Saturday, July 31, 2010

Z Pie--Placerville, CA

On our way back home from Tahoe, we dropped by Z Pie in Placerville. Featuring savory and sweet pot pies, we ordered a turkey (below) for the boys to share, a chicken and mushroom for Jenny and a Jamaican jerk pork for myself. With the pies already made before we even ordered, the restaurant merely had to heat them up before serving. So, our lunch arrived at our table in only about five minutes or so.

With the crust in all the pies rich with butter, the bigger of our twins quickly finished his share of the turkey pie and even tried to take some crust away from his brother. My wife was likewise satisfied and, because of the heaviness of the crust, came away full. I enjoyed the Jamaican jerk pork, but the pie would have been better with more meat and fewer black beans.

We finished with the "Z Apple" pie, which was my favorite of the lunch. The apples were considered by some at our table to be on the sweet side, but I thought the filling overall was delicious and complemented the flaky, buttery crust well.

So, the four pies before tax and tip were $25, making lunch a good value. For those who wish to avoid that heavy crust (and there's no denying the crust is rich), Z-Pie also serves soups and salads. However, the pies are what make this place special and they're the reason I want to drop by again.

Z Pie
3182 Center St
Placerville, CA 95667
(530) 621-2626

Friday, July 30, 2010

Fat Cat Cafe--Tahoe City, NV

We began our day in South Tahoe with the goal of circling the Lake in a day--a journey of about 70 miles. At lunchtime we hit Tahoe City and dropped by Fat Cat Cafe, which is on the main drag through town. Within seconds upon entering, I was struck by the fact that this restaurant takes its rules very seriously. On the front door, in big capital letters on a placard the size of a poster a sign read, "NO ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES BEYOND THIS POINT", making it clear one wasn't allowed to bring in his own drinks. At the bar, again in all caps, a sign read, "20% GRATUITY ADDED TO ALL LEFT TABS. BRING YOUR CREDIT CARD HOME", whatever that meant. The kicker was that following us into the restaurant was a woman who brought in two plastic bags and what looked to me to be a yellow insulated lunch box. Almost immediately, a heavily tattooed man at the bar, perhaps the manager or owner, shouted to her across the room, "Hey, what's in the bag?" When she opened one of her plastic grocery bags, he said, "No, no, no! The yellow bag! Tell me what's in the YELLOW bag!" To which the woman answered, "You know what? I don't want to eat here", and promptly walked out. I wanted to follow her in support of her protest, but we were already seated and the smiling waiter was just then handing us our menus.

The tense environment aside, the fact is the quality of our lunch was easily above average, although a little expensive. Each of the kids had a mac and cheese, made with a four-cheese sauce and topped with panko bread crumbs. Jenny and I split two "small plates" for lunch. Wanting something simple, I had the bacon and mushroom quesadillas, which went very well with the sour cream and chives and the freshly chopped tomatoes.

My wife got the best dish of the three, though, which was the ahi with fried wonton skins. Sprinkled on top of the ahi were both white and black sesame seeds. The light sauce hinted subtly of a vinaigrette. The avocados on the side complemented the fish nicely.

Before tax and tip, lunch came to $36, a bit much for a lunch that would not have filled us up if not for the twins' leftovers. Given the yellow bag episode at the beginning of the lunch, though, I can't recommend this restaurant. I understand they had a rule against bringing alcohol to enforce. But to shout across the room at a customer with an accusing tone is out of line.

The Fat Cat Cafe
599 N Tahoe Blvd
Tahoe City, CA 96145
(530) 583-3355

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Forest Buffet--South Lake Tahoe, NV

Tonight, shortly after arriving in South Lake Tahoe famished (Jenny and I skipped lunch in order to shepherd the twins through a train museum in Sacramento--the twins had hot dogs for lunch, by the way), we bolted for the Forest Buffet at Harrah's. We got there shortly after 6:00 and waited in line for about 25 minutes before getting our table, which offered a beautiful 18th floor view of Tahoe.

I got to business right away and grabbed the best meats I could find. Pictured below, clockwise from the top, are the baby back ribs, chicken breast, ham, prime rib, top sirloin, baked salmon and roast turkey. In general, the birds and fish were overdone, but the prime rib and ribs were tender. At first I loved the sauce on the ribs. But, after five or six ribs I couldn't help but detect a chemical flavor to the sauce.

Overlooked by many were sushi, as they were tucked away in a corner of the restaurant. Among the rolls were unagi, Philly, California, tempura shrimp and spicy crab.

The dessert assortment was eye-catching and included chocolate covered strawberries, berry tart, cream puffs, cheesecake, cherry pie, lemon custard and chocolate cupcake. The stawberries were delicious, but not distinctive. The cherry pie was notable for its crust, which was soft and buttery. The tart was ordinary.

The fruit arrangement was limited, with just honeydew, cantaloupe, and pineapple. What really stood out was the pineapple, which came in big, sweet, juicy chunks and was a highlight of our dinner.

All four of us came away full. in the end, my wife thought the buffet was merely a large assortment of average quality food. Perhaps this is as objective an assessment as either of us can make, as I was starving and would have been thrilled to eat taro paste. In any case, the buffet wasn't cheap, especially for the five-year olds, who set us back $10 each. The adults paid $19 apiece.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Cafe Lucano--Larkspur, CA

Last night we were caught in the middle of Marin County at dinnertime with nary an idea of what to eat. However, my restaurant-detective wife did a little research on the fly and found Cafe Lucano in Larkspur.

With meat lasagna being one of the specials, we ordered a serving for the twins. The portion was minuscule, though, and was far from able to support the two boys. The size alone made the lasagna a poor value at $12. Frankie and Johnnie's in Mountain View, for example, offers a far more substantial lasagna for a similar price.

From the menu, Jenny got the chicken marsala (pictured below) which she enjoyed. I stole a bite and found that the wine in the sauce stood out, which was fine.

I tried the chicken saltimbocca (below). The meat was tender but overall the dish was salty, largely due to the prosciutto. One of the starving twins was thankful to have some of the ample amount of parmesan on my plate. I had to drink a liter of water after getting back to the hotel.

My wife and I both enjoyed the mushrooms, which were obviously fresh. Mine were swimming in oil, but that's almost always fine with me. The broccoli was crisp. We both noticed--and were disappointed by--the fact that we weren't served bread, which should be a given at any Italian restaurant.

It's hard for me to recommend for or against Lucano. They nailed the vegetables and the chicken was tender. On the other hand, the lasagna was overpriced and what about the bread?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Kingdom of Dumpling--San Francisco, CA

My wife and the younger of my twins entered Kingdom of Dumpling while I fed the parking meter with my older son. When I finally entered the small restaurant I was met with a number of uneasy looks from a number of patrons. I quickly found out why: the younger one had thrown up soon after walking in. It was a difficult car ride up to San Francisco for him and he was queasy much of the way.

The staff was very forgiving, though, and insisted that we not clean up the mess. Also, my boy quickly recovered and displayed a furious appetite. So much so that we needed to request yet another basket of those delicious shao lung bao. To avoid being conspicuous, I pack a small point-and-shoot for eating out and the photo below certainly doesn't do those beautiful dumplings justice. I counted the requisite 24 folds and they passed the suspension test (where I hold the dumpling by the crown and see if juice comes out). The soup inside was delicious and hot. My only quibble was the dumpling could have had a little more meat. But, this was merely a nit, especially when I think back to the disaster at Pan Tao two weekends ago.

The chive pancake wasn't quite what we anticipated, but it was a treat nevertheless. Rather than taking the form of, say, a traditional onion pancake (circular and flat with onion throughout), the pancake was a wrap and the chives were the filling. The pancake itself was greasy and chewy, as good pancakes are.

In addition to diving into the shao lung bao, the twins dived into chicken and corn dumplings, perhaps most notable for their delightful skins, which were air-tight and of a cushiony consistency. Our lunch began with lamb skewers which were tender and spicy, making them hard for our five-year-olds to eat.

This little restaurant of six tables is a tidy, efficient operation which makes it clear from the beginning it tries to attract customers with good food and not its ambiance. The walls are dirty, the plates are all chipped and one has to undertake a delicate dance with the chef in the kitchen just to make it to the restroom. Yet, today's experience was a marvelous one, from the kindness the staff showed my sick, barfing boy to the outstanding dumplings which made him--at long last--hungry and then full.

Kingdom of Dumpling
1713 Taraval St
(between 27th Ave & 28th Ave)
San Francisco, CA 94116

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Chalateco--Mountain View, CA

Having moved into our current home less than eight months ago, for dinner tonight we explored our neighborhood. A few minutes from our house we found Chalateco, a restaurant featuring Salvadoran and Mexican cuisine.

With the exotic brain tacos on the menu, I couldn't wait to order one and was deeply satisfied. The brain, pictured below, had the rich flavor and soft texture of crab brain. It had a the taste of slightly salted egg yolk and the feel of a creamy mashed potato.

With Chalateco advertising itself as featuring pupusas, I requested one of those with pork. The pupusa was delightful. The pastry was crisp yet after a short time in the mouth was soft and chewy, a perfect complement to the tender pork.

The kids went with the chicken quesadilla and a pork and cheese pupusa, which they both finished. My wife had a mushroom pupusa. Although the tortilla for all three pupusas enveloped the filling, I couldn't find a seam in any of them. The kids and I wondered, "Just how did the meat get in there?"

Just to make sure we wouldn't leave hungry, we also ordered the asada torta, a titanic beef sandwich that alone could very well have fed all of us. The sandwich came loaded with meat and layered with avocado and cheese.

Whether Chalateco had a restroom wasn't apparent, but they did have a standalone sink for customers to use to wash their hands. This was very convenient for us, having two boys who don't mind getting dirty.

I left Chalateco with a giddy feeling, even giving my wife a spontaneous hug as soon as we got home. No, the dinner we had probably wasn't good for us physically, but it made me a very happy man and, at less than $25 before tip, was the quintessential bargain.

The Chalateco we tried tonight is in Mountain View. There are five other locations.

823 E El Camino Real
Mountain View, CA 94040
(650) 969-3026

Friday, July 23, 2010

New Mongolian BBQ--Mountain View, CA

Not knowing where or what to eat for lunch today, my wife and I took a stroll south on Castro. As we walked by New Mongolian BBQ it appealed to Jenny because it was a little different from the Vietnamese, Chinese, Italian and Persian food we'd been noshing over the past few weeks. I wanted to go because the restaurant had plenty of available seating and the food line was short.

At New Mongolian, one can take as many trips to the bar to stuff a bowl (or, in most cases, two bowls) with pork, chicken, beef, noodles and a variety of vegetables and sauces. The raw goods are then handed over to a cook who stir fries the food on a giant (about 4 feet in diameter) circular grill.

For many a Mongolian Barbecue, the limit to how much one consumes often isn't dictated by gut capacity but rather the number of people in line. El Camino Mongolian BBQ, for example, can easily have a line 15 minutes long. Not having any early afternoon meetings, though, I had the luxury of time today and was able to squeeze in three visits to the bar during the hour or so I was there (noon to 1:10). Coming in before noon or after 1:00, though, one would have an even easier time getting access.

Egg drop soup and rice were served at the table.

Jenny thought the food ordinary, and perhaps she has a point. There wasn't anything here today that separated New Mongolian from others in its class. Moreover, I would have liked to see some lamb at the bar. New Mongolian did, however, bring some positives. Lunch was $8 and I ate enough such that I didn't need to eat dinner. The soft serve ice cream was delicious. When a vegetarian behind me wanted the cook to clean the grill of any trace of meat, the cook obliged. This was a nice touch. When an associate of mine made a similar request at El Camino Mongolian BBQ some time ago, it went unheard.

New Mongolian BBQ
304 Castro St
Mountain View, CA 94041
(650) 968-0381

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Pan Tao--Sunnyvale, CA

It had been several years since we'd been to this standalone restaurant near the Sunnyvale-Cupertino border, so curiosity drove us to come back. Two key dim sum staples, shuimai and ha gao, were both served hot and fresh. Others, including the cha shao bao (sweet pork bun) and tsong tse (lotus wrapped rice) were also good. Not as acceptable was the coconut jello, which came with canned fruit, providing an overwhelming syrup. Today's atrocity, however, was the shao lung bao, which had no soup inside, a skin that easily fell apart and a filling far too large. By now, I should know to never order this Shanghainese delicacy at a dim sum restaurant, but my weakness for this dumpling makes me think with my appetite and not my head. Unfortunately, when I think of today's lunch I think of the horrible shao lung bao and the fact that we had to wait more than half an hour for the first ha gao to arrive. In those first thirty minutes, the same dishes passed by over and over again.

From the looks and sounds of Pan Tao's clientele, this is a restaurant where the locals eat. And, getting to Pan Tao after noon would almost certainly mean waiting for a table and no available parking in the restaurant's lot. However, this crowd would surely find more variety and better quality dim sum down the street at Dynasty. And, they certainly wouldn't do worse by wading through the options in the Cupertino Mall just a block away.

Pan Tao
1686 S Wolfe Rd
Sunnyvale, CA 94087
(408) 737-9976

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Hot Lips Pizza--Portland, OR

I was on the campus of Portland State (which has the largest student population of all universities in Oregon) today and jumped into Hot Lips Pizza. I ordered a slice of the bacon and spinach pizza, which they tossed into the oven to warm up. The bacon was good and fatty, adding flavor to the pizza, which had a crisp, thin crust. What sets Hot Lips apart, though, is the soda they make on-site. Today's featured drink was blackberry soda, which was a delicious dark blue sludge with bubbles percolating to the top. The man behind the register apologized that it was so thick and suggested that I dilute it with soda water. He said the texture changes from day to day. I liked the homey charm of a soda gone slightly awry, though, and drank it as is. The consistency and flavor was much like that of what a fizzy blackberry smoothie might be. It was a meal in itself. Hot Lips features all organic ingredients in their food which may have justified the cost, but it still didn't come cheap--the slice and the drink set me back $6.95 (there's no sales tax in Oregon).

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Xanh--Mountain View, CA

Of the fifty or so restaurants I tried this year, Xanh sticks out as being the best value. A mere $12 buys you an all-you-can-eat hunting license to roughly twenty dishes, most of them creative and delicious. I ate myself silly and now, six hours later, I'm still stuffed and skipping dinner.

The test I use to determine my favorite dishes is to see which ones I grabbed that very last trip to the buffet--the dishes that I just had to have again even though I was thoroughly sated. Those dishes were: lemon grass chicken (tender and flavorful), baby pork ribs, spicy fish (catfish) and the spicy sour soup (featuring basa fish and an extraordinarily delicious seafood broth that was slightly spicy, slightly sweet).

The best of the rest includes the grilled chicken, which I would be considered a top tier dish at any other buffet in this price range. I also enjoyed each of the three rolls which featured marinated beef (Kobe roll), tofu (Buddha) and, my wife's favorite, the basa fish (Eskimo).

Xanh's the best weekday buffet I've ever tried here in the Bay Area. I eagerly look forward to a return trip--and to be sure, I'll be wearing my loose pants.

110 Castro Street
Mountain View, CA 94041
(650) 964-1888

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Tom's Depot--Los Altos, CA

A ten-minute walk from home, my wife and I stopped by Tom's Depot for breakfast today. I went with Matthew's Choice, which featured an omelet as creative as it was delicious. Bay shrimp, avocado, American cheese, chopped mushrooms and onions combined to form a creamy, scrumptious entree. For sides I chose the English muffin (could have had toast instead) and a fruit cup (in lieu of hash browns).

My wife got the chocolate chip pancakes and was pleased with them--I noticed there was chocolate in every bite.

Tom's broad menu also features Mexican food, burgers, fries, shakes, malts and a trainload of sides. When I was a boy and my mom came home early she'd take me to the nearby burger and malt shop. Likewise, I look forward to enjoying burgers and sundaes at Tom's with the boys if I can escape work. It'll have to be early, though, as Tom's closes at 2:00 Mondays and 4:00 the rest of the work week.

Tom's Depot
991 Fremont Ave
Los Altos, CA 94024
(650) 948-8515

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Backayard--Menlo Park, CA

I would never have guessed that such a little restaurant in an unassuming, mixed commercial and residential neighborhood in Menlo Park could serve dishes packing such a powerful punch. With my wife's parents watching the young 'uns my wife and I bolted for some Jamaican jerk chicken and oxtail at Backayard. Both meats were devastatingly tender, with the oxtail meat falling off the bone at the slightest touch. The dark-meat chicken came coated with a jerk sauce with zip.

The rice was delicious, too. It was soft, flavorful and even included pinto beans in the mix. The plantains were terrific--it wasn't overly sweet and the outer crust was carmelized to a chewy perfection.

If there was any drawback, it was that the meal left both of us thirsty for hours. Because of the punchy jerk sauce, I didn't really detect an abundance of salt, but we both drank water constantly throughout the afternoon and early evening. I'm still going back, though. My wife tells me the Backayard in Palo Alto offers a great experience, too!

1189 Willow Road
Menlo Park, CA 94025
(650) 323-4244

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Vaso Azzurro--Mountain View, CA

Having committed to lunch with an equipment supplier but without a car for today, my associates graciously agreed to meet me on Castro Street not far from where I live. We tried Vaso Azzurro, where I went with the Salmone Stromboli, which surprised me in that it wasn't really salmon wrapped in a turnover. Rather, it was presented simply as a fillet with white wine sauce. The fish was extraordinarily tender and the vegetables (carrot and broccoli) crisp.

For dessert I had the bowl of fresh mixed berries, which was tremendously overpriced. At $6.95 I received seven blackberries and four cut strawberries with "a splash of Grand Marnier".

Vaso Azzurro reminds a lot of Birk's, where customers overpay for good food knowing they're protected by fat expense accounts. All three of us enjoyed our lunches, but the portions were small--I was starving by the mid-afternoon. Also, the restaurant would have done well to show some creativity when plating the entrees. My dish looked exactly like today's special, English Sole, except the fish was different. The sauce, the positioning of the carrot, broccoli and mashed potatoes were identical. My wife, who'd eaten here a few times before, told me dishes tend to come with the same vegetables at Vaso.

If you have a big lunch budget (I caused more than $30 in damage today) but are short on time, Vaso might be for you, as you won't have to wait in line--the restaurant was only about 30% full (at most) during the lunch hour.

Vaso Assurro
108 Castro Street
Mountain View, CA 94041
(650) 940-1717

Monday, July 5, 2010

Clarke's Charcoal Broiler

The distinctive, drool-inducing aroma that could only come from a charcoal grill wafted throughout Clarke's parking lot at lunchtime today, setting up high expectations. And, none of us were at all disappointed by the boys' cheeseburger, my wife's mushroom burger (featuring fresh mushrooms) or my cheddar burger. All three burgers had patties were 1/3 pound and could be dressed up using extras from Clarke's generous condiment bar, which included lettuce, pepperoncini, jalepenos, red onions, white onions and every kind of wet condiment one could want with a burger. The fries were served hot, but there were a few soggy ones in the basket.

I'd go back to Clarke's which among made-to-order burger joints is a full notch above, say, Kirk's (the one that serves canned mushrooms and a condiment bar that closes down at 1:30--though they'll still shamelessly still sell you burgers at that time leaving you stranded without mayo, lettuce and everything else you'd expect with a burger). However, considering the family experience, convenience and overall value, I still prefer In-N-Out.

Clarke's also offers a complete breakfast menu featuring staples such as omelets and pancakes.

Clarke's Charcoal Broiler
615 W El Camino Real
Mountain View, CA 94040

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Good Morning--Los Altos, CA

I spoiled myself today for my birthday lunch and had a three-egg avocado and bacon omelet, hash browns and a stack of pancakes. The omelet was world class, bulging with avocado, bacon, sour cream (worked for me, but not for my wife) and a touch of cheese. This yellow log was about the size of a burrito and I couldn't believe it involved only three eggs. The hash was hot and crunchy. Although the pancakes weren't distinctive, they really hit the spot, as I allowed myself to go full throttle with the butter and syrup.

My wife tells me her burger was good. The misshapen patty indicated to us it was homemade. The fries were hot and crisp.

The food was so good today that it's easy to forgive the one lapse in service, which was that I ordered three 'cakes for my stack but received two (and thank goodness, with everything else so filling).

I look forward to being a regular here and knowing this restaurant is only ten minutes away from home is a present in itself.

A Good Morning
4546 El Camino Real
Los Altos, CA 94022
(650) 941-8154