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Editors' Picks: Food & Sustenance

Best New Restaurant
754 The Alameda, San Jose 408.280.1644
Seven is more than just a lucky number for The Alameda neighborhood--it's a bright-lights-big-city club wrapped around a hot urban restaurant. The brainchild of twin chef/owners Curtis and Russel Valdez (whose combined culinary credits include A.P. Stump's, Roy's in Maui and One Market in San Francisco), and their brother-in-law, Hugh Parker, Seven boasts a sexy Los Angeles-meets-Milan interior punched up with a gleaming spun-steel exhibition kitchen and black stiletto-legged cafe tables. An insistent technopop beat forms the right background for sampling the house cocktail list; sizzling variations on the mojito, martini and cosmopolitan abound. The food action rocks with expert transformations of American classics. Ribs and steaks get tender treatment, and luxury seafoods are stacked into sensuously seasoned creations. Desserts to die for and a righteous wine list complete the swanky picture. (CW)

Best Reason Not to Pay the Rent
320 Village Ln., Los Gatos 408.354.4330
Chef/owner David Kinch is a man fired up with a holy mission to cook unforgettable dishes with attitude. Kinch succeeds in getting your taste buds' attention with innovative alliances of ingredients--tangerines and tomatoes, red peppers and strawberries--and surreal visual presentations. Consider fearless once-in-a-lifetime oral odysseys such as layers of heirloom tomatoes joined by tiny corn croquettes, each filled with a hot liquid center of corn essence. Or an egg into which a spoon is plunged to liberate strata of warm yolk, salt crystals, chives and frothy maple cream. Inspired by Catalan superstar Ferran Adria, internationally-trained Kinch reaches beyond mere culinary common sense and sets loose subtexts and top notes to thrill even the most "been there, done that" palate. Dishes are priced to thrill as well, and meals may be organized into prix fixe fantasies--add wines chosen from the lavish house cellars and just don't bother with this month's rent. There is nothing like this place anywhere else on the West Coast. With desserts to match. (CW)

Best Reason to Mow the Lawn on a Hot Day
The Chavela at Tlaquepaque Taqueria
2222 Lincoln Ave., San Jose 408.978.3665
Tlaquepaque Taqueria owner Waldo Navarro will not fold under questioning when it comes to his prized liquid refresher, the Chavela. Unofficially, a Chavela is a brain-freezing concoction of Mexican beer, citrus mixer and an optional dash of tequila served in a frosty goblet with a salted rim. Navarro says that his restaurant is the sole proprietor of Chavelas in the South Bay, which may explain his imitation of Bill Clinton before the Starr Commission. "It's a popular drink from the town the restaurant's named after, Tlaquepaque [a town southeast of Guadalajara]," he allows. When asked to confirm the ingredients--from guesses culled from multiple tastings, eyeballing the bartenders in action, even spotting a telltale limeade can in the bar fridge--Navarro pleads the fifth, dismissing my guesses as balderdash. "I wouldn't put 'tequila' if I were you," he warns. "[Just say] it's 'alcohol.'" Whatever elixirs lurk inside those bottles, the Chavela is a welcome reward after a long day of yard work or soccer practice. Be prepared for the ripple effect; when a round of Chavelas arrives at the table, majestic goblets toasting in frozen glory, heads turn and orders are upgraded. (TI)

Best Reason to Skip Dinner
California Cafe
50 University Ave., Old Town, Los Gatos 408.354.8118
California Cafe's trendy designer entrees are really only a warm-up for dessert. From coconut crème brûlée to chocolate denser than a fusion reaction, this restaurant crafts each dessert group with style and substance. Consider a cheesecake made from rich goat's milk from the fabled Sonoma ranch of Laura Chenel. Adorned only by the sweet-tartness of poached quince, it provides edible enlightenment. Ditto a summer peach tart, accentuated by peach salsa. To take any edge off the sweetness, CC tops this creation with tangy crème fraîche ice cream, and all you need to do is gulp with pleasure. Chocoholics can find religion in the form of a molten Valrhona chocolate truffle cake that seduces with sheer density, partnered with--let's just overindulge, shall we?--Valrhona chocolate gelato. The seasonally changing dessert menu is worth climbing out of bed for. California Cafe desserts must be considered destinations unto themselves. Skip dinner entirely, and dive into the pastry. (CW)

Best Mess
Las Palmas
1495 The Alameda, San Jose 408.295.3132
The Las Palmas family recipe for chile verde cannot be duplicated. This wholesome stew brims with chunks of pork, simmered to succulence in a rich gravy based on natural juices. The chile verde burrito falls apart, forcing you to use your fingers to grab those errant morsels. The tortillas take the shape of humpback whales, soaked with gravy and seeping steam from the folded ends. Las Palmas uses big chunks of pork and special family seasonings to create simple delicious flavors that tweak the taste buds with flavors that linger. There's no better time to have a dish with sides of rice and beans than the late morning, right when the place opens up. (JI)

Best Euro Coffee Fix
Cafe Barrone
1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park 650.327.0830
Tucked in a courtyard between a pub, a smoke shop and a bookstore, there is really no place more like a European cafe in Silicon Valley than Cafe Barrone. Though always packed to the point where finding a vacant table can become an annoying task (but is not this annoyance also European?), there is just too much enticement to keep one away. The coffee is rich; the sandwich board exhibits gourmet and inventive selections--the salads, quiche, house-made soups, all delicious. You can add a buttered baguette to any meal for $1. Plus, besides a decent beer and wine selection, they serve up large glasses of the best ice-cold lemonade around. (AR)

Best Spot for Poke, Saimin and Spam Musubi
230 Jackson St., San Jose 408.279.4888
Realer than a roach coach at Ewa Beach, Hukilau's Hawaiian fare has been warming up Japantown since January. It's a gargantuan task for homesick blalahs and titas to cram every comfort food into their bloodstream the first visit, but Hukilau has a way of getting folks to open up the gullet. "When we first opened the Hukilau, there was no place to get plate lunch," says Eric Tao, one of the owners. "It's not traditional Hawaiian cuisine like Kalua pig; it's a little bit of Japanese, little bit of Filipino and a little bit of Korean, all in one." Spam musubis just like your Aunties make. Saimin noodles with a loving side of kimchi. Good, fresh ahi poke worth a round trip ticket from Kona. (TI)

Best Fried Squab, Even If You Don't Know What That Is
Fung Lum
1815 S. Bascom Ave., Campbell 408.377.6955
To the Chinese, squab is a luxury. At Fung Lum, it is a specialty. If it's not perfectly fresh, Fung Lum will refuse to serve it. Squab resembles a dove, with dark meat suffusing flavors of the wild. In traditional fashion, the chefs fry this tasty bird fast until the skin turns walnut-dark and crackles like chips to the touch. In this condition, every bit of the lush, tawny meat and even the some of the bones can be eaten. Fried squab serves best as an appetizer. (JI)

Best Place to Meet Your 'Lover After Dark'
Flower Flour
896 Willow St., San Jose 408.279.0843
I went to a barbecue this summer, and instead of meat I decided to bring along a box of assorted pastries from Flower Flour Patisserie in Willow Glen. The box included the "Lover After Dark" (a sinful concoction of decadent chocolate), fresh-fruit mousse, cinnamon twists, Bavarian pear cake and a few cookies. Before the steaks even made it to the grill, I heard "oohs" and "ahhs" coming from the kitchen. I rushed inside to find that my box of goodies had been infiltrated, and that it had transformed a group of adults into a skirmishing clan of naughty children, with chocolate residue on their faces and fingers. Oblivious to their impolite behavior, they all turned to ask the same question, "Where did you get these pastries? They are the best ever!" And at that point my confidence in Flower Flour's pastries was confirmed. (AR)

Best 3am Menu
The Cardinal Restaurant and Lounge
3197 Meridian Ave., San Jose 408.269.7891
This 24-hour hot spot boasts the disparate charms of both Las Vegas and Denny's. At all times of the day and night, you'll find the Cardinal crawling with San Jose's most eccentric characters. The food is consistent, even at 3 in the morning, and the Cardinal is one of the rare late-night diners that boasts a full bar and karaoke. Some highlights of the menu are the massive omelettes, tasty burgers and a famous Monte Cristo sandwich that combines ham and cheese between two slices of toast. The whole thing is battered and fried, sprinkled with powdered sugar and served with a side of syrup. Three a.m. never looked better. (AR)

Best Gluten for Gluttons
Tofoo Com Chay
388 E. Santa Clara St., San Jose 408.286.6335
Vegetarians dream, too. Usually, the same fantasy replays itself over and over. The vegetarian glides into a kingdom where every kind of texture and sodium gradation comes in a death-free package of gluten and soy. Tofoo Com Chay may be just a hole in the wall, more than walking distance during a downtown employee's lunch break, but it's a little Vietnamese eatery that makes vegetarian dreams come true. Tofoo's owner, Ben Banj, became a vegetarian 10 years ago for both health and spiritual reasons, and his friendly aura imbues the "chicken" drumsticks with an irresistible goodness. Enjoying a single helping of the pineapple "tuna" ($1.25 each) is too much of a taunt; one must eat two. The sesame "chicken" (75 cents each) stands up to the test of fine fake meat as well. Tangentially, the test is similar to one useful when judging the production of a play. Is one constantly aware of watching a player speaking written lines? If the answer is yes, the play is bad. Similarly, when eating fake tuna, the eater should be in the moment. Tofoo commands the synapses masterfully and disguises the disguise. (AG)

Best Margarita and Subsequent Best Buzz
1145 Lincoln Ave., San Jose 408.995.0381
Many have suffered the search, drinking through Bay Area cantinas, taquerias and fancy sit-down restaurants trying to find a margarita that delivers a perfect buzz. Most discover nothing more than a majorly watered-down disappointment. Now, the Holy Grail of margaritas can be revealed: a single sip of the recipe at Aqui Grill in Willow Glen promises to sway your perception toward enlightenment. It only takes one, soft and frozen from the machine (the margaritas on the rocks are not the same), and you will drift into a state of golden euphoria. The buzz is incredibly smooth and soothing, and the side affects are delightfully minimal. Warning: Two or more may put you in the hospital. (AR)

Best Guacamole Gawking
Cazuelas Mexican Bistro
377 Santana Row, San Jose 408.260.7082
At Cazuelas Mexican Bistro in Santana Row, the servers arrive tableside with mortar and pestle to craft on-the-spot guacamole. Ripe avocados are scooped out of their skins, then mashed together with fresh onions, peppers, spices and cilantro. With this chunky celestial pudding come homemade corn tortillas, piping hot from the stone hearth. When fresh like this, the flavor of the delicate alligator pear pampers the tongue with creamy textures and flavors so subtle they whisper sweet songs. (JI)

Best Cup of Autumn
Campbell Coffee Roasting Co.
1875 S. Bascom Ave., Campbell 408.559.8040
Fall is just around the corner, bringing with it the desire for seeping fusions of rich and spicy flavors to counteract the autumn chill. Of hot beverage concoctions, I cherish the most a good chai tea latte. Unfortunately, like so many wonderful things that have grown rapidly in popularity, the chai has also quickly diminished in quality. So nowadays, I find myself driving to Campbell Roasting Co., where the chai latte is consistently an even blend of frothy milk and robust tea--pumpkin pie in paper cup. Just add a cinnamon stick and enjoy. (AR)

Best Panadaria
Ortiz Panadaria
3826 Seven Trees Blvd., San Jose 408.225.5013
Ortiz Panadaria on Seven Trees Boulevard and Capitol Expressway (they have another location on 13th Street) is the place to go for authentic Mexican pastries and breads--so authentic, in fact, that it is necessary to speak at least some Spanish for service. The bakery also offers Mexican coffee, fresh-squeezed orange juice and Coke in a bottle. The pastries, filled with creams, fruit, cheese, sugar-coated or plain, seem to be always warm. The idea for the bakery was generated in Mexico by owner David Ortiz and a pictorial history of the Ortizes can be seen on the walls of the bakery. (NH)

Best Banh Mi to the Future
Lee's Sandwiches
990 Story Rd., San Jose 408.295.3402
3276 S. White Rd., San Jose 408.274.8166
2525 S. King Rd., San Jose 408.274.1596
2307 McKee Rd., San Jose 408.258.1155
When does ethnic cuisine stop being ethnic and become mainstream? When it crosses menus. Today, nobody flinches when ravioli, tacos, California rolls, even pho, are offered together. The Vietnamese sandwich, the banh mi, may just be the next ethnic crossover. No better example of this Saigon street-food staple exists than at Lee's Sandwiches, the locally started franchise. The Lee's on King is the In-N-Out version, operating like a well-oiled machine, sparkling clean with huge ovens and plasma screens that show when your order is ready. For those not hip to banh mi, it's basically the Vietnamese version of a po' boy, with fresh meat (chicken, pork, beef, sardines or even pâté) on a warm French baguette garnished with pickled carrots, cucumber, tomato, daikon, sliced serrano chile peppers, cilantro and a slathering of fish sauce and aioli. It's cheaper than the average sub (around $1.50) and a definite upgrade for those burned out on Togo's. (TI)

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From the September 25-October 1, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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