Monthly Archives: September 2013

Looking for the Ultimate Bay Area Pumpkin Patch? Look to Uesugi Farms.

When you think of Northern California, there are some pretty distinct images that may come to mind:  the Golden Gate Bridge, Napa Wineries, Canary Row, San Francisco.  However, the vast majority of people would never imagine a farm.  And yet large swathes of the greater Bay Area are given to farmland.  Fresh, organic produce is a “thing” up here for a reason, even if we forget how close it is most of the time.  Today, I stopped by a genuine, classic farm that is one of the few that would be at home in the Midwest:  Uesugi Farm’s Pumpkin Patch.

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Far more than the average corner lot covered with straw and pumpkins, Uesugi Farm is a one-stop shop for all of your family-friendly Halloween needs, complete with decorations, corn mazes, hay rides, even a pumpkin chucker…and of course, lots of pumpkins.

The Winners for Largest Pumpkins

The Winners for Largest Pumpkins

The attractions were actually quite good.  The pumpkin chucker resembled a massive canon and seemed to have the power of one.  It claims to send the pumpkins to their doom at over 90 miles-per-hour, and I don’t doubt them.  Those pumpkin grenades were lethal.  Needless to say, their line was one of the longest on the farm.

The corn maze was quite impressive as well.  Two acres in size, it actually took us at least 20 minutes to get through even with our trivia guide.  We thought it was pretty clever that you could choose trivia on different subjects to point you through the maze, even if it didn’t actually help navigate that much.

Traversing the Corn Maze

Traversing the Corn Maze

However, my favorite part of the pumpkin patch was the pumpkins themselves.  Most commercialized pumpkin patches do pumpkin sales as more of a side business, and they are inevitably over-priced.  Not here.  The selection was vast, and the prices were very reasonable even before you take into account their 2-for-1 deal on all normal pumpkins.  It was almost worth the gas out there to save (at least) $13 on our 2 large and beautiful pumpkins.

Our Pumpkins

Our Pumpkins

When I was a kid, I loved our pumpkin patch.  Though in the midst of the Southern California suburbs, it had lots of activities, great pumpkins, and a truly authentic feel.  Although it has since turned into a Walgreens, I think of it often when October roles around and often find myself looking for another like it.  Uesugi Farm gave me hope that my kids may yet build memories as fond as I have of my pumpkin patch.

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Categories: Bay Area, Bay Area Day Trips, Local Travel, Northern California | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Aqui: Great for Fusion Mexican or a Cheap Buzz

The Bay Area is expensive.  We all know and loathe this, but it is a fact of life.  Everything is more expensive here, but perhaps nothing tops the overpriced list quite like drinks.

Based on personal experience, I’d say paying $8 – $10 for a cocktail is average around these parts, and that gets expensive really fast.  That is why I find Aqui so exciting.  Paying $6.50 for a margarita swirl is a steal around here.  And this is not one of those mini cocktails that you finish in three sips.  These drinks really are industrial strength; if I am going to drive, I cannot have even one.  Yet even with the copious amounts of alcohol, they are super tasty with lots of fruity goodness.

The food is less cheap but still reasonable and delicious.  Aqui calls itself Cal-Mex cuisine, but it is really Mexican fusion in every possible sense.  I’ve had Indian-inspired dishes (which were fabulous!), Thai burritos, and flautas served with barbeque sauce.  Some things work better than others, but on the whole, the mixes truly evoke the best of both worlds.  Being a guacamole connoisseur, I cannot visit without getting the Avocado Dip which answers the age old question, “Salsa or guacamole,” with a resounding “Both!”  The only thing lacking in the food area is a dearth of chips.  Despite having a lovely salsa bar, they want you to actually pay for chips.  I’ve talked my way into getting a small bowl a few times, but I wouldn’t count on that.

As for ambience, Aqui is a “pay when you order then find a table” kind of restaurant.  It still has a sit-down feel, but it can get really crowded, especially the one in Campbell.  You may have to wait for a table before you order, and since there are no hosts, you end up fighting for one yourself.  It’s annoying.  However, if you do not go during peak hours, you should be fine, and they do have a bar if you just want a drink and don’t want to wait for it.

Aqui is a great casual dining spot whether you want to get drunk on the cheap or try a new kind of Mexican food.  Just remember to be responsible with your drinks.  They really do pack quite a punch!

UPDATE:  Of course, once I decide to write about their super cheap drinks, Aqui decides to raise their prices. Even so, $8 for what you get in these swirls is really reasonable for the alcohol content and delicious flavor.

Categories: Bay Area, Food, Local Travel, Northern California, Restaurants, San Jose | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Patxi’s: The Ultimate Californian Chicago-Style Pizza

I am not a big fan of deep dish pizza.  Give me an ultra-thin crust California-style pizza any day, and I will be super happy, but deep dish is generally a bit much for me.

Naturally, my husband is from Chicago and thus deep dish is ingrained in his DNA.  Chicagoans generally spurn all Chicago-style pizza that is not made in their hometown, and the search for good deep dish in California can be grueling.  Fortunately, Patxi’s Pizza is there to help.

Daniel assesses that Patxi’s Pizza is likely the most authentic Chicago-style pizza he has had in California.  I am inclined to agree.  We love Zachary’s in Berkeley, but it’s a lighter deep dish that isn’t really Chicago-style.  Chicago likes its pizza to be extra filling in every sense of the word.  Patxi’s definitely fulfills that requirement–I was done after one slice, classic Chicago-style–but doesn’t make you want to split your stomach open after, a quality found in only the best Chicago pizzerias.

Not My Best Camerawork, but the Pizza Was Tasty

Not My Best Camerawork, but the Pizza Was Tasty

At the same time, the ingredients in Patxi’s pizzas feel really fresh which keeps the slice from seeming so heavy you won’t be able to eat again for a week.  The peppers and onions in our pizza were cooked but maintained just the right amount of crunchiness.  Both of us were impressed by the sauce.  Sweet and savory at once, the unique flavor had a surprising yet pleasant tanginess that made the pizza interesting without overdoing it.  The crust was crispy and clearly very bad for you.  Doesn’t get more authentic than that.

Patxi's Has a Rather Stark, Modern Atmosphere

Patxi’s Has a Rather Stark, Modern Atmosphere

Despite my anti-deep dish persuasion, I enjoyed our pizza.  Having those crispy veggies and that tangy sauce made the pizza a bit lighter and thus a bit more manageable for me.  However, it still rang true to the deep dish name which is important for my husband, and I liked that too.  Honestly, I liked it better than most pizzas I’ve had in Chicago.

So if you want an authentic Chicago-style pizza experience, Patxi’s is the place for you.  And if you’re from Chicago, I’d love to get your opinion.

Categories: Bay Area, Food, Northern California, Restaurants, San Jose | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Winchester Mystery House

The Winchester Mystery House on a Perfectly Spooky Rainy Day

The Winchester Mystery House on a Perfectly Spooky Rainy Day

Despite living very close to the Winchester Mystery House, San Jose’s only real tourist attraction and the most haunted place in California according to many, I had not been since we moved here until today. This is greatly owing to the fact that I visited while in college and found the experience lacking.  Still, it just didn’t seem right to leave this nearby landmark unexplored during our residency.

My first piece of advice while visiting is not to bring your 3-month-old.  Those pesky spirits were not good to little Zoe, and my poor friend had to duck into many a room to comfort her as we went along.

My second word of guidance is to just give into the cost.  Coupons are hard to find (at least coupons worth bothering with), and there really is no denying that the Winchester House is overpriced.  It’s either worth it to you or it’s not.

If you’re on the fence, it’s probably not worth it.  The house is cool, but the cost is pretty exorbitant for what you get.

However, if this is a place you want to see, it is pretty cool.  Speaking as one who loves all things supernatural, I could have done with more history of the hauntings associated with this house, but even though the tour concentrates more on the house and Mrs. Winchester, it’s pretty creepy.  I am thoroughly convinced that if I had gotten lost from the tour, I would not have been able to escape without walking out a door to nowhere.

Sarah Winchester was the widow of William Winchester, one of the makers of the Winchester rifle, when she started building the house.  Despite her vast piles of money, her life was not a happy one.  Her only child died in infancy, and she was widowed long before her own death, cursed to spend the rest of her days alone.  After losing her daughter and husband, she consulted a psychic about her misfortunes and was told she was troubled by the spirits of the many, many people killed by the Winchester rifle.  The psychic told her to build a house that would never be finished, and thus began the Winchester Mansion.

Meant to confuse and appease spirits at once, the house was under construction from its beginnings until Mrs. Winchester died in 1922.  She made the plans for its construction herself and was very involved in the building process.  The result is an unfinished house with staircases that lead nowhere, doors that open onto twelve foot drops, staircases made for hobbits (small ones), and a labyrinthine series of passages that I imagine confused the hell out of her servants.

Entering the Winchester House is like stepping into an old Victorian house that went through World War II.  Since it is unfinished, many a room looks…wrong.  The house is so ornate, but the unfinished rooms show piping or the interior of the wall, almost like the world’s tiniest warehouse.  Juxtapose that with the gorgeous ballrooms, fireplaces, and stained glass windows that could easily be found in a European mansion, and you really lose a sense of where you are.  The house really is a maze too.  Some rooms have four exits but only one entrance, some closets open onto walls while others have secret doors to other rooms, and some doors have no purpose whatsoever.  Even paying double the going rate, I’m surprised Mrs. Winchester was able to keep the house staffed.

Mrs. Winchester Was a Fan of Stained Glass Windows

 Outside, the house is much more normal.  It’s huge, and it’s very tasteful.  The gardens are well groomed and filled with roses and statues.  You would never know how crazy the house is inside just by looking at it.

Despite the Weird House, the Grounds Are Quite Nice

I’m glad I went on this tour.  I still think it’s overpriced, but it is an interesting bit of history that you just won’t get anywhere else.  It’s also an amazing look at what endless amounts of money can do for you, especially if you are an eccentric old lady.  Few places on the west coast offer more history or such a refined abode.  It is one of the rare quirks that makes San Jose interesting.

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Categories: Bay Area, Bay Area Day Trips, Local Travel, Northern California, San Jose | 2 Comments

Time to Stomp on the Grapes

There is no time quite like fall at a winery.  The grapes are ripe and being harvested.  New wines are revealed.  All around you, the leaves are changing in a display worthy of a state with actual seasons.

Fall is a great time to settle down with a nice cup of red and start preparing for winter.  It is also a great time to check out winery events!

If you have money to spare, and you are looking for a fall winery party, I would check out V. Sattui’s Crush Party.  Alas, I do not have money to spare, so I cannot go nor have I been in the past, but it looks like a lot of fun.  They take you through the wine production process with a good, old-fashioned grape crushing…with your bare feet.  There’s really nothing quite like people telling you it’s OK to squish a giant vat of grapes by stomping on them.

Watch and tell me this doesn’t look like a ton of fun:

Fall also means passport days are upon us!  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the awesomeness that is winery passport days, this is the time when you can try any winery you choose for a flat rate.  Wineries that generally do not do tastings are open and all sorts of special stuff can be found like barrel tastings and food pairings and vineyard tours and unique wines not generally available to the public.  Passports are split up by region, so take a look at where your favorite wineries are and mark your calendars!

Around these parts, we have…

Santa Clara Valley                        October 5 – 6                        $30
Santa Cruz Mountains                  November 16                        $45
Napa and Sonoma also have a continual passport deal.  For details, see sonomapassport.com and napavalleypassport.com.

Harvest Festivals abound this time of year as well in all parts of wine country.  The big wineries all have their own, but check out these to see a bunch of wineries at once:

The Sonoma County Harvest Fair encompasses three days worth of wine tastings from over 150 wineries, complete with food, demonstrations, seminars, and a FREE grape stomping competition.

If you’re looking for something a little more wine-centric, Reserve Sonoma Valley offers special peeks at wineries generally closed to the public along with food pairings and winery tours.

Of course, there are tons more harvest and fall events all across Northern California, so be sure to check with favorite vineyards for their festivals.  Which fall wine events are you favorites?

Categories: Bay Area, Bay Area Day Trips, Food, Local Travel, Napa, Northern California, Santa Clara Valley, Santa Cruz Mountains, Sonoma, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sabieng Thai Cuisine: Go, Go Now, and Be Happy

Never have I had such good Thai food in such a nice setting as at Sabieng.  This pleasant sit-down restaurant has amazing food at almost unbelievable prices.

Everything we tried was exceptional.  The curries are abundantly flavorful with a smooth yet hearty texture.  Your meal comes with a coconut milk soup which is surprisingly awesome.  Almost like a curry, you can taste the coconut milk.  It is spiced in a way I would not expect to be delicious, but it really is.  Dessert was fantastic too.  We had fried bananas with coconut ice cream, and the combination was perfect.  We were fighting for the last bite.

Panang Curry
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With such a high food quality, you would expect this place to be expensive.  If not that, you would think it would at least be on par with the average Thai food restaurant.  But it’s not.  It’s cheaper.  You will mostly likely pay $9 for dinner, and their lunch specials are fantastic.  $6.50 will get you any entree plus soup, and these meals are still big.  You will undoubtedly be full when you’re done.  Even drinks and desserts are pretty cheap.  With friend bananas and ice cream at a mere $4, you should definitely save room.  I don’t know how they do it.  Honestly, I’m a little freaked out that they can.  Where are they sacrificing?  It doesn’t seem to be in the quality of the food.

Nor is it the atmosphere.  While the ambience is not as exceptional as everything else about Sabieng, it is still a very pleasant place to sit and eat.  The tables and chairs are comfortable, and the restaurant is decorated by statues and pictures.  You definitely get a nice dining experience.

I am not sure how this restaurant is able to combine spectacular food, pleasant atmosphere, and such low prices, but I’m not going to question it.  Next time you’re in Santa Cruz, I would definitely recommend stopping by.  And then go to Donnelly Chocolates down the street for second dessert.

Categories: Food, Local Travel, Northern California, Restaurants, Santa Cruz | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Storrs Winery: Pleasantly Surprising in Every Way

Whilst in Santa Cruz, the husband suggested we do some wine tasting.  You can perhaps imagine my reaction.  It was somewhere in the vicinity of “OK!”  And so I perused my Santa Cruz Mountains wine guide for a promising-looking tasting room and came upon Storrs.

Storrs is one of those rare local wineries whose products I have seen in abundance in local stores.  In fact, they have their own little section in the World Market next to my work.  Because I always enjoy knowing what I’m buying, I figured I’d give them a try.

I was pleasantly surprised.  Since they are in my local shop, I wasn’t expecting the highest quality, but we liked just about everything we tried.  The Sauvignon Blanc was crisp and clear if a touch too grassy.  We both agreed that the Zinfandel was divine, and I liked the light yet flavorful Santa Cruz Mountain Pinot Noir as well as the Grenache, notable because I’m usually not a Grenache fan.  However, the bottle we went home with was the Riesling which was light yet sweet with a hint of bubbles.  I cannot tell you how exciting it was to get to try a Riesling.  Riesling is probably my favorite varietal, but it just doesn’t grow very well around here, so very few wineries have one, and not only getting to try one but having it be good enough to buy made me almost giddy.

Perhaps the most pleasant part of our wine tasting experience was how reasonably priced the wines were.  Our Riesling was a mere $16, and most of the wines cost around $20 which is low for this region and quality. I would absolutely consider buying several of them at World Market, and with a sale, I could even afford it.

Our pourer was pretty cool too.  She was very nice, easy to chat with, let us try quite a few wines, and let us do both of our tastings free even though we only bought one bottle.  I would definitely go back.

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Categories: Northern California, Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz Mountains, Wine | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Becoming the Fish

Growing up in Southern California, I loved the beach.  My parents used to say I was a fish I spent so much time in the ocean.  I loved the sun and the surf, and as I grew older, that love only grew stronger.  Naturally, I have never lived anywhere as warm since going off to college.

Northern California has beaches.  Some of them even have sand.  But they’re not really what you’d call swimmable.  The water is perfectly all right most places, but it’s cold.  Really cold.  As in “I need a wetsuit” cold.  Sometimes even “I need a dry suit” cold or “let’s call the whole thing off” cold.

So of course I’ve been trying to swim in it ever since arriving in Berkeley at the age of 17 (i.e. a long time ago).  While there, it was basically hopeless.  The only beaches remotely near Berkeley were in San Francisco and Marin, and it was so cold up there I shouldn’t even have bothered.

However, since moving to San Jose, the closest beach has been Santa Cruz, and this is where I pinned my hopes.  It gets sunny in Santa Cruz.  I wouldn’t say it gets warm, but it does at least progress to “not cold” occasionally, and the water is a touch warmer than the surrounding areas.  Thus, I made it my goal to go swimming in these frigid waters if it killed me (which was always a possibility).

Easier said than done.  I could have just donned my wetsuit and gone in that way, but I was determined to swim without it at least once if only to prove it could be done.

I started small, braving the cool air enough to get in a bathing suit and wade in.  It took a whole summer for me to get past my knees, but finally I made it in to the hips.  Alas, there I was stuck.

You see, I could have just plucked up my courage and ran for it, jumped in, then run back out again.  I’ve done that sort of thing before.  Once on a family vacation, my brother and I jumped in a 39 degree hotel pool–in the rain–before running out screaming to the jacuzzi.  This was different.  The most difficult part of my task here was not getting in the ocean, but enjoying it, even if it was just a little bit.

For me, this experiment to see whether I could swim in Northern California became rather a test to see if I could see myself living in Northern California permanently.  That’s not to say I even think that will happen, but it’s certainly possible, and I really just can’t live here forever if I can’t go swimming.  And there is no point to going swimming if you can’t enjoy it.

It took two-and-a-half years for me to get in over my head, but this last Monday, I finally succeeded in actually swimming, sans wetsuit, in the Pacific Ocean off Santa Cruz.  It didn’t last long, but I did get a kind of sick pleasure from finally accomplishing this eight year long goal.

And it actually wasn’t that bad once I was in the water.  It took me a long time to work up to it, going in to my knees, then my thighs, my waist, and finally the whole Nicole.  But once I was under, I managed to swim a bit without wanting to kill myself, and it was all right as long as I kept moving.

Until it wasn’t.  When I got out, I tried to stick around for a bit, but as I huddle in my towel, I realized that wasn’t going to happen.  The cold went bone deep and stayed there until we had driven back to San Jose, and I had spent a long time in a very hot shower.

Still, I did it.  I proved I could swim in Northern California waters and not be completely miserable.  On a day when it’s 90 degrees in San Jose, has been for the past four days, and the ocean has had the entire summer to warm up.  Woot.

Now the real question is can I do it again?

Categories: Bay Area Day Trips, Local Travel, Northern California, Santa Cruz | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Donnelly Chocolates: the Best $5 You’ll Ever Spend on Caramel

It was a dark and stormy night the first time I entered Donnelly Chocolates.  Well, all right, it was a pretty average night.  Probably actually a rather nice night.  But it was night anyway.  I was on my way home from Santa Cruz and definitely not looking for a chocolate shop.  Still, Donnelly caught my eye, and, well, I don’t often say no to chocolate, so I stopped.

Oh how glad I am that I did, for inside this little shop was a whole new world of chocolates.

Immediately upon entering, Richard Donnelly himself offered us some samples.  That was all it took.  My husband summed up the experience rather nicely:  “If you do not want to spend (at least) $5 on a chocolate-covered caramel, WHEN HE OFFERS YOU A TASTE, YOU SHOULD SAY NO!”  Once you’ve tried it, walking away isn’t an option.

I cannot even begin to put into words what makes these chocolates so special.  Obviously, they are made with the finest ingredients by someone very skilled in using them.  But it’s more than that.  The instant the caramel reaches your tongue, you can tell this is something special.  Donnelly has clearly poured his heart and soul into his craft, but even that does not account for the extraordinary perfection of these caramels.  There is a touch of magic in them, too.  Nothing else could explain what makes them so much better than even high quality caramels elsewhere.

As I have said before, I am a connoisseur of fine chocolates and have literally looked for them across the world.  A number of magazines have named Donnelly’s chocolates one of the ten best, including National Geographic which named it one of the ten best chocolate shops in the world.  I believe it, for I have almost certainly never had a better caramel.

Milk Chocolate Caramel

Milk Chocolate Caramel

Categories: Dessert, Food, Local Travel, Northern California, Santa Cruz | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Baking Beauties at Bijan

Hustle and bustle is the very definition of a trip to Bijan Bakery.  Come when the morning coffee is still brewing, and you will definitely want to take a number.  This business is booming for a reason:  whether you’re looking for a morning pastry or a wedding cake, you’re bound to be impressed by this European bakery.

My first encounter with Bijan was a decadent chocolate birthday cake that made me do a double-take.  The rich ganache and decorative slices of chocolate made for the ultimate chocolate cake experience.

Clearly, I had to go back and try the rest of the shop.

While in France—and frankly the rest of Europe—I spent my time seeking out the greatest pastry shops I could find, and looking for such desserts in the U.S. is one of my hobbies.  Bijan is among the few that make the list.  All of their pastries are delicious though I am particularly partial to the guava and mango mousse cakes.

Likewise, their more basic pastries have that something special that makes them worth the calories.  The croissants in particular impressed me with their light and fluffy yet crispy consistency.  So much buttery goodness!

Bijan is definitely worth braving the crowd (and if you come later in the day, you shouldn’t even have to do that).  If you’re looking for a morning snack or something more decadent, your taste buds will be pleased.

Categories: Dessert, Food, Northern California, San Jose | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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