Sunday, February 28, 2010

Joy Luck Place--Cupertino, CA

When my dad’s in town and it’s just the two of us for lunch on a weekday, the spot we hit most often is Joy Luck Place in Cupertino. Their menu features traditional Cantonese dishes such as wonton noodle soup, congee and fried rice. And, two days ago we had each of these three (and more). We ordered the shrimp fried rice as an afterthought. A nearby table had it delivered and I couldn’t resist. It was good and had all the necessary ingredients—shrimp, green onions, ground pepper, even a little cabbage and of course egg—but it wasn’t something I’d come back for (unlike their Fujian fried rice, which our entire family knows and enjoys).

The wonton noodle soup is the reason I wanted to go and it didn’t disappoint. The soup was piping hot, as it must be, and the wontons fresh. The star of the day, though, was the fish congee. Just one sip indicated it was given the correct preparation, which involves simmering the congee at low temperature for several hours, giving the rice enough time to soften and absorb water. As big as our bowl was—roughly the size of a large bowl of pho—it contained only about a teaspoon of rice before cooking. The sole was added just before serving and cooked to a perfect doneness.

As an appetizer we ordered soy chicken. Served cold, it was tender and tasted of, well, soy. The let-down of today’s lunch, however, was the Chinese broccoli, which was limp, of a stale shade of green and with stalks far too skinny.

If interested for lunch on a weekday, be sure to get there before 11:45—not because the restaurant will be too full otherwise (it won’t be) but because just before noon the parking lot will be teaming with cars looking for non-existing open spots.

Joy Luck Place
10911 North Wolfe Road Cupertino, CA 95014(408) 255-6988

Saturday, February 27, 2010

One Plus One Dumpling House--West Covina, CA

As an early Valentine’s Day dinner Friday, February 12 we tried out One Plus One in West Covina. Known for their dumplings, the restaurant offers a free order of “Juicy Pork Dumplings” (also known as pork “xiao long bao”) with a $20 purchase. Reaching the $20 threshold proved no problem as we ordered crab and pork dumplings (another variety of “xiao long bao”), shrimp dumplings, braised beef noodle soup and the “House Special” noodle soup—that latter two featuring home-made noodles.

Overall, the dumplings were very good, with my only complaint being that the pork xiao long baos were slightly salty. All three varieties were hot, filled with soup and the xiao long baos passed the suspension test by holding their soup when held at by the crown with chopsticks. Yet, I didn’t find the skin to be too thick either. I counted 20 folds on top; the truly authentic xiao long baos will have 24. The shrimp dumplings were somewhat similar to traditional potstickers in form except there were clear pinch-folds along the top of the dumpling.

Full from helping me eat the 26 dumplings plus her own soup, my wife gave me the rest of her beef noodle soup, the broth of which I thought exquisite. Even though I was full myself, I couldn’t stop drinking the broth, which was flavored by the beef and spices. One spice I found in abundance was one very similar to star of anise.

The House Special was very simple, featuring noodles, bok choy, mushroom, shrimp and artificial crab in a chicken broth. While it might hit the spot on its own, especially on a cold day, it paled in comparison with the beef soup and the dumplings.

For our future visits to SoCal, it’s good to know we have this standby which can impress with so many different dishes. Also importantly, it sits in a mall that has plenty of parking (even on a Friday night), has ample seating and is inexpensive. We walked away filled with quality food for about $30.

This concludes the series on our most recent trip to SoCal. We've been to a few more places since then that I look forward to telling you about, so please stop by often!

One Plus One Dumpling House
Hong Kong Plaza
1017 S Glendora Ave

West Covina, CA 91790
(626) 338-6868

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Don's Country Kitchen--Carlsbad, CA

After several consecutive mornings of Cheerios and Safeway waffles, I wanted to try a local spot for breakfast during the final morning, February 10, of our trip to Carlsbad. Ever the expert in finding out where locals eat, my wife found the homey Don’s Country Kitchen in Carlsbad Village. My wife tried the scrambled eggs with kielbasa, mushrooms and Swiss cheese. She said the plate was good, but not a must-have. The boys ordered enormous pancake stacks (one apple, one blueberry), each piled one-inch high and about eight inches in diameter. Neither twin could finish. The blueberry pancakes are what I’d go with again. They were flavorful and loaded with blueberries. The apple pancakes featured small bits of red delicious apple with the skin still on.

I went with Don’s big omelet, which included spinach, bacon, mushroom and jack cheese with sliced avocado covering the omelet. The cheese and spinach made the omelet stringy and gave me some fight whenever I tried to pull away a piece of the omelet. They would have done well to chop the spinach more finely and to perhaps use a little less cheese. The hash browns were lightly fried, making them slightly underdone. They were more crunchy than crisp. The homemade biscuits were light, fluffy and delicious with jam.

Overall, I found the food quality average, but the small-town charm made the experience a positive one. Go to Don’s only when you have time to spare. We got there at about 10:00 am on a weekday and waited ten minutes for a table. It would be another 20 minutes or so before we were served our dishes.

Don's Country Kitchen

2885 Roosevelt Street
Carlsbad, CA 92008
(760) 729-2274

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Pho Thanh Long--Santa Clara, CA

Tonight's experience at Pho Thanh Long wasn't at all typical of the many satisfying lunches and dinners my wife and I enjoyed there in the past. I went with my standby of beef brisket, flank and tendon noodle soup. It was as delightfully hot (in temperature) as always, but the noodles were of varying thickness (mostly narrow, but some wide) and, for the first time in memory, they ran out of basil and gave us cilantro with bean sprouts instead. Most unforgivable, however, was the tendon, which had fine texture, but had a rancid taste to it. The tendon was supposed to be the main event, but after three or four tries, I spent the rest of the dinner dodging it in my soup.

My wife had the same as I, but without the tendon. She was understandably happy with it. The broth was beefy and flavorful--this restaurant has perhaps the best broth of all the pho broth we've tried in the Bay Area. The boys split a large chicken noodle soup. It too was a success, as Pho Thanh Long consistently has far and away the most tender pho chicken to be found in and around Santa Clara.

Despite the letdown in my dinner tonight, we'll certainly be coming back. The value and (up until tonight) the quality are both undeniable. The large bowl for almost all the pho options is only $6.75, and a large here is more substantial than a large at other pho restaurants. All that said, however, I'll be taking a break from tendon for a while.

Pho Thanh Long
2450 El Camino Real
Santa Clara, CA 95051
(408) 983-0888

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Marie Callender's--Carlsbad, CA

When out of town, we generally try to avoid eating at chain restaurants, but after a futile attempt to find promising local fare for dinner last week Wednesday, we settled on Marie Callender’s in Carlsbad. For $5.50 each, the twins had cheeseburgers and fries. The fries were the highlight of the night. They were golden-brown, hot and crisp. The burger was slightly overdone, but had a broiled flavor missing in, say, typical fast-food burgers.

My wife and I each had the turkey dinner and I understood my wife’s pain as she toiled through the entrée, which featured turkey that was properly done but, along with the gravy and stuffing, was far too salty. Despite several glasses of water throughout the evening and night I was thirsty into the following morning. A woman, who had finished her entrée, at the table next to us told her husband, “Why do they have to make everything so salty?” I didn’t answer her, but what ran through my mind was adding a lot of salt to a dish hides mistakes. The raw material might not be fresh, the food might be prepared incorrectly. But, that would all be masked by the saltiness. This could very well be the case here, as exemplified by a broccoli stalk on my plate, part of which was black.

The restaurant made the dining experience complete by having a décor that was downright awful. The interior was depressingly dark with mismatched wallpaper, some of which had the faded image of bookshelves, and the wall clock near our table was nonfunctional. Taken together, the ambiance was the epitome of tackiness. At about $15 per entrée, the diner deserves a better experience.

Marie Callender's

5980 Avenida Encinas
Carlsbad, CA 92008-4405
(760) 438-3929

Thursday, February 18, 2010

China China--Santa Clara, CA

My expectations are usually low for Asian warming-tray buffets. As the dishes sit and often stew under the heat lamp, vegetables get soggy, rice hardens (especially sushi rice) and flavors in general tend to blend into one another, losing their identity. Such was my last experience with China China--a very forgettable, gooey all-the-corn-starch-you-can-eat affair. However, lunch today at China China was different. The buffet featured a well tended variety of fresh fruits, sushi, barbecued meats, standby Chinese dishes (such as fried rice, mixed stir-fry vegetables, etc.) and desserts (such as soft serve ice cream) all for $8. The meats were hot yet not overcooked. The barbecued beef ribs were delicious, though greasy. I went back three times for the teriyaki chicken just because those thighs smelled so good.

For me, the biggest benefit of a big buffet spread is there's a fair probability two or three dishes will hit home and I can tear into them until I'm full. Today, China China's workhorses were the beef ribs, chicken teriyaki and oranges, which were easy to peel, juicy and sweet. Very importantly with China China, though, I can arrive at noon and get a table.

China China Restaurant and Buffet
2570 El Camino Real
Santa Clara, CA 95051
(408) 261-9000

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Pollos Maria--Carlsbad, CA

Looking for a lunch spot before heading south to San Diego from Carlsbad, we settled on Pollos Maria which features whole roasted chicken. Complete with flour tortillas, Spanish rice and pinto beans, the meal reminded me a little of my grad school days, when I ate at El Pollo Loco nearly every night for months. What El Pollo Loco can’t duplicate, though, is Pollos Maria’s golden-brown skin, crisped-to-perfection. My wife believes butter could be the secret ingredient. Whatever they’re using, it works. When thrown into a warm tortilla with fresh (and sharp!) salsa, rice and a little meat, the skin provides that special crunch that would have me coming back over and over again if only I didn’t live 450 miles to the north.

One can order the whole chicken with eight tortillas for $12.30. For a mere $2.90 extra, though, we received a 16-ounce of Spanish rice and another cup of the same size filled with pinto beans (with some onions thrown in). We ordered one Kids Meal, which featured a quesadilla, a small cup of rice and a drink for $4.50. The twins finished their quesadilla, but next time I’d instead order more of the grilled chicken to be shared with the kids.

Pollos Maria
3055 Harding Street
Carlsbad, CA 92008-2321
(760) 729-4858

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Quiznos--Kettleman City, CA

On our way to Carlsbad on the I-5 South a week ago today, we took a break for lunch in Kettleman City. This junction where the Interstate meets Highway 41 is a favorite stop for many, as it’s roughly the halfway point between the Bay Area and Los Angeles. The I-5 road warrior is given an array of fast food choices including Burger King, In-N-Out and McDonald’s. We chose Quiznos, though, as it sat atop a hill away from the crowd and for its proximity to the gas station offering the lowest prices in town.

My wife had a turkey torpedo, I had a large Mesquite Chicken and the kids each had a Kids Meal featuring a toasted ham sandwich. The torpedo was short (perhaps the length of a regular) and as thin as a pizza-bread stick. It’s clearly targeted for those with a modest appetite and can be had for four dollars. My wife thought it on the salty side. The Mesquite Chicken is a standby for me whenever I visit Quiznos and today, as always, it was predictably good. The chewiness of the bacon bits blended well with the tender chicken. And, the bread had a crisp exterior and a warm fluffy interior for which Quiznos is so well known.

The steal of the day, however, was the Kids Meal, which for $3.50 featured a toasted half ham and cheese sandwich, a bottomless drink and either a chocolate cookie or a bag of chips. Also included was an activity pack including crayons, stickers and a puzzle book. We parents appreciated it especially because it kept the boys occupied for nearly an hour as we headed south.

The bathroom, shared with the gas station next door, was a bit dirty and out of paper towels. However, overall it was clear the restaurant tried to offer its patrons a comfortable and enjoyable dining experience, even offering a complete condiment bar which included fresh jalapenos, pepperocinis, banana peppers and pickles.

27627 Bernard Drive
Kettleman City, CA 93239
(559) 386-0023