Friday, April 30, 2010

Shanghai Flavor Shop--Sunnyvale, CA

There’s something about my dad that makes me hungry for Shanghainese cuisine whenever he’s in town. So, today with Pop free for lunch, I requested that we go back to a hole in the wall that my wife found a couple of years ago: Shanghai Flavor Shop.

We ordered the House specialty Pan Fried Pork Bun which, remarkably, was ordered by each of the six other tables within view of ours. I say, “remarkably”, because it was a tremendous disappointment. The skin was too thin to be considered authentic; indeed, far too thin to arrive at our table without holes. The most egregious misstep was the dumplings were fried and served upside down. No kidding. The reason for this was because structurally the thickest part of the dumpling is the top, where the wrap converges to a twisted knot. So, with the most mechanically robust part of the dumpling facing downwards, the juice would be contained. Remember that the skin is thin; a right-side-up dumpling would have juice leaking through the bottom. To their credit, though, the restaurant did manage to serve the dumplings hot and juicy.

The Crystal Shrimp came hot with peas, but being a pinkish shade of brown—and not white—the dish clearly wasn’t authentic. The Sliced Fish in Wine Sauce was hot and tender, but really should have been a tad sour, which it wasn’t. Almost as unforgiveable as the upside down dumplings was the Baby Bok Choy with Mushrooms. The vegetables were cooked to perfection—the bok choy was hot and crisp. However, the dish came drowning in oyster sauce. How bad was it? My dad and I needed to gingerly pick up each mushroom or piece of bok choy and rinse the oyster sauce off what remained of the Sliced Fish in Wine Sauce. (Yes, we used the gravy of another dish to flush out the oyster sauce.) The wonton soup was acceptable and featured qi cai, a vegetable particular to the region around Shanghai having a consistency similar to green onion.

We finished the meal with, literally translated, “red bean fluffy biscuit” and “pork fluffy biscuit”. Both featured a flaky pastry that’s perhaps more commonly seen with a turnip filling. With the two bombs (the pork buns and the bok choy) behind us, these came as a relief. The red bean filling was soft, hot and delicious. The pork held its own and didn’t crumble.

I won’t be returning for a long time. Even though I’m the world’s least picky eater (and I’ll take on all comers who challenge this claim), I still have a sense of pride. How can I patronize a restaurant that has the nerve to stick its customers with dumplings fried and served upside down because they can’t get the skin right?

Shanghai Flavor Shop
888 Old San Francisco Rd.
Sunnyvale, CA 94086
(408) 738-3003

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Senzala--Sunnyvale, CA

Each trip I make to Senzala is a pleasure. The sofas, chairs and coffee tables arranged along the perimeter of the restaurant, along with the free Wi-Fi, extend a warm invitation to relax and stay for the afternoon. Moreover, there are always plenty of available tables to be found, even during the lunch hour, in the restaurant's large, open floor plan.

Today for lunch, however, I could only enjoy Senzala remotely, as lunch was catered for a department event we had at work. Reviewing a restaurant based on an experience outside of the restaurant is difficult, if not unfair. Eating inside Senzala is much more enjoyable than eating in my company’s cafeteria, where I ate today. Even more important, though, is that a hot dish needs to be served hot and the foil trays that came to my work simply couldn’t keep lunch hot and fresh.

All that said, however, the fried banana was terrific. It was oh-so-lightly fried yet the banana maintained its form. It was delicious. The fried yucca was a new experience for me, but it tasted a little bland and had the hardness of undercooked taro root. The chicken and steak, which could be cut with a plastic knife, were tender. Overall, though, the sauces, including those for the chicken and shrimp, lacked zip.

I expected much better from the sides. The rice was hard and the polenta thin and watery. The pinto beans were very ordinary. Indeed, even though the meats were gone within the first few minutes, entire trays of rice and beans were hardly touched—even when left for hours in the cafeteria for others to grab.

Despite the disappointing starches today, I would still recommend Senzala, but as a place to eat, not to carry out from. In fact, why stop at “eat”? The warm environment there all but begs you to relax on the couch indefinitely for one long post-lunch tea.

Senzala Brazilian Restaurant
250 East Java Drive
Sunnyvale, CA 94089
(408) 734-1656

Friday, April 23, 2010

Michael's at Shoreline--Mountain View, CA

With the cloudless skies and temperatures in the mid-70s, my wife and I ate lunch at Michael's at Shoreline, which offers a beautiful view of Shoreline Lake. I deferred to the cashier's recommendation and ordered the beef ravioli. It was a fine selection. The ravioli came in a meat sauce were filled with beef and cheese. The shell was delightfully chewy and the filling flavorful. Each entree came with a large dinner roll, which was perfect for mopping up the sauce.

My wife got the seafood spaghetti, which was simply shrimp and salmon with pasta. The dish was underwhelming and had a fishy taste to it. Looking at her bowl, I was disappointed that the sauce was so soupy. They could have gotten by with much less.

The food, however, wasn't the main draw for us today. It was the restaurant's proximity to the lake. The location enabled us to walk on a path bordering the lake and it was the perfect mid-day getaway. Also, whenever we go to Michael's we tend to arrive after noon (it's a relatively long drive for me from Santa Clara). In that way, Michael's is very forgiving--seating is almost always available, even at the peak hour. Finally, the restaurant pickings are very slim for non-Google employees in this part of Mountain View, where my wife works. So, if the weather is beautiful, it's closing in on noon and I want to meet my wife for lunch, the choice is clear.

Michael's at Shoreline
2960 North Shoreline Boulevard
Mountain View, CA 94043-1357
(650) 962-1014

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Birk's--Santa Clara, CA

I went to Birk's yesterday to meet a sales rep for a semiconductor equipment company. Situated at the base of an office building in a large commercial district, the clientele at Birk's is almost exclusively made up of those who use expense accounts to buy an overpriced lunch. I'd highly recommend their lemonade, though.

To start, I had the New England clam chowder, which was heavy with diced potatoes and light on clams. The bacon and touch of bell pepper added an interesting touch. I appreciated that the bowl came piping hot. My main course was the the pork chop, a Birk's specialty, as denoted by a box around this item on the menu. It came with cream of spinach, which was flavorful and didn't have the stringy texture of, say, this side dish at Boston Market. The mashed potatoes were average--so much so that I didn't even finish. The pork chop, unfortunately, was underdone. It's never easy to cook pork properly, as it's very unforgiving on either side of perfect doneness. Although the meat was bright pink and tight on the bone, I nevertheless took my chances and finished it. If I'd prepared this chop, I would have been very disappointed in myself. The lemonade, as I alluded to earlier, was the highlight of the lunch. They made it with freshly squeezed lemons.

Throughout the lunch I envied my counterpart's skirt steak, which I will order my next trip here. I really wished it was my wife on the other side of the table so that I could grab a bite. The steak came as a large, imposing folded ribbon of meat, which uncoiled would easily measure twelve inches. I was told the steak was great, but after having eaten only a quarter of it someone came to ask if he was finished. Even though my associate said several times he was not finished, the dish was still taken away--an enormous faux pas.

Despite yesterday's sub par chop and iffy service, it's easy to understand why Birk's remains a hot lunch spot despite the difficult economic environment. For those who want substantial entrees in an accessible location, the choices are few in Santa Clara outside of Birk's. And, to their credit, as many times as I've eaten at Birk's over the past ten years or so, they've never run out of any item on the menu. Moreover, their lemonade--whether straight or with raspberry--always hits the spot.

Birk's Restaurant
3955 Freedom Circle
Santa Clara, CA 95054
(408) 980-6400

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Hong Kong Bistro--Mountain View, CA

Looking for a quick hit at a greasy spoon tonight, we tried Hong Kong Bistro on Castro in Mountain View. With three flatscreens showing Hong Kong television in a very casual atmosphere, the Bistro presented an ideal dining environment for our rowdy twins. The Beef Fun was run-of-the-mill and the Shrimp Fried Rice was notable for an ample supply of medium sized shrimp--I counted more than a dozen. The conspicuous dish of the night, though, was most certainly the Hainan Chicken ("Hainanese Chicken" on the menu).

There were at least three things wrong with this plate, each of them fatal. First, there was no broth, which is a must for Hainan Chicken. Second, the rice was not white, but of a darker shade of curry. Although well buttered, the rice was hard. Third, and by far the most heinous, the chicken was tougher than leather had a tenacious grip on the bone. It was as if the chicken were prepared a few days ago, chilled in the refrigerator, then microwaved to over-doneness. My wife's simple explanation was the chicken was old. Either way, it was the worst chicken in memory for either of us.

As bad as the chicken was, however, we left with forgiveness in our hearts. Our dinner was delivered quickly--in about five minutes. Moreover, the larger of our twins absolutely loved the funny-colored rice that came with that hideous chicken. It was probably the butter. After showing us it can do the simple things right, I can see ourselves returning when we're in a pinch (e.g. when we have an empty fridge and very little time to spare).

Hong Kong Bistro
174 Castro St.
Mountain View, CA 94041
(650) 968-8938

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Mel's Drive-In--San Francisco, CA

In trying to find furniture for our home, my wife and I took the day off today to go to San Francisco. Our shopping adventure took us to a custom furniture store on Lombard Street, where we noticed Mel's Drive-In. Enticed by lunchtime hunger and free parking in Mel's lot, we couldn't resist going. Once inside, I was struck by Mel's retro feel, produced in part by wall-length photos from the 1950's, booths with red vinyl upholstery and tabletops with grooved aluminum trim. It was a surprise to me, then, when I found out that the restaurant actually opened in 1985 and was a son's reincarnation of his father's Mel's Drive-In that closed in 1972. They did such a wonderful job with the 1950's decor that I could swear it even made the food taste better.

I went with "The Famous Melburger", featuring a one-third pound patty. I ordered it medium-rare against my better judgement, as the burger was almost all pink inside and juice splattered with every bite. The french fries that escaped the fluid oozing and raining down from the burger were extraordinary. Mel's understood the importance of getting fries to the customer within seconds of preparation. A small container of mayonnaise came with the plate, presumably for the burger. However, the mayo went so well with the fries that putting any on the burger never crossed my mind.

My wife selected the French Dip, noted on the menu as "A Mel's Favorite". While she liked the bread for its crisp crust, the roast beef was merely passable. She mentioned the prime rib in an Adamson's French Dip, for example, was easily more tender. The juice was good, but not out of the ordinary.

Overall, the experience was a positive one, especially given the convincing decor. From each table, one could even select from a menu of oldies to be played on the restaurant speaker system for a quarter a pop. With so much of San Francisco yet to explore, however, I have my doubts that this blast from the past is in my future.

Mel's Drive-In
2165 Lombard Street
San Francisco, CA
(415) 921-2867

Friday, April 9, 2010

Hu Chiang Dumpling House--Cupertino, CA

Maybe about five years ago HC Dumpling House served perhaps the most authentic Shanghainese cuisine from the mid-Peninsula southward. Dishes such as their crab xiao long bao, chicken soup and crystal shrimp were all exquisite. However, over the past few years the restaurant went through at least two changes in management and today’s lunch demonstrated as much.

At the HC Dumpling House of old, chicken soup was prepared in individual covered bowls, which were then served directly to the diner. This resulted in a broth rich in flavor and chicken that was fall-off-the-bone tender. This afternoon, though, it was clear that the soup was ladled into the bowl. The broth, though acceptable and with ginger root added, lacked the rich medicinal flavor that I was used to. As for the crystal shrimp, instead of using small freshwater shrimp, today’s shrimp was large and slightly underdone. The two baskets of xiao long bao—one with crab the other beef—were also far too large (nearly three inches in diameter) to be considered authentic. However, the filling was delicious for both and each bao packed hot soup, requiring one to eat the large dumpling in one bite.

Our drunken chicken appetizer, served cold, was tender but salty. The shredded potato with bell pepper packed a punch with jalapeno peppers. It was good on its own but it was the only dish we chose not to finish.

Despite the noticeable drop from the HC Dumpling House of a few years ago, I would still return. They have an extensive menu and there are other dishes worth trying (such as the lion’s head). Besides, for me to hold out for that ultra-rare xiao long bao that has everything right—the size, the soup, the skin, the folds, the crab—just isn’t being fair to myself.

Hu Chiang Dumpling House

10877 North Wolfe Road
Cupertino, CA 95014

(408) 873-4813