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Curry Dive Chowdown Report: Viva Goa in San Francisco

Last week three friends shared the dinner table with me at the month-old Viva Go on Lombard Street. I enjoyed it so much, the Curry Dive series of South Asian-themed chowdowns was reincarnated to invite the ‘hounds to check it out. Our plan was to return for the lunch buffet (11-3, M-F, $8.99) on Monday. However, the day’s buffet line included but two Goan dishes (lamb xacuti and stir-fry fish chef’s special) leading us to opt for ala carte ordering instead.

Here’s what we ordered with menu descriptions and prices:

Fish Cutlets appetizer, $5.99 - Minced fish marinated in herbs, spices and shallow fried.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

Malabar Jinga appetizer, $7.99 - Shrimp sauteed in garlic, mustard and curry leaves in a tangy sauce.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

Goan Lamb Masala, $10.99 - Lamb with onions, tomato, ginger, garlic and variety of spices.
Pork Vindaloo, $10.99 - "Carne de vinda d'ahos", ginger, garlic and potatoes in sauce made with cardamom, fenugreek, cinnamon, black peppercorns, dry chiles and vinegar.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

Fish Curry, $11.99 - Traditional Goan fish cooked with fresh coconut and herbs and spices.
Chicken 65, $9.99 - Chicken cooked with curry leaves, bell pepper, onion, garlic, ginger and Goan spices.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

Beef assado, $12.99 - Slices of beef marinated in palm vinegar with Goan masala and roasted, served with mashed potatoes and boiled seasonal vegetables.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...
http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

Naan, $1.99 – White flour bread
Rice, $1.99 – Long grain Basmati rice, flavored with saffron and herbs
Mango lassi, $2.50 – Blended yogurt drink with mango
Indian tea (chai), $2.00 – Spiced Indian tea with milk

As we ordered, I explained to Mr. Alvares, one of the co-owners, that while I had tasted the lamb xacuti my previous visit, my dining companions had not. I asked him if they could have a little sample of the lamb xacuti from the buffet table. We scored not just the lamb xacuti (“Traditional curry of Goa, cooked with fresh coconut and spices, white poppy seeds and red dried chiles”) but also a taste of the stir-fried fish chef's special! Shown here, the red food coloring makes the chunks of fish with onions and bell peppers look remarkably like a plate of sweet and sour pork.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

Here’s my lunch plate with a little serving of everything. Clockwise starting at 12:00 position - Beef assado with mashed potatoes and vegetables; Pork vindaloo; Goan lamb masala; Basmati rice; Fish curry; Fish stir-fry special; Chicken 65; Naan; and in the center, Lamb xacuti.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

When we tried to order dessert, we were comped this sampler. Here are the menu prices - Bebinca, $3.99; pineapple ice cream, $2.99; pistachio kulfi, $2.99; and mango kulfi, $2.99.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

And a closer look at the desserts on my plate.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

Tasting Table’s review was released just before noon on Monday and it was fun to be able to inform the owners and point them to their restaurant’s first review.
http://tastingtable.com/entry_detail/...

Mr. Alvares said that they are holding off on a grand opening for a few more weeks, letting the business grow slowly by word of mouth before they start to advertise. He’s interested in getting feedback and is generous with comps now. “sfbing” asked if the menu would include sorpotel, a heavily spiced dish of various pork innards (http://www.goaholidayhomes.com/recipe...), and he said that it would make an appearance is the next few weeks.

Our tab came to $22 each, including tax and tip, and there was enough food to feed one more person. We had chipped in a little more to cover the comps, and Mr. Alvares tried to return some of the cash saying it was too much. As the last to leave, I insisted that he keep it all. He relented, but added a couple of kulfi to go to the bag of leftovers that are in my freezer to be shared at a future chowhound gathering.

I ask my dining companions to report back on their impressions of the food, favorites, dislikes, etc. Please weigh in.

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Viva Goa
2420 Lombard St, San Francisco, CA 94123

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  1. Sounds great! I can't think of any other Goan specialists in the area, though a few places have a few Goan dishes on the menu. Thanks for the report.

    Michael

    1 Reply
    1. re: mdg

      Two Goan dishes that Alvares recommended that i haven't tried yet are the chicken lollipops appetizer and the grilled pork chop platter. i think that the house specialty platters (a section of the menu) might be some of the more interesting things because they are so close to Western-style Portuguese food and seem more unique at an Indian restaurant.

    2. Were you able to get an impression of the quality of the food in the lunch buffet?

      1 Reply
      1. re: Mick Ruthven

        I tried the buffet recently at lunch, but was thoroughly unimpressed. The vegetable dishes were watery, and the various other dishes seemed really bland, without much heat or punch from the spices. However, it was better than the buffets of the previous two Indian/Nepalese places. The pictures of those a la carte items look much better than what I saw at the buffet (which is generally expected), but the dropoff was more than what I expected. I'd probably try it again a la carte, but would rather go elsewhere for the buffet.

      2. Thank you, Melanie, for organizing this delicious chowdown. I had been passing this restaurant and wondering about it, so it was a great opportunity to try a good sampling of the menu.
        I thought the fish curry was the best dish that we tried, with a good heat level approaching spicy. Surprisingly, the pork vindiloo was not packing much heat at all, even after requesting it hot.
        The chicken 65 reminded me of a Manchurian dish (which I loved), combining a sweet ketchup flavor with garlic and a nice fried crunchy component. I know, junk food, but satisfying.
        One surprise for me was the roast beef with mashed potatoes and vegetables. The sliced beef was very well seasoned and the potatoes were creamy an buttery. Not what you would find in a typical SF Indian restaurant.
        The naan was light and airy, and served hot from the kitchen.
        Overall a nice meal, and I would return to try some of the other Goan dishes.

        1. I loved two of the fish items, both the fish curry (which was spicy without overwhelming the fish) and the fish patty appetizers (use the green sauce). The naan was good and judging from the lamb xacuti, the buffet appears to pretty high quality. Not swimming in grease was a big plus for me.

          To my surprise, I preferred the lamb masala and the lamb xacuti to the pork vindaloo. The pork vindaloo needed more oomph, I thought, although Melanie tried to stress that she wanted it spicy. It was oddly one of the least spicy dishes on the table. I would also recommend that they use a fattier cut of pork, as the meat was a touch dry.

          The fish special of the day and the chicken 65 were odd for me, because they reminded me strongly of Chinese-American sweet and sour dishes with more spice and tang. Not my thing exactly, but it was interesting.

          The beef assado was quite tasty and definitely more on the portuguese side of things. The vinegar just perked things up, so don't worry that it is going to be some sort of pickled beef dish. The carne makes me think that this might be a nice place to take people who are wary of Indian food. You can chowdown on the curries, and they can have a nice meat and potatoes plate.

          I liked the bebinca as well, which had a chewy caramelized toffee thing going on. It is kind of reminiscent of an Indonesian spice cake but more like mochi than cake, if that makes any sense. I had tried this before in a London Goan restaurant and at the time thought it was some sort of weird Indian English fusion pudding, but it is apparently a Portuguese-Indian thing.

          Overall, Viva Goa's spicing is subtly different from the more common North Indian in SF. The vinegar and tamarind seem to give it a tangier profile, with the coconut rounding things out. I definitely want to explore some of the other Goan dishes on the menu. And with Sultan gone, I've also been missing a nice buffet and this should fit the bill nicely.

          And thanks to Melanie for organizing--and also thanks to my fellow dining companions who provided multiple tips for new and exciting places to eat!

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          Viva Goa
          2420 Lombard St, San Francisco, CA 94123

          1. Melanie, Thanks for organizing. What I most remember about the lunch were the seafood dishes and the general flavor profile of goan dishes.

            I agree with the positive comments on the fish curry. Our other dish of fish cutlets had a crispy exterior and a salted fish flavor that reminded me of salt cod (bacalao) cakes -- definitely a dish showing Portuguese influence (or perhaps just a universal foodway for coastal peoples). I also like the Malabar jinga, it had good sized shrimp and a bright tangy sauce with the curry leaves adding a bit of interest.

            Among the meaty dishes, I preferred the xacuti to the lamb masala because the flavors were rounded out by the curry sauce. Melanie requested a high degree of spice for the vindaloo, all the dishes had a low to medium level of heat, instead they had plenty of peppery spice flavor. Both the lamb masala and pork vindaloo packed a concentrated punch of goan spice that overwhelmed my palate, so the flavors started to run together. The beef asado distinguished itself as a goan interpretation of roast beef with mashed potatoes and vegetables, I liked the pepper, palm sugar and vinegar flavors of the beef.

            Our goal was to focus on the goan specialties, so a few of the dishes had similar spices. The menu is a mix of goan and more ubiquitous Indian dishes. On my next visit, I would mix in some curry dishes with coconut or other flavors to balance out the meal.

            1. Thanks Melanie for organizing this.

              I was surprised that of all the dishes, I enjoyed the Fish stir-fry special from the steam table most of all. That may be a first, as usually the quality of steam table fare pales compared to individually ordered dishes.

              I concur that some of the dishes were a bit too close in flavor for us to get a full sense of the Goan palate but it was very tasty. The shrimp appetizer was excellent as well, full of flavor without being too spicy.

              The beef dish was an unusual spin on an almost British roast beef and potatoes with steamed mushy vegetables. More lively, thanks to the Portuguese influence.

              I work in the neighborhood and I'm eager to try the buffet and will report on that when I get a chance.

              1. Let me add the other items that I tried last week at dinner time.

                Goan Macaroni Soup, $3.99 – Macaroni boiled with Goan homemade vegetable broth
                This sounded very appealing on the damp and chilly San Francisco night. Well-made veggie broth with some rotelli pasta was warming, if bland. The sort of thing you might crave when you have a cold.

                Rechardo Pomfret Fish, $13.99 – Pomfret stuffed with red spice paste and shallow fried, served with mashed potatoes and boiled vegetables
                One of the House Specialty Platters, this was a dramatic presentation of a whole, mostly deboned fish filled with slices of tomato and onion and a reddish paste that almost reminded me of Mayan achiote recado. The well-browned skin softened and got rubbery as the fish steamed on the plate, but was still tasty. The soft pomfret flesh was like butter, and the seasonings, quite gentle. This is a bargain for a whole fish, a complete dinner on plate.

                Chicken Cafreal, $11.99 – A regional dish cooked with fresh coriander, green chiles and spices, served with rice and boiled vegetables
                Another of the House Specialty Platters, a chicken thigh and drumstick were bathed in a brightly flavored seasoning paste that was both soothing and exciting, and mostly addictive.
                http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

                Lamb Xacuti, $10.99 - Traditional curry of Goa, cooked with fresh coconut and spices, white poppy seeds and red dried chiles
                I loved the velvety richness contributed by the coconut and ground poppy seeds to the dense curry sauce. Last week we’d asked for our food spicy, and this had more heat than the version from the lunch steam table.

                Vegetable Caldin, $8.99 – Authentic Goan vegetable dish cooked with Goan spices finished with coconut juice
                The one dish that really fell out for me. The same mix of pressure-cooked vegetables were waterlogged and near mushy. The sauce might have been interesting but was diluted by the soggy vegetables.

                Roti, $1.99 – Whole wheat traditional Indian bread
                Oddly, this was puffy, crispy in parts, and dried out.

                Garlic naan, $2.99 – Naan topped with chopped garlic
                The garlic naan was overdone and not as puffed as it should be. Our lunch naan was much better.

                And we also had fish cutlets, pork vindaloo, complimentary papadam, complimentary bebinca and kulfi, and multiple bottles of Kingfisher.

                I’ve just discovered that Viva Goa is on GrubHub, offering free delivery for $25 minimum and online ordering. http://www.grubhub.com/sf/viva-goa/

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                Viva Goa
                2420 Lombard St, San Francisco, CA 94123

                1 Reply
                1. re: Melanie Wong

                  With some trepidation, I have to be the voice of dissent on all this Viva Goa love. I haven't had a couple of the iconic dishes - xacuti, and vindaloo there, and i hear the xacuti is good. However, I did have the Rechado Pomfret, Chicken Cafreal, and Goan Fish Curry, and feel that this range is good enough for a general overview. To sum up, I did not enjoy the food. It was not authentic (a point that the food reviewer at SF Weekly discusses at length in his review of Viva Goa, coming to a conclusion I disagree with), and it was not tasty. Perhaps my expectations were too high because of my familiarity with Goan food, but I don't think so. Certainly, I look for certain high notes that Goan food should hit - like a sharp vinegar note, a dusky chili note, a savory garlic note, and warm cumin/coriander notes. But other than that, I didn't go in expecting fine cuisine. What I had, though, was mediocre food, period, with very little Goan flavor. I found the experience akin to eating mediocre Thai or even regional Mexican food (which abounds around here). The Rechado pomfret looked good, but the masala was dull and tomato-ey, and was sloppily mashed into the fish so I had a spoonful of just spice paste more than once. No vinegar or red chili tang in sight. The Cafreal again had a dull tasting green spice paste, smeared onto dried out pieces of chicken, and then cooked through so the spices seemed cloddish and caked on. The fish curry - which is the Goan calling card, rich, coconutty, chili hot, addictive in it's umami - was tomato paste and coconut oil with some freshwater fish - probably tilapia. Goa is not known for its freshwater fish dishes. I was incredibly disappointed. There is so much authentic Northern Indian, and even Udupi food and Indian street food happening in the Bay Area, it's too bad that Viva Goa is the standard for Goan food here.

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                  Viva Goa
                  2420 Lombard St, San Francisco, CA 94123

                2. i also dined at Viva Goa and made a few observations.
                  Give these guys a chance.

                  Unlike the rest of the Indian community, there aren't enough Goans in the Bay Area to continuously patronize this restaurant. Therefore, the menu reflects a taste and economic necessity. Given that most Hindu Indians eschew eating beef for religious reasons, that diminishes a vast customer base. It then becomes important to depend on people unfamiliar with homemade Goan cuisine only found in Goan homes.

                  To add to this dilemma, Indian restaurants have bastardized vindaloo into something no Goan would call a familiar taste. Real vindaloo is spiked with a substantial amount of vinegar almost like the filipino version of adobo. I don't think many people crave this flavor. You don't see filipino cuisine in the mainstream, do you? The spiciness is a reflection of the chef's timidness in balancing taste over heat.

                  Having been to India on business many, many times and enjoyed side trips to Goa, I feel I can offer a unique perspective.

                  Viva Goa's cuisine probably reflects the chef's background in a five star resort. The sharp tastes have been toned down and the spice heat reduced. It doesn't necessarily mean that it's less authentic; just more inviting to the unfamiliar masses. Think what Chinese food was forty years ago compared to now.

                  Onto the menu:

                  The Reichardo fish (pomfret) was good. The spice paste tasted like it had a bit too much tomato paste? added to it. The fish was fried crisp and I considered it perfectly acceptable. In Goa, they spread it liberally inside the belly of a mackerel and fry it. I suggest that if you're ordering it at Viva Goa, tell them to use the reichade paste without the tomato.

                  Goan Vindaloo is traditionally made with pork which is in more plentiful supply than other meats besides chicken. Lamb vindaloo is unheard of; except in hotel restaurants. Viva Goa's version had a bit too fatty pieces of pork for my liking and the spice heat was low. The sauce was pretty good., and it was perfect for my dining companion who was unfamiliar with Goan cuisine. In any case, the vindaloo was way better than the vindaloo trash served at almost any other Indian restaurant.

                  My sentiments are the same with chicken xacuti. This is another classic goan dish that has been perverted by all the other better known resturants. I would say VG's version is closer to Floyd Cardoz's famed Tabla in New York. The cumin/coriander/ppeppercorn/cinnamon/cloves, etc has been roasted with the cocounut to make a thick gravy. It was excellent.

                  I could care less about the tandoori dishes or the wraps. It's more a reflection of VG's desire to appeal to the masses familiar with the tired Punjabi cuisine.

                  Some excellent dishes i wish VG had;
                  Sorpotel- vinegar/spice paste marinated pork belly with liver curry
                  Pulau- Goan version instead of the biryani
                  Caranguejos Recheados- stuffed and grilled blue crabs
                  Pasteis de Camarao- Prawn puffs
                  Goa sausages- diced dry marinated pork, rehydrated with diced tomatoes and braised with potatoes. Too die for. I had to eat outside the hotel for these.
                  Tisrio com coco- Clams stuffed with coconut /spice dry paste
                  Bombil Frito- fried Bombay duck fish. Goes well with Kingfisher beer
                  Crab Curry- done in awesome goan cocunut curry style
                  Ale Bele- shredded cocounut mixed with jaggery (brown sugar) and stuffed in a crepe (dessert). The bebinca was pretty good and nicely dense with a caramel flavor.

                  An earlier comment mentioned the overcooked veggies. Unfortunately, most Indians like to cook their vegetables to a mush. Perhaps the kitchen can be requested to cook them al dente.

                  All in all, it was a good experience. It's obvious that the restaurant is still trying to balance the menu while trying to be economically survivable. The Bay Area needs another facet of Indian cuisine besides the standard Punjabi/dosa/udipi fare. Goan cuisine is a unique Indo/Portuguese cuisine that deserves attention. Will I be back? Yes, and I'll be ready to ask the kitchen to adjust afew things to my liking. i hope you will give these guys a chance.

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                  Viva Goa
                  2420 Lombard St, San Francisco, CA 94123

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: gourmetwannabe

                    Thank you gourmetwannabe for your write up - sooo refreshing to see here - I LOVE Goan food, I tend to cook more Goan than anything when I cook Indian. Seems the owner is trying his best based on the original report. Crab curry, oh boy, I'll be there with bibs on! "Carne de Vinha d' Alhos" - anyone who loves vindaloo should urge the Goan cooks here to GO FOR IT! I'm sure they know how... if you try to pelase everyone you please no one. Authentic SF'cans used to love new tastes, not being so correct trying to placate palates. - ex lurker

                    1. re: EatsToLive

                      I'm not sure if the two most recent posters were disagreeing with my review directly or not, but either way, I do agree that if the tomato paste was removed in the recheado, and the vinegar, heat and spices were amped up in some of the other dishes, the dishes would have good Goan flavor. In other words, different than that was served, and what I reviewed. I hope they get more fearless and authentic too. It'd be great to have a good Goan restaurant in the area!

                      Oh and I do think the flavoring was less authentic, not just "more inviting to the unfamliar masses." I recently dined at Fort Aguada Resort in Goa, a 5 star resort by global standards, and while the spicing was less rustic/more creamy than beachside shacks or even local restaurants, the flavors were an elegant riff on a Goan profile. The Recheado at Viva Goa, to my taste, was not even in the ballpark.

                      Also, the vinegary, spicy flavor of a true vindaloo or a sorpotel is amazing and addictive. I disagree that it's not a flavor that curries favor (pardon the pun). If everyone thought like that, I doubt that we would ever have Sichuan Spicy Boiled Beef popping up at multiple restaurants all over this city.