The northern end of the 6–5–0 area code is a treasure trove of culinary gems.
When you Google the Hunan restaurant Wonderful in Millbrae, the majority of the media coverage that surfaces is from a 2015 incident in which the owner fired back at a disgruntled one-star Yelp review with video footage that showed the author entering their eatery and leaving in less than 30 seconds. The whole thing went viral, to the point that Wonderful still has a section on its website with the video clips and subsequent national media coverage.
After a recent meal at Wonderful, I left wondering why the restaurant’s food itself hasn’t gone viral. Chewy handmade noodles, vibrant sauces, assertive meat dishes, friendly service — it was one of those meals where you’re itching to go back to try more the second you leave (and kicking yourself for giving a coworker your leftovers).
The restaurants of the northern tip of the Peninsula, nestled just below the fog-line of South San Francisco, often feel overlooked, overshadowed by their proximity to the city and often dismissed as nothing more than freeway exits to breeze by on the way to the airport.
Here’s our hot take on that northern stretch of the area code, from Millbrae to San Bruno and out to Daly City: It is quietly one of the Peninsula’s most remarkable and diverse food scenes.
While Asian cuisines dominate, from Sichuan and Hunan to Vietnamese, we’ve also discovered insanely memorable shrimp tacos, old-school glazed donuts and delightful Indian snacks.
Below is our foray into all that this part of the 650 has to offer: an admittedly small—and certainly not exhaustive—sampling given the impressive array of restaurants there, but one that has inspired us (and we hope you, as well) to get eating on this part of the Peninsula.
Hawaiian-ish brunch at Morning Wood, San Bruno
Come hungry to Morning Wood, where the portions of loco moco, Spam breakfast and omurice are generous-bordering-on-enormous. The menu is Hawaiian-ish, with touches of Japan that reflect the owners’ roots: yuzu in the butter for biscuits, adzuki beans to make the syrup for milk French toast and plate lunch with mochiko chicken and kalua pork. Be prepared to wait on weekends, when there’s often a line. (Closed on Mondays)
Morning Wood // 260 El Camino Real, San Bruno; 650.636.4007
Tacos dorados at Mariscos El Pariente, San Bruno
I had perhaps one of the best bites during my meals in the Northern Peninsula standing outside this taco truck, eating off a paper plate next to an abandoned lot on El Camino Real. Mariscos El Pariente, a vibrant blue truck the color of the ocean, serves a small seafood-focused menu (cash only), but the excellent tacos dorados are where it’s at. The crispy fried tortillas are stuffed with succulent shrimp, topped with slices of soft avocado and served with a fresh salsa on the side. The Michelin Guide gives out its coveted three stars to restaurants “worth a special journey.” I’d argue these tacos have earned that distinction.
Mariscos El Pariente // 160 El Camino Real, San Bruno ; 415.233.5175
Literally anything at Wonderful, Millbrae
We’re fervently working our way through all 106 menu items on Wonderful’s menu and have yet to have anything disappointing. The restaurant specializes in Hunan smoked pork but also draws crowds for its hand-cut noodles and signature green onion pancake, a layered, yeasty architectural wonder only amplified by Wonderful’s “godfather’s” sauce, served to every party when seated. Pro tip: Insert spoonfuls of the sauce — a forceful mixture of minced pork, black beans, chili peppers, chili seeds and jalapeños — inside the pancake layers for maximum enjoyment. Wonderful underlines its most popular dishes on the menu, but one of our favorites was unmarked: the Hunan cold noodles, topped with slivers of cucumber, green onion, peanuts and a rich, umami-laced sauce on the side.
Wonderful // 270 Broadway St., Millbrae; 650–651–8888
Duck bun bo hue at Pho de Nguyen, San Bruno
You would expect a bowl of duck bun bo hue served with filet mignon and oxtail to be indulgently rich, to the point of excess. But Pho de Nguyen’s broth is clear and bright, cooked down over 100 hours, according to the restaurant, with chewy noodles and just the right amount of meat. A crispy duck leg and confit on the side never hurt anyone.
The goi ga (cold chicken salad with herbs, cabbage, pickled red onions and peanuts) is also a winner.
Pho de Nguyen // 586-A San Bruno Ave., San Bruno; 650.873.1388
All the dumplings at Red Circle Dumplings, San Bruno
On a Sunday morning at this strip mall restaurant nestled between a dental office and Jenny Craig Weight Loss center, families with young children and couples are bent over steaming baskets of dumplings and cups of tea. English is the least-heard language. On most tables are the one-bite pork buns and tom yum soup dumplings, both of which have delicate, expertly made casings and alluring fillings. The tom yum XLB’s liquid is spicier than the typical Thai soup. End on a sweet note with the black lava sesame buns, pillows of dough stuffed with a sweet-savory black sesame paste.
Red Circle Dumplings // 1230 El Camino Real Suite J, San Bruno; 650.589.3288
Maple donut at Rolling Pin Donuts, San Bruno
Sitting outside Rolling Pin Donuts on San Bruno Avenue with fresh donuts on a grey morning, across from Flowers by Silvestri and down the street from San Bruno’s Catholic Church, you get shades of Tony Soprano holding court outside Satriale’s. Not much has changed at the Rolling Pin since the donut shop opened in 1958, and that’s what we love most about it. You can watch dough become donuts in the open kitchen behind the counter and get a solid breakfast for less than $2. People love the crullers, but don’t sleep on the maple donut, raised and doughy with a crown of not-too-sweet maple glaze. Plus, Rolling Pin is literally always there for you, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Rolling Pin Donuts // 429 San Bruno Ave., San Bruno; 650.589.9687
Soufflé pancakes without a wait at Uni Soufflé, Millbrae
Instagram influencers lost their minds when Gram Cafe brought jiggly Japanese soufflé pancakes to San Francisco’s Stonestown mall this spring, waiting in long lines or leaving empty handed when the chain sold out. Little did they know just a few miles away is a gloriously empty shop that serves just as good soufflé pancakes in downtown Millbrae. Uni Soufflé, which opened in June, makes its pancakes to order in about 10 to 15 minutes on a griddle in the small space, so you can watch (and document) the process. We opted for the original, two eggy cakes sitting in a pool of maple syrup with a dollop of whipped cream on the side.
Uni Soufflé // 405 Broadway, Millbrae; 650.686.6982
Snacks and sweets at Neelam Pacific Market, San Bruno
“International food and spices, lamb chop, lamb shank, lamb leg, lamb neck and goat sold here.” We couldn’t walk past this sign outside this Indian grocery store and not investigate. While we didn’t leave with any lamb necks, we did thoroughly enjoy the wall of Indian snacks, like crunchy chickpeas mixed with nuts, puffed rice and chutney; fresh samosas; and gulab jamun, donut-like sweets soaked in syrup.
Neelam Pacific Market // 492–494 San Mateo Ave., San Bruno; 650.583.5024
PPQ Dungeness Island, Millbrae (opening soon)
We’re really excited that a Peninsula outpost of San Francisco institution PPQ Dungeness Island is opening in Millbrae in early September. The new location at 195 El Camino Real will serve PPQ’s famed garlic noodles with whole roasted crab, plus new salted egg and Cajun crab flavors, lunch dishes and oysters on the half shell for happy hour. “We feel that Millbrae is a great location,” owner Charlie Truong said. “There are a lot of great restaurants here.”
We couldn’t agree more.