[Best of the Santa Clara Valley 1998

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[Food & Libations]

A gourmand's delight, this valley. Hungry for elegant health food? We have the pervasive California-cum-Mediterranean element, the boundary-defying Pan-Asian territory. No culinary yin that can't find its yang here, and frequently the marriage is an intercultural one. Thai pizza, jalapeño pasta--Silicon Valley chefs combine flavors and ingredients with abandon, and most days we're happy to dig into the fruits of their labor.

But a curious thing happened when Metro staffers returned from their walkabouts. They expressed almost unilateral fondness for the small things, the simple things: shakes, pastries, pizzerias. Maybe simplicity is making a comeback. Maybe we're just a bunch of rubes at heart. At any rate, here are our picks for the valley's best nibbles, slurps, munchies and grinds.


Best Cheap Eats
Want good, cheap food that's fast? Ask a student. The young scholars at SJSU know Peanuts Deluxe Sandwich Shop is the bomb. With all the omelettes, scrambles, hash browns, pancakes and breakfast standards that make America what it is today, Peanuts attains the pinnacle of affordability with its breakfast special: two eggs, hash browns and toast for $1.89. The most expensive item on the breakfast menu--a bank-breaking $3.75--gets high rollers an avocado, tomato, bacon and cheese omelette accompanied, of course, by hash browns and toast. Lunch offerings include the requisite burgers, sandwiches, french fries and salads. Within jaywalking distance of San Jose State University, Peanuts likes its customers to order at the counter and wait for their numbers to be called. The television's always going, and silverware is provided on a self-serve basis.
1475 E. San Fernando St. (at Seventh Street), San Jose, 408/998-9778

Peninsula Fountain and Grill

Best Old-Fashioned Milk Shake
The masterpie ce that is a Peninsula Fountain and Grill shake arrives simply, in a smallish juice glass and a stainless steel cup covered in white frost. It is thick, but not so thick as to collapse the straw or break blood vessels in the lower lip. It comes naked, without a cherry or whipped cream. Unadorned, it carries no haughty dessert conceit; this is no special occasion, just a beverage, the perfect companion to a heart-stopping hamburger, fries and pickle. "All fountain drinks," the menu assures, "are made by authentic soda jerks." The "soda jerks," as they were once called, got their name from the big shiny soda lever they used to yank to draw glasses of the bubbly. The Peninsula Fountain and Grill would know about the history of such things. It's been around for 75 years and survived a 1993 remodel without succumbing to the corporate nostalgia of a Johnny Rockets or TGI Friday's. Now if only they could've kept the 1923 prices ...
566 Emerson St., Palo Alto . 650/323-3131

Best Pastry Comeback
There they are, near the bottom of the case, modestly displayed as befits their humble station in the pastry hierarchy. A plate of cheese Danish at Prolific Oven, straight from central casting. But it's apparent on first glimpse that this is no typical Danish, a wimpy rectangle of dough with a stingy dimple of cheese buried deep in the center, like those cellophane-encased travesties that languish in vending machines. Oh, no. The Prolific Oven's cheese Danishes have the wondrous distinction of being the most delectable members of their tribe ever to grace the inside of an oven. These honey-golden confections are freshly baked and butter-fragrant, with a thick layer of delicately sweet cheese spread right to the edges. Quite a revelation, this Danish--the genuine article, only improved. This is what a cheese Danish aspired to be, back in the days when the world was a kinder, gentler, sweeter place.
550 Waverley St., Palo Alto, 650/326-8485

Best Way to Cool Off While Salsa Dancing
Who cares if they're not a tropical tradition? Drinking Lindemans Belgian beer at Fuel--available in framboise, kriek and perches (that's raspberry, cherry and peach to the linguistically challenged)--is the most decadent way to inspire hours of dancing to fast-paced cumbias and spicy salsa numbers. Hipsters look all the more stylish sipping the decadent concoction from its sleek tapered glass. And who really cares if flavored beers are shamelessly trendy and one is more expensive than a six-pack of Budweisers? The more adventurous should delve into the cafe/bar's liquor cabinets for a toro bravo, a blend of tequila and Kahlua poured over ice. The bold drink consumed amid the contagious rhythms of local Latin musicians is sure to get even the meekest wallflower on that dance floor in no time.
44 S. Almaden Ave., San Jose, 408/295-7374

Best Place to Sear Your Taste Buds
A taqueria is a taqueria, right? There's beans and then there's salsa. But at Mucho's the salsa is everything, from the window dressing to the stuff people drown their burritos in. Hundreds of bottles cover the walls and line the countertops: olive-green lizano, flaming red tapatio, fruity brown macho salsa--and for the truly adventurous, chile habañero, a salsa so perversely hot it's guaranteed to make fans cry as it turns the top layer of the tongue into pasty muscle glue. As the spitted chickens in front rotate in time to loud mariachi music, taste buds do a dance all their own over the wreckage in the mouths they once called home.
72 E. Santa Clara St., San Jose, 408/277-0333

Best Healthy Downtown Lunch Spot
Salad hunters, health nuts and dieters can't pick a better lunch spot than Caffe Zucco. Big salads fluffy with fresh lettuce and studded with ripe tomatoes set the health-conscious back a mere $5. Thirty different smoothie options can double as a liquid meal for lunchers trying to avoid the dreaded afternoon food coma. And for those who don't mind 20 minutes in the zone, there's Zucco's lunch special--a panini (focaccia bread with fresh sun-dried tomato pesto spread, cucumbers, tomatoes and sprouts and choice of meat) and salad combo for $5.50. Drag this feast to the cafe's upstairs eating area--a happy meeting of skylights and comfy couches--and maybe, with a little luck, a spot on a couch will open up for a short snooze afterward. Music is always playing from the joint's funky jukebox, and for those so inclined, a wooden piano upstairs beckons.
74 S. First St., San Jose, 408/297-9777

Best Slice This Side of Heaven
Ten years ago, a South Bay sybarite with a penchant for sophisticated pastry had to hit the road or make do with a French cruller that left grease spots on the napkin. Now, fin de siècle gustatory decadence is ours at Classical Bakery, a tranquil strip-mall haven replete with track lighting and trompe l'oeil garden mural. There, one can literally taste Ambrosia--three layers of fudgy endorphin bliss--by the slice. One bite and the résumé of Classical's master baker practically announces itself: Cocolat, the Berkeley shrine to all things baked and chocolate, is his alma mater. Recovering chocoholics who don't trust themselves to enjoy the food of the gods in moderation can 12-step right up and order the Princess cake. This fairy-tale marriage of whipped cream, white cake, almond-paste custard and raspberry jam layered like a petticoat beneath a satiny hoop skirt of sea-green almond marzipan will make romantics and dieters alike weep for the days of opulence and self-control.
181 W. Calaveras Blvd., Milpitas, 408/946-1928

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Urban Survival Tip #1.

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Best Way to Get Your Vitamin C
Ubaldo Navarro, creative director and owner of Taqueria Tlaquepaque and master of Mexican munchies, prepares one of the most unusual--and stealthily potent--tropical concoctions around. He calls it Cazuela, and he says it originated in his hometown of Tlaquepaque, Mexico, a small town outside Guadalajara, three generations ago. (As a point of reference, consider that the area is best known for its blue agave cacti and tequila distilleries. Now proceed with caution.) Cazuela arrives in an eight-inch-diameter terra-cotta bowl (keeps the goods cold) filled with slices of grapefruit, orange and lime. Navarro adds some grapefruit, orange and lemon juice, a splash of Squirt, some white Bacardi rum, a pinch of salt, ice and the requisite Sauza Conmemorativo tequila. Ai, Chihuahua! This is not only a drink that Linus Pauling could have endorsed, but one that calls for taxi fare, or at least the services of a designated driver. The Cazuela is traditionally guzzled straight from the bowl, but as a concession to American ways, Navarro includes two red straws, the better to share it.
2222 Lincoln Ave., San Jose, 408/978-3665

Best Sign You're on the Right Road
Moving to the South Bay from Oaktown requires more than a bit of reacclimation, but the lamentable loss of good 'cue like the real deal served up at Flint's or Everett & Jones can be assuaged by heading up the old route to Oakland for a visit to B.C.C. Enterprises BBQ, run by the enterprising folks from Bethesda Community Church. Under the red-and-white checkerboard eaves out front of the Garden City Trailer Park, these God-fearing, meat-searing Good Samaritans perform their roadside rescue of carnivorous connoisseurs weekdays year-round, and on summer Saturdays as well. Mouthwatering ribs, chicken, hot links and tri-tip slow-cooked over red-hot mesquite and basted in zingy sauce are matched in varying combinations with baked beans, potato salad and bread to feed the homesick soul like nothing else can. Unlike their East Bay counterparts, B.C.C. Enterprises does not cater to the late-night munchies--their day is done by 6pm at the latest.
1305 Old Oakland Road, San Jose, 408/297-5799

Best Hot and Sour Soup
It happened: A 10-year-old girl didn't want to try the hot and sour soup at Judy's Kitchen. Her companion begged, pleaded and argued with her. You gotta, you gotta, you gotta, he said. I don't wanna, I don't wanna, I don't wanna, she shot back. But her face twisted with curiosity when that precious bowl of hot and sour liquid came before the soup's apologist and he slurped it up in a matter of seconds, hardly taking the time to do that thing some people call "breathing." Of course, at Judy's, where lunch specials are only $3.99 (spring roll, entree with steamed or fried rice, and a cup of the hot and sour), few people bother with taking a breath. Eventually, the 10-year-old tried the soup and enjoyed the bursting flavors: not too spicy, just right. If you've never seen a 10-year-old change her mind about food, you just don't understand. Judy's soup is that good.
10635 S. Foothill Blvd., Cupertino, 408/253-3934

Rosa's Taqueria
Christopher Gardner

Meals on Wheels: Rosa's Taqueria has streamlined its service of cheap, fabulous food by squeezing the kitchen into a gleaming silver trailer parked behind McEnery Convention Center.

Best Burrito on Wheels
More of a burrito drive than a burrito dive, Rosa's Taqueria--a silver tacomobile parked out behind the McEnery Convention Center on Market Street--serves up one mean al pastor burrito. And it's not just for a wrap on the run, either. Diners can take in the South Market ambiance at a picnic table endowed with a new umbrella to ward off those wilting summer rays. The chewable-vitamin-C-tinted walls of the Convention Center and its neighboring buildings create a calm atmosphere from which to enjoy the passing intermittent traffic or a little chitchat with the other burrito chompers at the table. Courtesy of low overhead, prices remain reasonable: a super burrito and a drink clocks in at $5.25. Though there is a full menu of burritos and tacos ranging from carne asada to veggie, the barbecue pork reigns supreme. Look for the handmade sign on the sidewalk, at least for a few months more. After that, Redevelopment is rousting Rosa's, who hopes to relocate across the street.
Market Street between San Carlos and Balbach streets, San Jose

Best Use of a Banana
Anyone can make a decent banana split or cream pie, but the friendly folks of Falafel Drive In stand out for their homage to the beloved fruit: a sweet, creamy banana shake. Worlds away from its fat-free second cousin, the smoothie, the simple shake blends tropical beauties with rich dairy products--of course leaving straw-clogging chunks of ripe banana goodness. Paired with a falafel sandwich, hummus and side of hot sauce, just one sip of the shake induces an instant--albeit temporary--sense of balance in life. Smoothie joints may be all the rage, but for over 30 years fans have flocked to owner Anton's unassuming roadside drive-in for delicious Middle Eastern and American specialties, salty fries and his timeless banana shakes.
2301 Stevens Creek Blvd., San Jose, 408/294-7886

Donut Wheel
Christopher Gardner

Theater in the Round: The Donut Wheel in Cupertino is the perfect place to watch happy doughboys and girls making the fluffy, timeless treat that is a donut.

Best Place to Watch the Making of a Classic
For some reason, the donut refuses to go out of style. Faced with a two-front war of bad press on one side and a health-conscious police force on the other, the donut perseveres with a toughness that belies its sweet, airy interior, even as it loses patrons daily to its nemesis, the humorless bagel. Much like the besieged donut, The Donut Wheel in Cupertino has survived the roller coaster of popularity. Each day from roughly 10pm to 4am, curious customers are more than welcome to pull up a spot at the counter and witness the craft of making donuts. After watching the process, observers need not wonder why donuts taste so good--or why the old-fashioned donut never needs to be renamed the new fashion.
10250 N. De Anza Blvd., Cupertino, 408/252-8193

Best-Tasting Case Against Stereotyping
A seasoned barbecue fan recalls sitting at one of the indoor picnic tables at JC's Bar-B-Q just after the place opened almost 20 years ago. He was in utter rapture, hardly looking up from his half-rack of spare-ribs until it was picked clean. Then he had to know: who made this spicy-sweet, tender-chewy ambrosia? He admits some surprise that it wasn't a Chef-from-South-Park-looking guy from Oakland--the West Coast's Mecca for connoisseurs of flame-prepared chicken, beef and pork--but instead JC himself, one of the first batch of Japanese-Americans to open shop on the west side. Six months ago our reviewer returned after a long absence to find JC still at work, toiling masterfully and sweatily and looking as serious as the customers hunched over those same tables while they intently did damage to some of JC's handiwork. This is nothing fancy, just saucy, greasy BBQ served with an iceberg lettuce salad, potato salad or beans, and beer from a cooler. Heaven.
1080 Saratoga Ave., San Jose, 408/246-2146

Best Hand-Holding Wine Shop
For people who break into a cold sweat at the mere sight of a wine list, the Joseph George Company in Willow Glen is the stop to shop. The staff practically learned to walk in a tub of grapes, and they can initiate the ignorant shopper into the mysteries of flavor, age, price and style without actually hazing the poor sucker. Special permits allow Joseph George shoppers to sneak a taste of the goods at the store's tasting counter, which helps jump-start the learning curve. Serious grape lovers can purchase bottles for all occasions at Joseph George, resting easy in the knowledge that owner Bert George makes monthly trips to Napa and stocks his shelves with the latest and greatest wines, including hard-to-find brands such as Silver Oak and Williams Selyem. And connoisseurs looking to intoxicate an army can rent a dolly and wheel away the shop's special 27L bottle.
1559 Meridian Ave., Willow Glen, 408/448-WINE

Best Full Meal Deal
Silicon Valley isn't much for hole-in-the wall pizza joints that sell cheap slices of quality pie, but for what's missing in quantity around here, Pizza-a-GoGo makes up for in quality. Generous cheese slices cost pocket change at $1.75, and $4 gets any slice, a salad and a drink. In addition to cheese, pepperoni and super veggie, Pizza-a-GoGo also makes a tasty green pesto pizza, or any made-to-order custom slice. Whole pies can also be had. The environment for this feeding frenzy couldn't be more appropriate--diners at both locations can enjoy a peaceful repast under the watchful eye of a live nurse shark, circling in a tank.
335 University Ave., Palo Alto, 650/322-8100, and 117 E. San Carlos St., San Jose, 408/280-0707

Best Cannoli Like Nana Used To Make
Many an Italian grandmother would roll over in her grave if she saw the Bavarian-cream-filled impostors passed off as cannoli these days. Sickeningly sweet, soggy-shelled and way too complicated, they ought to be excommunicated from the hallowed interiors of bakery cases everywhere. Thank goodness fate brought the Bertucellis, the owners of La Villa Delicatessen & Gourmet Shop, to San Jose decades ago to uphold the perfect pastry's reputation. For 50 years La Villa has continued to pair a creamy ricotta filling with crisp, flaky cannoli shells--dusted with powdered sugar and both ends dunked in chocolate sprinkles--to create the ultimate homage to Italian baking traditions. Not too sweet and perfect for mass consumption, these divine little beauties just may have inspired the expression "Holy Cannoli."
1319 Lincoln Ave., Willow Glen, 408/295-7851

Best Brain Freeze
"Frappuccino" may be a nationwide household word, but "Starbucks" would be banned from the English language if people across the country could get their hands on Cafe Borrone's Frosted Mochas. The Menlo Park institution blends rich Haagen-Dazs vanilla bean ice cream with chocolate syrup, real espresso and ground espresso beans into a whipped-cream-coated masterpiece. Whether split with a friend or hoarded shamelessly alone, Borrone's Frosted Mocha redefines the coffee break. It's just right for dessert, a late-afternoon caffeine rush or dinner after a rough day. Especially on a sunny afternoon, sitting on the cafe's beautiful patio sipping the heavenly treat feels like a little brush with paradise. The damage may come close to the price of a cheap lunch, but the priceless Frosted Mocha can easily be justified as a substitute for Prozac.
1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park, 650/327-0830

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From the September 17-23, 1998 issue of Metro.

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