Special Feature: Products Sally Recommends
Best Restaurants in San Jose, CA
Downtown San Jose continues its rebirth as a destination for conventions, sports, business and the arts. Cranes dot the horizon erecting offices and condominiums, making it one of the fastest growing cities in California. Newer attractions such as the HP Pavilion, home of the San Jose Sharks Hockey team, McEnery Convention Center, the Tech Museum with its IMAX screen and the Children's Discovery Museum join historic sites such as 150-year old San Jose State University and the 1927 California Theatre. Light Rail whisks commuters from eastern and southern bedroom communities to work, as well as to the Norman Mineta International Airport and Great America Amusement Park. Public Transportation is abundant. At the Diridon Station, trains, light rail, buses and the weekday free downtown DASH shuttles converge. A useful trip planner combines schedules of the many bay area transit authorities to help you get around. Downtown is laid out around perpendicular streets, which change from "East" to "West" at First Street, and from "North" to "South" at Santa Clara. Japantown, a mile north, on Jackson Street between 3rd and 6th Streets is a short walk from light rail. It features shops, restaurants, and the San Jose Tofu company, where airy fresh tofu is lifted from tanks and carefully bagged. Sidewalk plaques tell immigrant stories. Willow Glen is a beautiful suburban neighborhood three miles away, with small shops and some unique family restaurants. From downtown, take VTA bus number 64, or drive down San Carlos Street west, and turn left on Lincoln Avenue. Or, continue down San Carlos Street (which turns into Steven's Creek Blvd.) where some excellent ethnic restaurants will nourish you before shopping at Westfield Valley Fair, an indoor mall with more than 400 stores. Past Valley Fair, turn left on Winchester Blvd. to visit the Winchester Mystery House, a Victorian mansion of unbelievable scale and history. I've also included some enjoyable places in Campbell, accessible from the light rail system. Its downtown is being revitalized as well, attracting new eateries. There are also after-hours venues, such as the Cardiff Lounge, Khartoum Lounge, the King's Head Pub, and Katie Bloom's Irish Pub, while a weekly outdoor summer concert series delights the community.
In the following restaurant reviews, pricing criteria considers the cost of one meal, excluding beverages, tax and tips as follows:
Inexpensive: less than $10
Moderate: less than $20
Pricey: more than $20
4th Street Pizza Co. - Downtown
150 East Santa Clara Street (at Fourth)
fax (408) 286-7502
Lunch through dinner
Inexpensive to moderately priced
If you adore a cheesy pie, 4th Street Pizza satisfies with a generous amount of garlicky tomato sauce and well-crisped medium-thick crust. Before your appointment at the observatory-shaped City Hall across the street, pick up an inexpensive hot slice, a soda and a bowl of greens from the well-stocked salad bar. You can also create a thick or thin-crusted 10 to 16-inch pizza, with a selection of more than 20 meats, vegetables, and special sauces such as Pesto and Creamy Garlic. Voted one of the best new restaurants in 2006, pizzas are devoured in front of one of the many flat screen televisions, or carried out to hotel rooms and business meetings.
Aqui Cal-Mex - Willow Glen and Campbell
1145 Lincoln Avenue, San Jose
fax (408) 995-0385
201 East Campbell Avenue, Campbell
fax (408) 374-4123
Lunch through dinner
Inexpensive to moderately priced
The Cal-Mex style fuses south of the border, Latin and Asian flavors. I ordered at the counter, then took a seat in a brushed aluminum chair under a pierced copper sconce and studied the artistic quilts and paintings. My quickly prepared order began with the Aqui Sampler appetizer. Generous helpings of lemon-garlic hummus, herbed polenta and spiced black bean puree were served with salty tortilla chips. Then, the Spicy Cuban Enchiladas of shredded pork, cheese, and sweet plantains in a mole style sauce, were artistically drizzled with sour cream, and accompanied by jasmine rice and whole black beans. Aqui features an enticing salad bar and unique entrees, such as Goat Cheese Quesadillas, Thai Peanut Chicken Tamales, Grilled Salmon on Organic greens, and Teriyaki Steak Burrito.
Bella Mia - Downtown
58 South First Street
Lunch weekdays, dinner daily
Inexpensive to moderately priced
In a city where modern skyscrapers seem to appear overnight, San Jose also coddles some beautiful historic architecture. Bella Mia makes its home in a stocky brick building, the dining room decorated with heavy moulding, wainscoting and art deco-embellished booths. The upstairs hosts business meetings and large parties in the Grand Ballroom, while the fountain patio is enjoyed on the city's many pleasant days. The large menu offers "fresh, seasonal, California-Italian cuisine". The maitre d' delivered thick pieces of toasted herb-laden focaccia bread which needed no embellishment from the subdued paprika-cream cheese spread. The inexpensive express lunch features daily selections, and late lunch specials during the work week are a steal. My friendly waiter quickly brought the day's lasagna, oozing with tomato-flecked meat sauce and a blanket of melted mozzarella, accompanied by buttery broiled garlic bread. The hand-tossed margherita pizza featured thick slices of roma tomatoes and shredded fresh basil. Appetizers such as Almond Brie Cheese complement entrees, sandwiches and salads, many of which are available in both starter and main course portions. Bella Mia also delivers to homes, offices and hotel rooms.
Emile's - Downtown
545 South Second Street (at Williams)
Fax (408) 998-1245
Lunch Tues-Fri, dinner Tues-Sat, Sunday Brunch
Emile's restaurant has created continental dining memories for over 30 years. Now under new ownership, Emile himself still offers cooking classes, including corporate team building events where co-workers prepare a gourmet meal. It is in this kitchen that I learned to make risotto. If you crave a dessert souffle, be sure to order it with your meal. The elegant atmosphere in the front dining room includes simple country paintings of geese presenting flower garlands. A metal sculpture of delicate leaves is suspended above flowers arranged in a giant urn. Fresh bouquets grace every table while pleasant piano arrangements softly surround. We were promptly seated at white tablecloths, butter knives awaiting the arrival of 3 warm breads. Bow-tied waiters in shiny tuxedo vests and long white aprons assured every course arrived hot and with the correct silverware. Although both a prix fixe nightly 3-course meal and a tasting menu are available, we designed our own feast from a la carte selections. The molten gruyere appetizer is large enough to serve 4, but we couldn't let any of it get away. The 4-onion soup, topped with crispy fried onions cradles its cheese beneath the savory consomme. My flowerpot salad featured mild but creamy goat cheese in a crisp phyllo shell, stuffed with vinaigrette-kissed lettuces, surrounded by pears and walnuts, embellished with a lattice of fruity port reduction. The waiter suggested that the bright mauve orchid was edible, crisply ending our starter course.
For dinner, 3 delicate grilled lamb chops with herby pomegranate sauce were stacked on a rich block of scalloped potatoes with snap peas, young carrots, and perfect grape tomatoes. My tender filet of beef brochette with a light bearnaise sauce was arranged atop a plateau of mashed potatoes loaded with meaty Dungeness crab, and served with the same colorful vegetable trio.
No meal is complete without a signature souffle, as we watched tall, airy pillows being delivered to every table. Ours was delicately removed from its ramekin, expertly divided, and served with a side of orange zest-flecked Grand Marnier sauce. Alexandra Dorian, the new owner, excitedly shared her vision for Emile's. In addition to the recently added weekday lunch and Sunday Brunch, she invited us to watch for Murder-Mystery dinners and an expanded souffle menu. As we prepared to leave, Ms. Dorian presented us with a prototype slice of pale yellow, dense but soft and smooth New York Cheesecake with fresh berries and berry coulis. Could I please order a whole cake to go?
Falafel Drive-In - Valley Fair
2301 Steven's Creek Boulevard (at Highways 17 and 880 )
Lunch and dinner
For decades, Falafel Drive-In has supplied locals with top notch falafels. At this relic of a hamburger stand, I stood on the awning-covered patio and placed my order through the window. Hot food arrived quickly. The pita sandwich held lettuce, tomato, and falafel balls: ground cumin, wheat and pulses, fried crispy on the outside giving way to a moist, herb-green center. It was topped with wonderfully spicy but sweet chili sauce and sesame tahini. The gyros pita was stuffed with lettuce, cucumbers, onions and generous chunks of tender Middle Eastern meatloaf, spiced and cooked on a vertical rotisserie. The Koubby, a torpedo-shaped meatball, moist and cinnamon-scented, was stuffed with pine nuts, encased in bulgur wheat and deep fried. If you're not in the mood for Middle Eastern food, you can still feast on burgers, hot dogs, and fries, or treat yourself to a fresh fruit milkshake.
I squeezed into the last open stool at the counter facing the small kitchen and watched the cooks load a gas grill and deep-fryer with vegetables, marinated meats, and fish. Like a well-oiled machine, patrons' orders were taken and hot green tea delivered. I chose the inexpensive Gombei Lunch Special. It included a substantial miso soup, white rice, and a plate of salad generously topped with boneless teriyaki chicken thighs, a tempura prawn and krab stick, and korokke, a fat turmeric-colored mashed potato patty, breaded with fine Japanese crumbs and deep fried. It is a savory treat, crisp on the outside, hot and soft on the inside, especially when dipped in fruity Tonkatsu cutlet sauce and sprinkled with togaroshi ground chili peppers.
Henry's Hi-Life - Downtown
301 West St. John Street
fax (408) 295-5431
Lunch Tues-Fri and dinner daily
Inexpensive to pricey
In the dark days of winter, do you gaze longingly out the window at your rain-pelted barbecue grill, recalling summer flavors of chicken, ribs, and steaks? If so, you will relish the food at Henry's. I drove past the Shark Tank, and as I approached the end of the street, the smoky smell of seared meat permeated the air. Eaters filled the small front room, so I made my way to the tightly packed back. The walls of this 1900s hotel are strangely decorated with glossy green grape stake pickets, and encircled by silk ivy and tiny white Christmas lights. Loud conversation from every table mingled, as the varied patronage wore dress shoes at one table and construction orange vests at the next. I started with a nicely flavored iced tea, mixed green salad with 1960s blue cheese dressing, and toasty grilled sandwich roll garlic bread. My main event was a perfectly juicy top sirloin steak, cooked on the indoor brick grill with a giant baked potato loaded with herbed butter. The side of barbecue sauce reminded me of cherries, with a touch of vinegar and chili.
Korean Palace - Valley Fair
2297 Steven's Creek Boulevard (between Bascom Avenue and Highway 880)
(408) 947-8600 / 279-9686
Lunch and dinner daily
Inexpensive to pricey
Entering the large, simply-decorated dining room I am greeted like a long-anticipated traveler. At the center of my marble-topped table is a covered grill. Green tea with leaves and roasted grains arrives quickly. From the kitchen emerges the distinct aroma of barbeque. The house specialty, San Jang Dosirak arrives on a large subdivided platter with tastes of 14 Korean Palace specialties, plus a bowl each of light miso soup with seaweed and steamed short grain rice. The melt in your mouth Bul Koji is shaved barbequed rib eye steak in a slightly sweet house marinade. A piece of tender cod is egg battered then sauteed, and the rolled omelet contains finely minced vegetables. The hot tempura prawn and vegetables are perfectly puffed. I am eager to visit again for a traditional tabletop barbeque.
La Pizzeria - Campbell
373 East Campbell Avenue
Lunch and dinner weekdays, lunch through dinner weekends
Inexpensive to moderately priced
I heard that La Pizzeria is the place for authentic Neapolitan thin crust pizzas, so I took a seat outside in the lunchtime sun. Soon I was ignoring the sound of cars on the main street, as I evaluated the selection of soup, salad, panini, pasta, calzone, a whole page of pizza choices and two pages of wine. The antipasto plate included olives, artichoke hearts, cheese, and a selection of Italian cured meats and pizza dough points. Unique pizza toppings include smoked salmon, proscuitto and blue cheese, and tuna with onions. I chose a regular crust Margherita pizza (they also offer whole wheat), with tomato sauce and Mozzarella. The uncut masterpiece arrived quickly from the 900 degree wood oven. On the crispy crust, a light layer of bubbling cheese covered the tangy herbed sauce. In keeping with Italian tradition, toppings are lightly applied to showcase the sauce and quality cheese. The friendly server brought crushed red peppers and mild chili infused oil to complete the presentation.
La Victoria Taqueria - Downtown
140 East San Carlos Street (at Fourth Street)
fax (408) 298-7000
Breakfast through late night dinner
In a yellow Victorian house, where San Carlos runs into the West Entrance to San Jose State University, La Victoria dishes up inexpensive fast Mexican food. Entering the large parlor room with coved ceilings and hundreds of feet of decorative wood moulding, I order lunch. The walls are painted orange, presumably a tribute to their famous sauce. My number is called and I fetch two plump tacos. Carne Asada is filled with chopped, grilled beef, some pinto beans and a jalapeno-laced fresh tomato salsa on two thick corn tortillas. The Chili Verde version features chunks of flaky pork with a touch of rice and beans. On the side, instead of a ubiquitous tomato salsa is the fabled orange sauce. They won't tell me a thing about it, but imagine a pumpkin-colored Thousand Island dressing with a kick. Breakfast burritos are especially popular in the wee hours, while flautas, enchiladas, and chili rellenos are just a few of the other offerings.
Paolo's - Downtown
333 West San Carlos Street
Lunch weekdays, dinner Mon-Sat
Moderate to pricey selections
Paolo's, established in 1958 and now run by the second generation, has reinvented itself along with its surroundings. Located at the foot of the new River Park Tower, the patio looks out on the beautiful Guadalupe River Park walkway, which will take you to the convention center a few blocks away, or the Shark Tank on the other side of town. The sophisticated sculpted ceilings, white tablecloths and Italian vocals set a relaxed but elegant mood. The menu holds flavorful treasures such as potato dumplings with smoked mozzarella and Picholine olives, roasted duck breast with Medjool dates, and house-made egg pasta stuffed with lamb shanks. A plate of soft braided bread with sesame seeds and a fresh slice of butter arrived first. The professional staff almost fell over themselves making sure my iced tea remained full. The incredible Melanzane al Forno featured large soft grains of long-cooked polenta, perfectly wilted garlic escarole, and two thick slices of smoky eggplant covered with light cream-infused marinara and flowing mozzarella. Next door, is Paolo's Express, serving early breakfasts and lunches to-go. The menu includes inexpensive pastries, egg dishes, luncheon sandwiches, salads, and pasta.
Shebele Ethiopian Restaurant - Campbell
422 East Campbell Avenue
Lunch and dinner, closed Mondays
Woven baskets and colorful murals relating the story of a king's travels decorate the eclectic array of recycled carpentry inside this 15-year old Ethiopian restaurant. Bright embroidered tablecloths are protected with Plexiglas, talented textile artwork is displayed above the booths, and the air smells strongly of cedar. Single lunch items are inexpensive, but I've decided to order the moderately priced meat sampler to experience the cuisine's breadth. My meal arrives on a giant spongy pancake of sour injera bread. The thick stew Wot dishes include Tibs Wot, flavored with red chilies and spices, while the Ye-Alkilt Wot colors potatoes and still-crisp vegetables with turmeric. Tender spiced chicken is called Ye-Doro Tibs. Pleasant acidic vinaigrette dresses the lettuce and tomato salad. Vegetarian items such as lentils and garbanzo beans are also made here. If you've never eaten Ethiopian food, the weekday lunch buffet offers a sampling of the various ingredients and cooking styles.
Everywhere you turn at Taiwan, large flower arrangements, each unique and created by the owner, reach towards the ceiling. I ordered an inexpensive lunch special and relaxed to admire the oil paintings. From a formal still life of tangerines to the excited eyes of a boy, tongue anticipating a lollipop, they are all painted by the other owner. At the back table, a cook folds wonton wrappers, that will be deep fried and drizzled with sweet and sour sauce. With Frank Sinatra crooning quietly in the background, a server dressed in a sparkling black tunic delivers my hot and sour soup with perfect acidity, contrasting favorably with a small chicken salad with puffed rice sticks and crunchy water chestnuts. My main course Garlic Pork includes crisp zucchini spears and soft pork, with chili seeds suspended in garlic-infused gravy. Other specialties of this gourmet Chinese restaurant include fresh fish, sizzling platters, mu shu dishes, and a wide selection of stir fries.
Teske's Germania Restaurant and Beer Garden - Downtown
255 North First Street (at Devine Street)
Lunch Tues-Fri, dinner Tues-Sat
Moderate to pricey selections
An old brick building with a corner entrance houses Teske's Germania Restaurant. To find the dining room, pass by the long bar, where a large selection of light and dark German beers is poured. Turn right, to find green and white tablecloths awaiting you. Teske's has expanded into the building next door, adding a large Victorian lobby with decorated high ceilings, antique buffets, and a horned deer head with furry chin. A door here leads outside to the biergarten. A lovely polka serenades the arrival of dark farm bread with soft butter, and a large stein of iced tea. The house vinaigrette is served over lettuce and specially soured cabbage. The Jagerschnitzel covers my plate - tenderized white pork, breaded and sauteed, then served with white wine-scented mushroom sauce. Underneath are thick cylinders of chewy home made spaetzle noodles. I love the Rindsroulade beef rolls holding bacon and dill pickles, baked in gravy and served with red cabbage, as well as the stuffed chicken breast with ginger sauce.
A pleasant interior design with carvings and brass, forms covered lanais along both walls. Black lacquer chairs sit on the tile floor around colorful tablecloths. Blue and white ceramic plates match the condiment containers which hold a fish-enhanced chili sauce, jalapenos and peanuts. I skipped the lunch buffet to order my favorites from the well-used menus which are written in both English and Thai. Between the lunch menu, the special menu and the dinner menu, I had a hundred options, so I ordered the spicy Green Curry Chicken, requesting it be made extra-spicy. My inexpensive lunch came with hot chicken-vegetable soup, salad with a pleasing ginger-garlic dressing, and crisp spring rolls with sweet and sour chili sauce. The Green Curry Chicken was tame and sweet with soft vegetables, sweet basil, longitudinal slices of whole bamboo shoots and lean white chicken. Other tempting menu items include catfish, squid, green mussels, clay pot meals, and stir fries such as Oyster Sauce Beef.
Willow Street - Willow Glen
1072 Willow Street
Lunch and Dinner
Inexpensive to moderately priced
The stuccoed facade disguises the historic brick interior supported by a retrofit of rust-colored I-beams. A large skylight brightens polished cozy tables and the cement floor. Beyond the counter and a strange mural of cats and trout, the wood fired ovens turn out thin crusted pizzas with unique toppings such as Chicken Chili Verde and Thai Chicken. My personal 9-inch cheese pizza with a pesto-laced house made sauce is topped with a thin layer of whole milk mozzarella cheese. The heavy crab cakes are served on a generous bed of fresh greens with a smoky chipotle mayonnaise, but taste overwhelmingly of bell peppers. The Rosemary Chicken Penne includes moist rotisserie chicken pieces, sweet sun dried tomatoes and al dente broccoli and pasta in a cheesy alfredo-style sauce. The accompanying large whole wheat bread rolls are wonderfully soft and chewy. The Caesar salad includes romaine and an anchovy-rich dressing. The restaurant also offers sandwiches on freshly baked flatbreads, wood-fired honey mustard salmon, lunch specials and a children's menu.
Karen S. Petersen is a Santa Cruz-based freelance writer focusing on food, fun and fitness.