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Restaurant recommendations, new openings, and highlights from the SF Chowhound community.

The Best Cheesesteak on the West Coast

pane went with a friend to the Divisadero branch of the Cheese Steak Shop; it is “definitely the best cheese steak either of us had tried on the West Coast.” Says Jack, “I’m no expert on Philly Cheese Steaks but I’ve never had a better one than at the Cheese Steak Shop.” And for Agent 510, nothing else on either coast does it as well for him.

The Cheese Steak Shop is a simple, shabby sort of place, with pasted-up maps of Philadelphia. It “reminded me a lot of sub-type shops in the blue collar New England town where I grew up,” says pane. The cheesesteak comes with cooked onions chopped into the meat, melted American cheese, and peppers piled on top. And the bun is perfect, with just the right amount of give.

The shop also has Tastykakes in the fridge: chocolate, butterscotch, and crumb cake.

It’s tough during lunch—there’s only one dude running the line, phone orders, and pickups, and it’s mobbed. It took pane half an hour to order, even though he was only fifth in line. If you’re in any sort of a hurry, you probably want to phone in your order.

Prices are ridiculously cheap; on Wednesday, sides are half off.

This is a chain, with shops in Berkeley, Concord, and Alameda, among other locations.

Cheese Steak Shop [Western Addition]
1716 Divisadero Street, San Francisco

Board Link: The Cheese Steak Shop: Report

Caramelized Catfish Clay Pot

david kaplan had a really excellent version of ca kho to—Vietnamese catfish in a clay pot—at Golden Flower Vietnamese. “Ca kho to is a simple dish: fish is simmered in a sauce of liquid caramel, fish sauce, and ground black pepper, then sprinkled with green onions. The trick is the freshness of the fish and the consistency and balance of the sauce. Golden Flower gets it just right for me. Their catfish is very fresh and delicate, and the sauce is slightly numbing from the salty fish sauce and the pepper without being too sweet. Generous portion, too, for $7.”

Dave MP has had Pagolac’s version. He isn’t particularly impressed by Pagolac in general but likes its ca kho to better than anything else he tried.

Golden Flower Vietnamese [Chinatown]
667 Jackson Street, San Francisco

Pagolac [Tenderloin]
655 Larkin Street, San Francisco

Board Link: ca kho to (catfish claypot) at Golden Flower

Hyperaddictive Fried Rice Cracker

Santa Rosa’s Bangkok Villa makes little packs of Asian rice crackers. They are approximately as addictive as crack cocaine. They’re shaped like thick wafers, crackly-crisp, and just a little bit sweet. “Not your styrofoam, tasteless, negative calorie rice cakes, instead these have the empty calories of deep-frying and sugar that make them addictive,” says Melanie Wong.

They’re available at Asia Mart and Asian Market.

Bangkok Villa [Sonoma County]
1169 Yulupa Avenue, Santa Rosa

Asia Mart [Sonoma County]
2481 Guerneville Road, Santa Rosa

Asian Market [Sonoma County]
1110 Petaluma Hill Road, Santa Rosa

Board Link: Bangkok Villa’s Asian Rice Crackers

New Afghan Kebab Joint

De Afghanan Kabob House makes a great kebab. Chapli kebab is the house special—two beef patties with green onions mixed inside. It’s delicious and absolutely brimming with flavor, says Fig Newton. Good bread, too. An order of kebab is about $10.

This brand new restaurant has taken over the Mediterranean Spirit space on Polk. It’s been repainted, and it’s a lot more comfortable and warm than the old space.

De Afghanan Kabob House [Polk Gulch]
1303 Polk Street, San Francisco

Board Link: De Afghanan Kabob House, San Francisco

Pig of Sky and Water

augustiner is a huge fan of smoked duck from the Willie Bird store in Santa Rosa. It’s remarkably reminiscent of ham, making one realize that duck is truly the pig of the sky and the waters of the Earth, as augustiner puts it. The flesh is as pink as ham, and it’s just as salty, tender, and rich. The smokiness doesn’t overwhelm the natural flavor of the duck. It’s beautiful on its own (a hot plate of smoked duck tends to disappear in minutes when served to Chowhounds), in sandwiches, or shredded over noodles. The bones make a wonderfully smoky broth or jook, so don’t even think about throwing them away.

Melanie Wong likes the smoked duck breast, an alternative to buying a whole smoked duck. It’s a wonderful thing to have in the fridge or freezer for a spur-of-the-moment appetizer when you have unexpected guests. Slice very thinly and serve cold or at room temperature—think of it as duck prosciutto. “And the best part is to yank off the whole strip of smoked skin (which isn’t good cold anyway) and save it for yourself to make cracklings … these taste like duck bacon!” she says.

Also excellent: the turkey spread, smoky and smooth, without the gloppiness of too much mayonnaise.

Willie Bird Turkeys [Sonoma County]
5350 Sebastopol Road, Santa Rosa

Board Link: willie bird- pig of sky and water

Thai Contenders

Ton Yong Thai Café is a new Thai restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown. It’s extremely worthwhile, so check it out. The ingredients are fresh, and the cooks aren’t afraid to make dishes spicy when asked, says david kaplan. One of the unusual things about this place is that the dishes, while otherwise very well balanced, are strangely undersweetened—but this can be easily remedied by adding sugar. It’s vastly preferable to the much more common problem of oversweetened dishes.

One of the interesting items served here is macaroni kee mao, a relative of the more familiar pad kee mao. Apparently, it’s common in Thailand to find kee mao made with dried Italian pasta instead of wide fresh rice noodles. Ton Yong actually uses fusilli. david kaplan prefers the pad kee mao but appreciates the variety of spiral noodles. Also try the khao soi, a yellow curry soup with thin fresh egg noodles. The creamy, spicy soup is delectable—adding a little bit of sugar brings out the coconut flavor of the thick broth. It’s light on toppings, with only meat, bean sprouts, and scallion, but the noodles are perfectly cooked.

Another new Thai contender is Green Papaya Deli in Oakland. The menu is tiny, which can be seen as an advantage—it’s easy to order a mediocre dish from a place with an unnecessarily sprawling menu. Lao-style papaya salad is made with pounded, shredded papaya and delicious fermented crab paste. Larb is intensely flavored, with a great balance of sweet, salty, and spicy. twocents likes the sausage, spicy and course-textured, with delicious chunks of meat and fat.

Two dishes, plus three orders of sticky rice, are plenty for three people and come to about $5 per person. The staff will ask you how many peppers you’d like. Five is what daveena orders, which is about a two or three on the five-point scale at Oakland’s Champa Garden. But many spice fanatics order their food with 15 peppers, and daveena has seen people order as many as 40.

Ton Yong Thai Café [Chinatown]
901 Kearny Street (at Jackson), San Francisco

Green Papaya Deli [East Bay]
207 International Boulevard (at Second Avenue), Oakland

Board Links: TonYong Thai Cafe (SF Chinatown) report
Green Papaya Deli–Lao-Thai in Oakland

Primal Smear

Berkeley Bagel sells a good water-boiled bagel, says rworange, with a satisfying chew and a nice bagel skin. The toppings are also extremely satisfying. Everything is well balanced here; they put just the right amount of smear on each bagel, and what lovely smears they are. The green and black olive smear, with the right ratio of chopped olives to cream cheese, is excellent on the specialty olive bagels, made only on the weekends. Chile cilantro smear is great on a jalapeño cheese bagel (get it toasted to bring out the jalapeño flavor). Also try the honey raisin walnut smear on a super cinnamon raisin bagel. Or have some Acme whitefish spread on your bagel. Or be adventurous and order a kauche, which costs 99 cents and somehow involves a minifrank.

Coffee is inexpensive and good. There are lots of options for vegans here, including vegan smears and three flavors of Tofutti. Bagels are $7.25 for a baker’s dozen. Order at the counter, and when your order is complete, pay at the register. Enjoy.

Berkeley Bagel [East Bay]
1281 Gilman Street, Albany

Board Link: Albany: Berkeley Bagel on Gilman – Thai Iced tea, Vietnamese coffee, kalauchee, vegan smears, hummus and Acme whitefish spread

The Truly Massive Insider’s Guide to the Cheeseboard

The Cheeseboard Collective is the glorious center of Berkeley cheese culture. It’s easy to get overwhelmed in the place—there are tons of cheeses, tons of other stuff, and massive lines. So to help you out, we’ve compiled all the best Cheeseboard tips. Be aware, though: The cheese selection is ever changing, so some of these items may not be there on every visit.

rworange recommends the fabulous Portuguese thistle rennet cheeses. The best of them all is Serra da Estrela. “When the wheel was cut, both the cheese monger and I went ‘oooh’ at the same time. The oozy interior promised greatness and it was a cheese of greatness.” The Collective’s also got great Gouda and a fabulous selection of Roqueforts.

It carries a bunch of Rolf Beeler’s terrific cheese, including the Gruyère, the Hoch-Ybrig, and the Sbrinz. Beeler hails from Switzerland, so anything from the extended Gruyère family should be fabulous. “He is [blush, toe in dirt] my favorite artisan cheesemaker in the world and visits the Bay Area about once a year,” says maria lorraine.

The Collective sells the best olives that Robert Lauriston has found in the Bay Area. If you’re hitting the green, try the Lucques and the raw picholines; it varies from one visit to another which one is best. Some of the black, oil-cured olives are occasionally too salty, bitter, or rancid, so always taste before buying. He also recommends the Brebiou—a soft, ripe sheep’s milk cheese—and the cave-aged Gruyère. The Collective’s members “take excellent care of their triple-cremes: Brillat-Savarin, Explorateur, Gratte-Paille.” rworange agrees: Other places may carry Brillat-Savarin, but no one takes care of it like the Cheeseboard.

chocolatetartguy has some favorites: The piquant Piave is his choice for a hard, dry, nutty cheese. Neal’s Yard’s Appleby’s Cheshire is beautiful: curdy, crumbly, and tasting of pure, raw milk. Old Quebec is a nice sharp white cheddar.

Other recommended cheeses: Windsor Blue, Memoir Truffled Gouda, Berger Roquefort, Istara, Prima Donna Gouda, fresh cream cheese, and anything from Neal’s Yard. And many, many hounds recommend Red Cow Parmesan.

And more noncheese recommendations: hazelnut shortbread, sticky buns on Fridays (much better than the pecan rolls), and Greek shepherd’s bread on Wednesday, with lots of green olives and kasseri cheese oozing out the side.

The baguettes are the best in the area, says rworange. Great cornmeal cherry scones, too, says dreamsicle.

Fridays, the Collective does unique experimental rolls. There was, for example, an amazing roll with sweet blue cheese and nuts inside yeasty bread.

According to Morton the Mousse, “[T]he best possible strategy is to walk in without knowing precisely what you want, ask lots of questions, and sample, sample, sample. You can sample as much as you want. No matter how big the line is, don’t feel rushed. Even when you know a particular cheese is great, they might have something rare and incredible that you don’t know about. Before you buy anything, ask the counter person if there is a similar, worthwhile cheese that you haven’t yet sampled. For example, I’ve tasted all of their cheddars many times, and I know I like the Black Diamond the best. But a few months ago when I asked for cheddar, the counter person recommended a limited batch, 10 year aged Wisconsin, that they had aged in house for five years. It is the best cheddar I’ve ever tasted in my life, and I would have missed it if I had just asked for the Black Diamond.” Other times, a great cheese will have been sitting around for too long. So: sample, sample, sample.

The only research you really need to do before you go in, he says, is checking the delivery schedule for superfresh cheese. The Bellwether Farms fresh ricotta, for example, arrives Friday afternoon and is usually sold out by Saturday. He recommends calling ahead if you want a fresh cheese.

Chuckles the Clone says you have to watch the help. There are some sensational people who work there: They know everything, they love chatting, and they love handing out samples and finding out what you want. “If you wander in when they’re not busy, you’ll meet one of these people.” But if it’s really busy—like, say, on a Saturday—there will be a much larger staff, many of whom are cheese incompetents. So he says wait a little bit. Watch the staff for 20 minutes before you order anything; the good ones will become obvious. He even recommends grabbing a few different numbers, a little spread apart, so if your number gets called by an incompetent, you can just toss that number and wait for the next number to be called.

The Cheeseboard Collective [East Bay]
1504 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley

Board Link: Berkeley–The Cheese Board – favorites & tips

New Szechuan Gloriousness

“What a find!” says elise h. It’s Panda Country Kitchen, and it’s got some mean Szechuan—and Chongqing, and northern Chinese—dishes. “The list of house special dishes shows a surprising amount of regional, unusual dishes such as charred fire pork chitlins, chong qing style spicy chicken, chestnut with chicken stew, braised beef tendon, duck cooked with taro, and phoenix pork kidney flower.” The food is delicious, and an incredible bargain. And we do mean incredible: At lunch, three full-size dishes, rice, and soup ran her $14.

Melanie Wong was a little worried by the presence of a subtle, Cantonese-style soup and a Cantonese waitress, but the Szechuan dishes are fully Szechuan. There are plenty of whole peppercorns and dried chile peppers. Shredded pork with smoked tofu is excellent. The small strips of pork are lean but still tender and juicy, and the dish is full of the natural sweetness of the meat. The knife work was not precise, and the pork was not as finely cut as it should be for this dish, but the taste was all there.

Mapo doufu shows off the full flames of ma la’s numb-tingly power. It’s soft and silky tofu, nubs of course ground pork, complex spicing, and loads of Szechuan peppercorn and red chile pepper firepower, for a full-on Szechuan attack.

Eggplant Szechuan is lovely, says elise h: spicy, and a little sweet. It’s a dry-fried eggplant dish, with an acceptable amount of chile oil coating the bottom of the dish, but not a hint of the dreaded gloppy sauce. Dry-cooked green beans are nicely seared.

You may want to request spicier for everything—there is a chance Panda’s giving some visitors the gringo treatment.

Panda Country Kitchen [Richmond]
4737 Geary Boulevard, San Francisco

Board Links: Panda Country Kitchen
Sichuan Lunch Specials @ Panda Country Kitchen

The Last Real Diner

Tennessee Grill may be the last of its kind in San Francisco, says ML8000. It’s a hole-in-the-wall American diner that makes most of its well-prepared food from scratch. And it’s cheap: nothing over $10, and most of it’s around $7 a plate. It’s the sort of place where single senior men show up every lunch and dinner, eat, and just hang out—an old-school, social sort of diner.

Highlights include chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes, veggies, and sourdough bread. It’s truly cooked from scratch: ML8000 watched as they hand dipped his steak in egg wash and flour. It’s the best chicken fried steak in San Francisco. There’s also great, fresh fried chicken, cooked to order. It’s always moist white meat, with nice, tasty, crispy skin, says jillyju.

The best value here is the Tennessee special burger, says ML8000. It’s fresh beef, char-grilled to order, with fries, for $4.10.

Specials include roast beef, oxtail, roast pork, corned beef and cabbage, and salmon. They’re always good.

Tennessee Grill [Sunset]
1128 Taraval Street, San Francisco

Board Link: Report: Tennessee Grill