Posted in Dinner, Food, For Kids/Parent, Lunch, Peninsula, South Bay

Ramen Roundup

Many Americans tend to associate instant ramen with college dorm life, poverty and hangovers. And who hasn’t had a meal of Cup-O-Noodles born out of desperation and lack of resources?

But in Japan, ramen is comfort food. It’s what many consider their national dish. And after the recent Earthquake and Tsunami, ramen served as a sign of normalcy and nourishment. Ramen houses are everywhere in Japan, and it’s one of the most affordable and filling meals you can get there.

These days, especially in the Bay Area, ramen is becoming somewhat of a “trend“. Recently, I’ve also noticed more places serving up different variations of the dish, all of which are fairly common in Japan.

Here are a few ramen houses outside San Francisco that serve three distinctly different versions of these tasty soup noodles.

Shoyu (soy sauce) Ramen w/pork & kimchi from Santa Ramen

Santa Ramen – 1944 S. El Camino Real, San Mateo, 650-344-5918

This place serves up the classic bowl of Japanese ramen with the typical three broths to choose from: miso (soybean paste), shoyu (soy sauce), and pork. It used to be THE place for Japanese natives to get an authentic bowl of ramen, but since moving to their newer location in a strip mall, the quality has declined.

Their broth and pork slices used to both taste like they took hours to make. However, on my most recent visit, the pork was actually cold. The noodles still had their classic chewy texture, but lacked depth and flavor. I was glad I had decided to add a little corn and kimchi for extra texture and kick. It’s still a decent bowl of noodles, but the joint’s lost some of its luster.

Kuro (black garlic) Ramen from Maru Ichi

Maru Ichi368 Castro St, Mountain View, 650-564-9931

I chose this place for two reasons: 1) they make their own noodles in house, 2) they’re known for a specific kind of ramen called “kuro” ramen, or “black” ramen. The black color comes from the browned garlic and was a kind of ramen developed in Japan in the 1960’s, as the menu describes. The black garlic oil sits on top of the pork broth like an oil spill. It looks more like a film of dirt and soot floating on top of the bowl, but thankfully it doesn’t taste that way. The rich garlic flavor is distinct but didn’t completely overwhelm. You do, however, have to be a fan of garlic to enjoy the rich, hearty broth.

Their housemade noodles are thinner than most, but you can taste their freshness. It’s something you don’t usually get at other ramen houses. It’s worth trying just to compare the difference in texture and flavor. Overall, Maru Ichi’s kuro ramen definitely wasn’t your usual bowl of ramen, and it was a nice change from the usual.

Garlic Pork Ramen w/corn from Dojo Ramen

Dojo Ramen – 805 South B St, San Mateo, 650-401-6568

This place is actually in the spot where the old Santa Ramen used to be, and is owned by the same folks. But the differences are vast.

They specialize in something called “sutamina” ramen, which literally means “stamina” ramen. I’d call it “extreme” ramen because of the loads of garlic, spice and heat (which you can request to be even spicier), amount of fixings, and sheer fattiness of the broth. It’s like ramen on steroids. Everything is bolder and richer. And don’t come here if you don’t like spicy food.

The meat that comes with the Garlic Pork broth variation is impressive. There were two big thick slices of pork belly that could serve as an appetizer at a four-star restaurant. I was kicking myself for not ordering extra. It was simply wonderful; fatty and meaty, just like the broth.

And the noodles were the most impressive of any of the other places I visited. Their texture was perfectly chewy without being too firm or too soggy, and had great flavor.

So even without the “sutamina” label, Dojo’s was my favorite bowl of ramen simply based on the strength of its noodles and broth, which is really the sign of a superior bowl of ramen no matter where you are.

*This article is cross-posted on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.

Posted in Dinner, Events, Food, For Kids/Parent, Lunch, Peninsula, San Francisco, Street Food

Toasty Melts Food Truck is Grilled Cheese Goodness

The mere mention of a grilled cheese food truck tends to evoke one of two responses:

1) How hard can it be to make a grilled cheese at home? Why do you have to find a truck to go get it?
2) Damn, that sounds good.

Sure, you can make it yourself at home. But can it be easier, not to mention tastier, if you get it from the folks at Toasty Melts.

Business partners, Tiffany Lam and Alex Rando, started the Toasty Melts food cart in 2009 after being inspired by other popular carts like The Magic Curry Cart and The Creme Brulee Man. They also figured they could donate a portion of their earnings to the San Francisco Food Bank, where they were frequent volunteers.

So why switch from part-time food cart hobby to full-fledged food truck? “Matt Cohen wanted us to come to Off the Grid, but we weren’t that ambitious because we both had day jobs,” says Lam. She was a project manager for Marin company, Republic of Tea, and has since quit to devote herself completely to Toasty Melts. Rando is still at his day job. “We heard rumblings last year that the permit process was going to change. So last September, we finally started looking for a food truck to transition to,” says Lam.

Just this past March, they finally debuted their shiny new bright red food truck, ready to take on the already crowded food truck space.

But here’s the kicker: neither of them have any professional culinary experience. None! And that’s exactly how they came upon the decision to focus solely on the simplistic grilled cheese sandwich. “There’s no way we could do something fancier. It was definitely something we could execute. If we could do it, anyone could do it! It was the most realistic food avenue for us to take. But it’s also very versatile. We could be creative with the grilled cheese sandwiches and blend quality ingredients to make different variations.”

This simple sandwich requires no special equipment. They make the sandwiches on the truck’s grill, cooking up evenly and to a perfect golden brown.

I tried their two signature sandwiches: The ABC, which has thin apple slices, bacon from Zoe’s Meats and cheddar cheese; and the 3 Cheese, made up of smoked gouda, jack and cheddar cheeses. Both were served on Panorama bread, made locally in San Francisco. Most of the cheeses they use are from Kerrygold.

Both had the perfect amount of toastiness with the right amount of crunch. But the interior of the bread was also soft and pillowy with just enough buttery goodness.

3 Cheese

The 3 Cheese stood out because it was amazing to me how distinctive all three cheeses were even when melted together. The jack cheese was smooth and creamy, the cheddar gave it the classic flavor, and the smoked gouda provided a wonderfully sharp punch that made it stand out. I absolutely loved it.

I have to admit, though, that I wanted more from the ABC. The best thing about it was the thinly sliced apples, which gave the sandwich additional texture and a subtly sweet contrast in flavor. The bacon, unfortunately, was a bit dry and rubbery. I would’ve loved if it were more crunchy. And I longed for a cheese with a tad more flavor. The jack cheese just couldn’t hold its own.

Regardless, their sandwiches are still worth going back for, especially if you’ve got a hankering for a good grilled cheese. It’s fresh, perfectly toasty and gooey, affordable at $4-$6 a pop, and easier than making it yourself. “Who would want to shred and blend three different cheeses for one grilled cheese at home? We also provide the novelty and the convenience,” says Lam.

For now, you can find them at Off the Grid on alternating Mondays at Civic Center Plaza and on alternating Tuesdays at UN Plaza, along with possible regular stops in San Mateo and Brisbane. Lam wants to have a firm presence in San Francisco, though, despite the food truck permit drama that seems to happen frequently these days.

“We’re going to continue to pursue all our permits for various locations in San Francisco. And Alex and I would love to expand our menu at some point. For now, it’s just the one truck. My Dad owned a restaurant and I don’t know if I really want to own a brick and mortar restaurant. This one truck takes every ounce of my energy!”

Toasty Melts
Off the Grid Mondays and Tuesdays & other various locations pending
www.toastymelts.com
@ToastyMelts
Facebook.com/ToastyMelts

*Cross-posted on Bay Area Bites.

Posted in Dinner, Events, For Kids/Parent, Lunch, Peninsula, Street Food

The Curry Up Now Food Truck is Officially a Restaurant

Curry Up Now restaurant interior

The popular Indian food truck Curry Up Now has hit the big time. Their first brick and mortar restaurant opened this past Saturday in downtown San Mateo to long lines out the door. Fortunately, they invited some friends, family and food bloggers for a sneak peak the day before they opened to the public.

“Everything’s the same except now we have a restaurant,” said staffer, Jessica Hui. Their four food trucks will continue serving their versions of Indian street food all over the Bay Area. “The restaurant is more of a sit down place to eat, whereas the trucks are for people who just want to grab and go,” although takeout is always an option at the restaurant as well.

Counter and menu at Curry Up Now restaurant

Customers order from the oversized menu on the wall and pay at the counter. You then scribble your name on one of the mini chalkboards they’ll give you, and take it to your table so the food can be delivered to you there.

The menu looks almost like a mural, becoming a focal point for the entire room. “The fonts on the chalkboard menu are inspired by hit Bollywood movies,” says owner Rana Kapoor. That, along with their newly redesigned pink and orange logo, add a pop of color and character to the otherwise clean, simple, yet comfortable setting. And there is definitely an urban feel from the distressed wood and brushed metal accents that is on par with their street food roots.

blackboard menu at Curry Up Now restaurant

The menu is almost identical to what you’d find on one of their trucks, including fan favorites like Chicken Tikka Masala Burritos, Kathi Rolls, and Deconstructed Samosas. They plan to do different specials everyday to change things up a bit.

The biggest differences are the selection of Thalis, which are like dinner/lunch plates, and include saffron basmati rice and parantha (a sort of flatbread) and small salad. Diners choose from either two or three items from the list of options, which include Kadhai chicken, paneer or tofu, and Keema Matar Aloo. Fans of the Curry Up Now trucks and those familiar with Indian food will have no problem maneuvering through the menu. Those who aren’t will need some handholding from the friendly staff.

The other difference from the truck is the addition of a kids menu. Since this is a suburban brick and mortar joint, the need for this was obvious. “I didn’t know what to put on the kids menu so I asked my kids what I should do,” says Kapoor. “They said, ‘Mom, just serve them what you serve us!’” Hence the three options of either a quesadilla, Tandoori chicken or paneer, or Kathi Roll, and a side order of fries or broccoli.

Chicken Parantha Quesadillix with yogurt
Chicken Parantha Quesadillix with yogurt

Like any other restaurant, there’s no point in judging the food on the very first day of operation, but I’m glad to say all the items I ordered were completely consistent with the taste and quality of the food on any of their trucks, including the Chana Masala, a spicy stew of chickpeas and classic Indian spices, and the Chicken Parantha Quesadillix with yogurt on the side and that famous green sauce.

Curry Up Now’s over 4000 Facebook and almost 6000 Twitter followers will surely be excited at the thought of grabbing a Kathi Roll whenever they want now. And with a stable location, new fans won’t have to have a Twitter account to find their food.

Curry Up Now
Address: Map
129 South B Street
San Mateo, CA 94401
650-477-1001
Restaurant Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 11am-10pm
Facebook.com/curryupnow
@curryupnow

Curry Up Now on Urbanspoon

*This article is cross posted on Bay Area Bites.

Posted in Dinner, East Bay, Food, Lunch, Peninsula, San Francisco, Shopping, South Bay

Foodies Have Their Pick of Online Coupon Sites

collage of online coupon websites

Courtesy of Bay Area Bites/Wendy Goodfriend

It’s no secret that online coupons are exploding in popularity, especially for foodies looking to spend less on a great meal. I’ve purchased more than my fair share. And a recent study released by BlogHer even states that 51% of all women online are using coupon sites like Groupon and LivingSocial.

However, a recent New York Times article discussed whether restaurants actually benefit from the online coupon trend. It seems to be a trade-off with some establishments finding them a positive marketing tool while others claiming the discounts do not boost profits.

Let’s breakdown the different types of online coupon sites recently popular with food lovers.

Sites like Scoutmob and Blackboard Eats offer users a discount passcode to various eateries that they can access on their mobile phones and use the next time they frequent that business. There’s no pre-purchasing a certificate or gift card, involved. Blackboard Eats, however, does charge $1 for each passcode you want, or a fee of $20 for unlimited access to their discounts for one year.

Restaurant.com allows you to purchase gift certificates to a large list of pre-determined restaurants affiliated with the site, at a huge discount. Many times, you can find a discount code online for up to 80% off the listed price, which can bring a $25 gift certificate down to $5. There are many restrictions, though, and they differ with each restaurant, so it pays to read the fine print before you confirm your order.

That brings us to sites like DealPulp, TownHog, LivingSocial and Groupon, which require you to pre-pay for a largely discounted deal at a variety of different merchants, including eateries. Deals are usually 50% off or more, and have less restrictions than a certificate from Restaurant.com. Deals change daily, so you have a limited amount of time to purchase it.

There have been horror stories of some merchants being overwhelmed by the popularity of their online coupon or discount, and not being able to handle the response. But the owner of Milkshake Werks, Leslie Widmann in Redwood Shores had a great experience working with one of these sites.

“Groupon helped us set up a structure that would be good for our business. It was a great experience for us. The result was almost instant increased awareness of our business. Even folks who didn’t purchase the offer came by because they didn’t know about us. Now many of them are regulars.”

But success in the world of online coupons for a merchant doesn’t necessarily translate into dollars. It’s more about marketing.

Widmann explains, “You have to look at it in terms of effective advertising and where you’re going to spend your ad and marketing dollars. We’ve done some print ads and the effect was very subtle. The urgency and instant name recognition of a site like Groupon sparks excitement and people feel like they have to take advantage of the deal right away.”

Scoutmob’s social media manager, Nicole Jayne, has a similar theory for why online coupon sites are so successful.

“In the past, for a local small business, the only advertising options they had were billboards, radio, television and print. There was no real way to measure the success of that type of marketing. Online coupon sites allow these businesses to measure the effectiveness of getting their name out there almost instantly and translate that into traffic and revenue.”

There’s also no doubt the popularity of these sites is due in part to the recession and unstable economy. However, couponing is no flash in the pan trend, says Denise Tanton, the senior community manager at BlogHer. She, herself, recently started writing a popular series of blog posts about extreme couponing. “I started noticing couponing blogs more and thought this was a new trend. But after researching, I realized it wasn’t new, it’s just that the media has caught on because of the recession. And now TLC has latched on to it with a new show.”

She says coupons have been popular since the seventies. Even with the slowly improving economy, coupons will never go away, just evolve.

“I think we’re going to see more e-coupons, texted and mobile coupons. As smartphones become more pervasive, we’ll see more companies offering digital and smartphone based coupons. Companies will get more control over their offers that way.”

As for the money-saving food lover like me, there are three rules I live by before I hit “purchase”:

  1. Would I actually go to this eatery, even if I didn’t have this coupon? If I don’t answer yes, I’m out.
  2. Did I read the fine print? Some of these places don’t allow you to use your offer on a Friday or Saturday, have restricted times, or have expiration dates that are sooner than you’d like.
  3. It’s not a deal, unless you actually use it.
Posted in Dinner, East Bay, Events, Food, For Kids/Parent, Lunch, Peninsula, San Francisco, South Bay, Street Food

Off the Grid is Making Street Food Mainstream

Off the Grid at Fort Mason Center
Off the Grid at Fort Mason Center. Photo courtesy of Off the Grid

Almost every food craving you could ever think of could be satisfied by at least one of the food trucks at any given Off the Grid location in San Francisco. In just a couple of years, OtG in Fort Mason has become the single largest weekly block party for foodies in the Bay Area.

But with almost every food category being represented there, is there fear of street food being a trend that’s reaching oversaturation? Off the Grid’s man-in-charge, Matt Cohen, says absolutely not.

“I think of Asia and how prolific street food is and how it’s a part of people’s lives. Will all of them launching right now stay in business? Probably not. But there’s a long way to go before we hit the saturation point. The rest of the world has experience with street food and we were so far behind here in the Bay Area. People had to think of them not as roach coaches, so we just had to catch up.”

Cohen fell in love with street food while living in Japan as an English teacher. When he returned to the States, he tried to start his own food truck in 2007. His plans got halted after the recession hit, and he decided to turn his experience with getting a mobile food business started, permits, rules and all, into a food truck consultant business in 2008. Eventually, the idea of Off the Grid got off the ground.

“My clients were asking how we could find better locations and how trucks could group together at different locations. There was obviously a need and it was clear that no one truck could handle the task alone. Off the Grid is more of a curation of these food trucks.”

There are now six Off the Grid (OtG) events throughout the week in San Francisco, and possible OtGs in San Mateo, the South Bay and East Bay expected to be announced within the next six weeks. But is all this street food too much?

“What we’ve learned is that the only ‘destination’ OtG is Fort Mason in the city, where people from all over the Bay Area come to visit. Most of the other current locations are driven by locals and their needs in those areas. We like to create and attract community in the places we go, and those spots seem to have a need. And we try to make sure we switch out the trucks so it’s never the same experience every time.”

Cohen says they have 30-40 food trucks on their roster right now, but expect that number to DOUBLE by the end of the season! And there’s no threat of too much culinary overlap, either.

“No one would argue that we don’t need more fusion taco trucks and cupcake trucks. But there are a number of burger, sandwich, soup, pizza and salad food trucks coming soon.”

It’s only been about four years since food carts, trucks and the like hit the Bay Area, but the category has seen a lot of evolution since 2007.

“I think we’re sort of entering a third wave with the food truck scene here. There were guerrilla street food carts for a while with the Magic Curry and Crème Brulee Karts. They brought a lot of attention to the fun and whimsy of eating on the street. Plus, they really knew how to cook.”

“Then the second coming was when those guys, along with formal chefs, saw a demand for it but realized you couldn’t make a living with underground street food. It’s not a long term job, it’s a hobby. And experienced restauranteurs liked the simplicity of the truck.”

“Now, there’s a third wave happening, where people are taking that blueprint of the mobile food truck and going in all sorts of directions, like Rib Whip and Le Truc. There’s a ton of new trucks coming out now.”

Street food may still seem new to us, but there’s no reason why it can’t be here to stay, much like it is in other parts of the world. Of course, Cohen has a business stake in it all, but he’s attracted to this type of culinary experience for personal reasons too.

“I love eating outside! We can all try different foods and sit outside, have a great time, run into friends, and it’s affordable. Your kids can run around, you can bring your dog, and run into people you haven’t seen in a while. It’s a community space.”

As for the food truck he bought in 2007, he’s still got it, and just recently decided to start renting it out.

“We actually just started using the truck I bought back in 2007. We’re not serving food off of it, but it’s great for demos for chefs who are considering starting their own street food business, or for someone who wants to try it out before considering buying one for themselves. And it’s got televisions attached to it so it’s great for broadcasting Giants games.”

Off the Grid
Various locations throughout San Francisco. Check out their website for exact days and locations.
@sfcarts
facebook.com/offthegridsf

Posted in Dinner, Food, For Kids/Parent, Lunch, Peninsula, South Bay

Pizza and Pasta Rule at Osteria Coppa

Perfectly acceptable pasta and mediocre slices of pizza are easy to find.  If you haven’t had a decent interpretation of either in a while, you can easily forget what a great version tastes like.

Let’s just say I’ve now been reminded.

Osteria Coppa in San Mateo is owned by the folks who run Sam’s Chowder House in Half Moon Bay; a Peninsula institution.  Executive Chef Chanan Kamen takes pride in his handmade pastas and hand-stretched pizzas, and it shows.  His resume includes Michelin-starred Quince and Jardinere in San Francisco, and Picholine and Tabla in New York City.

Osteria Coppa is a farm-to-table restaurant, meaning they use organic, locally sourced, artisanal ingredients.  They cure their salumi in-house, fire up hand-made pizzas in their stone ovens, and artfully make their own pastas.

I paid two visits to the restaurant and each time focused solely on the pizzas and pastas, the latter of which has been getting some positive mentions in both the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News and The San Francisco Examiner, lately.

Braised Radicchio, Panchetta and Aged Balsamico Pizza

I tried both the house-made sausage, speck and crimini mushroom pizza, as well as the pancetta, braised radicchio and aged balsamico.  Both thin-crust, Neapolitan-style pies were fantastic for this simple reason: the fresh, creative topping combinations worked perfectly on an exceptional crust.

The flavors on both pizzas were well conceived, but I was particularly impressed with the pancetta, braised radicchio and aged balsamico pie.  It was one of the best pizzas I have had in a while.  I fell in love with the wonderfully tangy sweetness of the balsamico.  It made me wonder why I hadn’t tasted balsamic vinegar on a pizza before!  It was the perfect match for the meaty, fatty goodness of the of pancetta bits.  And the radicchio was an edgier stand-in for the typical red onions.

My dining companion at one point declared, “Even the crust is great on this pizza!”  The crust was perfectly crisp and charred on the bottom, pillowy soft and sweet on the inside.  If you order just one pie while you’re there, this is the one.

As far as Osteria Coppa’s pastas go, the San Jose Mercury News has called them “exquisite”, and even named the Tagliatelle Bolognese one of the Top Ten Dishes of 2010.

Tagliatelle Bolognese

There are plenty of places that make their own pastas, but they either make the mistake of overcooking it so that it becomes mushy (fresh pasta should take no longer than a few minutes to cook), or the flavor is way too doughy and floury, without enough focus on fresh, quality ingredients.

There’s no risk of either here.  Preparation, ingredients and technique all have equal importance.  The Fettuccine Marinara with cauliflower and broccoli rabe was perfectly al dente, and the noodles were delicious with a wonderful eggy, almost buttery flavor.  The freshness of the vegetables was obvious and actually made the dish seem light.

But I can confirm that the recent attention on the Tagliatelle Bolognese is well warranted.  The dish was nothing short of fabulous with its smooth, rich pork and deliciously creamy sauce.  And once again, the noodles themselves were the star in both texture and taste.  But for all the richness of this dish, it never seemed overly heavy.

Blood Orange Lemonade

Aside from the pizzas and pastas, the house-made blood orange lemonade is more proof of the inventive items on the menu.  It’s a fun twist on the typical lemonade and it shows how the restaurant takes full advantage of their access to great fruits and vegetables.  They use unconventional ingredients and combine them in a way that makes you feel like every item is fully realized.

Service is casual but expert.  There’s no pretentiousness from the staff, and families are welcome.  In the Bay Area, that’s a welcome change for a restaurant of this caliber.  They’ve done a successful job of creating a warm, sophisticated yet easy vibe here.  Chef Kaman was an expert pasta maker while at Quince, and the peninsula is lucky he’s decided to bring his four-star talents to suburbia.

Posted in Dinner, Food, For Kids/Parent, Lunch, Peninsula, San Francisco

Shanghainese Food: What to Get and Where to Eat

For most Americans, Chinese food is about Fried Rice, Chow Mein and the occasional Kung Pao Chicken. But China’s a big country, and just like in the States, each region has its own specialties.

For example, the food in Northern China is very different from Southern China. You’ll find a lot of stir-fries and rice dishes in the South, which is much more common in American Chinese restaurants.

Up North, though, the winters are longer and colder, hence their food is richer and tends to be a little heavier (braised meats and doughy noodles and dumplings). It’s good comfort food.

The food from Shanghai is no exception. Here are some tried and true favorites you’ll find at a typical Shanghainese restaurant. If they do these dishes well, you’ll be golden.

Lion’s Head Meatballs are named aptly for the way this dish was supposed to look. The dish usually has three ginormous pork meatballs, and is served on a bed of greens, which resembles the lion’s mane.

You can usually find this dish as a soup or braised. I prefer it braised, personally. The sauce is much richer and deeper in flavor. They start with ground pork and add in some finely chopped shiitake mushrooms and sometimes water chestnuts for texture. But a truly good version of this dish will also have the addition of anise, cinnamon and cloves, usually from a five-spice powder blend. The meatballs are then fried and braised. The flavors are very different, yet the ingredients are totally familiar. It’s such a fabulous dish that has a lot of warmth from the spices and goes great with some steamed white rice.

Pork Chop Rice With Greens is a very traditional homestyle meal. What makes this dish different is that chopped bits of baby bok choy and smoky ham are all cooked together with white rice to get a wonderful melding of all three flavors and a stickier rice. Add to that some golden fried pieces of pork chop and you’ve got a one-pot meal, Chinese style.

This is a wonderfully unusual take on veggies. Here, soybeans (edamame) are stir-fried with preserved mustard greens that add a nice tang and crunch. For protein and even more texture, tofu skin strips are thrown into the mix. It’s a dish that’s both mild and flavorful at the same time. It’s great mixed into a bowl of soup noodles, too.

Soup Dumplings (or Xiao Long Bao) are probably the most recognizable Shanghainese food item to those even remotely familiar with the cuisine. They’re called soup dumplings for the pocket of meat juices that end up on the inside of that delicately thin dough. If the doughy exterior is too thick, that’s a restaurant you don’t want to go back to. Getting the perfect mix of thin dough and flavorful meaty interior is an extremely difficult task. And you want to eat these babies when they’re fresh out of the steamer, otherwise they get gummy.

For novices, just place one dumpling very carefully (so you don’t rip the dough) onto your Chinese spoon. Take a small bite out of the skin and let the soup spill into your spoon. Yummy soup is another good sign of a great dumpling. After you slurp that up, dip the dumpling into the accompanying black vinegar and ginger sauce.

Enjoy…and if it’s good, you definitely will.

So if you love Chinese food, you might want to think outside the takeout box and look for more regionalized Chinese fare. You’ll never look at Kung Pao Chicken the same way again.

Shanghainese Restaurants I’d Recommend:

SHANGHAI DUMPLING SHOP (Michelin recommended in 2010)
455 Broadway, Millbrae
(650) 697-0682
Must try: Soup Dumplings (Xiao Long Bao), Braised Lion’s Head Meatballs, Stir Fried Rice Cake

HAPPY CAFE
250 South B St., San Mateo
(650) 340-7138
Must try: Pork Chop Rice, Spicy Dry Cold Noodles w/Cucumbers & Pork, Boiled Chicken w/House Dressing

SHANGHAI DUMPLING KING
3319 Balboa St., San Francisco
(415) 387-2088
Must try: Soup Dumplings (Xiao Long Bao), Lion’s Head Meatballs Soup, Soup Noodles w/Pork and Preserved Vegetables

*This post is cross-posted on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.

Posted in Food, For Kids/Parent, Lunch, Peninsula, San Francisco, Street Food

With JapaCurry, It’s All About The Food

From SF Weekly to the Wall Street Journal, the JapaCurry food truck has been getting a lot of press lately for ruffling feathers with San Francisco restaurants located in the areas where the truck is parked.

But one question hasn’t been asked much through it all…How’s the food?

Well, fortunately for owner Jay Hamada, it’s damn good.

Japanese curry is different from Indian or Southeast Asian curries. It is sweeter and has a deeper, richer, meatier flavor base and color than those from other cultures.  It’s also one of the most common meals at dinner tables across Japan because it’s rather inexpensive to prepare.

Hamada’s recipe is purely his own.  He starts from scratch with 80 pounds of onions a day as the basis for each day’s batch of curry, caramelizing them to give the sauce a rich depth of flavor and adding thickness. A day’s batch of curry can take 6-7 hours to make. Just like with a homemade soup or stew, Hamada says homemade Japanese curry is better the next day. Many of these restaurants in his native Japan, let their curries sit for up to a week before serving it so the flavors have time to meld and develop.

Some have talked about their Chicken Katsu Curry lately, but using chicken is a variation of the original and more traditional Pork Cutlet, or “Tonkatsu” Curry served in Japan, so that’s what I opted for.  I was instantly impressed when I open the clamshell box.

The cutlet was breaded and fried to a perfect shade of golden brown and had streaks of brown katsu sauce over the top that not only added flavor, but made for a lovely presentation, especially considering the food came from a truck.

I was even more pleased once I bit into the pork. Despite a 10 minute drive back to my office, the breading was still crisp and never separated from the meat; a true sign of good tonkatsu. The meat itself was juicy and tender, not at all dry. It was obviously a good cut of pork because there was enough fat to ensure juicy meat, but not too much to seem greasy.

The curry was more of a sauce than a thick gloppy stew like you’d see at many Japanese restaurants around town. Hamada says that’s because many Japanese restaurants in America don’t make their curry from scratch. Many times they use curry stock cubes that you buy from an Asian supermarket.

The sauce had a definite kick, even though I ordered the “regular”, not that I’m complaining. The flavors were also much more robust and had a definite warmth that came from the variety of spices, including cumin, coriander, cardamom, mustard seed, turmeric, and a little bit of apple or peach, when in season, to add a touch of sweetness.

Hamada’s recipe is one he developed on his own, after stints at Tanpopo Restaurant in San Francisco and Wakuriya Restaurant in San Mateo. But his background is actually in technology. After getting laid off, he decided to give his passion for food another shot. He even returned to Tokyo to become a trained ramen maker.

But once he returned to the States, he noticed the food truck trend taking off. “I saw food trucks in downtown San Francisco and decided it was a better option because real estate was so expensive. And I used to work at an office, so I know that people want a quick lunch. I thought curry was better for that reason, and it’s easier to serve off a truck than ramen.”

The menu is extremely short with only pork or chicken cutlet, pork Kurobata sausage, veggie and veggie croquette curry options, plus the occasional bento box.  But this curry is the real deal.  The quality and flavor of my meal was excellent considering it came from a truck.  And eight dollars will get you a healthy portion that’ll satisfy your lunch craving.

Hamada says he has no plans to expand outside of San Francisco, for now, but he does want to expand his menu to possibly include a seafood and beef curry.  And he hasn’t abandoned his love of ramen, either. “I miss ramen!  That’s still my goal.  I’d love to have another truck, or maybe I’ll do a ramen restaurant.”

As for all this hoopla he’s been experiencing lately with the restaurants he’s offended downtown, he regrets not doing things differently in the beginning. “I would’ve introduced myself to the businesses in the neighborhood to explain what I do and let them know before I went out there. Overall, some restaurants are skeptical, but many want to try my food and are supportive.”

He admits, though, all this press attention has actually helped business. “My foot traffic has been great because people are curious.  Customers have been very supportive and say good things to me like, ‘Keep it up!’”

Some brick and mortar restaurants may not want a food truck in their neighborhood.  But the reality is if the food is good, people will come back, and the public will ultimately get to determine who stays and who goes.

JapaCurry Food Truck
Various locations in San Francisco, including Sansome and Pine, Howard and 1st St., Mission and New Montgomery, and 8000 Marina Blvd. in Brisbane.
11:30am – 1:30pm
@JapaCurry
www.japacurry.com

*This article is cross-posted on KQED’s Bay Area Bites website.

Posted in Dinner, East Bay, Food, Lunch, Peninsula, San Francisco, South Bay, Street Food

Food Trucks: Curry Up Now Is Here To Stay

Curry Up Now truck.
Curry Up Now truck. Photo: Rana & Akash Kapoor

As one of the first food trucks to hit the Bay Area culinary scene, Curry Up Now has seen all the trials and tribulations that come with this niche business. They specialize in authentic Indian street food with some fusion elements thrown in for good measure.

Their menu items and locations change regularly so it’s always a good idea to check their website, Facebook or Twitter posts for daily updates. But they usually have a few regulars on the menu that stay constant, including their made-to-order Chicken or Paneer Kathi Roll and creamy Chicken Tikka Masala Burrito, mixed with fragrant saffron basmati rice and then wrapped in a tortilla. But my personal favorite is the Deconstructed Samosa, which is their homemade potato and pea stuffed pastry pocket, fried and then topped with mini-samosas, spicy chickpea curry (chana), tomatoes, red onions, tamarind sauce, their secret green sauce and your choice of ground beef (keema), chicken or paneer (vegetarian option). Their food is so good, it’s now become a weekly craving for me. And I’m obviously not the only one because their fourth truck is expected to hit the East Bay soon.

Deconstructed Samosa
Deconstructed Samosa. Photo: Elaine Wu

I sat down with husband and wife team, Rana and Akash Kapoor, to ask them what they’ve learned, what’s next, and why it’s all worth it.

Where did the inspiration to start a food truck come from? You were one of the first ones on the scene.
AKASH: The idea started in early 2009. Then we got serious in the summer and launched on September 26th, 2009. It was a trend in Southern California and in Portland and we kind of took inspiration from everyone else’s ideas and threw ours in there and that’s how we started.

With weekly appearances in San Francisco, the Peninsula, the South Bay and now the East Bay, is your Bay Area wide domination complete?
AKASH: We’ve always wanted to serve our food to people all across the Bay Area. So now we’ve got 4 trucks hitting all the major areas, and we’d like one or two more as a “backup” or roving truck.

What are your plans for the future? I’d heard speculation at one point about franchising.
AKASH: Right now we’re very serious about opening a brick and mortar restaurant. In fact, it’ll hopefully happen within the next 90 days or so. That’s where we see the growth potential. We’re hoping eventually to start franchising and perhaps grow to multiple locations all over the country. A bit like a Chipotle or Panda Express, but with quality Indian food. The food quality is still and always will be the number one priority for us. But the restaurant will serve everything we do on the truck with perhaps 10 or 15 more items. Some things we’ve always wanted to serve but are impossible to make on the truck, like desserts and more entrées. As far as the trucks are concerned, we’ll keep them as is and maybe add a couple more. They all have to go through health inspections and the permit process. It takes a while.

What do you think the future is for street food in the Bay Area? Is it just a fad?
AKASH: I think the U.S., in general, adopted street food quite late and Northern California, in particular. There’s street food everywhere, especially on the East Coast. I think it’s here to stay.

RANA: It’s an alternative food movement for those who want to experience the food and culture of a region and the Bay Area street food scene is no different.

AKASH: I think because there seems to be a new truck on the scene almost every week, there’s gonna be consolidation and bigger players will take over because it’s hard to survive and grow and make money. Because if you don’t grow, you’re gonna go away.

We’re hearing a lot lately about brick and mortar merchants complaining that food trucks who park in their neighborhoods are stealing business from them. What are your thoughts around that?
AKASH: I believe some of these mom and pop places need to step up their game! Whether you’re a food truck or a sandwich shop, people have to like your food and you have to offer something different that you can’t get everywhere else.

RANA: We still go through it everyday with restaurants in the neighborhoods we visit. We went through it in Burlingame, but the city and the people have been great. One merchant came and cussed us out early on when we were out there. But you also have to be sensitive to the merchants around you. We try to stay away from restaurants that serve food similar to ours. If we park right in front of a coffee shop, we don’t serve chai because it’s probably on their menu, too. You have to be supportive. I mean, why not work together? There was one instance where the merchant came out and gave our customers samples! When you want to work together, something good can come out of it.

What is your opinion of other street food trucks? Are they competition or is it a community.
AKASH: People should respect when someone’s been in a location for a long time and not show up at the same time with the intent of stealing business. And it’s important for all of us food trucks to obey the parking rules. Everyone will get kicked out if someone steals 5 parking spaces. That doesn’t help anyone in the long run.

RANA: For example, if we want to go to a location that someone’s been at for a while, we call them directly and ask if it’s okay. Just call us! We’d love to build a community.

AKASH: I’ve actually been talking to the folks who run Off the Grid about starting an association for street food vendors and food trucks, especially in San Francisco. When traditional small businesses start bullying a food truck, whose going to advocate for us? We need a collective voice to represent this growing community.

You currently have over 4700 followers on Twitter and over 3600 Likes on Facebook. You’ve been through a lot of ups and downs, but your customers seem to be very loyal.
AKASH: They’re amazing. We listen to them and make changes all the time. When someone says that our food quality’s gone down, we listen. We call people who take the time to tell us how we’re doing. We make changes immediately.

What sort of wisdom can you impart to newer trucks going through it all?
AKASH: People need to do their homework before they go out. We didn’t and we’re still learning.

If it’s so much trouble, why keep doing it?
RANA: The passion. It’s always been there and it’s been a dream for both Akash and I. We’ve always loved to cook and entertain. And I love people. For me, I want people to tell me how they feel about the food and communicate with them. When people care, something good always comes out of that.

Posted in Food, Peninsula, San Francisco

English Tea Time…and Not at Lovejoy’s

Now, I have NOTHING against Lovejoy’s Tea Room in the city. I LOVE that place. And I normally hate scones, but Lovejoy’s gets theirs from John Campbell’s Irish Bakery and they, along with the traditional clotted cream, are absolute perfection!

…But I digress…

Basically if you’re looking for the traditional English tea service on the peninsula but don’t want to trek to the city to deal with meter maids every 30 minutes or battle the yuppies for the one rare parking spot, head to Sweetea’s in San Mateo. It’s tucked away in the tiny alleyway of random shops right off 25th Ave. and El Camino.

The place is complete with pink roses, china cups and white lace. Perfect for a small wedding or baby shower, or your daughter, granddaughter, or niece’s birthday. This place is super tiny, but extremely quaint.

Most of the food is homemade, which explains the smell of sweets lofting from the kitchen. The service is super friendly and the tea is excellent (with unlimited refills).

I brought the galpals for an afternoon of long conversation and never once did we feel pressured to leave or anything but welcome. The crustless finger sandwiches were perfectly prepared (fig and proschutto being the highlight) and the scones were still warm out of the oven (though nothing compared to John Campbell’s, unfortunately). The large selection of teas was large enough so that you had options, but not so large that you felt intimidated.

All in all, it was the perfect place for some afternoon conversation in a very girly setting. There’s definitely something about all this English-ness that makes you sit up straighter and hold up your pinky when you drink your tea. 🙂

Sweetea’s – 25 West 25th Avenue, San Mateo  (in the Patio Shops) – 877.545.3832 – Reservations recommended