Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Google's Big Table Cafe

One of the well-known perks of working at Google is free lunch served at a variety of cafes on campus. My husband Brad, the Gmail Spam Czar, sometimes takes this benefit for granted, but every time I join him for lunch there I remind him how very fortunate he is to be so well fed at work.

Eating at a Google Cafe is not like eating at an ordinary company cafeteria.  From the start, Google has taken its food seriously, and hired skilled chefs who have created food not only big in quantity but also big in flavor, variety, and nutrition. Over the years, I've tried about ten of Google's cafes. This month I joined him at the Big Table Cafe at a new office building he recently moved into near Shoreline Park in Mountain View. Surprisingly, there is no actual big table at Big Table. Rather, the cafe's moniker refers to the codename of some technical project that I'm not privy to. As Brad says, 'It's too hard to explain,' but Googlers are in on the secret and to them it makes perfect sense.

I greatly enjoyed my Asian-inspired meal, just one of the many meal options offered that day at the cafe:

- Baby bok choy and pickled red cabbage
- Ginger garlic noodles
- Ginger sesame asparagus
- Onion pancake with spicy Szechuan peanut sauce
- Grilled corn on the cob with butter and lime juice
- Hint water flavored with pomegranate and tangerine
- Pineapple
- Rum ball

It's truly a delight to eat excellently cooked vegetables, and the bok choy delivered.  It had a firm yet delicate texture, and its simple sauteed preparation allowed the fresh flavor to express itself. Even with its small size, the baby bok choy varied as I ate starting with the light green, mild, crunchy bottom up to the richly dark green and slightly bitter leaves. It oozed not only with flavor but with nutrients and cruciferous crunch. I know a vegetable has been perfectly prepared when eating it is as enjoyable as eating dessert. Knowing how good it is for me only increases the pleasure.

I also loved the ginger garlic noodles, thin and cooked al dente, delicately coated with a sparkling touch of ginger garlic sauce. The combination of those two Asian ingredients creates a well known combustion of fiery flavors that have been enjoyed for centuries. The delicate noodles provided just the right amount of bite and sustenance to carry the flavors forward all the way from tongue to stomach.

The grilled corn on the cob also started a flavor party in my mouth with its sweet, rich and sour combination of caramelized corn, butter, and lime juice. I've always loved corn on the cob, best hot off the coals and dripping with butter. Sweet and crunchy, corn on the cob is the taste of summer, eaten in rows like keys on a keyboard, and bringing back memories of 4th of July picnics.

To make this meal even more memorable, we sighted both Larry Page and Sergey Brin. I admit I'm a groupie when it comes to Silicon Valley movers and shakers, and felt a little thrill spotting the two Google guys. It was all very ordinary for Brad, but for me it was a treat. Enjoying lunch with Googlers talking and eating animatedly all around us, I felt a palpable energy, a kind of social vibration that emerges when I'm around engaged and enthusiastic people. That kind of energy is contagious, and I want more.  I'm convinced the food at Google is an integral driver of this vitality, not only delighting and nourishing employees, but also instilling a creative energy that fuels their ideas just as much as their work. It's part of the secret sauce that propels innovative thinking and helps the company stand out from the rest. It's no wonder why Googlers are feeling lucky. 

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Hooray for Hobee's

Why has Hobee's been voted best breakfast in Palo Alto by readers of the Palo Alto Weekly newspaper so many times it's now in the Hall of Fame? Let me count the ways. Hobee's offers the quintessential California breakfast and brunch with a lively atmosphere and comfortable setting. You can even order breakfast for dinner and no one will bat an eye. Starting with their very cinnamon-y hot or iced tea, robust coffee, or fruit smoothie, a meal at Hobee's brings comforting nourishment as well as big flavor and smiles. Featuring a diverse, friendly, healthy, and mouthwatering selection of choices, Hobee's is as sure-fire a restaurant for anyone looking for a satisfying meal as there could be.

Widely known for its tall blueberry coffeecake with cinnamon crumb topping, Hobee's features seasonal coffeecake flavors including apple walnut, peach pecan, cranberry, and banana toffee. The omelets and scrambles never fail to deliver. My favorites include the Florentine scramble with spinach, mushrooms, and cheese; the Pruneyard omelet with turkey bacon, onion, mushrooms, and Swiss; the Santa Cruz scramble with artichoke hearts and lots of garlic; and the breakfast burrito, a whole wheat tortilla stuffed with eggs, rice, salsa, cheese, and guacamole.  Sometimes I'll either take the coffeecake to go or just eat the top, which of course includes the cinnamon brown sugar topping. My husband often orders the BDBIT, the Best Darn Breakfast in Town -- two eggs, country-style hashbrowns, and coffeecake or toast.

Hobee's sells some items to go, including large tins of coffeecake, cinnamon tea, and crunchy granola. They also sell their famous t-shirts, and if you bring in a photo of yourself wearing the t-shirt at some far away yet recognizable landmark location, you can earn a free meal. Just look at the wall of photos inside every Hobee's to get an idea of its devoted fans and the lengths they will go to to get a free Hobee's meal.

Hobee's is always busy so if you go at the height of the breakfast or lunch hour, you may have to wait. I think the longest we've waited to get into Hobee's was forty-five excruciating minutes, but it's always worth it when nothing less will do. Luckily they have many locations in Silicon Valley. Just make sure if you're meeting a friend, to make it very clear *which* Hobee's you want to meet at so that you're not waiting and wondering, growing hungrier by the minute! (I speak from experience.) It is a good place to meet people, and sometimes you will overhear Silicon Valley business deals being made at nearby tables. It works for both business and pleasure get-togethers, but choose another restaurant if you're looking for a romantic meal or quiet conversation.

The restaurant is extremely kid-friendly with crayons, a kid's menu, and a fun happy face made of fruit on glass plates to start. My daughter Amanda's usual choice is the Mickey's Pancake, and she always gets a kick out of the menu item which reads, "Liver & Onions--with brussel sprouts, broccoli, eggplant, and lots of beets, $29.95." Dinner meals also please the palate: pastas, wraps, and sandwiches fill the menu, as well as burgers, salads, hash brown concoctions, and any of the breakfast egg dishes. It's a good place to bring a largish group with kids because there's something for everyone.

There must be something special in their cinnamon, because the cinnamon tea and cinnamon coffeecake have a special allure that always brings me back. It's extra spicy and flavorful, the kind that makes my taste buds do a little dance, and something about it fires off powerful neurons in my brain that reinforce my love of the place and the food. I wouldn't be surprised if scientific studies showed the cinnamon triggers endorphins which have the magical effect of stimulating animated conversation and pleasurable eating.

It's comforting to know that a Silicon Valley institution like Hobee's is just minutes away, and that here I can find one of my favorite breakfast meals even if it's for dinner. It would be hard to count how many times I've eaten at Hobee's over the years. Sometimes I take it for granted, and going there is more of an afterthought than a destination. But it's good to take a moment to be grateful and appreciate the wonderful elements of ordinary life, including nearby restaurants that have always been there. Hobee's definitely delivers.