The 10 Peninsula dishes that lingered on our minds (and tongues) in 2019

Year-end hot take? We ate well this year.

Diners cheers each other at Tapestry Suppers’ Hanloh Thai Food lunch in Mountain View on May 5, 2019. (Photo by Federica Armstrong)

I’m as guilty as the next person of rabidly consuming all of the “best of” lists this time of year, particularly those related to food. I want to know what Tejal Rao, The New York Times’ California critic, ate this year as much as the next food obsessive. But the concept of “best” is so subjective, squishy and ultimately, kind of meaningless.

One food magazine editor’s recent take resonated with me much more — highlighting the stories and meals she couldn’t stop thinking about this year.

So instead of the best things I ate on the Peninsula this year, I present to you: the 10 meals that stuck with me in 2019. Whether it was the epically delicious Thai lunch that strove to combat racial intolerance, the fried shrimp tacos I ate standing up on an El Camino Real sidewalk (juices running to my elbow), or an impeccable Michelin-starred tasting menu, these are all meals worth seeking out. Together, they reflect the range and renown of the Peninsula’s dining scene this year.

We would eat bowls of Wonderful’s chewy Hunan cold noodles at any time of the day. (Photo by Elena Kadvany)

Cold Hunan noodles from Wonderful, Millbrae

You know a dish is good when you’re plotting the next time you can eat it and you’ve barely paid the bill. Wonderful’s handmade Hunan noodles fall into this category. They’re served cold and unassuming, topped with cucumber, peanuts and green onion, and a rich pork sauce on the side that you can mix in to adjust flavoring as you please.

Wonderful // 270 Broadway, Millbrae; 650.651.8888

Grilled octopus from Galicia at Telefèric Barcelona. (Photo via Telefèric Barcelona)

Galician grilled pulpo, Telefèric Barcelona, Palo Alto

Telefèric flies in its octopus from Galicia, grills it to just-right texture and serves it over a silky paprika potato puree. Truffle oil also comes to the party, and I’m OK with that.

Telefèric Barcelona // Town & Country Village, 855 El Camino Real #130, Palo Alto; 650.321.0512

Grilled chicken, rice, beans, tortillas and salsa from Michoacan Produce Market in Menlo Park. Photo by (Veronica Weber)

Pollo al carbon, Michoacan Produce Market, Menlo Park

This neighborhood market’s Michoacan-style pollo al carbon is rubbed in a secret spice mixture, spatchcocked and cooked over charcoal until charred on the outside and juicy on the inside. Get the fresh salsa, rice, beans and tortillas for a make-your-own taco feast.

Michoacan Produce Market // 3380 Middlefield Road, Menlo Park; 650.368.9226

Almond croissant assembly at Backhaus in San Mateo. (Image via Backhaus Instagram)

Almond croissant, Backhaus, San Mateo

It’s hard to choose just one pastry to highlight at the German-American bakery Backhaus (not to mention the excellent naturally leavened sourdough breads). The almond croissant, however, is among the finest I’ve had in the Bay Area. It’s best enjoyed in Backhaus’ sunny back patio with an espresso in hand. The Peninsula’s best-kept secret may be that it’s home to a bakery whose breads and viennoiserie rival the very best of San Francisco.

Backhaus // 32 E. 3rd Ave., San Mateo; 650.200.9493

The hot oil noodles at QQ Noodle. (Image via Yelp)

Hot oil noodles, QQ Noodle, Cupertino

Can noodles have gravitational pull? At QQ Noodle, yes. Heads throughout the busy dining room bow downwards into bowls, slurping upwards with the intention of a master yoga teacher. The hand-pulled noodles really do embody the Taiwanese meaning of “QQ,” for which the Cupertino restaurant is named: chewy, springy and bouncy. Cash only.

QQ Noodle // 10889 S. Blaney Ave., Cupertino; 408.253.5858

The ravva masala dosa at Ugadi, complete with chutneys. (Photo by Elena Kadvany)

Ravva masala dosa, Ugadi, Sunnyvale

Ugadi’s ravva masala dosa is soft, doughy and fermented in all the right ways with lightly spiced, softened potato chunks and chickpeas hiding inside. On one occasion, I left with half of the massive dosa to eat later, but the enticing smell that filled my car on the short drive back to the office was simply too much to bear. I polished it off before I even got back to work.

Ugadi // 950 W. El Camino Real, Sunnyvale; 408.743.5344

Mieng kham, a staple Thai snack served up at a 2019 Tapestry Suppers event. (Photo by Federica Armstrong)

Everything from Hanloh Thai Food’s Tapestry Suppers event

Lalita Kaewsawang’s spirited, colorful Thai food has imprinted itself into my food memory, from her custard-y kanom krok (coconut cakes cooked in a cast iron mold from Thailand) and yum khao tod (crispy rice salad with mango, raspberries, herbs and nham prik pao) to saku yat sai (tapioca dumplings stuffed with preserved radish, peanut and tamarind caramel). The Thailand native runs her pop-up, Hanloh Thai Food, out of Santa Cruz, but was on the Peninsula this year for a lunch with Tapestry Suppers, a local supper club series that seeks to amplify immigrant voices and culture through food.

Is it a meal…is it art? The tasting menu at Protégé is both. (Image via Elena Kadvany)

Tasting menu at Protégé, Palo Alto

The full spectrum, of skill, creativity and hospitality of the Michelin-starred Protégé is on display inside the reservations-only dining room, where the winter tasting menu ($155) takes you from bluefin tuna (above) and caviar-topped scallops to an artist’s palette of lamb loin served alongside a spinach and walnut crêpe, butternut squash and smoked lamb bacon. Even the items that aren’t listed on the menu — the mini sourdough loaf that arrives with butter mid-meal, the gummy bear mignardises, the almond financier wrapped in a bow that you’re sent home with to enjoy with coffee the next morning — stand out.

Protégé // 250 California Ave., Palo Alto; 650.494.4181

Pork bun magic at Zen Noodle Bar. (Photo by Charles Russo)

Pan-fried pork buns, Zen Noodle Bar, San Mateo

If I went to graduate school, my dissertation would be on sheng jian bao, or pan-fried pork buns. Deceptively simple, they’re hard to do well — many are too doughy, underfried or skimp on fillings. Zen Noodle Bar’s, however, are just right: browned to crisp perfection on the bottom, still soft on the top with juicy, fragrant meat tucked inside.

Zen Noodle Bar // 668 E. 3rd Ave., San Mateo; 650.781.3183

Tacos worth pulling over for: Mariscos El Pariente’s tacos dorados. (Photo by Elena Kadvany)

Tacos dorados, Mariscos El Pariente, San Bruno

If I was going to tackle a “best” tacos on the Peninsula list, Mariscos El Pariente’s tacos dorados would top it. The taco truck stuffs crispy, fried tortillas with succulent shrimp and tops them with slices of perfectly ripe avocado and fresh salsa on the side. Simple and satiating, as any good taco should be. Cash only.

Mariscos El Pariente // 160 El Camino Real, San Bruno; 415.233.5175

What were the local meals that stuck out in your mind this year? We want to know—[email protected]

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Elena Kadvany

A writer with a passion for investigative reporting, telling untold stories and public-service journalism, I have built my career covering education and restaurants in the Bay Area. My blog and biweekly newsletter, Peninsula Foodist, is the go-to source for restaurant news in Silicon Valley. My work has been published in The Guardian, Eater, Bon Appetit’s Healthyish, SF Weekly and The Six Fifty.

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