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Appetites and Afterthoughts

The fifth annual Ernesto’s Best of North Beach awards

Wok crab at Betty Lou's Seafood & Grill. photo: Earl Adkins

Here we go again. welcome to the Fifth Annual Ernesto’s. And welcome back Buster’s! Last year the Ernesto’s dropped Buster’s from the awards — not because it had slipped — but because it was the all-time Ernesto’s winner in three categories and we thought we should retire it. The Ernesto’s has seen the error of its ways, so here comes Buster’s again.

BEST PHILLY CHEESESTEAK:

Buster’s (366 Columbus Avenue)

To me the cheesesteak is one of the gourmet splendors of our time. It exists at the crossroads of desire and necessity. If I am deprived, I’m apt to slip over the edge into the gastronomic doldrums. Buster’s is always close at hand.

BEST BURGER:

Buster’s (366 Columbus Avenue)

I measure all burgers against those of the late and lamented Clown Alley of North Beach. In my taste memory Buster’s cheeseburgers approach or surpass those of Clown Alley. Cheeseburger — the most euphonious word in the English language. Of course, you must accompany your Buster’s cheeseburger with an A&W root beer to reach the sublime.

BEST HOT DOG:

Buster’s (366 Columbus Avenue)

I consider myself the hot dog savant of San Francisco. And let me tell you this about the Buster’s hot dog: It is sheer bliss on a sesame bun, topped with sauerkraut, green pickle relish, raw onion, mustard, and jalapeno peppers. If that doesn’t get your attention, nothing will.

BEST SANDWICH SHOP:

Dip (1318 Grant Avenue)

You know how sometimes you would sell your soul for a French dip sandwich? Well, to satisfy that urge, go to Dip. The proprietor is Haleh Cunningham, daughter of the original Mo from next door at Mo’s venerable North Beach restaurant where I like to go for milkshakes. But here we’re not talking about milkshakes. We’re talking about roast beef, pork shoulder, leg of lamb, or roast chicken sandwiches made with Acme baguettes. You dip them into a deep-flavored au jus. I always add a side of potatoes au gratin.

BEST PIZZA:

Goodfella’s Pizzeria & Grill (377 Bay Street)

I am beholden to one of my dining consultants, Jon Weichert, for turning me on to Goodfella’s, and its exemplary pizzas. It’s a pleasant place for a quick lunch. Ambience? There’s a nice wall mural of San Francisco and New York City, and black-and-white photos from Goodfellas and The Godfather.

BEST ITALIAN RESTAURANT:

Original U. S. Restaurant (414 Columbus Avenue)

I go there for the roast shoulder of lamb and lima beans on Tuesdays, and the baccala alla Messinese or baccala alla Genovese every other Friday. Actually, I go there because it’s the best Italian restaurant in North Beach.

BEST CHINESE RESTAURANT:

Yuet Lee (1300 Stockton Street)

Yes, we have Chinese restaurants in North Beach. This is the best. It’s Hong Kong style, everything fresh with fish from a tank where they swim around for you to judge them.

BEST NEW RESTAURANT:

Betty Lou’s Seafood & Grill (318 Columbus Avenue)

Top-notch seafood prepared to order. If seafood isn’t your thing, try the bone-in rib eye steak.

BEST HANG-OUT JOINT:

Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store and Cafe (566 Columbus Avenue)

A young and vibrant staff meets a young and vibrant clientele. Even I hang out there.

BEST SALOON:

Gino and Carlo (548 Green Street)

Great old-time North Beach saloon. When I’m not hanging out at Mario’s, I’m hanging out at Gino and Carlo.

BEST BARTENDER:

Marco Rossi, Gino and Carlo (548 Green Street)

The ideal bartender. Talks when you want to talk and shuts up when you don’t.

BEST WAITPERSON:

Daniella Crismani, Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store and Cafe (566 Columbus Avenue)

Classy, saltwater taffy kind of gal who makes it fun to frequent this classy joint.

BEST MANHATTAN CLAM CHOWDER:

Original Joe’s (601 Union Street)

Tomatoey with lots of chopped clams and much clam flavor join forces to make this one a winner.

BEST NEW ENGLAND CLAM CHOWDER:

Betty Lou’s Seafood & Grill (318 Columbus Avenue)

Hector Chaparro thickens his clam chowder with potatoes, not flour. And you can easily taste the difference: There’s a richness to it and it doesn’t taste like pancake batter.

BEST MINESTRONE:

Original Joe’s (601 Union Street)

This is my favorite minestrone in a neighborhood where almost all restaurants serve minestrone. Thick but not too thick, it’s full of beans, carrots, cabbage, chard, and other vegetables — add that short macaroni called ditalini, and you’ve got a classic Italian soup.

BEST CIOPPINO:

Betty Lou’s Seafood & Grill (318 Columbus Avenue)

There’s a lot of cioppino in North Breach. This is the best one I’ve found. Deeply satisfying!

BEST VIETNAMESE NOODLE SOUP:

My Canh (626 Broadway Street)

Yes, we have Vietnamese restaurants in North Beach. My Canh is the best. I prefer their pho, an unctuous, satisfying soup. Don’t expect a fancy joint, but you can count on the pho.

BEST CRAB LOUIE:

Betty Lou’s Seafood & Grill (318 Columbus Avenue)

Obviously, the secret is lots of fresh Dungeness crab. And that’s what you get here.

BEST ESPRESSO:

Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store and Cafe (566 Columbus Avenue)

I usually drop in for a hit every afternoon. It keeps me upright for the rest of the day.

BEST FISH RESTAURANT:

Betty Lou’s Seafood & Grill (318 Columbus Avenue)

Three stalwarts from Sotto Mare — Betty Pesce, Louise Taylor, and Hector Chaparro — make this place hum. My favorites are the cioppino and Mike’s wok crab.

BEST TAKEOUT JOINT:

Italian Homemade Company (716 Columbus Avenue)

Yes, I realize almost every restaurant in North Beach and elsewhere in the city provides takeout service. But this is the best in my neighborhood. Try the lasagna. It will make you a believer in takeout.

BEST HOLE-IN-THE-WALL JOINT:

Panuchos (620 Broadway Street)

Panuchos, the Mexican creation, not the name of this restaurant, are a traditional Mayan dish made by stuffing corn tortillas with refried black beans, refrying the tortilla, then topping it with a variety of meats or vegetables. And that’s what to order here, as well as tacos, burritos, tostadas, tortas, and empanadas. All are well-presented and satisfying.

BEST RESTAURANT:

Original Joe’s (601 Union Street)

Once again the award goes to Original Joe’s. It’s a social club with great food and a great bar. What more do you want?

BEST PLACE FOR SIDEWALK DINING WITH YOUR HONEY:

Calzone’s (430 Columbus Avenue)

Calzone’s gets my La Dolce Vita Award. Ah, the sweet street life. I’m thinking of having an Ernesto’s awards ceremony next year at my publisher’s house — if I can get him to take the mattresses off the floor.

MOST ICONIC NEIGHBORHOOD RESTAURANT:

North Beach Restaurant (1512 Stockton Street)

A special tip of my Panama hat goes to this Tuscan classic in the old Italian neighborhood. Opened by the late (and beloved) Lorenzo Petroni, it has been a gathering spot for San Franciscans for nearly 50 years. My menu favorite: chicken livers with barbera sauce.

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E-mail: ernest@marinatimes.com. Follow the Marina Times on Twitter @The MarinaTimes and like us on Facebook @MarinaTimes.