Royal Road of Eats
By Stett Holbrook
EL CAMINO REAL between Santa Clara and Sunnyvale may not be the most scenic of Silicon Valley byways, but mile for mile it's got one of the most dynamic food scenes in the South Bay. I call it the Seoul Delhi because of the density of Indian and Korean restaurants. If I let a few weeks go by without visiting the area there are always a few new restaurants and markets that have opened up.
I was driving down El Camino the other day on the hunt for Indian mangoes, a rather expensive and short-lived treat that appears in Indian markets in early spring (read about the decadent fruit on my blog at metroactive.com/livefeed) when I spied the garish red and yellow sign of Dosa Place, a newish restaurant that specializes in, you guessed it, dosas, those wonderful South Indian crepes made with fermented rice and lentil batter. Since I was in the neighborhood I decided to check it out as well as some other new and not-so-new places that caught my eye. Inside the 9-month-old restaurant, the crowded benchlike tables are done up in the same Wienerschnitzel red and yellow as the sign outside. This is fast food, but it's of a much higher caliber than your typical corporate burger barn.
There are more than two dozen kinds of dosa available as well as uthappams, huge Indian pancakes with made with lentils and rice with various vegetables cooked right into the batter, as well as snacks and rice dishes. I went for the flagship "Dosa Place special rava masala dosa," a doormat-size, lacy crepe that was crunchy and yet chewy. Inside, the dosa was dusted with chopped almonds and cashews and filled with buttery spiced potatoes. The trio of spicy and sweet chutneys and piquant sambar completed it. It was fantastic.
After Dosa Place, I headed over to Roll House, another literally named place that specializes in Korean sushi known as kimbap, rice and seaweed rolls filled with fish, but also heartier ingredients like fried pork, barbecued beef and even what looked like slices of Kraft cheese. The rice is seasoned with a bit of salt and sesame oil instead of the vinegar used in Japanese sushi rice.
The tiny restaurant was packed for lunch, and I had to wait for a table. When I was finally seated, I ordered a barbecued beef and cucumber roll and a bowl of vegetable ramen. Korean food lacks the delicacy and restraint of Japanese food, and paired with the savory bowl of ramen, the beef roll and noodle made for a hearty lunch with leftovers to spare.
The following day, I checked out the oddly named Tofu House and Chocolate Sushi. The restaurant was formerly Kampai, a Japanese fusion restaurant, but that concept didn't take. Instead of fusion, the new owners have put two cuisines—Korean and Japanese—side by side. Politically speaking, Japan and South Korea haven't always gotten along, but here the two cuisines co-exist in perfect harmony.
The word "tofu" on the storefronts of El Camino Real Korean restaurants tells you that they serve soondobu, bubbling pots of fiery stew made with soft tofu and various meats, seafood and vegetables. I love it on cold days, but the mushroom soondobu (sometimes spelled soontofu) I tried was just as good on a hot spring day. Even without meat, it was substantial and filling. From the Japanese side of the menu I ordered one of the hulking rolls. Given their size and nontraditional ingredients (cream cheese, macadamia nuts, avocado), the rolls are more American than Japanese and would make a sushi purist run for the hills. These are the double bacon cheeseburgers of the sushi world. Given their size, the rolls are fairly priced. The "oh yes roll" goes for $10.95 and wraps tuna, salmon, yellow tail and avocado in rice that's been lightly battered and fried and then drizzled with a creamy spicy sauce and an unagi sauce. "Over-the-top-might" be a better name for this roll.
Time and stomach capacity didn't permit another stop, but next time I'm in the neighborhood I'm headed for Jang-Tu Soondae, a little Korean restaurant that specializes in soondae, Korean blood sausage made with sweet rice and sweet potatoes noodles. I've already got the headline for that column picked out: soondae, bloody soondae. Such are the gastronomic thrills to be found on El Camino Real.
2665 El Camino Real, Santa Clara. 408.243.3672.
3486 El Camino Real, Santa Clara. 408.246.4888.
1012 E. El Camino Real, Sunnyvale. 408.245.5720.
Tofu House and Chocolate Sushi
595 E. El Camino Real, Sunnyvale. 408.830.0628.
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