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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.

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.

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.

Agora Bistro, Main Street, Pleasanton
The most anxiously-awaited restaurant opening in Pleasanton in the last couple of years, at least for me, was Agora Bistro, which took over the former Bert’s Hofbrau and Steakhouse space at 443 Main Street in late December. I was in Nebraska for Xmas and New Year’s and missed the opening, but made it there as soon as I could.

It was well worth the wait. I’d poked my head in a couple of times during remodeling, hoping for a firm opening date, and asking about the menu. I finally got a look inside the other day, and came back for dinner.

Mucver (zucchini and dill pancakes)
The high-ceilinged brick front room remains the same, as does the glassed-in “greenhouse” back room (which is one of the nicest places in town to eat at sunset). The new owners have warmed the place up some, and the former bar/hofbrau counter in the front room is now an open kitchen, and the bar has been moved to the back.

The menu covers the classics of Greek and Turkish cuisine, with a selection of hot and cold appetizers — including baked prawns as well as the expected spreads like tzatziki, hummus, and baba ghanoush, as well as spanakopita, feta with olives, and dolmades. Entrees include souvlaki, moussaka, pastitsia, lamb chops, and beef short ribs.

Kofte with rice pilaf and salad
I started with mucver, a Turkish dish of zucchini and dill pancakes with yogurt and cucumber sauce, which was delicious. For a main course, I had kofte, which were wonderfully-seasoned beef and lamb patties cooked on the grill, with rice pilaf and a small chopped salad of tomatoes, onion, parsley, and red cabbage in a Mediterranean vinaigrette. The kofte were tender and flavorful and were served with their natural grill juices. With the main course I had a glass of Greek red table wine from Tsantali. Dessert was Turkish-style baklava, lighter and less overwhelmingly sweet than other versions I’ve had, and I enjoyed it with a cup of strong — but decaffeinated — espresso. (Turkish coffee is also available.)

Service was crisp, polite, and efficient. By mid-dinner all 10 tables in the back room where I was seated were full, and the room, which had often seemed cold and dark at night in previous restaurant incarnations because of the expanses of glass, felt warm and inviting, and the people at the next table were conversing with their neighbors. There was a discussion of the difference between Ouzo and Sambuca (alas, Agora at present only has a beer and wine license so the question was moot). As I left I noticed all but two of the 12 tables in the front room were also occupied, and there were several parties waiting at the door.

Agora Bistro looks like a big hit and is a very welcome addition to Main Street.

Bo HappyThere’s a relatively new retail strip not far from me, on the southwest corner of Stanley and Bernal (the southeast corner, still vacant, is the subject of great controversy — more on that in a future post). First to spring up, a couple of years ago, was a McDonalds, then a gas station (which recently became an ARCO), and most recently a four-plex restaurant pad which is now finally filled up with a Bagel Street Cafe, a Taco Del Mar, a Subway, and a Chinese restaurant named Bo Happy.

Bo Happy, the sole non-chain outlet of the four, did a great job of marketing when it opened early this year, plastering the neighborhood with windshield flyers and door hangers, and I took a look — clearly the type of Americanized Chinese food that does well in suburban neighborhoods, with the usual set of dishes: General’s chicken, Mongolian beef, kung pao shrimp, and so forth. I figured I’d get around to trying it, and I did in July and had some pot stickers and something labeled Peking Beef, which I honestly don’t have any particular memory of. Since I get to San Francisco, Albany, Milpitas, and the Peninsula and South Bay often enough, where the Chinese food is much better, I didn’t worry about it (and now, with a bunch of new places near here, it’s not really an issue).

Spicy boiled beefThen I got another flyer from Bo Happy, with two developments: first, the announcement that they were serving sushi, which was amusing but of no immediately compelling interest considering that Senro Sushi (and half a dozen actual Japanese restaurants) are closer. The second was the appearance of a box on the back of the menu, with no label, but unlike the rest of the menu, which is English-only, these dishes were named in both English and Chinese, and the names of some of them looked particularly authentic: Spicy Boiled Beef, Braised Pork Shoulder, Braised Meat Ball in Clay Pot, Preserved Potherb Mustard Greens with Rice Cake, Spicy Boiled Fish Filet, Shanghai Wine Chicken. It appears to be mostly a selection of Sichuan and Shanghai style dishes.

I seems that just as with Chef Dong at Jade Rivers in Lincoln, you can get the good stuff just by asking. So last night I came in, went through some of the menu items with the hostess (you order at the counter), and asked for some pot stickers and the Spicy Boiled Beef, emphasizing the spicy part (specifically málà (麻辣) “numbing spicy”, which comes from a combination of chili pepper and huājiāo (花椒), the Sichuan peppercorn). The result was an excellent hot bowl of tender beef, celery, leeks, and a whole lot of garlic and chili. (There was just enough Sichuan pepper to be noticeable — perhaps they don’t keep a lot around since it’s not used in the westernized dishes.)

There are 25 dishes on the special part of the menu, and I’m going to try as many as I can.

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.

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.