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[whitespace] Amelia Vahl
Photograph by Michelle Dudley

Hostess With the Roastin'-est: Amelia Vahl still works the floor almost every night.

Menu of Memories

Vahl's is a restaurant, sure--but it's also a time machine

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

I WAS ON the train to Sacramento when I discovered something about Vahl's I never knew before. I had always heard the trains in Alviso, but I never knew that the tracks ran parallel to this restaurant. As Amtrak rolled by, I saw the sign, the building, the street, set among the historic landmarks that surround it in Alviso.

This floodwater dinner house has served the South Bay since 1941--60 years, give or take a few months. Amelia Vahl, the owner, hasn't changed the menu--certainly the prices, but not the old-fashioned continental standards that have wooed duck hunters, fishermen, wood gatherers and everybody else who ever lived in these parts.

Vahl's greatest asset is Amelia herself. Now 95 years old--or is it 96?--she still works the floor almost every night. She remembers details like a hawk. I quizzed her about a certain now-deceased patron and she smiled and said, "Oh, the attorney."

Vahl's has been flooded numerous times. There are photographs of tables bobbing through the dining room, volunteers anchored outside the front door in skiffs. I remember the parrot, Amelia's favorite bird--no longer around because of health department issues. I remember the Royal Squab, the Lobster Thermidor, the steaks, and the martinis at the bar. And the waitresses. The sweetheart dealing plates on my last visit has worked for Amelia for over 35 years, and remembers that attorney as well, and how he used to hunt for ducks along the mudflats and bring them to Vahl's for cooking.

Few restaurants can compare to Vahl's. I've discovered better food north and south, but I'm hard pressed to find such a deliciously nostalgic ambience. Arriving here, it feels as though one has traveled via time machine. Lighting fixtures from the restaurant's heyday remain. The table linen stands out against the pink walls, the floral wallpaper, the red carpeting and the brightly colored drapes. Lunch is a good time to come, when the sun lights this place like a Roman candle.

As we pulled up, sure enough we heard the train. Pope Bob Russell looked at his watch and said, "That's the 7:20 coming through." With it came the rumbling of the rails, brought to us on wings of bay air.

We walked in, reminisced in the bar, then were seated in the dining room. I like to order the complete dinner, which comes with a relish tray of peppers and radishes and thin-sliced salami, plus delicious pickled tongue, and a plate of goofy rainbow colored jello. From there comes the soup of the day--we had a clear broth with noodles--then a salad, and spaghetti with dinner.

Though we didn't order the lamb chops or the steaks this visit, we did enjoy a host of dishes that Vahl's puts out in simple style. One of the specialties of the house remains the Royal Squab ($20), a dainty bird roasted ebony and presented with a wine-infused brown sauce.

We had a delicious Calamari Steak ($18.50), dipped in egg, pan-sautéed golden, served with old-fashioned tartar sauce. I've had better Chicken Cacciatore ($13) recipes, but somehow Vahl's rendition remains one of the most satisfying. It's homestyle--I guess that's it. The tender chicken is cooked through and through with the red sauce, redolent with green pepper. There's plenty of juicy breast meat and bones to pick up with the fingers.

Like the squab and the steaks, lobster, for better or worse, continues to be a specialty. I prefer it broiled ($40), so the natural sweetness can be fully appreciated. But somehow at Vahl's--against my better judgment--I'm always inclined to order the Lobster Thermidor ($40). In this recipe, the crustacean is baked in shell with a spiked Mornay. This visit, I found plenty of lobster chunks, but they were buried under a thick, creamy sauce.

I like to take my time at Vahl's, to surrender to its mystery at a table in the dining room. I watch the people, the waitresses, and Amelia--most of all--as she comes and goes from kitchen to dining room with eyes clear and open, and a smile that snaps darkness in two.

Address: El Dorado and Taylor, Alviso
Phone: 408.262.0731
Hours: Lunch 11:30am-2:30pm Wed-Sun; dinner "Anytime you want it"; closed Mon and Tue
Cuisine: Old-fashioned Continental
Price Range: $13.50-$40. Cash only; no credit cards accepted

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From the December 6-12, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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