When tech journalists go to international conferences, there is always one question that comes up: “where's a good place to eat?”
In Silicon Valley, I don’t have to ask that question. Unlike many of the other tech journalists who come here, I’m going home, literally. The convention center where I’ll be covering Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference this week is just three blocks away from my old apartment. And when I come home, I like to hit all my favorite food joints.
So this week, in-between the news about iOS13 and whatever else Apple throws our ways, we’re going to show you what the natives of Silicon Valley chow down on in between writing code and watching the Golden State Warriors play for their fourth NBA championship in five years. (Yeah, that’s also this week.) I'll show you where to go for a great carne asada burrito, where to get the best burgers on the West Coast, and take you to a steak house that’s been serving the South Bay’s tech sector for over 50 years.
Of course, Silicon Valley isn't just San Jose. Throughout the week, I'll take you up the peninsula for some regional treats, including Dungeness crab, sour dough bread, and cioppino, and maybe we’ll even take a drive over the Santa Cruz Mountains. I'll show you where you can get a corn dog next to a 95-year-old roller coaster. At the very least, expect a lot of guacamole.
Classic San Francisco
On the last night before I fly back to Dubai, I’m heading up to San Francisco. There is nothing more San Franciscan that Dungeness crab, except maybe sour dough bread, but those usually go hand-in-hand. It’s been a few years since I’ve had Dungeness, but they are my personal favorite. They’re big and don’t require microsurgery to get to the meat.
Unfortunately, it’s late, so I head down to Fisherman’s Wharf. You only need two words to describe this place: tourist trap. That doesn’t mean there aren’t good restaurants at Fisherman’s Wharf. There are. Scoma’s is one of my all time favorite places to eat. Tourists don’t always know about it because you have to walk down an alley and onto a dock to find it. It has excellent crab, but it usually requires a reservation and also don’t want to be “that guy” eating alone.
So I walk over by the street vendors, who are all promising crab, shrimp, lobster and other seafood in various stages of freshman. Hard pass.
So I’m going to cheat and head over to Boudin, which is also a tourist trap. But at least it’s an authentic tourist trap. Boudin is one of the original bakeries to make sour dough bread in the Bay Area, so at least its origins are local. Try to look past the crab hats they’re selling in the gift shop.
On offer is either crab chowder or clam chowder, both in a sour dough bread bowl. I’ve never had crab chowder in my life. it is NOT a San Francisco thing - cioppino is the local seafood soup - but I decide to give it a try, because crab. It’s better than I expected, and as the chowder mixes with the sour dough, it gives it a nice texture. But corn? I think I would have preferred cioppino though, which has a heartier broth and more seafood.
Next time, I know. I’m heading to Scoma’s.
Anyway, this is the last entry on this food blog, at least on this trip. Hope you enjoyed it.
Over to the Pacific coast.
At some point, I promised to show you where to get a Corn Dog next to a 95-year-old roller coaster. The only place to find that is in Santa Cruz, about a 40-minute drive south of Silicon Valley. Santa Cruz is only about twenty miles away, but most of it is on a two-lane highway that snakes up and over the Santa Cruz mountains. It’s a beautiful drive in itself, regardless of what awaits you on the other side.
The 95-year-old roller coaster is called the Big Dipper, and it is not something your want to ride after eating. It sits just about 100 yards away from the Pacific Ocean at one end of the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, a park filled with arcade games and thrill rides.
You’ve seen the Big Dipper - and the Santa Cruz Boardwalk - many times, even if you didn’t know it. Both have appeared in many movies over the years, including this year’s horror movie “Us,” and last year’s Transformer’s movie, “Bumblebee.” The park and coaster are probably best known for being in the 80s vampire movie, “The Lost Boys.”
The Santa Cruz boardwalk is not a haven for fine dinning. It’s just the opposite; it’s home to every sugar-filled, deep-fried, carb-loaded monstrosity imaginable. It’s heaven for kids and teenagers, but if you’re over 30, I suggest you approach with caution and a lot of antacid.
The most common “treat” is the corn dog, a beef hotdog, which has been dipped in batter and deep fried. The heroine in Bubblebee actually works making corndogs at the Hot Dog on a Stick shop, which is on the Boardwalk next to the Big Dipper. Still full from gorging at In-and-Out for lunch, I will not be eating any corndogs today.
For anyone still willing and able, the Boardwalk also offers Churros (long, friend doughnuts coasted with sugar), caramel apples, saltwater taffies, pizza, burgers, roasted turkey legs, and ice cream cones dipped in chocolate. If you want to work off some of those calories, there are plenty of options for that at the Boardwalk, including beach volleyball and laser tag. Or you can just go flop on the beach and sleep it off.
Off to In-and-Burger
Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference is wrapping up, so I’m escaping downtown San Jose to go have lunch at a California Institution: In-and-Out Burger. I don’t have to go far. The nearest restaurant is only two miles to the north, just next to San Jose International Airport.
In-and-Out used to be a West Coast-only joint, although it can still only be found in five US states. The restaurants are stylized with a heavy emphasis on California nostalgia. This place screams Los Angeles, circa 1950.
The company, which has been around since 1948, has been actively resisting expansion for years, saying they don’t want to compromise the quality of the food. There was a pop-up store at the Ibn Battuta Mall a few years ago, apparently just to test the local market, but that is the only time I’ve ever heard of them doing anything outside of the US.
In-and-Out has a VERY loyal following. What’s the allure? Part of it is the company’s focus on using fresh ingredients, which in California is a BIG deal. At some restaurants, you can actually sit in the drive-through and see people cut whole potatoes for frying. The prices are good, too. The most expensive item on the menu is $4.35, or just under Dh16.
What do I mean by a loyal following? It’s not unusual to find cars lined up around the block to order. There are 10 car ahead of me when I pull up.
When it’s my turn, I order a Double-Double, Animal Style, with is an item off the “secret menu.” Since the birth of the internet, In-and-Out’s secret menu isn’t so secret anymore, but you won’t find the menu anywhere at the store. Animal Style just means that my burger patties will be grilled in mustard, and the burger will come with lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, sauce, pickles and grilled onions. I order two (don’t judge me, I skipped breakfast for this). There are something like 30 items on the secret menus, so have fun.
At the end of the day, everyone has their own ideas about what makes a great burger, so I know that not everyone loves them, but you can’t argue with their popularity. As far as I’m concerned, they’re the best burgers on the West Coast.
Weird California tacos
Today, we went over to Santana Row, a high-end luxury retail development that straddles the board between San Jose and Santa Clara.
While many people consider San Jose to be the unofficial capital of Silicon Valley, Santa Clara is a smaller neighbor to the west that boasts some of the biggest names in tech, including Intel, Nvidia, and Roxio. It also has a much better retail environment than downtown San Jose and a much wider selection of restaurants.
For lunch, we headed over the Yard House. It’s a standard America restaurant offering burgers and other lunch standards. It’s a chain restaurant, but it was packed so we went in. I decided to have the tacos - Baja fish tacos to be precise.
OK, a few words about tacos.
Tacos as they are served in the US are kinda weird. Authentic Mexican tacos are always made from corn tortillas. They usually come with meat - chicken or steak, but not ground beef - and there will be no cheese or lettuce in sight. There will also be salsa, which can be mild or spicy. I’m giving your the tl;dr description of tacos, because there are too many varieties to be discussed here.
However, if you’re eating a “taco” with a fried outer shell, ground beef and cheese, that means you’re probably eating at Taco Bell, and for the record, that’s not Mexican food - that’s American fast food.
Baja Fish tacos are something else entirely. First, they are made from fish (duh, right?) and are served with cabbage and spicy and/or citrus mayonnaise. The fish is usually a white fish, tilapia or Mahi Mahi, that is battered and fried. There is a little bit of a debate over whether to use corn or flour tortilla with fish (or shrimp) tacos. Certainly, corn is the authentic choice, but this is one of the dishes where flour tortilla are generally (but not universally) accepted.
The first tacos at the Yard House are better than I expected. The fish was nice and crispy, and the spicy sauce was delicious. They make for an excellent light lunch.
My tacos were also served with a side of rice and (pinto) beans, another traditional Mexican dish. My advice is to stay away from this unless you are actually in a Mexican restaurant. While the tacos were good, the rice and beans could use some work.
(Confusing editor’s note: If anyone is wondering what “Baja” is, it’s a reference to where these tacos originated, which is Baja California. What’s that? Baja (or lower) California is a state in Mexico that is directly south of the US state of California. There is also a second Mexican state south of Baja California called Baja California Sur, which literally translates to lower California south. Both of these states are on the Baja California Peninsula, and the whole region is generally just referred to as “Baja.” Please do not confused this with Southern California, which is several hundred miles north and isn’t even a state. For the sake of clarity, please don’t ask me about Alta California, Northern California or the Republic of California either.)
Starting the day with awesome coffee
While the tech industry is doing very well in Silicon Valley, the area around my hotel has seen a lot of closures recently, including some iconic local eateries. Many of my old hangouts are long gone, and the remaining cafes aren’t really tailored to the breakfast crowd. There is a European pastry shop, a Starbucks, and a local place called Philz.
Philz was the obvious choice, at it was the only one of the three to features a line of waiting customers, which snaked out the door. And while this isn’t one of my old hangouts, it is in my old apartment building, so … close enough.
Philz’ speciality is its coffee. There are no fewer that 20 different varieties of coffee and eight varieties of tea. This is VERY speciality coffee - what my wife would call hipster coffee - but you won’t get that vibe from the customers, which include local police, college students, and techies. The man I’m sitting next to keeps talking about an upcoming tech deal with his lawyer.
You can’t get a latte or a cappuccino here. The cafe offers coffee made “one cup at a time” and is made using a pour-over method instead of an espresso machine. I’ll be honest, most of what the barista’s are doing behind the counter is a mystery to me, but it certainly goes beyond pouring espresso and steamed milk into a cup.
Some of the offerings on the menu include “Jacob’s Wonderbar,” which offers tastes of dark chocolate, smoke and nuts. These are tasting notes, not syrups or added powders, either. The Greater Alarm, a nod to local fire fighters, offers hints of cashew, pineapple and cocoa. I opted for the Ether, a dark roast with notes of toffee, cherry and cinnamon. When you place your order, you’re asked how sweet you want your coffee and whether you want it extra creamy. I ask for extra creamy but only medium sweetness. It’s about a five minute wait, but when it comes its probably some of the best coffee I’ve had in years. It’s creamy, smooth with no hint of bitterness.
I paired my Ether up with a nice berry scone, which was clearly baked that morning. Total cost was $8.35, or Dh30.
Philz is not easy to find. It’s on the Paseo De San Antonio Walk, which is just north of San Jose State University. There is no parking nearby, but it’s worth the walk.
The taquerias in downtown San Jose
For the last two days, all I’ve eaten has either come from room service or press room buffets (read: sandwiches). This afternoon, I was finally able to get away for some local food.
For lunch, I’m heading to an area only about three blocks away from the WWDC. There are two good taquerias just around the corner from each other. While other restaurants come and go around San Jose, these places have been here since the 1990s, and both are located on the ground floor of old Victorian houses.
I’ve decided to go to Iguanas Burritozilla. La Victoria, which is the other taqueria located around the corner, is also good, but at Iguana’s you can see your food being made right at the counter.
The speciality at both these places is Mission burritos. These are not the burritos you’re going to find in Mexico, but are actually a creation of the Chicano community in San Francisco’s Mission District. These burritos are BIG, stuffed with meat, rice, and beans. One burrito is easily enough to get a working person through the day. Not surprising, Mission burritos are popular with the university students.
Iguana’s also has a gimmick. They serve a burrito called the “Burritozilla,” which is “as big as your head.” It weights 5 pounds and is 18-inches long. If you want to see what this looks like, you can check out the TV show “Man vs Food,” which features a man eating an entire Burritozilla in about 60 second. I’m sticking with the “super burrito,” which is itself a heavy meal, even though it is only the third largest burrito on the menu.
There are a number of meats to choice from, such as Pollo Asada (grilled chicken), Chipotle Chicken and Carne Asada (marinated beef), which is what I’m having. My super burrito also comes with pinto beans, fresh salsa, sour cream and cheese.
But the best part of the meal isn’t the meat, it’s the sauce that comes on the side. Commonly called orange sauce, it’s a habanero chile-based sauce that can give your burrito some added spice and an extra smokey flavor.
This has always been one of my favorite eateries, and the restaurants doesn’t seem to have lost anything over the years. It’s still easier the best meal for your money in downtown especially if you want to avoid fast-food. The price of a super burrito and drink is just under $12, or Dh44.