This list, while certainly not exhaustive, reflects the culinary talent and diversity on the Midpeninsula. It reminds us that there is always more to explore here, from the high to the low brow and everything in between, and that there is a thriving, vibrant community of chefs making the impossible work in the Bay Area.
So grab a friend and use this list as a guide to break out of your dining routine. I know I'll be working my way through this list.
Editor's note: This is an abbreviated version of the list. Read it in full at PaloAltoOnline.com/arts.
Chicken tikka masala, Zareen's, Palo Alto, Mountain View
Dennis Kelly, co-owner, Protege, Palo Alto: My favorite dish has to be Zareen's chicken tikka masala with a cup of her famous chai or a mango lassi. The dish is served with cumin and turmeric scented basmati rice, warm spiced lentils and pickled vegetables. I practically lived on this while Protégé was under construction. So tasty!
Anthony Secviar, chef/co-owner, Protege: THAT WAS MINE!!!! :))))))
Lori Romero Villareal, owner, Calave, Palo Alto: I had Zareen's a few months ago and was left wanting more and more. My favorite there is the chicken tikka masala with a side of naan. It stands out for me because there is the perfect balance. The spices have a nice kick but are not overpowering and are balanced with a creamy texture, perfect for dipping my naan. The chicken is cooked perfectly. I have had many Indian dishes at other places but this dish stands above all. I have recommended many to Zareen's and all come back with the same feeling I do.
Ricotta dumplings, Protege, Palo Alto
JC Andrade, co-owner Vino Locale, Palo Alto: Protege's ricotta dumplings with a very light butter sauce, almost like a beurre blanc but lighter than that. It had English peas and some kind of green. It stood out to me because of the sauce, how it melted in your mouth and the English peas were al dente, really well done. I was on a date with my lovely wife and the dish was even more memorable!
Rock shrimp tempura, Nobu, Palo Alto
Monica Schreiber, Embarcadero Media restaurant reviewer: My obsession dish is from Nobu: the rock shrimp tempura with ponzu or creamy spicy sauce. Almost anything fried in tempura batter is going to be good, but there was something special about this succulent shrimp dish. First the satisfying crunch of the delicate tempura shell, then the warm, plump shrimp inside. Tangy rice vinegar and a little peppery heat plays across the tongue. The menu says you can order with ponzu or "creamy spicy" sauce, but I like to order them both on the side for maximum dipping pleasure. I've already told my husband he's taking me to Nobu for this dish for my birthday.
Twice-cooked bacon, Taste, Palo Alto
Dale Bentson, Embarcadero Media restaurant reviewer: A dish I look forward to meeting again soon is the twice-cooked bacon at Taste on University Avenue. The dish exploded with flavor, a collaboration of sweet and salty, that perfect balance that defines Sichuan cuisine. The dish was composed of green peppers, Sichuan peppers, onions, scallions, black bean sauce, sugar, soy sauce and plenty of bacon. Since I was writing a review of Taste at the time, I had a critical eye. The twice-cooked bacon took me by surprise, not that other dishes didn't measure up, but because of the boldness and harmony of the flavors. Who doesn't like bacon?
Kouign-amann, Loveforbutter popup
Rocco Scordella, owner, Vina Enoteca, Tootsie's Barn, Palo Alto: The dish I can not stop thinking of are John Shelsta's pastries. The first pop-up he did (at my other favorite restaurant Zola in Palo Alto) I went and picked up some pastries to bring back for the team at Vina Enoteca. I got in the car and the kouign-amann looked so good that I parked my car and gave it a bite. You can imagine how I ended up. His pastries are simply spectacular. You can taste the love and work that he puts in each one of them. Everything is made by hand. The layers of each pastry (are) so light and crumbling. My mouth waters just writing about it.
Ricotta gnocchi, Zola, Palo Alto
Lars Smith, chef-owner, State of Mind Public House, Los Altos: The dish is so rich and satisfying. At the same time it is airy and lighter than the description suggests. Sometimes one bowl isn't enough. The mainstay on the menu consists of beautifully light gnocchi made with ricotta, a perfectly soft-cooked egg, mushrooms and brown butter. When truffles are available they will also shave fresh truffle all over the top. When available always get the truffles added. Every experience at Zola is memorable, but I can remember vividly the first time I had the gnocchi with the truffle. The dish had been served and a chef came out and made it rain truffle all over the bowl. I think everyone at the table had their jaws hit the floor watching. Finally, for a pro tip: Always break the egg and mix everything together before indulging in the dish.
Kristi Marie, owner, Kristi Marie's, Redwood City: I especially like the seared ricotta gnocchi with mushrooms and a soft egg at Zola. They have definitely executed French seasonal cuisine perfectly. Owner Guillaume Bienaime and his staff are always so genuinely hospitable.
Tonkotsu deluxe ramen, Ramen Izakaya Yu-Gen, Mountain View
Greg Buccheister, owner, Coffeebar, Menlo Park: I love ramen and this winter while we were building out Coffeebar MP, I would go several times a week either on my own or with our team. Any time someone new would start, I'd use it as an excuse to take them. I always get the tonkotsu deluxe ramen dish. There is something about it and fuels my soul from within — rich, spicy, nourishing. It also conjures vibrant childhood memories just like Anton Ego (the fictional food critic) from Ratatouille!
Wagyu striploin, Bird Dog, Palo Alto
Mistie Cohen, co-owner, Oren's Hummus Shop, Palo Alto, Mountain View, Cupertino, San Francisco: I wish I could say Bird Dog's fried chicken because everyone raves about the dish. ... Unfortunately, having an allergy to gluten and always needing my protein fix (I could live off red meat, sadly) (it) would be the wagyu striploin. It's extremely flavorful with a marbly cut, unique in its creation and has an almost orgasmic explosion happening with every bite. It's definitely a highlight when visiting Bird Dog. Maybe TMI :) but it is a fabulous dish and how it best comes to mind to describe!
Shaking beef, Tamarine, Palo Alto
Andrea Potischman, Simmer + Sauce blog, Menlo Park: A local dish I love is shaking beef, a delicious savory-sweet Vietnamese stir-fry dish from Tamarine. This dish wows me every time with its simplicity and bold, unforgettable flavor. Crispy, tender beef filet quickly pan-seared on high heat. To make this dish, you sear the beef cubes in a very hot pan, sealing in the juices, and then shake the pan once or twice to loosen them and allow everything to cook evenly. This particular dish at Tamarine has always been special to me and my family — so much so that we hosted my son's bar mitzvah dinner party there in May. Shaking beef was prominently featured and the most talked about dish by far.
Spicy chicken bao, The Chairman food truck
Guillaume Bienamie, chef-owner, Zola, Palo Alto: The dish that I go back to almost every other week is the spicy chicken bao from The Chairman food truck every Monday at The Willows Market in Menlo Park. From the first time I tried it, it seems to hit every note: sweet, spicy, sour, salty and delicate yet sumptuous. Also, my 7-year-old loved the tofu bun! It's the only way I can get him to eat vegetables. He'll put down six of those things.
Short rib pithivier, Protege, Palo Alto
Zareen Khan, owner, Zareen's, Palo Alto and Mountain View: Amid an array of amazing dishes in Protege's prix fixe dinner, the short rib pithivier stood out as a feast for the eyes and the mouth: a decorative pastry pie filled with succulent beef. The protégés have done their French Laundry mentor proud.
'Red King' ramen, Ramen Nagi, Palo Alto
Thanasis Pashalidis, co-owner, Taverna, Palo Alto: Last year, I had the opportunity to experience a trip to Tokyo which has influenced me tremendously. I'm a huge fan of soups, noodles and broths so I went on a culinary ramen tour in addition to my seafood expedition. I found comfort slurping up piping hot broth and tender noodles at all hours. Upon my return, I was a bit disappointed that I couldn't find that comfort locally.
I (recently) visited Ramen Nagi. Finally, I was able to experience authentic Japanese ramen just a few blocks from home. The flavors are rich, the service is sincere and the ambiance is balanced. I really find myself craving a bowl of the Red King more often than I should. It has just the right amount of spice that I like. I enjoyed my first bowl at the counter and I observed the open kitchen and chefs making ramen with a flare, throwing noodles in the air and shouting in Japanese.
New York Strip, Sundance the Steakhouse, Palo Alto
Chad Newton, culinary director and co-owner, Asian Box: The New York strip at Sundance the Steakhouse is perfection to me. High-quality beef expertly cooked with a touch of salt and butter, served with an awesome peppercorn sauce on the side. Pair it with one of bartender Ozzie's chilled martinis.
Bigoli e coda, Donato Enoteca, Redwood City
Jon Andino, co-owner, QBB, Mountain View: Bigoli e coda with homemade pasta, oxtail and asparagus at Donato Enoteca. Fresh, rich, melt-in-your-mouth goodness. Every time I eat there, I fall in love with the whole experience. Chef-owner Donato Scotti is one of the most talented chefs anywhere.
Porchetta Di Rancho Llano Seco, Vina Enoteca, Palo Alto
Carolyn Jung, FoodGal blog: If ever there was a dish that would make your eyes roll back into your head, this is it. Picture a thick slab of roasted skin-on pork, nearly as big as the plate itself, with a rim of glistening fat about an inch thick. The health-conscious will be tempted to cut the fat off, but that would be a crime. Instead, go ahead and take a big bite to enjoy the intense sweet, porcine flavor of the meat with all those glorious fatty juices squirting out. It is nothing short of sublime.
I ate this porchetta in December 2017 and have been obsessed with it ever since. The only drawback? Our server told us then it was coming off the menu because few people ever ordered it, fearing the fat and the price tag. It's $70, but meant to be shared. Our server said it serves two, but honestly, it's so rich and satiating that four to six could easily divvy it up. He did add that the restaurant will still serve it if anyone asks specifically for it. So, do yourself a favor and pipe up for an order.
Sausage and honey pizza, Vesta, Redwood City
Becky Sunseri, owner, Tin Pot Creamery, Palo Alto, Los Altos: One of my favorite dishes on the Peninsula and one I crave especially often in the summer is Vesta's sausage and honey pizza. This wood-fired pizza has an incredible balance of sweet and savory flavors, as well as crispy, chewy, creamy and crunchy textures. The crust on the pizza has those little blackened air pockets on the edges, so you know it's gonna be good. The sauce is fresh and bright, and the pizza is topped with Italian sausage, mascarpone, serrano chili and is drizzled with honey. Although you may not have seen this flavor combination before, and perhaps it even seems a little odd, as soon as you taste it you know these flavors were made to go together!
Roasted hen, Zola, Palo Alto
Kasim Syed, owner, The Rose & Crown, Palo Alto; The Tap Room, Palo Alto; co-owner, QBB, Mountain View: There are so many great things to eat around us, but strangely enough, a chicken dish is one that comes to mind. I usually don't order chicken in nicer restaurants, but on a recent outing to Zola I tried their roasted hen. It has a great, smoky mushroom ragu sauce and some pickled onions. It was cooked perfect and so, so juicy. I would definitely get it again.
Chocolate chip cookie, Gracie Jones GF Bakeshop, Palo Alto
Matt Davidson, chef, Pizzeria Delfina, Palo Alto, Burlingame: The last really great food item I had down here in the Peninsula was the chocolate chip cookie at Gracie Jones GF Bakeshop. I run a pizzeria so I am in no way following a gluten-free diet, but I am following a chocolate chip cookie diet as they are one of my favorite things in the world to eat. When I had this one I was blown away. Tasted better than most with gluten!
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