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Where Is the Valley's Culinary Soul?

By Stett Holbrook

LAST MONTH, I spent a few days in Minneapolis at the annual Association of Food Journalists conference. It was my first visit to Minneapolis, and I had no idea what a cool city it is. The city has beautiful bridges spanning the Mississippi River (minus one very broken one), stunning architecture, great art museums, a happening music scene and really friendly people. I was walking downtown one day and asked a woman for directions, and she offered to give me a ride to where I wanted to go. How's that for Midwestern hospitality?

But what really made an impression on me was the food. Popular wisdom says the culinary talent in this country comes from either the West or the East Coast. But Minneapolis proved that wrong. Maybe it's the long winters or lots of discretionary income, but Minneapolitans clearly like to go out to eat, and they have a great variety of good restaurants to choose from.

While sampling food at restaurants like the Bank (set in a gorgeous old bank lobby), the Cosmos and Craftsman, I was struck by how much pride the chefs had in sourcing local ingredients and how they celebrate the farms, dairies and waters of the upper Midwest. Walleye, paddlefish caviar, Minnesota duck, local dairy cheese and even house-made sauerkraut turned up on the menus. Who knew the Mini-Apple had so much going on?

All of which made me think about Silicon Valley's restaurant scene. Unlike Minnesota, we're not snowed in five months of the year, and we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to local produce, cheese and meat and fish products. And yet there are few restaurants that really celebrate the food and culinary heritage of the Santa Clara Valley.

Manresa, Sent Sovi and Parcel 104 probably do the best job of creating restaurants that are rooted to the South Bay. Dining at those places, you become intimately aware of where your food comes from, and it leaves you with a real taste of the South Bay on your lips. But those places are the exception.

The ethnic diversity of Silicon Valley's restaurants rather than a cohesive, readily identifiable style defines our food scene, and that's cool. But I'm still surprised there aren't more chefs running with the homegrown theme and mining our local bounty beyond a few token ingredients like king salmon and Salinas Valley lettuce.

Wouldn't it be cool if there were more South Bay restaurants that captured the essence of the valley before the word "silicon" was used to define it? Where are the restaurants serving the Santa Cruz Mountain huckleberry, porcini mushrooms and fern fronds? Why don't more chefs use the incredible array of stone fruits grown by Morgan Hill farmer Andy Mariani or grass-fed beef from fifth-generation San Juan Bautista ranchers at the T.O. Cattle Company?

If they did maybe when Minnesotans come to town to eat they would see that we too have a cuisine all our own.

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