Restaurants

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.

Advertisements
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

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

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

Why Smart Alec’s?

When I first came to Berkeley, one of the first places I heard my fellow students rave about was Smart Alec’s.  Close to campus and ever popular, Smart Alec’s was everyone’s favorite dining option, the destination of choice when one did not want to use meal points.  As my college career progressed, many things changed including my friends’ favorite gastronomic haunts, but Smart Alec’s was always at the top of the list when faced with the question, “Where shall we go to eat?”

And I never understood why.

Smart Alec’s is fine, I guess, if you’re into the sort of thing.  I’m not much of a burger fan, and to be perfectly frank, I’m no health nut either, so Smart Alec’s really isn’t my kind of joint.

I can appreciate a good burger, soup, salad, or sandwich when forced, but to my mind, Smart Alec’s is none of these things.  It may produce a “healthy” burger, but that doesn’t make the burger tasty, and I am quite sure most of my comrades were not eating there for their health.  None of their food groups moved me or even satisfied me no matter how many tries I gave them, and with everyone constantly suggesting we go for dinner, I gave them more than their fair share of chances.

The only thing that ever impressed me about Smart Alec’s was the corn bread.  Rich and flavorful, the cornbread is the only item I enjoyed.  I will say that their veggie burger is good for what it is.  It tastes like a regular burger, and in my opinion, is slightly more flavorful than their standard burger.  However, it really only stands out when compared to a hamburger, and on it’s own just isn’t worth it.

Hate me, spurn me, tell me I’m crazy, but I just cannot imagine why anyone would go to Smart Alec’s when there are so, so many better dining options not only in Berkeley but within a five minute walk.  Good burger joints may be one of the few food genres that Berkeley lacks, but there are still much better options than Smart Alec’s.  Like Barney’s.  Or Manhattan Roast & Grill.  Or any other burger place in Berkeley!

Or you could go have Indian, Chinese, sushi, crepes, or any of the other many, many ethnic food choices Berkeley has to offer that are fantastic!

All right you Berkeley undergrads, now tell us why we should go to Smart Alec’s.

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

Finding Refuge in Carmel

This week, Daniel and I celebrated our second wedding anniversary in the beautiful town of Carmel.  This oceanside gem may well be the most beautiful place I have ever been.  To put that in perspective, I have been to Jamaica and Hawaii, Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, the Grand Canyon, Egypt, Paris, Greek Islands, Cinque Terra, and basically everywhere in California.  But Carmel just has something the equal of which I have never seen.  Between the ocean, the cypress trees, and the gorgeous coastline, Carmel exudes natural beauty, and it’s houses and downtown area are adorable without taking away from the beauty that’s already there.  Carmel also has much to offer in the food and wine areas, and I try to visit whenever I head down to the Monterey area.

IMG_7385

We began in Carmel Valley with a fabulous lunch at the Vineyard Bistro.  It was adorable!  We sat outside, surrounded by trees, my skin baking in the sun.  I had the most amazing tortellini in gorgonzola cream sauce.  It was rich and flavorful without being overpowering, and I am quite sure my arteries were in danger of bursting afterward, but I didn’t care because it was SO GOOD.  It was a really nice place to sit and enjoy each other’s company, lazing about in the sun.

IMG_7383

We couldn’t very well visit Carmel Valley without tasting some wine, so we wandered over to Chateau Sinnet‘s tasting room nearby.  Having done very minimal research ahead of time, I had seen their tasting flight contained 7 wines for $7 which is a pretty good deal, so we went for it.

Apparently, we should have looked around a bit more.  The wine was perfectly decent.  The White Merlot was unique and tasty, and if we didn’t already have a ton of wine at home, I might have bought a bottle.  We both enjoyed the Cabernet Franc and the Late Harvest Zinfandel as well, and the prices were really reasonable.

The Tasting Room Manager who was anything but.  We agreed after that he was the worst pourer either of us had ever had.  Usually, pourers are either relatively reserved, giving you the chance to concentrate on the wine, or they try to engage you in conversation, about the wine, your day, or whatever else they can think of.  In my experience, the best pourers are friendly and chatty, know a lot about their wines, and are eager to share the information without pushing it.

This guy was just about the opposite.  He was disengaged, talking super fast but monotone as if he were reading from a script.  And he pushed the hard sale which is just stupid when you’re talking about wine.  No one wants that, and we may actually have bought a bottle if he had just shut up.  As it was, we were both ready to get out of there as quickly as possible to the point of leaving before we had finished our last taste.  We practically ran to the car once we got out the door.  Suffice it to say, I will not be going back.

And then we entered nirvana.

The main event of our trip was Refuge.  It is similar to a spa in that people visit for relaxation and renewal, but the how is unique.  The Refuge Experience consists of cycles of heat, cold, and relaxation.  If you do it according to their plan, you heat up for 5 – 10 minutes in a hot tub, sauna, or steam room, immediately cool down in a cold pool for as long as you can stand it (up to 1 minute….I definitely never made it that long), and then relax for at least 15 minutes before starting the cycle over.  You are primarily outdoors, surrounded by trees and crystalline pools with waterfalls flowing down the rocks.  The setting is idyllic and very conducive to relaxation.

However, the process itself was at times rather rigorous.  Normally, heat and I are good friends, but the sauna and steam room were both much hotter than I was comfortable with, and I couldn’t stand to be in either for long.  The steam room was so steamy that I could not see the back upon entering, and the steam was laced with eucalyptus which made it hard for me to breathe.  I must admit though, I felt a lot better after sitting in that steam…you know, once I got to the relaxing part.

The cold pool was, well, really cold.  Actually, I should say the “cool” pool was really cold as I never could get in the 37 degree “cold” pool past my thighs.  They wanted full submersion, and at 50 degrees, trying to stay in the cool pool for even 30 seconds was difficult.  However, the process did make me feel better after a few rounds, and the relaxing portion was just that.  I almost went to sleep more than once, and coming out of the cold makes you feel a lot warmer than I would have expected while you’re relaxing.

I tried to do the cycles their way, but after the first hour or two, I started spending large amounts of time in the “warm” pool between cycles.  That was truly relaxing.  But I do think there is merit to the cycle system because Daniel and I both felt great after.  Our skin looked amazing, and for both of us, that is not an experience we often get.

Refuge was completely worth the drive and the cost, and I fully intend to go back as frequently as possible.

Carmel is a place where I can always find tranquility wherever I look for it, but if you want the ultimate relaxation experience, Refuge is a good place to look.

Categories: Bay Area Day Trips, Food, Local Travel, Monterey, Monterey County Wines, Northern California, Restaurants, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cafe Gratitude: Berkeley’s Most Stereotypical Restaurant

Despite having lived in Berkeley for four years and near it for another three, yesterday was my first visit to the iconic Cafe Gratitude, and it was even more of a Berkeley stereotype than I had expected.

It had it all:  organic, locally grown fresh vegan food with every effort made toward sustainability and raw options, food with titles that made you think about yourself (and your meal) in a positive light while also prompting you to reflect on the deeper questions of Life, the Universe, and Everything (comment if you know the answer), and in true Bay Area tradition absolutely everything was grossly overpriced.

That may not be exactly true.  With the growing practices they require for their food, they would have to pay much more than the average restaurant, even the average healthy restaurant, for their products, and when you consider their claim about caring deeply about their employees, it may actually not be overpriced.  Nonetheless, I could never afford to go there and feel satisfied.

That said, the food is really good.  Daniel and I were both very impressed with the quality of our meals.

I had “I Am Humble” which was an Indian inspired dish sporting a lentil curry and a coconut mint chutney served over quinoa with vegetables.  It was really good and clearly very good for you.  I’ve had more enjoyable curries but never one that made me feel so healthy.  The quinoa paired spectacularly with the curry too which was surprising but awesome.

Daniel had “Yo Soy Bueno,” essentially tacos covered in black beans, salsa, avocado, greens, and a rather amazing sauce.  He took one bite and responded with, “Wow, this is good!”

We were both stuffed long before we finished our meals, but I wish we had saved room for desserts because they looked so intriguing.  I mean, how often do you have good vegan cheesecake or chocolate balls?  Next time perhaps.

After reading the menu, hearing the quote of the day, finding “What are you grateful for?” at the bottom of my bowl, and talking to our uber calm waiter who may or may not have been on drugs, one could only expect the atmosphere at Cafe Gratitude to involve giant hippy dioramas awash with colors that haven’t been seen since the 1960s (and then only when on acid).  Surprisingly, the atmosphere was the one part of this restaurant that wasn’t over-the-top.  The brick walls were sparsely furnished with large paintings that in no way made my eyes burn.  However, I must warn you that instead of having normal tables, we were seated at long benches shared with other customers.  It was kind of awkward.  Not terribly awkward–there was at least space between us–but still kind of awkward.  I don’t love my fellow man that much.

At the end of the day, this was an experience.  I feel I cannot say whether it was a good or bad experience, that is too much left up to what you’re looking for, but it was definitely a very Berkeley experience.  I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you want to squeeze the essence of living in Berkeley into one dinner, Cafe Gratitude can help you out with that.  But only if you’re grateful afterward.

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

Swimming in a Tub of Garlic at The Stinking Rose

I love garlic.  Garlic is amazing.  In chicken, in potatoes, in pasta, in just about anything savory, I defy anyone who says you can have too much garlic.

Naturally, soon after moving to Northern California, I realized that my life would be incomplete without a visit to the Stinking Rose.

There are two ways to look at this garlic-happy restaurant:  as a consumer of yummy food and as a garlic lover.  Let’s start with the regular consumer.

The Stinking Rose deserves its spot along Columbus Avenue, a street filled with more delicious Italian restaurants than you’re likely to try in a lifetime.  The garlic chicken is tender and juicy, the neon ravioli was served in the most delicious rich, creamy sauce, and I literally stuffed myself to bursting to have another bite of the gnocchetti.  Needless to say, we were all satisfied.

Neon Ravioli
source

That said, there are a large number of other fabulous Italian restaurants in North Beach, many of them within walking distance of the Stinking Rose, many of them cheaper.  I would say the food is about on par with what you would expect from this area, but the gimmick does raise the price a bit and so we must view this restaurant as it was intended:  as a garlic restaurant.

And as a garlic lover, I walked away wanting more.

Now, I have only praise for the bagna calda, and if you are a garlic lover and do not order this vat of garlic and oil goodness, I will slap you upside the head.  The focaccia pairs with it wonderfully, and this dish was truly a garlic lover’s paradise.

However, I was expecting a stronger garlic flavor from the rest of the meal and was left wanting.  The food is all good, and you can taste the garlic if you look for it, but it’s more of an undertone in the main dishes while I was looking for a “BAM” moment.  The food is good, but it’s not particularly garlicky, and for a garlic restaurant, you really want there to at least be garlic-smothered options.

I have been trying to try the garlic ice cream ever since discovering this little garlic garden, but alas, I am always too full by the end of the meal to stuff anything else down my throat.  I have to wonder if theirs is better than others I have had.  The version I had at the Garlic Festival was…weird.  Not bad, but weird.  I’m not eager to repeat the experience, but I do wonder if the Stinking Rose’s is different.

Garlic Ice Cream
source

Perhaps one day I’ll go for just the bagna calda and the ice cream.

Categories: Bay Area, Food, Local Travel, Northern California, Restaurants, San Francisco | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Freebirds: The World’s Only Burrito Diner

Downtown San Jose and its surrounding areas I generally avoid.  Not on principle but merely due to lack of interest.  Why bother with the slightly larger amounts of traffic downtown when you could go, well, anywhere else and have it be just as exciting?

Nonetheless, there are times when venturing near downtown San Jose can be worthwhile.  J. Lohr is one, Schurra’s another, and recently while walking between them I came across Freebirds.

IMG_7104

If Chipotle got together with a 1955 Chevy and had a diner-shaped baby, it would probably resemble Freebirds World Burrito.

Freebirds is populated by old photographs, flying guitars, tin foil creations, and paint left over from the sixties.  It is eclectic, industrial, and groovy all at the same time.

IMG_7096 IMG_7098

As you approach the counter, you are transported to a more varied, hipper version of Chipotle.  You pick your burrito (or bowl or taco), your meat (or veggies), and your fillings and salsas.  The choices are daunting yet delicious, and the result is much more personalized than other burriterias (it’s a word now, I’ve decided).

But you should really check this place out for the atmosphere.  It’s not every day that you find a burrito diner, and it’s pretty hilarious.

IMG_7103

You Got to Love the Flying Guitars

IMG_7100

Tin Foil Art

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

Guayma’s: A Uniquely Classy Mexican Experience

Mexican food in Northern California is generally not awesome.  Let’s just be honest.  The Bay Area does a lot of food really well, but Mexican got left out in the fog.  There are of course exceptions, but considering this is California, they really ought to step it up a notch.

Mexican food in Southern California is generally tasty but limited to hole-in-the-wall, “I’m not sure this place is sanitary” dive-like restaurants.  Again, there are exceptions, but Mexican food ain’t exactly classy down south.

Guayma’s Restaurant is the exception to both rules.

IMG_5231

Never before or since have I encountered a restaurant that proffers Mexican food while being so upscale.  Located on the bay in Tiburon, it is no surprise that this place is expensive, but instead of being overpriced, every penny brings happiness.

First, the food is exceptional.  And while I wouldn’t call this the height of traditional Mexican cuisine, it does seem to be genuinely Mexican or at least Latino.  And as I said, it’s good.  Really, really good.  I rapidly became partial to the cheesy empanadas.  Appetizers they may be, but I’m happy eating an entire dinner of cheesy goodness surrounded by walls of mashed potatoes and fried shells. They are one of the best things I’ve ever tasted.

Everything we have ever had at Guayma’s has been exquisite.  From the chips and guac to the banderilleras and camarones to the coconut flan and churros.  Oh God, the churros!  They used to be stuffed with caramel sauce!  We never knew a churro could be so delicious.  Now, they’re just regular awesome instead of caramely awesome, but they are still served with ice cream and drizzled with caramel and are way better than churros have a right to be.

IMG_5274IMG_5279IMG_5281

Upper Left:  Chips, Salsa, Guacamole.  Upper Right: Banderilleras, Camarones a la Diabla, Beans, Rice
Bottom:  Coconut Flan, Churros, Chocolate Pie

But as with any nice restaurant, the atmosphere is the real key to their success.  Guayma’s literally sits on the bay, overlooking Angel Island and the Golden Gate Bridge with the city off in the distance.  On a sunny day, you can sit out on the terrace, hear the water lapping at the pier, see the sunlight dancing in the ripples and feel it slowly baking your skin.  For a more pleasant dining experience, you would have to go to the Caribbean and do one of those dining on the beach things.  No really, it’s that awesome.

IMG_5232IMG_5233IMG_5225 IMG_5226

The View

IMG_5223

Guayma’s truly has it all:  great food, great drinks, and great atmosphere.  As far as I’m concerned, there’s no more pleasant place to eat on a sunny day in the Bay.

Categories: Bay Area, Food, Local Travel, Marin, Northern California, Restaurants | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

Blog at WordPress.com.