2018 Best of the East Bay: Food
From Indian street eats, to authentic Italian, to artisanal ice cream, here’s what tops the area’s dining scene.
Curry Up Now puts a modern twist on traditional Indian fare such as these chicken kofta meatballs. Check online to see where the food truck is rolling to next.
Photo courtesy of Curry Up Now
Editor Pick: Samin Nosrat
Exploring kitchen basics in her debut cookbook—Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking—led Berkeley chef Samin Nosrat to an extraordinary award: In May, the 38-year-old Chez Panisse alum won a 2018 James Beard Foundation Book Award for her best-selling work.
Nosrat began her professional culinary journey in 1997, after she and a boyfriend splurged on a night out at Chez Panisse when she was an English major at UC Berkeley.
“It was an enchanting experience,” she told Diablo in September 2017. “It was good food, but what was really stunning and new to me was this feeling of being attended to and cared for.”
Raised in San Diego by Iranian immigrants, Nosrat aspired to be a poet, not a professional chef. Though she never attended cooking school, she was so moved by that memorable dinner at Chez Panisse that she wrote a letter and drafted a résumé, then brought them both to the restaurant—owned by legendary chef Alice Waters—and asked for a job. She started busing tables at the restaurant the day after her interview and eventually moved to more elevated positions in the kitchen. Now, some 20 years later, the chef, writer, and teacher is encouraging others to find their own culinary inspiration.
While Nosrat believes anyone can learn to cook well, she cited some key qualities that can help the process: “You have to be open-minded and curious,” she said. “And you have to be willing to practice and fail.”
In addition to her time spent at Chez Panisse, Nosrat studied in Italy with chefs Benedetta Vitali and Dario Cecchini, worked at now-defunct Berkeley restaurant Eccolo, and taught a variety of Bay Area cooking classes over the years. She currently shares her expertise as a regular food columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is working on a television docuseries based on Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, which is set to be released later this year.
Among her fans are the writer Michael Pollan, whom she taught to braise pork on his Netflix show, Cooked (he also wrote the forward to her book); and her former boss Waters, who described Nosrat as “one of the greatest teachers I know.”
As for her favorite thing to cook at home, Nosrat loves her veggies. “I make myself a beautiful salad,” she said. … “That’s the nicest thing I can do for myself.” Berkeley, ciaosamin.com. —R.O.
El Charro Mexican Dining
"El Charro is one of the tastiest Mexican joints in the East Bay. The “Super Burrito” is my favorite, and if you’re looking for something refreshing to drink, the margaritas are the best—the Cadillac being No. 1! The staff, especially Kelly, is superhelpful and friendly, and the restaurant is quite spacious, with two indoor seating areas, a bar, and a patio." Lafayette, elcharro1947.com. —Brandon Gaoiran, Walnut Creek
Kacha Thai Bistro
The trappings of a modern suburban eatery—sleek tables, exhibition kitchen, dramatic artwork, and inviting bar—meet true culinary heritage at Kacha Thai Bistro. Owners Ing and Jinko Laongsuwan focus on sweetly laced, spicy seafood dishes, curries, and plump noodles, including slick pad kee mao and yummy pad Thai. Walnut Creek, kachathai.com. —N.B.
Simply put, Sasa offers the sexiest sushi in Contra Costa County. The sashimi-grade, pristine fish; the creative small plates; the vintage spirit of the century-old brick building; and the sophisticated design of the dining room—with its hip bar and striking elements of fire and water—conspire to create a memorable experience. Walnut Creek, sasawc.com. —N.B.
A Sweet Affair Bakery
Sandwiches start with your choice of 10 aromatic, fresh-baked breads and rolls, and peak with a sweet signature turkey filling—lathered with rich cream cheese and tangy cranberry sauce. But don’t wait for a lunch liaison. The bakery’s cakes, cookies, brownies, and pastries make no apologies for invoking sticky and gooey goodness. Walnut Creek, asweetaffairbakery.com. —N.B.
Pay no mind to the humble name: These distinctly original cafés are brilliantly matched to our busy lives. Bring your laptop, and stop in for a house-made pop tart, or slide into dinner with innovative flatbreads and a lively liquor-laced libation. Even the pour-over coffees are intoxicating. Alamo, Lafayette, and Walnut Creek; coffeeshop411.com. —N.B.
Zachary’s Chicago Pizza
Decades before artisanal thin crust became a thing, Zachary’s Chicago Pizza was stuffing pizzas high with delectable ingredients. Go all in for the classic spinach and mushroom pie, or try a new chew such as chorizo with green chiles. The cheerful family vibe is rooted in its employee-owned culture—and enhanced by local craft brews. Berkeley, Oakland, Pleasant Hill, and San Ramon; zacharys.com. —N.B.
Owner Deb Phillips’ mantra is “no wimpy ice cream.” Lottie’s Creamery—named for Phillips’ grandmother and evocative of parlors gone by—uses local organic cream as a rich foil for the nuts, house-made cookies, toffee, fruits, premium chocolate, and even herbs to create an ever-changing blackboard of flavors. A single scoop simply isn’t enough. Walnut Creek, facebook.com/LottiesCreamery. —N.B.
Italian and Chef
Montecatini Ristorante and Chef Ermes Paulin
For 29 years, Montecatini Ristorante has remained one of Walnut Creek’s top dinner destinations. The Italian restaurant, located a block from the Lesher Center for the Arts, features a range of fresh pasta dishes and brings a particularly nice flair to its seafood offerings. Montecatini’s industrious chef-owner, Ermes Paulin—who opened the eatery on October 17, 1989, just minutes before the Loma Prieta earthquake rocked the Bay Area—was also selected as our readers’ favorite chef this year. Walnut Creek, montecatinirestaurant.com. —P.C.
Curry Up Now
This truck dishes out classic Indian street food, such as creamy tikka masala and hearty Kashmiri lamb, conveniently wrapped up in burrito form or served in a well-balanced bowl. Don’t forget about the samosas—they’re a perfect grab-and-go bite with some serious curry kick. Multiple locations, curryupnow.com. —L.B.
Grab a number, and prepare to settle in—especially if you come at prime lunch hour. (Spend your time browsing the salads, pastas, wines, and other Italian specialty items.) Packed with flavorful meats and cheeses, the custom sandwiches at this beloved institution—the family-owned business started in Oakland in 1926—promise an authentic old-world taste that is worth the wait. Walnut Creek, genovadeli.net. —R.O.
Walnut Creek Yacht Club
Like wise skippers, Walnut Creek Yacht Club proprietors Kevin Weinberg and Ellen McCarty have navigated the changing tastes and tides of East Bay dining for 21 years by offering a dizzying array of fresh daily catches to their clientele, who are treated like full-fledged “members” the moment they walk through the door. Walnut Creek, wcyc.net. —N.B.
Setting the standard for upscale Chinese dining for decades—and debuting an offshoot, Andy and Yu’s, in Pleasanton last year—this Lafayette restaurant offers a colorful mix of healthful and indulgent dishes that are always a cut above. Lafayette, uncleyus.com. —N.B.
A cozy farmhouse interior greets diners at this quaint breakfast and lunch spot—but it’s the perfectly cooked eggs and fast, friendly service that make Millie’s Kitchen a perennial favorite. Add in a wide selection of daily specials, a fun kids’ menu, and legendary coffee cake, and it’s no wonder East Bay eaters keep coming back for more. Lafayette, millieskitchenca-hub.com. —V.S.
Swad Indian Cuisine
A dozen years after opening this long-loved Lafayette restaurant, Pardeep Singh relocated his business into more modern environs in 2017. The accolades never stopped. Classic creations in copper pots include an assertive rogan josh (lamb curry) and delicious aloo gobi (cauliflower and potatoes). Don’t miss the goat cheese naan. Lafayette, theswadindia.com. —N.B.
Three serious Peruvian restaurants have opened in Contra Costa County since Michelin-starred chef Carlos Altamirano opened Parada in 2015. Clearly, he’s started a trend—but the wicked pisco sours, succulent pollo a la brasa, bracing ceviche, and endless bocaditos (shared small plates) give this hip spot staying power. Walnut Creek, paradakitchen.com. —N.B.
The homey space and warm hospitality complement Locanda Positano’s gutsy Italian comfort dishes, such as Mamma Carmella’s meatballs, creamy pastas, and crispy wood-fired pizzas. As with its sister restaurant—Locanda Ravello in Danville—Positano is outfitted for refined dining with its suave Italian wines and delicate seafood dishes. Lafayette, locandapositano.com. —N.B.
Vanessa’s Bistro 2
Chef-owner Vanessa Dang is a pioneer when it comes to pairing modern Vietnamese cuisine with spice-enhancing wines and Asian-inspired cocktails. A range of tapas—including twin pokes with mango and avocado, a pulled pork banh mi sandwich, and French-inspired filet mignon with jumbo prawns—makes dining fun. Walnut Creek, vanessasbistro2.com. —N.B.
Whether you’re into veggie patties or bison burgers, pepper Jack cheese or Brie, parmesan or garlic fries—The Counter is the build-your-own burger spot. And while this chain offers dining options that go beyond the bun (salads and sandwiches, anyone?), who doesn’t love taking a bite out of a juicy burger? Bon appétit. Fremont, Pleasanton, and Walnut Creek; thecounter.com. —L.B.
Sauced BBQ and Spirits
Both the food and the vibe are smokin’ at this lively barbecue joint owned by Livermore-based cousins Brenden Scanlan and Barrett Gomes. Originally from Atlanta, Scanlan drew inspiration from his Southern roots to create his eatery’s rustic theme and authentic barbecue menu. Livermore and Walnut Creek, saucedbbqandspirits.com. —A.S.
By the Numbers
2: The cost in dollars for a taco on Taco Tuesdays. (Bonus: The margaritas go for $4.)
4: Types of house-made barbecue sauce, including classic (Tin Roof), spicy (Hot Tin Roof), tangy (Georgia Gold), and sweet (Pig Candy).
9: Sauced Brewing Company beers—with amusing names like Deuce Pigalow and Pig Ol’ Biddies—sold exclusively at the restaurant.
14: Average number of hours the restaurant spends smoking its famous brisket.