I see it’s been a year since the last update. Oh my!

Obviously there is a need for some in-depth coverage, but just to get started, there have been four recent turnovers downtown on Main Street:

Frontier Spice replaces Main Sushi. I believe the owners of Main Sushi retired, and Frontier Spice is not open yet, but has some nicely designed signage in the window, promising “Premium quality Indian dishes”. Their web site at frontierspice.com is active but has no content yet. 411 Main Street.

IMG_9728Pakiza replaces Pho Hoa. I ducked my head into the storefront and someone working on the renovation said they expected to be open “within a few days” and handed me a takeout menu, which is labeled “Pakiza Pakistani – Indian Halal Restaurant”. No web site yet. 201 Main Street, in the commercial strip next to Vic’s All-Star Kitchen.

Casbah Mediterranean Kitchen replaces First Hunan Chef Wong. The space had been vacant for quite a while. This is a branch of the popular Casbah in Livermore which has been open since 2011. 239A Main Street, on the back row of the commercial strip. Their web site, casbahexotic.com, only mentions the Livermore location, but I would expect a similar menu. Opened April 3.

Tri-Valley Bistro replaces Quizno’s. This is a very welcome sign, since the Main Street Quizno’s was one of the very worst in the chain. The proprietor shouted at her employees, shouted at customers, shouted at people sitting at the outdoor table, and then it closed “temporarily” and there was a sign on the door alluding to plumbing problems, and finally a notice that it had been closed by the health department. No signage yet at the site, only a listing with the PDA, and their web site at www.trivalleybistro.com is not yet active. 519 Main Street.


Has it really been four years?

Wow. Much has changed on the local food scene, with some places (like Voodoo Kitchen/The Cove Bistro) having come and gone, alas, unremarked-upon by Eating in Pleasanton.

But I don’t want to bury the lede! The most important development of the last four years — to me, at least — is the arrival, at long last, of an authentic Sichuan restaurant. It’s Spicy Bowl, which took the place of the (revived but unremarkable) Blessings, in a strip off Santa Rita Road. I was on a prowl last week for new Chinese places, and the first one I tried was Jade Garden, which replaced the not-bad Formosa Cafe (which itself replaced Bo Happy, which had a “secret menu” including some Sichuan and Shanghai specialties). Sadly, Jade Garden was not as good as either of those, and was strictly standard American-style Chinese.Image

I came across Spicy Bowl while driving through the parking lot of Mission Plaza on some other errand, and seeing the sign, looked it up online to see what sort of place it might be. Reviews were mixed, with people praising the food but complaining that (1) it was hard to find, and (2) that the woman who answers the phone has poor English skills. (Needless to say, both of those criticisms, even if somewhat accurate, are not a good indication of the quality of the restaurant. Do better, Yelpers.)

They have an attractive take-out menu, nicely printed and with English and Chinese for every dish. The menu had a number of well-known Sichuan and Hunan dishes, as well as more Americanized fare. I decided to order two “classic” Sichuan dishes, Chicken With Explosive Chili Peppers aka Chongqing Spicy Chicken (Chongqing lazi ji, 重庆辣子鸡) and Spicy Beef With Floming [sic] Chili Oil aka Sichuan Boiled Beef (shui zhu niu, 水煮牛), and an appetizer of Cold Sliced Pork With Spicy Garlic Sauce (suan ni bairou, 蒜泥白肉).  All three were excellent, and the chicken and the cold sliced pork were possibly the best I have ever had of those two dishes. The pork slices were presented rolled up and half-submerged in the strongly garlicky and spicy red sauce, and the chicken wings (you can get boneless or bone-in; I chose the original bone-in) were amazing. They are dry-fried without batter in a wok with scallions, garlic pieces, chopped scallions, and many, many red peppers and Sichuan peppercorns.  The chicken pieces came out wonderfully crispy but not greasy (no batter, remember!) and the dried red peppers were cooked to almost the point of blackening, giving them a deep smoky aroma.

The boiled beef was tender and in a rich, oily sauce with vegetables. A slight grade below the other two, but still very worthwhile.  Needless to say, I got two dinners out of that order, and will be back very soon to try some other specialties like wontons in spicy sauce (hongyou chaoshou, 红油抄手)and Shredded Pork With Garlic Sauce aka Fish-flavored Pork (yuxiang rousi, 鱼香肉丝).

Highly recommended.

India GardenThere have been lots of changes in the Pleasanton eating scene in the last few months —  more than the ones below, but with the exception of The Farmer (which I haven’t tried yet), these seem to be the most significant.

First, the departure. Mahalo Grille was a relatively ambitious attempt at Hawaiian fusion cuisine, with notes from Mexico, the Caribbean, and even Spain (paella). The food was good – I never had a bad meal there, and the waiters were friendly and usually more or less competent, but the owners seemed to lack the management skill to make it a success. Dishes were added to or removed from the menu arbitrarily, and the restaurant’s hours were inconsistent and puzzling. (One example: Saturday lunch. Last summer and fall, every place on Main Street’s restaurant row was packed with diners, indoor and out, many of whom came from the farmer’s market. Mahalo, however, was inexplicably closed.) In any case, after two months with the windows papered over and “closed for remodeling”, and a story about water damage from early winter storms, it looks like Mahalo is gone for good.  It’s a good space, and I hope it remains a restaurant.

Lemon beef saladAnd now to happier developments. The former C&D Bistro, née Claude & Dominque’s, was a beloved romantic French restaurant. After Claude and Dominique’s retirement, though, it proved unsustainable, and now, with new owners and new decor, has become India Garden.  There has not been any Indian food downtown since the departure of Sansar (which was not particularly good). Indian Garden has a menu of northern and southern Indian cuisines, a step up from previous decades in which the only available cuisine was Punjabi.

On my visit, the fish pakoras were tender and flavorful, and not at all dry or greasy. The main courses of lamb korma and south Indian shrimp (that’s the name on the menu) were prepared with care and were delicious.  The korma is a mild sauce made with yogurt, cardamon, and cumin, with nuts, and was paler and creamier than many other places. (It’s more similar to the UK version of korma than the Mughal original.) The south India shrimp featured fresh, flavorful shrimp in a spicy tomato-based curry and was very good.  India Garden will definitely be on my regular rotation.

Up next is Saigon, which took over the space in the Old Cheese Factory building that was recently Oak House (which I never made it to during its short tenure).  Saigon is a traditional Vietnamese restaurant with the classics —  rice vermicelli and rice noodle dishes, appetizer rolls, rice plates, and stir-fried and clay pot specialties. (There’s also pho and hu tieu, of course, as well as special hot/soup soups and fire pots.)  We shared the imperial rolls (above average), lemon beef (rare beef) salad, and beef rolls with onion inside over vermicelli with shrimp and fried rice.  Everything was very good and I’m heading back there for take-out tonight.

Beef rolls over vermicelli noodlesThe third arrival is really a return, Blessing(s), which has been absent for several years, and has now re-opened with the same owners in the back of the strip on Santa Rita Road near the UNCLE Credit Union. (The parenthesized “s” is due to being unable to determine which is the canonical name of the restaurant; the signage, menu, and web site are inconsistent. I’ll stick with the plural unless corrected.)

Alas, Blessings’ return was somewhat of a disappointment.  It’s not so much that the food has changed, but that we have. Americanized Chinese food was the best we could hope for in the 1970s through the 1990s in Bay Area suburbs, and it was often quite tasty food, even if it was just a “safe”, deracinated version of actual regional Chinese cuisines.  But as Chinese-American communities, immigrant and American-born alike, expanded from the inner-city Chinatowns to the suburbs, and built places like Milpitas Square or Ulferts Center in Dublin, you can get real Chinese food out here now, and the old stuff just doesn’t seem as good. The pot stickers were fine, but the kung pao trio (chicken, scallop, and pork) had a gloppy sauce, few peanuts or peppers, and only one scallop, so far as I could tell. The orange beef, marked with a “spicy” symbol, was basically broccoli beef with a slightly tangy orange-flavored sauce.  The one interesting dish was Marco Polo noodles with pork, which seemed to be something like Sichuan noodles without peppers, and was reasonably tasty.

Saved for last, and possibly best, is Jiou Yuan, which took over from Panda on West Angela Street. Panda was friendly but unremarkable, so when it closed, and the liquor license transfer sign went up, I was a little excited. The restaurant’s sign itself was covered by a “Grand Opening” banner, so I stopped in for take-out last Friday, and I was very nearly the restaurant’s first customer on their opening day! I met the owners and staff and welcomed them to the neighborhood (it, along with Senro, are the two restaurants closest to my house) and wished them a long and prosperous tenure.

As readers might know, I am a beginning student of Mandarin and written Chinese, so after pleasantries I asked if there was a Chinese menu, and indeed there was, though it was just the regular menu with Chinese translation. That’s a good start, though, and I was able to order some favorites by their Chinese names — hongyou chao shou (wontons in red oil [spicy sauce]), as well as Sichuan fish fillet (Sichuan chao yu pian). Jiou Yuan is definitely an authentic Chinese restaurant, but since most of its customers will not be Chinese or Chinese-American, they need to tone it down a bit – hopefully not too much.  I hope to continue the conversation with them on my next visit.

Little River WineryI don’t think anyone’s claiming that the recession has bottomed out, but there are three signs of new business activity on Main Street, two of them food/beverage related.  The first and probably most dramatic is that the Pleasanton Hotel will have a new restaurant — The Farmer.  According to Assistant Manager Beth Salazar, remodeling of the space has begun, and they hope to open by mid-July. No word on cuisine but expect a bar, music, and banquet rooms.

Further south on Main Street, Little Valley Winery, presently in Sunol, will either be moving to Pleasanton or opening a second location for its tasting room and light meals, according to an alcoholic beverage permit application posted at the site, which is the Los Pilares building at 739 Main, currently under renovation.

Rick's PicksAlmost next door, past the vacant lot formerly occupied by the Union Jack Pub, the third development is at 719 Main, where a discount retailer, Rick’s Picks, will occupy the space which was formerly Cattelan’s Antiques.  The building was recently re-roofed and partially remodeled.  According to a job ad, Rick’s Picks is a fast growing high-end discount store that primarily sell brand names at 40% to 80% off regular retail prices. […] We sell home décor, housewares, furniture, books, toys, candles, children’s clothing and much much more.” Their current store is in Danville and this would be a second location.  It does not sound as upscale as Domus, a non-discounter which was very popular but ultimately not able to remain in business on Main Street, but might expand the range of products available downtown without needing to drive to a big-box store in a shopping center.  On the other hand, if it’s something like Tuesday Morning, it might provide an eclectic but not particularly consistent selection. Rick’s Picks expects to open by July.

On Election Day I headed out to Nebraska to visit my SO Maggie and her family, and spent a pleasant week there — much of it celebrating the results of the election, which were largely encouraging nationally and in Pleasanton (except for the passage of Proposition 8). But now that the election’s over, I’ve had a chance to return to my projects, including updating a few items here. (There will be a corresponding update over at Berch on Food shortly as well.)

In rough order of significance, we start first with the renaissance of Tri-Valley Seafood. What a wild ride! After noting its appearance last October, I made it out there for several good dim sum brunches. Then it abruptly changed owners and cuisines (although it kept the name) and became a pho-centered Vietnamese restaurant. I stopped in at noon on a Sunday in the spring, saw the menu, kept going — I had a jones for dim sum — and ended up at Willow Tree in Dublin.  Later I stopped in for a bowl of pho, which was fine but not spectacular, and I meant to return to try the rest of the menu but never did. Now, as of October 18, it has reopened as a Cantonese and dim sum restaurant; it’s not clear if it is the original owners or new ones in charge, but some chatter on Yelp seems to imply that the Vietnamese interlude was always meant to be temporary. (No, I don’t get it, either.)  Reviews of the reborn Tri-Valley Seafood are enthusiastic and I’m going to check it out ASAP.

Another new place I haven’t tried yet is Amarone, which replaced Silver Palate on Main Street. Goodness knows, Pleasanton has no lack of Italian restaurants, but a good one is always welcome.  So expect a report.   Still no word on the opening of Cafe Main in the former Coffee Beans space at Main and Angela but the former Momiji on the same block has reopened as Main Sushi.

Some good news: two recent visits have convinced me that the popularity of Singapore Old Town Cafe in Dublin is definitely justified. On my first trip last September, I was a little underwhelmed, but as several people have pointed out, it’s less than ideal to judge a place on one visit, and even less ideal to judge it on the basis of take-out food.  So I went back and ordered a couple of the same dishes and some new ones.  Of the repeats, my Chinese doughnut stuffed with shrimp paste was definitely much superior — fried just right, moist, and with a tasty filling; however, the sambal belacan prawns were still just so-so, and underseasoned despite my request to use a healthy ration of sambal.  Of the new dishes, though, the Old Town pork ribs were exceptional — marinated and then fried to a crispy finish, with a sweet-savory glaze. Also delicious was the char kway teoh — fried noodles with prawns, Chinese sausage, eggs, and bean sprouts with a dark brown sauce.  On my return I had the char kway teoh noodles again, along with an excellent beef rendang (medium beef red curry).  Each time the restaurant was nearly full and seemed to be the most popular in the Ulferts Center.

One final item: as a reader noted, the Filipino grocery and prepared food shop Pacific Gourmet and Market, which I visited in January, closed a few months ago.  The food was tasty and the staff was enthusiastic and friendly, but I fear that sort of place needs a critical mass of an ethnic community to support it on a regular basis, and that just doesn’t exist in Pleasanton. (Plus, the new-ish 99 Ranch Market in Dublin probably had more Filipino groceries, though not the prepared foods. I wish the owners well in whatever their new endeavor might be.

The election is a little more than three weeks away, and this is one of the most important – perhaps the most important – of this era. This is a time of crisis, and what takes place in Washington (and Sacramento) will have significant effect on our town, its economy and finances, and our ability to continue to enjoy eating out and shopping at our local businesses. I’m an independent voter, not a member of either of the major parties, but this year I think the difference in the party tickets and platforms are very significant.

President and Vice President of the United States: Barack Obama and Joe Biden. This is a very clear choice. We need a sharp break from the Republican policies that have led to the current financial crisis, the loss of individual rights and privacy at the hands of the government, and the tragic and costly war in Iraq.

Congress, 11th District: Jerry McNerney. Rep. McNerney has proven to be an effective and well-respected member of Congress in his first term representing Pleasanton and the surrounding area. He has taken the lead in programs promoting alternative energy and balances local and global concerns.

Mayor of Pleasanton: Jennifer Hosterman. During Mayor Hosterman’s tenure, Pleasanton has been one of the most successful, prosperous, and agreeable small cities in the United States. There is every reason to believe that would continue if she were elected to another term.

Pleasanton City Council: Jerry Pentin. As a local businessman and member of the Parks Commission Pentin has shown good judgment and would be an excellent addition to our council. (Howard Neely would as well, but he has withdrawn from the race for family health reasons and has endorsed Mr. Pentin.)

City Measures: No on PP, Yes on QQ. While they are somewhat similar, the Council’s measure (QQ) is superior in preserving open space through an open public process. It is endorsed by Mayor Hosterman, Councilmembers Thorne and Cook-Kallio, and former mayors Tom Pico, Ken Mercer, Bob Butler, and Bob Philcox, as well as a list of other dedicated Pleasanton public servants and advocates.

The old Kolln Hardware buildingThis last year has brought an unusual number of changes to Main Street, reflecting economic stress and turmoil all over America (and elsewhere). Some changes (like the renovation of the old Kolln Hardware building) have been in progress for quite a while; other were more sudden or unexpected.

Like many other people, I was initially disappointed that the Kolln building, which is being lovingly restored to Victorian glory, would be home to a Comerica Bank branch. Banks clearly have their place on Main Street, and I’m glad Wells Fargo returned earlier this year. But the problem with a bank in the Kolln building is that it would essentially limit its use to those who bank with Comerica. (Which is not to say that Comerica would not welcome visitors, or perhaps even host a historical display.) Retailers attract a broader spectrum of local residents and visitors, and — yes, I know, I always say this — a specialty food retailer like A. G. Ferrari or Dean & Deluca would have been ideal.

But these are difficult times in commercial real estate, and banks are attractive, stable tenants. (At least until very recently, and Comerica has made efforts to assure Pleasanton of its stability and longevity.) So I can’t really blame the owner, and who knows what other offers (if any) he got?  Most recently, there seems to have been a rather silly attempt to keep the bank from putting an ATM on the exterior of the building, but the Planning Commission wisely approved it. One odd note from that story was that the possibility of Division Street becoming two-way was mentioned, which differs from at least one artist’s conception of the Firehouse Arts Center plans that I saw, in which Division was to become a pedestrian street. (I hope that’s the case.)

Elsewhere up and down Main, there have been plenty of developments. DAYart Studio, which had been vacant for quite a while, will apparently become a clothing (?) store; home store Domus held a lengthy going-out-of-business sale and finally closed (now, that would be a wonderful site for a local grocery, which is what the building originally housed); Silver Palate closed somewhat abruptly, and a liquor license transfer notice appeared in the window promising a new restaurant, but disappeared shortly thereafter — I hope the deal is still on.  (I enjoyed Silver Palate on my two or three visits; their relaxed and casual Sunday buffet brunch was a nice alternative to the very elaborate spread at the Pleasanton Hotel.)  The former Century 21 Realty storefront remains vacant as well. A bit farther north, Oasis Grille has expanded into the full ground floor of the Coffee Roast building, with a wine bar, and finally seems to be catching on.

Site of the former Union Jack PubAcross the street, the vacant lot where the Union Jack Pub formerly stood has lain fallow for quite a while. A Pleasanton Weekly article in July 2007 said that a developer would be building a two-story “Monterey-mission style” restaurant designed by prominent local architect Charles Huff, but after the parcel was graded, no further work has appeared. This week, however, the chain link fence sported a colorful banner (from the Downtown Association? The Chamber of Commerce?) urging Pleasantonians to “Shop Local”.

Next door to the vacant lot, Cattelan’s Antiques gave up the ghost some months ago. Its building remains vacant, and would probably need significant remodeling for a new retail tenant.  Down the street a bit, Coffee Beans ‘n’ Things is papered over, but it is supposed to be the site of a restaurant or cafe operated by the owner of Baci.  While Coffee Beans was favored by a number of locals and occasionally hosted music and readings, I preferred Tully’s across the street — where I’m writing this right now — which, although a chain, is very comfortable and has a friendly staff. I don’t think it was Tully’s that killed Coffee Beans, but more likely its bizarre and unpredictable opening hours. (On summer Friday and Saturday evenings, the corner of Main and Angela attracts a crowd, but Coffee Beans was often dark.) A bright spot nearby, just off Main, is the new-ish 55 West Angela building, with wildly popular Amelia’s Deli-Bistro and a number of clothing and specialty retailers.

Which brings us to the issue of chains. I don’t believe that Pleasanton has an anti-chain store ordinance (correct me if I’m wrong) although city council members have often spoken against chains and big-box stores.  Since Pleasanton is lucky enough to have both a traditional Main Street and a number of shopping centers (an enclosed mall, and several large-scale open centers and strip malls), we get the best of both worlds. You can find almost every signficant retail and food-service chain represented in Pleasanton or neighboring Dublin. Stores open and close and shuffle around, but you can find pretty much anything you need.  Consequently, there’s less pressure to locate chain stores on Main Street. Other than the banks, there are relatively few chain outlets on Main.  I don’t propose remaking Main Street, but — in addition to the specialty food retailers I’ve mentioned — a hardware store, a home store like Pottery Barn, and an electronics or music retailer might not be a bad addition to downtown.

Having seen economic wreckage in less prosperous cities and towns elsewhere, including here in the Bay Area, Main Street (and Pleasanton as a whole) seems to be dong pretty well, considering. On the other hand, this is probably not the bottom of the market, and just from casual observation I’d guess that restaurant receipts on Main Street and elsewhere are down quite a bit. (One measurement is the ability to get a table without a reservation or wait at popular spots.)  We’ve clearly been fortunate so far, but I hope the current unsettled climate does not destroy the character of our Main Street.

On Friday afternoons I’m usually downtown, often sitting in Tully’s Coffee before dinner. Summer Fridays in downtown Pleasanton tend to be crowded, with the free concert in Wayside Park and the outdoor dining scene on Main Street. I had a hankering for some authentic Chinese food, in specific, a restaurant in Milpitas Square called Nutrition House. It’s one of my favorites, and I’d passed it by the day before on the way home from a meeting in San Jose, but was willing to head all the way back down there and pick up some some takeout.

I packed up and got in the car, which was parked in the sun at the corner of Main and Angela St., and it was no place to try to read the takeout menu. So I drove a couple of blocks west of Main and turned onto a side street, and parked in the shade in a residential neighborhood, and began to peruse the menu. (It’s truly impressive, about 10 pages long.) I had come to a tentative conclusion about what to order after a few minutes, and had my phone out, when out of nowhere came a woman in her 40’s, who knocked at my car window. I rolled it down a little, and as soon as I did, she asked, “Do you have friends or family in this block?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I’d like to know who you are and what you’re doing here.”

“I’m sorry… am I blocking your driveway?” (Well, I thought I was legally parked…)

“I’m with the Neighborhood Watch, and we like to keep track of what’s going on in the neighborhood.”

I confess was too flabbergasted to engage in any repartée, so I explained that I was ordering takeout Chinese food.

“And you decided to do that here because…?” The tone of her voice was exactly that of Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” character.

“…because trying to drive and order food at the same time might be a little difficult.”

She seemed to soften a little bit, and said, “Well, I’m glad you don’t drive and talk on your cell phone at the same time.”

“Actually, I do drive and talk on the cell phone all the time,” I replied, turning my head to reveal a Jawbone Bluetooth headset, “but I don’t drive, talk on the cell phone, and try to read a Chinese takeout menu at the same time. That would be a bit much.”

So, we exchanged a few pleasantries, I introduced myself, and she stood there looking dubious for a moment, and then walked off. I can only imagine what nefarious mischief she suspected me of (casing houses to burgle? looking for children to abduct?) and briefly considered a facetious reply along those lines, but thought better of it, not really wanting to have to answer questions from a sheepish and embarrassed police officer.

The incident left me with an odd feeling. While I generally support neighborhood anti-crime activities — including Neighborhood Watch — being questioned by the block’s Mrs. Nosyparker as to my identity and business while legally parked on a public street was somewhat intrusive and a bit creepy. I asked her if there had been any specific incidents that led to her suspicions of strangers, and she demurred, saying that she kept a watch on everyone. Indeed.

In any case, the second odd (though not unexpected) encounter was when I called Nutrition House a few minutes later. I had the menu, which is organized into sections with letters, and was going to try to order S5, S7, D15, and B37 (I think; the first two are northern dim sum small plates), but unfortunately, no one who answered spoke enough English to take the order. I apologized (when I’m there, pointing and using the few words of Chinese I know works fine) and said I’d come there another time. It’s a very Chinese Chinese place; the English name of the restaurant is never used (and isn’t even on the sign, I don’t think); it’s really called Wu bing er yu, “Five loaves, two fishes” and its web site is www.5bing2yu.com.

So I decided to get sushi instead. Senro is my favorite, but it’s difficult on Fridays unless I’m on foot or at Tully’s; having given up my downtown parking space, I wasn’t going to get another, and their lot is almost always full. So I headed up to the other sushi place I like, Tomo, and got a nice takeout plate of rolls and sashimi.

Another freaky Friday in Pleasanton, I guess.

Spice Hut
OK, Newark might be a little far afield for something titled “Eating in Pleasanton”, but last night’s dinner was such a pleasant surprise that I thought I’d mention it here.

Earlier, I’d been out taking pictures with my new camera, mostly in Sunol and Niles, and by the time it got dark I noticed that it was after 8, and I was getting pretty hungry. There are a large number of restaurants in Fremont and Newark, and they’re spread all over nearly 100 square miles, and since I hadn’t planned to eat out I had no idea what I was hungry for. So I headed for one of the densest concentrations of interesting food, the Lion Foods shopping center at Cedar Blvd. and Mowry Ave. in Newark, not far from the NewPark mall.

The Lion Foods center, and the apparently unnamed adjacent strip mall, is an interestingly disorganized collection of restaurants, retail stores, and service businesses, all built at separate times, with correspondingly difficult traversal of the interconnected parking lots. (Unlike Milpitas Square in Milpitas, which burst on the scene all at once.) I’ve eaten at a few places there, most notably Vung Tau 3 (a good Vietnamese restaurant), the now-defunct Red Kwali (which moved to Milpitas), and Huong Lan Sandwiches. None of those seemed right, though, so I kept driving.

Chilli gobi
I passed into the neighboring strip’s parking lot, avoided the line-up of car’s at the Arby’s drive-through, and was about to exit the lot back onto Cedar, when the very last shop caught my eye: Spice Hut. It was brightly lit and full of people, and I vaguely remembered that it was an Indian fast food outlet. And that sounded good.

The menu is huge. (You can take a look at it on their web site, which offers an order-by-web takeout service.) There are appetizers, curries, dosas, biryanis, tandoori dishes, breads, Indian-Chinese “Manchurian” dishes, and a creation called the “nanini” (a sandwich on naan bread). I admit I held up the line a little bit while trying to decide, but everyone was very gracious.

I ended up ordering the chilli gobi (dry) appetizer from the Indian-Chinese menu, a Chettinad dosa, and wanted to try a curry as well. Most of the curries were in a steam table behind the counter, and I was hoping to avoid that, so I ordered a Madras fish curry, which would be made to order. I paid and was given one of those buzzing/talking coasters that summons you to pick up your order. (Admittedly, the place does not really try for ambience, but what there was was dispelled somewhat when, every minute or so, one of those things went off, with a loud buzz and a synthetic voice saying “Please return to the counter! Your food is now ready!”)

Chettinad dosa
My order was up very quickly, and even though it was served in styrofoam containers and paper plates, it looked pretty impressive. The chilli gobi looked fresh and had a wonderful aroma of garlic and chilis. The dosa was as large as those served in more formal restaurants, and the Madras fish curry — which took an extra few minutes — was fresh from the kitchen.

The chilli gobi — deep-fried cauliflower bits, mixed up with chilis, garlic, caramelized onions, finely-chopped vegetables, and spices — was insanely good, one of the best things I’ve had at an Indian restaurant anywhere. I can’t wait to try the chicken version. It was a dish worthy of any Indian restaurant, including my perennial favorites here, in London, and in Nebraska.

Specialties of the house
The Chettinad dosa was filled with a spicy mix of vegetables and potatoes. The mixture had been pre-cooked, unlike the chilli gobi, but it was still very tasty, as was the dosa itself. It came with a container of sambar, which was better than most, and small containers of coconut and spicy tomato sauces. The Madras fish curry was well seasoned, spicy, creamy, with a generous portion of fish.

I ended up finishing the chilli gobi, but took home well over half of the dosa, sambar, and fish curry, which will make a nice supper tonight. If you don’t mind eating in a brightly-lit fast food outlet (or getting takeout), Spice Hut is a great choice. I’m looking forward to returning to try some of the other dishes. There are presently four locations (Newark, Sunnyvale, Menlo Park, and San Jose) but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were all over the Bay Are, if not the country, pretty soon.

House special fried noodlesI love Vietnamese food, and wish there was more of it closer to home. Pleasanton has a branch of the chain Pho Hoa on Main Street, and I eat there often, but it has a menu limited to pho, bun, rice plates, and two kinds of appetizer rolls. The staff is pleasant and the food is served quickly, but it’s not really a full-service restaurant. Livermore, however, has three Vietnamese restaurants, and I’ve been to two of them. (The third is more of a pho and sandwich place.)

The more highly-recommended of the full-service places was Sai’s 3, which is in a small strip mall in Springtown, north of I-580 (961 Bluebell Dr.). In addition to pho, bun, appetizers, salads, and rice plates, there’s a good selection of meat and seafood dishes, and a few specialties. On my visits I managed to sample a good variety. The imperial rolls were among the best I’ve had, and were properly made with rice paper wrapping and were delicate and light, and not over-fried. The shrimp and jellyfish salad was crisp with a pleasant vinaigrette. The shrimp toast, however, was not as successful, and was overcooked and might have worked better on toasted sliced bread instead of a section of baguette.

Among main courses, the prawn and pork clay pot was very nice, as were the fried shrimp and orange flavored-chicken. But the best dishes of all were two of the specialties (listed as “Classics” on the menu) — banh xeo (Vietnamese crepe) and cary de (curry lamb stew). I’ve written before about my love for banh xeo, and the version here is not fancy, but it’s pretty solid. The curry lamb stew, though, was something else — it’s spicy, greasy, brightly-colored, full of bones and odd bits… and I loved every bit of it. (Unfortunately I can’t find the online review which first mentioned it, but to paraphrase, the author said it reminded him of something he might expect to find in a pot over a fire in a hut on a mountain in Laos on a freezing night.)

Lok luk beef with riceBy contrast, Saigon Cafe, which is downtown (2011 Second St.), is a bit less exciting. The menu is somewhat smaller, with nothing comparable to the banh xeo or curry lamb stew, but it features pho, bun, appetizers, salads, and rice plates, as well as chow mein. In addition to pho, they also offer hu tieu (seafood noodle soup) with rice or egg noodles, and won ton soup.

I tried the imperial rolls, which unlike Sai’s were made with wheat won ton-style wrappers and tasted like standard Chinese egg rolls, and had been fried in slightly stale oil. The goi cuon (shrimp summer rolls) were on the dry side. The won ton soup, though, was very good, with an aromatic broth and plenty of won tons. House special chow mein was comparable to what would be found at a Hong Kong-style restaurant, with crispy egg noodles softened by seafood and vegetables in a light sauce. A rice plate, lok luk beef (beef cubes in garlic sauce with black pepper) was tasty as well. Overall, Saigon Cafe seemed to turn out the standards in a reasonably competent manner, though the menu runs more toward Chinese-style dishes than Sai’s does. (I didn’t try the pho or bun.)

Saigon Cafe is a reasonable choice if you’re downtown, but even though Sai’s 3 is farther from Pleasanton, I’d head there if given the choice, and order the banh xeo and curry lamb stew.