Sunday, August 19, 2007

Zucca, Mountain View

Mediterranean cuisine

Another Sunday, another Mountain View brunch experiment. The last place in the Castro Street area that offered brunch was Zucca, a nice little Mediterranean place tucked into the restaurant block between Villa and Evelyn. They offer omelettes and other egg dishes, along with French toast--but no pancakes.

The restaurant itself is very pretty, and like most of the restaurants in that block, has an outdoor patio where you can sit and enjoy a lovely Sunday afternoon. Brunch is served until 2 pm, so it's a good option for the more leisurely riser. The downside to that is that if you don't get there until after noon, as we did, you might not be in the mood for breakfast fare any more.

Mark got an omelette with St Andre cheese, fresh chives, and crème fraîche, and I opted for the Turkish Lamb Köfte Wrap, because for some reason they didn't feature the French toast this time (there was some confusion because the menu they had on display was different from the one they handed out--the French toast was on the display menu). The service was slow, and if we hadn't been in a bit of a hurry to get to the farmer's market, we wouldn't have minded so much, because the food was definitely worth the wait.

The omelette was fluffy and cheesy, the crème fraîche complementing the eggs nicely. My only complaint was that it was fairly difficult to taste the chives in it. The lamb wrap was great, with tasty, well-spiced lamb and good (if scant) tzatziki sauce and soft, flavorful flatbread for the wrap. The service could be faster, but the ingredients are of great quality, well prepared, and you can't beat the location.

Taqueria Los Charros, Mountain View

Taqueria Los Charros
Authentic Mexican food--and American breakfast!

When I worked in downtown Mountain View, before living there, we had a lunch place that we just referred to as "the cheap Mexican place," because you could get a quesadilla and a Coke for under five bucks and that was a good lunch. The food was not only cheap, it was good, freshly made and served quickly with a smile. That, as much as the price, kept us coming back long enough to learn that it was called Taqueria Los Charros, on Dana Street a block north of Castro. They've since opened another location in Mountain View, on El Camino, with more seating, but the original location on Dana retains its small, cozy atmosphere. There are a couple outdoor tables where people like to lounge, and a small number of indoor tables, but the food comes so quickly that we rarely had to wait more than ten minutes to sit down.

Fast forward a few years to our ongoing quest to find brunch in downtown Mountain View. We walked past Los Charros, and saw a sign out front that advertised "American Breakfast until 11 am." The other day, we were in the mood for a breakfast burrito, and since we already liked Los Charros, we slipped in at 10:55 to give it a shot.

It turns out that not only do they have the expected breakfast burrito, they also have pancakes and French toast--a real American breakfast! I was in the mood for something cinnamony, so I tried the French toast while Mark got a breakfast burrito with chorizo. They were more than happy to let us order breakfast, not being too attached to the clock, and the food came pretty promptly.

The orange juice was a nice surprise. It's not chilled, because it comes right out of a juicer in the back of the serving area, under the TV that always seems to be showing futbol. It is, however, delicious. The breakfast burrito is big, tasty, and stuffed full of egg and sausage. The French toast was good too, though made with plain white bread. It's certainly not as fancy as the French toast at a place like Stacks or Original Pancake House or Country Gourmet, but it satisfied my cinnamon jones, and they provided pancake syrup with it.

Overall, it was a simple breakfast, but like everything else at Los Charros, it was very reasonably priced and tasty. For a quick, cheap, good meal, this is a great option any time of day.

Clarke's, Mountain View

Burger and malt place that also does breakfasts

Because we live near Castro Street in Mountain View, we go to a lot of restaurants there, but we found that when we wanted to go to Sunday brunch, we usually went further away: Hobee's, Stacks, Country Gourmet, Original Pancake House (reviews forthcoming). Walking down to the Mountain View Farmer's Market a couple Sundays ago, we decided to see if there was a good place for Sunday brunch along Castro, which has been built up recently with a lot of good new restaurants.

The list is surprisingly short. Zucca offers a couple brunch entrees, Le Boulanger offers some egg sandwiches, as does Posh Bagel. We got to El Camino without anything really jumping out at us. Then Mark said, "Isn't Clarke's just around that corner?" We remembered that the one in Los Altos (which has a curious message that they are "no longer available" through served breakfast, so we walked that extra half block. As we got closer, we saw indeed that the sign said, "Breakfast served," so we walked in.

The criteria for a Sunday brunch place is that they have pancakes and omelettes/scrambles--not too much to ask. Clarke's, which we'd remembered as a small single-room place with terrific shakes (basically a burger/malt counter with a few plastic tables) actually has a great brunch menu. We got blueberry pancakes, a cheesy scramble, and one of their "house" cinnamon rolls (with an "orange twist"). Not only that, but they have a sun room and an outdoor patio in addition to the small room we both remembered. We sat out there until our food was ready, then went and fetched it from the counter. It's nice being able to sit out in the sun and relax on a Sunday morning, very different from some of the Sunday brunch places that are packed with families and full of noise.

The scramble was eggs, onions, peppers, seasoned potatoes, and lots of cheese. Very yummy, even if I ended up setting a big lump of cheese aside. The blueberry pancakes were good too, if not spectacular. Only the cinnamon roll was a bit of a disappointment. We'd both expected a little more gooey cinnamon--spoiled by Cinnabon--and by the time I got to eat it, it had cooled down somewhat. Good icing, though, and good bread, so overall it was fine, and you could definitely taste the trace of orange in it. The meal was reasonable overall--about what you'd expect for brunch.

We still have a couple places to explore, but Clarke's has definitely added itself to our list of brunch places.

Oh, and I hear they do good burgers and malts, too.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Angelica's Bistro, Redwood City

Angelica's Bistro
Salads, sandwiches, and desserts in a European open courtyard setting

We're not familiar with Redwood City, so we took the time to explore when we were there last Friday night for an art show. On Main Street, Mark found an interesting-looking bistro behind an antique store, so we decided to give it a shot.

You have to walk down a little alley to get to the restaurant proper, or through the adjacent store. The arched entrance, stone-paved alley, and antiques give it a distinctly European feel even before you get to the courtyard where most of the restaurant's seating is located (they have live music there most weekend nights, but a noise complaint, we think, kept it quiet the night we visited). Small tables, flowers, and old statues really give you the feel of being tucked away in a small patio behind a Paris cafe. It's so Parisian, in fact, that upon seeing "French toast Monte Cristo" on the menu, my mind tricked me into thinking it was a "croque monsieur." Fortunately, I liked what it was when it came, even if it wasn't what I was expecting.

The food more than measures up to the setting. We started with crostini, small pieces of toast with various toppings: red bell peppers and capers, blue cheese and walnut, grilled and marinated eggplant and mint, marinated cherry tomatoes, and cream cheese spinach and artichokes. The cream cheese might have been my favorite; it was hard to decide. For our dinner, we got a couple sandwiches: the aforementioned Monte Cristo (which is actually ham, turkey, and melted Jack cheese on slices of French toast) and a smoked chicken with roasted pepper, pesto, and melted Provolone on ciabatta. The Monte Cristo was served with fruit preserves and Dijon mustard on the side for dipping, and the French toast gave the sandwich just enough sweetness that both worked equally well. I've said before that a great sandwich depends on the bread, and both the French toast and the ciabatta were top-notch. The melted Jack cheese really added flavor to the sandwich as well as making it pleasantly gooey. I didn't notice the Provolone as much on the smoked chicken, but the chicken and pesto went really well together, the red peppers providing a nice accent.

We ordered both with small side salads. There was no choice of dressing, but fortunately the house vinaigrette is quite nice. The salad ingredients were all fresh and tasty, very enjoyable. Our only regret is that we were so full after the meal that we had no room for any of the delicious-looking desserts. Or the homemade crepes. In fact, we're planning several return visits to sample more items on the menu, and to relax in the outdoor patio. The owner was in attendance the night we dined there, walking around and talking to everyone, clearly very much enjoying his new venture and already familiar with a number of regulars. Would that we lived close enough. If you find yourself in downtown Redwood City, definitely make time for a stop to Angelica's.

Zankou Chicken, Southern California

Zankou Chicken
Mediterranean quick service chicken

Technically, Zankou Chicken is considered a quick service restaurant (QSR), the current eponym for fast food: a simple restaurant where you order at the counter and wait or (if there's a crowd) sit at plastic faux-wood tables until your food is ready. The "QSR" designation is, of course, to avoid the label "fast food," which now makes people think of mass-produced microwaved burgers. McDonald's and Burger King are also considered QSRs, but there the similarity to Zankou ends.

A family-owned chain, Zankou may be one of the few QSRs with an Armeniapedia entry (I didn't know there was an Armeniapedia until I looked up Zankou). The chain has become a Southern California fixture, with a cult following of fans hungry for the spiced chicken, garlic paste, and pickled turnips. I'd previously been to the Burbank and Van Nuys locations, and on our way back from San Diego, we decided to meet a friend at the Anaheim store.

Zankou offers roasted chicken and chicken "tarna," spiced and cooked on a rotating spit like gyro meat. You can get the smaller wrap, which comes with pickled turnips and the delicious garlic paste, or you can get a "tarna plate", which we shared, complete with hummus, tahini sauce, and a couple pitas to make sandwiches if you want. The hummus is creamy and not too garlicky, and the tahini is nice and rich as well. The chicken remains the star attraction, though: tender, perfectly seasoned, and plentiful, it's the kind you keep picking at pieces of even after you're full, just to keep the taste in your mouth. The garlic paste is unique, again not too strong, but with plenty of flavor. And I have a soft spot for the pickled turnips, but they are pretty strong and even I don't usually end up finishing them.

We also had falafels, which are huge and crunchy. You cut these in half or quarters rather than popping the whole thing in your mouth as with some falafel balls or patties. They're almost the size of a pool ball. Mostly bready, not the best falafels I've had, but good nonetheless.

There was an online form where you could tell the Zankou owners where you wanted a new location. I put in San Jose and they said that at the time, that was their leading vote-getter. I can only hope they act on it before too much longer. If you pass through Southern California, you need to visit one at one point just so you can say you did. And pick up a t-shirt while you're at it.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Ruby's Diner, Redondo Beach

Ruby's Diner
50's style beachfront diner in Southern California

I lived near Ruby's for three years and only went there a handful of times, but when we stopped in Torrance on our way to San Diego, that was the first place I thought of for breakfast (sadly, Kincaid's is only open early on Sundays for brunch--that review will have to wait for a while, or be a retrospective).

Inside, the red and white uniforms of the staff match the decor. Around the ceiling, suspended fish swim through the air, and the booths are all shiny red faux-leather vinyl. Your waiter or waitress may not quite match the buxom proportions on Ruby's model, but this IS the Southern California beach--they're bound to be just as perky and friendly. Ours certainly was, recommending the multi-grain pancakes over the malted waffle, which I opted for. We also tried the breakfast tacos and the corned beef hash and eggs.

The hash drew high praise, made with real corned beef, and the potatoes served with the tacos had great flavor and light texture. Breakfast potatoes are hit and miss--either too bland, undercooked, overcooked, or somehow drained of all their moisture. Ruby's had none of these problems, mixed perfectly with the onion for a great side to the tacos. The tacos, like miniature breakfast burritos, had a good mix of eggs and cheese, except in manageable portions. And the multi-grain pancakes were good and fluffy, though I didn't notice much different about the taste other than the occasional nut. They did slightly overcook the "over easy" eggs, but that's a minor problem.

Not to say it wasn't good. If you like a diner breakfast and are lucky enough to live near a Ruby's, you'd be hard pressed to find one better. And if you're lucky enough to live in Southern California, you can watch the community pool out the window, and the ocean just beyond it, while you enjoy your meal.

Dick's Last Resort, San Diego

Dick's Last Resort
Bar food, rude waitstaff, fun atmosphere

If you're looking for a quiet place to have a business lunch, you'll want to avoid Dick's Last Resort. If you don't mind bickering with the waitstaff and getting napkins thrown at you while you eat some pretty good bar food, it's the place to be.

"You can't kill a man born to hang," the legend reads under the sketch of a surly looking man, presumably the eponymous Dick, that makes up the logo of Dick's Last Resort. You might be greeted by a scrawled chalk mark on the floor, if you enter via the Fourth Street side. The patio and host are on Fifth Street, where this time the host asked us if we wanted inside or outside. "Whatever," we said. "Well," he replied, "then sit somewhere," and turned away to the next customers.

At the next table, once we did sit down, a boy engaged in a prolonged paper-throwing battle with another boy further down the table, his father encouraging him all the while. His waitress made a large dunce cap out of paper and yanked it down onto his head at one point, to his squeals of delight. She was much more surly than our waiter, who just sat down at the empty spot at our table and scribbled down our order.

The sandwiches and fries are the things to get at Dick's, though the recent addition of huge salads is a welcome one (even if they only provide the illusion of health, being full of cheese and slathered with dressing). The Big Pig, a pulled pork sandwich with slaw, is well worth getting (might be worth asking for extra sauce if you like your barbecue saucy, though). Their chicken breast sandwiches are good as well. And of course, the fried food is hard to find fault with. Haven't tried the burgers, but they're something of a signature item there, so I can't imagine they're not as good as the rest of the fare.

Dick's is a tradition for us--we've now gone every year for the past seven or eight or something. It's just a fun place to have lunch, and the food is consistently good, if not spectacular. Bring your appetite and your sense of humor, and you won't regret it.

(Note: there's a Dick's coming to Las Vegas. We'll have to try that one out for New Year's.)

The Cosmopolitan, San Diego

The Cosmopolitan
Mexican cuisine in Old Town San Diego, in a pretty courtyard in an old building.

Old Town San Diego is a state park preserving many of the buildings and streets of the original San Diego, at least in a 2 x 3 block area. Dirt streets and adobe-style buildings house modern restaurants and tchotchke stores now. As a tourist destination, it probably ranks between Seaworld and museums, but at least some of the restaurants are good.

The Cosmopolitan was recommended by several people in its prior incarnation as Casa de Bandini, so we were eager to give it a shot. The building is mostly there to frame the courtyard; the host station is just in the entryway, mere feet from the entrance to the central atrium. A matronly grandmother type led us outside, where fountains and flowers create a nice, relaxing atmosphere for the roving mariachi band to ruin. We were fortunate to escape them.

Chips and salsa arrived immediately: three different kinds of salsa, none of which skimp on the spice. One was too hot for me, the others tolerable, but everyone else enjoyed them. Everything on the menu looks good, and from the sampling we got, doesn't disappoint. The Burrito Camarones, chicken Enchiladas, and soft tacos were all good, and devoured quickly. Not too spicy for me, but flavorful, and the beans and rice were good garnishes. Those who got margaritas found them rather fruity and not too strong.

The real problem was the service. Once the chips were brought and our order taken, we had to flag down the server twice to get anything: more chips, a wedge of lime. The caesar salad we ordered with dinner never came, and when the server noticed it, she didn't seem particularly apologetic, asking only, "oh, that never came out?" We told her to just remove it from the bill. She did, but it took a while for us to get the bill at all. Perhaps that's just the laid-back culture, or maybe it was a busy night, but it was noticeable and it annoyed us just a touch. The food wasn't that good that we'd go out of our way to go back--though if we found ourselves in Old Town again, we certainly wouldn't avoid it.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Cafe Sevilla, San Diego

Cafe Sevilla
Tapas and coastal Spanish specialties

As I may have mentioned before, there is no shortage of good restaurants in San Diego's Gaslamp district, one of the reasons we love attending Comic-Con there. For Saturday night, we wanted to try to find something a little more special, and since we both love tapas, we gravitated to Cafe Sevilla on Fourth Street, after walking by it several times.

The restaurant has a great brick interior with Spanish artwork everywhere. The lighting is low in the picture, but not so low that you can't see your food or the person across from you. We were told there would be a 45-minute wait for a table for two, but just as we were saying that was fine, the manager said he had a table at the bar where we could be seated immediately. We took that, because sitting at the bar in most places still gives you access to the full menu. It may just be a little moisier and less formal, but that wasn't a problem.

Our waitress was very friendly and eager to explain anything we had questions about. She confirmed, sadly, that the andouille sausage was pork and beef, so I let Mark have all of that when our paella came.

The paella is their specialty. Fortunately, they offer a tapas version of it, which is what we got (the bottom dish in the picture), in addition to chicken croquetas (like crab cakes) and pisto manchego (cheese over stewed vegetables). The menu (PDF) is broken up not only into entrees and tapas, but also tapitas, very small plates all under $5. We ordered exclusively from the tapitas menu, except for the paella tapas, and found that three dishes plus the bread were enough for a meal.

Oh, the bread. We both love fresh bread, and there at the bottom of the tapitas menu is a fresh-baked loaf of French or olive bread. We had to get it, and it did not disappoint. It comes with a creamy garlic aioli, not too strong, and a lightly spiced red sauce. But the bread is good just on its own, the olives rich and ripe, the crust crackling and the interior soft and firm, with a flavor that doesn't get overwhelmed by the olives.

I also ordered a gazpacho, being on something of a vegetable kick lately. Gazpacho is often spicy, but this one wasn't too bad for me, just full of tomato flavor with enough seasoning that I devoured the whole thing. It came with a couple endive leaves for scooping and eating, and a slice of cucumber and half-tomato for garnish.

The croquetas surprised us, but when I say they were like crab cakes I mean that as a compliment. The outside breading provided a good contrast to the soft interior, good flavoring all around, if not particularly Spanish. The pisto manchego we enjoyed, though again nothing stood out about it; it was just good.

And the paella was terrific. In that small bowl they crammed two portions of seasoned rice and about eight different kinds of meat: a scallop, a clam, a mussel, several shrimp, some calamari, some andouille sausage, some chicken, and probably one other kind of seafood that I'm forgetting. We devoured that and then finished off the loaf of bread, and found ourselves stuffed and happy, with no room for dessert.

Mark spoke highly of the sangria; for my part, I got a pomegranate green tea that was very subtly flavored. It was bottled, so I don't know whether they get any credit for it other than picking it, but it was a nice complement to the rich flavors of the meal.

And for all that, the price was very reasonable. Unless you're famished or want something to take home, you probably don't need to order the full paella, but you should definitely at least taste the tapas. And don't forget the bread. You might need to order your own loaf.