Archive for the ‘California’ Category

California Soul: Casa Vicky (SJ)

March 6, 2008

Jamie is always taunting me about these deep fried burritos he gets near his place in downtown San Jose- sounds like the best invention ever, right? (Second to a fried calamari sandwich). So of course he took me to his spot, Casa Vicky, when I got into SJ. It’s literally a little house on the corner of the street. Very unassuming- you walk in, and it’s just super casual, with a glass case filled with fresh baked goods, and another with take home tamales and lots of other goodies. You order up at the register- the walls are pink!

It’s sorta hard to tell in this picture, but they have a tortilla machine! Yes, they make their tortillas in-house- Jamie says that he just gets a bag to go so he can make burritos at home. JEALOUS!

Alright so I had a hard time deciding what to get from their expansive, delicious-looking menu, but in the end, obviously I needed to try this infamous Dorado burrito (deep fried burrito). Of course I got it with pork. This came out- super boring looking, right?

WRONG!!! This burrito was SO EFFING GOOD. Like down and dirty good. Like crack good. Like I’m actually-going-to-do-this good: :-o. (You will NEVER see me do that, except on very special occasions.) But seriously, even this lame emoticon with its jaw dropped could never properly describe how good this burrito was.
I’m a real sauce person, so I needed to put lots of salsa on this- I guess my one request next time would be to get some red sauce or something with it. But the shredded pork (carnitas?), SO tender! Like you know it’s been cooking for days, and it just fell off the bone. And it didn’t taste too piggy despite the fact that it wasn’t all spiced out. The pork was just top notch- definitely the highlight.

Jamie got this shredded chicken dish.

But enough about that- back to my burrito. You get super dirty eating this, I loved it. The burrito oozes with grease as soon as you bite in- I know it sounds nasty, but it was so heavenly! If you look really hard, you can see oil dripping off this thing. SO HOT.

The tortilla was delicious- I have a feeling it just tastes better fried like this. Important: the oil didn’t taste all stale and used. If you’re gonna bite into a greasefest, you want it to be fresh grease at least, right?

The aftermath: my hand was lined with grease- I felt so accomplished. Jamie says that he only eats this with a knife and fork. What’s the fun in that?

The best thing about this burrito is that it was so damn SIMPLE! Homemade tortilla and perfectly cooked pork- just using the best ingredients and putting it together. That’s it people! It ain’t rocket science!

Dude seriously, if I were ever to have a wedding, or a quinceñera, Casa Vicky is so catering it. Couldn’t you just imagine me in a tiara and pouffy purple quinceñera dress with greasy burrito oil stains all over it? Um, I’m 12 years expired, but I think we should still do it.

Casa Vicky
792 E. Julian St. at 17th St.
San Jose, CA
T: 408.995.5488

California Soul: Osteria Mozza (LA)

March 4, 2008

I’m sorta embarrassed to admit it, but seems that I have a Mario Batali obsession. But let me preface this entry by saying that we weren’t even supposed to go to Mozza- we had reservations at Campanile, but my flight got in too late so we had to cancel. Sara said they were being buttholes about canceling- we’re not down with that.

So in the past 6 months, I’ve been to Lupa, Babbo, and I made it to his newest LA haunt, Osteria Mozza with Sara last week. It was, I have to say, a very good meal. I would put Mozza between Lupa and Babbo– it’s more casual than Babbo, in both the atmosphere and the food, and I’m keeping Babbo at the top since it’s the original (need to respect that). That said, we had a well-rounded, well-proportioned meal, and excellent martinis.

Amuse-bouche on the house: ricotta and tapenade bruchetta with slivers of basil. The ricotta was delish.

Had no fucking clue this was going to be a bruschetta, as the mozzarella menu (yes, they have a mozzarella bar!) just said “burrata, bacon and escarole”. They conveniently left out “on bread”, which made this a bit heavy. And the burrata was so creamy and mouthmelting that all the other stuff was a bit excessive. But that’s carmelized onions on top- can’t say no to that.

Dish of the night: Grilled octopus with chives and potatoes. The octopus… so soft… no chewing involved! And the char from the grill- so perfect! And the potats… it all went together so well.
Presentation wise, the dish kinda looks like the sweetbreads I had at Babbo, doesn’t it?

Here it is deconstructed:

Francobolli di Brasato: stamp-shaped ravioli filled with braised beef and thyme. This was absolutely delicious- the beef was super tender, almost mushy (in a good way), and the sauce was soupy, almost gelatinous, like bone marrow almost.

Sara got the mezzaluna ravioli filled with pumpkin. The pic was too bad so I won’t post it, but it was so sweet with its hints of cinnamon and spices.

Interior shots: high ceilings, classic fixtures, a long bar for eating and drinking:

One side of the dining room, with walls filled with wine.

The restaurant is on a pretty busy intersection on Melrose, so the windows overlook a gas station and a shopping center across the street. No romance here. Sorta wished they frosted the windows, but I guess they’re just keeping it real.

I think that Mozza is a nice addition to the LA food scene, in that they’ve established their brand here that’s unique to LA- with the huge space, and partnership with La Brea Bakery’s Nancy Silverton. Can’t get that in NY, that’s for sure.

For nicer pictures, please visit Eat, Drink and Be Merry‘s post on Mozza.

Osteria Mozza
6602 Melrose Ave.

California Soul: Park’s BBQ (LA)

March 3, 2008

Can’t go to LA and not go to Koreatown. Best Korean food ever, and it’s a trip down memory lane for me, cause that’s where we lived for 4 years when my family first moved to the States.

On my friend Jim’s recommendation, Keisuke, Yoskay and I went to Park’s on Vermont. It was late in the afternoon so we missed the lunch rush- the place was virtually empty. Lined with stainless steel hoods above each table, the ceiling beams here were covered with pictures of the owner with K-Pop stars. Nice.
Yoskay and I were sickly, so we got a bunch of soups. Also, we didn’t want to stink of beef, garlic and smoke for the rest of the day, so sadly, we opted out of barbequing. All the dishes were written in Korean, with only the descriptions in English, so I don’t know the names of most these dishes. SORRY.

Assorted banchan. The yellow radishes on the top right corner was very takuan-like (Japanese pickled daikon)- but a little sweeter. The jalapeño peppers were refreshing:

Not too spicy kimchee- very good. You can tell how legit a Korean joint is by their kimchee
Daikon kimchee- my fave:

Seafood pajeon- crispy on the outside, just barely cooked on the inside. One of the best pajeons I’ve ever had, no joke.

Kalbi “stew”- with noodles, enoki mushrooms, napa cabbage, and onions. Simple, flavorful and filling.

Yoskay’s super duper spicy kimchee noodle soup with tofu and veggies. He claims he was able to sweat out his cold with this. His whole mouth was red after eating, it was hilarious.
My bro’s spicy kalbi noodle soup with tofu and potatoes. Genius- the potats were so comforting.
The lunch special, a pork kimchee stew. Only $5!!! The pork just melted in my mouth.
Yongsusan across the street- Sonja went to the one in Seoul a few months back.

Stopped off at Renzo Piano’s new design for the Broad contemporary art collection at LACMA. Here’s a Chris Burden installation out front which was super neat.
Even though we didn’t end up bbqing, at the end of the day Sara still asked me, “did you eat garlic today?” Knew we should’ve just bbqed.

Park’s BBQ
955 S. Vermont Ave.

California Soul: Hot Date with Oishii Eats (LA)

March 1, 2008

In LA, I was finally able to meet up with my personal favorite food blogger, Oishii Eats aka Jeni (I hope her name isn’t a secret). I’m embarrassed to say, but in the overcrowded sea of food blogs, OE is the only one that I consistently keep up with- it’s totally unpretentious, easy to navigate, and the pictures are always stellar. She’s been doing it for 2 years now, alongside her job as a 2nd grade teacher. Cute!

Before our big first date, Jeni suggested I walk to Scoops, an ice cream parlor that she had written about a year ago. I remembered this post, so I started my trek from Sara’s in Silverlake to Scoops.

The ice cream here deserves all the hype– it’s all homemade, very unique flavors, and the texture was like nothing I had ever tasted before. It’s gelato style in it’s creaminess but also airy, even lighter than sorbet. Bizarre, right? It’s so hard to explain! Fantastical flavors include blueberry/coconut, pistachio/lemon, vegan strawberry/balsamic, chai and horchata. Scoops definitely pushes the limits of ice cream flavors.

I got the strawberry/jasmine and jackfruit/kiwi sorbet. Flavor explosion!!! I really loved the jasmine flavor- subtle and refreshing. Pretty ingenious to pair that with the strawberry.

Seems that they’re known for their vegan line- there’s a vegan restaurant across the street, so there were lots of people leaving the restaurant who came over for ice cream.

The Super Scoops Spoon pseudo Calder-mobile!
From here, Jeni picked me up- even though this was our first date, it was as though we had known each other forever, so it was weirdly normal and casual. Like “Hey Jeni, what’s up, take me to tacos pronto.”

We drove a little ways (a few blocks) to the best fish taco. Like literally, the place is called “Best Fish Taco in Ensenada”. Kinda weird, but pretty awesome that this dude would name his joint simply “Best Fish Taco”.

This place opened less than a year ago, in a shared lot with an auto mechanic. So my style! The place is super mellow, with seating inside, as well as picnic tables out front. Thank god for the umbrellas- you know, just another scorching day in February. Jeni confessed that she’s addicted and comes here for her fix at least twice a week.

Dude (seriously, the guy sorta reminded me of The Dude) only has 2 items on the menu: fish tacos for $1.50 and shrimp tacos for $2. Sweet deal.

We got one of each, and horchatas. I guess the dude has a rule about only ordering one taco at a time, so they don’t get soggy. Good lookin out. The fish and shrimps are breaded and fried- Jeni asks for the totillas doradas, so the totillas are crispy.

After you get your tacos, served on square styrofoam plates (like when you buy meat at the grocery store), you go to the salsa bar, where there’s mango salsa, pineapple salsa, spicy, mild, a bowl of cabbage, and as Jeni yelled, “Don’t forget the cream stuff”. I didn’t.

These tacos were THA BOMB. No other real way to describe them. It’s so magical that something as simple as fried shrimp and fish wrapped in a flour tortilla could taste so damn good! The crunch of the batter, the moist, tender heat of the fish and shrimps, the crisp from the cabbage… I could go on and on here.

Fresh horchata!
I’m a total pig and I went in for another shrimp taco. I took my plate with me, cause they encourage you to reuse for Round II. You probably don’t care to see my half-eaten taco, but I can’t not share this heavenly bite:

Can’t vouch for Ensenada, but these fish tacos could very well be a major contender in the fish taco race of LA. If I lived in LA, there is no doubt Jeni and I would meet here everyday for a little afternoon delight (sky rockets in flight).

712 N Heliotrope Dr.

Best Fish Taco in Ensenada
1650 N. Hillhurst Ave.

California Soul: Silverlake Edition (LA)

February 29, 2008

It’s all in the air/ You hear it everywhere
No matter what you do/ It’s gonna grab a hold on you

California soul… California soul…

— Ashford & Simpson

It’s in my bones, I can’t shake it off- California is IN me. Took a week off to attend a wedding in San Francisco, and detoured through sunny LA and San Diego on my way up. It’s been a glorious trip meeting up with old friends, and most importantly, voraciously eating through each day.

My bff Sara lives in Silverlake, in LA, which I absolutely adore. It’s hipster central, but not so annoying– lots of shops and restaurants and cafes that is totally walkable (very rare for LA, or California in general).

Every morning, I walked to a Chicago-based coffee joint called Intelligentsia- an authority on fine coffees and hot baristas. Good coffee, lots of locals, minimal interior and again, hottie central.

Right next to Intell is The Cheese Store of Silverlake, which is a fancy little fine foods shop (lots of imported condiments, chesses, olives and wine), that specialize in making awesome paninis.

Look at this wrapped panini- flat and compact, like a notebook!
Turkey, cranberry, cheese, and some mysterious green oozy stuff. Who you gonna call? C’mon, laugh.
A cup of cornichons
We went to El Conquistador for my first supper- gotta get your Mexican fix as soon as you land in Cali. This place was AWESOME. I stupidly forgot my camera, but the food was satisfying (I had the enchiladas, Sara had the ropa vieja), extremely friendly service, and flamboyantly kitchy decor. You have to go to see exactly what I’m talking about, but trust me, you will have a blast.

I was super skeptical about Pho Cafe: without a sign, overrun with hipsters, and with their orange Ikea chairs. Also, my friend, an LA native, had warned me that any restaurant in LA with an “A” rating is bogus (the LA Dept of Health grades all eateries, “A” obviously being the highest).

Boy, did they prove me wrong though- the food was excellent, the real deal (dare I use the word “authentic”). Worth the 15 minutes we waited for a seat (it seems this place is packed all the time).

Banh xeo: Crepe with shrimp, steak, shiitake mushrooms and bean sprouts

Bun cha gio tom thit nuong: cold rice noodles with egg rolls and beef

Pho tai gan: rice noodle soup with rare steak and tendon. The soup was very flavorful- a little sweet, lots of depth. I didn’t want it to end.

Possibly my absolute favorite part of Silverlake- the 99cent store. The window proudly displayed their offerings ranging from food, toilet paper, foil, to toothpaste. 99cents people!! There were 2 long aisles devoted to food– refrigerators packed with eggs and milk, condiments, dried foods and canned goods. I got Sara an awesome welcome mat here. A welcome mat for 99cents!!! GO NOW!

All the above spots are all within a 5 block radius from one another on Sunset Blvd. Can you imagine not needing a car in LA? All have a pristine view of the iconic Hollywood sign.
3922 Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90029

The Cheese Store of Silverlake
3926-28 West Sunset Blvd.

El Conquistador
3701 West Sunset Blvd.LA, CA

Pho Cafe
2841 West Sunset Blvd.

99cent Store

3600 West Sunset. Blvd.

How I Survived My 65th birthday: Dinner at Chez Panisse!

September 30, 2007

Editor’s note: This post was written in July by the very lovely Jane Stillwater, but got buried in my inbox, and is only now coming to light on UM. She says that they accidentally deleted all their pics, but scroll below for some of Mike and Christi’s feast. Sorry for the delay!!!


Good grief! Who would ever have thought that I would make it all the way to age 65 without accumulating grey hair, arthritis, a walker or a plot in the cemetery. I’m all proud of myself. But just to make sure that this landmark birthday was tolerable and that I didn’t slip into shock anyway, I splurged and treated myself to dinner at one of the best restaurants in the world — Chez Panisse!

Me, my son Joe, his significant other Laura, their unborn Baby New Year and my youngest daughter Ashley all trooped off to the restaurant. Here’s the menu:

Monday, July 2 $50

— Little gems lettuces, golden beets, and house-cured pancetta
with herb vinaigrette
— Poulet à la broche: Soul Food Farm chicken stuffed with garlic
and sage; with green beans, savory, and corn custard
— Royal Blenheim apricot tart with noyau ice cream

My birthday was actually July 1, the beginning of the fiscal year, but they were closed on that day so on July 2, we got all dressed up fancy (I was actually NOT wearing jeans), popped into Joe’s car and drove across town. And what happened next was both magical and weird.

First off, it turns out that we knew the waitress. She had gone to school with my daughter Ashley and they had been in the same school play during sixth grade at Willard Middle School. Then we all gushed about the good old days for a while and how sad it had been when their drama teacher, the wonderful Denise Brown, had died suddenly. Then the waitress brought us shot glasses full of something white and creamy. “What is it?” I asked.

“Cucumber, yogurt, cumin, coriander and olive oil.”

“But what’s that crunchy taste?” Our waitress called over the salad chef to explain it to us. And he actually came to our freaking table!

“It’s konjai — black mustard seeds.” Then we got the actual salad. And we gushed about that. Chez Panisse can make a WICKED salad and they are famous for them — justly so.

“Hey, this stuff on top tastes like bacon bits,” said Ashley. We asked the salad chef what it was.


“What’s that?”

“Bacon bits.” And the baby tomatoes were so actually tomato-ish that it brought back memories of the days when a tomato actually tasted like a tomato. The vinaigrette was excellent. The beets gave it a taste variety. Every salad needs a variety of textures and tastes.

“Hey,” said Joe, “There’s an aphid on my plate!” Then we all took a look at the aphid and sure enough there it was, happily crawling around on the edge of the plate. Joe got out his video camera and videotaped it. Ashley whipped out her cell phone and took its picture. Then we watched it do laps around the edge of the plate. It seemed to want to determinedly trudge on forever but by its third lap we got bored.

Do you think that we should tell the waitress?” I asked.

“No,” replied Joe. “It just proves that the lettuce was organic.”

“Maybe that’s where the crunchy taste came from,” added Ashley. We all rolled our eyes.

Then Joe and I split a glass of excellent red wine. In very fine glassware. “This is is even as good as 2-buck Chuck!” I exclaimed. Laura wanted to taste a sip too but we all yelled “Fetal Alcohol Syndrome!” at her and rolled our eyes. Again. Major eye rolls are a Stillwater family tradition.

“But I only wanted a sip,” said Laura who is actually a totally conscientious pregnant person. Oh, okay. The wine was good and the salad had a good after-taste and the bread was good and the butter was better.

“Do you want still water or sparkling water with your dinner,” asked the waitress.

“Stillwater!” we all replied.

Meanwhile Ashley was eye-ing the steak knife. “This is a really good knife.” But we persuaded her not to steal the silverware. Then they brought us the main course.

“The green beans are perfect and the corn custard is to die for but the chicken is not all that good,” I said.

“Ma, you have been expecting too much from that chicken,” replied Joe philosophically. “That’s just the nature of chicken. It’s hard to mess it up but its also hard to make it really good either. It’s the dynamic, Ma. Chicken can only be taken so far.” Chicken dynamics? Okay. But the sage leaves under the skin gave it lots of flavor and the sauce was good. Chicken dynamics?

In the meantime, Ashley was DETERMINED to try to eat her drumstick with her new friend the knife. But not me. I wanted easy access to every bite of that chicken. This was a fifty-dollar chicken! To hell with the knife.

“Would you like coffee or sherry with your dessert?” asked our waitress. Do you have to pay extra for it? “Yes.” Sigh. I bet they make really good coffee but we were already over the budget on the wine. And Ashley then informed us that 10% of everything we drink gets backwashed. Eeuuww.

Ah! The dessert. With a candle in mine to celebrate my birthday. I made my usual wish, the old Buddhist favorite, “May all beings attain the Pure Land in this lifetime.” Apricot tart. Handmade ice cream. Yes yes yes. Then, for a thoughtful final touch, the waitress brought us a small plate of wild strawberries and pistachios rolled in cocoa paste. We almost ate them all up before we remembered to get a photo of them. The bill came to $263 but we had saved up. You only turn 65 once.

“So. Guys. Which was your favorite part of the meal?” I asked. “I truly loved the salad and thought it was the highlight — with the possible exception of the aphid.”

“Why you all the time hatin’ on the aphid!” said Ashley. Her favorite part was the salad too. Everyone agreed that the salad was primo.

“And I liked the tart,” added Joe. “It had a good aftertaste.” And just as we were walking down the steps to the garden in front of Chez Panisse, our waitress came running after us and gave us all a hug. “Happy birthday!” It was the perfect ending to a perfect birthday dinner. And as we left, a fire truck and ambulance came roaring out of the night and parked next to the restaurant. “Do you think they are going to Chez Panisse?” I asked.

“If they are”, someone replied, “that would be giving a whole new meaning to the term ‘food to die for’!” We all laughed. The food had certainly been heavenly. Except for the chicken. But Shhh! Don’t tell Joe.

Editor’s note (again): These pictures below are of Merriberry’s trek to Chez Panisse last month. They got to go back into the kitchen- which Christi says was the highlight of the meal for both of them. These photos were taken on Mike’s iPhone, in case you were curious about the phone’s picture-taking quality.

Bruschetta with mozzarella, beans, roasted peppers and tomatoes

Squash blossom ravioli in broth
Roasted lamb with corn relish and fried artichoke hearts

The meat locker!

Pastry chefs preparing the night’s fig tarts. Sorry no pics of those!

San Francisco Sourdough

September 14, 2007

Back from the Bay Area, where I ate pretty well (Sushi Kuni, Scoma’s, MacArthur Park, Dynasty), but here’s what I trekked all the way back to New York with:

How ecstatic was I to find a Boudin Bakery INSIDE the United terminal at SFO? Boudin is the essence of San Francisco– it’s the best damn sourdough in the world! Since 1849! For whatever reason, NY has no good sourdough ANYWHERE. God, I actually can’t even remember the last time I had it… Look at this, it’s beautiful!

Such a hard and crunchy crust, perfectly golden. It’s actually a rather dense, more doughy bread, almost moist, just faintly sour, never overly tangy or anything.

I picked up a few things at the store- hummus, goat cheese, salami, a tomato, clam chowder, and had a feast with my coworkers. Nothing like sharing a loaf of love from San Francisco!

"Expect the Best": My New Mantra

June 24, 2007

By Jane Stillwater

I was raised in the most Republican town in Northern California. Very early on in life I learned to always expect the worst. And guess what? The worst always arrived — like clockwork.

Now I’ve gots a new view on life — “Expect the best!” That’s the new me. Do we have the most corrupt group of people in the history of the United States camping out in our White House? Does a man whose campaign contributions come from “Vulture Fund” beneficiaries and war profiteers sit in our Oval Office, gleefully wringing his blood-covered hands? Not to worry. Americans aren’t dummies. Sooner or later they throw crooks in jail. “Expect the best!”

The State Department is keeping me from embedding as a progressive journalist in Iraq. Heck, this might be a good thing. Who needs to go over there anyway? It’s hot and dusty and if I want to watch pathological killers blowing everything up, I can do that at the local cine-plex for only five dollars (I get the senior discount). “Expect the best!”

I live in a housing co-op that’s run by a bunch of self-interested schmucks whose only goal in life appears to be to see how many of their relatives they can move in illegally. And because I’m a whistle-blower, they keep doing nasty things to me and it looks like it’s only gonna get worse. “Expect the best, Jane.” Yeah, right. But what if the schmucks and me meet over tea and they offer to give up their greedy ways and we patch things up? Hey, it could happen.

I gotta start imagining that good things can come my way and not just catastrophes. We can stop global warming. We can stop war. America CAN have better education and healthcare. People CAN get along. “Expect the best!”

So. Where does the sushi and chocolate come in? Good things are also happening to one of my daughters. After graduating from high school, she floundered around a lot — many young people do. But now she’s got her own apartment and a new job! I’m so proud of her. I gotta admit that I had expected the worst — but now look at her! Hurray! And, even better, my daughter now works with food. “If you come over, I’ll give you a free sample,” she said last night. What can be better than that?

It turns out that my daughter works in a delightful little secluded indoor alleyway in North Berkeley’s “Gourmet Ghetto” — three doors down from Chez Panisse, only not that expensive. Let me take you on a tour.

Located at 1611 Shattuck Avenue, its entrance is innocuous. If you didn’t know it was there, you might miss it. “OMG, look!” I exclaimed. “Kirala has a carry-out place!” The best sushi bar in Berkeley has just gone on-commando. Sushi-to-go! And bento boxes too. And udon.

Then there’s Soop, a specialty food bar featuring soups made right on the premises and served with a chunk of warm buttered corn bread. “Our soups are completely organic,” the counter person told me, “except for the onions. We can’t seem to get enough organic onions.” Good to know.

Next comes Picoso, a small kitchen alcove that sells Mexican food with hand-made salsa. “And they make their own guacamole,” my daughter whispered in awe.

Then there’s a gelato counter named Ciao Bella that offers a whole rainbow of gelato flavors. I tried a scoop of their chocolate jalapeno and my friend Abhi tried their pistachio. Delicious. And the young lady behind the counter was very cheerful and helpful and funny. I left a whole quarter in her tip jar — I was that impressed.

And way in the rear of this delightful food-court wannabe is a tiny little cubby that sells the best chocolate in the world, called Alegio. “Ours actually IS free-trade chocolate,” said the proud proprietor. “Would you like to try some of this dark chocolate imported from a co-op farm off the coast of West Africa?” Would I!

“Expect the best.”

The whole alleyway smelled totally wonderful. Rich aromas battered my senses. Hey. Forget about blogging my poor fingers to the bone and substitute teaching at juvenile hall for a living. I wanna work HERE.

After you mix and match your meal from the menus of the various shops, you can carry it up some stairs in the back, to a small outdoor garden with picnic tables and a waterfall. At one table, I found a family of five happily eating their dinner. “We come here often,” said the dad. “For perhaps $15 you can get a healthy gourmet meal and dessert plus a magical place to eat it in.”

Oops, I almost forgot. Up above the waterfall is an old-fashioned Chinese tea shop called the Imperial Tea Court, modeled after the kind that Chinese poets used to frequent back in the day. they sell freshly-made noodles and every kind of tea. “And be sure to say that the noodles are hand-made,” my daughter informed me.

“Expect the best.”

The people who run these shops are mostly small-business owners, taking a chance on the American economy because they love to make and sell food — and chocolate. I hope their efforts succeed.

My son and his significant other are expecting a baby on January 1 — so 2008 looks like it’s going to be a good year too. And I turn 65 in two weeks. You know what that means — cheaper transportation rates, senior benefits and Medicare! Plus maybe we’ll finally get a president in the White House who actually cares about America and not just about pulling off the biggest heist in the history of the planet.

Things are going to be okay. “Expect the best!”

PS: I really don’t eat all that much chocolate any more. Since I started my new high-fiber diet, I’ve noticed that my legendary craving for sugar has gone way, way down. But unfortunately there’s no fiber in chocolate. But maybe they could start making chocolate-covered salad? Chocolate-covered roast beef? Chocolate-covered All-Bran!

Sushi Kuni Restaurant

June 18, 2007

Whenever I visit my hometown, Cupertino, CA (home of the beloved Macintosh computer), the first thing that I do, before I even go home, is stop off at Sushi Kuni Restaurant. In my five years in NY, I haven’t found a place that compares to the comfort, the authenticity (I hate to say that word, but you know what I mean), the freshness, the consistency, and the value of Sushi Kuni. It’s the REAL DEAL. Truly.

Sushi Kuni opened in 1995, and is located right down the street from Apple HQ. Formerly a little house-turned deli (I heard that the folks at Apple calls this place “the House”), this place only seats 13 people at the sushi bar and has only 7 tables (about 5 years ago they built a tatami room in the back for small parties). I went during lunch two days in a row, and it was pretty packed. I asked Kuni (founder, proprietor, chef; below left) how business was and he said it’s “too busy.” Ha! It really was though– there were people waiting for a table out front by 12:30pm.

Kuni, short for Kunio, is a classically trained tempura chef who worked at one of the most prestigious restaurants in Japan, Inagiku. He was transferred to LA to work for the restaurant there, and pursued a career in sushi when moving to the Bay Area in 1984, when sushi was just barely beginning to make a dent in America’s culinary landscape. Can you imagine life before sushi???

You see, it’s only Kuni and Steve (above right) behind the bar– when it gets really busy, it’s pretty amazing to watch the speed in which they slice the fabulous selection of sashimi to create such colorful, dazzling dishes. But they are never too busy to talk to the customers– they love to chat! Kuni loves to talk about the fish (he always has fish specials that aren’t necessarily on the menu, so make sure to ask what they are)– what region the fish is from, when they are in season, how best they are served. He’s an encyclopedia of fish.

Ok so the food: the first thing I ordered was of course the chirashi sushi. Assorted sashimi over rice– it is always super fresh and truly one of my favorite all-time meals. It’s just so simple and delicious! There’s ikura, maguro, hamachi, unagi, ika, tamago, ika, tako, ebi… all over a bed of Kuni’s nicely vinegary (but not too much) rice. It’s genius, if you ask me. With a bowl of miso soup at $13, it’s truly a good deal.

Kuni hooked me up with a few pieces of ‘hotaru ika‘ (below), also called ‘firefly squid’, which were on the special menu. These are tiny little whole squids (only about two inches long), that are slimy goodness very flavorful and truly delicious. I am just reading that they light up blue when migrating in the ocean!

If Kuni is the more straightforward, traditional sushi chef, Steve is the funkier counterpart who always brings in new “fusion” creations that are a huge hit with the experimental, cosmopolitan crowd. He used to work at Wolfgang Puck’s place in Vegas, so he’s quite the hipster chef himself.

This was avocado, snow crab and shrimp grilled in Steve’s special basil-mayo sauce. Superb!

Steve plopped this little cup of delight in front of me as a surprise– it’s his rendition of Hawaii’s poki!!! YUMMY! Tuna, scallions and tobiko, in a tangy ponzu sauce. So good!

The bento box during lunch is about the cheapest meal you can possibly imagine. For $7.50, you get your choice of two items (tempura, sashimi, sushi, gyoza, and chicken/beef/salmon teriyaki), rice, salad and miso soup. Friggin ridiculous. My personal favorites are the pan-fried gyoza (Japanese style pork dumplings) and the tempura– the tempura batter is crispy, never soggy or too eggy, and each delicious gyoza is handmade with love by Sushi Kuni’s other half, Hideko, in the kitchen.

Hideko (below) is Kuni’s wife– she and Victor make everything on the menu that is not done behind the sushi bar. So basically, all the hot food. They cook all the Japanese restaurant standards like teriyaki, tempura and nabeyaki udon (another favorite), and Hideko also is the brains behind countless other “authentic” Japanese dishes that are on a seperate, special menu. Little dishes like ‘kinpira gobo’ (sauteed burdock root) and ‘nasu no nanbanzuke’ (eggplant in a vinegar soy sauce) will immediately make you feel like you are hanging out at an izakaya in Tokyo.

Incidentally, Kuni also has a license to slice and serve blow fish– I think he told me once that he took the blow fish test at the famed Tsukiji Market in Tokyo. Remember that Simpson’s episode where Homer almost dies when he’s served bad blow fish? While that episode is not in any way a reflection of Kuni’s mad skills, I always do think of it when I see his certificate on the wall. Hilarious.

Last but not least, let me comment that Kuni’s spicy tuna roll is the best in the WORLD. My brother and I have had spicy tunas far and wide, and nothing has compared to Kuni’s creation. What could it possibly be? Is it the Kewpie mayo? The green onions? The special spicy sauce? Whatever it may be, it is heavenly. Look, it’s pink! So pretty!

In the last 12 years, Sushi Kuni has changed little, but has blossomed into a thriving neighborhood restaurant that is truly a Japanese food destination in the Bay Area. The place has a really loyal following, and the customers all know Kuni and Steve and talk to each other– when I was just there, I ran into fellow Sushi Kuni lovers that I hadn’t seen in years, and we ended up chatting for a while. It’s like Cheers, but a Japanese restaurant- it’s so nice! The place is comfortable, reasonably priced, not ever pretentious, friendly, and the food is always fresh, consistent and just really solid, delicious Japanese food. Don’t just take my word for it– try it for yourself! *k*

Sushi Kuni Restaurant
10211 South De Anza Blvd.
Cupertino, CA 95014
(408) 257-5864
Closed Sundays

I have a confession to make: Kuni is also my pops! Biggest shill EVER! I didn’t mean to be tricky, but I didn’t want this to be overtly biased given that this is the family restaurant. But really, I’m not just saying all this because my parents run it– it really is a great little place.

He and my mom (Hideko) have poured endless amounts of love, time and energy into Sushi Kuni, and I am so so proud of them both. This is essentially where me and my brother grew up– I was forced to waitress there EVERY SATURDAY NIGHT for ALL FOUR YEARS of high school (you know what that does to a teenage girl who is trying desperately to be cool?? Forget about trying to sneak into San Jose State parties for a night of underage drinking). My brother was forced to work in the kitchen when his delinquency started getting out of hand and my parents thought it would be the best way to keep an eye on him. Oh, and look at us now… Good times.

Despite the grueling long hours (he gets in at 10am, and generally doesn’t leave until 1am– but he does get to sneak a nap in there for about an hour), Kuni has a wry sense of humor and has aged little since the restaurant first opened 12 years ago. He also loves a cold glass of beer and is also quite the sake connoisseur so be sure to offer him some of yours when you are sitting at the bar. He’ll drink you under the table. And my mom will drink HIM under the table!

Happy Father’s Day とうち!!! You are the BEST!

When in Monterey…

May 4, 2007

I’m from Monterey, California (home of the world-famous — and deservedly so — Monterey Bay Aquarium) which is one of the most beautiful places on earth (the breathtaking landscape was featured in Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo), but the problem with the beautiful places on earth are that they are usually turned into tourist traps — everything is outrageously overpriced and cheesy. Same goes with the restaurants. There is no lack of fancy schmancy dining on the peninsula, but like most fancy restaurants, you are paying for the attitude or the view, and not the quality of the food.

If you ever find yourself in Monterey, California, and want a great meal, I would strongly urge you to skip the Fresh Cream, Sardine Factory, Fandango, and Anton & Michel’s (all of which are the kinds of places kids go on prom night) and head to NaRa Korean Retaurant in downtown Monterey (420 Tyler St). My mom and I always eat here whenever I visit her — at least once, and sometimes twice per visit! OK, so it’s not an all-out Korean BBQ place where you grill at your table, but they cover all the basics and they do it well. Bulgoki, Jap Chae, Bibimbop, Sundubu — all solid — complete, of course with all the kimchi and other appetizers.

The most amazing dishes, though, are the two sea bass ones — which, due to recent hikes in sea bass prices, they did not have for the last year or so. But serendipitously, when I was home just a couple weeks ago, they DID have the sea bass! Here is the Grilled Sea Bass:

It’s grilled with this viscous spicy-sweet sauce made from daikon and chilis, served with healthy slices of zucchini and daikon. Totally delectable. We also got the Spicy Sea Bass Soup, which is like a kimchi jige except with luscious chunks of sea bass, and the Japchae, a great standard noodle dish. (I just realized all my photos are blurry so I’m not uploading the others… sux) It’s totally a cozy place that prioritizes food over decor (they put tennis balls on the feet of the chairs to prevent scratches on the lino floor, and there’s a gigantic plasma TV usually on CNN). I don’t think anything on the menu is priced over $20 — this homey place is a favorite among the locals, and is usually packed with language student-soldiers from the Defense Language Institute practicing their Hangul.

So if you’re ever planning a trip down (or up) the coast, here’s a suggested itinerary: hit the Aquarium and work up your appetite for seafood before heading over to Nara. (And then later you may want to relax in the hot springs at Esalen and get a seaside massage!!)