Category Archives: Travel

An Epic Birthday Week – Episode VIII

On Day 8 of my epic west coast adventure, I slept in and woke up to an empty house because Lily and CS had stepped out. I wandered into the kitchen and microwaved two of those awesome Lucy’s Tamales and doused them liberally with La Vic’s legendary orange sauce. I’m sure I must have reeked of garlic afterwards but it was worth it; that sauce is excellent. Surprisingly, I found that I preferred Lucy’s chicken tamale to the pork. But frankly, anything that is a carrier for orange sauce is pretty damn good!

Later on, Lily and CS returned and CS had an old friend stop by with his girlfriend because they were on their way to the San Jose airport. We had time to grab a quick lunch together at a cool little Irish pub called CB Hannegan’s. I wasn’t hungry after having downed two tamales, so I just ordered a Caesar’s salad. Nothing too remarkable except for the fact that it contained avocado slices which I’ve never seen on a Caesar before. Maybe it’s a California thing.

After CS dropped the friends off at the airport we had the afternoon free and decided to make the drive down to Moss Landing to check out this famous place for Cioppino:

Phil's Fish Market

Phil’s Cioppino was featured on an episode of Throwdown with Bobby Flay. You know, the show where Bobby challenges chefs around the country in a cook-off of their specialty dish, and where Bobby usually loses. Yes he lost to Phil at this Cioppino throwdown too, and I wanted to taste the winning dish. I knew it had to be good as soon as we got there because there is literally nothing else around the area that people would actually have reason to visit, yet there were plenty of cars in the parking lot. Inside, in addition to the tables for dining, there’s an actual fish market and a bar. You place your order at the counter and they give you a number which you take with you to a table and then they run your food out to you when it’s ready. You can buy a bottle of wine at the bar to bring to your table as well. Here’s a look at Phil’s famous Cioppino:

Phil's Cioppino

It was chock full of super fresh pieces of seafood, but for me, the pleasure was all about the broth. Tomato based and a little sweet, it had a depth of flavor that could only come from being cooked with lots and lots of fresh seafood, particularly shellfish. Great for sopping up with the pieces of garlic bread which would otherwise have been a failure because they were so soft (I like my garlic bread toasty!). We also had some nice steamed clams and grilled artichokes. Food-wise it wasn’t nearly as good as the meal I had at The Boiling Crab earlier in the week, but there is something tremendously enjoyable about sitting at an open air table on a beautiful afternoon, getting messy with seafood and drinking a couple bottles of crisp sauvignon blanc. That’s the way to spend an afternoon.

After making our way back to San Jose, Mat met up with us for dinner. We wanted to go back to The Boiling Crab since Nancy and Lily didn’t get a chance to try it yet, but this time the wait really was two hours long so we opted for plan B- more Vietnamese. This time a place called Anh Hong which featured a set menu of “7 Courses of Beef”. It was a good meal with interesting flavors and sauces, but Mat put it best when he said four of the courses were pretty much the same. Some pieces were meant to be wrapped in rice paper sheets, others came wrapped in seaweed, etc. A pretty good meal, and as it was with all of these Vietnamese places, the price was very reasonable.

An Epic Birthday Week – Episode VII

Continuing to take advantage of the great Vietnamese restaurants in the Bay Area, day 7 of my trip to the wild west featured the most exotic dish of the week. It took place here, in this inconspicuous storefront in yet another generic looking strip mall:

Bun Bo Hue Restaurant

Bún bò Huế is a Vietnamese noodle soup featuring a fiery beef broth, thin slices of beef and pork, lemongrass and cubes of gelatinized pork blood. The noodles are thicker and more substantial than in pho, the more common Vietnamese noodle soup. It is an absolutely fantastic bowl of goodness and a thing of beauty. Check it out:

Bowl of Bun Bo Hue

Not exotic enough for you? No problem. At this place, you can choose the optional add-on of… ox penis! Don’t worry, it’s not as revolting as it sounds. In fact it didn’t have much taste at all. It was sort of like cut up pieces of cartilage, only softer. Here’s a close-up, or should I call it- the money shot:

Ox penis in bun bo hue.

While the ox penis didn’t really add anything but novelty to the dish, the rest of the bún bò huế was insanely delicious and was one of the best things I ate all week. The broth itself was the best part, a deeply flavorful and savory soup that made me hungrier the more I sipped. I think this stuff has gotta be one of the best hangover foods ever. Not sure what kind of pepper or chili oil they used, but it was unique in that the heat would light up your tongue and make your nose run but would cool off completely with just a teeny sip of water. Heat from most chili peppers just gets aggravated by water and leaves your mouth numb and unable to taste anything, but not with this stuff. The hottest bites surprisingly were the noodles themselves, probably because the chili oil would adhere to them as I lifted them out of the broth. But baby, it hurt so good. Then with a little sip of water I was ready to have more. This lunch was an incredible highlight in a week of great eats. Man, I’m craving some right now!!

After that fantastic experience, we stopped by the award-winning Lucy’s to pick up some tamales to go so we’d have something in the fridge if we got late night munchies.

We followed that up with a coffee run to where else but Philz Coffee. This time we hit the location at San Jose State U. I went for the Julie’s Ultimate again, CS had the same, and Lily started with a Mocha Tesora. I say she started with that because she didn’t love it and ended up getting a second cup, this time the Jacob’s Wonderbar Brew. Glad she did too, because I tasted it and loved it even more than the Julie’s because it was even richer and bolder and still had no trace of bitterness in the finish. Ladies and gentlemen, my new all-time favorite coffee is Jacob’s Wonderbar Brew!

Since Philz Coffee was located near a branch of La Victoria, we stopped in there to buy a squeeze bottle’s worth of their famous Orange Sauce. It’s an addictive garlicky, spicy mayo based sauce that would be awesome on anything but particularly good with those Lucy’s Tamales.

Later that night Lily and CS had their own dinner plans so I met back up with Nancy and Tony, this time in Palo Alto. We did dinner at a quaint little Italian restaurant called Osteria. It was not an extraordinary restaurant but it was definitely solid. They do pasta exceptionally well, the prices are reasonable, and the service was warm and friendly. Not a special occasion type of place but the kind of restaurant I could see myself happily eating at a few times a month just because their pasta dishes are so good.

After dinner, Lily and CS met back up with us and we hit a sports bar and wine bar in the area before calling it a night. I gloss over the details of these drinking portions of my trip because when hanging out with Lily and CS, the flow of alcohol is so constant that mentioning we were drinking would be like telling you how often I was checking my email. That’s how they roll; if you wanna hang with them, bring your A game!

An Epic Birthday Week – Episode VI

On Day 6 we were on a quest for more Mexican food. This time we hit one of the Tlaquepaque chain of restaurants. Apparently there are several within a short distance of each other in Willow Glen, and they have a reputation for solid food but not so great service. Fortunately for us, we found both the food and the service to be very good. I liked the tamale at Tlaquepaque better than Puerto Azul’s, and I really loved their guacamole. The guac was really fresh and creamy tasting, so much so that we wondered if maybe they had added sour cream or something. And just like our previous day’s Mexican lunch, this one also featured a nice beverage:

Chavelas at Tlaquepaque

This one is called a Chavelas and it’s made with beer, tequila and lime juice. Even though it’s gotta be higher in alcohol than the Michelada due to the tequila, it is so light and refreshing you don’t even notice. You know it must pack a punch though, because the limit is 2 per customer. Oh, and as you can see, it too is served in a gargantuan goblet that could otherwise serve as a candy bowl.

After kicking back and relaxing for a few hours in the afternoon, it was time for dinner. This time we decided to go for Korean BBQ. This is not one of the cuisines that they do better out west than here in NY, but the place we went, called Tobang, was still very good. They had a particularly nice selection of panchan including delicious big ol’ sardines which I had never seen before. Best of all, they served rice paper wraps which are essentially like square pieces of Chinese hor fun. Once you’ve had Korean BBQ with those types of wraps, plain lettuce wraps just don’t cut it anymore. Overall, not in the same league as any of our NY/NJ Korean places, but Tobang was still quite good.

I should point out that most everything out in the Bay Area is contained in strip malls and this Korean place was no exception. Amusingly, in the same strip mall was this store which I thought was rather unique:

Lingerie Babywear Store

An Epic Birthday Week – Episode V

While out in the SF Bay Area, I wanted to take advantage of the various cuisines that they do better out there than here in NY, namely Mexican and Vietnamese. Day 5 of my trip opened with Mexican food. Lily and CS picked me up from Nancy’s place since I would be crashing with them for the rest of my stay, and they took me to Puerto Azul in Willow Glen for lunch. It had been a long time since I’d had a good tamale so I was thrilled with the authentic tamales and tacos combo that I ordered there. But even more thrilling was this beverage that CS convinced us we needed to get our afternoon started right:

Michelada at Puerto Azul

It’s called a michelada and I believe it is made with beer, bloody mary mix and lime juice, served in a massive chilled goblet lined with a salt and spice mix. It was enormous in size and flavor. Addictively refreshing and went well with the food we ordered. Nice call by CS on the drinks!

Later that afternoon I was off to a tour of Crushpad. They’re a winery that allows anybody to create their own wine with a minimum order size of one barrel. I’m in on a barrel of syrah with Eric and his friends and family so I figured I would stop in and check on our wine-in-progress while I was in SF.

Crushpad Room
Crushpad Our Barrel

I was given a tour by Crushpad’s Stuart Ake who was extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the entire wine making process. I was thoroughly impressed by their entire operation. They work with customers from the initial concept stages all the way thru to bottle selection and even custom label creation. And seeing their operation in person I can tell you they really strive to do the best they can with every aspect of the winemaking process. They even have a ceiling mounted webcam so that clients can watch their wines being racked over the internet. They can even fashion custom barrels, mixing and matching staves to create barrels that will impart specific characteristics to the wine!

Custom Barrel

It was a fascinating and educational tour of the Crushpad facility, and our syrah was tasting pretty good already even though it has about 5 months of aging left.

Afterwards I headed across the street to a seedy looking hole in the wall call The Hard Knox Cafe. I love it when you stumble across excellent food in the least likely of places and that was the case with Hard Knox’s array of soul food. How does this spread look?

Hard Knox Cafe soul food

Clockwise from left to right- collard greens, fried chicken, sweet potatoes, cabbage, blackened catfish rice and beans, mac and cheese, and ox tails. The chicken was a little bland, but that was the only disappointment out of the bunch. Even the cabbage and collard greens were really addictive. But the ox tails were my favorite, falling off the bone and served in a rich gravy. That was a surprisingly superb meal in the shadiest looking of places.

After that we headed back to Dell’Uva for a few more bottles of wine before Mat called it a night and I went back to Lily and CS’s where they had a couple friends over and we just hung out in the man-cave (and of course did more drinking well into the night).

An Epic Birthday Week – Episode IV

The main event on the schedule for Day 4 was to take in a Giants day game at AT&T park. But first we figured we should grab some lunch at Santa Ramen. This is the ramen place with rich pork broth similar to that of Ippudo Ramen in NY. The main thing I remembered from last year was that their special premium pork was outstanding. This time around though, it wasn’t quite as fatty and therefore not quite as good. It was still a thoroughly satisfying bowl of noodles, just not as good as the one I had a year ago.

With a full belly we made our way out to AT&T Park. I had never been there before and all I can say is wow. It’s a beautiful park and an incredible place to watch a game. Check out this view from the cheap seats:

AT&T Park

The whole place just has a friendly and inviting vibe. I also liked their variety of concession stands and that I could enjoy a Guinness while watching baseball!

After the game came another big moment in the trip for me- my virgin visit to a Philz Coffee. This one was located a few blocks from the ball park. As we walked in, there was a lot of activity going on as they were apparently training a team of new employees and one guy behind the counter flagged me down and insisted I try a special coffee drink he had just made. I tasted it and it was fantastic. It turns out it was their iced mint mojito. I don’t usually go for coffee drinks with too much milk or cream, in fact I usually take my coffee just black with sugar, but in this you could still really taste the coffee and the accent of the fresh mint added a nice freshness. Intrigued, I read through the entire list of descriptions of their dark roast selections to figure out what I was going to order. I decided upon the Julie’s Ultimate blend. The process at Philz is kind of cool. The barista took my order, asked how I like it and I told him black and medium sweet. He turned to the vats of beans behind him, scooped some out of the appropriate bin, ran them thru a grinder, then placed the grinds into a coffee filter atop an empty pitcher. Then he poured some hot but not boiling water over the grinds and took a spoon and stirred everything in the filter. Upon dripping through, he then poured the coffee back and forth from cup to cup (to aerate the coffee?) and then presented it to me saying “try that for me and let me know if it’s how you like it”. Nice. Total elapsed time was probably about 5 minutes for this single cup of coffee. I picked it up and took a sip… and I will never be the same. It was perfect. It tasted like great dark roast coffee, but somehow more refined and balanced. Perfect amount of sugar, just enough to enhance but not overwhelm the flavor of the coffee. And best of all, there was no bitter finish. Zero. None. For as long as I can remember, coffee that is rich and dark has always come with a downside- a bit of astringency and bitterness on the finish. Not so with Philz. Not sure if it’s better beans or better coffee making technique, but whatever it is, it’s magical. I was, and still am, thoroughly impressed with this place.

Philz Coffee