Feature

9 Under-the-Radar Chefs to Know in the SF Bay Area

By Trevor Felch  |  December 5, 2016
Credit: Aatxe

With so many outstanding restaurants in the Bay Area, it's tough for chefs to stand out. Some chefs like Steven Gotham of Bourbon Steak Santa Clara are doing incredible work in the kitchen of a major operation where the owner and the venue (the 49ers) get the marquee attention. Others like Jordan Keao of Aina and Isabel Caudillo of El Buen Comer are showing San Francisco diners a unique and profound taste of where they grew up. Together, these nine unheralded chefs are playing a key role in helping our local food scene continue as one of the most enriching anywhere in the world.

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  • Credit: Vignette

    Mark Hopper at Vignette
    The Bay Area’s premier pizza can be found in…Sebastopol? It’s very possible thanks to the impeccable pies baked by Mark Hopper, who previously served as the executive chef for casual restaurants in the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group and as executive chef at Farmshop in Larkspur. He perfected pizza for staff at the former and for diners at the latter. His pies at Vignette range from an idyllic puffy margherita to nuanced ensembles like The New Yorker sporting caramelized eggplant, aged provolone and roasted peppers. The little pizzeria and its mighty 900-degree wood-burning oven within the Barlow complex are truly a pizza treasure thanks to his mastery of the craft.
    Signature dish: Burrata and broccoli pizza

    6750 McKinley St., Sebastopol; 707-861-3897

  • Credit: Aina

    Jordan Keao at Aina
    This contemporary Hawaiian eatery is the leading reason San Franciscans are dining in Dogpatch, and its chef has all the right boxes checked. Jordan ​Keao has worked under a famous French chef, cooked at a tech company cafe, launched a weekend brunch pop-up and finally opened this daytime-only restaurant in an emerging neighborhood. Now that dinner service has started, it’s the dream fulfilled for a chef who knew what he wanted to be at 18. The passion is everywhere — from the kiawe wood imported from the Hawaiian Islands for smoking the pork ribs to the sugar-dusted malasadas oozing with guava jam. Diners can't help but feel the "aloha" spirit.
    Signature dish: Lomi lomi arctic char with green onion soubise

    900 22nd St.; 415-814-3815

  • Credit: Cassava

    Kristoffer Toliao at Cassava
    In almost five years of business, this Outer Richmond spot from Kristoffer ​Toliao and his wife and co-owner Yuka Loroi has evolved from an eight-seat cafe to a 40-seat restaurant complete with a nightly four-course tasting menu. There's good reason for the growth: Toliao’s approachable, satisfying California-Asian cooking deserves an audience. Toliao has worked in Japan and all over California. His big break came in 2008 when he moved to San Francisco and joined Dominique ​Crenn as sous-chef at Luce and as her sidekick on Iron Chef (they also worked together at Manhattan Beach Country Club in 2003). These days, diners stop by for slow-braised beef cheeks over cauliflower cream at dinner or wake up with a proper Japanese breakfast complete with oven-roasted fish. It seems like any time of day is the right time to visit Cassava. 
    Signature dish: Barbecue glazed pork rib hash

    3519 Balboa St.; 415-640-8990

  • Credit: Aatxe

    Ryan Pollnow at Aatxe
    Ryan Pollnow, originally from Northern California, got his first kitchen job out of culinary school at the acclaimed Mugaritz in Spain's Basque Country. Cooking complex, abstract dishes each night surely had an impact on Pollnow — but it's the tapas bars and rustic cuisine that surrounded Mugaritz that most affected him. He swapped Spain for Italy in San Francisco as Flour + Water’s chef de cuisine (where we named him a 2013 Zagat 30 Under 30). Now Pollnow is channeling his love of Basque cuisine with the opening of Aatxe in the Castro (under the Flour + Water ownership group). His cooking is bright and energetic, incorporating rutabaga and kale in his version of a Spanish tortilla and not skimping on the garlic and nora chile in the gambas al ajillo (a shrimp small plate). There are no nightly lines at Aatxe like at Flour + Water. There should be since Pollnow is accomplishing the similar riveting balance of bringing old-world recipes into a present-day California mindset.
    Signature dish: Plancha fried rice

    2174 Market St.; 415-471-2977

  • Credit: El Buen Comer/Facebook

    Isabelle Caudillo at El Buen Comer
    At the border of the Mission and Bernal Heights, El Buen Comer introduces city diners to the rustic stews called guisados and atypical taco fillings like red rice and hard-boiled egg that are central to the cuisine identity of Isabelle ​Caudillo's original home of Mexico City. Getting to this point for Caudillo has been an incredibly inspirational story. For more than 15 years, she has gone from cooking for friends in her Tenderloin apartment to graduating from the La Cocina program (San Francisco's female food entrepreneurial incubator) to a farmer's market stand and culminating with El Buen Comer's opening six months ago. In a city full of Mexican restaurants looking at Oaxaca and the Yucatan, along with countless burrito purveyors and taquerias, nobody except Caudillo is emphasizing the robust, hearty food of the country's capital.
    Signature dish: Mole verde pork guisado with homemade tortillas

    3435 Mission St.; 415-756-8652

  • Credit: Hillside Supper Club

    Tony Ferrari and Jonathan Sutton at Hillside Supper Club
    The phrase "local, seasonal neighborhood bistro" gets tossed around all the time in SF. To see what that label truly means, head to Hillside Supper Club in residential Bernal Heights for comforting yet ambitious dining. Its chefs paths crossed at culinary school in Rhode Island. From there, Tony Ferrari and Jonathan Sutton went separate ways until they ended up in San Francisco's top kitchens (Ferrari at Acquerello and Sutton at Michael Mina). Their first project together was a Hillside Supper Club pop-up, which expanded to fill locals' weekend brunch and dinner needs. Today, families come by on a weeknight after soccer practice for venison pot pie and Nonna's meatballs. But the duo also goes above and beyond just comfort food, baking their own focaccia, making bacon and serving advanced dishes like octopus carpaccio that are fit for a special night out. As the duo tells us, "It's about being a staple for many years, not trendy and short lived." Serving the needs of its neighborhood will keep this local fixture around for decades hopefully.
    Signature dish: Any pot pie

    300 Precita Ave.; 415-285-6005

  • Credit: Kumino

    Haochen Liu at Kumino
    When a Manresa alum opens a restaurant, the dining public expects the next great seasonal tasting menu blockbuster. In the case of Haochen Liu, he focuses on noodles and other global flavors in a casual context, served in a nondescript Silicon Valley mini-mall. Peninsula diners go crazy for an eggplant salad that was developed by him at Manresa (miso butter is the secret ingredient). His atypical ramens, rice bowls and stuffed buns can touch on China, New York delis, Italy and Scandinavia, sometimes in one dish. He makes his own chile sauce and his signature seafood ramen requires an entire tilapia to be thrown into the broth as one of more than a dozen ingredients. This isn't fusion food. It's fun global cooking with a careful touch.
    Signature dish: Seafood ramen

    580 N. Rengstorff Ave. J, Mountain View; 650-964-3300

  • Credit: Bourbon Steak Santa Clara

    Steven Gotham at Bourbon Steak Santa Clara 
    Steven Gotham runs three concepts at Levi's Stadium for Michael Mina: a sports bar with elevated pub food, a formal steakhouse that satisfies diehard carnivores and the meat-averse (try any scallops preparation) and the game-day tailgate for hundreds of season ticket holders, which involves almost 50 different dishes at various serving stations. The daunting task is" both the biggest blessing and challenge of the operation," Gotham says. The catch is how Gotham, who lost his mother at a young age and cooked for his family while growing up, makes each of the three distinctly unique and consistently high-quality. None of them feel like a typical stadium restaurant or part of a national restaurant group. It's not unheard of for people to prefer going to the stadium for a meal these days, instead of football. 

    Signature dish: Wagyu beef at the steakhouse and nachos at the pub

    4900 Marie P. DeBartolo Way, Santa Clara; 408-217-2490

  • Credit: 54 Mint

    Mattia Marcelli at 54 Mint
    It's not like the Bay Area is lacking quality Italian or Cal-Ital restaurants, but there are very few resolutely Roman-specific restaurants like this one in Mid-Market's Mint Plaza with Rome-native Mattia ​Marcelli behind the stoves. It's uncommon to say that a 27-year-old has been cooking professionally for more than half his life, yet Marcelli started cooking at 13. His dishes are focused and full of depth, relying deeply on ingredients and techniques. There is no flash in his braised tripe recipe, just lots of tomato, mint and pecorino. The same can be said for the fatty-crispy porchetta panini at lunch or soulful homemade gnocchi and deep-fried anchovies in the evening.
    Signature dish: Tonnarelli cacio e pepe

    16 Mint Plaza; 415-543-5100