Tournedos: A User’s Guide

From 2005 to 2008, I kept a food review blog called Tournedos, mostly about the places I had lunch during law school.  (It was called Tournedos because I started law school at UC Hastings, so I was mostly reviewing restaurants in the Tenderloin.)  I’m now consolidating those reviews with the rest of my food writing here at Plausibly Deniable.

Tournedos was a little more systematic than the rest of my food reviews, so I want to explain the things I put in the header of each post.

Types of Post: There are two types of post — Impressions and Reviews. Impressions are exactly that: a reaction based on a single meal. They consist basically of where I went, what I ate, what I thought about it, and what it cost. Reviews, on the other hand, follow what I’m given to understand is the New York Times model; I only write one after I’ve been somewhere at least three times and eaten three different things. In a review, I try to cover a restaurant’s strengths and weaknesses more broadly.

Ratings: Like Homeland Security, I have a five-level rating system. Also like Homeland Security, only two of them get used much. It’s important to bear in mind that these ratings are calibrated to the assumption that you’re in the Tenderloin and need lunch nearby; I’d probably shift the ratings down a level if I were judging them on an absolute scale. The ratings are:

Strongly Recommended: This rating goes to restaurants that I think are worth experiencing of their own right, and I would even recommend a trip to eat at them.

Recommended: This rating goes to places I like, and will eat at again. If you asked for a restaurant in a given food genre, these are the ones I’d mention.

OK: This rating goes to places that were fine, but I’m in no hurry to return to.

Not Recommended: This rating goes to places that I probably won’t go back to. Not disgusting; just not good. These are restaurants that aren’t worth your time.

Avoid: This rating is reserved for places so bad that I had to abandon my meal.

Impression: Hunan Chili: OK

102 Castro Street
Mountain View

I’ve relocated again, and now I’m working on Castro Street, where restaurants are like optimistic lemmings, cheerfully poinging toward swift oblivion. Thus, more reviews which will likely soon be moot. (Incidentally, KoKo Express┬áhas now been replaced by Toust. I never went.)

Anyway, I had a yen for Chinese today at lunch, and I got the broccoli beef lunch special at Hunan Chili*. Because I got it to go, I missed out on the soup and ice cream. However, it did come with an egg roll and steamed rice.

The egg roll was really unremarkable. I have nothing bad to say about it, but I wouldn’t have missed it. Similarly, they make a perfectly serviceable heap of steamed rice. The broccoli beef, meanwhile, was OK. The beef was fine — not rubbery or chewy, but I’m not rhapsodic over its quality. The broccoli was maybe a tad overdone. The sauce had that sort of dark taste that suggests a little much soy sauce for my taste. Overall, I wouldn’t refuse to eat there again, but I won’t be in a hurry to return.

*I had a typo here that said Human Chili. I really hope never to write that review.

(Editor’s Note: Hunan Chili survived until 2013, so I guess I didn’t give it enough credit.)

Originally published on Tournedos

Impression: Le Petit Cheval: Recommended

corner of Bancroft and Bowditch
Berkeley, CA

Not far from Boalt is a Vietnamese place that I’m told is an outpost of a famed Oakland
eatery to which I have never been. I eat there often when I don’t want to walk far and don’t want a sandwich. They have a steam table three-item combo ($5.08 plus tax, which comes out to $5.50), which is my subject today.

Today I opted for the curry chicken, the beef with asparagus, and the sauteed vegetables; the combo also comes with a scoop of steamed rice. I often get the curry chicken; they make a good yellow curry (if mild), with big chunks of potato and carrot and chicken thigh. The beef with asparagus is new. I got it because I read in the paper today that asparagus season is upon us. It was good, with surprisingly tasty beef for a steam table, but the lady behind the counter stiffed me a bit on the portion. She may have been concerned about running out; it seemed like everyone was ordering it. The sauteed vegetables were fine, but unexciting. They came with tofu chunks, and were good with some leftover rice and curry sauce.

Originally published on Tournedos

Impression: Bristol Farms Breakfast Bar: Recommended

Westfield Food Concourse
off Powell St. BART Station, San Francisco

So I found myself in the Powell St. BART at 10.30 am, with no particular place to be, melancholy in my heart, and an inexplicable hunger in my gut. There is a traditional prescription for moments like these, and it is called brunch. However, I didn’t know any good places in the area other than the perplexingly classy Denny’s on Mission, and I didn’t really want to take the time for a proper brunch, so I decided to just hit the food court in the Westfield, grab some upscale snacks, and head on my way.

However, the food court — excuse me, concourse — in the Westfield is not really that great a place for a snack, unless you want a pretzel, which is fine but not really what I was in the mood for. So I thought I would try the Bristol Farms, which I find sort of charming because it’s sort of like Whole Foods without any pretensions of being anything other than a place whether rich people get groceries.

Well, it turns out that they have a breakfast bar, which they label “American Comfort Food”. I loaded up my salad bar takeout tray with scrambled eggs, ham, hash browns, oatmeal, and a biscuit, and I went to find a table. (Incidentally, the Westfield is very clever by using tiny little tables that have room for your food but nothing else. It probably discourages cafe-style squatters.)

I didn’t have particularly high hopes, because, well, steam table food. I was, however, pleasantly surprised. The ham was a touch on the dry side, but not to the point of leatheriness; more of a “picking leftovers off the Christmas ham” kind of dryness. It was really good, too. I’d guess honey-cured. The hash browns were well-seasoned, and neither crunchy nor mushy. The biscuit was fresh and tasty, if a touch salty. And the eggs shocked me; they looked like they’d be dry and rubbery like steam table eggs tend to be, but they were surprisingly…like scrambled eggs ought to be. Moist but not runny, eggy but not overpowering. They could have used a touch of salt, maybe. The oatmeal was the main disappointment; it was bland and soupy. I didn’t finish.

My biggest problem with the breakfast bar is the price tag – $8.95 per pound. The food is good, but it’s not a bargain. If I were go again, I’d probably go easier on the hash browns and eggs, skip the oatmeal entirely, and snag some fruit from the salad bar.

Originally published on Tournedos

Impression: Gypsy’s Trattoria: Recommended

2519 Durant Ave
Berkeley, CA

I’ve wanted to try this place for a while, but it’s always been packed to bursting with undergraduates, and my lunch hour is too short to spend standing in line. This week, however, the undergrads are not back from break yet, and Telegraph belongs to the natives and the graduate students (and panhandlers who have a vague “why did I even show up to work today?” air about them). So I went to Gypsy’s.

I’ve long wanted a pasta equivalent of the burrito joint — a place that dishes out decent-quality pasta fast at a low price. I suspect Gypsy’s may be as close as I’ll get (which may explain the aforementioned “packed with undergrads” quality).

I ordered the Victor’s Spaghetti ($5.99), which the menu describes as basically spaghetti with a beef-and-red-pepper sauce. They move fast; my food was ready in maybe five minutes. It turns out the menu is misleading. I expected an ordinary meat sauce with pieces of red pepper in it, but what I got was a tomato sauce with strips of steak and red pepper — a different and far more delicious proposition. The tomato sauce itself was maybe a little canned-tasting, but the combination of meat and peppers and sauce is really tasty. The pasta was good too. I prefer my spaghetti a bit more al dente, but I expect that they must reheat their pasta to keep up with the pace of orders, and it’s pretty damn good considering that. The meal also came with a piece of toasted Italian bread with a clove of roasted garlic on it, which is a nice touch, and far better than the garlic bread you often get with inexpensive Italian food.

Impression: Taqueria Can-Cun: Recommended

3211 Mission Street
San Francisco

Taqueria Can-Cun is basically across the street from my new apartment; as a result, it has become my default quick restaurant. If I don’t want to cook, I can always nip across the street for a burrito. My usual choice is a regular burrito with grilled chicken ($3.80) on a wheat tortilla (80 cents extra). I think the wheat tortilla is worth it, both because I like to eat whole wheat when I can and because Can-Cun grills their tortillas, which renders a white tortilla a bit dry and flaky for my tastes. The wheat tortilla retains more chew through the grilling process. As I’ve mentioned before, I like a relatively dry burrito, and Can-Cun’s are very much to my taste. The burrito is hefty, and holds together well through the last bite. The meat is spicy and tasty — just on the edge of being a bit too rich for me. The meal comes with a big handful of pretty tasty chips, and two salsas. One is a nice pico de gallo-type salsa which I eat with the chips; the other is a hot green salsa which I leave be.

I’ve also had the plain quesadilla ($2.50), which is good but unremarkable. I should try some more of the meats. Plus, they have the dread alambres.

Originally published on Tournedos

Impression: Julie’s Healthy Cafe: OK

2562 Bancroft Ave.
Berkeley, CA

Julie’s is one of the Berkeley restaurants that boggles me a little bit, because I’ve never been even though I lived in the area for many years. I think it’s because the restaurant is set back from the street, past an outdoor seating area, and it’s not especially inviting. However, this week I went in to give it a try.

Julie’s serves breakfast, sandwiches (hot and cold), and stir-fry. It strikes me as an odd assortment, but I’ve seen a bunch of burgers-and-stir-fry places lately, so perhaps it’s a trend. I had the chicken broccoli stir-fry ($6.95), a soda ($1.00), and a cookie ($1.00). The stir-fry was pretty good, though I would have called it a chicken mushroom stir-fry; there were a whole bunch of mushrooms, and only a few sprigs of broccoli. The chicken was tasty, and the seasoning was fine, though maybe a little one-dimensionally soy-based. The cookies are apparently low-fat. I can’t recommend them; my cookie was bland and boring. Sometimes a low-fat dessert is less worth the calories than a full-fat one would be.

Originally published on Tournedos

Impression: CU Sushi: Recommended

2152 Center Street, Berkeley

I stayed late at school the other night, and on the way home I decided that I was in the mood for sushi. I pass CU Sushi every day on the way to and from school, so I thought I’d give it a try. It’s a cute little space, and the staff is friendly. I ordered four orders of sushi: tuna nigiri ($2.75), albacore nigiri ($2.25), tuna roll ($2.98), and cucumber roll ($2.25). (As you can see, my taste in sushi runs simple.) I also got an order of gyoza ($4,25), because I was hungry. And a can of soda ($1.25).

CU makes a big deal of all its sushi being 50% off; that seems a little weird, seeing as you never pay full price. I guess it’s a way to be reasonably priced without coming off as a place for cheap sushi. They do make a fine piece of sushi, too. The nigiri were nice and hefty, with a hint of wasabi. The rolls held together well, but I’m thinking I need to move on from tuna rolls; they’re sort of boring. The gyoza were good, but not exceptional.

I also appreciated the little extras; I got a complimentary bowl of edamame, which was nice. There was also a cute little ritual where my server put a little tablet that looked like an earplug on a dish in front of me, then poured hot water over it. It promptly expanded into a tightly wrapped hot towelette, which I thought was pretty darn cool.

Originally published on Tournedos

Impression: KoKo Express: OK

2433-F Durant Avenue (inside Sather Lane)
Berkeley, CA

I had a review half-written about a really dismal hole in the wall called Sumo Burger which made some mighty grim teriyaki chicken worthy of my second Not Recommended label. However, it folded before I finished. Its storefront is now filled by KoKo Express, which has a similar menu, but better decor.

I had a cheeseburger ($4.00), with onion rings and a drink ($1.99; it’s a combo special). Their cheeseburger is fine, but not exceptional. They use shredded cheese instead of a slice, which is unusual, and they use a lot of it. The onion rings are pretty good — very oniony, with a light crunchy breading.

They have a happy hour deal, whereby you can get various snack-type things for $1.99 — chicken wings, mozzarella sticks, and “macaroni noodle with ham”, among others. I haven’t tried them, but it looks interesting.

Originally published on Tournedos

Impression: Goood Frikin’ Chicken: Recommended

10 29th Street
San Francisco, CA

I really like GFC. How can you not love a sassy Mediterranean rotisserie chicken place? Last night I stopped in to pick up a chicken meal ($15.75). I got the rotisserie chicken, but they also have chicken cooked over an open flame and a variety of other shawerma, kabab, and falafel options. The meal comes with olive oil pita, salad, and a side; I chose the macaroni and cheese.

The chicken is indeed pretty frikin’ goood. The meat is tender and easily stripped from the bones, and the seasoning is great — a little spicy, with a fantastic depth of flavor. Apparently a garlic lemon marinade is responsible. The whole chicken fed my wife and I for two meals; you can also get a half if you want.

The olive oil pita is also really tasty, though I wouldn’t have called it a pita if you had asked me. Jen kept calling it naan. The salad was fine — not ragingly delicious, but the lettuce was fresh and the tart, bright dressing was a good counterpoint to rich chicken. The mac and cheese was disappointing, though. If you just wanted a scoop of starch by the side of your plate, it would be fine, but it was bland. Like bad Salvadorean food, life is too short to eat bad macaroni and cheese.

That one blemish aside, however, it was a terrific meal. I will definitely be returning to try the open flame chicken or some kabab. And that time, maybe the pilaf.