Jack’s Restaurant & Bar

meter-good-greatListen, I’m going to be honest here. The main problem with Jack’s is that it’s right next door to the very best pizza joint in the Bay Area. Anytime I find myself at Jack’s, I make a right turn and go to Windy City instead. I just can’t help it. With an effort of extreme willpower, I finally managed to drag myself into Jack’s on a recent Sunday afternoon. The guilt of ignoring this restaurant for so long was causing me to lose sleep at night… or maybe it was those pizza rolls I had right before bedtime. Well, no matter. Here I was at Jack’s, and I was determined to give it a fair review.

You can see this sign from space.

You can see this sign from space.

” It should never be obvious that lamb is actually lamb “

The place was reasonably crowded on this particular Sunday, a good sign, and the sportsbar-ish interior was contemporary and clean. Jack’s has a relatively extensive menu, and while there are plenty of common staples, there are also a good amount of unique offerings. My lunch party and I chose a couple of these: A lamb burger with garlic oregano fries and an order of Italian mac & cheese.

The ingredients are cheese, meat, cheese, cheese, and macaroni. And some meat. And cheese.

The ingredients are cheese, meat, cheese, cheese, and macaroni. And some meat. And cheese.

It didn’t take long at all for the food to arrive, and it looked so good I (nearly) stopped second-guessing myself for not going to Windy City. The Italian mac was nothing short of divine. It’s a simple dish, yes, but it was executed very well and had just the right mix of cheese to sauce to meaty sausage bits. Mac and cheese in general tends to be a throw-away dish; my theory is that too many cooks/chefs treat it like it’s easy to make and don’t spend the necessary time on it. The kitchen crew at Jacks’s did their homework though, because it was exactly as good as I hoped it would be.

This doesn't taste as good as it looks. It tastes better.

This doesn’t taste as good as it looks. It tastes better.

The lamb burger was, fortunately, not too lamb-y. In other words, they used good quality, fresh lamb and cooked it properly. Carefully prepared lamb is delicious and savory, better than the most perfect, tender beef you’ve ever had. It should never be obvious that lamb is actually lamb. The burger had a very good flavor profile all around, and it paired well with the crispy garlic oregano fries. I must report that it did not reheat very well at all, but then again burgers rarely do and lamb even less so. One more reason to just eat the whole thing while you’re still at the restaurant.

Well hey, whaddya know. I made it to the end of the meal without leaving once to get a pizza. Jack’s genuinely impressed me, and I very much enjoyed my meal. It’s a straightforward, honest eatery that does a solid job on execution, and there is enough variety for picky eaters and curious types alike. I rate Jack’s 18 out of 20 pounds of piz… um, I meant lamb burgers. It is most certainly worth a visit, provided you have the willpower to stay away from the deep dish next door.

      Pros
+ Good menu variety
Sometimes a bit ordinary
+ But there’s something for everyone
+ Great kitchen execution
      Cons
Overshadowed by the joint next door

Jack’s Restaurant & Bar
Multiple locations around the Bay Area
www.jacksrestaurants.com

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P.S. I tried, I really did, but I just couldn’t leave San Mateo without a pizza. I stopped by Windy City on the way out and picked up a deep dish for later. Problem solved.


Umami Burger

meter-great-Umami Burger has a lot going for it, namely truffles. This restaurant also happens to make a mean burger and some of the best onion rings I’ve encountered west of Salt Lake City, but it’s the truffles that are the first, last, and pretty much only thing you’re going to remember. The thought of this will have you either drooling or gagging, depending of course on whether or not you like truffles.

Thanks to sf.eater.com for letting me, ahem, 'borrow' this picture.

Thanks to sf.eater.com for letting me, ahem, ‘borrow’ this picture.

” Oh how I longed for a humble bottle of Heinz 57 “

Umami Burger is a medium-sized restaurant chain primarily based in California, but there are a handful of locations scattered across the U.S. as well. The very first thing I noticed when I walked in to the Umami Burger in Palo Alto was – you guessed it – the smell of truffles. It seems that the majority of humans on the planet love the hell out of those musty underground tumors, but I am not one of those people. To me, truffles have a very chemical-y, unpleasant reek. There’s a funk to the things that just isn’t right, and they taste like other people’s bad breath smells. Most of the other patrons in the restaurant seemed to be on the opposite end of the truffle spectrum from me; they were all rather enjoying the odor, inhaling blissfully as though they were eating $100 bills with their nostrils.

To each their own, I suppose. I can’t hold the truffle thing against Umami Burger just because I don’t personally like them, but because so much of the experience at this place relies on those stinky little mushrooms, the subject can’t be avoided.

The artisan pickle plate (shown here half-eaten) was excellent.

The artisan pickle plate (shown here half-eaten) was excellent.

The capable and courteous restaurant staff quickly showed me and the rest of my lunch party (the usual suspects) us to a table. I counted eighteen items on the menu, consisting of burgers, salads, and sides. Of these, more than half featured truffles in some form. I opted for a Manly burger (yes, that’s actually what it’s called) and a side of truffle-less fries. For the table we got a house pickle plate and an order of tempura onion rings. The pickle plate showed up almost immediately, and it featured six different kinds of pickled vegetables. The green beans were by far my favorite, but the beets were pretty darned excellent as well. We were halfway through the plate before I remembered to take a picture of it… Oops.

The next time I develop a craving for onion rings, I'm coming back here.

The next time I develop a craving for onion rings, I’m coming back here.

A few minutes later, our order of onion rings showed up. Wow! Why oh why doesn’t everyone prepare their onion rings tempura style? These rings were absolutely superb with just the right balance between crunch and perfectly cooked onion. Most importantly, when taking a bite of a ring, molten hot onion did not slide out of the batter and slap me in the chin. The onion severed cleanly and easily; every bite was perfection.

Hey, my hamburger bun still has the label on it.

Hey, my hamburger bun still has the label on it.

My Manly burger and fries arrived shortly afterwards, and everything looked great – this place certainly does a good job on presentation. I am happy to report that both the burger and the fries were extremely delicious. The quality of the beef patty was outstanding, and it had a nice crispy grilled crust on it. Yum. I could still faintly taste truffles somewhere in my burger though, likely cross-contamination from all of the other truffle-heavy foods prepared in the kitchen.

Also available in truffle version. This should not surprise you.

Also available in truffle version. This should not surprise you.

The shoestring-style fries were also quite excellent. Partway through the meal, however, pungent truffle flavor suddenly appeared on the fries and forcibly drove all other tastes out of my mouth. What the… Where did that come from? I tried another fry and there was no truffle taste at all. Eh? It was then that I realized there were truffles in the ketchup. IN THE EFFING KETCHUP. Is nothing sacred in this place?? I had no choice but to endure my otherwise excellent burger and fries without any ketchup at all, which was something of a disappointment. Oh how I longed for a humble bottle of Heinz 57.

In spite of my mushroom-based grumblings, I truly enjoyed my experience at Umami Burger. I know that I am among the genetic minority of people who find that truffles smell like pig urine. Yes, yes, I’m sure I am missing out on something wonderful, but that’s beside the point. Getting back on track, I rate Umami Burger a very respectable 90 out of 100 grams of tuber melanosporum. If you’re looking for a good burger and some great onion rings a notch above standard burger joint fare, this is the place for you.

      Pros
+ Well-executed burgers with a gourmet kick
+ Masterful tempura onion rings
      Cons
 – Black truffles are in everything
– – Like seriously EVERYTHING
+ If you enjoy truffles that’s good though
 – But I don’t

P.S. I used the word “truffle” in this post 18 times. Make that 19.

Umami Burger
Multiple locations throughout the U.S.
www.umamiburger.com

Umami Burger on Urbanspoon


Village California Bistro and Wine Bar

meter-good-greatI recently got the chance to have a quick bite at Village Bistro, and I was pleasantly surprised. This typically Californian bistro is located right in the middle of Santana Row, which also happens to be typically Californian. The menu has surprisingly good variety, and in spite of being a bit overly faux-sophisticated the food is well crafted and not too fancy.

” ‘Bistro’ means ‘we have small tables’ in secret restaurant language “

I dread going to Santana Row. Once I’m there I like it just fine, but trying to find a parking spot is excruciating. Once I finally managed to ditch my car in an unauthorized area, I strolled over to Village Bistro to meet some people for lunch. Ok, so it’s actually called VILLAGE California Bistro and Wine Bar, which is even wordier and more disjointed than one of my restaurant reviews. I have no idea why they insist on stylizing VILLAGE in all caps. There’s no need to yell at me, I believe you that it’s in a village. Just calm down.

In spite of the weekend lunchtime crowd that constantly swarms Santana Row, I and the rest of my party were seated quickly in a fairly cramped booth. I guess “bistro” means “we have small tables” in secret restaurant language. Our waiter and his perfectly sculpted beard stopped by right away and got us set up with drinks. I couldn’t take my eyes off the beard. It was amazing. It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to eat, but I eventually settled on a turkey Reuben with fries. We put our order in, pondered the endless stream of beautiful people wandering past the window, and before we knew it our food had arrived.

If you've never seen a turkey Reuben before, now you can say you have.

If you’ve never seen a turkey Reuben before, now you can say you have.

To my surprise and delight, the turkey Reuben was outstanding. I’d put it in the top 20% of the best Reubens I’ve ever had; the turkey was lean, well seasoned, and not the slightest bit dry. The French fries were above average, and the oddly purple sauerkraut was delicious. Directly across the table from me was the world’s juiciest steak “banh mi” sandwich; I was fortunate enough to try a bite of it and it was excellent. I’ve had better Vietnamese-style sandwiches before, but this one was plenty tasty. I’d be happy to order one, and in fact I probably will the next time I visit.

I liked Village… I mean VILLAGE Bistro (and California thingy and whatever else they said they were) and I would enjoy eating here again sometime. I rate this place 20 out of 25 unnecessarily capitalized letters – certainly worth a visit but not quite what I would consider a destination. Their central location within Santana Row is convenient, assuming you are already there, their versions of culinary favorites are different enough to be interesting, and the overall quality of their food is excellent. Nothing can match the quality of that beard though. Nothing.

VILLAGE California Bistro and Wine Bar
378 Santana Row #1035
San Jose, CA 95128
(408) 248-9091
www.thevillagebistro.net
Village California Bistro & Wine Bar on Urbanspoon


It's just so adorably Californian I could pinch its little cheeks.

It’s just so adorably Californian I could pinch its little cheeks.


Standard Restaurant Review Disclaimer
The ambiguous and illogical rating system used in this review is not intended to be pinpoint accurate. It’s only there to give you a general idea of how much I like or dislike an establishment, and it also gives me an excuse to write silly things. If my rating system angers and distracts you, there’s a good chance you have control issues. I would also like to point out that I am not a highly qualified restaurant reviewer person, nor do I particularly care what that job is called. If you were under the impression that perhaps I was one of those people, consider your hopes dashed. Lastly, wow! You read the entire disclaimer. You get a gold star on your chart today.


Rico’s Hacienda

meter-goodRico’s Hacienda is not the type of place you fly all the way to Texas to visit, but it does make for a solid dinner choice. The menu offers a good variety of authentic Mexican dishes to choose from, and the food itself is decent but perhaps a bit unremarkable.

Braving air travel during the holidays is not my very favorite thing in the world to do. Call me crazy, but being herded through mazes of security ropes while people take blurry X-ray photographs of me in my underpants is just not my cup of tea. Follow that up with several hours of being confined in a straight jacket cleverly disguised as an economy class airplane seat, and you have a perfect storm of misery on your hands. The one thing that makes this ordeal worthwhile for me is looking forward to the abundance of amazing restaurants located in and around the destination – in this case, Houston.

” The real test of a Mexican restaurant is the quality of their refried beans “

The flight was joyful. Someone had thoughtfully stuffed the seat pocket in front of me with about a thousand used snot rags, and it made a very nice cushion for my knees. After touching down in Houston, we waited a perfectly reasonable 35 minutes on the tarmac while we enjoyed the fragrance of jet fuel. We were then treated to a delightful half hour of relaxation at the baggage carousel, and by that time I was ready for murder. I mean hugs. I was ready to give hugs. Trying to think happy thoughts here.

My wife and I finally met up with the car load of relatives that had come to collect us from the airport, and as we fled the mayhem we discussed our collective dinner plans. Our primary focus was agreeing on a place that wouldn’t be too crowded on a Saturday night, and if they happened to serve decent food, that was a nice bonus. Appropriately, we settled on Rico’s Hacienda in The Woodlands.

I'm not sure what a hacienda actually is, but I don't think this is one.

I’m not sure what a hacienda actually is, but I don’t think this is one.

Rico’s was exactly as I remembered it from the last time we’d been: Bustling, festive, and dimly lit. The whole place oozes with (relatively) authentic Mexican flair. We were seated immediately and served piping hot chips with fresh salsa. So far so good. Our competent and mostly prompt waiter visited shortly afterwards and took our drink and meal orders: Skillet queso, grilled tilapia, a couple orders of beef fajitas with bacon-wrapped shrimp, and an enchilada plate.

Queso is just better in Texas. I have no idea why.

Queso is just better in Texas. I have no idea why.

Our food arrived after a short wait, and in no time flat our table was jam packed with plates, bowls, and mugs of frozen margaritas. Our waiter caught a mistake with my order before it even made it to the table, and in less than a minute the replacement was sitting in front of me. Bigtime kudos to the waitstaff for being on top of things.

The bacon wrapped shrimp were very flavorful but perhaps a bit dry, and it was the same story with the bed of beef fajitas they sat on. My enchiladas were ever so slightly on the plain side, but the beef was seasoned well, the rice was excellent, and everything was sizzling hot.

Traditional bacon-wrapped shrimp and fajitas. Whose tradition exactly is a mystery.

Traditional bacon-wrapped shrimp and fajitas. Whose tradition exactly is a mystery.

For me, the real test of a Mexican restaurant is the quality of their refried beans. Good beans don’t always equate to a good restaurant, but ill-prepared beans are the kiss of death as far as I’m concerned. Rico’s refried beans were just barely on the acceptable side of average, which is a shame. They did seem to be scratch made – a critical factor – but they were also lumpy and a bit bland. The beans weren’t meh enough to prevent me from coming back, but I wouldn’t exactly say that they passed with flying colors.

In the end, I like Rico’s Hacienda. I didn’t love absolutely everything about my most recent visit, but there were enough high points that I’d be happy to come back for another meal and a frosty margarita. My rating falls somewhere in the range of 3 out of 4 pounds of queso dip. If you’re looking for a decent, friendly restaurant that won’t be too crowded during peak hours, Rico’s is the place to be. If you want the very best Mexican food in the Houston area, there are probably better choices.

Rico’s Hacienda
8000 Research Forest Drive
The Woodlands, Texas 77382
(281) 465-4820
www.ricosgrill.com
Rico's Hacienda & Bar on Urbanspoon


The holy grail of Mexican food: An enchilada platter.

The holy grail of Mexican food: An enchilada platter.


By-Th’-Bucket

meter-ok-goodBy-Th’-Bucket is truly my kind of place, curious punctuation aside. It’s too bad really, because my last visit was about as uninspiring as Paris Hilton’s intellect. My love of anything and everything pasta usually means that I’m pretty forgiving when it comes to classic Italian eateries, but the permeating sense of ordinary just couldn’t be ignored.

It was a typical Saturday evening. Just like any other totally normal family, Shawn and I had spent the day walking the dogs, running errands, and using a power drill to fling natural rope fibers across the dining room. We decided that an awesome dinner was in order, and so we drove down the street to By-Th’-Bucket.

It's Saturday night. Where is everybody?

It’s Saturday night. Where is everybody?

” It was approximately as satisfying as not peeling the plastic film off of a new remote control “

I’ve been to this restaurant a number of times, and I’ve always liked it. It’s a blue-blooded seafood and pasta joint that’s been around for over 50 years – what’s not to like? Over the course of my last few visits, however, I’d started to wonder if they were slipping a little. No, that’s nonsense. I love all Italian food, and I love this restaurant. There can’t be anything wrong with it.

The menu at By-Th’-Bucket is extensive; there’s seafood, rotisserie meats, specialty pastas, pizza, steaks… The list goes on. I picked out gnocchi with meat sauce, and Shawn went for a Macho Man pizza. I wasn’t sure if I should feel amused or threatened that her meal would be manlier than mine. I decided instead to start humming the Village People hit of the same name, which resulted in a satisfyingly annoyed eye roll from across the table.

It's gnocchi I guess.

It’s gnocchi I guess.

Our food arrived after a slightly longer than average wait, and we dug in. My gnocchi was… Well, it was just extremely meh. It was about the same temperature as bathwater, and the sauce tasted like it came out of a jar. I didn’t hate it, but I could quite literally go to the grocery store and make the same identical dish with two basic off-the-shelf ingredients and a microwave. No, wait, it had a dried parsley garnish as well. Ok, so three ingredients. Ho hum.

This sure seems to be a pizza.

This sure seems to be a pizza.

Meanwhile, Shawn was enjoying – no, eating – her pizza. “Do you like it?” I asked. She shrugged, rather unimpressed. I tried a piece and shrugged in exactly the same way. Just like the gnocchi, it wasn’t bad so much as it was just sort of… there. The ham, pepperoni, and salami toppings were all exactly what you’d expect to find for sale in a gas station. The crust was bready but acceptable, and I couldn’t tell for sure if it was handmade or not. The sauce was red and probably made out of tomatoes. It was approximately as satisfying as not peeling the plastic film off of a new remote control.

I was at a loss for what I thought of the meal, because there wasn’t really anything at all to think of. Shawn, reading the expression on my face, said, “There are just too many other really good restaurants around here to bother with this place.” Yep, that was it. She’d nailed it.

In conclusion, By-Th’-Bucket isn’t a bad restaurant. I give it a middle-of-the-road 20 out of 40 armpit temperature gnocchi, making it more or less worth a visit if you find yourself stuck in the immediate area without a car. Sadly, By-Th’-Bucket’s biggest downfall is that it just isn’t up to snuff with its peers. I’ll be giving them another chance at some point I’m sure, but who knows when that will be. If you’re looking for awesome Italian food in San Jose, head a mile down the road to Tony & Alba’s instead.

By-Th’-Bucket
4565 Stevens Creek Boulevard
Santa Clara, CA 95051
(408) 248-6244
www.btbbarandgrill.com
By-Th'-Bucket Bar and Grill on Urbanspoon


I made it the whole post without a Bucket List joke.

I made it the whole post without a Bucket List joke.