Chef Hiroo Nagahara on his favorite San Francisco eats

Hiroo Nagahara of The Chairman Truck in San Francisco, Calif.
Hiroo Nagahara of The Chairman Truck in San Francisco, Calif.

Hometown: Tokyo, Japan
Occupation: Co-founder, chef consultant and director of operations, The Chairman Truck
Years worked as a chef: 10
Years lived in San Francisco: 2 years, 10 months
Awards/Accolades: Best Food Truck, 7×7 (2013-present)
“5 Best Asian Food Trucks,” Details (2012)
Best Food Truck, San Francisco Magazine (2011)
“The Most Mouth-Watering Food Trucks,” Maxim (2011)

Go to Chef Nagahara’s shortlist

What do you love best about San Francisco’s food scene?

This city will become the next NYC in the U.S. It only makes sense. We have everything here: a city and its surrounding areas bustling with intelligence, innovation and most importantly, an open mind. It is a melting pot of different demographics from across the United States. It is a unique city in which each part has its own soul and expression. There is a strong sense of freedom and individuality here.

There is a strong synergy between city life and nature. There is Santa Cruz and the Redwoods for those fond of hiking and other outdoor activities. Napa and Sonoma are 1.5 hours north, and Humboldt is nearby with its great California creamery. The best produce is grown here; it is quite amazing and I feel incredibly lucky to be able to reside in this city. Being here, you are naturally inclined to be more cognizant of using local products and you are more aware of the intricacy of seasonality. You are constantly exposed to limitless varieties of a single fruit, vegetable or herb within its given harvest season. Nowhere else in the U.S. will you find a selection this vast and abundant and so accessible by the public. And since I use seafood from Japan, its quality is unparalleled due to the minimal overnight commute to SFO and second only to getting it personally at the legendary Tokyo Tsukiji Market.

At the end of the day, if you’re in the culinary field, San Francisco is definitely one of the cities to be in!!

Name the top restaurants and dishes that you think every visitor to San Francisco should try. 

Swan Oyster Depot: Every time I go to Swan’s, I pretty much get the same thing: oysters and clams on the half-shell, clam chowder, crab Louie salad, and their “crab back” is pretty tasty if it’s in season.

Anchor Oyster Bar: Their cioppino is pretty stellar.

Kin Khao and Lers Ros: I love Thai food! Pim and her team at Kin Khao do traditional Thai food. It’s very authentic. My meals there are always excellent. The cuisine there is very bold and not scared of flavor. Lers Ros is great, as well – not as authentic and more mainstream, but tasty nonetheless.

Parallel 37 at The Ritz-Carlton: Chef Michael Rotondo and his team are making some of the best food in the city right now. It’s one of the best restaurants that nobody knows about. I’ve eaten there five times and it’s always tasty. I think the fact of it being in The Ritz-Carlton deters many people, but the price point is comparable to many casual, mid-range eateries around the city. If you go, just have him cook for you. It’s the best option!

Betelnut: Chef Mario Tolentino at Betelnut, an SF institution, does some great Southeast Asian cuisine with a modern touch. His food is well-thought out and full of flavor, yet balanced with restraint. It’s just some tasty foodstuffs, period.
*Editor’s note: Since original publication of this interview, Betelnut has closed. 

Koi Palace: I love going there for dim sum. It’s definitely the best in the Bay Area; it’s a 20-minute drive to Daly City from SF, but worth it for sure!

Tartine Bakery: Yeah, about this place, it’s just GOOD! They make some of the best baked products around.

What food places do you like to frequent?

Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturday. I love going there! It’s like a candy store for chefs and cooks. It makes me fall in love with SF all over again every time!

Describe your perfect dining out day in San Francisco.

Apple fritter from Bob's Donuts
Apple fritter from Bob’s Donuts

This is a tough question. Probably dim sum at Koi Palace, then a boba tea at Share Tea. Then off to Swan Oyster Depot for lunch and then to Bob’s Donuts up the street to grab their apple fritter. Then to Zeitgeist for a Belgian beer, and a fennel kombucha at Cultured Pickle Shop in Berkeley. For dinner, it’ll depend how hungry I am at that moment, so I’ll leave it blank. Then something Oreo for dessert. YES, I love Oreos … don’t ask.

We have to ask: steamed or baked buns? And if you had to pick one dish at The Chairman Truck that is your favorite, which would it be?

I definitely prefer the traditional steamed gua bao. For me, it invokes fond childhood memories with my mother and aunts in Taiwan, especially those early morning runs to get warm soy milk and a rice ball filled with doughnut sticks, pork sung and pickled mustard. And on the way back, grabbing steamed buns and sticky rice in bamboo leaves.

Braised pork belly and Muscovy duck confit terrine baos from The Chairman Truck. Photo courtesy of Hiroo Nagahara.
Braised pork belly and Muscovy duck confit terrine baos from The Chairman Truck. Photo courtesy of Hiroo Nagahara.

At The Chairman, I’d recommend the braised pork belly with turmeric pickled daikon, red miso and green shiso, or the Muscovy duck confit terrine with green papaya, fish sauce gastrique and mint. At the end of the day, food is subjective and I like all the items for different reasons.

What’s your favorite neighborhood to dine out in?

I think the Mission District hands down. There are a number of restaurants and bars that are doing tasty and thoughtful cuisine. The area has great energy and everything is walking distance. It’s definitely a booming neighborhood!

What other cuisines do you enjoy eating or cooking? 

I really don’t favor any specific cuisine per se. I tend to eat what I’m craving at the moment, which varies with company, as well.

What’s one dish in San Francisco that blew you away and left you wishing you came up with the recipe yourself?

This is a tough question, as I tend to turn off my restaurant mentality and just enjoy the moment and company when I do go out. I find that it makes the experience that much more enjoyable!

What are your favorite budget, mid-range and high-end dining places in San Francisco?

Same as the places I named above in the top restaurants. But I recently visited Chef Mike Siegel at his Jewish deli called Shorty Goldstein’s in the Financial District. It’s definitely some of the tastiest sandwiches I’ve had, and he uses American Wagyu from Snake River Farms, and his knish is hands down the best I’ve ever had!

Since Eats Abroad is geared toward travelers, are there any restaurants or bars at the San Francisco area airports or in the city’s hotels you would recommend?

Definitely Parallel 37 at The Ritz-Carlton for the reasons I stated above, and also their mixologist Camber Lay makes some great cocktails, and Ryan Stetins, their GM and sommelier, can recommend tasty and value-driven wines!

What’s your guilty pleasure and where in San Francisco do you go to get it? 

To be honest, I love anything Oreo, especially the Oreo Blizzard from Dairy Queen with double Oreos. Also, I love Oreo cookies frozen at -10° F with ice cold organic milk. It’s just tasty!

Do you have any favorite watering holes?

To be honest, I’m not much of a drinker, although I do love wines and at times Japanese whiskey and the classic Aviation cocktail.

Are there any foods native to San Francisco that you particularly like?

Hands down, our produce section at the farmers market, readily available to anyone. It’s unrivaled.

Finally, what would you say any visitor must see or do before leaving San Francisco? 

Napa, Sonoma and the Redwoods in Santa Cruz. It’s one of the reasons I love SF so much as it’s right in the middle!

Chef Nagahara’s Shortlist:

The Chairman Truck, multiple locations; Taiwanese, days and hours vary.

Swan Oyster Depot, 1517 Polk Street (Nob Hill); seafood, lunch and early dinner Monday-Saturday, closed Sunday.

Anchor Oyster Bar, 579 Castro Street (The Castro); seafood, lunch Monday-Saturday, dinner daily.

Kin Khao, 55 Cyril Magnin Street (Union Square/Tenderloin); Thai, lunch Monday-Friday, dinner daily.

Lers Ros, 730 Larkin Street (Tenderloin); Thai, lunch and dinner daily.
Second location: 307 Hayes Street (Hayes Valley); lunch and dinner daily.
Third location: 3189 16th Street (Mission Dolores); lunch and dinner daily.

Parallel 37 at The Ritz-Carlton, 600 Stockton Street (Downtown); Californian, breakfast daily, dinner Tuesday-Saturday.

Koi Palace, 365 Gellert Boulevard, Daly City, CA; Cantonese, dim sum and dinner daily.

Tartine Bakery & Café, 600 Guerrero Street (Mission Dolores); French-style bakery, breakfast and lunch daily.

Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, 1 Ferry Building Marketplace (South Beach); open Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Share Tea, 5336 Geary Boulevard (Central Richmond); bubble tea, open daily.
Second location: 2440 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, CA; open daily.

Bob’s Donut & Pastry Shop, 1621 Polk Street (Nob Hill); doughnuts and bakery; open 24/7.

Zeitgeist, 199 Valencia Street (Mission Dolores); beer garden, open daily.

Cultured Pickle Shop, 800 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, CA; fermented vegetable shop, open Monday-Friday.

Shorty Goldstein’s, 126 Sutter Street (Financial District North); Jewish deli, breakfast and lunch Monday-Friday, closed Saturday-Sunday.

Dairy Queen, 66 Serramonte Center, Daly City, CA (closest location); frozen desserts, open daily.


About the Chef: Born in Tokyo, Chef Hiroo Nagahara’s childhood memories are filled with early morning trips to the famous Tsukiji fish market with his mother and working alongside his father at his own fish market. It makes almost perfect sense, then, that even after studying business and quantum mechanics in college, he ultimately decided to pursue a culinary career. Soon after a head sushi chef stint during and after his undergrad years, Nagahara was approached by the Charlie Trotter organization to help launch a new restaurant in Las Vegas and work as chef de cuisine. When the restaurant closed in 2010, Nagahara took on his next big challenge: opening The Chairman Truck, his first foray into mobile dining.

“THE CHAIRMAN IS A TOTAL 180. BUT BEING VERSATILE AND OPEN TO NEW IDEAS IS A LARGE PART OF BEING SUCCESSFUL IN THIS COMPETITIVE LANDSCAPE. BEING A ONE-TRICK PONY IS DANGEROUS. … WE WANTED TO SEE HOW FAR WE COULD TAKE FOOD ON A FOOD TRUCK IN TERMS OF FLAVOR, COMPLEXITY AND EXECUTION VERSUS THROUGHPUT AND PRICE POINT.”

By using authentic buns delivered fresh daily from a Chinese bakery and filling them with refined and complex flavors commonly found in Asian cuisines, Nagahara helped prove that food trucks was a dining force not to be ignored. The Chairman was one of five food trucks at the very first Off the Grid street food market in 2010 (Off the Grid now operates 35 different markets, with the largest one boasting 32 trucks), and it’s since become an established favorite in the Bay Area. Chef Nagahara is now working on his next project: an Asian-inspired concept for downtown Los Angeles.

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