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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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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.

I was sitting in Tully’s on Main St. as usual late on Friday afternoons and went to look something up on Yelp. (I’m not a huge Yelp fan, since (1) it’s clear that many of the reviews are contributed by people without a good understanding of the cuisine they’re criticizing, and (2) some of the reviews are patently bogus, contributed by sock puppets of business owners, but it’s not completely useless.) I don’t remember what I was looking for or if I found it, but what I did learn was that there’s a Cantonese/Hong Kong-style seafood restaurant in Pleasanton that I didn’t know about.

It’s Tri Valley Seafood, at 5588 Springdale Ave., adjacent to Stoneridge Mall and in the same shopping center as JC Penney Home Store and Office Max. So I wandered over and got some takeout — wor won ton soup and an oyster omelette. (They seem to specialize in live fish and shellfish, but I was on my own and didn’t want anything that elaborate.) The place looked like a pretty typical restaurant catering to an almost exclusively Chinese-speaking clientele, with a lot of untranslated specials on the walls and other Chinese signage.

The take-out stuff was just fine — nothing special, but both the ambience and the food were quite different from the more Americanized cuisine at places like Gold Chopsticks or First Hunan Chef Wong. Their specialty is dim sum, so I’ll be back for that on a weekend.