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Aug 18, 2013 06:12 PM

In search of restaurant recs for relatives arriving - 3 nights in peninsula please...

So I have some rather picky and pretentious foodie relatives arriving from EU to stay and I am hoping to wow them with the food around here :)

I am looking for recs for:
1. A great weeknight dinner (party of 10 people- no kids but some who act like brats), hoping for impressive and exotic cuisine (thinking of dim sum or thai- Amarin Thai or Fu Lam Mum, Hong KongSaigon in sunnyvale?)or the best dim sum around. also thought of the korean buffet on el camino...

2. a nice unique but not too pricey restaurant for a birthday dinner (10 again). I was thinking of Cascal in Mountain View, or perhaps another tapas like place? Open to ANY suggestions

3, Best ribs/BBQ around?

I am in Palo Alto and prefer to be as close as possible but willing to drive a bit for a great destination (just tough to fit everyone in cars)


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  1. 1. Chef Zhao. That's my answer and I'm sticking to it. You'll have to go, yourself, in advance, and eat there a couple times and even pick out a menu. If you are welcomed by the chef and it's a good meal (which it will be), that'll be impressive.

    Amarin (even though it's my "default thai") barely ranks as thai food. Depending on day and whim, it can go anywhere from very pleasant and plausible (when I get firm with them about spice levels and they're not too busy), to barely edible americanized swill. It's never impressive.

    Fu Lam Mum I only recommend after 9pm. Then, the thrill of cheap dependable dim sum in a very convivial HK-style atmosphere is a winner - but, again, not impressive, despite the fact that I have it in regular rotation. For me, it's like comfort food.

    Dim sum? For dinner? On a weeknight? What are you talking about anyway?

    These places are only OK if you REALLY play them down. Like "oh, this is just down the peninsula, we don't have any decent food down here, let's just go to one of the local places, perhaps it will amuse you, it's not that far away." and have them tell you it's really pretty good.

    2. I would go for mexican or keep on with the asian.

    Taking an actual European to Cascal will ruin your reputation. Not that cascal is _bad_, I've had some pleasant evenings swilling sangria, but it's a far cry from an actual spanish place, and they present themselves as an actual spanish place. Your guests won't even complain, they will simply grimace in horror.

    Nami Nami - it's a good place, it has a bunch of unusual dishes, you'll have to learn up on their sake list, and it might be expensive for you. It's also not sushi.

    Korean - I don't think this works. I would have suggested K-Pop ( again, they'll have no frame of reference ), but it closed. Jang Tu and Jang Su Jang and a couple of others down in Sunnyvale way, there's a long thread on this stuff. I think they'll be horrified. Some of those places are dirty. Only take people somewhere you've been yourself.

    Mayfield Bakery - it'll be hard to get a table for 10, maybe outside, and I don't know if it'll fit your budget, but it's a real californian place. Short menus (europeans love that) and a decent wine menu. Enough nods to europe that they will feel flattered.

    Back to Mexican - Quinto Sol in RWC. Very nice design, some very decent dishes, I think the prices there are reasonable. Backup would be Reposado, where I think the kitchen is underrated - they're doing good mole - and I don't know if the noise level is a plus or minus. Kind of expensive.

    Bogadita Del Medio - I haven't been in years, since the Mastitas got dumbed down, but the drinks are stiff (you might need them if they're picky and/or bratty), the atmosphere is plausible, the food can be decent.

    I'll throw in Vesta in RWC. Again, it'll be flattering to them, but it's also very american (Good american beers like fresh Green Flash), sausage honey pepper pizza. Decent wine, and not that expensive. You should probably get a table out back.

    3. Ribs / BBQ --- ha ha ha ha.

    Let's try a few:
    Mack's - haven't actually been there. Looks a little twee, slightly north of your requested range. Would look for other reports.
    Andy's (Santa Clara) - this at least has Real American Atmosphere, but no one really thinks the ribs & bbq is great. You'll certainly get a jaw-dropping plate of meat by european standards, which might be worth it.
    Smoking Pig - it's a little run down, at least they know the difference between the fatty and the lean, but it's not exactly what I'd call impressive.

    On to what you should consider for "American" -

    Palo Alto Creamery - good burgers, good things like meat loaf, and a by-the-glass list good enough that you can say, "oh, these are just some everyday california wines, nothing fancy" and not get spit apon by europeans. Cheap.

    [ You can also soften them up at Vino Locale, which has actual local wine flights they would appreciate. ]

    Sundance - this is the best steak outside of Alexanders (I suspect, I've only been to the SF alexanders on an expense account and the steak was better), but it's in a real decent atmosphere. If you can afford it, it's a very plausible spot.

    Look, you're fighting against the immutable problem that:
    1) The food's not that good on the peninsula
    2) The peninsula's expensive

    Honestly, they're your relatives. This is a fight you can't win (not without going to SF and/or spending a lot). Places that would impress are Station 1 and Village Pub and Madera and maybe Evvia and the back room at Tamerine. If you drive a bit, that sets it up as "special", then you're setting up for failure. Go somewhere local that's plausible, and don't fight.

    1. 1. I'd go Indian: Amber India Mountain View (order the frontier kebab - is awesome); Korean: Jang su Jang. If they are really into Thai: Rama V is decent.

      2. Cascal is fun but the if they are really into Spanish tapas they may sneer at the food. Agree with bbulkow that sometimes you just won't win. Tamarine would probably work better.

      3. Ha!

      1 Reply
      1. re: goldangl95

        3. Instead of BBQ maybe a gastropub type place? There's Steins or for super casual - Steakout.

      2. I have vast experience around Mtn View restaurants -- even possibly more than bbulkow (about 2500 meals, with notes on most of them) -- and some for adjacent towns. From that perspective:

        - Strongly endorse goldangl's suggestion of a gastropub over BBQ. Since Uncle Frank's departed, the immediate area has had nothing in its league.

        - For gastropubs, the young Steins is a good hip spot. Recently installed ceiling baffles to mute initial excruciating acoustics. Do not try to go at crowded times -- do midweek lunch or dinner -- with a big crowd, else you tax the abilities of this young, rapidly maturing restaurant (like all those people did who early rushed to go there Fri or Sat nights, then whined online re startup quirks now largely past). Chef Colby Reade incidentally is currently doing classic German dishes as weekly specials preparatory to upcoming Oktoberfest menu.

        - Cascal is an exasperating phenomenon, I'd steer you away from there with out-of-town guests. Nice patio space, sometimes good fresh specials. But hardly a real tapas restaurant (Palo Alto's Joya much more the thing, with range and delicacy; unlike Cascal after six visits, I can actually remember most of what I ate there) but my Joya experience isn't recent. Save Cascal until you have a business lunch with a Fenwick & West lawyer (its basic reason for being).

        - Of six or so Thai restaurants around MV I best prefer Shana, a bit chaotic but more elegant than Amarin; or newcomer Bangkok Bistro, off Rengstorff -- smaller, but fastidious cooking. Amarin is sometimes disparaged online, yet in about 80 meals there, I've found it pretty reliable, the menu has range others don't, and order service is amazingly, consistently quick, even when busy.

        - Chef Zhao yes; very genuine, Sichuanese, and almost entirely Chinese clientele when I was last there for lunch, Friday. bb is right that you will need preliminary experience -- it is not a restaurant that flatters mainstream US preconceptions. VERY good for an exotic distant cuisine if they like spicy food, AND if, unlike many US diners, you listen to server tips rather than complacently ordering just dishes you know from general US Chinese restaurants.

        - An exceptional, authentic Chinese restaurant though very modest looking -- inexpensive -- Michelin-recommended -- and a very short drive from PA, is Bamboo Garden, mainly Shanghainese, and with good dumpling selection too, some of them exotic -- could very well meet your dim dum concept though not actually a HK dimsum restaurant. Best XLB I've encountered in immediate area (they are the restaurant's #1 selling item). Beware of things selling out for lunch incidentally. Considerable past discussion of Bamboo Garden here on Chowhound -- where I first heard of the place (10 visits ago), from Melanie Wong.

        - I agree with bb that Sundance in PA is a very good local independent steakhouse (and unlike bb, I have been to all its competition including five meals at the original Alexanders in Cupertino -- peculiar business situation there incidentally, both the founding chef and founding manager it's named for were laid off by business partners after it became successful, acc. to SF Chronicle -- as well as to Forbes Mill a few times, and all the steakhouses around SJ). Sundance is a family-run restaurant that sticks to a relatively short menu and good sources -- as good a mainstream steakhouse as any in this region, which has fewer of them than some other parts of the US.

        1. thanks all for your suggestions (and the hilarity). It is challenging and nervewracking to make everyone happy without breaking the bank or anyone' heads...

          So, let me rephrase the questions as follows:
          1. weeknight dinner- will do one of those suggested, perhaps amber india or even the passage buffet? bangkok bistro is a little too casual and small... and am i to assume that dim sum is not on the rec list? maybe on saturday lunch- i thought a really authentic- carts clanging- experience might be good.

          2. birthday dinner- not cascal, joya? doesnt have to be thai, but a good eating and dining experience for large group, preferably exotic/asian but not essential, and preferably great dining experience. still undecided.

          3. ok, BBQ is too much to ask i guess (Henry's HiLife?) but they usually ask for 'meat' as they associate US with huge slabs of steaks (i was thinking pampas ironically but its too expensive for 10...). sundance is a bit old school for them, think contemporary exciting snobby. dont know any gastropubs around here, or is there something else i can get them into that will distract them from 'meat'...? i dont mind driving a bit for the right experience.

          thanks again for your comments... i appreciate having people to 'noodle over' with :)

          2 Replies
          1. re: laterible

            Hope you saw my long recent reply. I can answer detailed questions re many of these restaurants. (I have files of menus and business cards and often, names of key personnel.)

            Other notable Peninsula gastropubs, though more casual and limited-menu than Steins they feature massive housemade-pastrami sandwiches, are The Refuge in San Carlos and now also in Menlo Park, but I have NOT tried the MP location. (Perhaps bb has: Menlo Park is his home turf, as Mountain View is mine.)

            Fu Lam Mum does use carts for bustling midday WEEKEND dim-sum service, which is always crowded. That is the only time to go there for dim dum, you will get the proper experience -- but arrive early, or wait in line.

            Afterthought -- scarcely mentioned here yet, and convenient by Caltrain to downtown MV, is the large upscale modern American comfort-food eatery Scratch, opposite Cascal for 2+ years. One of Rob Fischer's successful independent restaurant concepts and very good for meats and regional shellfish (selection changes daily, displayed on monitor screen over the ice table). Stylish, several types of seating including large tables, very capable basically high-end kitchen (I've had some 60 meals there, albeit the greatest number were "happy-hour" dining in the large bar area, 4-6 PM weekdays, a truly phenomenal value with a large menu and all by-glass wines offered at half price).

            1. re: laterible

              I think you've already made your choices but I just have to laugh when you've brought up Henry's Hi Life. I used to go there a lot. And it truly is one of the more iconic places in downtown San Jose. It's definitely not a true BBQ place. But it's quirky enough where your relatives may enjoy its super Americana-ness, ironically.

            2. Lots of great recommendations so far, but I have some alternate viewpoints.

              First, don't do Thai. I don't know where in the EU they are coming from, but there isn't any Thai in the Peninsula that's better than (or even as good as) what you can get in Germany, for instance.

              For exotic food, Indian is much better here and Amber India would be my choice for this situation. Don't do a buffet; the food is much better ordering off a menu. For Korean you could try Sudam in Los Altos - very clean and bright, lots of Korean customers, and solid food that's much closer to Palo Alto than the Santa Clara places. It's much less expensive than Amber too. Chef Zhao is indeed good for Sichuan as well as Nami Nami for exotic Japanese. Good Mexican is hard to find in Europe; Reposado in downtown Palo Alto or Estrellita in Los Altos will do well there.

              For California cuisine, Scratch and Mayfield Bakery are both fine choices, though they may be pricier than what you're looking for.

              Smoking Pig is as good a barbecue place as I've ever been to in the Bay Area, including Uncle Frank's. Go on Friday night with the live blues band playing and have a real red meat experience! It's not Texas or Kansas City, but it's not anything they'll find at home. There are a couple new barbecue places that I haven't been to yet. None of these are remotely fancy, they're very down home. If you need something fancier, a gastropub like Stein's or Martins West could do well.

              Good luck and enjoy!


              12 Replies
              1. re: mdg

                Kappo Nami Nami! GOOD call. I completely forgot. Capable of one of the more elegant, as well as authentic, Asian repasts on the entire peninsula.

                Estrellita has been a venerable regional Mexican place for many years, I would have suggested it 10 years ago; but fallen off the last few times in my and others' experience. Reposado might do very well. Not much cheaper than Scratch, of course (same maverick owner -- also as Gravity Wine Bar).

                Sad to hear about local vs German Thai restaurants, considering that the Bay Area had them before most of the US or Europe. When I was going to Germany on business 20 years ago I don't think I ever saw one. 10 years ago they were starting to show up.

                1. re: eatzalot

                  Reposado is a good idea, especially if guests would enjoy "exciting, contemporary, snobby"...decent food & good margaritas, it will make for a fun evening.

                  1. re: eatzalot

                    I agree about Kapo Nami Nami, that's why it was my first rec in the #2 section. The main problem with Kapo Nami Nami is a visitor might stick to sushi - and the price. I think the OP doesn't like the Japanese angle.

                    I'm starting to think of recommending Xahn, because it has that glitz factor requested. I've become disenchanted by the food (to the point of wondering what lurid fantasy caused me to ever be enchanted), and it must be the decor, like the rinestone Xahn belt buckles. If they like that glitz thing, with interesting viet-fusion, Xahn is full on where you want to go.

                    Regarding best BBQ in the bay area, mdg, have you been to Trail Dust? Or is Morgan Hill not quite in the bay area (I think it's marginal myself)?

                    Regarding the Refuge, although I like the pastrami and I like the beer, and I love the pastrami / burger combo, I don't like the atmosphere of either location. Way too loud, no outdoor option, just not pleasant, oppressively small, maybe it's an air flow issue - but at both joints? At the MP location, tables were turning very quickly, no lingering - the feng shui is just unpleasant. In San Carlos, when I'm in the mood for the Refuge, I might end up at The Office instead with its sub-par food simply because of the pleasant outdoor seating. In Menlo Park, we end up at Barrone and Left Bank and LB Steak simply because of the pleasant bar seating.

                    I would take Joya over Cascal any day of the week. My business was in 444 Castro for 6 months and we'd do company sangria lunches now and again at Cascal, there's nothing wrong with it on a warm day. The other Tapas in this area is Ibera, which is a complicated love/hate kind of place, but actually spanish, and you should probably stay away unless you know it.

                    Amber dinner over P2I buffet, as well, not even close. Amber feels somewhat staid over other Sunnyvale indian spots, but everything is well executed and tasty, there are some real gems on the menu.

                    If you're not going to consider Sundance - and it's a shame not to, for all the reasons eatzalot says - your next slab of meat is likely LB Steak in MP. The decor is up-to-date, the meat is thick. I dislike the place because it's so generic - I could be in Greenwich or a million other off-track moneyed areas. I come in and get a bavette or burger at the bar now and then, and don't eat enough steak to appreciate the fine points, and rather miss the old Marche, but it is exactly what you're requesting for Slab Of Beef with Updated Decor.

                    You really want to go up to SF and do HOPR. Maybe you should just go for that, take them to see the Bay Lights and if it's clear go up to the Marin Headlands or Twin Peaks.

                    1. re: bbulkow

                      bb: "I've become disenchanted by [Xanh's] food (to the point of wondering what lurid fantasy caused me to ever be enchanted), and it must be the decor..."

                      I don't know how long your history with Xanh is, bb, but the current location is the glitzy "new" Xanh. Xanh started across the street, and established itself with truly elegant food. We had several memorable lunches especially, where beautiful presentation complemented very classy modern-Vietnamese cooking.

                      After it moved to new slick quarters, Xanh went to a buffet lunch format, a gastronomic letdown but lower price, and they do brisk trade. I've only been there a few times for lunch in the new format. But found very interesting short bar menu during "happy hour;" that, and one dinner, have shown much of the old spark. Latest visit several months ago, happy-hour.

                      Incidentally Xanh is on maybe the richest restaurant block in that district near MV Caltrain -- along with Agave (just mentioned below) and classy newcomer La Fontaine, the restaurant of the brilliant old-world chef who brought in many regulars since 2005 at Vaso Azzuro nearby (though maybe less interesting to a group from the old world themselves); and across the street, Fu Lam Mum.

                      ETA: For any newcomers, the people at Xanh pronounce it like "sun."

                      1. re: eatzalot

                        I think I ate only once at Xahn in the location across the street, and I don't remember that meal well. I've had dinner there maybe half a dozen times and the buffet about the same. Also threw a company event there (bar buyout industry event). Last two dinners were just.... kind of blah. Maybe it's Me not Them.

                        Speaking of that block and that space, I didn't see you weigh in on Ephesus. I haven't been ... comments?

                        1. re: bbulkow

                          Ephesus -- many good lunches there. Favorite of the half dozen Middle-Eastern restaurants on that street among peninsula foodies I join for lunch regularly. Very gastronomic family owners with Turkish and Greek roots. I've written enthusiastic notes on it, but not sure if here on CH.

                          Some months ago the family also opened one of the few Bay Area Turkish bakeries, a few doors away as Olympus. It has become a magnet for all Anatolian expats, who get maudlin over the savory and sweet pastries. While I'm not an Anatolian expat, I think they are pretty good, too! Rather classy cakes, profiteroles, etc. too. It seems papa from Ephesus was a master baker in the old country, and can now flex his real skills.

                          I don't know if either place would suit the OP unless seeking a good Turkish dinner. Very casual Turkish restaurants and fast-food places pervade Europe.

                          BTW: "My business was in 444 Castro" -- isn't that the "dog house," downtown MV's only highrise? You were RIGHT in the center of that neighborhood's 100 restaurants!

                          (Quick quiz for bbulkow only: Without looking it up, do you know that building's original name?)

                          1. re: eatzalot

                            Thanks for the Ephesus report. I will be able to report cogently to my sister, who now lives about 4 blocks away and I see regularly.

                            I don't know the original name of the 444 castro building. I got a nice sublet there for about 6 months, there's a lot of new commercial space coming online and anyone with a commercial presence in MV seems poised for growth.

                            1. re: bbulkow

                              It was originally the International Environmental Dynamics (IED) building, fruit of a 1960s fashion for highrises that also produced the World Trade Ctr. Nick Perry's _first_ local photo history of the local area (ISBN 0-7385-3136-7, not the sequel that came out recently; both likely available at Books Inc. not far from that very building) shows it under construction from top down (around central columns) in 1970. It had more stops and starts than even Highway 85 did, and was completed in 1981, whereupon it sat vacant. Dogs were set loose in it to discourage break-ins, whence local nicknames like dog city.

                    2. re: eatzalot

                      Estrellita's is far from faded. They did have a couple rough months after the ownership change, but that is long behind them. The food is as good as ever and the drink menu is much improved.

                      Trail Dust is good for what it does, but they don't do my favorite type of barbecue (Texas-style brisket), and they are so far away that I have only been there for lunch. If they have enjoyed good barbecue before, they should have no problem with Smoking Pig's low rent decor.

                      Please don't do Thai on the peninsula. In addition to the great Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean choices, consider Kabul in Sunnyvale for Afghan food.


                      1. re: mdg

                        Thanks for the info, mdg. My characterization of Estrellita reflected the last one or two meals there which were lackluster, and consensus of local friends who have been among the most steady customers there (for 20-some years through various personnel changes).

                        About Afghan restaurants: In case anyone doesn't know this, a small group of them on the peninsula, which includes the Sunnyvale Kabul, are run by relatives. I became a fan of Kabul 20+ years back and have had around 20 meals there. In the middle 90s, a fastidious mature cousin of Kabul's owner opened the competing Afghani House at the other end of Sunnyvale's stretch of El Camino. Afghani House was a slightly more elegant concept with a slightly wider menu and some devilishly good specialties. Subsequently I had maybe 40 meals at Afghani House and esteemed it the better of the two, though both were certainly good. This view was shared by most people I knew who had tried both places several tines and gotten to know them well.

                        Haven't dined at either for a couple years though. (And there was some publucity a while back about Kabul's owner being seriously ill, I don'know the upshot of that issue.)

                    3. re: mdg

                      Reposado reads trendy when you walk in the door. I think the food is much better and interesting at Agave (Mountain View) - but Agave is more casual and the service is pretty relaxed/can get spotty.

                      I'm not sure about the Thai comment, but yes if they eat good Thai all the time there's nothing stand out in the Penninsula. I will reiterate, though, that I have been very happy with the flavors at Rama V - definitely leaps and bounds better than Amarin.

                      1. re: goldangl95

                        Yes -- Agave -- VERY good, very real regional and native Mexican cooking, a bit upscale, and not your typical US Mexican restaurant at all. (And run by a successful restaurateur family from Mexico, vs. Reposado, one of diverse brainchildren of a successful unMexican restaurant-group entrepreneur.)

                        In several visits I've noticed the service sometimes indeed not quite to the level of the kitchen, but never really a problem. Was just there again recently.

                        Agave offers specialties using cuitlacoche (so-called corn truffle). "Tinga" chicken from Oaxaca. Yucatecan cochinita pibil, among the more subtle pork dishes I've ever had in a restaurant. Was written up in Sunset this year for grandma's mole sauce. And in the unlikely event that you should want some dish spiced up, request the housemade Habanero sauce.

                        Fills some of the role of the late Oaxacan Kitchen in PA and faded Estrellita in Los Altos, but a larger restaurant, with more geographically diverse Mexican menu. Becoming a regional "destination" draw, as people really get to know it. It's also right near the Caltrain station, should the next paragraph appeal:

                        It may not matter to these guests, but Agave got a reader-poll award for best margaritas in the county. At Agave, "margarita" cocktail isn't something blendered from cheap tequila and bar sour mix, but a menu with scores of classy tequila-specific margaritas, quite distinct (I've tried some), with agave syrup, all good-sized.