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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.

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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.