I've been at this restaurant critic thing for a little over a year now — since October 2018, to be exact. It's a fact that the more I think about it, the more I have to pinch myself to check if it's really true.
The No. 1 question I get asked about my job is, "What's the best restaurant you've eaten at so far?" Truthfully, it's impossible for me to pick just one. But here are some of the restaurants — and dishes — that I find myself returning for again and again.
Wojia Hunan Cuisine
The menu at Wojia is hundreds of items long, and I try to sample new dishes each time I return. But I can't visit Wojia without ordering the fried glutinous rice balls. Listed under the "impressive" section of the menu, the 1-inch spheres come inside a woven wicker cone for an unusual and, yes, impressive presentation. The outer crust is crisp and light, while the glutinous rice flour lends a pleasantly chewy texture. Inside, the balls are stuffed with warm, sweet black sesame paste — a surprising contrast to the toppings of dried red chiles, fresh green jalapeños, and funky fermented black beans. Simultaneously savory, sweet, spicy, chewy, and crisp, this item goes to show that a well-executed dish can contain a multitude of textures and flavors without becoming muddled. And though protein-centric dishes like the sliced flounder with pickled cabbage and chili never fail to please, the veggie dishes are equally dazzling. On return visits, I've grown to love the sautéed lotus root with pork and chili peppers, which combines fatty, bacon-like pork slices with crunchy, refreshing, thinly cut pieces of lotus root. 917 San Pablo Ave., Albany, 510-526-9088.
Cambodian Street Food
This family-run, cash-only takeout joint in East Oakland might be tiny, but it serves up big flavors. My go-to is the steak with prahok sauce and rice. You'll get a generous portion of grilled, sliced steak cooked to your liking, served with a pile of lettuce and mint, plus a cup brimming with prahok sauce. The prahok sauce, made with baby Thai eggplants, fermented fish paste, garlic, lime juice, and chili peppers, is funky, bright, and umami-packed. Wrap your steak with some lettuce and mint, then dip it into the prahok sauce for a bite that's refreshing and piquant. 2045 Foothill Blvd., Oakland, 510-842-3134.
Breakfast is my favorite time of day to visit Shewhat, when the air is hazy with smoke from freshly roasted Ethiopian coffee and Eritrean music videos play in the background. Try the shahan ful, a dish of silky puréed fava beans topped with onion, tomato, jalapeño, tahini, crumbly white cheese, and a drizzle of olive oil. Scoop it all up with the warm, crusty rolls provided — no need for utensils. Or go for the ge'at, a stiff porridge made of barley that's flavored with berbere-tinged melted butter and accompanied by tangy, rich yogurt. Chef-owner Abby Dair says ge'at is a lot of work to make, so it's typically reserved for esteemed houseguests — and when you eat at Shewhat, you're sure to feel like one. Don't miss the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, either (it comes with free popcorn). 6101 Shattuck Ave., Oakland, 510-250-9533.
La Santa Torta
La Santa Torta is technically a taco truck, but don't come looking for typical tacos like carne asada, carnitas, and al pastor. Instead, La Santa Torta specializes in Jalisco-style birria: beef that's marinated for 24 hours in a spice blend straight from Jalisco, then slow-cooked for seven more hours. Birria is traditionally served at parties and special occasions, but La Santa Torta serves it for a little everyday celebration in crispy taco form. The tacos come packed with plenty of gooey Oaxaca cheese, plus a splash of red salsa inside the tacos to liven things up. Be sure to order a cup of the consomé on the side to dip your tacos, and don't forget to add a squeeze of lime. 333 Broadway, Oakland, and various locations; visit @lasantatorta on Instagram for more information.
Top Hatters Kitchen
At the site of a former hat shop, chef DanVy Vu seamlessly combines Vietnamese, Italian, and American influences to create a style of cuisine unlike any other. Her oxtail and grits combines Southern-style oxtails in rich gravy with creamy grits infused with Italian-influenced citrus gremolata. The result is comforting and familiar yet new and exciting. But desserts are just as much of a draw as the stellar appetizers, entrées, and cocktails on the menu. Don't miss the buttermilk panna cotta with grapefruit granita and tallow shortbread, a treat that balances rich, creamy panna cotta with bright, citrusy, flaky granita. Finish the meal with a Vietnamese egg coffee, a foamy, velvety, layered coffee drink that's hard to find outside of Vietnam. 855 MacArthur Blvd., San Leandro, 510-777-977.
Los Carnalitos Restaurant
Even after a whole year of trying new restaurants, one of my go-to restaurants is the very first one I ever reviewed for the Express: Los Carnalitos. Carnalito means brother or friend in Spanish, and the two carnalitos behind the restaurant are Luis and Alfredo Santos, who hail from Mexico City. You'll find tacos, burritos, and tortas on the menu, but for my money, the stars are the items handmade with fresh masa. The quesadillas use thick, oblong, handmade tortillas that are airy with a little bite to them. The tortilla is packed with nutty, sweet corn flavor, making it the perfect foil to the creamy Oaxaca-style cheese, queso fresco, tomatillo salsa, and shredded lettuce inside. Choose from toppings like the earthy black corn fungus known as huitlacoche, the juicy, bright flor de calabaza, or the meaty chicharron drenched in zesty red salsa. The huarache is a thin, crisp oval of masa stuffed with a thin layer of puréed black beans, topped with two salsas, queso fresco, onions, cilantro, and optional nopales, or cactus. Particularly noteworthy is the version topped with costilla, flanken-cut short ribs marinated in a blend of spices using a Santos family recipe. Or try the panucho, a Yucatan-style antojito made with two handmade tortillas that are deep-fried, then stuffed with black bean paste. It gets topped with cochinita pibil — pork slowly simmered in orange juice and achiote — then topped with fiery habanero-pickled red onions and sweet mandarin orange slices. 30200 Industrial Parkway SW, Hayward, 510-324-8125.