Smoqe BBQ – Aptos, CA


Smoqe BBQ
10110 Soquel Dr
Aptos, CA 95003
(831) 662-2227

Sometimes, things are tougher than they seem.

At least, I figure it must be this way, since there are many things that should be pretty easy, and yet, are usually poorly executed. Hamburgers are a perfect example. It doesn’t take much to make a good hamburger. Some nice meat, decent bun, nice fresh condiments and cheese. Yet, so many places fail. It must be more complex than I make it out to be. I feel the same way about BBQ.

In the tiny village of Aptos, just outside Santa Cruz, CA, there already exists a BBQ shop, Aptos BBQ, that serves up good ol fashioned smoked BBQ. Yet, in an embarrassment of riches, on December 9, 2009, a second BBQ shop opened up. Smoqe BBQ.

The Smoqe BBQ philosophy is simple – cooked on 100% wood, dry rubbed and slow smoked for hours. Sounds simply perfect. They pride themselves on their pizza as well – time consuming dough, all organic ingredients, wood fired oven. They’ve taken some very simple dishes, and put in the time and effort to make them as perfect as possible.

When you first walk in, the order counter sits at the front. A fairly simple, yet extensive menu is available. Some fantastic selection of beers on tap, including Leffe, Black Butte Porter, and one of my favorite IPA’s ever, Racer 5 from Bear Republic. You order from the gentleman at the front, who may or may not greet you, grab a number, and take a seat.

In terms of the interior, everything is clean and minimalistic. There is quite a bit of distance between tables – which is usually nice for privacy, but definitely kills a bit of the atmosphere.

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Pho Ha Noi – San Jose, CA


Pho Ha Noi
1759 Capitol Expressway
San Jose, CA 95121-1561
(408) 239-0888

When discussing the origins of Pho, there are not a lot of facts available. While some think that the origin of Pho (pronounced ‘Fuh’) is from the French dish Pot au Feu, there is very little that historians can agree on. Reconstructing an oral history from something from the turn of the 20th Century can’t be easy. But there are a couple facts that are always agreed upon – Pho was originally beef, there was undoubtedly a French influence on the creation of the dish, and that it originated in the North, somewhere around Ha Noi, and was brought South with locals who migrated when the country was split into two in 1954.

Versions of Pho from the North ended up quite different than versions of the South, which was adapted a lot more for the Southern palate. As i discussed in my post on Pho Y #1, which is just across the road from Pho Ha Noi, versions in the North are much milder and more subtle. Far less anise, clove, black cardamom, and lighter treatments of charred onion and ginger, resulting in a lighter, cleaner broth. Pho Ha Noi serves a true northern style Pho, quite different than the Southern style Pho served at Pho Y #1.

Located at the intersection of Capitol Expressway and Silver Creek Road, it’s another in the large number of Vietnamese noodle shops in the area.
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Pho Y #1 – San Jose, CA


Pho Y #1
1660 Capitol Expressway
San Jose, CA 95121-1839
(408) 274-1769

In travelling through Vietnam from North to South, it was interesting to see the changes in Pho. Starting in the North, the flavour was extremely subtle, delicate, and extremely balanced. Very light accompaniments. Broth had a wonderful clean odor like perfume, and the taste of beef with gentle underlying spice notes.  A delicate balance between sweet, and salty. As you moved further south, things got richer, spicier, beefier. Bolder flavours, stronger presence, the broth was more pronounced. Darker, saltier, more charred ginger, onion, and star anise.

Bringing back this understanding with me to North America, I’ve come to realize how many variations exist in Pho restaurants here, and that your favorite Pho will likely be a matter of personal preference. The key element, balance, exists in both styles, and in an infinite number of small regional differences.

With a very large Vietnamese immigrant population, it is no surprise that San Jose is home to some of the best Vietnamese restaurants in North America. One area with a particularly high concentration of high quality restaurants is the intersection of the Capitol Expressway and Silver Creek Road. One of the oldest, most highly regarded, and best known Pho restaurants exists there – Pho Y#1.

Pho Y#1 is a bit of an oddity. If you’ve been a frequent reader, you know I’ve stumped at length for the past few years about restaurants staying within their means, and trying not to be all things to all people.  Keeping a manageable menu that allows them to maintain high quality standards.
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Redwood Grill – Big Sur, CA


Redwood Grill
47200 Highway 1
Big Sur, CA 93920
(831) 667-2129

I love road trips to no where. They give you an opportunity to see new places, and explore areas that you would otherwise just drive by. Some of my favorite memories come from impromptu trips and destinations unknown.

The California coast line has some of the best driving vistas in the world. The stretch of Highway 1 from San Francisco down to Morro Bay has a great diversity of scenery – oceans, cliffs, redwoods, beaches, dunes, winding canyons, big surf. It also has some fantastic food finds like Duarte’s Tavern in Pescadero. On an impromptu trip to Big Sur, I hoped to discover another find in the Redwood Grill.

Located in the Fernwood Resort, the Redwood Grill isnt exactly what I pictured. A restaurant inside a resort conjures images of white linen, stunning vistas, and well attired servers.

Driving through Big Sur, I almost missed it. What I thought would look like a resort actually looks like a motel with attached drinking hole. Pulling a quick u-turn, we slid into the parking lot.

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Bourbon and Branch – San Francisco, CA


Bourbon and Branch
501 Jones Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 931-7292

“No photo’s allowed”.  Oops. Sorry.

While I am a big fan of history, I’ve never really believed that all things used to be better in the good old days. While nostalgia will often make the past seem much more appealing than it actually was, I will admit that occasionally, they did things better. People took more time and care in their work – more craftsmanship. One place where that still holds true is Bourbon and Branch.

Bourbon and Branch is an old Speakeasy that actually operated as “The Ipswitch – A Beverage Parlor” from 1921 to 1923.  The current incarnation is a throw back to those good old days. From a password required to get in (easily found on the web), to secret entrances to escape the prohibition agents in case they ever raided, they’ve done their best to recreate the ambiance and atmosphere of the 20′s and 30′s. Rules from no cell phones to no standing at the bar, you definitely get a feel for the period.

What they haven’t left in the 20′s is the art of mixology. Starting with very carefully selected spirits and ingredients, carefully composed to provide the best cocktails possible, they are artists and masters at blending and mixing drinks. They certainly take their time with each element, from hand juicing, straining, muddling, chilling, pouring, every aspect of creating your cocktail is deliberate and intentional.

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Pizzeria Delfina – San Francisco, CA


Pizzeria Delfina
3611 18th Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 437-6800

There’s  a movement going on all around us. I call it the gentrification of fast food. First burgers. Now pizza. Almattone argues with me that it’s “fancification”, not gentrification. Whatever you want to call it, it’s happening. Staple fast food is turning into haute cuisine.

In a recent Rachel Ray Magazine special, Ed Levine and Adam Kuban created a “March Madness” bracket for pizzerias around the US. Pitting East against West, South-Southwest against Mid-west, they identified some of the top pizzerias and dared to compared. As a sports fan who also loves pizza, i found this to be a fantastically fun exercise. One of several Bay Area competitors was Pizzeria Delfina.

Pizzeria Delfina was founded by Craig and Anne Stoll of the extremely popular Delfina Restaurant next door. The winner of the 2008 James Beard award for Best Chef in the West, Craig Stoll was inspired to create Pizzeria Delfina based on the pizzerias of NYC, and Naples. What he has done is brought his expertise and love of quality ingredients to the neighbourhood pizza joint. And the neighbourhood loves it. Between the Bi-rite and Tartine Bakery, this is a veritable stretch of culinary goodness.

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Dosa (on Valencia) – San Francisco, CA


Dosa on Valencia
995 Valencia (@ 21 St)
San Francisco, CA
(415) 642-3672

It took a long time for me to come around on South Indian food. It was one of those things that I didn’t have a lot of exposure to growing up – most cuisine where I grew up, of the South Asian variety, was usually Northern Indian, or Pakistani. Then, even when given the opportunity to be exposed to food from Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu, Goa, and other South Indian cultures, I eschewed them for more meat-based cuisines. I was, after all, an unapologetic carnivore. Vegetarian food was to be avoided at all costs!

Times change, as thankfully have my opinions. Once I managed to try South Indian food, i was hooked. Fantastic flavours with lots of balance, heat, and texture. Even though they do have meat dishes, for the most part, I usually stick with the vegetarian. And of all the South Indian vegetarian dishes, my favorite is the Dosa.

The namesake restaurant, Dosa on Valencia (used to distinguish from their new outpost on Filmore), is one of several South Indian restaurants that have cropped up in The Mission over the past few years. Serving a wide variety of South Indian dishes, they don’t represent one specific cuisine, but a broad representation of many cuisines from South India.

The restaurant itself is actually fairly intriguing. They have been awarded a Michelin Bib Gourmand three of four years they’ve been in business – Michelin’s award for good value. The decor is upscale casual, and they have an interesting and diverse beverage menu – not your average South Indian eatery.

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Fremont Diner – Sonoma, CA


Fremont Diner (The Fremont)
2660 Fremont Drive
Sonoma, CA 95476
(707) 938-7370

For me, the term “diner” conjures up images of neon, white and black checkered tile, red leather stools, wise cracking waitresses, and greasy spoon food of questionable origin. In reality, these days, good food can be found anywhere. Lunch counters, strip malls, and of course, diners.

Fremont Diner is best described as a “slow food” diner. Ingredients all locally sourced. Time, attention, and care is paid to every aspect of every dish. This is not what you would consider your average “diner”.

Located on Highway 12/121 that cuts through Napa Valley and Sonoma, Fremont Diner is actually easy to miss. You could drive by it every day and barely notice the understated sign, the rusting truck out front, and the gas station diner appearance.

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Mission Burger by Mission Street Food – San Francisco, CA


Mission Burger (by Mission Street Food)
inside Duc Loi Supermarket
2200 Mission St (between 18th St & 19th St)
San Francisco, CA 94110
Sat-Wed, noon-3pm

Food and cooking knowledge can come from a variety of sources. Being a detail-oriented person, I really enjoy shows that explain why, not just what. Aside from Alton Brown, who has really started turning me off with his over the top corny humour, one show that I really enjoy is the BBC classic “In Search of Perfection” with Michelin 3 star chef Heston Blumenthal from the Fat Duck. He really caught my attention with his episode on steak (it really works btw), and I’ve enjoyed the knowledge, and the hilarity of his exploits.

In his cookbook Further Adventures In Search of Perfection, Heston Blumenthal reinvents the burger to deliver what he feels is the perfect burger. While in principal, his ideas are fantastic, in practice, they are often so time consuming, and difficult to source the ingredients, that it just isn’t feasible for us “normal” people. I remember duplicating his steak recipe, and the total time required before i could put fork to mouth was almost 48 hours. His burger recipe, as tested by the dedicated hamburger folks at aht (serious eats), took over 30 hours. For a hamburger.

Enter Mission Burger, brought to you by Mission Street Food – a not for profit organization that donates their proceeds to charity. In the entire lunch counter revival I was discussing in the Villa Mexico post, they’ve set up a burger counter inside the Duc Loi Supermarket in the Mission.

There are a few very notable things about Mission Burger.
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Border Cafe (Cambridge Location) – Boston, MA


Border Cafe
32 Church Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
(617) 864-6100

Just like some blog posts, sometimes, a meal has to be quick and dirty. You’re pressed for time, you have a group of hungry stragglers, you need to eat in proximity to your next destination – there isnt always time for the best find, the well researched location, or the perfect stop. Sometimes, you need places like the Border Cafe.

Stepping off the T from Logan at Harvard Square, I found myself still quite a ways from my destination, but starving. Skipping lunch on the airplane had seemed like a good idea at the time, but combined with a few delays, I definitely didn’t have the energy to haul my luggage across Boston for another hour. My companion points out a popular college spot just up the street – a small regional chain called Border Cafe. “It’s not the best, but it’s edible”. I would’ve settled for McDonalds at this point, so Border Cafe it is.

You know what Border Cafe is – almost every town has one. “Tex Mex”. It serves all the classic favorites – fajitas, burgers, beer, margaritas. It’s Chili’s, but a little more diverse, and a little less “McModified”.

The Border Cafe in Cambridge is in the heart of Harvard Square, which makes it a very popular destination for college students. The location is huge – and tables are fairly tightly packed together. If i was to estimate, i figure the capacity was at least 350 to 400 people. On two floors.

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Villa Mexico Cafe – Boston, MA


Villa Mexico Cafe
296 Cambridge Street
Boston, MA 02114
(617) 957-0725

Lunch counters and gas station corners were home to some great food in the past, and are experiencing a come back. Low rent, high traffic locations, they seem like the ideal kinds of places for cheap, tasty eats.  The idea of food in a gas station always reminds me of  Crete Souvlaki in Calgary – one of the best tzatziki in town served out of a gas station.

Villa Mexico Cafe is located in a gas station in the swanky district of Beacon Hill in Boston. If you’ve ever walked around Beacon Hill, you’ll understand how different this is than the rest of the neighbourhood. The only indication that burrito’s are available inside, is a small sandwich board pronouncing the greatness within.

I don’t mean to carry a West Coast bias, but when it comes to burritos, I find that the East Coast just typically cannot compare. The East Coast has some great upscale Mexican eateries, but most of the time, I like my Mexican food fast and cheap. That means tacos, burritos, tamales, tortas.

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Hamersley’s Bistro – Boston, MA


Hamersley’s Bistro
553 Tremont St
Boston, MA 02116-6306
(617) 423-2700

For the most part, I value good food over service. I used to say to people that “food is all that matters – service is irrelevant if the food isn’t good”, but i’ve since backed off such a polarized view.  After all, i realized that great service often colors one’s view of the food (it can be hard to separate the two – since you *want* to like the food more). And really good food with lousy service, sometimes isnt worth it. Depending on the situation of course.

A pricey, well regarded South End bistro with a special Sunday Brunch menu, Hamersley’s Bistro continually draws rave reviews for their food and service. Seemed like a nice place to meet up with family for a tasty meal. Especially when meeting the new “boyfriend” for the first time.

The inside of Hamersley’s Bistro has a nice, though formal feeling to it. White linen, columns, high arching ceilings, there is a tremendous amount of light that makes the space feel comfortable, yet a bit formal for my preference.

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Maria’s Pastry Shop – Boston, MA


Maria’s Pastry Shop
46 Cross Street
Boston, MA 02113-2201
(617) 523-1196

I’ve always wondered if there actually exists a gender-based predisposition towards sweets, and if there is, whether it is environmental, or genetic. Most huge sweet fans I know are mostly women. Now I have guy friends who love their sweets too, but they are few and far between. All this really means to me is when a member of the fairer sex tells me there’s a great bakery I *MUST* try, because they have the best cannoli ever, I don’t question it, I just go.

Located in Boston’s North End right off of Haymarket Station, Maria’s Pastry Shop is in an area that boasts a lot of pastry shops of reputation. Both Mike’s, and Modern are in the same vicinity, making for a great selection of pastry goodness.

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O Ya Restaurant – Boston, MA


O Ya Restaurant
9 East St
Boston, MA 02111
(617) 654-9900

There has been a lot of talk, some criticism, and a lot of discussion about the sushi philosophy of some of our writers. While many people would classify me as traditionalist, or a purist, i still believe there exists flexibility and latitude for the itamae to do creative things with sushi. Creativity in blending ingredients works as long as it is done within the context of better presenting the flavours and textures that make sushi great, not masking inferior product with a variety of overpowering flavours.

This creativity is the foundation of many fusion, modern,  or new school sushi restaurants, many of which i’ve not enjoyed. Even though my first high end sushiya experience happened at Matsuhisa in the mid 90′s, and was thoroughly enjoyable, I never really bought into the idea of modern sushi. Yet, here i am at O Ya, a place many consider to be the top modern or fusion sushi in North America, hoping to better understand the potential of modern sushi.

I’ll let the photos tell the story…

O Ya is hidden on a side street in the Financial District near South Station.

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Neptune Oyster – Boston, MA


Neptune Oyster
63 Salem St
Boston, MA 02113-2273
(617) 742-3474

Ever walk by a place and just get a good feeling? In Boston’s North End, I was walking down a side street after having indulged in a Maria’s cannoli, and saw a small, stately window that read “Neptune Oyster”. I popped my head in, hoping to try and oyster or two, but was told the wait would be 20-30 minutes, at 6pm! I left as I had other dinner plans, but resolved to make it there someday.

I finally made it back a few days later. Really, I just came back to eat. In the interim, I had looked into more about the restaurant – and realized it was lauded as one of the best seafood restaurants in Boston by many different boards and publications. A true temple of seafood that represented the local catch quite well. I was determined to try as much of it as possible.

The space itself is tiny. A row of tables along one wall, and bar seating at the other. There are no reservations, so you have to come early, or expect to wait a long time. Bar seats are usually all that are open. Be prepared for a lot of bumping if you sit there.

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