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Shellfish Pleasures

[whitespace] Lou's Village Decor

After five decades, nautical-but-nice Lou's Village still serves up the best clams and oysters in town

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

IT WASN'T UNTIL I looked up from my pint of Anchor Steam and saw the refurbished balsa-wood surfboard--a real beauty--that I realized where I was. I was sitting in one of San Jose's nicest bars, in one of San Jose's oldest restaurants: Lou's Village.

Lou's most outstanding attribute, despite what any curmudgeonly critic wants to say, is that it's still around, and has been since 1946. Argue with that and you lose. This place is money. It's been reviewed many times, kicked from pillar to post, in favor, out of favor, but it hasn't gone down. It stands. It's survived all the bulls and the bears and is still cranking out trade.

I'd nearly forgotten about it. Really. I passed it so many times on my mindless treks up and down San Carlos; it had become a meaningless blip on the ol' brain panel. All of that nautical gear out front turned invisible. I stopped going to Lou's Village until I met a guy named Ricardo out in the water at Pleasure Point in Santa Cruz who told me about the "decent lunch" he'd had at Lou's. "Oh really?" I remarked.

I went the next week, ordered some cherrystones on the half ($6.95) and realized then what I'd been missing. These are the freshest, the best in this town, and remain an unparalleled tradition here. I went back the next day for oysters on the half ($8.95), flown in from the East Coast and served the way they're supposed to be, with cocktail sauce, lemons, horseradish. Slowly and by degrees, I remembered all the things I'd once loved about Lou's.

I went back for dinner, then lunch, then for beers and martinis, then for the surfboards. They hang in the bar, all of them classics, the balsa board refurbished by the legendary surfer/shaper Doug Haut, the man who told me that if you want to own a lighter board, don't buy a new one, "just remove all the damn wax." Some salesman.

The decor unveils a seafarer's dream, full of nautical decorations neatly presented in an atmosphere of unimpeachable hygiene. I love to bask in the spacious seating accommodations, watch the fish in the immaculate aquariums, scope the model sailing vessels, lounge in the quiet amid muted colors. You can hide away here. Nobody rushes you.

The foyer's been redone and now presents a photo essay of Lou's history that opens a pathway to a glamorous past. Scores of framed glossies line the entrance and main dining room. At first glance we assumed these were Hollywood actors in the heyday of the studio system. On closer inspection, however, we realized that these were musicians and entertainers whose careers had peaked in the '40s and '50s. Many are now obscure. But all, including the likes of Lucille Ball, appeared at one time or another at Lou's.

When it comes to the menu, don't expect cutting-edge cuisine. Redefining seafood is not Lou's purpose. Sorry. East Coast shellfish, calamari, award-winning clam chowder and lobster (in many permutations) remain the lasting favorites. The quality of the raw product is excellent.

One word of advice: watch out for the sauces. I've found over the years that the kitchen can go heavy on the butter and sometimes over-apply. Be safe; ask for sauces on the side.

Our most recent visit opened with an order of oysters Rockefeller ($9.95), a recipe that hasn't tasted this good since New Orleans. It calls for freshly shucked oysters baked with a puree of spinach, butter and Pernod, served straight from the oven on a bed of rock salt.

A fitting alternative is the fried calamari ($9.50), a Lou's specialty, full of tender rings and tentacles in a jacket aromatic with Italian seasoning. You can have it as an entree for $15.95, though it works best as an appetizer.

Fans of Maine lobster must take a gander at the double-clawed nobles resting in the tanks on the way into the dining room. They come steamed or broiled and range from one to five pounds, served with appropriate tools, lemon wedges and drawn butter. Or get the lobster baked Thermidor style ($29.95).

I say pay the price, put on the bib, indulge yourself. Have the whole thing. It's work, a little messy, but when you've finally cracked through the shells, the meat pulls away in big succulent pieces. In complement, we drank glasses of an oakey Clois du Bois Chardonnay '96--our waiter's recommendation, and a good one.

To prolong the pleasure, order the Shore Dinner ($29.95). It begins with choice of appetizer--we had the ocean-sweet Dungeness crab cocktail and a cup of white clam chowder.

This is the only restaurant where I'll order jumbo butterflied prawns ($18.95) and get tartar sauce on the side; there's not a place in San Jose that serves them better and in this style. For the same price, you can have a king's portion sauteed in butter, wine and garlic--this time not overworked with butter, but light and tangy with lemon. All dinners come with choice of chowder or salad, and a selection of delicious mashed potatoes and crunchy seasonal vegetables.

Anyone who comes to Lou's more than three times will know the people who work here. It's that kind of place. Everybody seems happy. There's a rhythm, a melody, that even the tropical fish in the tanks are aware of. Watch their tails and you'll understand what I mean. You can almost do the rumba.

Lou's Village
Address: 1465 W. San Carlos St., San Jose
Phone: 408/293-4570
Hours: Lunch Mon.-Fri. from 11:30am; dinner 4-10pm (until 11pm Fri.-Sat.)
Cuisine: East Coast shellfish
Entrees: $6.95-$30

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From the July 29-August 4, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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