The Best Restaurants of 2016

Although I occasionally suffer from Catholic guilt over getting paid to eat and drink to excess, the holidays are a great time to eat and drink even more, thus smothering my conscience like melted cheese on an appe-teaser at an exurban mega-chain. I’m also afflicted with the specific type of anxiety that makes me want to append asterisks and qualifications to every list as a pre-buttal against criticism, but suffice it to say that this roster captures my (totally subjective) favorite overall experiences, as opposed to the best single dishes or meals.

Spam Bao Ballet

'Aina is a Hawaiian restaurant without a trace of rusticity or — Pele forbid — tiki.

“We use all the body parts,” the server says with great satisfaction. This is what I like to hear.

I first wrote about ‘aina — Hawaiian for “land” — when it began as a pop-up in Bernal Heights two years ago. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d eaten there on opening day — and it was damn near perfect. Now that chef-owner (and Big Island native) Jordan Keao has his own space, which opened for lunch service earlier this year before expanding to dinner, it’s like the restraints that hold the Space Shuttle vertical on the launchpad came loose, and he can fly faster and higher. (Note: This metaphor applies only to the shuttles Atlantis, Discovery, and Endeavor.)

Hawaiian Pop-up 'āina Goes Brick-and-Mortar in the Dogpatch This Spring

When I visited 'āina, a weekend Hawaiian pop-up at 903 Cortland Avenue in Bernal Heights, I was surprised by how flavorful (and SPAM-free) it was. Rather, the Kalbi loco moco with hearts of palm pico de gallo, Korean short ribs, smoked mushroom gravy, and sunny-side-up eggs were like a dream hangover cure. But in its own right, the flavors were complex — much more so than any rice plate with a scoop of macaroni salad.

So Many Flavors, So Little SPAM: 'Aina, a New Hawaiian Pop-Up in Bernal Heights

If you’re a pop-up chaser, there’s a new one in Bernal Heights worth hitting up, perhaps en route to the Alemany Farmers and/or Flea Markets so you don’t buy ten times as many persimmons as you can carry because you shopped hungry. It’s called 'aina, and it’s Hawaiian. It’s weekends-only, and it’s very good. There are no pineapples, and there is no SPAM.