of umami, the kind you can taste all the way to your sinuses. That contrast, between the jiggly and the meaty, is what makes such a simple dish taste like it belongs on a banquet. Even a Tuesday night banquet with a couple of friends.


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Number 8: Taqueria La Alteña's Al Pastor Burrito

Iann Ivy
Taqueria La Alteña's al pastor burrito.
SFoodie's countdown of our favorite 50 things to eat and drink, 2012 edition

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For as many taquerias and taco trucks in San Francisco serve "al pastor" -- shepherd-style pork -- Taqueria La Alteña is one of only a few of them make al pastor the traditional way: on a spit. If you think the vertical spit resembles the ones at Truly Mediterranean and Ali Baba's, that's because it originated as shawerma, introduced by Lebanese immigrants to the state of Puebla in the 1930s. As "tacos al pastor"  spread throughout their adopted country, the meat on the spit became pork, the marinade became thicker and spicier, and pineapple slices appeared on top, their juices basting the meat as it turned.

La Alteña serves its spit-roasted pork in both tacos and burritos. But we are a burrito town, let's admit it; thanks to some copycat chain based in Denver, most of the country knows what a Mission burrito is. And so La Alteña's Mission burrito al pastor is one of the best in the city (and by extension, the galaxy): the meat spiced and fragrant, fatty enough to crisp up around the edges when the cooks give it a final toss on the griddle, its flavor charismatic enough to permeate every bite. The al pastor also rich enough that you don't need to add in cheese or sour cream or guacamole -- one of the few taquerias in town whose chef d'oeuvre is filled just with rice, beans, salsa, and meat.


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Number 9: Liguria Bakery's Pizza Focaccia

Iann Ivy
Liguria Bakery's pizza focaccia.
SFoodie's countdown of our favorite 50 things to eat and drink, 2012 edition

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Everyone in San Francisco, it seems, has his or her favorite kind of focaccia from Liguria Bakery. Some will defend to their death the honor of the rectangles dimpled with green onions, others the loaves thickly speckled with rosemary leaves. The plain focaccia toasts up into a great sandwich bread. The olive is ridiculous topped with summer's freshest tomatoes and slices of fresh mozzarella. But SFoodie likes best to snack on what the bakery calls "pizza focaccia."

Baked in an ancient brick oven by the Soracco family, who have owned Liguria for 101 years, the focaccia is deftly sliced and wrapped in white butcher paper and tied with twine. But when you unwrap the bread, that's when things get messy. Slathered in a thick tomato sauce and freckled with green onions that have wilted in the heat, the bread has a Midas-like ability to turn everything that touches it crimson. Your fingers. Your lips. The napkins you quickly run out of, and then your shirt. Stains be damned, it's impossible to stop eating it -- the puckered, inch-thick bread is so puffy, so soft, the richness of the olive oil in the dough cut with the tangy tomato and the occasional bite of onion. Liguria's other focaccias you bring to parties to impress your host. The pizza focaccia, you eat for yourself.


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Number 10: Boxing Room's Dirty Rice

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Iann Ivy
Boxing Room's dirty rice.
SFoodie's countdown of our favorite 50 things to eat and drink, 2012 edition

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Boxing Room's chef, Justin Simoneaux, brings a California sensibility to traditional Cajun dishes -- fried oyster salad with arugula and fennel, gulf flounder with tasso and green garlic -- but for his dirty rice, he adheres strictly to his mother's recipe. 

Simoneaux grinds up pork, chicken gizzards, and livers, then cooks them down for so long the meat sticks to the pan before adding in onion, green pepper, and celery to saute, which is pretty much the opposite of classic French technique. "You've got to break all the rules when you cook Cajun food," he says. When the aromatics have sweated out their juices, in go the rice, herbs, spices, and stock. Then it cooks on the stove until the grains are fluffy, brown, and saturated with flavor.

There are dozens of versions of dirty rice around the Bay Area, at dozens of middling New Orleans restaurants, and none of them are as good as Simoneaux's. His dirty rice resembles an American biryani, a conflagration of seasonings -- a mélée between the caramelized meats and the thyme and garlic, the celery kicking up from the floor, green pepper and chile powder shouldering in to the brawl from the sides. In Indian and Pakistan, biryani is a feast-day dish; at Boxing Room, it's a $6 side.

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