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Food & Drink

Menu Driven: Dinah's Poolside Restaurant in Palo Alto ranks as the best spot for poolside pancake-eating--though diners have to be guests of Dinah's Garden Hotel to take a dip in the drink.

Best Greasy Spoon
Howard and Wanda's
854 W. Dana St., Mountain View

There's no sign out front. But locals don't need banners or neon to find Howard and Wanda's. This 20-year-old orange-faced restaurant, also known as Kim's Coffee Shop, the Dana Street Cafe or Wanda's, is a local institution. Regulars aren't handed a menu here. They know the specials by heart: Monday it's turkey; Tuesday, roast beef; Wednesday, liver and onions; Thursday, corned beef and cabbage; and Friday, it's usually fish. Of course, you can always get a grilled cheese sandwich or a hamburger, and if there are leftovers, there's always the possibility of a roast beef or turkey sandwich. Be warned: Don't wait for a bill. Wanda simply tallies up the order at the register, rounding off the figures to make life easier.
Laura Stuchinsky

Best Roadside Getaway
The Cats Restaurant
17533 Santa Cruz Hwy., Los Gatos

It's the best reason in town to eat meat. It's the consummate excuse for avoiding rush hour over the hill. And it's a perfect example of why individual style beats a formula every time. From its quirky ordering procedure (diners order their meals at the host stand and wait in the bar while their food and table are prepared) to the rustic dining room, where the grill chef labors over an open oakwood barbecue, the Cats exudes character. You powder your nose in the Sandbox. You dine in the shadow of a truly bizarre and compelling mosaic of cats in the wild. Whine about there being no burgers on the menu, and a gruff old guy in Birkenstocks snorts something about McDonald's having plenty of burgers. And somehow, everyone is charmed--especially by the guy in Birkenstocks. The garlic bread is heaven brushed with butter. The salads are fresh and crisp, the beef grilled to smoky succulence. Servers are prompt and friendly. And best of all, you leave feeling like a human being and not a walking wallet.
Traci Hukill

Best New Restaurant
on the Peninsula
Cafe Brioche
445 California Ave., Palo Alto

Answer quick--what do you look for in a restaurant? A whimsical, relaxing ambiance? Reasonable prices? Fresh and creative foods? It's all there at Cafe Brioche. This newcomer to the emerging California Avenue scene is painted in the warm, muted colors of the south of France, including old advertisements for huile d'olive and sucre found on walls in St. Tropez. Entree prices are surprisingly affordable. And the food is spectacular, combining California innovation and freshness with European classicism. Try the brie-stuffed Anaheim chile peppers on chilled pear chutney, the grilled portobello mushrooms with sage aioli, and the salmon filet in a magnificent ginger-apple-cider sauce. The menu changes almost daily, featuring seasonal fresh fish, complemented with intense, sophisticated sauces. Already lines are long for lunch--at which reasonable prices are further reduced. Cafe Brioche is both generous (notice the fat wine glasses) and good. Who could ask for anything more?
Ami Chen Mills

Best Place to Burn Your Buds
Salsas Etc!
126 The Great Mall of the Bay Area, Milpitas

The hottest hot sauce in the universe? Try Dave's Insanity Sauce, made from a resin of the habañero, the planet's hottest pepper. "We don't sell this stuff to minors," says Nathanial, a salesclerk at Salsas Etc! "It's a prank sauce; kids don't realize what it can do. Groups of guys come in here to test who can be the most macho and eat the hottest sauce. We put a little sample of Dave's at the end of a toothpick, and they run out of here with flushed faces and tears in their eyes."

Salsas, Etc!, the manifest obsession of owners Rob and Joni Rayment, contains several hundred salsas, marinades, mustards and barbecue sauces from not only the Americas but also India and Asia. All can be sampled, and all have been ranked by heat content. The hotter stuff is found on the higher shelves, and tends to attract the craziest names: Blair's After Death Sauce, Scorned Woman Sauce, Ass in the Tub Sauce.

For those who crave constant reminders of that gasping, blinkered, lachrymose feeling, Salsas, Etc! also sells dozens of pepper products: ties, T-shirts, suspenders, cookbooks, Christmas lights, pot holders, bathing trunks, mouse pads, posters, boxer shorts, wall clocks, fanny packs. ...
Richard Sine

Best Fried Chicken
Eulipia Restaurant & Bar
374 S. First St., San Jose

The South First mainstay has reinvented itself once again, opting this time for the casual elegance of leather-upholstered booths and good, honest eats done impeccably well. The shredded Dungeness crab-cake appetizer brings a little bit of the Chesapeake Bay to San Jose, the Baltimore of the West, but that's just the beginning. Finding exceptional fried chicken in the valley has been difficult since Dinah's chicken shack in Palo Alto faded into the mists of time. But Eulipia transforms the lowly fowl into a prince of platters. The cornmeal crust is crisp and chewy, salty but with a bite of pepper and cayenne; the flesh is savory and juicy but not greasy. It's better than the stuff you think Grandma used to make. A serving is half of a good-sized bird, so plan accordingly--everyone knows fried chicken is even better the next day, eaten cold for lunch.
Broos Campbell

Best Restaurant Job
Sent Sovi Restaurant
14583 Big Basin Way, Saratoga

From dishwasher to head chef, the restaurant business demands hard physical labor, long hours, skimpy benefits and the dubious honor of serving a hungry (and sometimes surly) public. Even those lucky enough to rise to the top often sacrifice weekends and evenings to the culinary muse. But what's an epicurean to do for gainful employment?

Annabelle Lenderlink, it seems, has the ideal food-lover's job. Her title: forager. Her duties: find the freshest, most delicious fruits and vegetables for Restaurant Sent Sovi chef David Kinch to employ in his top-notch Franco-American dishes. Lenderlink buys about 85 percent of Kinch's produce, and the chef says her efforts are "invaluable to the success" of his Saratoga restaurant. In addition to treasure-hunting for Sent Sovi, Lenderlink grows her own goodies on a Bolinas farm and represents a Gilroy grower at six local farmers' markets. This time of the year, Lenderlink stays on the go 16 to 20 hours a day, but she gets a chance to catch her breath in the quiet winter months. Enjoying the rustic outdoors from Marin to Santa Clara County, sampling nature's bounty, and following the rhythms of the seasons--it's hard to imagine a job that fits more naturally with one's hunter-gatherer roots.
Sharan Street

Best Alfresco Bar and Grill
Willow Street Wood-Fired Pizza
20 S. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos

For good California dining at its alfresco best, Willow Street Wood-Fired Pizza offers personal-sized gourmet pizzas topped with truly creative combinations like chicken and brie with dill, goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes, or artichoke and pesto. Even the sandwiches are unusual, especially the marinated eggplant, which comes with a big Caesar salad or a cup of soup. Elegant pasta and rotisserie dishes, the lamb in particular, could qualify Willow Street for bistrohood if it weren't for the light pouring into the airy dining room and the positively sunny atmosphere about the whole place. A few good beers to choose from and a nice blond-wood bar complete the effect--there is no finer place to sit down with some excellent food and watch the world go by.
Traci Hukill

Best Place to Eat
Pancakes in a Swimsuit
Dinah's Poolside Restaurant
4261 El Camino Real, Palo Alto

Local Palo Altans might remember when Dinah's Poolside Restaurant went upscale 10 years ago. After extensive remodeling, Dinah's emerged all bright and sparkly--with new interiors and menus--from once-humble beginnings as a basic motel diner serving scrambled eggs and toast at a few tables by the pool at Dinah's Garden Hotel.

Placing the hotel restaurant by the pool proved auspicious for breakfast business at Dinah's. Never look a gift horse in the mouth, they say. Appropriately, owners Bruce and Sharon Magnuson revamped the indoor dining area and have continued to remodel, adding a huge new room inside and, outside, adding tables with fancy umbrellas, gussying up the aquatic landscape, and more recently adding a new patio and lunch and dinner service. The wait has been considerably reduced, and the same cooling blue pool still reflects a wiggly world of Sunday-morning diners with their newspapers and pancake stacks, soaking up the vitamin D at Dinah's.
Ami Chen Mills

Best Banana Burrito
Aqui Cal-Mex Grill
1145 Lincoln Ave., San Jose

Creative Aqui chef Rob Francis designed his Cuban-style specialty in homage to a crowd-pleasing, lime-marinated pork and black bean dish he used to serve up at his previous place of employment, Eulipia Restaurant. If the combination was good on a platter, Francis reasoned, it would be good wrapped in a whole wheat tortilla and slathered with salsa. Hence Aqui's much-loved Cuban pork burrito (it has survived three menu revisions), a substantial pocket of pork carnitas, black beans, rice, salsa and guacamole--plus the ripe plantains, which make a sweet complement to the savory pork and beans. Diners can belly up to the salsa bar--with its choice of salsa verde, a smoky roasted sauce, and two salsas frescas--and take the comida out to the charming back courtyard designed to feel more like Santa Fe than San Jose.
Corinne Asturias

Best Hangover Recovery Spot
Los Gatos Cafe
340 N. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos

The little pink elephants set loose by a monumental bender can be chased away by a delicious breakfast at the Los Gatos Cafe in the company of other overzealous partygoers suffering from similar morning-after woes. Think we're kidding? Take a look at all the people wearing sunglasses inside the cafe. You can almost see their temples throb. Everything here is designed to please. The decor is simple, the service is polite (even though the place is jammed to overflowing on weekend mornings) and the food is scrumptious. Try a gourmet omelet made with slapping-fresh veggies, or maybe an order of apricot-bread French toast. The Copenhagen pancakes are a dreamy surprise, and the salads--in case you get up really late and miss breakfast altogether--are generous. These folks provide fresh coffee and fruit outside for those patient enough to wait for a table. Is there a better reason for getting out of bed?
Traci Hukill

Best Diamond in the Rough
White Dove Cafe
1151 Lincoln Ave., San Jose

Spontaneity is a great thing, but with only eight indoor tables, you're taking your chances if you don't make reservations at White Dove, which is becoming the worst-kept secret in Willow Glen. Still new to the block, tucked into the front portion of Sharky's bar, the White Dove could be easily missed by the casual passerby on Lincoln Avenue--and missing it would be a shame. Within the intimate walls, owners Jeff Michel and David Laing whip up tasty (and generous) portions of exquisitely grilled seafood, creatively stuffed pork loin and lovingly seared steak, with sides like deep-fried Cajun oysters and a rich New England­style clam chowder. Stay tuned for the White Dove to fly to larger territory, and say you knew them when they were just starting out.
Corinne Asturias

Best New
Entrepreneurial Concept
World Wrapps
201 University Ave., Palo Alto

Duh. Who wouldn't have thought that Americans--at least on the left coast--are ready for fast, fresh foods in a rainbow of international flavors, combining the best of all the world's spice combinations, and served with healthful smoothies? Save for a few forward-thinkers in Seattle who have introduced wheat-grass juice and soba noodles together in stylish, fast-food eateries, culinary trend-setting in the Wild West has been sluggish.

Then California entrepreneurs Will Weisman, Keith Cox, Matthew Blair and Eduardo Rallo-Verdugo came up with the World Wrapps concept: Take tortilla-style wraps made from sun-dried tomatoes and spinach, fill them with pesto chicken, mango snapper and teriyaki tofu, jam in some zesty vegetables, and then drizzle with tantalizing sauces. The World Wrapps in Palo Alto is testimony to the consumability of the wrap idea. Dozens of copycats now offer suspiciously similar fare.

"We've had people just Xerox our menu. It's frightening what we're seeing," says Weisman, who adds that his team "created the idea, and we think we're the innovator in the niche." Indeed. World Wrapps, with a half-dozen stores up and down the coast, plans to go nationwide next.
Ami Chen Mills

Best Bargain Dim Sum
Golden Sun Restaurant
4632 Meridian Ave., San Jose

The Sunday brunch known as dim sum usually starts at $1.50 per plate and can escalate to $3, but not at Golden Sun. Everything on the dim sum menu--from the steamed, dried scallops to the fried turnip paste--is $1.50. Just as the price is a winner, so is the food. Steamed fare like pork and shrimp dumplings arrives in hot metal baskets. Lightly fried spring rolls recline on an elegant doily. Because dim sum is communally ordered and shared, the emphasis is heavy on socializing. As time flies, a hungry, kibitzing family of four can stack empty plates like poker chips and not get soaked when the bill arrives. It's the community's best-kept secret, until now.
Todd S. Inoue

Best Place to Go When
You Miss Your Mama
El Faro Restaurant
168 S. Murphy Ave., Sunnyvale

Walking into El Faro is like a trip to the family kitchen--with the possible exception of the green vinyl booths and beer logos on the walls. All the same, the two old men chatting at the counter and the sweet waitress (who also happens to be one of the owners) made us feel right at home. The burrito ($2.40) came with a cute little side salad, a pat on the hand, and nurturing comments like, "It's very hot outside, isn't it. Would you like anything to drink?" True, it's not a fiesta like other Mexican restaurants--El Faro staffers don't pass out obnoxious sombreros and crowd around the back of your head yelping if it's your birthday. But isn't it nicer when Mom makes a hot burrito, a fluffy dish of flan and sings "Happy Birthday" instead?
Shweta Govindarajan

Ubaldo Navarro
Hitting the Sauce: Ubaldo Navarro withholds the full recipe for Tlaque-paque's breath-empowering salsa verde, available only by request.

Best Salsa Verde
Taqueria Tlaquepaque No. 1
2222 Lincoln Ave., San Jose

Taqueria Tlaquepaque's green salsa makes this restaurant's fabulous burritos and soft tacos even better. Owner Ubaldo Navarro starts by boiling 60 chiles serranos and six tomatillos. He then adds cilantro, garlic, onion and avocado in amounts too secret to mention. The simmering concoction is then blended and salt is added to taste. Ubaldo's soft tacos scream with flavor when topped with this heavenly condiment. But the green stuff is available only by request because Navarro says most patrons find it too hot and prefer the delicious red sauce that the servers bring out promptly along with the de rigueur dish of warm tortilla chips.
David Cohen

Race Street
Fishing for Compliments: Not only are the lobsters at Race Street red when dead, but can be cleaned and taken apart by request, along with virtually anything else in this still-wiggling fish emporium.

Best Place to Flex Your Mussels
Race Street Fish & Poultry Market
253 Race St., San Jose

I'm kinda weird about this--I like to visit fishmongers just to look at the dead fish. I eat the critters, too--I'm a sucker for clams and mussels steamed with garlic and white wine, and the thought of deep-fried soft-shell crab with spicy mayonnaise on crusty sourdough is enough to make me go for a second lunch. Like at Race Street Fish & Poultry, maybe, where the popular lunch counter dishes up chips with a wide variety of fin-fish and shellfish, including oysters and scallops, and buckets of clam chowder. But the real joy is to gaze upon the icy biers wherein late fish, both fresh and frozen, are laid out in all their scented glory. Here's a bucket of live Louisiana crawfish, there's a tray of octopods, standing like islands amid a sea of the usual filets, and beneath them a reef of underrated mackerel and a pile of salmon heads for fish stock. It's also a dandy place to visit on the way home from an unsuccessful fishing trip. But if you've been in the mountains, don't bring home halibut, okay?
Broos Campbell

Wiltz Cajun Kitchen
Jumpin' Jambalaya: Nothing trendy about Wiltz Cajun Kitchen, except the timeless trend of big portions at small prices.

Best Louisiana Cuisine
Wiltz Cajun Kitchen
354 N. White Road, San Jose

Some things never change, which isn't always a bad thing--Wiltz Cajun Kitchen is proof of that. Brilliant cuisine, embarrassingly modest prices and truly congenial service makes Wiltz the joint to satisfy a craving for Creole feasting. In addition to such usual culinary suspects as jambalaya, owner/chef Bill Wiltz and co-owner/manager (and spouse) Lupe dish up daily specials starting off with Tuesday's back-to-basics he-man helpings of red beans and sausage over rice (with it comes a pair of Southern-style fried pork chops) to Saturday night's succulent short ribs over white rice. That the menu hasn't gone trendy in the 10-odd years the diner has been in business is perhaps the best compliment a cook can get. "[Regular customers] won't let me change it, man," Bill Wiltz chortles. "They don't want me to take anything out."
Nicky Baxter

Best Panini in the South Valley
45 E. Second St., #1F, Morgan Hill

Maurizio Cutrignelli never forgets a face. During a trip down to the South County, I stopped in at the Italian chef/owner's eatery. Surprisingly, he remembered that he owed me $10 for a bet we had made on the outcome of the World Cup--more than two years ago. (He, of course, was rooting for Italy.) Since then, he's not only paid up, but he's expanded his popular corner shop in downtown Morgan Hill from a gelato/juice joint to an impressive little deli offering one of the best vegetarian sandwiches I've ever had: eggplant, giardiniera, organic spring mix, dry mozzarella, red onions and tomatoes. Cutrignelli imports his eggplant, olive oil and other Italian delicacies from his hometown in Italy, where much of his family still lives. Piccolo, which means small in Italian and aptly describes his quaint little shop, also showcases a host of other Italian sandwiches (panino deltizio, panino al tonno, panino al salame), salads, gelato and smoothies. Although the service may be slow at times, because Cutrignelli runs the show himself, his pleasant demeanor and the quality food make the drive south well worth it.
Judi Blackwell

Best World's Best Deli Sandwich
Corner Liquor & Deli
1097 W. San Carlos St., San Jose

Whatever happened to the guy who used to work behind the counter here, always roaring at his kitchen help? What a character! I'll never forget one time I was there, the day Clarence Thomas was on the stand disputing Anita Hill's testimony. The headline that day was "Who to Believe?" The guy behind the counter heard me chuckling sarcastically, and so he asked (in a bellowing basso profundo voice) this meek little housewife who was waiting for her tuna sandwich, "Well, who do you believe?" She squeaked out, "Oh, oh, I don't know, but, I always say, 'It takes two to tango.' " "That's right!" he shouted. "You take what a woman says; you cut it in half, and you only believe half of that!" He seems to be gone now, but the sandwiches are still really, really good, even though "world's best" may be an overstatement. The large pastrami with Swiss ($5.50) will feed two people easily and well.
Richard von Busack

Best Place to "Q" Up
for Barbecue
Tacos Al Pastor
400 S. Bascom Ave., San Jose
Plus two other locations

Dammit, we'll say it just one last time. There ain't no "q" in barbecue. The word comes from the Spanish barbacoa, from the Taino (West Indian), and even the most casual acquaintance of English pronunciation will recognize that barbeque should be pronounced "barbeck." Or perhaps "bar-ba-kwee." Hell, we don't know. We self-proclaimed arbiters of the language just have too much time on our hands, as we take a siesta made necessary by trying to scarf down an entire plato of barbacoa--great juicy chunks of oh-so-tender beef in dark, rich brown sauce, wrapped in tortillas with gobs of beans and rice and topped off with onion and cilantro relish. Heartburn ain't in it--this here's the genuine fuego del corazón.
Broos Campbell

Best Way to Reduce the Number of Drivers on Downtown Streets
Espresso Palace
400 W. San Carlos St., San Jose

Here's an idea whose time has come: serve drive-through customers boiling-hot liquids in teensy paper cups and food on a pointed stick. Here comes a speed bump ... yeeeooowwwww! No, seriously now. Espresso Palace sells meat kebabs and espresso drinks, among the usual drive-in fare, which is reason enough to pay a visit. The pork kebab is lean--a bit dry, even--the French fries are better than average, and the espresso is thick, rich and aromatic--and strong enough to defend itself when poured over a cupful of ice on an asphalt-melting August afternoon.
Broos Campbell

Best Red Beans and Rice
Popeye's Chicken and Biscuits
1671-A N. Capitol Ave., San Jose

Red beans and rice makes everything nice, as Spearhead says, and Popeye's recipe knocks fancy Bayou restaurants' stock starch out the box. Even Paul Prudhomme, the kingpin of Cajun cooking, swears by the top-secret recipe. The plump red beans nestle in a sauce that cuddles the soft, plucky rice. Creamy and smoky, it's the best pairing since Shields & Yarnell, and warms the stomach like a fat, contented cat. At $1.99 per serving, it beats a round-trip flight to the Big Easy.
Todd S. Inoue

Best B-B-Q
Goldie's Oakwood Bar-B-Que
1940-C University Ave., Palo Alto

First the bad news. After years of making drooling lunch-time idiots of San Jose's downtown workers, Goldie's #2 has closed its doors. The good news is that the East Palo Alto original is still serving barbecue so good you'd think proprietor/chef Goldie Jones has a patent on the messily delectable stuff. Having conducted scientific experiments, we've concluded that the sauce Jones swabs onto the racks at #1 possesses more flava, more character, than its San Jose counterpart. Goldie's cooking method involves the use of oak, as opposed to the traditional hickory; Jones swears using oakwood adds that indefinable certain something to the meat dishes. All we can tell folks is that Goldie's barbecue is straight scrumptious. And the portions are exceedingly generous. You'll need assistance transporting the three- or four-way platters to your mode of transport. Careful not to leave a trail.
Nicky Baxter

Best Ethiopian Food & Boutique
Merkato African Goods Shop and Gojo Restaurant
1261 W. San Carlos St.,
Suites A and B, San Jose
Merkato: 408/297-6567
Gojo: 408/295-9546

For proof that continental African culture is coming up in the valley, consider San Carlos Street's Gojo Ethiopian Restaurant and the adjacent Merkato African Goods. Gojo provides a flow of culinary marvels as authentic as the Blue Nile. Especially popular among health-conscious types, according to assistant manager Ayalnesh Haile, is the vegetarian combination plate (lentils, split peas, cabbage, potatoes and carrots). Carnivores generally desire the beef or lamb selections. And the little things count as well. For instance, the butter is handmade; so is the cheese. Note the artwork adorning the restaurant's chalk-colored walls, and the ceremonial coffee serving display in the center of the room.

Next door, Ethiopian/African culture reigns. Though postage-stamp sized, Merkato is stuffed with great gifts: handsomely wrought jewelry, an array of miniature figurines, leather jackets. Just about everything is hand-crafted--except, presumably, the CD and cassette collection, which does not, by the way, include modern rock.
Nicky Baxter

Best Free Dessert to Delight
the Inner Child
Volcano Ice Cream at
China Palace Restaurant

1346 Lincoln Ave., San Jose

All right, we used to call it the floating brain, but that was before we learned the real name of this Transylvanian science project they serve at China Palace. It consists of a dish of vanilla ice cream floating in a goblet of colored water, which churns from the infusion of dry ice, but words do not do justice to the spellbinding result, which comes free with meals (you may have to ask) and makes China Palace the perfect place to take visiting kids, or your own when other amusement missions have failed.

Owner Larry Yu ran King Tongs in Berkeley for 10 years, and as a result of dietary diatribes from Berkeley-ites, his menu contains no MSG, minimal oil and one of the most extensive vegetarian selections anywhere. He invented the volcano thing himself, after years of what we can assume was some fascinating experimentation.
Corinne Asturias

Best Way to Consume
0 Grams of Fat
Five Star Ice Cream
6950 Almaden Expwy., San Jose

Refuse the bins of Healthy Choice "ice cream" and pass up Slim Fast's sorry excuse for a chocolate shake. Five Star Ice Cream dishes out 30 ounces of fat-free frozen yogurt that is the dieter's ultimate triumph. In fact, Five Star is the teppan of frozen yogurt--made to order, right before your eyes. Two scoops of frozen vanilla yogurt and a handful of your choice of frozen fruits are thrown into a giant blender, producing a guilt-free treat of only 70 calories. The health-conscious can gorge, gloat and allocate fat grams elsewhere.
Bernice Yeung

Best Faux Fast Foods
Sunrise Bakery
666-B Blossom Hill Road, San Jose

Browsers at Sunrise Bakery might be startled by the fast-food fare mingling with the baked goods in the display cases. But upon closer inspection, the pizzas and hamburgers (topped with real sesame seeds) reveal themselves as creations of an imaginative confectioner.

Truly, the bakers of Sunrise Bakery should be dubbed the gurus of frosting, fashioning amazing shapes out of sugar, food coloring and water. But the unique sculptures don't end with fast foods; animals both real (frogs and bears) and fictitious (unicorns) occupy the glassed-in menagerie, as do the more prosaic eclairs, truffles, cupcakes, tea cookies and wedding cakes.
Bernice Yeung

Best Cinnamon Bread
Greenlee's Bakery
1081 The Alameda, San Jose

Cinnamon rolls and cinnamon bread are a bait and switch; they never taste as good as they smell. Or almost never. At $3.50 a loaf, Greenlee's cinnamon loaf seems pricey, but management apologizes for the price increase. (I suppose one could blame the war in Sri Lanka and its effect on the cost of cinnamon.) Once you weigh the bread in your hand and smell its aroma, you won't feel gouged. The loaves are pungent with spices even through a plastic bag; the slices are marbled through with cinnamon and lightly glazed with sugar. Most of all, the bread is tender; so much cinnamon bread tends to be stale. Nice surroundings, too; the place won an award for its retrofitting, and they've added various fancier coffees to attract the breakfast trade. An old-fashioned neighborhood bakery like this is a treasure.
Richard von Busack

Best Old-fashioned Denture-Breaking Bagels
The Bagel Works
5241 Prospect Road, Cupertino

The other day at a soft-bagel franchise, good friend Marvin, a proud denture-clad old-timer, drawled, "These soft bagels are okay, since I can't chew too well now, but I miss them real bagels. You know, the hard crunchy kind. The kind that hurts when someone chucks one at your head."

There's one place that still sells those head-cracking bagels, crunchy on the outside and dense but soft on the inside. After 23 years, the Bagel Works bakes (not steams) a wide variety of crusty bagels. Their creations are doughnut-size, smaller than the fluffy, high-volume, pillowy variety. These gnashers have one major thing going for them: a density high enough to stave off hunger till lunch.

The asiago bagels rate high marks: hefty, golden marvels crowned with crisp caps of melted asiago cheese. Aromatic and tasty, these puppies need neither cream cheese nor jam. Perfect for those who don't want to risk dripping jam on their suits--or dropping cream cheese fat onto their thighs.
Andrew X. Pham

Best Bottled Nostalgia
The Milk Pail Market
2585 California St., Mountain View

The aisles are a wee bit narrow, and the chill air blows right through the open-sided building in the winter. But for lovers of old-fashioned milk in bottles and fresh cheeses, the Milk Pail is a rare find. The 23-year-old business on the corner of California Street and San Antonio Road has the ambiance of an old-time, open-air European market, down to the glass milk bottles, outdoor produce stands and strong customer-service bent.

Owner Steve Rassmussen, who bought the business with his father in 1973 and gradually transformed the drive-through milk stand, takes pride in the store's eclectic mix of specialty items--like the strawberry-, root beer­ and coffee-flavored milk bottled by his family-owned business, Castle Creamery. Another highlight is the redolent garlic herb bread that Rassmussen orders from a Pescadero bakery. Milk Pail's produce prices sometimes run a bit high, but the flavor is worth every penny. Felipe, Milk Pail's produce manager, boasts that the sweet white corn sold here is only available at one other gourmet grocery store on the Peninsula. On the other hand, the cheese prices often beat out the competition. For more information on Milk Pail, visit the market's home page at www.milkpail.com.
Laura Stuchinsky

Best New Grocery Store
Midtown Safeway
W. San Carlos and Race streets, San Jose

Food shopping has always been convenient for downtowners--at least for those whose diets lean heavily toward sugar, salt and lard, and who have a pocketful of quarters to buy off the bums squatting outside Vile Foods or Yucky's.

The Midtown Safeway changes all that. This hypermarche is a regular cornucopia of top-quality greens, fruits and fresh herbs, with a good selection of meats--aquatic or terrestrial. There's no jostling in the aisles, which are so wide you could drive a truck down them without knocking over even a can of beans. The metastore also features a banking/loan center, a modestly endowed video emporium offering three movies for three days for three bucks, a greeting-card section larger than most stationery outlets, and a cache of reading material ranging from cookbooks to Archie and Jughead comics. The employees are so helpful, it's almost creepy. Annnd, the store's open 24 hours a day.

Now if they'd just pave over the parking-lot "lawyers"--those speed bumps every 30 feet or so that'll ruin the results of a chiropractic appointment faster than a half-hour romp with a 4-year-old blazed to the eyeballs on Cap'n Crunch.
Broos Campbell

Best Place for Fresh Produce
De Martini Orchard
66 N. San Antonio Road, Los Altos

Once surrounded by acres of orchards, this small produce market still looks like the tumbledown roadside fruit stand it started out as some 70 years ago. All the basics--oranges, apples, apricots--abound, along with a few surprises, such as champagne grapes and genuine oddities like "pluots" (plum-apricot hybrids). In the middle of the wooden structure stands a tree of indeterminate age. "It's been here as long as the store has," manager Craig Kozy says. Though its growth is slowly pushing apart the roof beams, Kozy has no plans to cut it down.
Rafer Guzman

Best Fishing Spot
New Castro Market, A.K.A. Wing Yang
340 Castro St., Mountain View

Red-tailed perch, rainbow trout, catfish and sand dabs--piles of shimmering, stunned fish stare up from ice buckets. A dozen geoducks lie in a tub, their long necks extending from their fist-sized shells like huge, wrinkled elephant trunks. Crayfish crawl over each other in a vain attempt at escape. For fish eaters, the 11-year-old Wing Yang Market on Castro Street offers a dazzling array of delectable choices. The only salmon I've tasted that was better had been reeled in by a fisherman minutes before it was sold. When serendipity doesn't serve up the catch, Wing Yang is a sure bet.
Laura Stuchinsky

Best Place to Reclaim Your
Lost Asian Identity
Ranch 99
5625 Snell Ave., San Jose

It's easy to forget you're Asian when grocery shopping at Safeway. More and more assimilatin' Asians avoid the neighborhood Asian specialty markets, appalled by the stink and stigma of shopping where your popo shops. Ranch 99 is the Asian superstore, complete with full-service butchers, bakery, deli and video rentals featuring plenty of Hong Kong flicks. Fresh fish aren't left in a smelly box on the floor--they're meticulously layered in ice or naively awaiting imminent doom while swimming circles in a fish tank.

Row after row of indigenous foods bring back a flood of memories among the third and fourth generations, which makes a trip to the Ranch with friends a major bonding experience. It's hard to pick up a tube of Haw flakes and not say, "Remember these?" or "Did you eat these as a kid?"
Todd S. Inoue

Best Place to Loiter
on Big Basin Way
International Coffee Exchange
14471 Big Basin Way, Saratoga

The International Coffee Exchange owes its popularity in large part to fresh coffee and a unique spread of edibles (from falafels to turkey sandwiches), but most customers visit the cafe for its loiter-friendly atmosphere. Owners Kathleen and Victor Amezcua say that church groups, teachers' meetings and businesspeople often assemble in their cafe, sometimes filling up half the store.

A group of Saratogans--who call themselves the I.C.E (International Coffee Exchange) Club--assembles daily (sometimes twice daily!) at the cafe to sip and socialize. The Amezcuas, however, refer to the group of regulars as the I.C.X. Club because they don't want the alternate moniker to "send out a feeling of coldness." The cafe attempts to live up to its name by welcoming customers from all circles of the community. In addition to receiving a letter from Saratoga Mayor Paul Jacobs, commending its willingness to serve teens, the cafe donates goods on a regular basis to local charities.
Bernice Yeung

Best Cafe, Really, in Palo Alto
St. Michael's Alley
806 Emerson St., Palo Alto

Although Cafe Borrone in Menlo Park has been voted best cafe in the Palo Alto Weekly for five years in a row now, I'm never sure why. Cafe Borrone isn't in Palo Alto. For my money, I choose St. Michael's Alley, where the lattes are thicker than the attitude.

This is where the Grateful Dead played early gigs, and the back screen door bangs shut with a satisfying whump. Baked goods and salads can be seen in various stages of preparation through an open door to the kitchen, and eclectic, local art adorns the walls. All the last Palo Alto eccentrics gather here--dressed inappropriately, of course--to recite poetry and complain about how Palo Alto is in danger of losing its former funk altogether.

New owners Mike Sabina and Jenny Youll are dedicated to preserving the St. Mike's spirit and have begun a casual, fresh and friendly dinner and tapas service Tuesday­Saturday, hauling produce from their backyard garden to serve up with entrees like blackened catfish, marinated tri-tip and shrimp-stuffed mushrooms. Their dog, Mr. Magoo, greets visitors at the front sidewalk here in what Sabina calls the "little Greenwich Village of Palo Alto," far enough from the beaten track to be beat.
Ami Chen Mills

The Best Social Circle for Caffeine Addicts
Coffee Society
The Oaks Shopping Center
21265 Stevens Creek Blvd., Cupertino

There's something inherently fetching about Coffee Society that goes beyond great coffee and attractive surroundings. Maybe it's the loose-jointed aura or the incorrigible hipsters behind the bar.

More likely, however, it's the good intentions and easy humor of the hands-on owners, Ralph and Carolyn Flynn, that have inspired the staff and kept the aura of hospitality intact for seven years. The employees serve and entertain, evidently enjoying themselves so much that it appears they're just groovin' around the espresso machine. There's omnipotent Cindy, irrepressible Curtis and quirky Eric, each adding a stroke of atmosphere with their personalities.

Many patrons who graced Coffee Society when it first opened on the heels of the '89 quake still show up for their cup of joe. This java microcosm showcases many slices of society--corporate executives as well as homeless folks, dreamers and troublemakers, hopeless eccentrics and starched conservatives. And, yes, the coffee is pretty damn good.
Andrew X. Pham

Best Provisions for the Nutritionally Correct Shopper
Whole Foods Market
various locations valleywide

Come for the fruit and vegetables, stay for everything else. Whole Foods Markets offer natural, healthy and environmentally correct alternatives for everything: hormone-free milk, free-range chickens, pesticide-free produce, gel-free disposable diapers, bleach-free sanitary pads, "cruelty"-free cosmetics. (Everything's free except the prices, which can leave the overenthusiastic shopper's checking account free of cash.) Bulk foods abound, as well as health convenience foods and goodies, and an impressive selection of vitamins, natural toiletries and cleaning products. But the abundance does not stop there. The fish counter (at the Campbell location) is looked after by "Slick," a.k.a. Bonnie, who makes sure the fish is fresh (two days old max), and the meat counter boasts such scrumptious oddities as chicken apple sausage and ground buffalo meat. The deli counter and juice bar top off the place with delicacies such as aubergine dip, vegan cookies, and fruit and vegetable drinks.
Christina Malcolm

Best Way of Seeing Red
Ahlgren 1993 Santa Clara Valley Zinfandel
Ahlgren Vineyard
20320 Hwy. 9, Boulder Creek

Red meat and booze. The debate is yet undecided--lethal combination or just a mortal sin--but I don't care either way. A sizzling T-bone right off the coals melds impeccably on the palate with this robust zinfandel, a product of grapes from the Besson's Family Vineyard in southern Santa Clara County and the winemaking skills of Dexter D. Ahlgren up in Boulder Creek. It's an unfiltered wine, giving it a dark, brooding look, but when held up to the light, it shines deep ruby. The flavor and bouquet are of delicious wild berries right off the vine, bright but not sharp, smooth but not sweet, and as homey and comfortable as only a zinfandel can be. Just one quibble: This wine is difficult to find in the valley. Until Ahlgren's distributor gets on the ball, this immortal zin is easier to find in Santa Cruz.
Broos Campbell

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From the 1996 Best of the Valley issue of Metro, September 19-25

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