What the heck is vegetarian goose?” said my friend and mentor Bruce Bellingham as we drove through the outer Richmond. “I know it sounds strange,” I said, “but it’s delicious.” Once we settled in our seats at Shanghai House (3641 Balboa Street, 415-831-9288) and the vegetarian goose arrived, the intoxicating earthy aroma persuaded Bruce to try it. “This is delicious,” he said, biting into the crispy exterior. “‘Don’t knock it ’til you try it,’ as they say.”
Vegetarian goose — layers of paper-thin tofu (bean curd) “skin” stuffed with sautéed mushrooms and served in a pool of sweet and sour sauce — is a common Shanghainese dish, usually served cold. I’ve always liked it, but I never craved it until I had Shanghai House’s warm, crispy version. The depth of flavor in the mushrooms combined with the tender bean curd are an addictive combination, and the crunchy “skin” is more satisfying than some fried chicken I’ve had, helping to land it on my Fab Five list this month.
Here are four more strange sounding dishes that are actually delicious:
The House: 1230 Grant Ave. (at Broadway), 415-986-8612, thehse.com
If you don’t like the Japanese specialty unagi (barbecued eel) this dish is not for you, but if you love unagi like I do, I promise this will be one of the best sandwiches you’ve ever eaten. The tender eel filet is grilled, brushed with the traditional sweet barbecue sauce, and served on ethereal white Italian-style toast that creates the precise eel-to-bread ration. Topped with luscious, ripe avocado, juicy red tomatoes, butter lettuce, and spicy mayo, the unagi sandwich at The House is pure perfection.
‘WHOLE HOG’ PIADINA (SALAD AND MEAT STUFFED FLATBREAD)
Patxi’s Pizza: 3318 Fillmore St. (near Chestnut), 415-345-3995, patxispizza.com
In the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy where they originated, piadine have achieved cult status. It’s basically cold cuts, cheese, and a salad tucked inside warm Italian flatbread. Maybe that doesn’t sound strange to you, but I’m one of those people who prefer my pizza and my salad on separate plates.
I wasn’t too excited when my friend Diana took me to try the piadine at Patxi’s Marina restaurant (the original location in a growing empire), but after I had the “Whole Hog” — pepperoni, garlic-fennel sausage, prosciutto cotto (cooked Italian ham), house-made tomato sauce, mozzarella, baby arugula, radicchio, extra virgin olive oil, and lemon — I discovered there’s something very satisfying about the way the cool greens and cold cuts, warm sausage, almost delicate flatbread, and gooey cheese meld together to create a disparately delightful bite.
CRAB ANGEL HAIR LASAGNA
The Crab House: 203 C, Pier 39, 415-434-2722, crabhouse39.com
My Sicilian grandfather is rolling in his grave at the thought of crustacean and cheese intermingling, but I just can’t help it. I’ve been addicted to the Crab House’s crab angel hair lasagna for nearly 13 years now. It gets its name from the preparation — baked squares of angel hair pasta, generous chunks of Dungeness crab, and creamy béchamel sauce topped with Parmesan cheese served hot, brown and bubbly, topped with a scattering of scallions to add a little crunch. Yes, it’s rich. Yes, it’s wrong on so many levels. Yes, it’s craveable and worth the calories.
CHILE RELLENO BURRITO
La Canasta: 3006 Buchanan St. (near Union), 415-474-2627, lacanastasf.com
You have to root for Alberto and LiLi Mier at tiny gem La Canasta — they’ve survived, even thrived, in an incredibly tough environment where big name restaurants run by big name chefs are shuttering on a daily basis. Perhaps it’s their pure, honest passion for serving their family recipes from Mexico, all made from scratch using only topnotch ingredients. In fact, they cut out the lard at La Canasta long before the “upscale” Mexican hot spots were a twinkle in their well-heeled investors’ eyes. I’ve been going for the chile relleno burrito since we had an office on Union Street in 2002. You won’t find it on every Mexican menu (there are a few Mission taquerias that make them as big as your head), but if you love a good burrito and you also love chile rellenos, this is a must-try.
Step one: Make a classic chile relleno — a tender poblano pepper stuffed with jack cheese, coated with egg batter and fried until golden. Step two: roll it inside a burrito filled with beans, rice, and salsa. Like the crab angel hair lasagna, it’s a “special occasion” item. Yes, it’s rich. Yes, it’s wrong on so many levels. Yes, it’s craveable and worth the calories. (Note: If you’re near the inner Sunset, my other favorite chile relleno burrito is at a little spot called La Fonda, 712 Irving Street, 415-681-9205).