Beef kare-kare (beef curry stew with peanut sauce, eggplant, and string beans)Back in October, I complained about Pleasanton’s lack of high-quality food retailers. In the last couple of months there have been some positive developments on this front — first, a new Draeger’s (not in Pleasanton, but a short drive away in Blackhawk — more on this later), and then the appearance of an intriguing sign in the Bernal Plaza shopping center near Bernal Ave. and I-680: Pacific Gourmet & Market.

It took me a while to make it over there, but I managed it a few days before their grand opening last weekend. Pacific Gourmet is a family-owned Filipino market which also serves prepared food. There’s a good selection of canned and packaged food, including what I’m told are “essentials” from the islands, and also fresh and frozen meat and seafood.

Lechón (roast suckling pig) and lumpia (spring rolls)The kitchen turns out an impressive set of hot food for take-out or eating at one of the pleasant tables. There’s a rotating menu of main dishes including chicken or pork adobo, chicken or pork afritada, kare-kare and several other beef dishes, fried pompano and tilapia and fish sinigang, and at least half a dozen others. Appetizers and small dishes include lumpia Shanghai, palabok, BBQ pork skewers, and egg rolls. And for real pork lovers, there are chicharones (cracklings) and lechón kawali (suckling pig). Breakfast is served on weekends only, and offers garlic rice and eggs with a choice of longanisa or tocino sausages, or tapa (meat strips). (Longsilog, tosilog, and tapsilog for you aficionados.)

I bought enough for several meals — lumpia, lechón, pork adobo, and kare-kare, with a bag of chicharones for snacking. Everything was delicious. (It’s probably even better eaten right there on the spot.) Worth checking out, even if you’re not familiar with Filipino food — the owners are very friendly and will gladly explain what’s what and suggest good combinations.

Pacific Gourmet & Market, 6654 Koll Center Parkway, Suite 330 (facing Bernal Ave.), Pleasanton. Tel. 925 417 1120. M-F 11-7, Sat 9-7, Sun 9-6.

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.

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!

zagat2008Well, the 2008 edition of the Zagat San Francisco Bay Area Restaurants guide is out, and there’s not a single Pleasanton restaurant included. Even Dublin made the grade (albeit only with chain locations of Amici’s Pizza and Casper’s Hot Dogs), and Livermore’s Wente Vineyards was justifiably featured, and San Ramon checked in with Cafe Esin (which I mean to try). But despite my write-in efforts (Delatorre’s Trattoria, Claude & Jacqueline’s Bistro, Casa Madrid, and Mahalo Grille) we’ll have to wait until next year. Even though I didn’t write it in since I haven’t been in several years, I expected Blue Agave Club to be included — it gets a fair amount of buzz, it’s in a historic building, and as a comment pointed out, many people consider it a destination restaurant on its own.

Musings on what Pleasanton lacks in the food department, in no particular order:

  1. A destination restaurant. Sure, there’s plenty of good food in town, but given the demographics it would be nice to have something truly excellent and innovative, the sort of place that might get a Michelin star. (Were any places in the 680 corridor awarded stars in the new edition?) I see why a high-end ownership group and established chef might worry if suburbanites have sufficiently refined palates (or whether city dwellers would brave the long drive), but right now it does not seem like anyone is even trying.
  2. A good market. Pleasanton is a food retailing wasteland. We have the chains, of which Raley’s/Nob Hill is clearly the best, and then there’s Gene’s Fine Foods, which has a good meat and fish department, a decent selection of non-perishables, but not much in the way of prepared foods. And Main Street no longer has a single food market (although the weekly farmer’s market on Angela St. is lovely). While something like Draeger’s might be too much to ask for, it seems like the nearest quality market is Lunardi’s (née Andronico’s) in Danville. While I get to San Francisco weekly (and shop at Bryan’s, Cal-Mart, or Mollie Stone’s) and to the Peninsula from time to time, why isn’t there good shopping right here in town?  How about a Dean & Deluca or even an A.G. Ferrari?
  3. A real Vietnamese restaurant. Most ethnic cuisines are well represented in Pleasanton, but for anything beyond Pho Hoa’s limited menu of pho and bun, you have to hear for Livermore or Fremont. (There was a short-lived place called Saigon on Santa Rita Rd. in the pace formerly occupied by Blessings, but it’s now a Korean restaurant that I haven’t tried yet.)
  4. A Greek restaurant. It seems that there’s an Italian restaurant on every corner in the Bay Area, but precious few Greek places. After Bert’s Hofbrau on Main St. closed, the papered-over windows had a liquor license application notice for something with a Greek name (Agora Bistro?)