For years people have been telling me that I should write to you about Birk’s. So much so that I thought I already had, though I can’t find it anywhere, which makes it kind of seem like I only ever just meant to get around to it someday. The thing is that if I did write about it, it would probably not have been very convincing because I don’t personally get why people like it so much. People love it. My family loves it, my co-workers love it, my friends love it. And I’ve just never really understood why. I have not eaten anything there that can I even remember, and I don’t find the atmosphere to be anything beyond the absolute average large room where people in work clothes can come and pay too much to eat and drink very normal food.
Recently, however, my brother gave me a very impassioned speech about the pepper steak at Birk’s. It’s like a religious experience for him, something he saves for very special occasions when he really deserves the best that life has to offer. And then I understood what’s been so inexplicable all this time. The thing is, I don’t remember the last time I ate a steak, and the last time I enjoyed one was long before that even. Birk’s is a place for steak lovers, of which I am not one. But maybe you are, in which case this is very exciting information that I’ve been accidentally withholding from you for a very very long time. Sorry for that!
This month I’m going to use this space, normally reserved for talking about restaurants, to tell you about something that’s on the same subject, but a little different: A grocery store! Now, I know that when you’re here with us you are most likely eating all of your meals out. You have no place to prepare food, and, in all likelihood, no time for it anyway. I know. Still, at least for me, when I’m traveling, the thing I end up hating the most is all the garbage I pull out of vending machines or pick up at gas stations, simply for lack of the fresh fruit or carrots or raw (as opposed to soaked in oil, salt and whatever other super trendy flavors) nuts I would have around me if I were in my normal routine. It is with this in mind that I’m telling you about Sprouts. It’s very nearby and it’s a beautiful, healthy grocery store full of organic produce, big, bulk tubs of nuts and sweets, fresh, locally made bread, plus a huge selection of herbal remedies, if that’s your cup of tea.
We’d all like to take better care of ourselves, I think. Travel, especially business travel, can make that really hard. Maybe Sprouts can help a bit.
I stayed away from Dish Dash for a very long time. It was over a year that my mom tried to convince me to eat there and I resisted, always thinking of some very specific reason why I wanted to go somewhere else instead. I invented so many particular cravings, she must have thought I was pregnant. The problem, for me, was the name. She swore it was the best Mediterranean restaurant she knew of, but I combined what I know of her love for greasy nastiness with that name and did not come up with a pretty picture.
To digress for just a moment, I think I should start alternating, every other month telling you all about awful restaurants to stay away from at all cost. Remembering my mother’s love for a place called The Mini Gourmet, in all its dreadful, oily mediocrity, is sparking this idea. If one of you somehow met my mom, you could end up The Mini Gourmet, and, man, I should do what I can to protect you from that.
Ok, but this time I was wrong. Sure, the name makes it sound like you’ll be eating suspicious gyro meat out of a Styrofoam container, but it’s actually kind of an elegant little place. The food is fresh and delicately spiced. I had a great experience there, made all the sweeter by surprise.
And now, while you all check Dish Dash out, I’m going to start considering my anti-recommendation project. In the mean time, stay away from my mother.
Normally when I write to you about a chain, I’m very apologetic. I do what I can to justify myself, feeling guilty for trying to send you to anything but quaintly charming local haunts. This month is a little different. This month I’m going to tell you about a blossoming little chain that I hope continues on to take over the world. It’s called Pluto’s and it’s been quietly spreading itself around Northern California for the last several years.
So, how am I going to explain singing the praises of the kind of place that’s opening up identical restaurants in as many cities as will give it leases, stretching whatever soul it started with to its utmost limits? Well, I am going to start by saying that I am a modern girl and I have a desire for fast food in my life. The ultra-casual ease is so appealing to my busy American lifestyle that I sometimes overlook the ridiculously fatty, salty, over-processed side of that oh-so-cheap and available burger. Pluto’s makes that compromise unnecessary.
At Pluto’s, in the time, for the price and with the ease of any of the monster chains that come to mind, you can have a fresh salad bursting with seasonal vegetable and fruits, a hand-carved roast turkey sandwich on fresh baked bread, or a plate of roast beef with stuffing and mashed potatoes. Plus they’ve got a really fun space theme. If Pluto’s manages to infiltrate every nook and cranny of this country, the results will only be good. Give it a try, I bet you’ll agree.
Let me start by saying that I feel really unqualified to give a recommendation for a Mexican restaurant, given that so many of my co-workers are Mexican. Surely many of the people who are around to assist you during your stay with us should be able to point you in the direction of the kitchen that most resembles their grandmothers’. I am encouraged in my recommending (though, I must say, discouraged in a bigger-picture, life kind of a way) by the fact when I recently asked a native of Oaxaca who works at this hotel, and who I will not name even if he doesn’t think he needs to be protected, to recommend a good place to get a burrito, he tried to send me to Taco Bell. Really truly. I couldn’t make that up.
Though, thinking about it, Taco Bell is pretty much what I remember eating at my grandmother’s. Maybe he and I just have that in common.
Anyway, the Mexican restaurant that I like is called Pedro’s. And, really, since I may as well be honest, it’s all about the ambience. This is one beautiful restaurant. It’s open and spacious, hacienda style with tiled floors and beautiful wooden furniture. You leave Silicon Valley when you enter Pedro’s, and while my co-workers would be more qualified to tell you whether or not it’s Mexico you go to, for me it’s enough just to leave. So you sit, calmed already by all the unexpected space in the dining room. Then the margaritas start coming and this is even more calming. Plentiful chips and salsa abate your hunger. And then, eventually, the food comes. It’s really fine, this food. It fits exactly the description of “Mexican food” that I recognize. I don’t feel done with my search for the best burrito, but I will go to Pedro’s again and again in the mean time.
Once, when I was a little girl, someone took my mother to an Ethiopian restaurant for lunch. Not a subtle woman, she came back with a report that it was like eating out of a baby’s diaper. In the years that followed, it never once occurred to me that that was an experience I needed to have for myself. In college I felt myself softening. There were a few Ethiopian restaurants in the area that my friends were always raving about. It was turning out that quite a few of the things my mother had told me over the years were not quite as absolutely etched-in-stone-true as she had led me to believe, and I was kind of into a bit of truth-seeking. I had gone so far as to make a date to eat at a place called The Blue Nile when a “friend” told me that the soft injera bread that is used in lieu of silverware, is actually tripe. (To digress quickly, it now seems so silly to say a thing like that. With google and iphones and all this access we have to information, a rumor like that could last for a half of a nanosecond in our modern life. But this was back in the days when you could still spread a nice little story.) The point is, I think I was 25 the first time I ate Ethiopian food. 25 long years before I discovered the fun of eating family style, with your hands, cooling your burning mouth with honey wine.
I recently took my sister to a place in San Jose called Zuni. She’s 24 and still entrenched in her process of unraveling our mother’s yarns. I like to help sometimes, when I can, and so, in that spirit, I told her we were going for Italian food. I was nervous because I had never been to this place before, it was a recommendation from a friend, and I knew the stakes were very high. As predicted, she was horrified when we arrived. I begged her to stay and she relented only when I promised we could go somewhere else afterwards if she found she couldn’t eat anything there. This, then, is a note of thanks to Zuni. My sister is a convert. I’ll spare you the details, the faces she made when the giant plate of injera covered with strange brown lumps came out. The way she pretended she wasn’t enjoying it until she realized she wasn’t going to get to keep eating unless she confessed. Beautiful Eithiopian food, done very nicely at Zuni, and she and I are just a little bit more free.
When I was 21, a very lucky and spoiled little girl, I spent 3 weeks on a beach in Thailand with the most exciting man I had met thus far in my life. My mind is a little hazy on the subject, the idyllic part of a relationship that did not end well, but something I do remember is that some parts of the menus in all the restaurants we went into were translated into English, and some parts were not. Too spicy for anyone who couldn’t read it, we were told. My traveling companion, a young man wanting to play with extremes, was constantly incensed. Over and over he tried to convince waiters to bring him something they thought he couldn’t handle, just to try, and over and over again he was refused. Me, I was already sweating over what they would let us have. I trusted the wisdom of these places that, if nothing else, understood the average tourist’s palate.
Besides shameless bragging, I guess there are two points to telling this story. One is to say that I am not without bias on the subject of Thailand, Thai food, or Thai anything. The other is to show that my taste for/ability to deal with spice is in the average range. And all that is just to tell you that my brother took me to a Thai restaurant the other day, Thai Pepper it’s called, that I found endlessly pleasing. I had a pork salad with mint. Not super easy to eat, for me with my average spice capabilities, but very rewarding. It was a fun little adventure for my mouth, without any sense that my strength or will were being tested. All the flavors, like mint, onion, and lime, got to stand tall and proud, instead of getting dwarfed by the chili. Together with the swirly nostalgia of being someplace that kind of really looked and smelled like Thailand, I was a very happy girl. Perhaps this is a bit too personal and specific to be a very good recommendation, but, anyway, it’s a rave review!
The Willow Street Café is my brother’s favorite kind of restaurant. It surprised me to hear this because it is so far from mine. Not that it isn’t a good place to eat. It is good. Everyone that we were with enjoyed everything that they ate. My chicken was cooked perfectly and tasted exactly the way I expected it to taste. I’ve eaten a lot of other chickens that tasted exactly the same as this one, so I knew I would like it. It’s the kind of place where you already know what a thing will be like when you order it, so all you have to do is decide whether you feel like eating, for example, a big salad or a chicken dinner. This is fine with me; it’s an easy place to go with a group of people. It’s even the kind of place I would gladly agree to, and maybe even suggest, if I were super hungry and just wanted to be someplace I could trust to feed me. But it would never occur to me to call it a favorite.
But here I’ve just exposed a part of myself that I should maybe not feel so proud of. I get deeper into my 30s every moment and yet I’m still stuck with an adolescent need for cool and exciting. I might truly love the Willow Street Café, but if you ask for my favorite dining experience, I’m going to try to impress you with a story of some vegan-organic-raw-Eritrean-Burmese fusion cuisine that was so spicy I had to go to the emergency room, but boy was it ever a memorable night. My brother, however, will just say that he loves the Willow Street Café. The food will always be good, you will always be able to find things for everyone to like on the menu. It makes me think that my brother will get to be truly happy in his life, while I keep chasing cool.
Some time ago I wrote to you about a Persian restaurant that I really liked to go to. This was, for a long time, the place that I would go when I wanted to have Persian food and I told you nice things about it because there are nice things to say about it. But last weekend they made a big mistake and if you’ve noticed that I’m not naming my former favorite Persian restaurant, it’s because I probably won’t be going back there. No, I didn’t get food poisoning or bad service. There were no stray hairs or roaches in my food. The thing is, I went there on a night when they were booked out for a private party. Disappointed, I asked the hostess to recommend another Persian restaurant and she told me about Yas. I think that she should probably stop telling her customers about Yas.
Before I went to Yas I think I didn’t understand how soft rice could be. It’s light and pillowy there and I instantly knew that this was the way rice was always meant to be. Plus mine had sour cherries in it. It tasted the way donuts smell, to me. I don’t know that my experience of feeling like donuts don’t taste as good as they smell is universal, but, again for me, this was the taste I’ve been looking for in vain in donut shops for all these years. And all this is just about the rice! My chicken was excellent too, my stepmother’s lamb was perfect and my father’s vegetarian kebabs were, he said, the best he had ever had. Plus the waitress was above average nice. And also the restaurant itself is cozy, comfortable and full of sunlight. This is a place to go back to over and over again. A new favorite, and though I’m sorry to lose the old one, now that I know more about what Persian food can be, I just don’t see myself going backward.
My understanding of Afghanistan is that it is not an easy place to live. The climate and geography define harsh, or so I’ve read in books, seen in photos. You and I would not survive a night in the mountains of Afghanistan without some serious assistance, and even with help it would be difficult. Assuming that you, my reader, are not a highly trained, experienced mountaineer, that is.
People live there, though. Thrive, even. Over time they’ve adapted to their surroundings and know how to take care of themselves in a place where Mother Earth seems more like an angry dictator than a loving provider.
One thing I know, not from a book but from actual experience, is that a part of Afghan culture is a robust and hearty diet. I learned this at Kabul, the neighborhood Afghan restaurant. This is food for mountain men, warriors. Huge portions of meat and rice, no frills. I go there when I feel battered and need to regain my strength. After a long flight, followed by a full workday, for example. Can anyone out there relate? If so, give Kabul a try.