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
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
Rico's Hacienda & Bar on Urbanspoon

The holy grail of Mexican food: An enchilada platter.

The holy grail of Mexican food: An enchilada platter.


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.

4565 Stevens Creek Boulevard
Santa Clara, CA 95051
(408) 248-6244
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.

Butter & Zeus

meter-good-greatNo really, that’s what it’s called. Butter & Zeus. As abstract and meaningless as that name might be, there’s something deliciously alluring about it. It makes you perk your ears up and say, “Eh? Butter and what?” It’s the kind of thing that sticks in your head, and the sheer absurdity means you won’t be forgetting it anytime soon. Just my kind of subtle genius.

” The barbacoa has a respectable oomph to it without completely destroying your nasal cavity “

The story begins where it so often does, with my wife Shawn and I discussing meal plans. She had been forced at gunpoint to head into the office for a day of work on Black Friday. I stayed at home, puttering around the house and doing my best to make the place look as though I had cleaned it. “Where do you want to meet for lunch?” she asked me over the phone. “What’s around here that we haven’t been to before?”

I didn’t know. I replied with a combination mumble-shrug-hrrmph that was intended to convey, “I’m not sure, darling, let me look up some restaurants on Google.”

“Oh, here’s one” she said, beating me to the punch. “Your head’s going to explode. It’s a waffle sandw..” I hung up on her and sprinted to the car. Waffles THAT ARE ALSO SANDWICHES?? My brain spun with the idea of this new devilry. As I drove, my phone buzzed with a text message: “Thought so. It’s called Butter & Zeus, on Tasman.”

Before you ask, no, I didn’t read the text while I was driving. I’m stupid in other ways besides that.

Gotta love a place with “butter” in the name.

As we walked up to the front of the restaurant, I was hit with major déjà vu. I’d been here before… and yet I hadn’t. Ah, now I remember. This used to be the location of Castle Greek Cafe, a place I’d been to a couple times and was never all that impressed with. The decor was different now, of course, with the most notable change being a huge, hand-written menu board just inside the door.

My comfort food senses are tingling.

My comfort food senses are tingling.

Just look at all of those beautiful, unhealthy choices. After eating here, I’d really have to think extra hard about getting on the exercise bike before not doing it. The aroma of toasting waffles played through the air, causing my salivary glands to do whatever they damn well pleased. It was actually difficult to focus on choosing something from the menu with this going on, but we managed it. We eventually decided to split some barbacoa pork fries and a cheeseburger waffle. We paid the very reasonable bill at the cash register, filled our soda cups, and took a seat.

Of course they're waffle fries. What else would they be?

Of course they’re waffle fries. What else would they be?

Within just a few minutes, our pork fries arrived at the table. Jiminy Christmas, what a masterpiece. I don’t know who first came up with the idea of this sort of thing, but Butter & Zeus executed the concept flawlessly. The cola pulled pork (yes, cola) was absolutely to die for; nice lean strands of hand pulled pork were piled generously on top of impossibly fresh, golden fries. The barbacoa sauce coating the pork was quite spicy, but the cilantro lime dressing and sour cream helped to cut the burn a little bit. If you don’t like spicy stuff, stay as far away from this dish as you possibly can. If you’re in the mood to bring the heat, however, the barbacoa has a respectable oomph to it without completely destroying your nasal cavity.

The fries towards the bottom of the basket were pretty mushy, but the good news is that it’s because they were soaked with delicious saucy goodness. We just grabbed our plastic forks and soldiered on. Such is the way with dishes like these; if you don’t want your food to get soggy, eat faster. Just as we were savoring the last bits of our pork fries, the cheeseburger waffle arrived.

Waffles and burgers co-mingling? Scandalous.

Waffles and burgers co-mingling? Scandalous.

And there it was, a cheeseburger made with a waffle. It looked exactly as I had expected: An all-American lunch perched atop an all-American breakfast. At first, I was only intrigued by the novelty of it all. I almost didn’t care what it tasted like, but as I bit into my wafflewich (I’m totally trademarking that term), I was amazed at how well everything went together. Honestly, the patty and the cheese were nothing special – you could even call them average. Put them between a couple layers of hot, crispy waffle, however, and you’ve created magic. Contrary to what your brain might try to tell you, the waffle wasn’t sweet. Yes, maple syrup is an optional topping at Butter & Zeus, but the waffle itself is just another kind of bread. A very tasty, very wonderful kind of bread. The little pockets are masterful at holding all the toppings and condiments, while the waffle itself does a good job of keeping everything together without being too filling on its own. Quite simply, waffle sandwiches are brilliant.

As we finished up our lunch, I took note of what the other patrons around us were eating. One table in particular was covered with nothing but orders of classic (and first on the menu) chicken and waffles, and it all looked very good indeed. There is no question that I will be eating here again, and soon. As we stood up to leave, the cashier asked us how the food was and if we enjoyed our lunch. It was a genuine question, not just a passing “How was everything?” that usually means “I hate my job, so please get out.” I chatted with the cashier for a while, giving my feedback and promising to come back, and he was happy to hear it. The folks at Butter & Zeus seem truly interested in how they are doing, and the dedication shows in their food.

Shawn and I had a great experience here, enough to land this place on our short list of restaurants to come back to regularly. Although I wouldn’t call this a high-class, fancy, or even hugely remarkable eatery, I will certainly sing its praises for solid execution, good prices, and a great concept. I rate Butter & Zeus 3.5 out of 4 waffle wedges, which should be more than enough to ensure that it shows up on your lunch radar. If you’re tired of trying to uphold a higher sense of culinary sophistication and just want simple, good food, this is the place for you.

Butter & Zeus
2213 Tasman Drive
Santa Clara, CA 95054
(408) 727-1800
Facebook: Butter & Zeus Waffle Sandwiches
Butter & Zeus on Urbanspoon

I'm going to order the heck out of some chicken and waffles next time.

I’m going to order the heck out of some chicken and waffles next time.

Random Revisit: Xanh

meter-good+Hot on the heels of a scheduling error, I found myself at HNVX just a week after my first visit. Exactly nothing at all had changed, just as I suspected it wouldn’t. The decor was still just as rave-y, the waitstaff was still as quick and polite as before, and the menu was just as extensive. Clearly I would need to look harder if I hoped to find something new to complain about.

” It’s like trying to eat spaghetti with a rubber mallet and a football “

My wife and I met our previously-scheduled friend just inside HNVX and followed the host person to a cozy table. By “cozy” of course I mean “nestled between a pillar of glowing purple glass bricks and a wall textured like an avocado”. Naturally. After scanning the menu, we formulated our attack plan for dinner and relayed the order to our waitperson. We selected papaya salad (I was outvoted), pineapple beef short ribs, and a bowl of “Pho You, Pho Me”, HNVX’s questionably-named interpretation of classic Vietnamese noodle soup. Because we liked them so much last time, we also ordered some crispy potstickers and Kobe rolls.

I can't tell where the papaya ends and the salad begins.

I can’t tell where the papaya ends and the salad begins.

The papaya salad arrived first, and I reluctantly but politely scooped some onto my plate. I took a tentative bite… and wow! What a great dish. I quickly cleaned my plate and took another helping. Delish! It was crispy, light, and had a mild sweet flavor that was superb and palette-cleansing. And here I thought I didn’t like papaya. I’d certainly order that again.

Somebody at HNVX isn't quite sure what spoons do.

Somebody at HNVX isn’t quite sure what spoons do.

Next up were the short ribs, and they smelled great. Curiously, a spoon was provided. A spoon? I can think of a dozen different ways to eat ribs, and exactly zero of them involve the use of a spoon. Come to think of it, that was the same story with the colossal prawns on our last visit – they came with an utterly useless spoon. Seriously, why? It’s like trying to eat spaghetti with a rubber mallet and a football.

Ignoring the pointless utensil (accidental pun!), the short ribs were excellent. They were marinated and grilled to perfection, and the quality of the beef met even my absurdly picky standards. They didn’t last very long though, but we also had potstickers and Kobe rolls to keep us busy. Regardless, thumbs up on the ribs.

It was pho-nomenal.

It was pho-nomenal.

Finally, and with much anticipation, the pho arrived in a huge bowl. We ladled it out into smaller bowls (note puddles of sloshed soup in above photo) and got to work. It was magnificent. There are probably better examples of the breed lurking somewhere in the dark corners of the Bay Area, but for my money I’m quite happy indeed with HNVX’s rendition. The beef was tender and flavorful, the broth was rich, and there were plenty of noodles to go around. The next time we come here I will definitely be getting this, and I won’t be sharing.

I’m happy to report that my second visit to HNVX was better than the first one, and the first one certainly wasn’t bad at all. With a wider sampling of the menu literally under my belt, I’ve upped the Om-nom-eter™ a tick from its previous reading.

110 Castro Street
Mountain View, CA 94041
(650) 964-1888