In a hidden room in City Hall that only the mayor and Nicolas Cage have the access codes to exists the list of the 137 things you have to do in the time you live in San Francisco. Numbers one and two are to permanently delete the term “San Fran” from your lexicon and to explain to a tourist that the Golden Gate Bridge is not actually painted gold. Number 137 is to at least consider buying truffles or a rum coconut from a guy in Dolores Park. And somewhere in the middle is to go out for a big dinner at Liholiho Yacht Club.
Liholiho is a constantly busy spot in the Tenderloin that serves a mix of Hawaiian and Asian dishes, and it’s been one of our go-tos for celebrating something big since it opened in 2015. When you walk in, you’re surrounded by tall ceilings and brick walls that make you feel like you’re in a secret location inside an old warehouse. It’s always packed with people you expect to have cool job titles like panda whisperer or first-class cabin designer, who actually look good in hats, and were born wearing leather jackets. But really, everyone is at Liholiho for the same reasons - a 30th birthday party, marking someone moving to the city, or the last night of a successful business trip where they pitched their idea for touchscreen houseplants. It’s somewhere people go to have a big night and while part of that is the excellent tiki drinks and cool vibe, it’s also because of how great the food is.
The menu includes a mix of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Hawaiian dishes, split into bites, appetizers, and sharable large plates. You could get a mix of just bites and appetizers, but it’s worth ordering at least one of the large plates (which range from $40-$95) if you come with a group. While the influences are a bit all over the place, the one thing you’ll notice about all the food here is that the flavors are loud and as unsubtle as possible. This isn’t food that you passively eat while you discuss the pros and cons of learning cursive, this is food that becomes the center of the conversation for the night.
You’ll talk about the best way to tackle one of the gargantuan beef ribs with a spicy, sweet, and sticky kimchi glaze and the kung pao sweetbreads that make you wonder if it should’ve been sweetbreads all along. The poke is also one of the best we’ve ever had with the perfect amount of kick and sesame oil. But unlike the overpriced version you get for lunch in the FiDi every Tuesday, you can still taste the actual fish in this one. And a month after you eat here for the first time, you’ll still be talking about the baked Hawaii with caramelized pineapple ice cream on a group text with everyone you came with, trying to find a reason to come back.
Once you make a reservation at Liholiho Yacht Club, you’re done planning. Start with cocktails at Louie’s Gen-Gen Room downstairs before dinner if the line at the main bar is already two-deep, split a ton of great food with a group upstairs, and then order another round of drinks with dessert before putting yourself in a car. An entire night spent at Liholiho is as essential to the SF experience as accidentally freezing at a Giants game (#44). When you leave, you’ll know that you’re a step closer to completing the checklist and can move on to the next thing. If you came here with someone who’s just visiting, maybe it’s taking them to the bridge tomorrow and hoping they ask you about its color scheme.
Popcorn, Butter, Togarashi
A little sweet, a little spicy. Snack on this to start things off, especially if you’re already a drink in.
Fried Oyster, Beef Carpaccio, 1000 Island, Butter Lettuce
These are pretty much everything that’s right with the world. Order them.
Beef Tongue, Kimchi, Cucumber, Poppy Seed Bun
Cakey buns filled with thinly-shaved beef tongue. These are small, and you’ll want to hold on with two hands just to make sure you don’t accidentally drop it.
Tuna Poke, Sesame Oil, Radish
George Washington would steal this off your plate, lie about it, and have zero remorse. This is some of the best poke we’ve ever had.
Japanese Sweet Potato, Black Sesame-Maple, Almonds, Baby Blue, Red Endive, Black Truffle
This is a really good salad with sweet potato and endive, but don’t expect any kind of truffle explosion.
Kung Pao Sweetbreads, Cashews, Pineapple, Broccoli, Black Vinegar Honey Glaze
The sweetbreads are perfectly cooked - crunchy and creamy - and everything it comes with is great, especially the pineapple. If you’re not a sweetbreads person, this is an excellent place to start.
Hopper Shrimp, Chicken Fried Broccolini, Miso, Satsuma Mandarin, Everything Spice
This is one of those dishes that, no matter how many shrimp there are, it’ll always be one too few, but the real MVP of this dish is the fried broccolini.
Off-Menu Spam, Rice, Spicy Aioli
You’ll feel cool for ordering this because it’s not written down anywhere. It’s great spam, but it’s also exactly that, great spam, so pretty much rectangular hot dogs. Unless you’re really into spam, it’s not essential.
Whole Roasted Fish Tail, Capers, Black Olives, Carrots, Smoked Walnuts, Dijon Butter
Perfectly cooked fish doused in butter and a bunch of other great things. This is enough for maybe three people.
Beef Ribs, Kimchi Glaze, Nitaka Pear, Miso Butter Brussels Sprouts, Pickled Onion
Go ahead and phone your dry cleaner before these show up to the table because you’ll want to dive onto the plate after you take a bite.
This version of baked Alaska with caramelized pineapple ice cream and chiffon cake is good enough to make anyone consider ordering dessert first.