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San Francisco Chronicle hires writer and ‘Racist Sandwich’ podcast host Soleil Ho as its new restaurant critic

The Italian-themed Che Fico is one of the hot new stars in San Francisco’s robust dining scene. (Nick Otto for The Washington Post)

Soleil Ho, a Vietnamese American food writer and podcaster who has explored such issues as cultural appropriation, bro culture and race, will be the next restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, the newspaper announced Wednesday.

Ho will replace Michael Bauer, the Chronicle’s venerable though sometimes controversial critic who retired after 32 years on the job. Ho’s editor expects her to shake up not only the type of restaurants under review but also how they are reviewed.

Paolo Lucchesi, the Chronicle’s senior editor for lifestyle, which includes food coverage, said the paper’s editors “wanted to see how we could push the genre forward,” which explains, in part, why they selected a writer who covers food through the lens of culture, race and gender instead of someone already employed as a restaurant critic.

“We had so many great candidates, and I think she has this unparalleled combination. She’s a great writer, in and of itself,” Lucchesi said during a phone interview with The Post. “She’s a cultural critic already. She’s already changed food journalism in so many ways in America, and I’m excited to see how she will continue to.”

Have we reached a fork in the road for food criticism?

Ho expects to start at the Chronicle in mid-January. She brings a wealth of experience to the job despite her relative youth. At age 31, she’s a trained chef who has worked at restaurants in New Orleans and South Minneapolis; a freelance writer for various publications (including Bitch Media, the New Yorker and GQ); co-author of “Meal,” a “graphic novel on culinary mentorship, queer romance, and eating insects”; and co-host of the influential “Racist Sandwich” podcast. In the latter role, Ho has spent a fair amount of time in San Francisco, exploring its diverse and legendary restaurant scene.

“It seems like a really polarized scene, which is something I really want to dig into. There are the [restaurants] that Michelin organization would notice and actually award stars to. Then there are the ones that a lot of people who have money just wouldn’t go to,” Ho told The Washington Post.

“Then there’s the whole issue with the wealth disparity and how does that manifest in the restaurant world. Where do dishwashers go to eat as opposed to the tech people? There are places that service all of those classes of people, but only one of those categories actually gets noticed by food critics. I’m hoping to expand that reach a little bit,” she added.

Born in Chicago, Ho grew up in New York City and has lived in Iowa, New Orleans, Portland and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. She now lives in Minneapolis, which she plans to leave behind after the holidays. When she takes over as critic at the Chronicle, Ho doesn’t plan to don wigs and go in disguise to review restaurants, but she does plan to adhere to the codes and ethics of the Association of Food Journalists.

Anthony Bourdain was the best friend I never had

At the same time, Ho said anonymity has traditionally favored big-budget restaurants over mom-and-pop places. Keeping her photos up on the Internet will then tend to level the playing field for all establishments.

“It is interesting because I am a millennial, and it is a bit too late for any notion of anonymity,” she said, with a laugh. “You would expect the higher-end or chef-driven restaurants to have photos of the critics already on the walk-in fridge, but the average restaurant where they don’t have a huge budget for PR, they don’t have eyes on that sort of thing. They can just as easily Google me as soon as they hear about it. They don’t have to investigate too much.”

Ho plans to use her platform at the Chronicle to review restaurants from a variety of perspectives. She wants to “use a restaurant review to talk about urban development, to talk about race, to talk about wealth disparities and the housing crises, all of these bigger things,” she said. “I don’t plan to be super didactic about it, but there are ways to write a restaurant review with an acknowledgment that these things matter.”

Jonathan Gold did more than critique the Los Angeles food scene. He defined it.

But will her new job mean the end to “Racist Sandwich”?

“We’re not sure yet,” Ho said. “I’m talking with the crew right now, so we’re going to figure out the direction we want to go in. I don’t know. TBD.”

Last month, the Los Angeles Times announced it had hired two critics to replace the Pulitzer Prize-winning Jonathan Gold, the legendary critic who died in July from pancreatic cancer. The Times picked Bill Addison, Eater’s former national critic, as well as Patricia Escárcega, former food critic for Phoenix New Times, to cover the vast restaurant scene in Southern California. The paper also brought on Peter Meehan, co-founder of the now-defunct Lucky Peach magazine, to help run the food section, as well as Lucas Peterson, author of the Frugal Traveler column for the New York Times, to host a food video series.

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