Bay Area

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

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.

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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

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

Campbell Farmer’s Market of the Gods

Farmer’s markets are one of the greatest of Northern California institutions.  Ever-present, they bring quality fresh, local produce right to the consumer, and it tastes so good!  Though not always cheaper than grocery stores, it is almost always tastier.

The King of Farmer’s Markets in the South Bay has got to be the Campbell Farmer’s Market.  Every Sunday, Downtown Campbell gives it’s main street over to tents, produce, and vendors from 9am to 1pm(ish).  And never have you seen its equal.

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Four long blocks of goodness, the Campbell Farmer’s Market is so big it has to be broken up into sections.  On the west side, you’ll find prepared food vendors.  The east side sports artsy goods, and in between you’ll find mountains of produce.  I could never begin to tell you which produce vendors are the best, cheapest, or best value; there are too many.  But I can tell you about a few gems.

My favorite stop is always the Milk Guy.  His business is not actually so named, but he will always be the Milk Guy to me.  One might think that milk is not a product to get excited about.  One has clearly never met the Milk Guy.

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He sells raw milk, straight from the cow, no preservatives, no pasteurization, just pure milk.  It is beyond compare.  Richer than milk, more refreshing than cream, you can drink this milk in place of a meal and feel completely satisfied.  It’s deliciousness is beyond compare.  Get the true raw milk–that is, the whole milk–and I swear you will be amazed and astounded unless perchance you have had milk straight from the cow.

There is an abundance of scrumptious prepared food as well.  Should you be willing to brave the lines, the Oaxacan Kitchen is amazing AND reasonably priced.  Everything is hand-made in front of you, including the tortillas, and this is one of those rare instances in Northern California where the Mexican food lives up to–or perhaps even eclipses–its southern counterparts.  I always stop by the Indian food booth for a $1 samosa, and Daniel rarely visits the market without buying a Flying Falafel sandwich (even rarer are the times I don’t steal at least one of his falafels).

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Yummy $1 Samosas

 

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Flying Falafel

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Oaxacan Kitchen

Some of the booths straddle the line between prepared food and…not, and they are generally worth a visit if nothing else for the free samples.  The Hummus Guy (and that is actually what he calls himself) is awesome.  All of his hummus is delicious as are the flavored pita chips.  The bolani people are really good too, giving you the perfect combination of sauces and flavored bolanis though alas we cannot afford them.

And indeed that is the most difficult thing for me about the farmer’s market:  not dropping all of the cash in my wallet on their wares.  We pretty much do it every time we go, so we’ve had to keep our visits to a minimum.  Everything tastes so good, it’s hard not to buy the whole market.  And frankly, most of its offerings are a bit pricey anyway.

But totally worth it.  The quality is impossible to find in a grocery store.

Making up for the price is the ease of finding samples at the farmer’s market.  Almost all of the vendors have samples of their wares, and I usually fill up on samples before deciding what to buy.  And it absolutely works in their favor because we have bought way, way more than we ever would have without a taste first.

If you haven’t been to the Campbell Farmer’s Market, you are seriously missing out.  Go now!  Eat and be happy.

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

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