San Jose, Et Cetera Part Two: The Food

We try to follow one big rule when we travel and that is: don’t end up in jail a long way from home. The next big rule is only eat at places you can’t get at home. This doesn’t always strictly apply in the airport because sometimes time just isn’t on our side (although the lounges helped out with that on this trip), but once we get to where we are going, that’s the rule. Generally this means no chain restaurants, but we make an exception for chains that just aren’t around where we are, which still leaves lots of options because our quaint little corner of the midwest apparently doesn’t meet minimum requirements for a lot of bigger places (this is why I get excited to see run of the mill things major grocery stores: the nearest Trader Joe’s is a two hour drive from my house; the nearest Whole Foods an hour and a half; both of these feel unbelievably rare and exotic to me even though I know they’re nothing special to most of the country). Obviously the goal is to visit locally owned restaurants, something we aim for even when we aren’t traveling, but we don’t hold entirely hard and fast to that rule. It’s more about taking advantage of being Somewhere Else and sampling what Somewhere Else has to offer, and San Jose (and the surrounding area) offered a lot.

Kalen eats just about anything, and while I don’t consider myself “picky,” I do have a few self-imposed restrictions, mainly that I don’t eat mammals (it’s sort of a stepping stone to being vegetarian; I know it’s not the most logical, but it’s what I do). A lot of people with dietary restrictions can experience quite a bit of stress and anxiety when traveling, but I found that this trip made eating far easier than I’m typically used to. Big cities tend to have more vegetarian and vegan options in general than the rural midwest (where everyone is obsessed with bacon), and because we were on the coast, there was an abundance of seafood. I ate well on this trip.

By the time we arrived at San Francisco International Airport, we were tired and hungry. We walked all over the airport and beyond to collect our bags and then get to the car rental and on top of that, we were mildly jetlagged and felt like it was two hours later than local time. Before making the drive to San Jose, we stopped for a quick bite to eat at one of Kalen’s favorites: New England Lobster. It’s super close to the airport (and the office of the startup Kalen used to frequently visit for work), fast, and delicious. They fly lobster in from New England (I know, it feels ridiculous to me, too, that I flew to the west coast to eat crustaceans from the opposite side of the country; if we were going the same way, we should have at least travelled together and I could have eaten them mid-air) but they also serve locally caught dungeness crab. Not wanting to give preference to either coast or crustacean, we ordered the Crobster, which is half lobster roll, half crab sandwich, and served on a New England style toasted bun with a side of coleslaw and homemade chips.

It was as delicious as it was beautiful. Both the crab and lobster were fresh and flavorful, and just lightly dressed, which is good because the roll was buttery and toasty. The chips were almost too perfect, and we hypothesized about the size of the potatoes they must use to make them and how they’re cut because every chip was large and unbroken. The slaw, as well, was excellent, also lightly dressed, and gets extra points for the inclusion of dried cranberries, which I just happen to really like.

I mentioned in my last post that one of my favorite things about the hotel was how close it was to a vibrant downtown area. We really took advantage of this and walked to dinner most nights. Our first venture was to Sushi Confidential, another place Kalen had been before, but that I wanted to try, and Kalen had made a reservation for us for Valentine’s Day. They had a really fun bar area with outdoor seating and fire pit tables that would be a really great time in nice weather. Unfortunately, a brief rain shower broke out as we were walking to dinner, and as we arrived, a couple of staff were bustling to gather and cover cushions to not get soaked. As such, we opted to sit inside.

We started with drinks: a pineapple sake for Kalen and an International Espionage for me. They must have been out of blackberries though because it was garnished with a cherry instead, which isn’t a big deal; the drink was still delicious (and strong!). We shared the Edamame Trio starter and honestly it was too much for two people, but it was awesome and I only regret that I didn’t have a way to save the leftovers. The edamame featured three different seasonings: honey sriracha, yuzu, and toasted garlic with soy sauce. We agreed that the toasted garlic was our favorite, but they were all good, and we didn’t feel too bad about eating green vegetables for a starter. The honey sriracha flavor had just enough heat to balance the sweetness of honey in a way that reminded me of a sweet barbecue sauce, and the yuzu was a refreshing citrus counterpart to the heavier flavors on the other two.

The rolls were good as well, and we split a Savage Sarah roll and a Shady Shrimp roll. There was some kind of mix up in the kitchen and the Shady Shrimp was… underwhelming, but they quickly remedied it for us. I’m sure it was just that the kitchen was super busy (it was Valentine’s Day, after all, and most of their seating had been rained on), and some of the ingredients got skipped. The corrected roll was excellent, and I would definitely recommend paying them a visit, especially in nice weather to enjoy the outdoor seating area.

The following night, only about a block away, we ate at The Farmer’s Union. It had a much more “traditional” feel but without feeling stale or full of itself. We arrived early, which was good because it began to fill up shortly after we were seated. Apparently it’s a good place to enjoy a delicious meal and discuss business because both the parties next to and behind us were doing just that. One of them had a carton of grocery store mini-cupcakes at the end of the table, and I thought, “Oh that’s nice, a group of friends out for a birthday,” but then one of them started talking about their business website and what she doesn’t like about it and how she hopes they can correct it, and if it was a birthday dinner, it sounded like one of the least fun ones ever.

We, however, were not discussing business and had a delightful time. Kalen had the Mahi Mahi, which was served with asparagus and couscous, and an old fashioned cocktail. I had the Spicy Prawn Linguine and a Raspberry Fields Forever. We also shared an appetizer of mushroom cigars. The menu’s description of the mushroom cigars was very sparse, with the only two words being the sauce it was served with: “porcini aioli.” Still, I love mushrooms, so we gave it a try and were pleasantly surprised. I’m still not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t what came out, which was a sort of mushroom confit rolled into a crispy shell (probably either phyllo or wonton wrapper), fried and generously garnished with grated parmesan cheese. They were delicious with the rich umami mushroom flavor. The crispy pastry shell contrasted nicely to the softer filling.

Kalen said the Mahi Mahi was really good, and everything was very flavorful. The couscous was well seasoned, with just a little zesty spice that was nicely balanced by something sweet that we were pretty sure were dates. While Kalen’s meal was full of rich, dark, earthy flavors, mine was bright and citrusy due to the marvelous lemony sauce on the linguine and shrimp. If you’re one of those people who, when cooking a recipe that calls for a single clove of garlic, proceeds to personalize it and add five or six cloves instead, this is the meal for you. If you’re a vampire, steer clear of this one. There were so many beautiful slices of garlic in this dish that I can pretty confidently guess that there were at least six cloves of garlic in my serving alone. As previously established in my discussion of the edamame sampler, I’m a fan of garlic, so it wasn’t an issue (and I made Kalen eat some, so we were both adequately garlicky later, because I’m considerate like that). The drinks were also lovely; Kalen’s Old Fashioned was smooth and strong, and my Raspberry Fields Forever was fruity and delightful, with plenty of fresh raspberry in it, and we were both impressed with ourselves for picking drinks that went with our respective meals so well.

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and while the hotel offered some kind of breakfast, our internal clocks were still set to Central Standard Time, and we regularly woke with enough time to work out, get ready for the day, and venture into the out to find more exciting breakfast before much of the city had begun to stir. Also, the hotel’s breakfast cost $23 per person, and it seemed only logical that if we were going to have to pay for breakfast anyway, we should pay for something more exciting than hotel breakfast.

Our first morning, we walked to EggHead Sando Cafe, a nice place to grab a quick breakfast if you’re in a hurry. We each got The Scramble sandwich, which had fluffy scrambled egg on a toasted brioche bun with cheese, chives, caramelized onions, and a drizzle of spicy mayo sauce. It was filling, flavorful and fast, but a little messy, so maybe don’t eat this one while you’re wearing a white sweater. The coffee was a little stronger than I preferred, but if you like a bold coffee, go for it. I probably should have gone for an iced coffee or cold brew, but the walk over had been a little chilly and I wanted to warm up.

My favorite breakfast, though, came from iJava Cafe. We probably could have walked to this one, but it looked like it was on a little bit busier street with some construction, so we drove it and found a cozy and unassuming cafe that had friendly staff and a breakfast that made my whole day. One of the first things I noticed in researching their menu was that they specify that they are Halal. I thought I saw that they were also Kosher, but when I went back to verify that, I couldn’t find where I saw it before. I don’t have religious dietary restrictions but I get excited when I see a menu that says it has Kosher and Halal options, because I know their won’t be any pork in anything. I still have to watch out for beef and sometimes lamb, but this was especially nice at a breakfast place and I felt like I had so many options without having to worry about everything coming with bacon or sausage or ham. It was really exciting to look at the menu and know that I could eat almost everything they offered. I went with the Avocado Toast (I’m such a millennial), and Kalen got the Smoked Salmon Toast, and we each got a Mexican Mocha to drink and shared a fruit cup.

Both of our meals came on a beautiful, thick slice of multigrain bread, lightly toasted so as to be crispy on the outside but still chewy in the middle (they offer gluten free toast as well, but I didn’t try it). The avocado was mashed up into a guacamole with a little onion and cilantro, and according to the menu peas and radish. I don’t like and never have liked peas, but I couldn’t taste them at all in this, so that was perfect for me, just a little sneaky veg to start my morning. An expertly poached egg was nestled on top and the whole thing was garnished with baby cilantro and something red that may have been some kind of mild chili flakes. Kalen’s toast was somehow even prettier with the smoked salmon topped with a sliced hard-boiled egg and pickled onions, baby cilantro and a drizzle of honey. The fruit cup was less thrilling than the toasts, but only because the competition against the toast was so stiff. The fruit was fresh, refreshing and plentiful, with a nice balance of strawberries, blueberries, pineapple, and cantaloupe. The coffee was also amazing, chocolatey and smooth with just enough sweetness and the perfect little zip of cinnamon. I also loved that, because it was a dine-in order, they served it to us in real cups rather than paper to go cups. That’s probably a more common practice in California than it is in Missouri, but I appreciated it all the same, and it added to the presentation and enjoyment of the coffee. We left full and happy and even as I contemplated how much food I’d had in the last 48 hours, I thought, “I want to come back here.”

We did in fact come back two days later, and enjoyed the power toast and chicken scramble bowl and both were as delicious and stunning as our previous orders, and while we didn’t have the chance to eat anything else on the menu, everything we saw come out of the kitchen was jaw-dropping. If you only go to one place from this whole list, make it this one.

One of the most fun food experiences we had was eating at the San Pedro Square Market which has a vast variety of vendors set up in two large buildings with food-court style seating both indoors and out, and live music almost every night. I think we could have eaten every meal here without any repeats, and it would be a great place to go if you have a group that can’t decide on what everyone wants to eat. On our first visit, we put together a meal with food from Jora Peruvian Food, drinks from Alma Tequileria, and dessert from Mochinut.

I had never had Pervuian food before, but we looked at the menu ahead of time and found lots of options that got our mouths watering. We ordered more food than we really needed but it seemed like the best way to really get a literal taste of the cuisine, and because it was delicious and we are good at eating, it didn’t go to waste. The online menu was very helpful in giving us a good idea of what to expect, but we did notice that the menu online had more items than the menu at the restaurant (which was a digital screen so you could order it yourself; we noticed this set up at a variety of vendors and as an introvert, I have to say I approve). We got the Chicken Chaufa (Chaufa de Pollo), Seafood Rice (Arroz con Mariscos), Yuca Fries, and vegetarian empanadas. The Chaufa and the Seafood Rice both reminded me of fried rice dishes that I’ve only ever had at Asian-style restaurants, but this time with more Latin American flavors. There really isn’t anything that specifies that “fried rice” has to be Asian, although that’s the only context I’ve encountered that term, but that really seemed like the best description for these dishes. The empanadas, too, were phenomenal. Jora had two options for ordering empanadas: the first came with one beef and one chicken, and the other was vegetarian and came with two mushroom empanadas. Since I don’t eat beef, we went with the vegetarian ones and were not disappointed. They were filled with mushroom, onion and something else I couldn’t place, maybe potato or yuca, and were delicately seasoned so that the mushroom and onion flavors were very balanced. The yuca fries were a moment of wild impulse as I didn’t know what they were and only googled it after we had the food and had tasted everything.

If you had handed me a yuca fry and told me it was just a particularly fat potato fry, I’d have believed you. They were starchy, fluffy goodness inside a crispy, salty outside, and the internet tells me that yuca is the root portion of the cassava plant, and is the same starch that is responsible for tapioca. I think tapioca is one of those things that people either love or hate, and I fall into the ‘love’ category; when I was about five years old, I was given vanilla tapioca pudding and found it to be the superior pudding. A few years later I actually had the mental reasoning to ask, “What the hell is tapioca?” but because I didn’t understand a lot of food science didn’t understand how a root could turn into those fabulous little chewy bits in pudding. But imagine my delight when I found out that’s what what boba is in boba tea! Anyway, fried yuca was great, like really excellent french fries.

We paired our Peruvian food with drinks from Alma Tequileria, where Kalen enjoyed a Modelo Negro on tap (we’d both only ever seen Modelo in a bottle at home) and I had a Matador San Pedro, a cocktail with a variety of liquors that I wasn’t familiar with, but turned out to be a delightfully smooth blend of complex layers of orange, cinnamon, and a hint of cocoa. Both drinks complemented the food beautifully.

We finished off the evening with some donuts from Mochinut. A couple years ago, I read an article extolling the wonders of Mochinut and I have to admit that, even though I had been compelled to click on the link by my love of donuts, I finished reading it with a roll of my eyes. The article had talked about how mochinuts were the next “big thing” when it came to donuts ready to push cronuts out of the spotlight. And that was exactly what made me write them off. The internet had sung the praises of the cronut only to inform me that it could only be acquired at a specific place in New York City that, without fail, had a line several blocks long. I love donuts, and they’re a treat, but I’m not going to fly halfway across the country and wait in a long, cold line for just one fancy donut. Donuts fall into the same category as the adage about pizza and sex: even when they’re bad, they’re pretty good. So when this article told me the same thing about Mochinut, this time a combination of the traditional American donut and the versatile Japanese rice dough known as mochi, I rolled my eyes and thought, “Well, that will never make it to Missouri, so I don’t need to keep an eye out for that.” But lo, and behold! I wandered out of Missouri and stumbled upon a Mochinut store in the wild!

We couldn’t figure out how to order an individual donut, so we ended up getting a box of three, each a different flavor: churro, raspberry, and s’mores, although there are a lot of other flavors and the flavors offered vary by location. From what I can tell (although it might be just this location), the base of the donut itself was always the same and the flavors are just the glaze or topping on the donut. I was delighted to find that the donuts were made to order and a couple minutes after paying, we were handed a box with three warm donuts inside, which we carried back to the hotel to enjoy there.

My only prior experience with mochi up to this point was mochi ice cream, which typically is a small portion of ice cream surrounded by the sticky, stretchy mochi dough. I think it’s a lot of fun as it’s texturally very chewy, and this chewiness works really well with the doughnut dough, resulting in a light donut with a perfectly crispy exterior but a soft, chewy inside that reminded me a little of a funnel cake but better. The churro flavor was my favorite of the three we tried with the raspberry a close second. The s’mores was fine, but I think it was suffering from the same condition as a lot of trendy American donuts where the toppings end up trying too hard and overpowering the simple brilliance that is fried dough. Another interesting feature of the mochinut is its unusual shape, which is eight little spheres connected together so that the whole thing looks like a teething ring given to infants. This did make the donuts much easier to break in half for sharing, especially compared to a traditional yeast donut. I don’t know if that was the intent, or if the design was purely cosmetic, but the result is the same, so I’m good with it. All in all, it was a really nice donut, and I’m glad I got to try it. The print inside the box felt a little smarmy, though, because while the official Mochinut website shows that the chain has vastly expanded around the country there’s still a big hole in the middle of the country (rather like a donut) where they’re anything but “always near.”

We had another meal at the San Pedro Square Market a few nights later and tried Urban Momo serving Nepali and Indo-Chinese cuisine. We shared samosas and chicken chow mein, which we had had before at other places but never in the same meal, and steamed chicken momos, Nepali dumplings that reminded me of potstickers. I had never thought to consider that northern India and southwestern China are so geographically close, and with Nepal nestled in the middle, the whole menu made more sense than it had any right to. We also shared a mango lassi which was particularly smooth and creamy (but was served with an absurdly long straw), and a hard pear cider that we had purchased from the Market Beer Company which had a huge selection of beers and ciders both on tap and bottled. Everything was beautifully flavored and we had to take a couple laps around the market after dinner because we were so full.

We didn’t eat all of our meals in San Jose, however. For my birthday, we drove up into San Francisco and ate at Boudin Bakery Bistro which I fully admit was definitely touristy and not exactly the local scene we try to find. Still, it’s not something we have at home. We ate at the flagship restaurant for the chain which is on Fisherman’s Wharf, and during peak tourist season is unbearably busy. In mid-Februrary though, the entire area was almost eerily empty, and we walked to the restaurant from our suspiciously close parking space quietly asking each other, “Where are all the people??” The restaurant was still plenty busy, though, and even though it’s a big establishment, I can’t pretend the food wasn’t delicious. Also, I am a sucker for sourdough bread, for which they are known and this location also has a little museum and a demonstration bakery where you can watch bakers making fresh sourdough bread all day long, including loaves shaped like various animals (I guess because making a thousand bread bowls all day long got a little boring).

Kalen ordered the Dungeness Crab Mac & Cheese and I opted for the Cioppino. Cioppino is a fish stew, a lot like bouillabaisse, that was supposedly invented in San Francisco, and we had both enjoyed cioppino on previous trips to the area, although at different establishments. I was unprepared for Boudin’s take on it, however, which in addition to the traditional mussels, shrimp, calamari, and fish was served with an entire half crab in it.

As the tureen (because it was not just a bowl) was set in front of me, I could see my mother (not literally, she was 2,000 miles away; but, you know, in my mind) shaking her head at the mess I was about to make. I try to be a neat eater, but I’m clumsy and often fail. I love crab, and not to brag, but I am generally pretty good at cracking crab legs, but the job, typically a messy one anyway, took on an entirely new degree of difficulty when the crab legs were covered in a tomato-based soup. I pushed up my sleeves and set to work, trying to ignore the growing suspicion that I might actually be an overlarge raccoon dressed up like a person. To the astonishment of everyone seated around us (myself included) I managed to remove all the crab meat from the shell, without spilling, flinging, dripping, or smearing any errant bits. If you’ve ever eaten crab legs, I know that sounds like a bald-faced lie, but I swear it’s the truth. It’s been more than a week and I’m still astonished. It must have been birthday luck (or I was a raccoon or otter or something in a past life and the skills carried over).

I walked to the bathroom with my hands held in front of me like a scrubbed-up surgeon, washed them thoroughly and returned to the table to enjoy the rest of my meal. Even in my victory, I felt like that couldn’t be the way people typically enjoyed this dish, but I couldn’t think of any better way, and I scoped out the other tables on my way to the bathroom and back, but I didn’t see anyone else with the tell-tale cast iron basin in front of them, so maybe no one else knew how to eat it either and I was the only one foolhardy enough to try. It was a delicious meal, though, accompanied by marvelous sourdough bread. Kalen’s mac and cheese was also delightful, but even though I tasted it, I was so focused on the task that was my meal that I don’t remember much about his. He says it was really good though.

The following day we went on a whale watching tour in Monterey Bay, about an hour south of San Jose (more on that in my next post!), and when we got back to the harbor, we grabbed a bite of lunch at Woodward Marine Market, right there at Moss Landing where our tour was based. I think the restaurant was still pretty new, but they definitely knew what they were doing. I thoroughly enjoyed the seared fish tacos which featured whatever fish was locally caught that day, shredded cabbage and pickled radish and carrot for some crunch, topped with wonderful crema and served with a side of a house-made chili sauce that was smoky and flavorful without being overwhelmingly spicy. I don’t know exactly what the fish of the day was, but it had a great flavor, was super fresh, and was generously portioned. We also shared some of the best sweet potato fries I’ve ever had, served with the house aioli. Sweet potato fries are better with a savory dip than a sweet one, and if you’ve only ever had them dipped in something honey-sweet, you’re missing out. Kalen ordered the bouillabaisse and we were surprised to find that it was served, like my cioppino the night before, with several whole crab legs in it, still in the shell. Sitting on the patio of this dockside restaurant felt like a much more comfortable atmosphere (read: lower stakes in the event of a huge mess) for breaking open crab legs, but there was still the whole “covered-in soup” hurdle, and since I tend to eat faster than Kalen most of the time anyway, I helped him disassemble the crab after I polished off my tacos. In addition to the crab legs, the bouillabaisse included mussels, clams, shrimp, and local rockfish (which seemed a lot like the fish in my tacos, so that might have solved that mystery). The patio provided an excellent view of the harbor and we enjoyed our meal watching otters and sea lions playing on docks, ready to offer crab-cracking tips, should we need them.

The next day, we headed still a little further south and got breakfast in Monterey before we checked out the Monterey Bay Aquarium. We visited First Awakenings which was featured in a Feed MeiMei video that I found on YouTube in researching where we should eat and what we should do on our trip. Her videos were super helpful and entertaining and while we didn’t try nearly as many of her recommendations as I would have liked, this one alone assures me that her reviews can be trusted. Luckily, I had the foresight to put our name on the waiting list before we arrived, but the timing of doing so was tricky. When I first thought of it, the wait time was only about 15 minutes, but we were still an hour away. I waited a bit and when we were 40 minutes out, the wait time was about an hour, so we did end up having to wait for a little bit to be seated, but only about 15 minutes. We were seated outside, and while it was forecast to be a beautiful day, the morning was still cool and I wasn’t overly excited about sitting outside. I needn’t have worried, though, because the patio had several outdoor heaters including a large fire pit and one of my all-time favorite inventions: heated seating. There was a long bench that ran alongside the building that looked like stone and, thinking of the library’s marble countertops that chilled me to the bone, I thought sitting on it would be miserable, but it was perfectly heated so as not to be too warm, but certainly not cold, and the whole day suddenly looked brighter.

It got even better when our food arrived. I ordered the Caps, Etc. which was sautéed mushroom caps topped with melted cheese (I know, more mushrooms, but if I’m not secretly a raccoon, I’m probably a hobbit) and two eggs (I chose scrambled). I was pleasantly surprised to see that it also came with a gorgeous english muffin and breakfast potatoes (po-tay-toes, boil ’em, mash ’em, stick ’em in a stew). Kalen ordered the Turkey Dill Crépegg, which was sort of like a breakfast burrito, but with a crepe instead of a tortilla. His meal also came with the potatoes and english muffin, and we ordered a single pancake to share, finally choosing the Apple Cinnamon Oatmeal from a list packed with tempting flavors after much deliberation. The mushrooms were everything I hoped, and the little dish and blanket of cheese helped them stay warm even in the morning chill, which gave me time to eat my eggs before the wind could cool them off too much. I also want to point out that restaurants rarely make really good scrambled eggs because they’re typically working with a large griddle, but these were nice and fluffy. The pancake was incredible, with lovely fresh apple chunks distributed throughout, and it really didn’t even need syrup (but we slathered it on anyway). Kalen said his Crépegg was delicious as well, and he gave me a bite, but I was so blown away by everything that it kind of all blurs together. It was a good thing we were planning on walking around the rest of the day because we needed a walk after this and it was enough to keep us satisfied all the way until dinner that evening.

We ate so much on this trip, and it was all so phenomenal that I feel like we’re still shaking off the food coma, but I have no regrets. What do you think of our food choices? Do you have any particular food rituals when you travel? Or do you know of fabulous food that I should check out on our next visit? Leave a comment and keep an eye out for the next post when I share the fun things we did that were fueled by all the delights in this post!

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