Countdown to Best Of
By John Birdsall
Compiling our annual list of San Francisco's best things to eat and drink is like packing for a yearlong sabbatical to Antarctica. You start by laying out on the bed all the clothes you think you need, then abandon stuff when you find you can't cram it into your duffel.
Over the next four months —until May 18, when our annual Best Of issue hits the stands — SF Weekly is packing its food blog, SFoodie, with a daily countdown of the best things to eat and drink in San Francisco. Ready to count down with us? Read the first pick below. For the rest, go to bit.ly/gbNcSO.
Benu's Faux Shark's Fin Soup
By Jonathan Kauffman
Around the midpoint of Benu's 12-course tasting menu, right when the fish courses are giving way to the redder meats and the sakes and white wines cede to the reds, comes a bowl of "shark's fin" soup, quotes included. The waiters bring out a bowl whose bottom is covered in an unattractive disk of black-flecked truffle custard, gussied up with a tussock of clear noodles and Dungeness crab. Then they pour a steaming cola-colored broth overtop. With every swish of the spoon through the soup, the custard melts, the filaments soften, and the intensity of the dish becomes more pronounced. Chef Corey Lee's dish doesn't just pulse with umami, it wittily ties together four strands of luxury dining: Shark's fin soup is still an essential, if controversial, element in many Chinese banquets — and the layered, long-simmered supreme broth is itself a technical masterpiece requiring several days to concoct. The black truffles, of course, play an equivalent role in classic French haute cuisine. (Incidentally, Lee says he designed the bowls, which have a slight indentation at their bottoms, specifically to serve the steamed truffle custard.) Representing San Francisco's obsession with local, sustainable sourcing, the chef skips the real shark's fin (phew) and adds our own Dungeness crab. The fourth, most contemporary school of haute cuisine represented in the dish is the technical wizardry popularized by places like El Bulli and Alinea; those fine strands of mock shark's fin are actually the same broth, gelled with a combination of hydrocolloids Lee spent months perfecting. Conceptually, the soup is a tour de force. Thankfully, it tastes like one, too.
Benu: 22 Hawthorne (at Howard), 685-4860.
El Norteño's Goat Tacos
By Jonathan Kauffman
Since the Kogi revolution of 2008, I've eaten tacos filled with octopus (tako taco, get it?), with Cantonese roast duck, with kalbi, sisig, and braised bacon. I've gotten used to spending $5 apiece for tacos made with organic corn tortillas and sustainably raised pork or duck confit. Any day now, I expect to hear smørrebrød described as "Danish tacos" rather than "open-faced sandwiches." And yet, if there is one taco that compels me to circle the block over and over again, hunting for a legal spot to ditch the car for a few minutes, it's the übertraditional goat taco at El Norteño, the taco truck that parks across from the Hall of Justice. Each taco is only three bites' worth if you're feeling dainty; the tortillas are mass-market ones, and I'd rather not know the provenance of the meat. But the seemingly paltry bits of tender goat on top are saturated in a braising liquid that concentrates and crisps as the meat is reheated on the griddle. Their swaggering potency is heightened with a spoonful of salsa verde — slashing acidity followed by an eight-beat burn — and the crunch and flash of chopped onions and cilantro. To eat El Norteño's ur-taco is to remember why we got obsessed with hunting down roving taco trucks in the pre-Twitter era. Oh, and the truck's carnitas tacos? They're just as good.
El Norteño: Bryant Street (between Sixth and Harriet sts.), 756-1220.