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The strangest restaurant in Pleasanton, if not the entire Bay Area, is almost certainly Cousin Cafe (6700 Santa Rita Rd.). Driving to and from adjacent Trader Joe’s, I noticed a place called California Burger but didn’t really pay much attention to it, and never made it in for a meal. Some years later the sign said HAWAIIAN BBQ, which I didn’t really pay much attention to either, until I noticed that the California Burger sign was still there as well. OK, you’d think the new owner would want the old signage removed, but whatever. Time passed, and a new sign was added to the previous two: COUSIN CAFE, accompanied by some Chinese characters. Interesting. And this menagerie was soon joined by NOODLE SOUP and BUBBLE TEA.cousin-pork-chop

All right… just what was going on here? I paid a visit to the large, almost rambling, glass-walled end unit of the retail strip and found Cousin Cafe, Pleasanton’s only Hong Kong-style cafe that also features Hawaiian barbecue, California burgers, noodle soup, and bubble tea. And pretty much everything else you might want to order. Hong Kong cafe food is a Chinese take on western dishes — you might find baked ham and cheese spaghetti with cream sauce, beef spaghetti with tomato sauce, chicken a la king, beef with fried instant noodle, or even a pork chop over fried rice with an egg on top, covered with brown gravy.

But that does not even begin to make a dent in the list of offerings. Eighteen appetizers including deep-fried dace fish balls, chicken wings, roti bread with curry sauce, or onion rings; eight soups ranging from Russian borscht to hot & sour won ton; fourteen variations on meats and seafood, including ox-tongue, all baked over rice or noodles with a cream or “Lisbon” sauce; a couple of dozen rice plates including spam and egg over rice, Hainan chicken rice (a legendary street food favorite in Singapore and Hong Kong), and pork chop with pan-fried onions; seafood, chicken, or fish porridge; eighteen varieties of noodle soup, five of lo mein, four steaks on sizzling platters; and eight kinds of spaghetti and udon bowls. And tucked away in the corner of the menu are a collection of “normal” Chinese-American dishes, including kung pao chicken, Mongolian beef, and walnut prawns.

But let’s not forget the legacies of Cousin Cafe’s origins! You may also choose from among a selection of Hawaiian BBQ classics, including kalua pig, loco moco, and spam musubi. And should all of the above fail to excite your appetite, you can always fall back on the orginal California Burger — a beef, turkey, ostrich, or veggie patty, with cheese, bacon, or mushrooms.
There’s a selection of festive Asian and western beverages like red bean and lychee drinks, grass jelly, and even Ovaltine. Desserts include ice cream, mud pie, and creme brulee.

Decor is strip-mall minimal — it’s a large, dim room with booths and tables and large windows — but service was friendly and quick. And everything is cheap – nothing over $10 except for the steaks, and most main dishes are $6.95 or $7.95 with soup and noodle dishes even less.

On my visit I kept to the Hong Kong cafe side of the menu, and had some won ton soup followed by the baked pork chop over fried rice with an egg on top, all covered with brown gravy. It was an impressive and tasty mound of food (which I didn’t come close to finishing). Needless to say, I don’t know if Cousin Cafe’s kitchen is equally adept at the other 200+ items on the menu, but it will be interesting to see. It’s too bad this place is all the way across town from me, since it’s clearly the kind of place you can eat at often with no premeditation.

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Just Koi tableThe hottest dim sum place in the Bay Area right now is Koi Palace in Daly City, with reports of people waiting up to two hours for a table, Sunday-morning crowds spilling out into the parking lot, and a menu of legendary length exceeding such SF favorites as Yank Sing and Ton Kiang.

Needless to say, I was thrilled to learn that Koi Palace was opening a branch in the new Ulferts Center in Dublin, just across I-580 from Pleasanton, but like many such enterprises, it seems to be taking an exceptionally long time to prepare for opening. The new branch will be called Koi Garden, and appears to be similar but slightly smaller than the Daly City mothership. No firm estimate of opening date.
But Koi Garden has sort of its own satellite at Ulferts, the diminutive Just Koi, which is already open on the lower level of the center. It’s an odd little place. First of all, the tables and chairs — all the tables seem to be 4-tops or 2-tops — are unusually-designed modular units with wedge-shaped chairs that slide underneath the tables. Sitting on them is a very strange experience (as well as being very hard on the posterior), and I’ve never seen anything like them, even in China.

Just Koi squidThe food is said to be a subset of Koi Palace/Garden’s extensive menu, but it’s pretty extensive itself, and leans in the direction of BBQ-style roast meats (duck, pork, chicken), won ton and noodle soup, jook, and small snack-like plates. It’s been packing them in for weeks, long waits for weekend tables, but I went on a Tuesday and was one of only 3 parties in the place. I ordered plain won ton soup (I think I was supposed to specify a meat ingredient and a type of noodle, and didn’t, so none was included), and three small plates — fried squid, dumplings, and (their specialty) crispy suckling pig. These latter items were pretty much dim-sum sized. The squid was pretty good, but nothing special; any random place on Clement St. in SF could equal it for much cheaper, I’d wager. The dumplings, which had a cute name like “dumpling duet”, were basically pot stickers with a more delicate skin and a tasty filling. The suckling pig was, oddly, served at room temperature, and was just a few tiny rectangular-cut pieces of crispy skin served over sweet beans and pickled cabbage, and at $10 was seriously overpriced (it would be a $5 dim sum item at most places).

My first impression was underwhelming, but there are lots of things on the menu, and like a lot of places, they might be better when they’re busier. It was clearly not the kind of food that has people lining up at Koi Palace, so maybe they were just having an off night, or the real talent has been reserved for the big room upstairs. (And perhaps I might have had unreasonably high expectations based on the Koi name. ) I’ll be back, but maybe Koi Garden will open in the meantime.

If you read Berch on Food you might remember that a few years ago I marveled at the rise of all-Asian shopping centers that focused on food. Well, it’s 2007 and the all-Asian mall has come to our valley, in the form of Ulferts Center in sprawling eastern Dublin. There’s some decent food out in that part of the world now, including a branch of Armadillo Willy’s and Stacey’s at Waterford.

Chinese doughnutUlferts is a couple of blocks west, and it’s a two-decker strip mall of the style that’s been popular in Los Angeles and San Jose for the last few years. (Ulferts, by the way, is a Taiwanese furniture store which is nominally the anchor tenant but it’s one of the few non-food-related businesses.) The center opened earlier this year but many spaces are still being prepared. The major (and much-anticipated) restaurant will be Koi Garden, a branch of the immensely popular and hyped dim sum house Koi Palace in Daly City. Koi Garden takes up much of one wing of the upper level, and appears to be slowly heading toward completion. However, it features a smaller and less ambitious sibling — Just Koi — which is already open on the lower level. More about that tomorrow.

Right now, I think 10 of the 14 planned eateries are open, which means many visits are in order!

Of the restaurants that are open, the one with the most buzz was Singapore Old Town Cafe. I tried it on a Friday night and there was a line out the door of people waiting for tables. I decided to go for takeout, figuring I’d probably be home eating before I got a table. I ordered two small appetizers (Chinese doughnut stuffed with shrimp paste and Singapore-style spring rolls) and a main course (sambal belacan prawns). Sambal belacan prawnsI have to say I was underwhelmed by all three. The Chinese doughnut was tasty, but over-fried by quite a bit, to the point of toughness. The spring rolls, which had been recommended, were tiny, had little contents, a stale crumbly wonton-skin wrapper, and were simply unappetizing. I ate half of one of the two small rolls and discarded the rest. The belacan prawns were a disappointment — the prawns themselves were small (most other places use large ones) and the sauce was watery and did not have nearly enough of the spicy belacan sambal (dried shrimp paste with chili peppers), and there were far too many large chunks of bell peppers and onions.

I love Singaporean/Malaysian food and hoped it would be as good as Straits Cafe, Penang Garden, Red Kwali, or Spice Islands, but based on my single visit, it wasn’t in that class, but I’m sure I’ll get back to it reasonably soon.

Pleasanton has at least 6 or 7 sushi bars, but my pick is Senro (30 W. Neal St., between Main and First). Senro is my “local” sushi place, and I try to go at least weekly if I can. Like any restaurant, once you become a regular, you are recognized and treated very well, and that’s especially true for Japanese places.

The food is pretty uniformly excellent, focusing on sushi and sashimi, but also featuring a pretty standard range of Japanese cuisine (teriyaki, tempura, nabemono, sunomono, hot appetizers, and so forth). The sushi chef is able to find o-toro regularly and that’s one of my favorites, along with ankimo (monkfish liver). There is also an exceptional sake collection, with choices at all price ranges (including one for $129 per small bottle!). The sushi chef has created an unusually large number of specialty rolls as well. (My favorites are the Speed-O roll and the Shrimp Fantasy roll.) You can create your own bento box from a number of choices at both lunch and dinner.

I’m often on foot since I live nearby, but parking is usually not a problem except possibly on Friday and Saturday nights (especially free concert nights in the adjacent park — Fridays in summer). The new construction behind the building is now complete and that opened some more spaces.

The space is a converted railroad station which was a coffee house in the 1980s and ’90s, and the atmosphere is informal and unpretentious, with several televisions playing silently, usually with sporting events, and a very friendly staff. I consider myself lucky to live so close to the best sushi place in town.

This week brought signs of life to the former Bert’s Hofbrau location at 443 Main Street. While the liquor license application posters have been down for a while, today the windows featured a recruiting call for employees — waiters and prep cooks, perhaps others — and the door was open, revealing renovations well in progress.

I stuck my head in and asked the person directing efforts what was up, and he confirmed that it is going to be a Greek/Mediterranean restaurant, named Agora Bistro, and that they expected to open in about a month.  Very good news for Pleasanton eaters!