Friday, January 27, 2012

Hunan Home's--Los Altos, CA

To celebrate Chinese New Year my dad treated us to dinner at Hunan Home's for dinner Monday night. Things got off to a good start with a plate of complimentary fried tofu. The exterior was crisp and the inside super-soft. Jenny and I really liked it, but it's really for tofu lovers. If you don't like tofu, you probably won't like this appetizer.

I wanted the crab and corn soup for a little crunch in a hot broth on a cold night and it hit the spot. The soup had real crab, which I don't take for granted. The last of our appetizers, the fried dumplings, wasn't authentic. The skin was thin and hard, rather than elastic and chewy. With the skin playing such an important role in dumplings, I can't recommend this dish.

What I do strongly recommend, though, is the Fujian fried rice. It was perhaps the best dish of the night. The rice was soft and the hot, savory, gooey topping was rich with eggs, shrimp and asparagus. Also a keeper were the green beans with garlic. The beans were firm and crisp.

The lettuce wraps were notable for the hot shrimp filling, which was wildly popular at our table. The kids also enjoyed the shrimp chow mein, but I didn't like that the noodles drowned out by onions and sprouts.

Our steamed flounder, as with most white fish, tasted much like the sauce it came with. Unfortunately, our sauce was a bit on the salty side. Also, the fish was a bit scaly so one had to be careful to avoid the skin. The meat was tender, though.

Though not entirely consistent, Hunan Home's has enough aces up its sleeve to keep 'em coming back. The thing is, it's within their control to bump itself up to the next tier of restaurants simply by improving its ambiance. The dining area is dark, the dirty carpet is beyond the point of no return and the color scheme is outdated. A clean, well lighted place this isn't. But then, with its loyal following standing by it, Hunan Home's can simply settle for success.

Hunan Home's
4880 El Camino Real
Los Altos, CA 94022
(650) 965-8888

Friday, January 20, 2012

Phat Dat--San Jose, CA

Riding an urge for Vietnamese fixins, we went down to Phat Dat in San Jose based on some positive internet reviews. Despite ordering four different dishes, there wasn't any one plate or bowl that was good top to bottom. Each had something appealing, but also had a downfall. To wit (from best to worst):

Sweet and sour catfish:
The good: It had huge chunks of catfish, the soup was hot in temperature and it came with rice on the side
The so-so: Lots of MSG

Barbecued pork
The good: The fried egg was a nice bonus not often seen with this dish elsewhere
The bad: Dylan thought the dish was salty, though Jenny thought it was fine. Dylan hardly touched his lunch.

Chicken noodle soup:
The good: It got Tyler full on $5 and it had a lot of chicken. It came in a big bowl.
The bad: Noodles clumped together. I needed two forks to separate them.

Crab tomato soup:
The so-so: Lots of different ingredients, forming an ill-defined hodge podge. There was crab, ground pork and ribs. The fish sauce flavor was a bit strong.
Jenny was less than thrilled.
The bad: The noodles were mushy.

The service was attentive, but what stands out about Phat Dat is the value. The amount of catfish that came with my dish was monstrous. We filled up on four dishes for under $30 including tax. Despite the ups and downs with each dish, I'd make myself a regular if Phat Dat were nearby. Also, the variety (e.g. crab tomato soup, sweet and sour catfish) adds to the intrigue.

Phat Dat
460 E William St
San Jose, CA 95112
(408) 288-8315

Friday, January 13, 2012

A & J Restaurant--Cupertino, CA

For Jenny and me, A & J used to be a favorite spot whenever we were at Cupertino Village, especially when we wanted a hot bowl of noodle soup. Not able to eat there Christmas Day with my in-laws due to the overflowing crowd, we tried again with my dad last week. The best dish of the night came first, which was the smoked chicken appetizer. The intense smoke flavor was terrific; it made me feel like I was at a summer barbecue cook-off.

Tyler loved the noodles in his beef noodle soup, which was our must-have item back when Jenny and I would meet at A & J for lunch. I got the spicy beef noodle soup, which unfortunately wasn't very spicy and there wasn't a lot of beef. Jenny's minced pork noodles, however, came loaded with meat. The noodles were chewy and clearly homemade. However, although the item was listed in the soup column it didn't really come with soup--the liquid was much more like gravy.

As for our sides, onion pancakes were soft and fluffy. The kids couldn't get enough of them. The beans were good, too, and let me believe I was getting my veggies and therefore eating healthily. The disappointment of the night, though, was the xiao long bao. The skin was firm and lacked elasticity, a sure sign it was not made to order but merely heated up. As such, the skin broke easily. It was a bad sign that the froth bubbled up through the top of the dumpling. A close look at the photo shows not only the foam atop one of the dumplings but also broken skin on another. It was especially disappointing because the staff was speaking Shanghainese, getting our hopes up.

Obviously A & J is doing at least some things right. Otherwise, they wouldn't have been in business for so long and they wouldn't have customers lining up outside on holidays. However, overall the visit was a downer. The spicy beef noodle soup used to be invincible but during this last visit the soup was more dull and lukewarm than spicy. Even more unforgivable was the xiao long bao. Oh, my goodness. I commend the server for being able to keep a straight face when delivering that travesty.

A & J Restaurant
10893 N Wolfe Rd
Cupertino, CA 95014
(408) 873-8298

Friday, January 6, 2012

South Pacific Island Restaurant--Daly City

On our way to the San Francisco Zoo last week we stopped by Daly City to eat lunch at South Pacific Island Restaurant in Daly City. South Pacific offers Samoan cuisine which meant, in my mind, turkey tail. Containing no less than 73% fat (as measured by calories), the delicacy has the consistency and flavor of dark turkey meat but with some more fat thrown in. Even though the service was with a smile and the pineapple pie a hit, the turkey tail was the highlight of my visit.

For $11.99 we could order a plate with three meats and one starch. I soon found out that the rules at South Pacific are anything but rigid and you could actually have any number of meats and starches; the friendly guy behind the counter would scale things accordingly. So, in addition to the tail we got meatballs in gravy and chicken. For starch we ordered rice and a "borderline sweet" plantain, which Jenny didn't really enjoy. I agree with her that it was dull--much like taro--but I liked the texture (similar perhaps to a slightly undercooked potato) nevertheless.
In speaking of taro, we got a side of moa, made with taro leaves, coconut milk and chunks of corned beef. It was rich, but scrumptious. If there was any doubt we'd had enough to eat, the moa erased it. (Though Tyler liked the meatball gravy so much he drank it straight.) For dessert, we shared a pineapple pie, which I liked for its thick, hard crust.
Overall, the value was outstanding. The plate and moa would total about $15 before tax and together they fed this family of four. But, enhancing the experience was the impeccable hospitality. The man behind the counter welcomed us warmly and treated us as friends. Even though we got the plate, moa and two pineapple pies (the second was to go) the total, tax included, somehow came to $16. When I mentioned there was a mistake and the total should be close to $25 I was told that the discount was the owner's decision and nothing could really be done. It's that generous, warm-hearted attitude toward their customers that I really admire about South Pacific. However, honestly, it'll be those turkey tails that will bring me back.

South Pacific Island Restaurant
2803 Geneva Ave
Daly City, CA 94014
(415) 467-1870