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Nov 17, 2012 11:22 AM

Must-try chow for week in South Bay?

I will be spending a week based in Palo Alto and am looking for suggestions for places not to miss in the area roughly between San Mateo and San Jose, one I do not know much about. More chow than cuisine, especially in categories that are much stronger in this area than in Manhattan where I live (south India, Vietnam, Mexico are three), but I am open to anything special. Lunch suggestions in or close to Palo Alto are particularly welcome.

Below is a list of places that my online research has thrown up, with my read on what they do well. Thumbs up or down on these, alternatives, things I have missed would all be welcome. To help dial me in, the one place I tried on my prior that I will to return to is Chaat Paradise in Mountain View.

Thanks for any help.

Ian "Tazzalenghe" Morrison

JangTu Restaurant, Sunnyvale: Korean, liked for soondae gopchang

Gaku Sumi Yakitori, San Jose: Authentic, "bring a crowd and a designated driver" yakitori

Nam Vang Restaurant, San Jose: Vietnamese hole in the wall with one great dish, Hu tieu nam vang

Hachi Ju Hachi, Saratoga: Japanese small plates and omakase (the upmarket end of my range)

Osteria Coppa, San Mateo: best area salumi di autore, pizze etc, $15 corkage, Monday prix fixe $45

All Spice, San Mateo: upmarket California Indian (a south Asian Slanted Door), not cheap but quality is high, $15 corkage

Thien Long, San Jose: pho-centric Vietnamese but with interesting if limited extensions (banh xeo etc)

Com Tam Long An, San Jose: a bit more adventurous (nem nuong cuon cha ram) but erratic Vietnamese

Ephesus, Mountain View: Standard Turkish but well liked

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  1. The Vietnamese food court in the Grand Century Mall is great, as is the funkier food court next to Lion Super.

    The place I miss most from when I was commuting to San Jose is Martins West in Redwood City.

    5 Replies
    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      It's regrettable, but I just can't recommend Martin's West any more. From that knockout Kedgeree the second time I've gone there, I've wanted to keep loving it. Great room, great atmosphee, but they keep dumbing down the dishes and lowering ingrediant quality. I still go there, but I often sigh about past glory.

      The place to go now is Vesta around the corner, which is a pitch perfect wood fired pizza place just like a million little places in italy. Lush Gelato, a good wine list, some inventive pizzas (sausage honey), specials that are always worth ordering ( smoked burrata and end of season pears last time we were there).

      I would not send a new yorker to Vero or Renzo or even Vesta. As much as I deeply like all of them, and they are above the quality of 70% of manhattan italian, I don't think either would be in the top 100.

      1. re: bbulkow

        Sad if Martins West's moment has passed.

        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          On a related note, I had dinner at NOLA in PA last night, and I think they're improving. There's a few new menu items - like a duck stuffed jalapeno deep fried - and I don't remember the chicken and waffles from the last time I was there. Although the place is a packed meat market toward the weekend, it's got a lot of what I like in a casual dinner / bar joint. They're pushing toward higher rotation for us.

          We tried to go to the place that's replacing Lavanda, the new thin crust pizza place, and it's got a "private event" sign saying the opening is tomorrow, the 19th. I think they're really at soft opening and any person could walk in, but they'll be open for sure tomorrow.

          In MP, the restaurant next to Cafe Barrone closed. As much as I eat around here, I always forget whatever italian is in that place. It's cursed.

          There's no obvious action in the BBC location, not clear if they're going to shoot for the spring or have given up or what.

          1. re: bbulkow

            Do you mean Cedro (by Barrone)? The website says the family is on vacation. . . though it's supposed to have new hours this month.

      2. re: Robert Lauriston

        Does anybody know how late the food courts stay open on weekdays?

      3. San Mateo to Los Gatos covers a LOT of ground. I think your list is pretty good. I especially recommend Jang Tu (if it's the place I think it is), it's a really down home place - more so than most manhattan k-town places I've seen.

        I am a fan of Aachi Aappakadi. There are several chettinad places, I like the feel & food at this one. Anjappar in Milpitas is also very fine - at about 8pm when 237 is open, it's a straight shot to Anjappar and it might be easier to get to . Aappakadi has one dish - the rice tortilla bowl thing with the curry in the middle - that is a staple of Chettinad but hard to find around here. Bonus for being in a converted formica mexican drive through thing.

        Palo Alto might be worth a stroll one evening. If you go, I might recommend Reposado. The place has a modern glitz that's offputting, but the cooks there are actually doing a great job. Last night I had a beer/pork/mole thing that was rather extraordinary. The mole had been cut with oil and beer instead of the usual stock, which brought out a different taste profile. They had three different moles on the menu, which shows some pride. We also had sopitas, a great little dish. Steer clear of the fish stuff, it's only ordinary. Another interesting choice is Coupa Cafe, which has a techy-scene but good everyday argentinian cafe food, like Arepas. Across the street is one of my favorite burgers in town, at Nola.

        I'd like to suggest Tu Mero Mole (Sunnyvale), I think it's above the cut of anything I've seen in New York (although I haven't hung out much in the real mexican parts), it's above most of the south bay. It's a low rent little place doing a very, very good mole, and cochinta pibil better than I ever found in the Yucatan. Great cheap hidden gem.

        I haven't tried Ephesus, but I'm very, very skeptical of the place. I'm not sure where I would send you in downtown MV anymore. For good honest turkish, I end up at New Kapadocia (sp) in RWC, which has classic turkish dishes in a very homly environment.

        San Mateo has a number of Yakitori / Izakaya places. I can't recommend - I think GF and I will be doing a push soon. Ever since I mentioned how many have chicken gizzards, cartilage, and hearts, she's been raring to try them all out. There's a very authentic place in Los Altos, which I think is Sumika. Funny little place in a central courtyard down stairs, but has that authentic charcoal trough and smoke - once I went to Yakitori alley under the JR line in tokyo, I know Sumika is the real deal.

        Another interesting hole in the wall that's gotten some board attention is i dumpling in Redwood City. It's a very homey little place with an enthusiastic northern chinese owner. It's that thick skin northern style - don't fixate on the xlb - but the taste is good and the prices are low.

        One board favorite in San Mateo is Little Shanghai. It's hard to navigate the menu, especially as a single diner, but the food is pretty good. In san mateo I randomly spread my chinese eating among about a dozen places, looking to figure out (eventually) who has what dishes covered. Everyday beijing is interesting, and little sheep hot pot, and a dozen others. For my money, the most interesting and underrated is Little Sichan (sic), where I ordered something with a normal name (like house special chicken) and it came in a great little bamboo box that apparently is standard for this dish, and a complexity of taste that I'm still remembering 4 years later.

        For middle eastern, you might try Rose Market in MV. This is better for lunch, and kind of a pain to get to, but if you're near it's a good experience. You pay in the market for whatever skewers you want, and go around back to the window where there's a charcoal grill and some guys slaving over it. Great charcoal taste, fun scene.

        My favorite schwarma in the area is one of the cheaper places - Med Wraps in Palo Alto. But there are so many places now - I can't honestly say they are the best.

        One interesting place (that's packed all the time now) is a Israli hummus shop called Oren's in Palo Alto. Cheap, packed, below average service (in a tel aviv kind of way), and exactly that same tel aviv hummus, with bread fresh out of the oven. Don't even bother getting anything else, just get the hummus classic.

        If you like Coffee, the guys killing it right now are Backyard in RWC, Red Rock's single origin bar, and the original sunnyvale Barefoot. There's a few places in each other town that are either trying or good (Cafe Zoe in MP is pressing Verve beans, downtown PA you've got Fraiche doing BB, and I don't know what's north any more).

        Another fun place if you're in the mood is the best Pastrami in the area, at The Refuge in San Carlos. While it seems odd to send a NYC'er for pastrami, this is the good stuff, and it's a fun scene in the evening --- if you like belgian beers.

        The area you're talking - San Mateo to Los Gatos - is a great place for interesting and adventurous food. There's over 20 different places selling Chicken 65 (two major styles), and the areas of strength are Viet, south Indian, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, now adding Middle Eastern.

        Have fun.

        2 Replies
        1. re: bbulkow

          Oren's hummus is great. Get a side of the red chile garlic sauce... awesome stuff, maybe even better than their hummus.

          There are tons or ramen places along the peninsula in the south bay. Might be worth a stop. Others on the board are far more knowledgeable than me, but I had some killer kuro ramen and miso ramen at Maru Ichi recently.

          Does NY have any good Persian restaurants?

          1. re: hyperbowler

            Nothing Iranian in NYC would make the top 20 in LA. The closest to this category is the kosher Uzbeki cluster in Rego Park, Queens: current favorite Cheburechnaya.

        2. All Spice is good but I wanted to like it more than I did. I recall that the spicing is kind of weak. I enjoy the more upmarket yet traditional Indian places like Amber India and Sakoon.

          For cheaper / divier Indian, head to Sunnyvale. Taste Buds has a variety of vegetarian and non-vegetarian delights. Their off-the-menu gongura specials are out of this world; the gongura chicken is one of my favorite dishes anywhere. Gongura's out of season now but in past years I believe they have used frozen to keep his dish on the menu year-round. Peacock Indian is another good all-arounder. Madura and Madras Cafe are vegetarian specialists alternatives to Chaat Paradise. I actually haven't been to Chaat Paradise in quite a while despite the excellent food because I find Madura a more pleasant dining experience.

          A bit further away from Palo Alto, I second bbulkow's recommendation of Aachi Aappakadi for Chettinad food. But I wouldn't send anyone from out of town to Tu Meru Mole; it's good (not great) Mexican food in fast food decor. For Mexican I'd recommend Estrellita in Los Altos, sticking to the monthly specials and a few other well-selected items like the Chicken Oaxaca. Reposado is good too and right in Palo Alto.

          Italian on the Peninsula is not a strong point compared to the great Italian places in San Francisco. However, there are two - and only two - places I've been on the Peninsula that taste authentically and deliciously Italian, and both are in downtown Palo Alto: Vero and Cafe Renzo. Of the two I quite prefer Vero, both for the more refined cooking and the more intimate atmosphere.

          You don't need to go done to San Jose or Saratoga for great Japanese food. In Los Altos, Sumika does great yakitori (make reservations!), and in Mountain View, Nami Nami has delicious and unusual small plates.

          I think the standard for great Middle Eastern food in this area is Dishdash in Sunnyvale. Again, make reservations if you can, though on a weekday you might be fine. The whole menu is good but the mansaf is incredible, another of my favorite dishes anywhere. Oren's Hummus Shop is a great choice for lunch. Falafel Stop in Sunnyvale has pretty similar hummus, better pita, and way better falafel, but it's a little dive place with limited parking - Oren's is much more convenient for you, and the hummus is absolutely wonderful. I also strongly echo bbulkow's recommendation for Mediterranean Wraps in Palo Alto having the best schwarma in town - another great lunch choice.

          You probably do have to go to San Jose for great Vietnamese, and I'm not up on the choices there.

          Enjoy your stay and please report back!


          2 Replies
          1. re: mdg

            I agree that Tu Merro Mole isn't exactly the kind of place you would send someone. It's a converted denny's or something similar. No atmosphere counter service. But those two dishes - the cocinta pibil and the mole chicken - were stongly above Reposado, and Estrelita (if it's the place I think it is). Based on atmosphere, it would be tough to make a case for going out of your way, but it is the best mexican I've had in quite a while.

            Ramen is interesting. Melanie is our Ramen Queen, and there's one place in Sunnyvale all the Japanese visitors go (starts with an O), and four places in San Mateo, and 4 in Mountain View. I've now figured out my favorite (the place on Villa in MV because I don't go south into Sunnyvale often, and San Mateo is far, it's the place I like best in MV). I think that's not interesting to a NYCer.

            1. re: bbulkow

              Unless things have changed in recent months, the Tu Mero Mole in San Jose is notably better than the one in Sunnyvale, even though the owners are the same. It's not a can't miss, but prices are reasonable, food is distinctive, tortillas are freshly made and, plain appearances aside, it's better than most Mexican food in this area, close to the only one we make a point of going to for anything other than a nearby taqueria.

              While we have nowhere near the options for Mexican food in the bay area that can be found in Chicago or LA, there are a few worthwhile things here and there. In San Jose, the newish Zona Rosa is a small, kind of upscale place that had very good food the one time I went there. There are other decent things scattered about, mainly in the lower price ranges. Just keep your expectations in line.

              Coupa Cafe is Venezuelan, not Argentine. The neighboring and simple Cafe Maxine has good crepes complete with buckwheat flour and French fillings.

              I'd echo the thoughts on Oren's in all respects.

              I don't know Korean food real well, but Tofu House in Palo Alto is a popular and decent place. I think they're open for lunch. You can definitely do better, but you'd have to go to Sunnyvale or Santa Clara.

              You'll do way better for your money with Italian food in NY (or SF) than in Palo Alto.

              Ephesus is OK, but not any kind of a must. NY must have places of this sort by the dozens. Their weekends only white bean and lamb soup, though, is terrific. Castro St. in general is more quantity than quality. As mentioned earlier, Nami Nami is very good. Steakout has good grass fed beef burgers, brisket sandwiches and is a popular biergarten. Whether that's something you'd come 3000 miles for, though, is another story.

              If you want Vietnamese, you could spend weeks exploring the scene in San Jose.

              Sunnyvale is good for Indian food, including south Indian as you've requested. I second mdg's mention of Taste Buds, though their menu is mostly northern. The gongura stuff is great, sort of sorrel flavors if you haven't tried them. I like Madura, as well. Chaat Paradise is very close to me, but I've never been there, though I keep meaning to go. I'll check it out soon. Sakoon used to be my favorite upscale Indian spot, but the last couple of times I was disappointed. It's been awhile, though. Amber India is strong. What about the fusion Amber spot at University and High in Palo Alto? I had a good lunch there soon after it opened, but haven't been back, yet.

              I'd imagine there's plenty of Ethiopian food in NY, but San Jose has some good places. Walia is my personal favorite and a place we go regularly.

          2. Do a search for taquerias in Redwood City. Someone did a comprehensive report.

            1. I'll second the Madura suggestion for South Indian and Anjappar for non-vegetariain (Mutton especially) Chettinadi and if you can handle Chilis in abundance.