Most restaurant criticism is written for the rich, and for people who read reviews to validate their dining choices and impeccable taste, but Soleil Ho’s reviews are not for them. Just as she did with The Racist Sandwich Podcast (currently on hiatus) Soleil brings much needed thoughtfulness to the world of restaurant critique, whether that means eliminating the clunky star system, reexamining the role of luxury in modern dining, or taking on the almighty restaurant listicle. Having thoughts and feelings about food may be her job, but it’s not exactly something she switches off at the end of the work day, which is great news, because she was nice enough to share some of those thoughts and feelings with me.
Location: San Francisco, CA
Current gig: Restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle
What do you usually eat for breakfast?
For breakfast I usually eat nothing. Or, if I’m feeling extra sassy—I’m still on the quest to find the perfect breakfast sandwich in San Francisco. So maybe once a week I’ll try a new place for a breakfast sandwich. So far it’s been The Sentinel and Super Duper Burger and a place called Lou’s Sandwiches that’s actually pretty damn good. Usually it’s just nothing because I always have a really big lunch or dinner so I don’t really feel the need to eat breakfast.
When you say “the perfect breakfast sandwich” what are you looking for?
A round bun, first of all—the closer it is to a kaiser roll the better—eggs that haven’t been microwaved, and good textural contrast. That might mean crispy bacon or, if I’m very lucky, that means a hash brown like the kind they sell in the freezer—those oval things. If that’s in the sandwich? Game over.
Like a McDonald’s kind of style hash brown?
Do you like an Egg McMuffin at all?
No, not really. It’s kind of the same texture all throughout and I just don’t care for that.
If you don’t eat breakfast, do you drink coffee or tea?
Yeah. I’m supposed to not drink coffee but I do anyway. I’m drinking coffee right now. My psychiatrist says that it is bad for people with anxiety to put more caffeine in their bodies. But you know, I’m paying her.
And it’s coffee! You’re not doing cocaine or anything.
Right. But I guess like I’m already at “coffee levels” of anxiety. So if I drink coffee then it’s basically like I just did cocaine.
Oh. How do you usually fix your coffee?
Black—that’s probably also part of the problem—usually hot. If I’m feeling very fancy I will drink yerba mate, which I have at home. People don’t usually have yerba mate at cafes which is really sad.
That is too bad. Do you get to cook at home a lot for yourself?
No. No, I don’t. If I want to cook breakfast at home, maybe I’ll do it there, but often I’ll cook like once a week, and usually a big thing of just random shit like curry. Or I’ll make a fried rice out of all the leftovers that I’ve accrued from the restaurants that I’ve eaten at. Because you know fried rice is the great equaliser.
Completely. Do you have a “usual day” food-wise, or is it just all over the place?
It’s usually all over the place, although there is a sense of routine despite that. I’ll probably go to one pop-up a week, and one tasting menu a week, and the rest is kind of a grab bag of random stuff that’s happening in the Bay Area that I’m supposed to check out. The amount of cuisines that I eat, and actually the amount of food that I eat is so variable from day to day, but there’s still these broad strokes of things that I try to do.
What do you usually do for lunch if you’re not at a restaurant?
I will probably go to a food truck.
Do you have any favourites?
No I don’t. I’m always trying stuff that’s new. I’ve never actually brought lunch from home. I’ve never been in that habit because I’ve always worked in restaurants. Why would you do that? And I’ve never worked in an office. And so that habit has never been inscribed on me.
Are you in an office now?
Are there office snacks or anything?
There are kind of office snacks—PR people will send me random shit all the time. Like a lotus seed puffs or—I don’t know—pepper jelly or just random things, and maybe you can cobble together some snacks out of that.
Do you work with other food writers or is it pretty much just you?
I’m the one who does restaurant reviews but we have reporters, and the wine critic sits across from me, and there’s other folks with beats within food. So we’re pretty robust for a newspaper food section.
What’s the what’s the craziest thing you’ve ever been sent by a PR person?
A framed Photoshopped image based on the first cover that we did for the reviews that I wrote. It was like a side profile of my head. It was illustrated and then had thought bubbles with the themes that were in the reviews. But the PR company Photoshopped their brand into the thought bubbles. And it was sent in this extremely gaudy, gilded frame and I was just like “now I gotta deal with this.” But it was big. It was maybe like 20 by 76cm. So actually the weirdest thing wasn’t food, it was that. It felt like such a weirdly intimate kind of serial killer-ish thing to send.
Do you ever pack any snacks in your bag?
I don’t snack because it just seems like an unnecessary amount of food to be eating when my life is to eat. I chew gum a lot if I’m feeling a little bit hungry, just because the odds are I’m going to be eating something ridiculous that day. Eating has taken on a very interesting curve since getting this job.
Do you ever crave something simple and home-cooked like steamed vegetables?
Yeah, I mean that’s generally what I do at home anyway. But there are also ways you can order that, especially in California. You can get a steamed vegetable at a restaurant because everyone is you know...fucking hippies. There’s a simplicity to California cuisine that I appreciate, because when I’m feeling a little burnt out I’ll just order asparagus, and that’s something you can do here.
You lived in Portland for a while. How would you compare the Portland food scene with the Bay Area food scene?
The Bay Area food scene is a lot more about fine dining. I find that there’s a lot more stratification, whereas Portland has a pretty robust middle ground. As far as restaurants go you can get pretty great food—you won’t have to break the bank. Whereas here the choice becomes a bit more stark; it’s either fine dining, or something that’s maybe 60 dollars a person, or quick service.
If you do get the chance to cook at home what do you usually make for dinner?
Usually I would make Asian food of some kind, generally Chinese or Japanese. I think that’s just because of the neighbourhood I live in—which has a bunch of Chinese groceries—and that’s also just what’s in my pantry. So I’ll make dashi and rice and vegetables or a stir fry or noodles or curry—like Japanese curry. That’s just easiest thing to whip together. And it’s hard because I don’t have a lot of fresh vegetables—and so curries are the best for frozen vegetables—just because they’re going to go bad because I don’t eat them right away.
What condiments usually keep stocked in your fridge or pantry?
Good question. So I have chilli oil generally—the standby is Lao Gan Ma. And then I have the Fly By Jing chilli oil which is a super fancy version of that. It’s really delicious and toasty. And then sriracha, of course. I’m trying to think of what else we have in there. A ton of pickles. We live by a Polish deli and so we have endless jars of pickled cucumbers, beets, cabbage, everything.
Could you estimate how many different types of pickles you have?
Probably five. Six if you count kimchi as like an extra fermented vegetable thing.
For hot sauces is it pretty much sriracha?
It’s pretty much sriracha. I do have one fairly old bottle of Secret Aardvark in the fridge too. Every time I pass through PDX I grab one.
How is the pizza in the Bay Area?
Neapolitan and woodfired pizza is the easiest to find. But there’s some really interesting other pizzas here. There are some places that do sourdough pizza, which makes sense. And then there are a couple of spots that have cropped up—a few Detroit-style—like the pan pizza. There’s a good variety.
Is there any New York style pizza?
There’s a little bit, yes. but I don’t need that.
It’s not your favourite?
It is and that’s why. You know what I mean? I’m not going to pretend that it’s the same. It’s not. And that’s fine.
You probably don’t ever do a Taco Bell run or anything like that?
No. Although the last time I was at Taco Bell was pretty recently just because I wanted to see the Pacifica Taco Bell which is legendary.
How was that?
It was beautiful. I think it’s a really picturesque location. But I realised that I hadn’t been to Taco Bell in a long-arse time so I was like “they have screens?” and “they have chicken?” I was just thrown. I think the last time I had Taco Bell was in high school.
Oh wow. There has been so much innovation.
Yeah! I had a Doritos Locos Taco and I was like “Ah. OK. I see now.” But I was never really into fast food, honestly. If I wanted something like that I would just eat rice and an egg with Maggi and chilli, and that’s like my fast food.
Do you enjoy a good burger?
I do sometimes when I’m on my period, for sure.
For the iron?
Yeah. I’m anemic and so I get these monster cravings for meat when I’m on my period. And burgers have all kinds of shit in them so it feels really good to eat.
Are you a thin patty person or a thicker burger person?
I love a good smash burger. Like I said before with breakfast sandwiches, I love texture, especially within a sandwich. I like crunchy things between bread.
What are your favourite ways to add texture to a sandwich you’re making at home?
So my favourite potato chip is the Sweet Maui Onion chip—you know the Hawaiian ones? I’ll throw those into a sandwich. Of course pickles add a really delicious sort of texture. I hate putting lettuces in sandwiches because of how limited their abilities are as far as adding anything of substance. Actually when I was a kid—I can trace this to that—I was in middle school and I remember taking my lunch money and, rather than buying a hot lunch or anything of substance, I would buy a bagel, which came with margarine and a bag of Doritos and I would just sandwich the Doritos between the slices of bagel and eat that as a sandwich. That was just amazing to me.
That was very much my vibe in middle school system.
Yeah I think about it sometimes. I wouldn’t do it again because I don’t know how far I’ll fall from that point.
I like that it’s a bagel too. It’s just so bready.
I know. I know. And the margarine? Disgusting.
I absolutely love it. Speaking of cheap food hacks—do you have any instant ramen hacks?
I don’t know if this is a hack. I don’t think that this fits the Lifehacker brand. I think y’all have higher standards than I do for what constitutes a “hack.” But in my family we love mie goreng—the noodles from Indonesia. It’s so delicious. Oh my god. So good. We just cook them with all kinds of shit in them. They’re supposed to be stir fried noodles, and so we add cooked shrimp and a sunny side up egg and then chilli oil, and extra fried shallots as well to make it super savoury.
Do you have a favourite movie theatre snack?
Actually yes. So one of my favourite things to do is—you know at Costco how they have sriracha salt or sriracha seasoning? I like to bring that in and put it on the popcorn, and it’s so spicy that you should not touch your eyes after eating it, but it’s so good. I used to work for a movie theatre—well, as a volunteer—and my thing was I would bring spices and herbs to work and convince people to try them on their popcorn. And they were super sceptical the whole time because they were like “what the fuck?” And we didn’t have powdered ranch or cheddar because we were just, you know, really stuck-up people. So I brought in Ethiopian spice mix, and nutritional yeast, and za’atar, and things like that.
Popcorn is such a great just blank canvas for experimenting.
Popcorn truly is the rice of the West.
Do you cook it at home?
No, we don’t have a microwave. So if I have it at home, it’s by the bag.
Trader Joe’s has a pickle popcorn now. Do you go to Trader Joe’s at all?
I was actually there last night because it’s by our gym. We don’t usually buy premade stuff. We should, but I always get the feeling—especially at Trader Joe’s—which is ridiculous, where I look at something and I think “oh I could just make that,” but of course I never would, because I don’t have time anymore. But that’s also why I don’t buy bread or basic things, because I’m like “oh, I’ll just make that.” And a lot of Trader Joe’s prepared stuff, like the frozen whatever nonsense, seems really achievable for someone with a basic knowledge of cooking.
Do you like any of their condiments or any of their weird specific-to-Trader Joe’s products?
I haven’t delved too deeply into it because the kind of condiments and accoutrements that I prefer are easily found in the Korean, Chinese, and Polish grocery stores near my place.
Trader Joe’s condiments are kind of terrible actually. They have a wasabi mayo, and I was like “oh that’s good,” but then I was like “or I could just add wasabi powder to regular mayo?”
Yeah. That’s a lot of wasabi mayo.
Is there anything that you just refuse to make or don’t like cooking?
That’s a good question. There is definitely stuff I don’t feel like making because I think my husband could just do it himself, like lentils. Actually the more basic something is the more—and this is me being very cynical about myself—the more beneath me it feels to make the thing.
No, I love that and I completely support it. Why would you spend your time making lentils? It’s so boring.
Yeah, right. If I’m going to do something I’m going to do it the fuck up.
Completely. So you like baking as well as cooking?
Yeah. I do. I really like making biscuits in particular.
What kind of biscuits do you make—a drop biscuit or a cut biscuit?
A cut biscuit. I use my own recipe. I used to be a big fan of the Ratio App—Michael Ruhlman’s—and so I have a ratio that I saved on that, that I just kept using for years. Because, you know, if I want to make a dozen biscuits, or if I make six, or make 30, I can do that.
Do you use a lot of other people’s recipes?
Yes and no. Like anyone like me, I have a pretty large collection of cookbooks, and so I’ll dig in there for ideas and improvise from there. I’m not really a recipe user in general.
Going back to the grocery stores in your neighbourhood. You said there is a Chinese a Polish and a Korean one?
There are definitely multiples of each of those, because I live in a neighbourhood called the Richmond in San Francisco, and that’s kind of where a lot of the immigrants from Eastern Europe, Russia, East Asia ended up.
Do have a favourite item to get from each that you can’t get anywhere else?
Yeah. So for the Korean, definitely mandu—the frozen dumplings—and kimchi, of course. And the one in my neighbourhood has all kinds of kimchi, not just Napa cabbage kimchi, but chive kimchi and daikon kimchi and whatever other sort of banchan that they rotate out of a low-boy cooler. And then the Chinese places, usually the big thing for me is the chilli oil because that goes with everything. And of course the the canned fish I’m a big fan of as well, because you just stir it on rice, you know? And it’s perfect. Like mackrel, or like fried dace is really good too.
And what about the Polish store? Do you have any regular items you purchase from there?
Oh yeah, pickles. Pickles and juice. I also have a bunch of Hunter’s sausage in my freezer.
What kind of sausage?
Hunter’s sausage. There’s a bunch of animals in there and they smoke it and it’s just really damn good.
Do you know which animals or is it a surprise each time?
You know, I don’t remember. Whatever they are they’re really good with eggs.
The details of which animals they aren’t important! Can we see inside your fridge?
In addition bread and biscuits, do you like to bake any sweets?
No, not really. My husband doesn’t really love desserts and I don’t either. If I want something sweet I’ll just eat a fruit.
Well that’s good.
[Laughs] Yeah. I guess I’m really Southeast Asian in that way. Usually what we would do for dessert growing up was just eat an orange.
Are you more of a cocktail person, a beer person, or a wine person?
I’m more of a cocktail person, although I’m getting into wine a lot more, though “into it” is kind of stretching it. I just understand that there are differences between the wines. [Laughs] I’m working on it. But usually, and this is probably from my line cook days—I was just really into beer. High ABV-type stuff. IPAs. And maybe that’s from the Portland days too, where I really enjoyed hoppy stuff that would cut through a lot of the kinds of food that I was eating. That just works really well for my palate.
Do you have a favourite spirit?
I don’t have a favourite, actually. I try a lot of different things, and when I was living in Mexico I got really into mezcal and raicilla, which you can’t really get out here.
What is that?
It’s kind of like a moonshine-ish variation on an agave liquor. It’s really good. But a lot of the ones I had weren’t name brand or anything. They were just made by local people, and it was good as hell. It’s just from a label-less bottles from this guy down the road and you’re just like “fuck yeah.”
So it’s an agave spirit that’s not aged?
Yeah, it’s definitely rougher.
Do you like a martini?
No. I actually don’t. I keep trying them and recalibrating, and I’m like “nah, still hate it.”
Is there a food that gives you trouble as a food critic because you just don’t like it?
I’m really ashamed that I can’t get into durian. It’s also one of those things where I just try it once a year to make sure. I really don’t like it, but you know it’s my legacy as a Vietnamese person, but I just can’t.
I haven’t tried it yet because I don’t want to prepare it myself.
Well, you can try the ice cream and it comes in popsicle form too. But it’s still. No. I can’t.
Are there any other frozen convenience foods that you stock up on besides the dumplings and sausage?
Oh, yeah. Frozen spinach is a really big part of my diet. Because you can just stir it into anything. And frozen peas. And then I usually just throw sliced bread into the freezer because I don’t eat it that much.
Are there any other canned foods besides canned fish you keep around?
Canned tomato, just to have, is always nice. What’s funny is I just put together my earthquake bag, and all my canned fish went into that, so I need to re-up. Because, you know, that’s good for a couple days.
What other food is in your earthquake bag?
I actually was doing a story about camping food, and this one company sent me samples, so I have steel cut oats in there—that you just add water to—and “bibimbap” that’s just in a bag. I think it’s freeze dried so you just add hot water and then it becomes that thing. Maybe. We’ll see.
You haven’t tried it yet?
No. I did try their clam chowder—actually it was corn chowder. It was fine. It was very...high in nutrients. It was really intense.
I’m glad that it was corn chowder and not clam chowder.
Yeah. That would be difficult.
If you could only choose one source of salt, one source of fat, and one source of acid when cooking, what would you choose for each category?
OK! Salt would be fish sauce. Fat? Probably olive oil. And acid? That’s a hard one but I think...pickled or fermented greens. I find that kimchi juice, for instance, is just a really delicious flavour booster. Historically when I’ve made Bloody Marys, I would throw a bunch of kimchi juice in them too.
Let’s talk about non-alcoholic drinks. Do you do you drink a lot of water? Are you a soda person? Do you drink juice?
I drink mostly water. I maybe have one soda every couple months. Usually if I am having especially porky dim sum or Korean barbecue, then I’m like “Oh, a Coke would be great with this.” I’m pretty occasional on the soda front. I don’t need a lot, but actually the thing that we always have at home is kombucha. My husband’s obsessed.
Do you make your own?
I used to but he was drinking it too fast. And so I was like “fuck this.” It’s not worth it. Because it would take me like a week or so to actually get the bottles and he’d just suck ‘em down.
Yeah. The man who loves kombucha too much.
That’s one thing about having a male partner around. You’ll put a lot of effort into something, or it will take you a while to perfect something and then they’ll just inhale it. It’s funny that he does it with kombucha.
Yeah, he’s a special boy.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.