Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Wu Ji's Mala House--San Jose, CA

Last night's cold rain made Jenny and me eager for a hot dinner. And, with her parents in town to take care of the kids, we made a break for Wu Ji's Mala House in San Jose. At Wu Ji's, one is presented with two columns on the menu, one for house hot pots and one for mala hot pots. Each category had the same selection of meat: pork, beef, lamb and shrimp.

The house pots can be made to order as far as spiciness, but off the menu they're served without heat. For the mala hot pots, the degrees of hotness at Wu Ji's go from one to five. I was warned that a "two" is spicier than the highest level found at a typical Korean tofu house. With that being about my level, I went with the two. Jenny was told she could have her pork house pot at "0.5", but declined and went with the standard. It was a good call, as her broth was just about the most delightful I've ever tried at a restaurant and it was better left uncompromised.

We were told the broth was made using pork bones and "dairy", which was evidenced by the froth as the soup reached a sustained boil at our table. The most prominent flavor, though, was that of sweet corn, the cob of which sat in the center of the pot. Also prominent in the house pot were tofu, unpeeled shrimp and cabbage, the last of which Jenny particularly enjoyed. Coming with each of our individual pots was a fair quantity of thinly sliced raw meat. The lamb that accompanied the mala pot was good, having that signature gamey flavor, but what stood out in my soup were little delights of my childhood, such as pork intestine and stewed tripe. Beef tendon was also included. Bean noodles are the default starch for all pots, but one could substitute rice instead, as Jenny did.

The service was marginal but one was more likely to feel sorry for the server than upset. Jenny was originally served the wrong meat, my burner arrived at the table without a flame and our glasses of water were never refilled. Our server was clearly overburdened and I wondered why the management hired only her to support the entire restaurant.

There is truth to the claim that a level two is hotter than the spiciest one would find at typical Korean tofu house. I left with my mouth slightly wounded and even the skin around my lips was warm for at least an hour afterwards. The next time I visit Wu Ji's I'm going to make less work of it and order up the house pot my wife had--that broth is just too delicious to pass up.

I would not recommend bringing the kids for at least a couple of reasons. Their sensitive buds might not withstand the boiling soup, first of all. Second, the burners underneath the soup, with their often errant flames licking the sides of the pots, are a safety hazard. With all that heat surrounding us and inside of us, it was no wonder that few in the restaurant seemed to mind that the front door was left open to admit the chill of a cold December night.

Wu Ji's accepts cash only. My lamb mala hot pot was $15.95, Jenny's pork house pot was $10.85.

Wu Ji's Mala House
1715 Lundy Avenue
San Jose, CA 95131-1837
(408) 441-0822

Monday, December 27, 2010

French dip

Another benefit of cooking a five pound roast (please see entry below)? Leftovers! With a packet of au jus gravy mix and a loaf of French bread Jenny whipped together some scrumptious instant gratification: delicious French dip. Critical to the success of this sandwich is the bread, which should be a big fluffy loaf with a hard crust. The more fluff in your bread, the more juice you'll mop up. The hard crust acts as a non absorbent soak-stop layer to keep your fingers dry and provides a crunchy contrast.

Prior to loading with prime rib, we put the bread open faced into the toaster oven. We chose to skip the butter. Assuming the meat is from the refrigerator, put enough for one sandwich in the microwave on "High" for 30 seconds. As soon as my wife threw this together our bigger twin (who was relegated to ravioli for dinner) couldn't leave us alone, constantly grabbing and munching away at our beef dips.

Eat this with a big drink. You're going to need it. A pack of the mix has nearly half again more than the recommended daily allowance for sodium. This stuff isn't health food.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Prime rib roast

Although prime rib is considered a traditional cut of meat for Christmas dinner, it wasn't until tonight that we prepared it for the first time, Christmas or not. My wife's co-worker forwarded her a recipe that came highly acclaimed. As stated on the Food Network website, the aforementioned recipe for Foolproof Standing Rib Roast goes like this:

Preheat oven to 375 F

Prepare seasoning:
1 cup salt
1/4 cup garlic powder
1/4 cup ground black pepper

Let roast stand at room temperature for at least an hour.
Rub seasoning all over roast
Place roast on a rack in a pan with fatty side up

For what follows, the oven door should be closed from when the roast is put into the oven until it is ready to be served:
Roast for an hour, then turn off oven
Leave roast in oven for three hours with door closed
About one hour before serving, turn oven to 375 F to reheat the roast

We diverged from the recipe in two ways. For us, the reheat step was a little less than half an hour, at which time the sizzling prompted us to turn the dial to "Off". Also, the 1 1/2 cups of seasoning (to which we added some rosemary for color) we found to be far more than what we actually needed, which was about one-eighth that. So, you can divide the portions of salt, garlic powder and black pepper by four or even eight and you should be fine with a five pound roast--ours was five and a half.

In the end, the seasoning formed a salt-heavy but tasty crust on the ribs. It also provided that saliferous bite that goes so well with tender prime rib. As for the cut itself, I strongly advise you make this "Foolproof" recipe even more so by getting yourself a well marbled Prime cut, as opposed to Choice. As it did for us, your roast will come out with all parts tender and juicy.

Before tonight, I was resigned to putting up with the chewy portion of the cut in order to enjoy that tender, dark exterior portion of the rib. However, this recipe, so elegant in its simplicity yet so devastatingly delicious in its result, can make anyone come off as an expert chef. One great side benefit of this method is that after the roughly four and a half hours of preparation, the wonderful essence of prime rib will reach every remote corner of your home--what's not to love about that?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Cooking Papa--Santa Clara, CA

My dad and Chinese food seem to always go together. When he visited earlier this week I took advantage of his talent for selecting the right restaurant and ordering the right dishes to fit the mood and even the weather. Tuesday, we ventured to Cooking Papa and ordered up some classic Cantonese dishes.

We began with the double plate appetizer with honey barbecue pork and roasted pork belly. The gleam on the barbecue pork (or char siu) from the honey glaze and was a positive indicator of its freshness. The pork was sweet, tender and impossible to resist but it was only the second-best meat on the plate. The preparation of the pork belly made it the best part of our lunch and it achieved a delicate balance: crisp skin with soft, tender meat. One could easily see the multiple layers in the cross section, including the skin, fat and pork.

Next to arrive was the Papa Roasted Chicken (or "diu siu gai" in Cantonese). Or, loosely translated, "hanging roasted chicken". That is, the chicken was marinated during the roasting process, when it was suspended. It was very similar in substance and preparation to its close cousin, the more often-seen Hong Kong roast chicken. The meat was soft, juicy and the skin crisp and delicious. It had been a long while since I'd had its equal (probably at Joy Luck Bistro in Cupertino).

One indicator of whether a good restaurant is, well, worth its salt, is the quality of a simple dish particular to its cuisine. For Shanghainese, that may be crystal shrimp. For a Cantonese restaurant it could be beef with broccoli. I'm told, in fact, that cooking this dish is often the entrance exam for a propspective chef in Hong Kong. Using that as a measure, Cooking Papa gets an A. The meat was very soft with a lot of oil yet wasn't at all soupy or wet at the bottom of the plate, very different from the same dish I'd had only a day earlier at Joy Luck Bistro). The broccoli was crisp. Overall, I was taken by how hot and fresh the plate was, almost making it a shame to order this dish for take-out.

The porridge with fresh clam and winter mellon was probably the weakest of the four, but neverthless provided a change from the usual fish or beef jook. The clams were served in their shells, though one or two of them were stale. The porridge, as should be expected, was piping hot and hence made me forget I was sitting next to the front door on a cold December day.

Packed full by the four dishes, I had to decline dessert. It was a decision that came with great difficulty. Cooking Papa's Hong Kong Style Egg Puff is my favorite dessert offered by any Chinese restauarant anywhere. Always served hot, the exterior of the pastry is crisp, but just so, and the interior is as light as air itself. At four puffs for three dollars, the dessert is the steal of the Bay Area and is reason enough to make a special trip to this standalone restaurant. It's why I chose Cooking Papa for my 2010 birthday dinner and why it'll probably be my choice in 2011.

The restaurant was very busy--a line formed at noon. Cooking Papa accepts cash only.

Cooking Papa
2830 Homestead Road
Santa Clara, CA 95051
(408) 247-3748

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Shanghai Restaurant--Cupertino, CA

Tenancy at 10877 North Wolfe Road in Cupertino has changed hands several times over the past few years. And, although many an owner, chef and menu have come and gone at this location, one commonality has been handed down from one occupant to the next, as if it were a torch: Shanghainese cuisine. One may also view 10877 North Wolfe as that address where one management after another has tried to match the skill and variety of that found at the best restaurant of all at this location: Hu Chiang Dumplings. By that standard, Shanghai Restaurant (its Chinese name, which is less generic, is the same as that of a famous restaurant in Shanghai), where we ate Sunday, falls short. But, we had a good time nevertheless.

We started with what's perhaps the most well-known Shanghainese dish of all: xiao lung bao. Unfortunately, it was also the low point of our lunch. The dumplings were hot and bulging with soup. However, they were salty and had us in need of water long after we left. Also, the crab in the crab xiao lung bao was very difficult to detect. The xiao lung bao without crab were actually slightly sweet. The "Cured Pork Zhen Jiang Style" arrived next after the xiao lung bao. It had the look and texture of spam, which was fine, but not the pickled flavor we were expecting. Things got better from here, however.

The strong flavor of our other appetizer plate, the smoked chicken, made it the best dish of the lunch and left no doubt about its preparation. The same could not be said at all, for example, of the "smoked" (but actually insipid) turkey leg we picked up at Sprouts a week ago. The meat, all of it dark, was delightfully easy to chomp through.

As for the rest of lunch? Our ji cai with yellow fish soup, another highlight, was served hot and loaded with ji cai--a vegetable often found in wontons--in every spoonful. The crystal shrimp was good, but not authentic. The squash with bamboo fungus was a surprisingly good combination, with the fungus moving through the mouth like a smooth, delicate woven fabric. Dessert was a fried red bean pancake, which was crisp, greasy and heavy with paste. Dessert wasn't our last dish, however, with the chive pancakes stumbling to our table nearly a full hour after we ordered it. The pancake (below) was fresh, though, and filled with chives, chopped rice noodles and egg. It was shiny with oil, but my dad, who was born and raised in Shanghai, mentioned the real stuff should be even greasier.

The staff all spoke Shanghainese which gave the restaurant a degree of credibility. Still, it was easy to tell that many of the dishes weren't authentic We'll probably go again, though. I never tire of Shanghainese food, even when it's a home-brewed variant. Besides, I've yet to meet a Shanghainese braised pork I didn't like.

Shanghainese Restaurant
10877 N Wolfe Rd
Cupertino, CA 95014
(408) 873-4813

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Dia de Pesca--San Jose, CA

The only reason we don't eat at Dia De Pesca more often (we go only about once every year or so) is that it's twenty minutes away from home. Last weekend we checked out a swim school for the boys in San Jose. Proximity to the pool made Dia De Pesca a most welcome option for dinner. I'd long thought Dia De Pesca's fish tacos among the best anywhere. What I learned with this trip, though, is Dia De Pesca can also be an extraordinary value.

I ordered the special ($7.95), which came with three tacos and a cup of chicken hominy soup. The tacos were served hot and with a green sauce--probably avocado-based--that added a creamy texture and enhanced the flavor of every bite. The crab taco was outstanding, especially because of the generous quantity of sweet tender meat. When I dropped some crab on the table I still scooped it up and chowed it down, overcoming for a moment my notorious obsession with food cleanliness.

The other two tacos, while not as delicious as the crab, were nevertheless scrumptious. The red snapper was firm with a mild flavor, with the taco's taste overall carried by the slightly tangy sauce that went with it. The tilapia was tender and even a little juicy. As with the other two tacos, there was no skimping on the meat. My cup of chicken hominy soup was served lukewarm and there wasn't a lot of chicken though it was packed with hominy.

The special featured tacos that were a little smaller than the regular version. The tortillas in the special were four inches in diameter, whereas the regular versions were five inches.

We got chicken quesadillas for the twins and, despite their ever-increasing appetites, one order was more than enough for both of them. So, all told, we spent $28, before tip, for six tacos (Jenny got three regulars, which made her every bit as blissful as I), a cup of soup and a quesadilla loaded with meat. In other words, it was less than $30 for a delicious meal the four of us could only barely finish (though I did manage to clean up the twins' scraps), making it well worth a forty minute round trip, even without swimming lessons.

Also of note: Indoor seating is available but outdoor seating is more fun. Note the tiled artwork on the patio furniture. The small parking lot fills up before 6:00 on a weekend night. Dia De Pesca accepts cash only.

Dia de Pesca
55 N Bascom Ave
San Jose, CA 95128
(408) 287-3722

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Biltmore Hotel and Suites--Santa Clara, CA

Yesterday my coworkers and I met at the Biltmore Hotel and Suites for our holiday event. With "murder on the menu",we were treated to a murder mystery, complete with professional actors. Thankfully, the actual menu for our lunch was anything but deadly. Because this was an event for seventy, we were limited to three choices for our entrees: vegetarian, chicken and beef. I went with the London Broil.

With my cut well marbled and substantial, I was delighted with my choice of meat, which was more notable for its texture than flavor. The sauce was appropriately gentle and didn't drown out the subtle flavor of the beef. The mashed potatoes hit the mark and I appreciated that they were served skin-on. The vegetables, mostly beans and carrots, were crisp and flavorful thanks to an ample dose of oil. I would have been happy to make a meal out of them.

The cheesecake was delicious. How can one really miss that badly, after all? It was creamy and topped with chopped walnuts and chocolate chips, which combined to overwhelm any flavor the cake itself may have had. But, that was OK by me!

I have two side notes. First, neighbors at my table who had the chicken breast all cleaned up and told me it was tender. Second, the iced tea had a floral fragrance to it, which wasn't at all offputting, but nevertheless unusual.

I found that it was for good reason that the Bilmore is a popular choice for my company's events such as retirement parties. You'd be limited to one of the Biltmore's two restaurants depending on when you're eating. Breakfast and lunch are served at Montague's Cafe, while dinner is served at Hops Bar and Grill. Our event was held at the latter, as it was lunch for a private party. The venue was a little dark but otherwise ideal.

Biltmore Hotel and Suites
2151 Laurelwood Road
Santa Clara, CA 95054
(408) 988-8411

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Totoro--Mountain View, CA

Wanting hot and spicy soup to warm us up, Jenny and I met at Totoro for lunch today. Soups are a specialty there and we both craved sundubu, a Korean hot and spicy tofu soup. We each ordered a bowl of beef sundubu. The kimchi that started us off was sparse in quantity, but also fresh and did well in whetting our appetites for the main event.

Whatever level of spiciness you desire, you should probably bring it up a notch when ordering at Totoro. Jenny ordered her soup "mild", but it was so gentle that she needed to spoon in some of my soup, which I requested "hot", to add some bang. Even though I aimed high with the spiciness, my beef soup didn't bring the heat that one might find in a beef soup at, say, Tofu House or Queen's House.

The rice that came along with the soup was fine, but being used to the rice and beans (with the latter turning the former a pleasant shade of purple) at Tofu House, I found it slightly lacking. Also, there was little beef. The soup was still boiling when it came to our table, though, and on a cold day like today, that's what mattered most.

The food arrived quickly and water streamed into our glasses as needed. Sure, Totoro came short in quantity and quality compared to, say, Tofu House. However, my next bowl of sundubu will be at Totoro because any shortfalls were more than compensated for by Totoro's quick, friendly service and, not insignificantly, my being able to use a credit card. A cash-only policy, so prevalent among Asian restaurants, always leaves me wondering where the "tax" I'm charged is really going. Our bill with tax but before tip, by the way, was $17.32.

841 Villa Street
Mountain View, CA 94041-1233
(650) 691-0796

Friday, December 3, 2010

Chef Chu's--Los Altos, CA

Although it had been nearly a year since we moved to our current home, it wasn't until yesterday that I celebrated the purchase with our agent. Following his suggestion, we met at Chef Chu's, which I last visited almost ten years ago. Back then, it was a profoundly Americanized Chinese restaurant, missing only egg foo young on the menu and a pagoda on the roof. From the menu you chose an appetizer from Column A and a main dish from Column B.

Given that background, yesterday's visit was a pleasant surprise. The restaurant decor has been tastefully updated and the menu no longer caters to the chop suey crowd. Yesterday, there were even some native Chinese speakers among the clientele, giving the restaurant an air of legitimacy.

For lunch we ordered Hunan chicken and Mongolian beef. Lunch menu entrees include either an egg roll (which I got) or a soup of the day. Though hot and crisp the egg roll was on the skimpy side and virtually flavorless on its own, making the accompanying condiments (sweet and sour sauce and mustard) a must.

Both dishes were served hot, well flavored and in less than ten minutes after ordering. With a red pepper symbol next to the Hunan chicken on the menu, I was led me to believe the dish would be spicy, but it wasn't. Though a high proportion of each dish was meat, I still left lunch hungry since the portions were small.

Service was speedy, but catching a server can be difficult, especially during the lunch hour. We wanted a fresh pot of tea and it came in less than two minutes. But, flagging down a waiter took more than ten minutes. Be aggressive in getting help. As with many Chinese restaurants, servers at Chef Chu's will avoid eye contact, so be a little vocal.

Chef Chu's
1067 North San Antonio Road
Los Altos, CA 94022-1300
(650) 948-2696