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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.

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.

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.