I feel like every year at this time I write some version of this same thing: The weather in the Silicon Valley is close to ideal, most especially in these weeks just before it’s officially summer. We are, right now, in the sweet spot of the bright, easy California sun. Sitting outside is a carefree experience; there’s never a chill in the wind, we know nothing about humidity, the temperature stays just short of hot, we don’t even have mosquitoes. Why, then, is it so impossible to find a nice place to sit outside and eat?
And, as every other time I’ve complained about this aggravating cultural paradox, it’s because I’ve got my current favorite solution to recommend to you! This year it’s a place in Los Gatos called The Wine Cellar. Don’t let the word cellar throw you off, this is one of the nicest places to enjoy both the temperate clime and the sometimes overlooked fact that the word valley in Silicon Valley means that we’re surrounded by mountains. Plus, as you might have guessed from the name, their wine list is even more impressive than our own bar’s, though you will have to pay. This is the place to go for the California experience that so many movies have promised you.
This month I want to tell you about a restaurant that you have to hurry up and go to. And, no, I don’t mean because it’s so good that you shouldn’t deny yourself the pleasure any longer than you already have. It’s because this restaurant, the Taverna Bistro, is in a very precious and fragile state that it certainly cannot stay in forever and my recommendation is that you check it out before its inevitable shift. It’s brand new, you see, still finding a rhythm to live in. Meaning, I guess you could say, that for now it’s kind of offbeat.
My best example concerns the bar. It’s a huge full bar, taking up a good quarter of the dining room, fully stocked with top shelf liquor and, it seems, a dutiful bartender standing behind it. But when we ordered our drinks, a woman in jeans came out of the kitchen to ask my stepdad how to make a martini. Not how he liked it, how to make it. The drinks themselves appeared out of the kitchen, the woman behind the bar having not so much as shifted her stance.
The reason I know it’ll change is that the food is so good. It’s Turkish, real authentic, like-mom-used-to-make Turkish, which, trust me, I have from a very reliable, if slightly too cowardly to let herself be named, source. You can go now to the Taverna Bistro and sit alone, your water glass refilled after every sip, and eat stuffed grape leaves that will make you cry. Sure, you might have to teach them how to make the cocktail you want to sip with your meal, but we’ll all be longing for these days in a few short months when we’re being told that the wait will be at least an hour.
I should have known something special was happening at Opa, the Greek restaurant in Los Gatos that people have been telling me to try for the last year or so, because every time I tried to have dinner there, it’s been too busy to get in. Not that I’ve made such a super special effort. I could have, for example, made reservations. But I’m the kind of person that reads a crowd like one of those signs on the back of a school bus: “Keep back 200 ft,” and, so, rather than thinking that a wonderful culinary experience awaited me, I assumed that this was just the latest trendy spot and that I may as well wait until its moment passed before eating what was sure to be a mediocre meal there.
I guess, if you take the long view, the fact that I will get to have this as my favorite restaurant for many many years to come will, in the end, way outshine the year I spent missing out on it. Right now, though, I admit I’m a little concerned about all the wonderful meals I missed in the last year. Surely by the 50th or 60th time, that feeling will pass. Friends, let me say this clearly, this is the best restaurant in the Silicon Valley. Does that sound like a crazy thing to say? Go see for yourself. I will not try to describe it, just go. If you don’t like it, consider seeing a doctor, as something may be wrong with you.
A tip, though: that dinner rush is no joke. If you can go at lunchtime, do it. Otherwise, don’t even think about it without a reservation. The next time I go will probably be for the weekend brunch. I have no idea what baklava waffles might be, but I will soon!
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!