How to eat your way through San Mateo, the Peninsula's most food-centric city – San Francisco Chronicle

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Strolling through downtown San Mateo during meal times is an olfactory tease. Nearly every block swirls with smells: the burnished charcoal of izakaya grills, enticing Indian spices, the sweet essence of fresh-baked pastries.
This Peninsula city is well known for its thriving dining scene, particularly its wealth of Japanese restaurants. (There are six ramen shops in downtown San Mateo alone, not to mention the sushi bars and izakayas.) Yet San Mateo is teeming with so many kinds of cuisines, from Filipino to Mexican to Chinese dessert shops.
Outsiders have taken note. San Mateo has become an expansion magnet for buzzy chains both local and international like Japanese tsukemen specialist Taishoken and Korean hit Daeho Kalbijjim & Beef Soup. It’s no surprise that Kajiken, a popular Japanese chain known for its brothless ramen, picked San Mateo for one of its first-ever U.S. locations.
Downtown may be the most happening part of the city food-wise, but there are plenty of spots to explore along El Camino Real and the snack-filled Hillsdale Shopping Center in south San Mateo. On Saturdays, the massive, year-round College of San Mateo Farmers’ Market is packed with peak produce and top food vendors.
It’s nearly impossible to narrow down to just a few food picks in a city as food-centric as San Mateo, so we focused this guide on the walkable downtown, with a mix of venerable institutions and exciting newcomers. If you’re new to the city, think of this as your jumping-off point; if you’re already well-versed, consider it a reminder of how great it is to eat here. We have options for morning, afternoon and night.
Backhaus has grown from a self-taught home baking operation into one of the Peninsula’s most beloved bakeries. Head there for excellent bread and pastries that more than hold their own among the Bay Area’s baking pantheon, like the well-balanced pistachio-raspberry croissant or any of the seasonal kouign amanns, most recently filled with sweet summer strawberries, rhubarb and cream cheese. There are plenty of nods to owner Anne Moser’s German roots, including the adorable “little dude,” a salty-sweet, bite-size hybrid of a pretzel and chocolate croissant. Get there early to avoid sellout FOMO. The savory pastries, like the “breakfast bowl” pastry filled with egg and speck, go quickly. The bakery has been so successful that the owners are opening a second location in Burlingame in 2023. Tuck into your treats with an espresso tonic in Backhaus’ sunny back patio, or bring them to the nearby Central Park, home to a lush rose garden, ample benches and an immensely peaceful tea garden designed by noted Japanese architect Nagao Sakurai. Grab a loaf of hefty seeded sourdough or an asiago-cheese pretzel to take home.
Address: 32 E. Third Ave., San Mateo
Hours: 7:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Takeout, indoor and outdoor dining
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For a restaurant that opened with zero promotion, Ox 9 was remarkably full on its second day of business in downtown San Mateo. Noodle lovers just found their way to the Lanzhou hand-pulled noodle restaurant, as if a cosmic call went out into the noodleverse. Springy noodles pulled by hand are Ox 9’s specialty, and a rarity on the Peninsula. From a window into the kitchen, diners can watch trained employees make fresh noodles in six widths and shapes. The noodles are served most classically in an aromatic beef broth that builds flavor from no fewer than 28 ingredients. The soup’s surface looks like a painter’s palette: the yellow-tinged noodles swim in a clear broth amid bright red chile oil, green herbs and translucent daikon slices. On each visit, try on a different noodle personality — there are six to choose from, including commanding flat noodles that cling to punchy chile oil, and thinner ramen-like noodles for soups. Get the crunchy, tangy cucumbers with garlic sauce for a palate cleanser. Ox 9 uses QR codes for ordering, which makes for efficient service. Afterward, head down the block to B Street Books to get lost in the quiet shelves filled with used and rare books.
Address: 11 S. B St., San Mateo
Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-9 p.m. Wednesday-Monday. Takeout and indoor dining
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Sushi Sam’s Edomata has been a draw for quality yet approachable sushi and service for over 15 years. Pre-pandemic, there was often a wait for the restaurant’s eight-piece omakase set and hard-to-find fish specials; these days, it’s still challenging to place a takeout order or make a reservation when the phone line opens at 2:30 p.m. But it’s well worth the effort, whether it’s for the buttery seared toro tuna nigiri, hand rolls stuffed with crispy salmon skin or house-made desserts like green tea tiramisu. Keep tabs on Sushi Sam’s Facebook page for seasonal specials like wild copper king salmon or firefly squids. With its wide-ranging menu and unassuming vibe, Sushi Sam’s is a family-friendly, neighborhood institution. Note: Sushi Sam’s will close July 3-13 for a summer break.
Address: 218 E. Third Ave., San Mateo
Hours: 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Takeout and indoor dining
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