When we were kids, my brother and I loved going to Benihana. “Cook right on the table” we called it, and whenever one of our birthdays came up, we’d beg to be taken to “cook right on the table” to celebrate. Now that I’m a grown up, there aren’t very many large corporate chains that I jump up and down at the mention of. I few years ago, longing for that “cook right on the table” experience, I went to a Benihana and found, in place of all the magic I remembered, the telltale signs of mass produced image manufacture. You know, the kind of details that bring you to us, in spite of all those Mariotts and Hiltons in the neighborhood. Alas.
What a pleasure, then, to be taken recently to Kyoto Palace. It’s got all the lively bustle, the seeming flirtation with danger, the smoke and steam and just plain old fun that I so much loved about the “cook right on the table” experiences from my childhood, plus its very own personal intangibles. If the chef wants to start throwing his knives, he may very well do it, there’s no corporate overlord around to keep things antiseptic. (I hope that came off as the ringing endorsement I intended it to be, my point being that a place like this is only fun if it feels kind of wild and unruly, words that corporate chains are allergic to.)
This is a great place to come for a party, a great place to bring a group with nothing serious to discuss. This is a bad place to come if you’re looking for intimacy. It’s also an imperfect place to come if you’re looking for a super high-level culinary experience. They light things on fire in the dining room at the Kyoto Palace, it’s that kind of a joint. Come for that kind of revelry and you’ll be very happy you did.
Any Seinfeld fans out there? For those of you nodding yes, do you remember the episode that Elaine spends lamenting her inability to order a “big salad”? I don’t remember why the one she wanted was unavailable, I only just remember relating to how hard it is to find a good “big salad”. Those of us who like them know what it’s like to want something only as light as a salad, but to want it to be big enough to fill us the same way a meal would. Seems paradoxical, but, thanks to Elaine, we know it’s a real thing that makes sense to other people.
It can be hard, though, to find a so-called entrée salad that doesn’t leave you feeling hungry. But I do know of one reliable place. A few, actually, since the Crepevine is a Bay Area chain. Go in hungry and feel safe ordering a salad, trusting that you won’t be back for bread and cookies when you’re done, desperately seeking satiation.
As you maybe guessed from the name, salads aren’t the only thing on offer at the Crepevine. They also serve those beautiful, thin pancakes, stuffed in ways that would make their French progenitors blush. Sweet or savory, and maybe some combination of the two, if you ask nicely.
One final, oh-so-welcome feature of the Crepevine is that it’s open until midnight. Those of you who’ve spent any time in California at all know what a precious and rare resource the late night eating establishment is. And if you’re eating late, you basically have to resign yourself to eating greasy crap. Except that, from now on, the Crepevine will be your salvation. Big salads at 11pm. You’re welcome.
Hobee’s InteriorThere’s a sweet little chain of diners in the Bay Area that’s so ubiquitous, such a normal, taken for granted part of the landscape up here, that it’s taken years to even remember that maybe you all don’t know about it, and would like to. The chain is called Hobee’s and there are five or six of them in the pretty immediate vicinity, though this is the only place in the world where there are any Hobee’s at all.
Hobee’s, whichever one you end up in, is a good place to eat pancakes late on a Sunday morning, or a club sandwich with fries after work. If you go with kids, you’ll be given crayons for them to draw on the table with. If you don’t go with kids you can ask for crayons anyway. They like to lean into their status as a California diner and so give a lot of space to being “fresh” and “healthy.” Their specialty, though, is giant slabs of blueberry coffee cake, which come on the side of everything you might order in the morning and are heavily encouraged at all other meals as well.
Hobee’s is not exciting. It’s not a fun new place for you and your co-workers to have a work-travel adventure in. I doubt anyone has ever been on a date at a Hobee’s and I’m pretty sure they don’t even serve wine. Still, though, there are plenty of times when you want comfort. This is why sweat pants exist. Maybe Hobee’s is the sweat pants of restaurants. And maybe that’s exactly what you need some nights, away from home, looking for something wholesome, simple and grounding. That’s Hobee’s all the way.
I think a lot of you already know about Dish Dash, the super-fresh, super-delicious Middle Eastern restaurant just a short little hop away from our hotel. It’s been mentioned here before, a lot of our staff talks a lot about it, plus it’s now permanently, constantly packed, so I just figure everyone’s going there, and that that probably includes you too. And, anyway, if you were one of the few people in the South Bay who didn’t know about it, it seemed better not to add you to the list of people I’m competing for tables with whenever I try to go there.
Good news, though! Dish Dash has just opened up a more casual version of itself, just a few blocks away. The new one is more about sandwiches and salads, you order at a counter. You know, easy take-out lunch style. This new one is called Dish N Dash and it has a separate website from Dish Dash’s, though Dish Dash does refer to Dish N Dash as its sister restaurant.
Ready for even more good news? In looking up the new Dish N Dash, I found yet another version of the same restaurant. This third one is called Dish Dash Middle Eastern Grill, again with a completely separate website but referring to the other two as its sisters. The menu is the same as Dish Dash’s and it seems to be a sit-down, table service kind of a place, again like Dish Dash. I know it’s got to be basically the same restaurant because even the text describing the restaurant’s name is identical and yet they do not claim themselves as a chain. I’m not saying I quite understand the strategy, but it’s pretty exciting to have unearthed two more of one of the best restaurants in town.
If you’re hungry, you’ve got some time to spare and you don’t mind a little drive, there’s a place you really might want to check out. It’s called the Tribune Tavern, in reference to the Oakland Tribune, whose real estate it shares. A bit of a drive, you were warned, but oh-so-worth it if you can be bothered.
Walking in, it becomes obvious pretty fast that this place is in deep with all the foodie trends. Try, for example, ordering a Belvedere martini, which you may be used to thinking is more or less a classy kind of a drink, and you’ll quickly earn the waitress’ pitiful contempt. They do not carry any commercial brands. Sad as she is about your ignorance, though, she’s perfectly willing to give you the paragraph she’s memorized on each of the organic, local labels they do serve. And that’s just cocktails. The food goes the same way. The staff has all spent quality time with every one of the animals you might choose to eat and so can vouch for both their humane treatment and the fortitude of each animal’s individual character. You’re free, in fact, to ask about each and every step of the process of the making of your meal, from seedling to plating, if you can stand the tedium of listening to the answers.
When this much care and attention to detail goes well, though, it sure is a pleasure. The food we ate there, the night I went, was some of the best I’ve had in recent memory. And, almost in spite of their best efforts, it’s a really comfortable, easy place to be. The crowd isn’t too hipster-ish, there’s no wait. In the end, you can’t even blame them for all the soliloquies on the merits of their ingredients when, really, the result is kind of spectacular. Find a night and give it a try, you won’t be sorry.
This newsletter has, admittedly, been in a bit of a San Pedro Square Market rut over the past few months. I apologize, and promise it’ll be over soon, but it does seem that there’s one more part of it that’s worth mentioning. For those of you who haven’t yet ventured out there, what’s interesting about the San Pablo Square Market is that it’s essentially an upscale food court. A whole bunch of restaurants are sharing one big building and you, the customer, are free to wander around, mixing and matching as you choose. Normally this is an experience reserved for places like Panda Express and California Crisp, but here you can have an artisanal pizza and your date can have fresh sashimi. And not a Styrofoam carton to be seen.
One more sweet little detail of the San Pedro Market experience is that one of its many establishments is a bar. Which means that the beer wine or specialty cocktail that accompanies your meal comes from a place whose only business is beer, wine and specialty cocktails. Ditto your after dinner coffee or tea.
This may seem like a lot of hassle. Maybe you’d prefer to be in a place where you can just sit down and order what you’d like. Not an unreasonable desire. Still, it’s a neat little environment they’ve got going on over there. Everyone little detail of your dinner is done in a place that specializes in that detail, so there’s no compromise. At the very least, this is a good place to keep in mind when you’ve got a picky group to try and please.
There’s a place at the San Pedro Square Market that deserves an award. Not that it’s the best food you’re going to find, though the food is fun and interesting and certainly worth finding. What this place should get is an award for the best name. CaliDog, it’s called. So clear, so concise and yet so very descriptive. Go to CaliDog and get yourself an all-American hot dog, topped with the classic condiments of one of the vast array of cultures represented here in the Bay Area. Japanese style, for example, features seaweed. Yes, seaweed on a hot dog! Another one, called the SalsaDog, is drowning in shrimp ceviche. If all this is too overwhelming, they’ve also got a chilidog on standby, but why not have an adventure?
This place, in making their nutty hot dogs, has made itself into such a great symbol of how we live here in California. We are a collection of lots of different people from lots of different places, doing what we can to keep traditions alive, trying to maintain the comforts of home in a new country, getting to sample from everything that everyone else has brought and getting to work out some new version of how all those thing can fit together. To take the hot dog, one of the ultimate staples of Americana, and let people choose whether they want it Japanese, Vietnamese or Mexican style is such a sweet little act of cultural meshing and it really feels like how we live around here. One of the great beauties of the Bay Area is spectacular, unlikely juxtaposition and how well it can come out. This hot dog stand is a fantastic example of that.
Listen up friends, this is an important announcement: I have a new candidate for Best Pizza in the South Bay. It’s called Pizza Bocca Lupo, it can be found in the San Pedro Square Market, and it is seriously amazing. It’s obsessively authentic Neapolitan style; they even go so far as to claim that the reason their pizza is so much more truly the real thing is that they’re the only ones in the South Bay who’re making pizza in an oven imported from Naples, which feels just ever so slightly like an empty gesture, done so that it could be written about on their website. Still, who am I to criticize their ways? The pizza I ate there was so good I wanted to cry and if they say they needed to ship an oven across an ocean and a continent in order to make it, fine, it seems to have been worth it.
Traditional Neapolitan means that we’re talking about a very thin crust and it means that you won’t find any groovy California toppings being allowed to interfere. No avocados or sprouts on these pizzas. This is the kind of place where the margarita is going to be heaven in its perfect simplicity, but knowing that, you know that they’re going to be serving up some pretty amazing sausage too. And the good thing, if it feels too hard to choose, is that this is not the heavy, greasy kind of pizza that can only be indulged in every once in a great while. This is a light delight, perfect summer fare, and going back a couple of nights later to try the one you passed up is a perfectly fine choice to make.
As mentioned previously, what we’re experiencing right now is get your butt outside kind of weather and, in that spirit, this month I’m not giving you a restaurant to go sit inside of but, rather, another local farmer’s market to check out. This one is on Sunday mornings and it can be found in San Jose’s Japantown, which is a nice little cultural enclave to explore all by itself.
It’s a whole Sunday that I’m proposing, actually. You sleep in a little then get up and have a leisurely breakfast with us. Around noon, you meander over to Japantown where you lunch on hummus, maybe dipped with organic carrots from the next stand over. (I know. I’m recommending that you go to Japantown for Middle Eastern food, but, listen, this is really good hummus.) After your farmer’s market needs have been sated, you’ve got an afternoon in “one of the last three remaining authentic, historic Japantowns left in the United States”. There’s a beautiful, old Buddhist church, as well as a brand new mural project. And, of course, there are shops full of cute stuff. There should be enough to keep you occupied until it’s time for the big decision: Come back to the warm embrace of our open bar, or stay in Japantown for a glass of cold sake? In this I can’t guide you.
Arriving at the restaurant a friend had chosen for her birthday dinner a few weeks ago, I was a little perplexed. It was all the way in Palo Alto, which is not so very far, but it does take a little effort to get there and when we finally arrived it looked, well, really average. It was on the kind of street that’s so full of shops and restaurants that I never understand how people choose one over the other. Especially since, once inside, you can so often find yourself choosing between the same steak with mashed potatoes or chicken with roasted potatoes that every place on the block is offering. As there are plenty such places to be found 10 minutes away, I did not know why we had driven 25 to get to just another bistro.
But, to my surprise, Joya is different. Tapas are their thing and we were a big group, so we got to try lots and lots of their things; everything we chose off their menu, which is an eclectic mix of Spanish, Mexican and modern American anything goes, was a delight. I don’t know how my friend ever found this place, because it sits there just as lackluster, from the outside, as all the rest, but the zany rainbow of colors it we got to eat through that night were a wonderful surprise.
I wonder if this should make me wonder about all the other places I am still judging without trying, but that’s a question for another day. Go give Joya a try, we’ll discuss the rest later.