report wanted: chef zhao, Mountain View? (was Trend)
- bbulkow Dec 13, 2012 10:01 PM
I keep watching the space that was sichuan specialist Trend. It's been Chef Zhao Bistro for a while.
Yelp reports are fairly positive. There's some story about how a chef came from Chengdu, established the restaurant, sold it, and is now back.
No reports can be seen here - anyone been?
Posting to my own report.
This place deserves more love. The room is slightly nicer than the old Trend days, but basically the same. Square room, simple tables.
The menu isn't huge, with a good number of classic chengdu dishes, boiled beef, etc. The front page lists "top 12 dishes" and it's a good sampler. I had the 1000 chili chicken - excellent, lots of peppercorns, fragrant and just a little bite, not soggy, with bones - and cumin lamb. Cumin lamb was a miss, because it was more like a standard stirfry and didn't have any real cumin intensity - except in one bite, almost like it wasn't stirred or something. If the entire dish had the intensity of that one bite, it would have been a different thing. I also got the sesame bread, which is a huge slab of bread with green onions folded in, done the right way, for sure.
This places has better ingredients than Da Szechuan, but not as many interesting dishes. Prices are OK ($10/12 for entrees, $4 for apps). Beer and wine served.
This place looked really slow and the owner/chef guy was skyping with a guy in china while I was there, but I don't know enough chinese. These guys could really use a visit.
"eatzalot" posted here about the tan tan noodles,
Did you notice if knife-cut (aka hand-shaved) noodles are still on the menu? I ask because I'd love to try a version of dandan mian made with knife-cut noodle ala Seattle's Spicy Talk,
We MountainViewians have been too busy enjoying this place to spend much time writing about it. (Or maybe, we just want to keep it for ourselves... ;-) Then again, a serious meal session well seasoned with dou ban jiang, ya cai, hua jiao, and red peppers can leave one physically and spiritually exhausted.
Just posted relevant remarks from several Zhao meals since this place opened (several months back -- latest visit today) in the dàn dàn miàn thread that Melanie already linked. A very serious Sichuanese chef. I know something about the cooking of that region, and have welcomed it in the Bay Area since it first was fashionable here in the middle 1970s. Zhao is the Real Deal, lovingly executed.
DO NOT fail to try Chef Zhao's "pan fried chive pancake" ($5, appetizer section on English menu) -- just had a sample from 4th or 5th time ordering it -- amazing. Light pastry turnovers enclosing lots of "Chinese chives" with clear noodle and scrambled egg bits -- I think faint garlic aroma is from the chives themselves. (The colorful little guy in my avatar photo agrees -- one of the best fed birds in the state, may I add.) Had some trouble getting the name of these pancakes right on various visits with the rapidly changing menus, mentioned in linked thread -- had to use the characters -- but seems to've stabilized as "pan fried chive pancake" on menu now. And the signature Sichuanese specialties of ma po tofu and twice-cooked pork (which I always try soon, upon visiting any new Sichuan restaurant) have been consistently very fine at Zhao, the MPTF virtually definitive for the dish.
Thanks for the update - maybe I should try this out. Trend's food wasn't quite good enough to keep us going back there. It would be great to have a really good Sichuan place in the area!
On the other hand, reading another post, if this is yet another racist Chinese restaurant in Silicon Valley where non-Chinese people don't get offered the same dishes, then count me out.
mdg, I truly don't know what you're alluding to there. FYI, I'm not even slightly Chinese (and it's true I've only been frequenting Bay Area Chinese restaurants incessantly, especially in silicon valley, since 1968, so maybe I've just been lucky) -- but I've seen little to support a characterization such as you just made, even outside Zhao. But read on.
A couple of frequent realities do surface. First, as McCawley carefully explained in his 1984 "Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters" which I already mentioned in the related thread, practicality has long encouraged immigrant restaurateurs in US to _translate_ a pragmatic selection of their dishes, but not all, into English, to market them. The restaurant will CERTAINLY make the others for you on request, that is why it's in your own interest to learn some characters or at least dish repertoire. (Of course you might encounter some server who's a jerk, but that hazard isn't limited to Chinese restaurants.)
And, many of the more traditional or "ethnic" Chinese dishes, featuring organ meats or unfamiliar vegetables, find just as much resistance from narrow US palates as do their counterparts from, say, Germany or Austria or France, as you know very well if you've used cookbooks from such places or spent much time there. So a sensible small business tries to meet its local market, as best it can. I think if there is any systematic problem, it's on the part of US customers who always order the same few dishes regardless of a Chinese restaurant's specialty -- and who miss much of what Chinese restaurants have to offer.
So after 29 non-Chinese customers demand General Tso's Chicken or Sweet-and-Sour Pork, a server, being human, might not think to suggest much else. But as a rule, restaurants are low-margin businesses eager for customers; and good cooks love to see their craft appreciated. If you're acquainted with say Sichuanese food, and you express your active interest to the restaurant, it tends to open up communication, and soon they are suggesting things the cook doesn't usually even make for anyone. That was particularly true in my experiences at Chef Zhao, which is why I chuckled at bb's, I think, overhasty jugment of "not as many interesting dishes" at Zhao. Every time I'm there I see something interesting at other tables, which employees gladly explain. And it's why I think your speculation above is singularly inappropriate in discussion of Chef Zhao. PLEASE do not belabor it further here.
"Ask, and you shall receive."
The translation excuse is nonsense. I don't need to learn Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Russian, Greek, or Hindi writing systems to eat at those restaurants in the USA. Transliteration into a Roman alphabet can do lots of the work instead of full-fledged translation. Why is that restauranteurs of every other nationality with non-Roman alphabets do this routinely, but for Chinese restauranteurs it's the exception?
There was even one Chinese restaurant in downtown Mountain View with segregated seating for white people. We just walked out of that place; I don't know if it's still around.
So I got concerned when I read in one of your posts that Chef Zhao keeps 2/3 of its menu away from people who don't read Chinese. Menus are there in part to support recognition instead of recall, so saying "just ask" is disingenuous - why do I have to be an extrovert when Chinese customers don't have to? But I may give this place a try anyway.
I'm surprised at such harsh projections ("racist," "excuse") without much apparent grasp of US Chinese-restaurant realities, even after they're explained. Such notions surface occasionally from non-Chinese CH posters, who rationalize them ad infinitum, but seldom on this board. When it happened on another CH board, I quipped offline something most people already understand: it's not "racism" if Chinese restaurant menus don't translate offerings like Newlyweds' Aromatic Pig Intestine into English -- these are just not big sellers to us gringos. (Somewhere like Yelp, they'd even provoke predictable "Ewwwww!" comments).
Everyone is "offered" precisely the same dishes, and will get them on request, just not all in words of your personal liking -- and for straightforward reasons. It isn't "silicon valley" -- McCawley (an ethnically non-Chinese expert on Chinese languages at U. Chicago) reported the one-third English menu translation as typical of his own US region. And ALL ethnic restaurants select and promote sub-sets of their repertoire that they think will sell, you just don't realize it in the others you cited. Whence, for example, our huge Turkish-born restaurateur and cook population around silicon valley label their restaurants "Italian," "Mediterranean," or "Greek," for a market that mainly knows Turkey as a big bird.* ("The author gave a quiz to his students at the University of Miami," said a book ad, "and found that most couldn't locate France on a map, or for that matter, Miami.")
I knew a Chinese restaurateur family in a town inland, frequented by non-Chinese tourists. They couldn't sell even kung pao chicken, their market so favored bland foods. (The owners fled periodically to the coast for doses of bold flavor.) In San Francisco a generation back, a leading Chinese restaurateur famously apologized to tourists requesting chop suey. "I'm sorry, we make only Chinese food here." Read McCawley. One reason is to learn how the language structure impedes mechanistic translation, yielding opacities like "shredded three ways." And it ALWAYS pays to quiz restaurant staffs re dishes you don't know anyway, in any repertoire, not just Chinese -- isn't that obvious?
*Local example of pragmatic restaurant marketing: when Holbrook wrote up, I think it was, Bodrum Café a few years ago, commenting very mistakenly that Turkish kitchens were rare around the S. Bay, I pointed out to him that the following restaurants within very short walk of Bodrum had Turkish owners, cooks, and/or founders, and often menu items:
Neto Caffe & Bakery
Ristorante Don Giovanni
I am an old fan of McCawley's book. My copy was so torn up, I bought a new one and now have 2. At the old Ocean Restaurant on Clement, there were 2 blackboards with specials, one in English and one in Chinese. Having just studied characters with the bug radical (critical to see if you are going for shrimp 虾 or frog 蛙 or snake 蛇 or clams 蛤蜊 or grasshopper 蚂蚱 ...) I noticed frog on the Chinese and not on the English board, and asked a waiter why they were different. "Not different", he said. I asked why frog wasn't on the English menu. "You're so smart", he said and forever afterwards we got very special service.
Anyway, McCawley's has been replaced by the Pleco app on my iPhone and iPad. The app which provides some free Chinese dictionaries also has an OCR for about $15 additional. It is not that hard to enter Chinese characters with your fingers (if you can remember the stroke order, which every 6 year old Chinese language person knows), but far easier to use the OCR. It will character recognize either directly or from an image you take with the Pleco app or the camera app. Once it has the characters right, you can use the dictionaries to translate. Often this works in real time in the restaurant, but it is easiest to photograph the menu and then work on it at home. No more secrets on Chinese menus!!
We are going to head out to MV and check out Chef Zhao's with Pleco in hand !!
Your feelings about this border on the vitriolic, but I have to agree in principle - I get similarly passionate about spice levels, see previous post (s).
My favorite story to counter this "american's won't eat local food" (here/now) is what happened at Su Hong Palo Alto. At first, they had a secret / chinese only menu. Then they translated the secret menu but had it as a small addendum to the main menu (presumably there were some folks they weeded out from even dropping the second menu). But at least you could find the delectable crab dumplings they became known for (around my house, at least). Then, when they moved to their new location, they became unabashadly shanghai style and put lions head meatballs and the rest at the top of the menu, and have a thriving business (things seemed a little dire at the old location). Takeout lines there get really long.
China Village is another great example. They had/have (are they open yet?) "classic" dishes and I was able to have a big family dinner there. No one but me and my mom ordered "interesting" dishes, there was a lot of lemon chicken and kung pao ordered - and very well executed. Everyone ordered what they liked and was happy. CV has a great business.
I have to go a bit more with Michael's theory about a touch of racism, possibly learned from a different place and different group of white people, instead of a theory of business acumen, at least today, at least in the bay area, stories about islands in china many years ago not-with-standing. If Chef Zhao really is holding back on the good stuff, he should be politely told of the new reality, because his food (unlike Trend) is the "real deal" as commented here by others.
If he knows the dishes, and has the ingrediants, he can put it on the menu in a "special tastes" section. Or have a second menu, including translations, like Su Hong PA did for a while.
Yes, most diners don't like pig intestine. Lots of chinese don't like pig intestine (such as my co-worker, who says to me "you eat that stuff?"). Put it on the menu, people will skip over it. I really don't like negotiating for special dishes when I don't know the language, I'm more comfortable in a crowded dining room with lots to point at (unlike my previous visit to Zhao, which was on the late side).
Melanie, I did see the guy who looked like the owner, probably the chef, but can't exactly describe him. I would call him a brick of a man, solid, square-ish muscular face, moderate shock of hair, a certain stillness with explosive pent-up power, and a perpetually dissatisfied scowl. His favorite weapon would be a baseball bat or a fist, not a surgical knife nor a gun from a distance. But I only saw him from a distance in a dark room, and maybe the wrong guy.
I apologize here (as done also on the dàn dàn miàn thread, link below, where I actually committed the sin) for misleadingly tossing out the typical one-third English-translations point in the almost irrelevant context of Chef Zhao's, a restaurant where I don't actually know that to be the case. That point was never important to this restaurant anyway (nor did I know that multiple people would then extrapolate it into speculations, and ideas on how the restaurant might improve on what isn't really its situation anyway). More to the point was my account of at least four different paper menus in the five months (and several visits) since Chef Zhao's opened. There was some dickering around too with English names of dishes, see the other thread (the complexities and customs in these translations still recommend acquaintance with McCawley's book for insight that mechanistic automated tools, albeit convenient, don't offer).
And it's still valuable to seek out fluently anglophone counsel from employees (like chef's son I cited earlier) for good English explanations of dishes seen at other tables, or to discuss ambiguous menu English. Thus do I know to try, in future, intriguing-looking "Sichuan home style chicken," $6, #20 on the VERY latest paper menu, as of a few days ago, when I spotted the dish, asked, and learned it's "cut leg chicken in a special sauce made only for this dish."
Complicating matters, another Zhao dish cited on other thread, formerly menued "boneless chicken with heavy spicy seasoning," has dropped off, but in an earlier paper menu it's unambiguously this restaurant's "bang-bang" chicken and they'd certainly still make it if asked. (One of the easiest dishes to spot in Chinese: three characters, the first two identical -- "sticks" --, the last the chicken symbol common to other chicken dishes.)
Finally, cross-reference: Chef Zhao's Bistro is a pleasant counterpoint to the better known, similarly ethnic and authentic, but Shanghainese, Bamboo Garden a short distance away on Central Expwy (aka Alma).-- both restaurants are conveniently located between Central and 101. I first learned of Bamboo Garden when it opened, Summer 2010, from Melanie's enthusiastic write-up on this board. Bamboo Garden is now in the 2013 Michelin Guide (the real, printed, Guide, not the online froth about it, which only mentions a few featured restaurants), I haven't checked Melanie's original thread to see if the Michelin publicity also has surfaced on Chowhound. The Michelin inspector(s) clearly knew Shanghai cuisine and ordered, and reported, representative dishes of the kind not widely known in US generally.
I would love to know what to order at Bamboo Garden. I tried once and could feel some kind of brilliance but knew I was in the wrong part of the menu, with with a passing familiarity of Shanghai cuisine.
I was reading with interest the M.Y. China menu, especially the "juicy dumplings" instead of "soup" or XLB. It's a severe simplification, but very accessible - and no chinese characters. Items are in "american standard" menu format, name of dish (sometimes fanciful), list of ingredients, maybe a cooking technique.
My favorite translation is "spicy boiled beef", which could easily be called "poached brisket soup with potent numbing spices" or similar. I didn't order "boiled beef" for many years - I expected to get irish stew. A little menu marketing goes a long way.
I also like the sound of "cut leg chicken in kitchen's special spicy sauce"
Good for Zhao for working his menu translations. Now I need to just eat there more often.
Thanks for steering me here! Chef Zhao offers a menu full of both intriguing Sichuan dishes and "usual suspects" dishes, in both Chinese and English. The only Chinese-only offerings I saw were the specials on the wall, but their menu certainly has enough real eats to keep us busy for some time.
You're sure right about the ma po tofu - what a delicious rendition. We had to wait a bit after having our tan tan noodles though, since the (mild) Sichuan peppercorns in the ma po tofu echoed the cumulative effect of the noodles to block out other flavors. Once the numbing hit subsided we could taste this balanced dish in all its glory. Neither as hot nor as numbing as some versions, and better for it so you could really taste the tofu and black beans.
We also had the Sichuan style tea-smoked duck. It's hard to go wrong with this dish, and it was another fine offering. It was served with buns and hoisin sauce, reminiscent of Peking duck. We hadn't seen this before with bone-in duck so we weren't sure of proper protocol (didn't see anybody else nearby with it), so we had the buns separately from the duck.
They offer Yanjing beer in addition to the ubiquitous Tsingtao, which is a nice touch. Overall this seems like significantly better cooking than back when this was Trend.
We'll be back!
There are a few specials written in chinese on the whiteboard, other than that I don't think they are dumbing down the food for anyone. The food was both plenty hot and numbing, and I was a bit worried b/c I phoned in a togo order entirely in English.
The mapo tofu was excellent--gloriously incendiary with a generous portion of tofu. A lot of places (MCF, I'm looking at you) use entirely too much meat and skimp on the tofu, with a sweet sickly sauce and watery tofu. This sauce was savory with fermented chili bean paste as well as chili and sichuan peppercorns, nicely saturating the cubes of tofu, such that you had to sop it all up with copious amounts of rice.
I was shooting for the water boiled fish, but must have made some sort of mistake b/c that isn't what I got. Not complaining b/c the fish filet with tofu was delightful. The dish came in a light stock garnished with peppercorns and pickled green chilis, it was spicy with a delicacy that made it a good foil for the mapo tofu.
The chive pancake appetizer was not overly greasy and had a good chive flavor without going overboard. Best version I have had so far in the bay area.
My one quibble is that the menu seemed a bit short on interesting items and at first glance seem to have a lot of old standards, but possibly I missed a page or two in my rush to get in and out.
Notes on a recent lunch visit (after several others since last posting to this thread).
Restaurant was crowded (every table filled, by 12:30, with mostly apparently Chinese diners). Note that it was Friday, the day when (for decades) silicon-valley workers have gone out to lunch more than any other.
As usual, a number of tables were enjoying dishes I didn't immediately recognize; several looked like hot pots of one kind or another. Server identified one as Boiled Fish Fillet with Flaming Chili, "one of our most popular."
Revisited Zhao's reliable ma po tofu (heaven-sent, after the demise of both of the Sichuanese restaurant kitchens formerly on Castro St. nearby, and maybe even better than either). Hot, nuanced, delightful.
XLB, not very notable at all (nor of course a Sichuanese specialty!) especially given the fresh, delicate, brothy ones available at Bamboo Garden a mile north.
Chongqing chili chicken: Zhao does this in a "simple" version (no vegetable additions, just mounds of hot peppers), little bone-in fried chicken pieces liked hacked wings. Almost a distant cousin of "Buffalo wings." The meat was savory but sparse -- took some work to get to, and greasy fingers (if this were Hong Kong, they might have included hot towels). However, the scraps also yielded a fine well-gelled meat stock when saved and simmered overnight. Without the mound of hot peppers, of course.