My Most-Loved Food in San Francisco

After living in San Francisco for 5 years, I have gone through many contenders for “favorite dish”. In the end, the following dishes will be what I remember and miss of San Francisco’s food scene.

The foreign menu at Zen Yai Thai

Tenderloin (Yelp)

The boat noodle offerings here are not to be missed, as they are written in giant letters and the menu is placed on a visible wall of the restaurant– the catch is that it’s all written in Thai!

Here’s my interpretation of the menu:

  • Yen Ta Fo Definitely my #1 pick. This is a reddish sour seafood broth. It’s packed with lots of little toppings (including pig blood, which I always ask to exclude) and topped off with wonton chips.
  • Boat Noodle You get to pick either beef or pork. The broth is spicy, flavorful and delicious.
  • Tom Yum Personally, I’ve never tried this one before.

You get to pick what thickness of rice noodles you want. I always go for the ‘wide, flat, square noodles’. There’s a lot of adjectives there but I have gotten the wrong noodle before so I find it’s best to over specify here (yes I know that sounds crazy, but I just can’t risk it!).

You also get to pick what size you want: small or large. This is the best part because that means you can sample everything! I typically get a large Yen Ta Fo and a small boat noodle and I’m barely able to finish it. On the other hand, my S.O. has once ordered 2 larges and 1 small (though he says it’s not as much as it seems because I helped him eat some. I had like, 2 nibbles.).

Clockwise from top left: Yen Ta Fo, Beef Boat Noodle, Pork Boat Noodle, Tom Yum Noodle (all smalls)

They also give you a tray of further garnishes and sauces. It includes fish sauce, vinegar, dried chili peppers, and a few other things. Personally, I’ve never used anything from this tray except maybe some dried chili peppers to add more heat.

Panang Curry at Farmhouse Kitchen

Mission (Website)

My #1 pick for best Thai restaurant in San Francisco! I typically get take-out or delivery (on Caviar or Postmates) from here. Everything here is generally fantastic but my go-to would definitely be the panang curry. It comes with fragrant blue rice. It is dyed naturally from a flower that grows in Thailand called the blue pea flower!

The yellow curry, also fantastic, comes with a side of crispy roti!

If you eat in for dinner, make sure to grab a reservation online! They fill up fast.

Calamari Relleno at Mochica

Potrero Hill (Website)

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This is Chorizo stuffed calamari with an amazing yellow pesto and a side salad. It’s without a doubt one of the most flavorful dishes I’ve ever eaten. Note that this is an appetizer, is tiny, and costs $13. Every time I come here and order this dish (and I definitely order it every time!), I honestly feel that the portion gets smaller and smaller. But at the same time, every time I put it in my mouth, I honestly feel that it’s gotten tastier and tastier.

Braised Beef Rice Noodle Soup at Yin Du Wonton Noodle

Chinatown (Website)

I will start off by saying that 40% of the reason this makes it to the list is because this is great value and it’s delicious and reminds me of what you can get in Hong Kong. A bowl of rice noodle soup with braised beef brisket for less than $9 after tip and tax.

Even though this is listed as a “wonton house”, I have not had good experiences with the taste or texture of the wontons offered here. My roommate (also of Cantonese roots) agrees. But the braised beef brisket is absolutely fantastic! It should really be called Yin Du Beef Brisket Noodle House.

You can get thin egg noodles or rice noodles here. I prefer rice noodles, always!

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Don't expect good (or any) service here. Cash only.

Roasted Chicken over Rice at Azalina’s

Civic Center (Website)

Azalina’s is a little storefront nestled in the back corner of an upscale supermarket. They serve up extremely flavorful Malaysian dishes. My personal favorite is the roasted chicken over rice. The chicken is perfectly seasoned and cooked, and there is a good ratio of rice, white sauce, and fantastic thinly sliced pieces of potato. They also include a dollop of their spicy chili spread.

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Alternatively, my S.O. loves the fried chicken over rice more. The chicken, admittedly, is better fried here, but I’m not a fan of how little rice that dish comes with. Also, no potatoes, just lots of greens! I guess it’s good to offset the fried chicken with some veggies :)

Porcini Donuts at Rich Table

Hayes Valley (Website)

The first time I tried these were at Outside Lands. My S.O. and I wanted to get some food and we decided on a food stand a few steps away. As we were walking, a girl walks past us with these porcini donuts. We stop dead in our tracks, my S.O. asks politely what those are and where she got them from. She points us towards the Rich Table stand and we quickly forgot about the original destination.

Porcini donuts are like donut holes that have been puffed up and fried perfectly to a thin outer crisp. Porcini mushroom powder is then sprinkled generously all over and it is served with a type of whipped crème fraîche cheese (you will definitely ask for more of this).

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If you want to come here, you'll almost certainly need a reservation. This is a somewhat popular restaurant and it's quite small inside. Counter seating is the best if you're going in a pair!

Bread Pudding at Tartine Bakery

Mission (Website)

I’ve had the bread pudding here twice in my life. The first time was in 2013. I posted a picture on Swarm and commented: “best bread pudding I ever had!!!!”.

For the next few years, I always remembered that this was indeed the “best bread pudding I ever had”. I knew this because I had tried a few others and they always fell short (ahem, Schulzies’). And the reason why I never went back is because Tartine always has a very long line and I actively avoid waiting in lines for food (even though I lived in SF).

Well, 3 years later, I went back because the stars had aligned– a good friend from college was visiting San Francisco for the first time when I am in town (we had always missed each other), and we had dinner plans nearby and a few hours to kill afterwards.

You bet we shared the brioche bread pudding, and it was just as good as I remember. The test of time has been passed!

Definitely go during off-hours; avoid the weekends.

Sashimi and Poke at Basa Seafood Express

Mission (Website)

Lots of people come here for the sushi, but the winner here is the salmon sashimi or the poké! You can buy an entire block of salmon (which they will slice for you if you ask!) comprising of about 15 slices for less than $10. The quality is pretty good considering the price. I’m always excited to get some take-out from here whenever I’m in the area.

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Parking around here is difficult. Also, they close at 7PM.

Karaage Chicken & Waffles, Uni Flan, and the oyster wasabi cocktail jam at Skool Restaurant

SoMa (Website)

Skool is one of my favorite restaurants in San Francisco because it:

  • is a delicious brunch spot in the city
  • takes reservations so you don’t have to wait in line
  • has a large outdoor patio
  • is dog-friendly
  • has a happy hour oyster menu during brunch time ($2/house oyster)

What a hidden gem! It is great for dinner as well (note: most of the dinner dishes are also on the brunch menu).

First, the uni flan is out of the world, and yes, it tastes as amazing as it sounds. Second, if you order oysters, they will bring over a wasabi cocktail “sauce” that’s more like a jam. It is the most amazing garnish for oysters I’ve ever had! I usually ask for more and end up spreading some on the other dishes I order.

For brunch, my favorite entree is the karaage chicken and waffles. They give a very generous portion of karaage chicken and it is fried perfectly with just the right amount of saltiness and other seasoning. The dish also comes with a little pot of fruit and a jalapeno-based vinaigrette that goes great with the chicken.

“Cross bridge” Noodle Soup at HD Chinese Yunnan Rice Noodle

Millbrae (Yelp)

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I definitely have a bias here. This restaurant holds a special place in my heart– it’s where I have frequented solo many times because eating here was always a very comforting experience for me.

Their specialty is a build-your-own kind of noodle soup. The soup base comes in varying levels of spiciness and all dishes are served with round rice noodles. You get to pick your protein (or premium vegetables) as additional toppings in the soup.

They recently opened a new location in the Outer Sunset in San Francisco but it’s been getting less than stellar reviews. It seems like that location has been skimping on ingredients. HD Yunnan in Millbrae closed for a while for “renovations”, and since they re-opened, they had a new menu (I think prices went up a bit) and their soup no longer comes with a hard-boiled quail egg! I hope the quality in the Millbrae location doesn’t degrade any further than this :(

Honorable Mentions

  • Yamo’s Coconut chicken noodle soup is a filling and quick meal for less than $7.
  • Delarosa’s burrata bruschetta, hazelnut, and honey is the best of its kind that I’ve had.
  • Kamu Sushi’s smoky salmon sashimi served with a pink himalayan salt brick. Yes, it’s as amazing as it sounds!
  • Shabu House - This is really great, but definitely only in moderation.
  • Beef Rolls at House of Pancakes are the best I’ve had. Skip the hand-pulled noodle soup, though– the soup lacks flavor!
  • Everything at State Bird Provisions – you can get a reservation pretty easily, just stay up until midnight 2 months before your desired date to book a table!
Thank you for your readership!

Jen is the founder of Lunch Money, a multicurrency personal finance tool for the modern-day spender. She retreats to Asia as a digital nomad during the Canadian winters and is a self-proclaimed "froodie" – a frugal foodie.

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