Moreno: I just lost my mind.
Sbrocco: A Mill Valley seafood spot that's off the hook... Coughlin: Flavorful, really fresh.
Sbrocco: ...and Thai food with a twist in Oakland, Wong: You get a little bit messy, but it's worth it.
Phillips: I'm ready for brunch, always.
Sbrocco: Just ahead on "Check, Please!
I can see you're drooling.
I'm Leslie Sbrocco.
Welcome to "Check, Please!
Bay Area," the show where regular Bay Area residents review and talk about their favorite restaurants.
Now, we have three guests, and each one recommends one of their favorite spots, and the other two go check them out to see what they think.
Joining me at the "Check, Please!"
table today are program manager Julie Wong, systems-change consultant Nina Moreno, and Realtor Alexander Coughlin.
Coughlin: Thank you.
Moreno: Thank you.
Sbrocco: Nina is up first.
She loves restaurants with bustling, open kitchens where she can catch a glimpse of aromatic dishes being lovingly made by hand.
Her go-to features fresh, handmade tortillas, tequila flights, and other regional Oaxacan favorites.
In downtown Berkeley, it's Comal.
[ Indistinct conversations ] [ Up-tempo music plays ] Paluska: The name of the restaurant is Comal, and a comal is literally translated as "griddle."
In most Mexican homes, people gather around the comal, where tortillas are being cooked.
It symbolizes community, it symbolizes the hearth.
I just feel like you walk in here and just things feel right.
It feels warm and inviting and a place you want to hang out in.
Gandin: Fire fish, taco, chicken, tamale.
In many ways, I would consider us a Bay Area restaurant with Mexican flavors.
When I was a student, I lived in a city called Morelia and was able to travel all around central and southern Mexico, and it really opened my eyes to the regional diversity of Mexican cooking.
One of the goals from the very start was to have food that was approachable, delicious, and without any fuss.
We want the food to speak for itself, and a lot of that's about using really good ingredients and letting them sing.
Paluska: Before opening a restaurant, my prior career was as a band manager for the band Phish.
So, given my background in the music business, I was focused on the acoustic environment.
So through some past connections with Meyer Sound Labs, the system allows you to adjust the level of reverberation in the room.
People like a loud, buzzy restaurant, but they don't want it to be so loud that they can't hear themselves think.
So this is a pretty successful kind of best of both worlds.
Gandin: For me, when this place is buzzing... Table 50, tostadas.
...I feel like a, you know, symphony conductor.
There are lots of smiling faces in the restaurant, and there's no better feeling.
Paluska: And I think you just get great pleasure out of feeding people delicious food, distilled down to its essence.
Sbrocco: So, Nina, it's the open kitchens that really get you.
It's like theater, isn't it?
Moreno: So, my philosophy on a good restaurant is that if it has an open kitchen, the food more often than not is going to be good.
One of the stations in the kitchen, just two individuals making corn tortillas from scratch.
Sbrocco: Okay, when you start, what do you crave when you walk in the door?
Moreno: I mean, for me, it's the hen-of-the-woods quesadilla.
I'm a total meat-eater, but it's the one dish that I keep going back to.
And it could really turn me into a vegetarian.
Sbrocco: [ Laughs ] Moreno: You know, the other thing is that it's in a blue corn tortilla, and it just has a little bit more, like, oomph.
The earthy of the corn with the meaty of the mushrooms, and then the heat of the habanero and the citrus of this herb, it's just a party in my mouth.
Sbrocco: I can see you're drooling just a little bit.
Moreno: Yeah, every time I go.
I can't get enough of it.
Sbrocco: Alright, Julie, what was your experience at Comal?
Wong: I really enjoyed Comal.
We went on a Saturday night.
It was lively.
I think almost every table was taken, and the bar was really crowded.
Just a really fun atmosphere, and we went with a big group.
And so we started off with this king salmon tostada, and it just melted like butter in my mouth.
It had this citrus-olive oil on top of it that just was a surprise.
My daughter was raving over it and trying to get more.
Sbrocco: What about you, Alexander?
Have you been before?
Coughlin: This was my first time, and I agree, the space itself is beautiful.
We started with the guacamole and the salsa.
I loved it.
It was very fresh.
The salsas were also pretty good.
From there, we went on to the albóndigas in adobo sauce, which came out a little cold, so I was disappointed in that.
But the adobo sauce itself was so good, I was just, like, lapping it up.
Moreno: I love that dish.
I went through a period where I would order it all the time.
And Alex is right, the sauce is just incredible.
Coughlin: We sent the other item that I got after that back, which was -- maybe we were there on an off night.
It was the salmon tartare.
Wong: Oh, no!
Sbrocco: Is that what you had?
Wong: It is.
It's the same dish.
Sbrocco: And you loved it.
Wong: We did.
Sbrocco: Okay, so, what else do you get when you go, that's a standout that he should look for?
Moreno: The tlayuda.
It's thin and it's crunchy.
It's basically like American-style pizza, but it's Mexican.
It has pureed black bean with cheese and the Brussels sprouts.
I don't know what it is, but all the flavors -- just divine.
Sbrocco: Did you have that?
Coughlin: I did.
I saw it on the menu.
I'd never seen it before, and so I wanted to try it.
It hit all the different notes that I like.
I like pizza, I like beans, cheese, Brussels sprouts.
Put it all together on this, like, massive dish.
And it was amazing.
And I'm so glad that we ordered that.
Wong: So, I think my favorite dish was the chile relleno.
It was quite magical for me.
The queso fresco was just smooth and melted in my mouth.
All of the other herbs and the sauce on top just, like, felt fresh from a garden, and they all really married well together.
So I was fighting my husband over that dish.
He almost finished it.
Sbrocco: Seems like a lot of fighting going on.
Wong: There is.
There always -- There always is.
Moreno: One of my favorite cocktails there is the Abuelo Sucio, which is a spin-off of an old-fashioned.
They make a homemade pomegranate syrup.
It's an outstanding drink.
Sbrocco: And they have non-alcoholic options, as well.
Wong: My daughter loved the horchata, so her and her friends were all getting their own there.
Coughlin: I had the horchata, as well, and it was delicious.
I ordered a few of them.
Wong: We had a lot of desserts.
Wong: Our favorites were the flan.
It was mixed with this caramelized sugar sauce that just was magical, as well, and melted in our mouths.
And our surprising dish was the arroz con leche, which was mixed with some cardamom and cinnamon.
It also was topped with pistachio and pomegranate.
So that extra bit of texture and crunch was really delightful.
Coughlin: We also got the chocolate budin.
And you know, how can you go wrong with that?
Wong: Oh, that's right, that was our third dessert, as well.
Moreno: That's my favorite.
Moreno: I love it because it's got the salty sweet, but I find that it's not too rich.
Sweet but not too sweet.
And then it comes with a dollop of fresh cream on top, and, oh, it's just heaven.
Sbrocco: You enjoy it.
So, what about service?
Coughlin: It was excellent.
Really there for us when we needed them.
So that was nice.
And we had a really large party, so they came in frequently to check in on us.
So it was really good.
On a busy Saturday night.
Sbrocco: Would you go back again?
Wong: Yes, I would go back.
And I would recommend going with a big group for a party or a special occasion.
You had a few misses, Alexander.
Would you return?
Coughlin: I think I'll go next time with Nina and let her order for me.
Sbrocco: There you go.
Coughlin: And I think that would be a better fit.
[ Chuckles ] Sbrocco: Alright.
If you would like to try Comal, it's located on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley.
The average tab per person, without drinks, is around $45.
Sbrocco: Alexander is a big Fish fan.
He loves it raw, broiled, fried, wrapped in a burrito -- you name it.
The Marin native appreciates that the catch of the day at his hip little spot is always super fresh and full of surprises.
Tucked away in Mill Valley's Tam junction, it's Hook Fish.
♪♪ Caillouette: I highly recommend... Hook Fish Co. was founded by myself and Christian Morabito, a lifelong friend of mine.
We grew up surfing together.
At one point, a little bit fed up with our office jobs, we set out for a three-month journey down to Cabo San Lucas.
And we camped, we surfed, we fished, returning from the trip really passionate about connecting our San Francisco community to the local fishery.
Olive: Grilled-fish burrito?
We have a lot of regulars who come by because it's a relaxed space.
It's completely approachable, and it's clean, healthy food.
Caillouette: We're really fortunate to be able to work directly with small- to mid-sized fishing vessels and families who are really stewards of the coastline.
We identify very clearly the fishing vessel, the port of landing, and the fishing method for everything that we serve.
On a typical day, we get about 6 to 8 varieties of fish coming solely from the West Coast.
But our range is Southern California, all the way up to Alaska.
Johnson: And this is some of the product that we get out of Sitka, Alaska.
I would say that the menu is designed to pair pretty well with any of the seasonal fish options that we have.
♪♪ Before the restaurant opened, I spent six months traveling through Central America, surfing and working in different places and on the Caribbean side of Central America, as they do a lot of great fruit and habanero salsa.
So wanting to kind of take that inspiration but use something that's a little more local to California, kind of landed on the carrots.
Still gives it the bright orange pop.
And yeah, it's been a hit.
[ Laughter ] Caillouette: People come here to enjoy the open space and walk around and enjoy the neighboring businesses, as well.
Olive: Yeah, this place that we're next to, the Proof Lab Surf Shop, it's been a real staple in the surfing community for over 20 years, and it's like your day is not over after you eat.
It's like, "Alright, cool, I'm refueled.
It's time for my next activity."
It's really rewarding to share your lifestyle with someone and put it out there and then see people benefit from it.
♪♪ Sbrocco: Alright, I love it.
A Marin native and a fish fan.
Of course, you have to be a fish fan.
Coughlin: It's true.
I mean, it's surrounded on three sides by water.
So you got to eat what comes out of it.
And, yes, I am a big fish fan and a big Hook Fish fan.
Sbrocco: And Hook Fish has two locations.
Coughlin: It does.
There's one in the Outer Sunset, and then this one is in Tam Junction, kind of in the nexus of Southern Marin.
So a lot of crossroads.
Sbrocco: You head out to the beach.
To the beach, to Muir Woods, kids' sporting events.
You name it, you see all kinds of people there, including little furry friends.
I often bring my dogs, and they're very welcoming to that 'cause it's outdoors.
Sbrocco: So, what is it that you get when you go there?
Coughlin: I always get the burrito.
When selecting my fish for the burrito, there are many choices.
I usually stick with the fish of the day.
And my little hack -- I request that the fish is fried.
It's not on the menu, but they will happily do it for you.
You also have some beans, some really tangy, delicious slaw, and then some avocado, which kind of softens the blow of the tangy slaw, and then a little spicy aioli.
Wong: I also had the fish burrito, and the daily catch of the day was the sole, and it was really fresh and milky.
I think I had a little too much rice in my burrito, but everything else balanced out well.
I really enjoyed putting the housemade carrot-habanero sauce on top.
That really just added a little bit of a punch.
Coughlin: Another little hack that you reminded me of is I often get my burrito without rice, just because I don't feel like it needs it.
It has so much in there already that it can kind of take away from it a little bit.
So I skip the rice.
Moreno: I had a burrito, and it was really hard to choose which fish.
So I went with the recommendation of the person taking my order.
They recommended poke.
Moreno: The poke had, like, a really big pop from the sesame.
That with the pickled slaw with the pico de gallo.
So, the acidity of that and then the creaminess of the aioli was outstanding.
Coughlin: I've had the poke just on its own, and that's also really good.
Love the sesame.
Wong: I've also had the poke, and it's really fresh and delicious, and it reminds me of Hawaii.
Moreno: And I did order a beer.
I told the bartender what I typically like, so he ordered an ale on nitro tap.
Super creamy and very roasty.
And I also had the ceviche with chips, and that was good.
It was mostly rock, shrimp, and squid.
And then it had three different kinds of citrus -- lime, lemon, and orange -- with orange pieces, fresh jalapeño.
And I thought that went really well with the beer.
Wong: We had the oysters.
So, a little bit of lemon, a little bit of mignonette sauce.
And that was really fresh and delicious.
And my daughter also had the fried avocado tacos, and she was really surprised.
She had never had that before.
And it was really creamy and crispy.
And I think the combination of those two surprised her.
So she would get that again.
Coughlin: I also was turned on recently to their fish and chips.
Just cooked to perfection.
I mean, it was just super crunchy, salty but not too salty, flavorful, really fresh fish, flaky inside.
Sbrocco: And what about the chips?
Coughlin: Chips are delicious, crunchy.
They give you a bunch of them.
One thing I will say is that they have incredible tartar sauce with the fish and chips.
And obviously, you can dip the fries in it, you can dip the fish in it.
Eventually, I start dipping my burrito in it.
I ask for more, and then it's just like a whole scene.
Wong: And that makes me want to go back.
And I would order the fish burrito without the rice, with the fried fish, and maybe try some tartar sauce on it, too.
[ Laughter ] Sbrocco: Good advice.
Moreno: My wife and I were big hikers in Marin and beach bunnies, and we've driven by this corner so many times and never knew.
It's kind of tucked away and hidden in the back, and I'm just super happy we discovered it, because we'll absolutely go after a hike or after a day at the beach now.
If you would like to try Hook Fish, it's located on Shoreline Highway in Mill Valley, And the average tab per person, without drinks, is around $25.
Sbrocco: Julie's date-night destination serves up bold, fragrant Thai dishes that are tailor-made for sharing.
Throw in tropical vibes, colorful cocktails, and some of the best Thai tea she's ever tried, it's no wonder Julie heads to Oakland's Laurel District every chance she gets for a taste of Jo's Modern Thai.
[ Indistinct conversations ] ♪♪ ♪♪ Saelee: Jo's Modern Thai -- the inspiration for the name of the restaurant is based upon my wife.
Before we met, wasn't really familiar with Thai cuisine, so we've introduced each other to different cultures of food, and she's grown to love it so much now that it was only fitting to name it after her.
♪♪ Kornnawong: Medium, 62 When I met Kao, the area around here they didn't have any Thai food for new generation like our age.
The concept that we come up with, Jo's, we kind of play around and then come up with something fun and unique together.
♪♪ Isan was my hometown, next to the border of the capital of Laos.
So some of dishes come from my background, like my aunt and my parent was taught me when I was a kid, like laab squid or shrimp mousse toast.
Saelee: I always wanted to have a restaurant that represents more of younger generation of Thai Americans.
Kornnawong: And we're going to add the Thai basil.
Saelee: Our most popular dish is the drunken noodles that we incorporate certain proteins that we love in American culture, which is barbecue.
So we incorporated smoked barbecue brisket here.
It's still authentic to us because it still has all of the seasoning and the flavors from our culture, but it just made it a little bit different.
♪♪ Kornnawong: I love to see people drink and enjoy and just say, "Oh, this is so spicy," but they just want more and more.
Saelee: Let me know if you guys need anything else tonight, okay?
We want it to feel like a vacation when you come here.
Our dishes are influenced by the regions and the places we've been throughout Thailand.
We kind of want it to be like that, right?
When people come in here and they eat, it's like a mini Thailand vacation.
Kornnawong: [ Chuckling ] Yeah.
Sbrocco: You love Thai.
Is this your favorite cuisine?
Wong: I absolutely love Thai cuisine, partially because I'm part Laotian and Chinese and Vietnamese, so anything from Southeast Asia is a reminder of home.
Sbrocco: And why is Jo's so special?
Wong: Well, Jo's has a modern twist on traditional foods, so it feels like you're going to your aunt's or your grandmother's house, and everything is just a little elevated and different.
The shrimp toast is usually what we start with.
It's like a mix of everything you would expect from a dim sum restaurant into one bite.
It's made on homemade milk bread, which is really modern kind of Hong Kong style.
And they mince the shrimp with a little bit of pork lard, some aioli, and beautiful pickled shallots on top.
And you just are transported into a different place every time you take a bite.
Sbrocco: Did you have to fight your daughter for that?
Wong: We absolutely fight every time.
We get the smallest portions, and she gets the most.
[ Laughter ] Coughlin: When you walk into the restaurant, it's beautiful inside.
It's bright and fun, and it was packed and hustle and bustle.
It just felt great being there.
There's just this really kind of hip Art Deco vibe.
Their bar is just really stocked in this beautiful lit way.
Sbrocco: And they have cocktails.
A cocktail program and mocktails of the moment.
And they have a lot of mixed Asian tropical flavors with pandan or coconut milk and lots of really bright, vibrant colors and flowers.
Coughlin: So, I started with a Thai iced tea, and, wow, I was hooked.
I just could not stop myself.
It was just so creamy and sweet, but still complex in its flavor.
Like, you could actually taste the tea, and it wasn't watered down.
It was just so incredible.
I had three.
Sbrocco: You were flying.
Coughlin: Yeah, I was.
I had three before I cut myself off.
Wong: I would see the pièce de résistance for us is really this catfish salad.
It's crunchy and it's fried, and the crispy shallots, the crunchy cashews, married with all of these kind of umami flavors, to the acidity of lime and lemon and sugar.
And so mixing all of that with this laab secret sauce.
It's served in lettuce wraps.
And so you get a little bit messy, but it's worth it.
Moreno: I also ordered the catfish dish, and when it first came out, it looked very breadcrumb-y.
All of a sudden, I realized that all the breadcrumbs were -- that was the catfish.
The sweetness of the fried shallots.
There was some toasted coconut, and it definitely just was the standout dish.
Wong: Another favorite -- we get the squid salad, which comes with this toasted, sticky rice powder.
And it adds this nutty element that is the secret to that dish.
It's really fresh and soft and covered with lots of herbs and edible flowers.
Coughlin: For an entree, I had the drunken noodle with beef brisket, and it had these really amazing ramen noodles that I just loved.
I could just eat that ramen nonstop.
It was so good.
Moreno: I also had the drunken noodle, and I thought it was super smoky, which I loved.
The other thing that it came with, right on top, that I just lost my mind -- it comes with fresh green peppercorn.
Oh, my God.
It was just packed with flavor, but not heat.
Yeah, it was amazing.
Coughlin: I'm glad that the server explained how spiciness works there, because there's basically, like, mild, which is spicy; and then there's medium, which is really spicy; and then there's Thai spicy, which is probably like "burn your tongue off" spicy.
Coughlin: And so, for my drunken noodle, I got medium spicy.
And I'm glad that I did, because it was really spicy.
Wong: One of the highlights is this pork laab burger.
And I don't know why other chefs have not copied this recipe.
The laab is a traditional Lao sausage flavor, and they fry this patty into a burger with this really crispy bun, and it's just really magical.
Coughlin: I don't know if we're getting to desserts yet... Sbrocco: Of course, sure.
Coughlin: I'm not always an ice cream person, but I got their sundae, and I'm so glad that I did.
It was so good.
It had this ice cream that was sweet but not too sweet.
And then it had all these other flavors that were mixed in with it, like a banana brûlée, a peanut brittle.
There was a real saltiness to it.
I loved it.
I would go back just for dessert alone.
Wong: You have to try the sticky rice and mango dish.
It feels like you're in Thailand on a sunny day, so you get the warm rice that's heated up in the dessert with kind of the cool ice cream.
And they had this crispy pandan rice on top that added just more texture and crunch -- really delicious.
And we have to get it every time.
Now you have to go back and try that.
Sbrocco: If you would like to try Jo's Modern Thai, it's located on MacArthur Boulevard in Oakland, and the average tab per person, without drinks, is around $55.
♪♪ And now reporter Cecilia Phillips brings us more Bay Area bites you've just got to try.
♪♪ Phillips: We are at one of the most picturesque places in the city.
Can you tell me about Presidio Tunnel Tops?
Petrie: Well, the Presidio Tunnel Tops is 14 new acres of parkland that's built over the highway tunnels to the Golden Gate Bridge.
And the idea of the project was to create a welcoming, inclusive space for everyone to come visit and have a good time.
So part of that visit is enjoying food at Presidio Pop Up, which is a rotating roster of over 35 food trucks, carts, and tents that come to this site seven days a week.
And it was created to celebrate the diverse cuisines and cultures of the Bay Area.
Phillips: What is this beautiful truck all about?
Ali: So, this is Lahore Di Khushboo.
Lahore is a city of Pakistan.
"Khushboo" means "the aroma."
So the Lahore Di Khushboo is aroma from Pakistan.
So this is all about feelings and love.
We are here to share, you know, how rich my culture is.
Phillips: Look at this puri.
[ Chuckling ] This is massive.
Ali: This is the halwa that's to go with it.
This is the potato curry.
This is the chana masala, the chickpea curry.
Phillips: When do people eat this?
Ali: The brunch.
Phillips: I'm ready for brunch always.
[ Laughs ] Mmm.
Cecilia: So Kabob Trolley, tell me what you're all about.
Raouf: We're an Afghan-fusion food truck.
Afghan cuisine is really all about a melting pot.
So you have, like, a little bit of everything in one plate.
You have to try the Gyrrito.
We have our saffron rice, our beef-lamb traditional gyro, veggies, our green beans.
We made it California-style and added the fries.
Phillips: Ooh, yeah.
Ali: Spicy tzatziki sauce.
Phillips: It's like unwrapping a swaddled baby.
Ali: [ Laughs ] Cheers.
Phillips: [ Laughs ] ♪♪ Mmm.
Ali: [ Laughs ] Phillips: That is so good.
And what is this awesome bus?
Sison: We name her Lady Victory.
Woman: Very good.
Sison: She's supposed to evoke a sense of adventure and fun.
This is a victory for me.
I love it.
[ Laughs ] Herrick: We're Jolly's Old Fashioned Teas Cream.
Phillips: And so you do a bunch of different teas, but you also do ice cream flights.
So, we have our chocolate smoke with some sprinkles.
Phillips: Oh, yeah, look at this.
That is so smoky.
[ Laughs ] How did you do it?
Herrick: So, it's made with a tea called Lapsang souchong, which is a smoked black tea.
So it does impart a little bit of the smoky flavor in there.
Phillips: Okay, so you don't smoke the ice cream?
Phillips: Do you ever get tired of eating ice cream?
Herrick: Not really.
Phillips: [ Chuckling ] Okay, perfect.
Sbrocco: I want to thank my terrific guests on this week's show -- Julie Wong, who craves the catfish salad at Jo's Modern Thai in Oakland; Nina Moreno, who marvels at the mushroom quesadillas at Berkeley's Comal; and Alexander Coughlin, lover of the signature burritos at Hook Fish in Mill Valley.
So, join us next time, when three more guests will recommend their favorite spots right here on "Check, Please!
I'm Leslie Sbrocco, and I'll see you then.
And cheers to you.
[ Mid-tempo music plays ] Did you have fun?
You all are experts in this.
What is the best topping?
Woman: Rainbow sprinkles.
Woman: Rainbow sprinkles.
Phillips: You didn't even hesitate at all.
Woman: [ Laughs ] Phillips: I agree with you.
Rainbow sprinkles is my favorite.
Woman: Helps make everything better.
[ Laughs ] Phillips: Alright, making my way to all these different trucks.
And look who I found.
Phillips: Some extra friends here.
Woman: Eating ceviche.
Phillips: [ Laughs ] Alright, on to the next one.