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Quieting the Monkeys in Silicon Valley (Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Mountain View, and Redwood City)

Thanks for all the posts on restaurants in Silicon Valley. My lady and I have been systematically trying recommendations for the last six months (after researching all the posts), with a spotty record—mostly misses, very few hits. It’s hard to filter out all the noise, since a restaurant rarely or never has a menu full of great dishes. Even a tasting menu at the French Laundry or El Bulli is littered with hits and misses for a discerning palate. In an effort to “quiet the monkeys” I have a request for recommendations that would really help picky newcomers, like us: please post in rank order, the five (or fewer) best spots to eat with the specific best thing(s) to order.

For alignment, here are some of our favorites that have been recommended by the hounds:

1. Iberia in Menlo Park for patatas bravas--fried potatoes with a garlic sauce. (Other things that are good there off the small tapas menu: pork skewers, bacon wrapped dates, gazpacho, and their tempranillo red wine.)

2. Shanghai Family Restaurant in Mountain View for their thick Shanghai fried noodles. (Scallion pancakes, pot stickers are also good.)

3. El Grullense in Redwood City for carnitas tacos.

4. Jonathan’s in Menlo Park for fried chicken and fried catfish (you can order them together; eat them with the hot sauce). (Other sides/items were not good that we’ve tried.)

5. Amber India in Mountain View for butter chicken (part of the buffet).

In response to posts (like the list above), it would be great to get the collected wisdom of the local hounds by noting items that might be “better.” For instance, someone might post, “I think the carnitas tacos at El Grullense are OK, but they are better at....” Please only post the items you think are truly great and worth revisiting (fewer than five is fine, but we’d like to start with just five per person to force quality over quantity of recommendations).

For humoring this rather rigid request, we’ll report back when we’ve tried out the items and restaurants—in ranked/stacked order. I’ll also post under my own post here with our current findings to date.

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  1. Please don’t be offended by the frank feedback, but for further tuning, here are some of our reports on recommendations we’ve already tried:

    Tamarine. If you think this is good Asian food...you haven’t tried good Asian food. We’ve tried most of the appetizers and a large portion of the mains. While everything is edible and has a reasonable flavor profile, the dishes lack anything compelling. Not worth the price.

    Fraiche for chocolate frozen yogurt with apricot topping. Good combination, but we prefer the regular frozen yogurt with ollalieberry, mochie and/or granola. Something gamey about the way the yogurt cultures interact with the chocolate.

    La Casita Chilanga for tortas (got the works). Great after a bender, but a little heavy and greasy. Unfortunately, cleanliness might have been an issue, because it left us a little ill, so we won’t return.

    Hyderabad House for biryani and achari. Decent flavor, especially for the achari, but low quality meat, which was reheated, and flies all over the restaurant. Won’t return due to the abundance of flies. Get a fly swatter.

    Back a Yard for jerk pork. Decent but not great on flavor and quality of meat. Side dishes were mediocre. Might return, but not often.

    Hobees for omelets and coffee cake. Mediocre on both counts. Will not return.

    Evvia for lamb. Basic roasted lamb—not deep or refined with flavor. Other dishes were only OK. Not worth the price.

    Zibbibo for multiple items. They need a decent palate to guide their dishes and not worth the price. Will not return.

    Left Bank for multiple items. If you think this is good French food....

    Vida for multiple items. See above but cheaper than Left Bank, so not quite as bad.

    Shiok for multiple items. Good but not compelling. Lacks depth of flavor. Marginally better than Tamarine. May return but not often.

    Manresa for tasting menu and wine pairing. Worst high-end tasting menu and wine pairing ever. That’s saying a lot. Sommelier’s palate has no evidence of discernment. Confuses “new and interesting” with “quality and balance.” Actually served a wine that had a nose of cat pee. Seriously. And that was just one of many....

    Kaygetsu for kaiseki. Good quality and flavor. Not terribly compelling and expensive. May be back.

    Xanh for multiple items. Good but not compelling flavors. May be back.

    8 Replies
    1. re: GreenKnight

      memorable bites in the peninsula are hard to come by (so i'm extremely interested in other people's feedback too), but here are a few more suggestions:

      trend (mountain view): you can't go wrong with most of their sichuanese and northern dishes. i can't find a menu online, so i'm going off my memory (and translation), but try the spicy chicken gizzard appetizer, the spicy fish soup, and scallion pancake? (btwn the scallion pancake and the pulled pancake, i remember one being great and the other being bad). the only thing i've ever really disliked from there is their double skin (the flavor is ok, but they make it out of beancurd noodles instead of mung-bean skin and still charge you lots; go to great china in berkeley for a great version of that).

      cafe brioche (palo alto): cornmeal crusted oyster sandwich; french toast special of the day.

      mayfield (palo alto): their version of the eggs florentine and the warm star shaped baguette that comes for free. they make a big deal about their coffee but i wasn't too impressed.

      fraiche: i also prefer the regular. my favorite topping combinations are shaved chocolate + strawberry and mochi + dried figs.

      refuge (san carlos, ok i know this is stretching the geography a bit): pastrami sandwich and belgian-style beers.

      if you're willing to go up to san mateo, that opens up a few more good options.

      1. re: wahbahdoo

        links

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        Fraiche
        644 Emerson St Ste 110, Palo Alto, CA 94301

        The Refuge
        963 Laurel St, San Carlos, CA 94070

        Trend Restaurant
        400 Moffett Blvd, Mountain View, CA

        Mayfield Bakery & Cafe
        855 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, CA 94301

        Cafe Brioche
        445 S California Ave, Palo Alto, CA

        1. re: wahbahdoo

          also for cakes, try the raspberry chocolate mouse from la baguette and strawberry shortcake from satura.

          -----
          Satura Cakes
          320 University Ave, Palo Alto, CA 94301

          La Baguette French Bakery
          170 Stanford Shopping Ctr, Palo Alto, CA

          1. re: wahbahdoo

            Thanks for the recs. We'll give Trend and the oyster sandwich a try. We tried Cafe Brioche but can't remember the meal.

            On Mayfield, we enjoyed the eggs Florentine; they needed salt but we'd get them again. We also liked their breakfast pizza with the poached egg.

            Definitely willing to go to San Carlos (will try refuge), San Mateo (enjoyed the omakase at Sushi Sam's), etc. We just wanted to fish out the best stops in the closest areas to where we live.

          2. re: GreenKnight

            I like La Bamba's carnitas, but it is a different style than El Gruellense (don't know which one of those you visited). Like al pastor at Chavez market, but only when it comes off the spit and is grilled.

            Note that at these little shops, including some of those you mention, they do have off days and I am willing to forgive that at the price point. Looks like you are looking for very high quality meat at a cheap price, and that is hard to find.

            Sunnyvale too far? I like the dosas at Madras Cafe, good chutney, and the dosa and idli and pongal at Dosa Place. You might prefer the ambiance at Dosa Place, but fine dining it isn't.

            I like Culture Frozen yoghurt too. The regular is simply Strauss yoghurt, but their seasonal tangerine was also good. They are about to roll out vanilla. They have some good toppings - i like the coconut crunch, but have heard good things about the

            The falafel at Mediterranean Wraps/ Kan Zeman is good fresh, and my husband likes their lentil soup. I like the baba there.

            1. re: jsaimd

              Thanks. The El Gullense is listed below. Understand they have off days and there's a limit to the quality of meat. I just have a hard time if the quality of the meat stands out. For instance, at La Casita Chilanga we were OK with quality of meat, but not OK with feeling ill afterward (that's a euphemism BTW).

              Definitely willing to go to Sunnyvale, just trying to hit the closest areas first.

              -----
              El Grullense E & E
              999 El Camino Real, Redwood City, CA 94063

              1. re: GreenKnight

                Oops, not the right place in the post above. The right place for carnitas tacos is linked below. Never tried the one above....

                -----
                Taqueria El Grullense
                1280 El Camino Real, Redwood City, CA

            2. re: GreenKnight

              You'll get way better mileage for kaiseki at Wakuriya in San Mateo for slightly better quality and lower prices.

            3. Coctel de Camarones at Fiesta del Mar Too in Mountain View ... and Margaritas. (Perhaps my judgment was affected by the drinks. Better have them together.)

              Any of the kebabs at Rose International Market in MV.

              Onion rings, and milkshakes, at Palo Alto Creamery in downtown Palo Alto.

              Lunch buffet at Darbar in PA.

              XLBs at Su Hong Eatery in PA.

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              Rose International Market
              1060 Castro St, Mountain View, CA 94040

              Su Hong Eatery
              4256 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, CA 94306

              Fiesta Del Mar Too
              735 Villa St, Mountain View, CA 94041

              Palo Alto Creamery Downtown
              566 Emerson St, Palo Alto, CA

              Darbar Indian Cuisine
              129 Lytton Ave, Palo Alto, CA 94301

              4 Replies
              1. re: anyhow

                We were at Su Hong Eatery last Saturday, something was really off. Hot soy milk was unusually sweet and lacking in soymilk flavor. XLBs were a big disappointment. Good soup, but lacking much in the savory department, and the skins were almost like a baked dried tortilla consistency (and chewy too). I'd say go to Shanghai Family in Mountain View for cheaper XLB, or you can get better versions at Little Shanghai in San Mateo.

                1. re: K K

                  I am sorry to learn you had bad luck at Su Hong. I have found them to be quite consistent and I have recommended them for that reason. I will go back soon and try again.

                  Shanghai Family has been selling me a lot of "Chinese celery with dried bean curd" but the last XLBs were nearly the size of tennis balls. Now, that added to the polite dining challenge!

                2. re: anyhow

                  We tried the coctel de camarones at Fiesta del Mar Too. I'm thinking it must have been the margaritas that helped the dish. They came in a large glass, in a gloopy, sweet "coctel" sauce that badly needed acidity. We tried several dishes, including the their "spicy" shrimp specialty dish that wasn't spicy or special, and their mole, which had too much star anise (or some other spice).

                  1. re: GreenKnight

                    It's been a while, but we thought they had the best mole around.

                3. "... a restaurant rarely or never has a menu full of great dishes." Ain't it the truth. I've found it very important, in new restaurants, not to try my favorite dishes, but rather the restaurant's favorite dishes, whatever they are. (A benefit of those small local restaurants found around the world that offer mainly a daily special -- "le menu" in the French, not US, sense -- which can be very good.)

                  So as to understand the request better, GreenKnight, can you say a little more about how many visits were behind those local evaluations that you posted for reference? (FYI I rarely comment on any restaurant before trying it a few times, under different circumstances -- if then. I find more than enough "best of X" recommendations that don't reflect trying very many of X, and occasionally even appraisals of restaurants not yet tried!)

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: eatzalot

                    Most are repeat offenders in the list below. I agree with you in general, unless you actually get food poisoning, which is hard for me to forgive.... I think one visit is sufficient, though, if you are trying something specific. They may vary from day to day on the item, but you should be able to get the general idea.

                    Tamarine: 5 X.

                    Fraiche: +5

                    La Casita Chilanga for tortas (got the works): 1 X, but in the unforgiven category for me.

                    Hyderabad House for biryani and achari: 1 X, kind of in the unforgiven category, but might try again anyway.

                    Back a Yard for jerk pork: 3 X

                    Hobees for omelets and coffee cake: 4 X, but not by my choice.

                    Evvia for lamb: 4 X, mostly not by my choice.

                    Zibbibo for multiple items: 3 X

                    Left Bank for multiple items: 3 X.

                    Vida for multiple items: 3 X.

                    Shiok for multiple items: 2 X.

                    Manresa for tasting menu and wine pairing: 1 X, but may try again for lunch. Due to price I'm tempted to put it in the unforgiven category.

                    Kaygetsu for kaiseki: 2 X

                    Xanh for multiple items: 2 X.

                    1. re: GreenKnight

                      "unless you actually get food poisoning, which is hard for me to forgive..." Agreed (and from far too much experience).

                      FYI if Manresa has ever served lunch, it was a special event. I've had several outstanding tasting menus by the way, along with other people with a lot of experience. The over-the-top "grand" tasting menu there is not advertised, but is available to anyone, as I understand, by advance request and if kitchen isn't too busy.

                      Finally to quote the vital advice that titled Jim Quinn's classic 1980s restaurant book, "NEVER eat out on a Saturday night!"

                  2. While I am probably the biggest fan of the Amber buffet on this board, I am not a fan of their butter chicken (nor anyone else's for that matter). Different strokes for different folks, I guess. If I had to pick something similar but better, it would be Junnoon's Old Style Delhi chicken. In general, unless we're looking for a special occasion restaurant, we prefer eating at the smaller Indian/Pakistani establishments. Last memorable non tandoori chicken dish was just a few weeks ago at Taste Buds in Sunnyvale. It was the S.Indian style chicken (w/ just a bit of sauce) in their lunch buffet.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: ceekskat

                      I would recommend Athidhi in Fremont, for non-tandoori chicken dishes.
                      I have tried their chicken 65 and it was really good.

                      1. re: chowmeaow

                        Thanks. Will try Junoon's chicken. I can understand not liking butter chicken or the like. Too creamy, oddly sweet, very heavy...but despite that I still enjoy it.

                    2. I've listed several of my favorite dishes in the recent "Brand New to Silicon Valley" thread.

                      But I don't know - I've never had any problems with flies at Hyderabad House, nor any problem with meat quality given their price point. And I wouldn't do a wine pairing at Manresa, but if I did, I wouldn't object to a New Zealand-style Sauvignon Blanc given their style of cuisine.

                      It would help to know where you moved to Silicon Valley from so as to steer you away from places that you will unavoidably compare with better food elsewhere. Southerners will not be happy with our barbecue, New Yorkers will not be happy with our "New York style" pizza, Midwesterners will not be happy with our German and Greek restaurants, etc.

                      Michael

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: mdg

                        Thanks, Michael. We're from LA, but I often spend large parts of the year in NYC, both of which are great places for ethnic food, and NYC is tops for high-end dining. We now live nearby University Ave. in Palo Alto.

                        We tried Hyderabad House (on U. Ave) based on your previous post in the other thread. Interesting that you don't see flies there in the restaurant. Must have been a recent problem. Do you find that it's mostly just reheated dishes, or is there a time when the meat doesn't taste/look days old? Enjoyed the flavor on the achari. Tried the chicken biryani, but maybe the lamb is better....

                        1. re: GreenKnight

                          I don't have any problems with the meats at Hyderabad House - they are fresh, but Indian restaurants aren't generally where you are going to find lamb cooked rare. And long-cooked dishes like much of the menu obviously have a lot of prep work done ahead of time, or else the service would be glacial. I love all three biryanis at Hyderabad House; the spicing is different in each.

                          But there are plenty of other great Indian choices around as you head down El Camino south through Sunnyvale down to Santa Clara (plus or minus a mile or so in either direction). Indian cuisine is probably the number one example where Silicon Valley will outshine nearly any other place in the country.

                          On the other hand, coming from LA you will probably find our Thai restaurants unsatisfactory. I don't know any place in the valley that is remotely as good as Thai Nakorn in Orange County. And it makes sense that someone used to the better upscale Greek places in New York is not going to be super impressed with Evvia. A more homestyle place like Athena Grill in Santa Clara might work better - the spicy feta cheese spread there is probably my favorite dish there.

                          Michael

                          -----
                          Athena Grill
                          1505 Space Park Dr, Santa Clara, CA 95054