Thursday, April 29, 2010


If you like the vibrant flavors of Vietnamese cuisine, hip decor, and exploring new restaurants, it's worth checking out XANH. Winner of four awards on OpenTable (hot spot, most booked, vibrant bar scene, and Vietnamese cuisine), XANH offers a flavorful and fashionable culinary adventure you won't soon forget. The restaurant achieves its goal to "fuse the culinary traditions of Vietnam with modern aesthetics and complexities."

XANH, which means 'green' in Vietnamese (I love Google Translator on my iGoogle page), also boasts the Michelin Bib Gourmand designation. Located on the eclectic and electric ethnic Castro Street in Mountain View, XANH offers a completely different world for your senses the minute you set foot inside. Decorated in soothing blues with thoroughly modern decor, hypnotic background music and traditional Vietnamese motifs, the restaurant immediately creates an intriguing and inviting ambiance.

As it should be, the food is what's most compelling. As servers bring out dishes for fellow diners, it's fun to see what others order. The biggest challenge is choosing what to have off the lengthy menu. We finally settled on these dishes:

kobe roll marinated beef, rice noodles, fresh lettuce, cilantro, carrots, cucumber, and roasted peanuts | served with nuoc cham vinaigrette

papaya salad poached shrimp, green papaya, carrots, cu cai trang, sliced mango, cilantro, mint, caramelized shallot | served with roasted peanuts and nuoc cham vinaigrette

bun thit nuong choice of sautéed beef, grilled pork, or grilled shrimp | with rice noodles, sliced cucumber, sliced green apples, cilantro, mint, carrots, and crispy shallots | served with shrimp cracker, roasted peanuts, and nuoc cham vinaigrette

XANH shrimp cakes minced shrimp and chicken, glass noodles, carrots, and garlic atop toasted bread | served with lightly spiced vinaigrette | servings of four or six pieces

XANH full moon wraps™ four baby rice crêpes stuffed with shrimp, bean sprouts, white and green onions | served with lettuce, sliced mango and fresh herbs

My favorite dish was the XANH full moon wraps. Everything comes piled on crispy green bib lettuce leaves, with a little dish of sweet sauce to drizzle over before rolling it all up in the lettuce and taking that first incredible bite. The melding of crisp, crunchy, sweet, and sour ingredients works beautifully together, like a symphony's crescendo sending chills up your spine. Eyes widen, pupils dilate, the heartbeat quickens, and salivary glands go into overdrive. It's one of those dishes I could easily develop a craving for, pulling me back for more addictive delight.

I also greatly enjoyed the kobe roll and bun thit nuong, which our server assembled quietly yet dramatically for us at the table. The papaya salad gave a wonderfully crisp and clean start to the meal. The shrimp cakes were my least favorite dish. While I enjoyed the interesting flavors (did I detect cinnamon?) and the stylish European fusion (the cakes came atop a circle of toast), it didn't quite work as well overall.

We saw so many other wonderful dishes that our fellow diners seemed to enjoy, all with beautiful presentation and a bit of drama (look out for the dry ice!). It's one of those places that draws me back to try out all the dishes that wouldn't fit in my stomach the first time. I think that's a mark of great menu design and food: describe and offer dishes so mouthwatering and enticing that diners return to try out more things and tell their friends about it. Next time I want to try:

lucky egg noodles (mi xao don) chicken, shrimp, shiitake mushrooms, carrots, baby bok choy, baby corn, and white onions upon a bed of golden crispy egg noodles

crab martini fresh crab claw meat, mixed bell peppers, avocado and other fresh herbs

ahi tuna tartare spicy ahi tuna, cucumber, avocado | served with wonton chips

tamarind prawns sauteed jumbo prawns on a lake of tamarind sauce

Ahh yes, I must go back soon to get my fix...the crave-worthy full moon wraps and other delectables await....

Friday, April 9, 2010

Edible Enjoyment in a Korean Strip Mall

I love exploring ethnic markets--deciphering packages, discovering new ingredients, and stepping into the unknown. One such Silicon Valley market is the Galleria Plaza Korean market in Santa Clara. In a little Korean strip mall at 3531 El Camino Real, the Galleria Plaza is full of items I know nothing about. I've started to learn a bit more about Korean cuisine ever since my brother Doug married Yoojung Kang, who moved to the U.S. from Seoul during college. (By the way, Yoojung used to be my daughter's preschool teacher and I introduced her and Doug to each other!)

After an 'extreme' Korean spa experience at the Lawrence Health Center next door (that's a whole other story), I went to the Galleria Plaza in my blissed-out state to look for some new items to try. I ended up purchasing:

- Sriracha chili sauce in the famous rooster bottle, made in California
- crunchy rice crackers, lightly seasoned with soy sauce and individually wrapped, making them nice lunch box snacks
- S&B Curry Sauce mix, made in Japan
- kimchi, one of numerous varieties offered, including huge jars that would last for years in our home (imagine the odeur) but probably would last a month or so in a big Korean family's refrigerator
- Super Lemon hard candies, surprisingly one of the most sour flavors we have ever tried (these make a great kid's activity or fun little gift)
- Hanmi pumpkin hard candies, just because I love pumpkin
- Orion Choco Pies, like moon pies (two chocolate dipped cookies with a marshmallow filling), because I once watched an infomercial on a Korean television channel all about this company and how singularly focused it is on producing the highest quality Choco Pie dessert snacks imaginable in the entire universe

In just one shopping trip I acquired a wide variety of interesting, tasty, and, for most Americans, unusual collection of edibles. Prices are so reasonable that it's little risk to try something completely unknown. If you don't like it, pass it on to someone who might. I enjoy conducting taste tests with our family of five to see what everyone thinks of new foods and to get their ratings. We all have very different preferences, and I have to say that there wasn't any one food (even the Choco Pies) that got an enthusiastic thumbs-up from all of us. My husband loves anything hot and spicy, so prefers the chili sauce (on almost anything) as well as the kimchi. The kids like the rice crackers, Choco Pies, and sour lemon candies best.

Our most eaten food in this list is the S&B Golden Curry sauce, one of those fairly rare dinner meals that we all enjoy. It's easy to make, and completely flexible in what ingredients you include. Just follow the directions on the back. The sauce cooks up in a saute pan on the stove top, while you can make rice in a rice cooker or however you prefer. We like to serve it over brown rice cooked with sauteed onion, carrots, and peas. It would be easy to add any kind of meat pieces or other vegetables like potatoes or broccoli. We usually get the mild version because of our kids' more sensitive taste buds, but the more adventurous can try the medium or hot versions. Japanese curry tastes different from Indian curry but has a familiar aroma and kick, both sweet and spicy, with a creamy texture that coats the ingredients in its velvety embrace. It's considered Japanese peasant comfort food, a meal that starts brightly in your nose and mouth, and settles warmly in your stomach.

I'll never forget when my husband and I were in Tokyo and we enjoyed a nice curry dinner from a unique diner. We ordered our food choices from a vending machine, handed our tickets to the fast order cook, and he made our curries to order. We ate in the casual diner-like restaurant, sharing tables with other curry fans, and watching the passers-by outside through the windows. Of course it's not as sophisticated or artistic as sushi, but Japanese curry hits the spot. If you'd rather eat it at a restaurant, Gombei restaurant at 1438 El Camino Real in Menlo Park serves Japanese curry dishes.

Choco Pies are another item worth mentioning in more detail. Considered the quintessential snack of Korea, Choco Pies could be considered the Asian equivalent of Oreo cookies.  The Orion Confectionery company has made these snacks for about thirty-five years.  They now make up an impressive two-thirds of the Chinese cookie market! Also big sellers in Russia and Vietnam, Choco Pies are apparently considered a sign of capitalism by the North Korean people. Similar to Oreo cookies because of their chocolate flavor, sandwich cookies, white filling, and manufactured appearance and flavor, Choco Pies still offer some fun, sweet pleasure with their squishy marshmallow middles, crumbly cookies, and chocolate coating. You don't have to be a capitalist to eat and enjoy one.

Next time you're in the area, wander around the Galleria Plaza and try something new. You just might find a new favorite.