10 Must-Try Dishes From San Francisco Survey Winners

September 24, 2013
by Meesha Halm

Now that the winners of the 2014 SF Bay Area Restaurants Survey have been revealed, let’s get down to brass tacks. Sure, it’s helpful to know who was crowned the best pizza or burger joint in town, but savvy diners know that having the inside line on what to order once you get there is just as important. (Sorry, unfortunately we can’t help you actually score a table.) Here are our picks for the best of the best, a sampling of this year’s Survey’s winners that rated top in their class for a specific cuisine or category, along with a standout dish at each that you won't want to miss. Be sure to catch up on all our Survey coverage.

Burger: Bula Burger at Pearl’s Deluxe Burgers

Among the dizzying selection of affordable iterations (grass-fed, American Kobe, buffalo, veggie) served at these Bay Area retro burger joints, declared the winner of this year's burger wars, the most sought-after by far is the award-winning Bula Burger, thanks to its irresistible combo of thickly sliced bacon, melted Swiss, spicy housemade pineapple teriyaki sauce and mayo. Heat mavens take note: the Spicy Sly, slathered with roasted onions, peppers and an incendiary jalapeño/pumpkin-seed hot sauce, is a close second. Pair either one with a divine made-from-scratch milkshake.

1001 Market St., San Francisco; 415-861-1605
708 Post St., San Francisco; 415-409-6120

Pizza: Margherita Pizza at Una Pizza Napoletana

New York expat Anthony Mangieri takes his own sweet time coaxing the naturally leavened dough into perfectly executed, smoked-perfumed Neapolitan-style pizzas at his spartan SoMa pizzeria, but as the perpetual lines and survey results suggest, it’s worth the wait. Although the streamlined menu offers a choice of just five pies, purists know that the simplest option is also the best: the Margherita, which Mangieri tops with fresh blobs of imported Italian buffalo mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes, EVOO, sea salt and pieces of fresh basil. He then bakes the pizza in a wood-fired brick oven for less than two minutes. At $22, the 12-in. pies aren't cheap, and Mangieri stops serving them as soon as the dough runs out, so plan accordingly.

210 11th St., San Francisco; 415-861-3444

Seafood: Dungeness Crab Louie at Swan Oyster Depot

It ain’t schmancy, but this no-nonsense, turn-of-the-century Polk Gulch fish market with an 18-seat counter for dining knocked out the city’s high-end heavyweights to nab the top seafood honors for its fresh, simple fare (chowder, oysters, smoked salmon). Do as the locals do: line up before opening time (10 AM) and order the iconic Crab Louie salad: a jumble of freshly picked Dungeness crab mixed with sweet pickles, black olives and onions, served on a bed of chopped iceberg lettuce and served with the classic Louie dressing (a smaller version is available as a crab cocktail). Washed down with an icy cold bottle of Anchor Steam and a hunk of crusty sourdough bread, it’s the ultimate San Francisco treat.

1517 Polk St., San Francisco; 415-673-2757

Mexican: Tacos de Carnitas at La Taqueria

This humble, old-school Mission taqueria prepares its tortillas, beans and salsas from scratch. We agree with acclaimed chef Michael Mina, who also has lauded La Taqueria's take on Tacos de Carnitas for its juicy meat and spicy salsa. If tacos aren't your thing, you can also get the signature crispy carnitas in a burrito; just don’t make a rookie move and ask for rice (they don’t serve any).

2889 Mission St., San Francisco; 415-285-7117

French: Terrine of Pig's Feet, Sweetbreads and Lobster at La Folie

For the Frenchiest of French fare, Francophiles head tout de suite to Roland Passot’s refined French Polk Street temple to gastronomy, winner of this year's Top French list and one of the last of its kind to proffer the classic cuisine of his homeland, such as snails and sweetbreads. Now that foie gras has been outlawed, the next best dish to order to experience Passot at his finest is his terrine of pig’s feet, sweetbreads and lobster, a whimsical reinvention of the humble pig’s feet terrine that he grew up eating in Lyon, albeit elevated with more noble ingredients.  

2316 Polk St, 415-776-5577

Breakfast: Crawfish Beignets at Brenda’s Soul Food

It’s small, cramped and doesn’t take reservations, but that hasn’t deterred the devout crowds who line up for the most important meal of the day at Brenda’s Soul Food, Brenda Buenviaje's beloved Creole- and French-inspired soul fooder near Civic Center, winner of this year’s Best Breakfast category. Here, the dish you're mostly likely to find on a customer's plate is her addictive New Orleans-inspired beignets, which come plain, filled with molten Ghirardelli chocolate or cinnamon-laced apples, or, our favorite, stuffed with spicy crawfish. (Indecisive types can order the beignet flight.) Buenviaje explains that the crawfish beignets, spiced with cayenne, scallions and cheddar cheese, were inspired by “the gooey, cheesy crawfish that I enjoyed at many a Jazz Fest in New Orleans.” Lucky for us locals, her crawfish beignets are available year-round, from breakfast through dinner.

652 Polk St., San Francisco; 415-345-8100

American: The Cheese Cart at Restaurant Gary Danko

Once again, Gary Danko took top honors across a broad cross-section of Zagat categories, including Most Popular, Top Food and Top Service. Since the offerings on his seasonal haute New American tasting menus change so frequently, it’s hard to recommend just one dish. But there is one aspect our surveyors consistently cite: the cheese cart (over half of them opt for it as a course). Danko was one of the first chefs in the city to offer a cheese cart over 21 years ago, at his Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant; the cart is stocked with 16-18 different cheeses every night of the week. They're selected by in-house fromagier Cole Mathers from upwards of 300 different varietals found around the world, but all the waiters are considered fromage experts and will happily guide customers through the nuances of each.

800 North Point St., San Francisco; 415-749-2060

Vietnamese: Shaking Beef at The Slanted Door

Charles Phan's Bu Luc Lac (aka shaking beef) has been one of the signature dishes at The Slanted Door since he first opened his flagship modern Vietnamese restaurant back on Valencia Street in 1995. The dish has remained on the menu at every location he’s moved to since, including the current Ferry Building digs, which was once again voted the top dog for Vietnamese. Shaking beef, which gets its name from the action used to cook the meat in the wok so that it doesn’t stick, showcases cubes of tender filet mignon, thinly sliced red onions and watercress served with a zesty lime dipping sauce. If you can’t score a seat at the mothership, shaking beef is also on the menu at his more casual Upper Fillmore outpost, Out the Door on Bush Street, or available as a DIY cooking kit at the Out the Door take-out kiosk located inside the Ferry Building Marketplace.

One Ferry Building #5, San Francisco; 415-861-8032

Italian: Ridged Pasta With Faux “Foie Gras,” Black Truffles and Marsala at Acquerello

When it comes to foie gras, most people think of France, not Italy, but that ingredient has become synonymous with Acquerello, the refined Northern Italian that was voted #1 in this year’s survey. Jokingly dubbed “the low-moan pasta” for the ecstatic response it evokes from diners, the dish has been on Acquerello’s menu for almost 20 years, so when the foie gras ban was announced, chef Suzette Gresham-Tognetti was devastated. “I was losing a part of my identity, not just a dish,” she recalls. Miraculously, it hasn’t gone away. After months of experimentation in the kitchen, chef de cuisine Mark Pensa figured out how to replicate the dish without the illicit ingredient. Gresham-Tognetti confesses that before the ban went into effect, she actually served the new “faux” version side by side with the last of the real foie gras and nobody, including the city's top food critics, noticed the difference. We’re betting you won’t either.

1722 Sacramento St., San Francisco; 415-567-5432

Chinese: Xiao Long Bao at Yank Sing

It isn’t the cheapest dumpling palace in town, but Yank Sing is certainly the best for freshness and execution, which explains why our surveyors have dubbed it “the Taj Mahal of dim sum joints.” The reigning Chinese brunch specialist draws long lines to its twin Downtown branches for specialties such as minced chicken lettuce cups and sliced-to-order Peking duck. But the most popular item no doubt is xiao long bao, or Shanghai dumpling: the restaurant sells an average of 1,000 pieces of xiao long bao on weekdays and 2,500 pieces on the weekends; the signature dumpling even has its own dedicated cart manned by food servers who have been trained in teaching first-time customers the proper way to eat it. Filled with a mixture of minced Kurabata pork, scallion and ginger, each xiao long bao is wrapped and steamed, with an aromatic broth within the dumpling that's released with the first bite. We're told that the restaurant even sent a team of cooks to Shanghai to master making the perfect dumpling skin and to figure out how best to achieve the perfect balance of starch and broth. Judging by the numbers, we're guessing they cracked the code.

101 Spear St., San Francisco; 415-957-9300

>Check out all of our Survey coverage

san francisco survey results