Food

Interested in tasty dining options only? You have come to the right place.

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.

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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

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
source

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

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

The Old Spaghetti Factory Reborn!

The Old Spaghetti Factory in Fullerton still awakens fond childhood memories for me.  Walking by the train station to the old brick building just makes a kid feel important, like you’re stepping into a piece of history.  This image is heightened by the old manor style, dark wood thrones in the waiting area.  When the time arrives for you to be taken to your seat, you have about a 50/50 chance of sitting in an old caboose, elevated  for a classy yet fun dining experience.

It’s a kid’s dream.  Well, this kid anyway.

At the same time, the decor is tasteful as is the food so that this restaurant is fully palatable for both kids and adults.

There is a Spaghetti Factory in San Jose too, and I have been wanting to visit it for ages.  This week, I finally got around to it.

I was not sure what to expect when I did.  The only Spaghetti Factory I have been to is the one in Fullerton, and I know that my feelings about it are strongly rooted in childhood nostalgia.  What would this new one be like?  Would I arrive just to find that I was completely blinded by my childhood memories?  Would it fail to live up to the (for me) original?

Fortunately, no.  The Old Spaghetti Factory in San Jose met my every expectation.

Within and without, this restaurant is amazingly similar to the one in Fullerton.  With the old brick walls and antique decor, I assumed the feel would be the same but the look a bit different.  It really wasn’t.  The chairs, the couches, the decorations, and even the dining caboose were all very much like what I remembered from Fullerton.

So was the food.  What I like most about the Spaghetti Factory is that the food is good without being pretentious.  It is really hard to find a sit-down Italian restaurant in the Bay Area, and particularly in the South Bay, with entrees starting at less than $13.  At the Spaghetti Factory, it’s more like $10, and I appreciate that.  But it gets better because that price gets you a full meal.  All entrees come with bread, soup or salad, a drink, AND spumoni ice cream.  I can’t believe that you can get all of that for $10 or $11.

And the amazing thing is that you don’t have to sacrifice quality.  There are many great options.  The meat sauce is rich and flavorful without overdoing it.  True to its name, Spaghetti Vesuvius is a spicy concoction with a cajun flavor that diverges from tradition but is still delicious.  Topped with satisfactory amounts of garlic and a large helping of cheese, the garlic bread is sure to satisfy.  We got the Bay Shrimp Crostini this time which was particularly impressive because I enjoyed it even though I don’t generally eat shrimp.  The cheesy goodness made the shrimp more of an afterthought which was fine by me.  And at the end, you get the spumoni too which is without contest the best spumoni I have ever had (granted, there has not been a lot of competition).  Each flavor is good on its own, but they also work well as a unit, something I have not found to be true in most spumonis.

If you can stomach anything else after all of the food they already bring you, try the homemade Italian cream sodas.  Unlike most American versions, they actually combine soda, cream, and flavoring to make this soda, and it is so good.  They ruined all other cream sodas for me for life (but I don’t mind).

I was very happy with my experience at San Jose’s Old Spaghetti Factory.  Too often, we revisit places we loved as children only to find them lacking as adults.  It was encouraging to find somewhere that is just as good as I remember.

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

Tara’s: The Best Weird Ice Cream in Town

I have seen a lot of interesting ice cream flavors over the years but never as many in one place as at Tara’s Organic Ice Cream.  Sesame, avocado, pepper, chai, garam masala…one has to wonder where they come up with these.  But I must say that while Ici is my favorite ice cream shop in Berkeley, no one does interesting flavors better than Tara’s.

Let’s take garam masala.  Never would I have guessed that this Indian spice would work as an ice cream flavor, but it does.  And it’s good.  The creamy texture compliments the spice to bring out both the flavor and the creaminess in the ice cream.  However, lemon blueberry absolutely stole the show for us.  Light yet creamy, the flavors complimented each other perfectly.

I cannot seem to think about ice cream in Berkeley without comparing it to Ici, especially since Tara’s is just down the street.  Ici offers deliciously light ice cream, but Tara’s provides a richness  that leaves you heartily satisfied.  While both shops offer unusual flavors, Ici’s are pretty hit or miss.  When successful, they are fantastic, but I feel the need to try everything before ordering it.  Not doing so has lead to disastrous results (don’t try the tiramisu.  Just don’t).  In contrast, even though Tara’s has even weirder flavors than Ici, they are much more successful in bringing out the best each flavor has to offer and pairing it well with ice cream.

So next time you don’t want to wait in line at Ici, crave something a bit heartier, or really want to try avocado ice cream, head down College Ave. to Tara’s.  You won’t be disappointed.

Categories: Bay Area, Berkeley, Dessert, Food, Northern California | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Best Chicago Irish Pubs

In continuing with our Chicago feature, today we will discuss the awesomeness that is Chicago Irish pubs.

Irish pubs in the Bay Area suck.  Really.  There are exceptions, but on the whole, the Irish pubs here are just…not.  Not Irish.  Not pubs.  Not nothing like that.

Thus Irish pubs were one of the things I was excited to explore when I spent a year in Chicago.  The first job (and in this context, job means “slave labor” or possibly “major rip off”) I had upon arriving at the Windy City was blogging about Irish pubs, and boy were they better than the ones in SF.

Having spent time in Ireland and having learned how to drink in the U.K., I have an appreciation for authenticity that escapes most Americans.  At the same time, having lived in England briefly, I have an equally strong appreciation for non-British food and the knowledge that while Irish food is better than English, there are advantages to throwing some American in there too.

With that in mind, these pubs stood out amongst their many brethren as the best, whether for food, drink, atmosphere, or the whole package.

Unforgettable Atmosphere

Wilde is more of a restaurant than a pub, but it has two bars and an abundant selection of drinks, so close enough.  Centered around Oscar Wilde, the Irishman responsible for The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Grey, Wilde is set up like an upper class library, covered with massive bookshelves, stained glass windows, and cozy alcoves perfect for reading.  The drink selection is vast, and the food is fabulous if not cheap, providing a full selection of Irish fare along with American options.  Being able to sip some cider in an armchair surrounded by books is a truly unparalleled experience.

Bet You've Never Seen an Irish Pub with a Stained Glass Dome

Bet You’ve Never Seen an Irish Pub with a Stained Glass Dome

Most Irish

Celtic Crossings is everything an Irish pub should be.  Built and manned by Irish immigrants, this is the most authentic Irish pub I have encountered anywhere outside Ireland.  Even on an average day, the pub was largely peopled by Irishmen.  As per Irish tradition, they do not serve food but sport a large selection of Irish beers and whiskeys from their large wooden bar that was actually imported from Ireland.  They introduced us to the  tradition of adding a dash of 7-Up to your Smithwick’s, and Daniel has been ordering it that way ever since to the constant consternation of bartenders.  I dream of spending St. Patrick’s Day here; it’s probably the closest I will ever get to spending it in Ireland.

Just the Right Amount of Irish

Just the Right Amount of Irish

The Best of Both Worlds

Even though there are more Irish and more exciting pubs in Chicago than Bridget McNeill’s, I cannot have a best Irish pubs list without it.  Admittedly, I have a strong personal attachment to the place, but my love grew from the pubby atmosphere.  The most important aspect of an Irish pub to me is not the food nor the drink but the friendly, cozy atmosphere that accompanies sharing a pint with some friends after a hard day’s work.  With its comfy arm chairs, small tables, and a sound level at which you can actually have an intelligible conversation, this pub exudes the atmosphere that really makes Irish pubs for me.  But in place of an Irish menu, Bridget McNeill’s sports the best that America has to offer from fantastic thin-crust pizza to scrumptious burgers to baked mac and cheese.  The food is superb and varied and helps this pub truly encompass the best of Irish and American pubs.

Great for Food, Friends, and Trivia!

Great for Food, Friends, and Trivia!

The Best of the Best

However, much as I love Bridget McNeill’s, the pub that truly mixes Irish and American traditions flawlessly is Fado.  The atmosphere exudes Irishness in a tactful manner without being overly overt.  The pub centers around a massive, ovular wooden bar fading into dark, wooden tables and rustic decor on the ground level.  Floor number two is topped with a boat.  Yes, an actual boat.  Just hanging from the ceiling.  Tell me that’s not awesome.  The drink menu is not only wide but also diverse, from a large range of Irish beers and whiskey (and Strongbow!  It may not be Irish, but it is awesome and such a U.K. staple that it still lends to the pub’s authenticity) to more international fare like white sangria and mojitos.  And the food, oh the food!  It is so, so good.  Traditional Irish dishes abound, but their flavoring has been updated to perfection.  Never have I tasted better corned beef and potatoes.  Even the cabbage was good!  And you have to try the boxty.  Shaped like an Irish pancake, the boxty is basically a fried potato tortilla that does not need filling to be delicious.  Fado has everything an Irish pub could offer but the variety and ingenuity of Americans intent on perfecting the pub experience.

Something for Everyone

Something for Everyone

No matter your tastes, as long as you like Irish pubs, these four are bound to please.  Should you wish to read more about them, visit my Chicago Irish Pubs Examiner page.

Categories: Field Trip, Food | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

Molly’s Cupcakes = The Best of All Cupcakes!

As you know, I spend a lot of time eating cupcakes.  Upon visiting a new city, I first seek out the best cupcakeries around so that I can find the city’s best cupcake.

I am going to Chicago this weekend for a family event, so I thought I would share with you some of the city’s finest attributes.

We start with the best cupcake I have ever had.

My first taste of Molly’s Cupcakes was a tiny bit of buttercream frosting that had rubbed off on the side of the box, just a small smidgen if you will, hardly even a taste for normal frosting.  But the second that baby taste hit my tongue, my mouth exploded with flavor.  I could actually taste the butter and the cream, separate entities yet inextricably entwined to create the greatest flavor of frosting I have ever had.

Next to that explosive taste experience, the otherwise delectable cake seemed like a little bit of a letdown…until I realized it was filled with berry jelly.  The mixture of incredible buttercream, moist but strong cake worthy of holding sweet filling, and fresh berries on top, adding a tang to the sweetness, made for the best cupcake I have ever eaten.

Until I had some of their other cupcakes.

The Mixed Berry cupcake is still quite possibly my favorite, but now it is in competition with their Butterscotch Caramel, and the Peach Cobbler is up there too.

There are several cupcakes that are high on my list of all-time favorites.  The Berry Berry at Spot Dessert Bar in New York was exceptionally moist and perhaps the best chocolate cupcake I have ever had.  I still can’t get enough of the Lemon Pistachio cupcake at Love at First Bite.  And once there was another shop in Chicago called Cupcakes that had a fabulous Salted Caramel that still moves me even though they have gone out of business.

However, none of them measures up to any of the cupcakes I have had at Molly’s.

So next time you’re in Chicago, go visit Molly’s Cupcakes, or I will hound you until you do.

The Best of Molly’s Cupcakes: The Filled Kind
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Categories: Dessert, Field Trip, Food | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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