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.
I do not have a restaurant recommendation for you this month, I’m sorry to say. This month, unfortunately, I have a few words to say in memory of one of my favorite chains, recently departed.
Fresh Choice opened when I was in middle school. It was the place my health conscious father found to take my brother and me where we could dump as much cheese and oil on our plates as we wanted and he could feel safe knowing it was still less than we’d be given at any of the places we said we’d rather go to. For some reason he called it Fresh Fish.
In high school it was the place I went to with my friends. We’d go in a group of four or five, two would pay and the rest would say they were just going to hang out. But it was an unsupervised, all you can eat buffet and once we were in, especially if it was busy, no one ever tried to stop the unpaid members of our party from heaping up their own plates. We’d sit for hours and even go so far as to come away with bread and muffins in our purses.
At the end of high school, my mom brought a new man into our lives. This will always be an awkward endeavor, I suppose, and he and my brother and sister and I had spent weeks doing little dances around each other. That tension broke one night at Fresh Choice when this gruff, respectable, business-type guy started a full-fledged food fight with us. It was just what we needed. And Fresh Choice, being the wild west of restaurant dining, was very obliging. I don’t even remember anyone trying to chastise us.
But as of last December, Fresh Choice is dead. Victim of the economy, victim of Sweet Tomatoes, victim of the salad bar at Whole Foods. Who knows. For all this big lament, I stopped going a long time ago. I guess everything has its cycle.
I was in Chicago not so long ago and had, for the first time in my life, real deep-dish Chicago pizza. It was about 3 inches thick, soft and gooey on the inside, crisp on the outside, with tons of cheese. It was topped with these huge meatballs that would have been ridiculous on its skinny cousin, but were just the right fit for this decadent monstrosity. This pizza was extraordinary and eating it was heaven. But it was also kind of rough. The crust was called “caramelized” and though it tasted great, whatever was done to “caramelize” it made it look uneven, burnt and a little sloppy. And, to be honest, the place we found this magical meal was kind of a dive. Or, rather, it was just some pizza place, with pitchers of cheap beer and different sports being shown on TVs all around us.
Here in the Silicon Valley, if you want a deep-dish pizza, you have two choices. You can go to Uno’s, the big chain where everything is formulaic and has been chosen by polls and committees and is guaranteed to be mildly reminiscent of the average experience of a thing that most people have found pleasant, or you can go to Paxtis. Paxtis serves beautiful deep-dish pizzas. The crusts are made of cornmeal and are perfect every time. The list of toppings is nothing short of gourmet. The restaurant itself is dim, with candles on the tables, and their wine lists are separate from their main menus. It is not just some pizza joint and you do not just go in there on a sloppy Sunday to watch the game.
But before I knew the difference, I loved Paxti’s. It’s not Chicago pizza, it’s the bourgeois, fancy, California bastardization of the brilliant simplicity of Chicago pizza, but it’s pretty great anyway.
Do you remember when you first started hearing about Krispy Kreme donuts? Eating one of these things sounded better than being made love to by God. There were lines around blocks at 5 in the morning; people were going nuts for them. And my big expectations only swelled with the years I had to wait to get one, as they took their sweet time going west. When I finally got my teeth into one, though, I could only assume that the people who were so into them had never had a donut before they had a Krispy Kreme. I’m sorry if I’m offending anyone when I say this, but a Krispy Kreme donut is a pretty average donut. And they’re kind of small.
Fast forward to the present moment in food. The uber-trendy hipsters are all doing something that a friend of mine calls “fetishizing whiteness”. Hence in San Francisco’s Mission District you can get $5 donuts with rosemary and lavender and a lot of other ingredients normally found in soap. I recently had, in LA, a non-fried, vegan donut. Well, vegan except for the bacon on top. These fancy things taste good if you can forget what a donut is and let them exist in some new category all their own. But, come on, a donut is meant to be cheap and easy.
Of course, I wouldn’t be writing all of this to you if I didn’t have the perfect solution in mind. Stan’s donuts, just right around the corner from this little hotel, is making fresh donuts that are just exactly the delicate pillows of decadence you have always thought were possible. And, at less than a dollar apiece, hey, if you’re gonna go for it, you may as well go all the way and get a few!
Sometimes eating in restaurants is really tiresome. This is the space that normally gets used to recommend one or another Silicon Valley dining spot, of which there are many, but this month I would like to proclaim that eating out can be terrible. You don’t actually know what it is you’re eating, your stomach is always a bit of a mess and you have to kind of detach yourself from the emotion of watching your money just leave. Are any of you travelers out there relating to me? Having just spent a week in New York, living off of the delis, the street gyros, the crazy expensive restaurants and the goddamn late night pizza, I find myself with absolutely no enthusiasm for restaurant recommending this month. But what’s a traveler to do? What are you, my readers, to do when business takes you away from your kitchens?
No, we are not now offering a portable, fully supplied kitchen set at check-in, and, actually, I don’t really even have a full answer for you. But I have a nice little idea for a fun way to get fresh food when you’re here with us. Stop by the farmer’s market! There are quite a few in the area nowadays, as this is an unquestionably trendy idea I’m sharing with you, and the ones in Sunnyvale and Santa Clara are pretty close to this here little hotel. Even if all you do is get some fruit to keep in your room, it’s guaranteed to make you feel better than anything you’re gonna find in our mini-bar. And, who knows, with just a little more effort, you could be making salads for lunch. Not a full revolution, maybe, but the possibility of a little more control.
This month, I’d like to give you all a little assignment. I know it seems weird, like how did I suddenly go from odd little insect crawling around the floor of your life to some kind of authority figure. Well, I’ve just decided to assert myself, to become more of a mosquito than a ladybug for a moment. The thing is, I need an objective opinion. I love Tony ‘n Albas. I love it. I love the smell. I love the pizza. I love the bread they give you for free. And what I really, really love are the chicken salads. In high school I would eat them three or four times a week. I go less often now, but every time I go back, I feel that old love and promise myself to take the habit up again.
And yet it is these very chicken salads that are causing me to seek out your help. The thing is, they’re really very plain. Chicken, feta, kalamata olives, roasted red peppers, lettuce and tomatoes. You’ve had that salad a million times in a million different restaurants, I know. I have too. Tony ‘n Albas feels special to me, particular. But I don’t know whether it is or not. Maybe this is only nostalgia. Perhaps this is just some little Proust thing my brain is doing and all I’m actually doing to you is sending you off to a random strip mall to eat a banal little nothing of a salad. Unfortunately, I don’t know. So, will you go and try it and report back? Anyone? You can send an email to Barbara@svgrandhotel.com, which isn’t me, but I think our general manager will also be super happy to hear how you feel about Tony ‘n Albas. Anyway, she’ll know to expect you because she reads these before they go ut. I will be so very happy if even one of you does this!
If you’re in our neighborhood, poking around for nice experiences, eventually someone will tell you to go to the Rutherford Grill. It’s one of the great and glorious wine country establishment restaurants that everyone is told they “must” go to. Not that it isn’t a great place, but it’s all the way up in the Napa Valley, it’s crazily expensive, getting a table isn’t just a simple little task and in the end you’ll eat a piece of meat and drink a bottle of wine that are merely comparable to the other good meat and wine you’ve had before it. Of course, we’ve all been to places that could be described like that and have felt that they were worth it, but what if you could get the Rutherford experience without all the travel, expense and time? Aha! Suddenly it’s a different story!
The Los Altos Grill, sister to the mighty Rutherford, is just around the corner from our little hotel. Well, around a couple of corners maybe, but in the neighborhood anyway, and close enough that our limo will take you to it. How closely related are they? Well, they’re a part of the same chain. That’s right! The mighty Rutherford belongs to a chain, high end though it may be. Knowing that, I think we can all agree that a trip to the Los Altos Grill can suffice for sampling what this particular chain has to offer, and then maybe when you make the oh-so-worth-it trek to the Napa Valley, you can seek out something a little more specifically local. Well, that’s my advice anyway.
A long long time ago, as maybe one or two of you might, possibly, maybe remember, I told you about a favorite little place of my called Yummi Yogurt. Frozen yogurt was out of favor way back then. Those were the days when Dr. Atkins was our overlord and we were all getting skinny by eating double cheeseburgers with butter melted on top, hold the bun. Somehow, though, in the last year or so, frozen yogurt has wheedled its way back into our collective conscious. Now there are Pinkberries and Red Mangos and Tutti Fruttis in every strip mall worth its salt and people are lining up out their doors.
Not me, though. I’m sticking with Yummi Yogurt. Not that I’m close-minded. I made a little tour of the others. Maybe frozen yogurt got popular again because there was some huge technological improvement and all these newer, trendier places actually were serving the best dessert known to man. It was possible. But, no! Yummi Yogurt is still creamier. Its flavors are still richer. Plus they change the flavors everyday and the variety is, for lack of a better word, eccentric.
Not convinced yet? Then let me give you another small twist. I’ve been going to Yummi Yogurt for a little bit more than 20 years. I feel awfully old writing that, but it’s true anyway. The owner still remembers me from when I was in middle school and coming in there everyday. Pinkberry is run by a board of directors, I can’t figure out where, and brags on its website, about having become and “iconic brand”. If you’re reading this, then you perhaps know the difference between our hotel and the Marriot, and have chosen us. Yummi Yogurt over Pinkberry is kind of like that.
Everybody likes a bit of truth in advertising, no? Well, here’s a moment of it from me to you. Normally I get to choose the things I write about here. I go out and about in the world and when I go someplace I like, I write about it. Yes, sometimes I get suggestions from the boss lady, things that she’s liked and would like for me to write about, but I’ve never been asked to write about a place I didn’t like. Until now.
El Pollo Loco is a fast food chain. Worse, it’s a fast food chain that purports to be healthy. And while, ok, it may be healthiER, going there everyday for lunch does not give you all the benefits of eating well, without the hassle of going to the grocery store and preparing your own food. But, unfortunately, I think this is how at least one person, who happens to be in a position of power over me, treats it.
You, our guests, are not our general manager, though. When you are home, I’m sure that all of you do your best to eat nutritious, balanced meals, preferably organic and local, and always home cooked. When you’re with us, you’re in an inconvenient position. No kitchen, no easy way to go shopping. You need a way to try to maintain your good, healthy standards, but realistically. It’s ok with me if El Pollo Loco gets on your list of possible solutions. It’s even ok if you go there everyday while you’re here, since there are so many more days when you’re not here. But, please, if you’re talking to my boss and it happens to come up, please just remind her that things that seem to be too good to be true, mostly are.