Monday, August 18, 2008

Freshly-made froyo at Poco Cafe

Froyo is all the rage nowadays. Korean tart frozen yogurt shops now litter the streets, offering tangy treats topped with even tangier fruits and mochi chunks that provide a refreshing and welcome break from the overly sweet American fare.

Poco Cafe in San Jose, however, sells neither kind of yogurt.  Instead, it sells something much more interesting -- fresh frozen yogurt, freshly blended with fresh fruit chunks, using this intimidating machine:

This thing blends together a plain yogurt base with any fruit of your choosing.  The machine itself is a wonder to behold, and is reason alone for you go to and see this antique and charmingly primitive monster in action.  The resulting yogurt is not artificially tart, like the currently-hip Korean variety.  Make no mistake -- it is tart nonetheless, but the tartness comes completely from whatever fruit you choose.  Like other snacks that depend on fresh fruits, the flavor and sweetness varies from day to day; we've had good luck with blueberries, peaches and pineapples, and less with mangoes (bland) and raspberries (sour).

They also sell shaved ice, which is not quite as impressive.  They do not shave their ice on the spot; instead, they pack pre-shaved ice into a box, which means it comes to your plate very coarse and very icy.  You have your usual choice of toppings, and their red/green beans and peanuts are all very yummy.  In my opinion, they use too much toppings for the amount of ice they give you, but some prefer it that way.

I haven't tried their tea drinks, but my friend has tried their jasmine green tea, and he assured me that it is excellent, with a very strong tea flavor.

Overall, this place has quickly become one of my favorite dessert places.  If you're in the mood for yogurt, and are put off by the typical trendy, high schooler infested froyo places out there, Poco Cafe is an excellent choice.

1688 Hostetter Rd. #C
San Jose CA 95131

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Excellent beef noodle soup at ASJ Restaurant

This is my first post here on this blog, and I'll be bringing some much-needed Taiwanese perspectives here!

Beef noodle soup (牛肉麵) is something that inspires worship of mythical proportions. On the streets of Taiwan, you can find plenty of beef noodle soup shops touting that they've been in business since the dawn of time, or that their soup contains SUPER SEKRIT FAMILY RECIPE that can transport you through a fantasy land of amazingly rich flavors and do your taxes for you. It's certainly a market filled with passion, bombast, and really good eats.

Here in the Bay Area, though, things are a lot more subdued. People of discerning taste for noodles now tend to pay more attention to ramen, and the heated passion that used to be associated with beef noodle soup has now faded into historical oddity. Thank God, then, that there exist stores like ASJ Restaurant that are still cranking out beef noodle soups, one delicious bowl at a time.

It's a very simple dish, really. It's -- yes! -- beef, noodle, and soup. Usually you'll get a few leafs of vegetables, and sometimes carrots or daikon. But the magic, as you can expect, comes from the soup and the noodle. First, the flavor of the soup must be complex but not muddled, savory but not salty, rich but not greasy, and spicy but not burning. Beef noodle shops reuse beef stock over the years so that their soup gains complexity with each use -- which is why shops that have been in business for decades tend to have the edge in flavor. The noodle, of course, needs to be very Q (or, in non-Taiwan terms, al dente), and comes in thick or thin varieties.

ASJ's soup pretty much passed every test we could think of. The soup was very good at just the perfect amount of spiciness, and I finished drinking the entire bowl without feeling that it's too oily or salty. Wei got the thin noodles, which were softer and not quite as Q as I'd like, though he enjoyed it a lot. I got the thick noodles, which I found to be a bit too doughy and tough, but my girlfriend Mel found it to be just fine (of course -- she's from Beijing! She'd be happy just biting into a ball of dough). Mel was also very impressed by the beef slices, which contained some tendons and were very tender, but I thought they were a little bland. Overall, though, very excellent beef noodle soup.

We also ordered their potstickers (鍋貼). I was very excited about them because they were the open-ended kind -- a rare find in the Bay Area -- but they turned out to be pretty mediocre.

We also got their spicy wontons (紅油炒手), which was awful -- the wontons were tiny, and the sauce is some weird concoction that's a little spicy, a little peppery, a little sweet, and very weird.

Overall, I was very happy with ASJ. Sure, its potstickers and wontons did not impress, but the beef noodle soup is killer, and surely worth a trip by itself.

In summary,

Beef noodle soup -- 4.5/5 (very impressive!)
Potstickers -- 3/5 (promising, but ultimately uninspiring)
Spicy wontons -- 1/5 (err, don't get this)

1698 Hostetter Rd # D
San Jose, CA 95131

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

First post about non-Chinese food... Cluck U Chicken.

I had been craving fried chicken for 2 weeks, and I had heard great things about Cluck U's super spicy wings, so since jayc and I were in the area, we decided to hit up this student hang out of Santa Clara University for some hotness.

As many people already know, their wing sauce comes in a scale of smoking-ness, ranging from MILD to NUCLEAR to GLOBAL THERMAL NUCLEAR. I'm a pretty conservative person, so after hearing all the stories, we went for the ATOMIC level, just to be safe.

In addition to 10 Atomic Wings, we also got 3 chicken tenders and some gravy fries.

I waited impatiently for my chicken, because I had really been thinking and dreaming about friend chicken for two weeks, so I was really excited about this chicken!

When the food came, it looked pretty good. The Wings were already covered with Atomic sauce, and it was a nice touch that the wings came with some celery, you know, just to balance out the meal. The chicken tenders were large, and the batter outside looked like beer batter, as opposed to the flaky kind of bread batter used normally. They were hot to the touch (temperature-wise). The fries were just regular thick cut fries with gravy poured all over. So far so good.

First I try the chicken tenders without any sauce. The batter was pretty crunchy and had that good fried taste, but it was a bit too hard for my liking. I thought it could have been a little more light and crispy. The chicken inside was just average chicken breast - not very moist but not too dry either. Meh. I was not blown away. But hey, the wings are supposed to be the big shizzle, right?

So I move onto the wings. First, I blamed myself for being too conservative because the Atomic sauce was not very atomic at all. Maybe it was the sweetness of the sauce, but initially I didn't really feel any hotness in my mouth whatsoever. It was only after a whole wing that I started to feel some warmth. I guess I should have gone for traditional death or something instead. But that is no one's fault but my own, so no complaints. However, the wings themselves (i.e. the MEAT) was also very disappointing. From the rave reviews I had heard about this place from friends, I expected the wings to be spectacular. Cripsy batter on the outside, and once you bite through the batter you get overwhelmed with the juices inside, and then you bite into the super tender chicken meat. I had been harbouring this image of friend chicken in my mind for two weeks! I didn't really get any of this from Cluck U's wings. The batter was crispy enough, given they were slathered in hot sauce. But the chicken inside was really not very juicy. It wasn't dry, because what kind of moron can really mess up wings so much that it's dry, right? But it really just was not that spectacular. Even the meat itself was more dry than I would have expected wings to be.

*I did not take this photo. It belongs to jatbar.*

Anyways, I don't have any huge gripes against Cluck U Chicken, but I have to say that it is average at best, and perhaps if I wanted to try the super hot sauce on average wings, I would go again. But if I get another craving for great fried chicken parts, I'll try somewhere else.

So in summary,

Hot Wings with not-so-ATOMIC sauce - 3.5/5 (-1 for being slightly on the dry side, -0.5 for sauce being too sweet)
Chicken Tenders - 3.5/5 (what can I say, they were just really average!)
Celery that came with the wings - 4/5 (this place gets extra pts for caring about our balanced diet)
Fries with gravy - not really worth reviewing. Just super average fries. With average gravy on top.


2565 The Alameda
Santa Clara, CA 95050
(408) 241-2582

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Friday, July 11, 2008

An Adventurous Dinner at Cafe Yulong 玉龙小馆

You know one of those days when you're hungry, but can't quite pick out what you want to eat, and you keep switching between wanting one thing and another? Well today was one of those days for me. jayc and I were trying to decide what to eat for dinner. It was getting kind of late, approaching 9pm, so I suggested Buca di Beppo, since I kind of felt like Italian. But earlier in the week I'd been having a craving for fried chicken, which was never fulfilled, so we then tried to think where we could get fried chicken, and only abandoned that thought when the closest place with decent fried chicken was 10mi away. jayc said he wasn't that hungry. Well maybe we could get sushi? So we went on yelp to get some ideas for sushi places that were still open at 9pm. Kappo Nami Nami in Mountain View was a place that a labmate had mentioned was good, and it was still open. So with that in mind, we headed out to Mountain View.

But as we turned onto Castro, I don't know what kind of a secret spasm I experienced in my brain, I suddenly said "Turn left!!! Let's eat at Cafe Yulong (玉龙小馆) !!!" Somewhere in the depth of my mind I probably saw a review somewhere on yelp about it and somehow I had the impression it was a small-ish cafe for eating Asian snack type foods, dumplings, and noodles... How wrong I was...

The first thing I noticed after walking through the door was that this Cafe was not small at all. Impression #1 killed. It was actually rather large and spacious inside, at least compared to my impression. Then, to my dismay as we were led to our table I noticed that 90% of the clientele were non-Asian. Specifically, they were white... hmm. Not a good sign for a Chinese girl looking for authentic Chinese eats... After looking at the menu, Impression #2, that this was a snack shop, was killed. All the menu items were pretty normal Chinese take-out type items, complete with Walnut Prawns and even General Tsao Chicken.

Just as I was saying to jayc that we should just leave and go to another place, the waitress brought out our tea, water and a dish of kimchee... I guess it's too late to back out. Me and my big mouth were going to pay the price for my brain spasm. And what kind of Chinese restaurant serves kimchee instead of 榨菜 anyways?!

We ended up ordering Thousand Year Egg with Tofu 皮蛋豆腐 (cold dish), Mandarin Style Garlic Eggplant 鱼香茄子, Mongolian Beef 蒙古牛肉,and Szechuan Sauce Noodles 四川炸酱面 (whatever that means...). The funny thing is when we were ordered, we asked the waitress for a suggestion, and seeing that we spoke Chinese, she actually said "Well... this is food for Americans you know..." =D

I had never really eaten at a fully Americanized Chinese restaurant before... *nervous*, and thus began our adventurous dinner.

The first dish was actually not too bad at all. The cold dish, Tofu with black egg, was actually quite tasty, even though it was not authentic. The traditional Chinese way to eat this dish is to serve very tender tofu with the egg, topped with regular soysauce, dark vinegar and some sesame oil. Our dish today used Japanese Tofu, which was soft but slightly more dense and grainy, and was topped with sweetened dark soysauce and... Bonito Flakes (yah, like the kind you cook miso soup with). The bonito flakes were good, but the boyfriend and I had to add so much soysauce for flavour that we were almost embarrassed, and when we asked for vinegar, there was only white. =( But despite the deviations, the dish in itself was very palatable, with the taste of the tofu complemented by the bonito and the slightly sweet soysauce.

The noodle came next. This was my least favourite dish. It looked pretty good at first (before I mixed it all up =P), with red sauce, lots of onions and shrimp and squid (although no Szechuan person would ever really make noodles like that, they're not big on the shrimp... and no Mandarin person would ever call that 炸酱). But the taste was just... so plain. It was spicy, but not in the numbing hot 麻辣 way that is known in Szechuan - it was just chili. And other than that it was devoid of any other flavours. Bland doesn't begin to describe it. The shrimp were fresh and crisp, but the squid tasted kind of proteiny, like raw egg white, and it was rubbery. Yuck.

The eggplant and the mongolian beef came last, and they were both also average, and predictably Americanized - the eggplant not very garlicky, but very sweet; and the beef not very spicy, also on the sweet side. *Yawn* The conclusion was to go get boba afterwards to compensate our taste buds.


Tofu with Thousand Year Egg - 3.8/5 (subtract 2 points for being wayyyy not authentic, but add 0.8 for it being actually tasty)
Noodles of some kind - 1/5 (I was going to give it a ZERO, but then again, at least it wasn't nasty - just bland)
Eggplant with Sugar Sauce - 2/5 (Mixed with the noodles, it made them palatable)
Mongolian Beef (made by some sissy Mongolian) - 2.2/5 (gets 0.2 more than the eggplant cuz it's got meat...)

So I guess the conclusion is, don't eat here unless you feel like lemon chicken or something. =P

for when you actually want lemon chicken:

743 W Dana St
Mountain View
, CA 94041
(650) 960-1677
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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Shanghai Flavor Shop 上海生煎馆 - 生煎包 Heaven!

First post ever! Yay!

My blog is actually inspired by Friends were 'insulted' that the blogger didn't eat lamb at a famous lamb hotpot place; they were also 'outraged' that their favourite Ramen place was ranked below another one; also the idea that using this blog I can keep track of which restaurants I'd tried and what I ordered and what was good, was mentioned by the owner of tanspace. So first I thank mr. or ms. tanspace for the inspiration.

The first place I want to review is actually one that was already reviewed by mr. tanspace. It's the little hole in the wall place in Sunnyvale called Shanghai Flavor Shop 上海生煎馆. The instant I saw the photo of that shengjianbao (Pan Fried Bun) on eat.tanspace, I knew this place had to be a winner. Why? From the way the bun is cooked, of course! To me, authenticity is key, and this is the first place serving shengjian where the bun is actually fried 'upside down' - PROMISING! I knew I had to check this place out.

Without delay, I grabbed a friend after badminton on Tuesday, and drove all the way to Sunnyvale in search of this perfect little bun. When we got to the area, it was already just past 9pm, and I was in fear that the store might be closed already (I could not find the hours for this place online). To make things worse, due to the hole-in-the-wall-ness of this place, it took another 10 mins to actually find the restaurant in the dark. When we pulled up in the parking space right outside the shop, the lights in the sign were dimmed, and to my dismay the sign on the door clearly said "4PM-9PM". =( But look! The door is still open, and the light still on inside. I asked my friend to go in and asked. My heart sank once more when she came back out saying that they had indeed closed for the day.

Just as I was about to drive away, the lady proprietor came out, and turned her head in all directions, as if looking for something. My friend waved at her through the window and she saw us, and said that if shengjian is what we are looking for, they can still make it for us to-go. HURRAY!

We quickly stepped out of the car and into the shop, and waited eagerly as the owners prepared our two orders of shengjian. We also ordered a plate of garlic stir fry Chinese watercress 蒜蓉炒空心菜. The vegetables were made fresh, as we could see into their kitchen and saw the bag of vegetables being taken out of the wrapper. As for the buns, I'm quite certain that they are not made from frozen pre-made buns, because I also saw in the kitchen a gigantic tupperware box of meat bun filling. We only waited around 5 to 10 mins for our order to be ready.

After almost 15 mins of driving, we arrive home, already too tantalized by the delicious smell wafting out from the takeout box. One key thing to note about their to-go shengjian is that with most places, you would simply not get them to go because you know that in the box they will go soggy from the condensation. But the owners clearly care a lot about the taste of their food. Not only did they line the inside of the take-out box with foil to keep it extra warm/crispy, but they also cut holes in each of the boxes to allow the hot air to escape, thus keeping the shengjian nice and dry. In addition, they also wrapped an extra bag around the vegetables to prevent the soup in that from leaking out and making a mess. I was already impressed.

Then I look at the bun. It looks very much like the authentic shengjian of Shanghai. The buns are fried upside down, so the 'top' of the bun is dark. The other side is white, and sprinkled with sesame and green onion, and it is also puffed up like a little dough balloon. I poked the bun, and the dough is bouncy, not hard. Then I take the bite.

The inside filling is very tender, as the meat is ground up finely. This is one slight deviation to the shengjian I had in Shanghai, where the meat was a little more chunky, and had more green onions. But other than that, the flavour was almost identical. Even the soup that is missing from the buns of so many lesser restaurants was there, and you have to be careful not to spill and waste any of the tasty meat juice. The dough skin was soft and chewy in the white parts, and slightly crispy in the dark parts. The sesame were grilled just right and you can taste it even with the meat being the main focus. This, is the closest I have ever had to the real thing outside of China. Some might protest that almost $1 per bun is a bit pricey, but I think it's is highly worth the price, especially if you're like me and you value the authenticity.

The vegetable is then just an afterthought. It was crunchy enough, but could be more so, and maybe slightly overcooked since the colour was darker than it should have been, but still tasted fine (you can probably tell by now that I don't care much about vegetables in general).

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) I ate the buns too quickly and did not remember to take a photo (especially since I didn't know that I was going to start my blog)... That means I'll have to go back. ^_^

EDIT: So wei went to visit this place, and took a photo of the shengjian. Here it is! Thanks wei!

So in summary:

Shengjian - 4.8/5 (-0.2 for the meat being a bit on the finely ground side - a minor detail)
Vegetables - do you really care?

And if you ever want to visit this place:

888 Old San Francisco Rd.
Sunnyvale CA

(it's near the corner of Wolfe and Old San Francisco, in a run-down mall next to a Shell and a Safeway. Without that info, it might be impossible to find in the dark. In the day time it's probably okay. =)

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