mark cerqueira well-rounded nerd

2013 - The Year in Food

I used to be the kind of person that would find two or three decent restaurants and just visit them over and over again. In June, after another amazing meal at Panda Dumpling in San Carlos (read: not at all related to the chain Panda Express), I proudly penned my first Yelp review. I’ve got a big appetite and a big mouth – After that first review, I realized I couldn’t just keep my opinions to myself. I also realized I was going to have to take some risks and explore what the wider food world had to offer if I expected to find more gems like Panda Dumpling.

Since then, it’s been a veritable firestorm of trying new places and writing more reviews. Here is an overview of my 2013 food findings!

From top left to bottom right: Shrimp and Eggs Chow Fun and Beef Lo Mein (Cafe Salina), Strawberry Peach Cobbler (Passionfish), Lion King (Cha Cha Sushi), Portuguese Roll and Pasteis de Nata (Teixeira's Bakery)

5 Star Restaurants

In 2013, I penned a whopping 208 Yelp reviews. I was pretty stingy when it came to giving out 5 star reviews, so you can be sure that the ones I DID award 5 stars completely knocked my socks off.

  • Cha Cha Sushi (San Jose, CA) - Have you ever dreamed of a California Roll topped with salmon, tobiko, house sauce, and then baked to perfection? I have… And my dream came true. This sushi is far from authentic, but that’s not what it’s trying to be. If you ever dreamed of eating wonderfully delicious, hot, deep-fried sushi, you should visit Cha Cha Sushi. I could hype the crap out of this place and you’d probably still be blown away. Come with an open mind, and leave happy.
  • Cafe Salina (Millbrae, CA) - A Hong Kong-style restaurant that has a ridiculously massive menu. I keep coming back and I’ve sampled a huge variety of dishes and have always been very impressed. Even the milkshakes are good! Try their Shrimp and Eggs Chow Fun if you want to try the dish that got me hooked. I also recommend coming in late in the evening (they close at midnight), as they seem to have some logistical issues getting dishes out in a timely manner during regular dining hours. The occasional slow service during peak hours is probably why their overall Yelp rating is not higher. Note that they also recently got a new chef, who customers seem to be impressed by.
  • Passionfish (Pacific Grove, CA) - A refined restaurant that leaves all that annoying (and unnecessary) snobbery at the door. From start to finish, this place was amazing. When dessert rolled around and I had the best cobbler (Strawberry Peach Cobbler) I’ve ever had, the 5-star deal was sealed.
  • Zadin (Mission, San Francisco, CA) - Sad to report that this restaurant closed its doors on December 19th. It’s too bad, because it’s a dream for people with dietary restrictions (e.g. vegetarians, vegans, gluten-free). I brought my sister here along with a larger group, and everyone had an equally wonderful meal.
  • Teixeira’s Bakery (Newark, NJ) - For their amazing Portuguese rolls, the location on Kossuth Street gets 5 stars. For the best pasteis de nata (custard cups) I’ve ever had, the Ferry Street location gets 5 stars. New Jersey isn’t as bad as all the haters make it out to be. I’m pretty sure they just never stopped by Teixeira’s Bakery.

From top left to bottom right: Deep-Fried Pumpkin with Salted Egg Yolk (Champagne Restaurant), Shanghai Soup Dumplings and Chives Pancake (Panda Dumpling), Dan Dan Noodles (Yi Yuan), Sautéed Beef and Pumpkin and Cumin Lamb with Onions (China Palace)

Chinese Restaurants

I ate a lot of Chinese food in 2013. Dim sum is one of my favorite cuisines, so I was always on the hunt for better and better dim sum. Here is the shortlist I give anyone who says they are craving Chinese food; Chinese food varies by region so this list attempts to cover different types.

  • Panda Dumpling (San Carlos, CA) - Don’t be fooled by the gimmicky name. This place serves up the best Shanghai Soup Dumplings (xiao long bao) and Chives Pancake in the Bay Area.
  • Champagne Restaurant (Millbrae, CA) - The service here leaves something to be desired, but the food more than makes up for it. Champagne provides dim sum off a menu. My favorite is their Deep-Fried Pumpkin with Salted Egg Yolk. My girlfriend says these are second-best to the ones she’s had in China.
  • Yi Yuan Szechuan (Millbrae, CA) - For those looking for some spicy Szechuan-style cuisine, drop by this restaurant. Some dishes are incredibly spicy (Lanzhou Beef Ramen) but the menu doesn’t lie when it claims most dishes are “spicy but not numbing.” Check out their very popular Dan Dan Noodles.
  • Cafe Salina (Millbrae, CA) - All the Chinese restaurants on this list are amazing, but only Cafe Salina earned 5 stars. In the list above, I write about why this place is so impressive.
  • China Palace (Milpitas, CA) - Open so very, very late (3 AM), China Palace may be a bit out of the way, but if you’re craving good Chinese food at odd hours, there is hope. Even when I’ve rolled in around 2 AM this place has been packed. Notably, it was packed with mostly Chinese people, which is always a good indicator of how legitimate the food is!

From top left to bottom right: Benedict a Trois (Town), Swiss and Mustard and Superlative Bread Pudding (The Refuge), Navaratan Korma (Amber India), French Burger with Brie (Cuisinett), Steamed BBQ Pork Bun (Good Mong Kok)

Bay Area Bites

There are some other restaurants that don't fit into the above two groups, but I'm always eager to recommend them as fine dining establishments.

  • The Refuge (San Carlos, CA) - The Refuge specializes in thick, homemade pastrami and an impressive beer menu. Come hungry because appetizers will be amazing, entrees will be large and imposing, and you’ll need to save room for the best bread pudding around. Formerly called The Megatron, the bread pudding now goes by the more humble Superlative Bread Pudding. Same mouth-watering deliciousness, however.
  • Town (San Carlos, CA) - The priciest of the restaurants featured here, yet I never feel like I’m not getting my money’s worth. They have an awesome brunch menu (weekends only). Consider checking out the Benedict a Trois which gives you Eggs Benedict in three different styles: traditional ham, steak, and crab. I also love their Mom’s Meat Loaf Sandwich, which is pretty huge - even for my big mouth!
  • American Grill Cheese Kitchen (SOMA, San Francisco, CA) - Takes the classic American grilled cheese and ups the ante. All their sandwiches are worth a shot, but the Jalapeño Popper is my grilled cheese of choice. They also do gluten-free sandwiches. We’ve already scheduled it as a first stop for when my gluten-sensitive sister visits in the Spring.
  • Cuisinett (San Carlos, CA) - Imagine a burger draped between two rich slabs of brie cheese. French. Comfort. Food. Also if you’re into wonderful fries, they have french fries sprinkled with truffle oil. Truly magical.
  • Amber India (Mountain View, CA) - My favorite Indian restaurant ever. The team at Amber India does so many things well; it always breaks my heart when I come for dinner and have to pick a few entrees instead of having access to their lunch buffet. My favorite dishes here are the Butter Chicken and Navaratan Korma.
  • Good Mong Kok Bakery (Chinatown, San Francisco, CA) - This past summer, some friends and I did a BBQ Pork Bun Crawl in SF. Since most bakeries served only baked pork buns, we compared each of the bakery’s baked buns to one another’s, and Victor’s edged out Good Mong Kok as the winner. But Good Mong Kok has an ace up its sleeve: it serves BOTH steamed and baked BBQ Pork Buns! Baked buns are great, but NOTHING beats an amazing steamed bun.

2014 - Time to Eat!

Check out my in-depth reviews for all these restaurants here. Here’s to more exploring, eating, and reviewing in 2014!