[Best of Silicon Valley 1999]

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Editors' Choice

THE GREATEST Chow
ON EARTH!

Metro writers on the valley's best food and drink

Best Place To Buy Donuts On Jan. 1

Lou's Living Donut Museum
387 Delmas Ave., SJ
408.295.5887

Since it opened in 1955, Lou's has raked in many honors, including the prestigious "Official Donut Shop of the California Highway Patrol, San Jose Area." Founder Lucius Ades, a B-24 Liberator pilot who was awarded the Iron Cross in World War II, retired from the donut business in 1981 and passed it on to two brothers, Rick and Chuck Chavira, who had worked for him since they were teenagers. Today, the Chavira family guards the handmade tradition of donut-making as if each and every fried sphere were the embodiment of their belief in God and country. "What we're preserving here is the spirit of Americans," explains Connie Chavira, who traces her family heritage back to the Civil War. In a room next to the kitchen, where donuts are handmade light and fluffy, the Chavira family keeps an exhibit dedicated to educating newcomers to the history of Lou's and onWorld War II. And for the millennium, the Children's Discovery Museum is preparing a massive model donut for installation on the roof of the Living Donut Museum--a monument befitting a monument.
Michael Learmonth

Best Place For An After-Meal Smoke

Mike's Cafe
905 S. Bascom Ave., SJ
408.294.2262

Ever since California law banned smoking in restaurants, smokers have huddled on sidewalks and in parking lots like refugees from a lost world. But for our fire-breathing friends, indulgence remains a tradition at Mike's Cafe on Bascom Avenue. After a hearty omelet or a continent-sized lunch special of meatloaf and gravy, a smoker can, just as in days of yore, lean back in a booth with an elbow slightly raised and puff to their arterially hardened heart's content. Although by law they must sit in a hermetically sealed, glassed-in room looking a little bit like those biology experiments in airports, they look pretty content in there. Just don't tap on the glass.
Corinne Asturias

Best Alternative To Noah's Bagels

Izzy's Bagels
477 California Ave., PA
650.329.0700

Real bagels are made by boiling them. That's just how they do it at Izzy's. Noah's and the other bagel bigshots make their bagels by steaming them. Now Noah's does a good job of creating a patina of tradition with the old photographs they plaster all over their shops, but it can't cover up this serious breach of bagel protocol. At Izzy's bagels are made by the book--the way the bagel-bakers of old knew best..
Mick Normington

Best Milkshake In A Coffee Shop

Great Bear Coffee & Los Osos Café
19 N. Santa Cruz Ave., LG
408.395.8607

It's the Seattle invasion: one Starbucks per square block. At least that's what it feels like sometimes. Arguably, there's no shortage of coffeehouses in any metropolitan area or up-and-coming suburbia to offer early-morning caffeine fixes, double shots of culture with some background jazz and display art, and of course, comfy locations for sizzling conversation. We're talking dens of sin for coffee-holics, but for the other half of the population--us noncaffeine dependents--it's a hard life. Alienating, really. We've settled for Italian sodas or Odwalla time and again, but our troubles are over, because now there is a sublimely rich, thick and creamy (as in topped with real whipped cream) chocolate milkshake at Great Bear Coffee & Los Osos Café just waiting to be had. Slurping away underneath the old-fashioned ceramic chandeliers, one gets the feeling that the lost-and-gone soda fountain era has met the '90s coffeehouse trend, making for a match something like Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in that darn city we all know so well.
Suzanne Barnecut

Best Bread Pudding

Cafe Primavera
1359 Lincoln Ave., SJ
408.297.0183

Even people who adore bread pudding may sometimes hesitate to order it after a heavy meal. Once satiated, those huge clumps of bread mixed with raisins and too much cinnamon can put one into belt-loosening mode (and that's not the way to get in shape for the California lifestyle). Well, it's time to rethink bread pudding. Chef Kent Parras of Cafe Primavera in Willow Glen first makes brioche--a sweet, very rich, buttery bread--and then marinates it overnight in an egg, sugar and cream batter similar to French toast ingredients. Next Kent roasts the batter-soaked bread in the oven and finally tops it off with caramelized roasted apples. Not only is this bread pudding light and perfectly textured, but for some reason one will never feel full after choosing this meal-ending treat. It simply melts in the mouth, reducing to fabulous flavors you wish would hang around forever.
David Cohen

Best Place To Get Biscuits And Gravy For Dinner

Jim's Coffee Shop
274 University Ave., PA
650.328.5245

What? You haven't heard that this comfort food isn't good for you? Well, if you're ready to load up on calories and forget about cholesterol readings, a good old-fashioned breakfast (served all day, from 6am to 6pm) of tender biscuits and sausage gravy awaits you at Jim's Coffee Shop on University Avenue in Palo Alto. The late Jim Hawthorne opened his shop in 1965. Now surrounded by its fair share of Starbucks, Noah's, and other trendy cafes, this restaurant still calls itself a coffee shop. As the name implies, the coffee is just coffee--and comes in a bottomless cup (plenty of refills!) for the unbelievable price of $1.00. You can also get old-fashioned donuts, pancakes, and fried egg sandwiches. Jim's renovated a few years ago and has become a bit more upscale to keep pace with the competition. But it's still the place to hang out with the locals.
Ellen Murray

Best Place To Get Goosed

El Grullense
Various locations

Anyone who has eaten Mexican food in Southern California has noticed the aesthetic difference between SoCal and no-cal burritos. The SoCal burrito is a minimalist's delight: a carne asada burrito is simply carne asada, guacamole and salsa fresca. Here in NoCal, farther away from the border, we've come to expect all kinds of extras like rice (Spanish or brown), beans (black or pinto), sour cream and lettuce. These additions may make for a bigger burrito, but not a better one. If anything, they serve as a distraction from the burrito's flavorful essence (it's reminiscent of how health-conscious Californians have defiled the sanctity of the pizza slice with goat cheese, walnut and artichoke toppings).

Those who prefer the SoCal burrito aesthetic--or just love great food--should try El Grullense. There are eight different locations in San Jose, but our favorite is on the corner of Delmas and San Carlos. Not only is everything delicious--the tortillas are the freshest around--it's also cheap cheap: A carne asada burrito with guac comes in under $4; a veggie burrito under $3. The soft tacos are also yummy.
Will Harper

Best Place To Taste More Frozen Yogurt Flavors Than A Rubik's Cube Has Color Combinations

Hug-A-Berry
36-A N. Santa Cruz Ave., LG
408.395.4545

The quaint appearance of Hug-A-Berry's brick-trimmed building in downtown Los Gatos belies the zany madness that goes on inside. Definitely not your run-of-the-mill fro-yo shop, Hug-A-Berry's pièce de résistance is a large metal mixing machine. Patrons first decide whether the hungry machine gets a base of vanilla or chocolate frozen yogurt. That's the easy part. Next comes the candy-store part--choosing what goodies get mixed into the concoction. Among the "fixings" offered are at least a dozen different fresh frozen fruits, as well as innumerable dry items including chocolate pieces, candies, gummy animals, nus and sprinkles. Banana nut yogurt? Chocolate with chunks of strawberry? It's all good! And after just the right amount of flavor melding, out comes a kind of chunky, kind of creamy and definitely dreamy frozen treat whose likes may never be seen again. For visitors whose hunger cannot be filled by yogurt alone, Hug-A-Berry also offers deli sandwiches, homemade pasta salad and baked goods.
Shari Kaplan

Best Low-Tech Processed Meat

Stephen's Meat Products
105 S. Montgomery St., SJ
408.294.8024

Three generations of Morrison have made all manner of pork and beef products on the corner of Montgomery and San Fernando since 1943. Stephen Morrison's son Bob has run the place for the last 25 years with grandson, Steve, with his brother and brother-in-law, ready to take the hot link and run with it. Their specialty is sausage in all its sinful forms: hot links, linguica, Polish, German, brockwurst and bratwurst. Everything is made by hand, except where a 700-pound chopper is needed to slice and dice the shanks and mix in the appropriate blend of fats, leans and spices. Nothing on the Stephen's assembly line is digital. "The old stuff you can fix," says Steve, gesturing to an old Toledo scale. "The new stuff, you've gotta call someone out." Stephen's sells to Lucky's grocery stores, hotels and restaurants and military commissaries. They are also open to the public for retail and for tours.
Michael Learmonth

Best Way To Cheat A Hangover

Jon-Jon's Barbecue
154 Post St., SJ
408.279.0232

As every seasoned soaker knows, a proper pub crawl requires both a full wallet and a full belly--the first to finance the expedition, and the second to keep that night on the town from turning into a night on the tiles. For that, a platter of meaty ribs, creamy potato salad and tangy beans will do nicely. Jon-Jon's No. 2, open for about 11 months now, lies conveniently near such mainstays of the downtown cocktail circuit as Kleidons, the Caravan Lounge, Fuel and Mac's fabulous new digs just up the street. In addition to ribs, Jon-Jon's also serves up chicken, sandwiches of pork or beef and a wickedly spicy hot link; the weekend soul-food menu features catfish and greens. And remember, always, food before drink: Jon-Jon's closes at 6pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and 8pm on Thursdays; Fridays and Saturdays they're open till 10pm.
Broos Campbell

Peninsula Fountain and Grill
Malt-as-Meal: At Peninsula Fountain and Grill in Palo Alto, formica reigns supreme and the malts are good enough and big enough to qualify as supper.

Best-Tasting Time Warp

Peninsula Fountain & Grill
566 Emerson Ave., PA
650.323.3131

Ponytails and saddle shoes would be right at home in the dreamy booths of the Peninsula Fountain and Grill, where the clock stopped somewhere in the early '50s. Giving a sleek name to the entire diner/soda fountain concept, this chrome-and-naugahyde time warp does it all. It's got juke boxes and it's got serious chocolate malts the size of Detroit back when it was Motown. Patrons can take out their closet needs for high-calorie, non-vegetarian lunches and dinners with all the trimmings in this fully functional old-fashioned ice cream parlor, complete with counter seating so that they won't spill that banana split all over their Banana Republic. Meat loaf, mashed potatoes and gravy--along with hot turkey sandwiches, to-die-for BLTs and gargantuan plates of heavenly French fries. This is hearty heartland American food without a designer bone in its body. And it's all here on the trendiest street in Palo Alto. Cool.
Christina Waters

Best Place To Find Greeks Bearing Gifts

Evvia
420 Emerson St., PA
650.326.0983

Dionysian dining on a bold scale is the specialty of this house. If Plato had discovered the dolmathes, skordalia and grilled garlicky lamb served at Evvia, he would have founded the Republic in downtown Palo Alto. Even if they don't dance on the tables and throw plates under the spell of a few glasses of retsina, the kitchen and staff at Palo Alto's gorgeous Greek eatery definitely know how to cast an Aegean spell. The menu brims with Greco-Californian variations, and offers the opportunity for the entire family to sit at circular tables and dish up spectacularly seasoned food from huge serving platters. Stylish yet as informal as a Cretan village, Evvia excels in the huge flavors of the Greek isles, loaded with lemon, rosemary and garlic, especially translated into exceptional fresh fish plates and glorious olive oil-drenched appetizer dishes. The setting is pure taverna-- Ariadne and Alexander the Great would feel completely at home.
Christina Waters

Best Way To Feel Love For Under A Buck

7-Elevens everywhere

Forget about all the upscale watering holes. When you need a fix, nothing satisfies like a cool 44 oz. refill from the ubiquitous little stores with the green signs. This way-downtown ode to the trash culture has its competition beat in fair-'n'-square, mega-corporation style. Shaken, stirred, on the rocks--it's all iced goodness. And at a mere $.75, my cup runneth over with love. Bound together by the fellowship of The Super Big Gulp, the faithful come to worship a bubbling cup of sugar-water devoid of all nutritional value. Synthetic? Maybe. But tasty? Always.
Liza Fournier

Best Way To Taste The Change Of Seasons

Flea Street Café
3607 Alameda de las Pulgas, Menlo Park
650.854.1226

Under the gracious leadership of chef Jesse Cool, Flea Street has established itself early and often as a pioneer in delicious California cuisine. Fueled by locally grown seasonal produce, regional cheeses and free-range poultry--all that political correctitude can muster without sacrifice of gastronomic excellence--Flea Street is that only-in-California paradox of retro simplicity and culinary finesse. Everything tastes fresh from the garden, whipped up according to the weather and prevailing mood of the kitchen. The menu changes often and allows guests to taste the changing seasons--heirloom tomatoes, tangy fresh goat cheese, infant lettuces and farmers market goldmines all find their just desserts. Speaking of which, the desserts could make a grown hippie cry--berry crisps and cobblers, tender tarts and generous helpings of chocolate sin aid and abet the California flavors done nowhere better.
Christina Waters

Best Jewish Penicillin

Gunther's Restaurant & Catering
1601 Meridian Ave., SJ
408.266.9022

Those searching for a way to bounce back in the coming cold-and-flu season need to know there is natural relief available, it only costs $3.95, and the user can still operate heavy machinery after taking it. What can we say about the matzo ball soup at Gunther's on Meridian and Hamilton Avenue? The matzo balls are practically the size of tennis balls, delectably lacy around the edges and swimming in a pool of clear chicken broth. A bowl is better than a cup (there are two knaidlach in there instead of one). Take some time to sit over the steam and scoop off quivering slabs of matzo dough, washing away worries and sniffles with each bite. This stuff is Jewish penicillin at its dependable best, for when Mom's off at her book group or climbing the Pyramids. There, there now, you'll be better in no time.
Corinne Asturias

Best Burrito Bar

Mondo Burrito
3300 The Alameda, Santa Clara
408.260.9596

If it's studentproof, then we all can handle it. Here's how it works: take three steps through the door and let an expert burrito-maker become your escort through the burrito bar experience. After that, despite the large menu, there's really only one choice to be made: a Mondo Burrito or Mondo Nachos. It's painstakingly simple, but Mondo Burrito isn't a frequent pit stop for locals and students at Santa Clara University because it's quick and cheap, but because it's good. Our recommendation: err in favor of indecision and order both. Next there'll be a little hemming and hawing over which size and type of tortilla to pick, followed by choosing among three kinds of beans, three varieties of rice, beef or chicken, and myriad condiments including old standbys like pico de gallo, sour cream and guacamole, all mix-and-matchable. That's it, folks! The tough part is over and it'll be time to relax with complimentary tortilla chips and a drink from the small sports bar on the outside patio.
Suzanne Barnecut

Best Place To Conjure Up Mama Mia

Palermo Rotisserie
452 University Ave., PA
650.321.9908

It's a quick trip to Sicily--it's a trattoria by Fellini--it's Palermo, the tiny oasis of plush Mediterranean flavors tucked into the middle of the University Avenue action of downtown Palo Alto. The madonna ship that spawned our rich local history of Sicilian cooking, Palermo boasts an antipasti table baroque enough to make a grown Don cry. Every roasted pepper worth consuming, all those succulent mozzarella balls, the citrusy salads, the gooey, glorious pastas--they're all here in an intimate atmosphere beloved of a colorful cast of regulars. A visual feast utterly without pretensions, Palermo provides old-fashioned earthy Italian cookery that justifies the current craze for Mediterranean cuisine. A South Bay original that tastes just like mama used to make.
Christina Waters

Best Place To Buy Beer

Beltramo's
1540 El Camino Real,
Menlo Park
650.325.2806

Beltramo's is known for its wine selection. With more than 4,000 varieties in stock, the proprietors have well earned their lofty reputation. But serious beer drinkers shouldn't assume the place favors the grape over barley and hops. The only beer that seems to be missing is Stroh's, and that's no big loss unless you're from Michigan. Trappist ales, stouts, lambics, pilsners, ales ... it's all here. And there's a nice mix of refrigerated and room-temperature beers, so you don't have to wait for your Old Nick to cool down to appreciate its full flavor.
Mick Normington

Best Lunch For Under $2

Costco
Various locations

Sure, the economy is booming. But here in penny-pinching Silicon Valley, a $2 lunch is a bargain not to be taken lightly. In Costcos around the Valley, collars of all colors flock to the mecca of all things jumbo-sized for the hot dog and soft drink special priced at a very affordable $1.50 plus tax. Urban tales have surfaced regarding the infamously long wait at various locations during the lunch hour. The wait, however, is well worth it. Swathed in a sesame seed bun, the steamy hot dog--Polish or regular--isn't alone for long. Dog worshippers promptly head off to the condiment station, churning the condiment wheel for adornments of sauerkraut, chopped onion, mustard, mayonnaise, ketchup, and relish. One more thing to remember before heading out to the hot dog stand: bring a Costco card-toting friend--after all, it is members only.
Genevieve Roja

Best Place To Believe A Waitress

Vahl's Restaurant and Lounge
1513 N. Taylor St., SJ
408.262-0731

What more can be said about Vahl's Restaurant and Lounge in Alviso? Just keep going north on First Street until you run into the levee on the southern tip of the bay, and you're there. Where else in the valley are the walls so pink or decorated with such a collection of bric-a-brac and stained glass? Where else do they make a better fleur-de-lis with the cloth napkins? Where else is there such a lovely flower garden to view through the back windows? Where else can you find both Otis Redding's "Dock of the Bay" and Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman" on a jukebox? Where else can you actually believe the waitresses when they say what's best on the menu? For that matter, where else can you find a waitress when you want one? Vahl's has a ton of them. The food is excellent, but then it ought to be. The Vahl family's been at it since 1941.
Jesse Taylor

Best Monthly Cure-All

Juliann's Bakery
1140-6 Lincoln Ave., SJ
408.971.2682

Once a month, when the cramps and the grumps settle in, there's only one cure: baked goods. Lots of 'em. Fortunately, Juliann's Bakery has a wide selection of classic scones, muffins and Danishes in just about every flavor imaginable, like apricot, raspberry, poppy seed and cheese, to name a few. There's also cheesecake, or chocolate cake for the less adventuresome. But for the real remedy, go with the chocolate cookie sandwich: rich cream cheese frosting between two chocolate chocolate chip cookies. It's nothing less than a handful of gooey, chocolate heaven. Maybe it's because Juliann's is run by two women, or maybe it's because they're just damn good bakers. When those monthly cravings kick in, who cares? Just get to Juliann's.
Jessica Lyons

Best Takout Lasagna

Bertucelli's La Villa Gourmet Italian Delicatessen
1819 Lincoln Ave., SJ
408.295.7851

Little Italy in Willow Glen? Pretty darn close. La Villa Delicatessen is as close to pick-up-and-go Italian food as Silicon Valley can get without heading into North Beach or hopping the next flight on Al Italia. A small but cozy shop, La Villa packs in a selection of nonperishable Italian pastas, olive oil, tomato sauces, biscotti and gnocchi brands in addition to cheeses, wine, prepacked pesto and alfredo sauces, fresh loaves of bread and a counter to order panini (sandwiches). But most impressive is the hot-bar's offering of homemade ravioli, meatballs, canneloni and ... drumroll, please ... lasagna. A patio on the side offers a place to sit and eat while the food's still warm, but for a hearty or romantic Italian dinner at home, stop by La Villa and say you made it.
Suzanne Barnecut

Best Bargain Mongolian BBQ

Su's Mongolian
1111 El Camino Real,
Santa Clara
408.985.2958

I had just started my first week of college when our entire dorm floor was dragged by our Resident Assistant to the local eatery known as Su's All-You-Can-Eat Mongolian BBQ. Once we arrived, we were instructed to sit, stand up, and take a bowl. Heeding my R.A.'s repeated calls to "pack our beef," I began filling my bowl with semi-frozen shavings of beef and chicken. I did as everyone else did, using my palm to scrunch down my meat, leaving extra room for fresh-cut broccoli, grated carrots, sliced onion and bean sprouts. I inched around the corner, doing horizontal left-together, right-together footwork as I scooped spoonfuls of sauces from silver square tins. A dash of sweet and sour, soy sauce here, garlic there, some sugar, BBQ oil and oyster sauce. Then a man took my bowl and unloaded its contents onto an oversized Hibachi, an open-faced grill. The meats and vegetables attained even brighter colors as the cook shoved the combination with a long wooden stick across the grill in counterclockwise motion. Then in one quick swoop, the cook scraped the veggies and meats, going airborne briefly, then crash landing into a clean bowl. While my homesick and already underfed dormmates complained of stomach pains, I savagely attacked the meat bar and let the magic unfold all over again.
Genevieve Roja

Best Donut In The Global Village

Souza's Bakery
2079 El Camino Real, Santa Clara
408.243.5443

Portuguese donuts (or malasadas, as they're sometimes called) are to the common American donut what Old World nobility is to NASCAR fans. Not better, understand--just different. Hand-formed from a soft, dense dough into substantial rings and allowed to rise very slowly, these lightly fried beauties have just a hint of lemon in them and a subtle lacing of sugar on the outside. No need for lardy frosting or garish sprinkles here--each bite is quietly complex enough to sustain the eater's interest through an entire malasadic episode (which can be quite an event, considering the heft and dimension of said treat). Baker and proprietor Jesper Jensen plans to keep making the big-selling malasadas--at 42 cents apiece they're a mighty cheap way to make friends around the office--but he has other interesting plans for Souza's Bakery: real Danish pastry from Jensen's homeland, flakier and richer than the stuff we get here. "I would like to eliminate the American Danish and sell real Danish here," he proclaims in a charming Scandinavian lilt. "Nobody in the South Bay is doing it." We'll be waiting with salivating chops--meanwhile just keep the malasadas rolling.
Traci Hukill

Best Canoli

Paolo's
333 W. San Carlos St., SJ
408.294.2558

Ah, canoli, the Sicilian treat, the sex goddess's gift to the pastry underground. Paolo's canolis are like the ones adored back East in the Little Italies sprinkled about northeastern cities: Powdered sugar and crushed pistachios dust the large plate and ricotta filling oozes lovingly from the crisp, fried shell, a tender mint leaf stuck triumphantly into its pale depths. Canoli shells must be crisp. Period. They must be stuffed with the creamy filling mere moments before serving, but let's not digress. Of first importance is the hard shell and its special ingredients, handed down from the mother of Paolo's founder, the late Jack Allen, and on to his daughter Carolyn: The shells are made fresh daily from a flour-based dough accented with red wine, beer and chocolate for added flavor. Then the ricotta is drained to give the filling more body. A touch of whipped cream adds smoothness. Then the candied melon bits from Sicily, the pistachio, cinnamon, chocolate, some white creme de cacao, Galliano and Strega liqueurs are blended in such a skillful melding of flavors that no individual essence can be detected over another. The result is nothing less than a Holy Canoli to die for.
David Cohen

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From the September 30-October 6, 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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