Thursday, November 13, 2014

Lotus Thai Bistro

Photo Nov 11, 20 32 45

Location: Palo Alto, CA

Food: Thai

Nearby: Lucie Stern Center (Theatreworks, Palo Alto Players)

The definition of “comfort food,” in my opinion, has become diluted. To truly be comfort food, a dish should be so delicious and so filling that even if you’ve had a hard day, it will start to look better after dinner. Lotus Thai Bistro, a restaurant squeezed into the California Avenue shopping district, is one of those scant few eateries that feeds the weary spirit as much as the empty stomach.

Like many Thai restaurants, there are a lot of excellent appetizer options. The chicken satay skewers ($7.95) are a little softer than those from other eateries, and combo well with the peanut satay sauce. Vegetarians or those on a budget might want to order the fried spring rolls ($4.95), which are filled with a fresh blend of vegetables.

The soups are served in entrée portions, larger than those at many other restaurants. Though you get a lot, the soup has enough variety of flavor and texture that it works as an entire meal, and you can always take it home. Look out for the Thom Kha ($6.95-8.95), which combines the delicate sweetness of coconut with the acidity of lemongrass. My personal protein recommendation for this soup is steamed tofu, which adds a delightful chewiness without overpowering the broth.

You can find your favorite Thai curries at Lotus Bistro, which are served with a number of different meat and vegetable options. (The menu on Google does not have several of the fish options I encountered, which may be seasonal.) If you want to pour your curry over something complex like Pad Thai, my suggestion would be the simple but effective yellow curry ($9.95). Another excellent choice is the mussaman curry ($12.95), which cuts to the core with just the basic ingredients.

All soups and curries are available at four spiciness levels; I personally enjoyed the “medium” level, finding the kick substantial but not overpowering. However, spice is a personal decision.

It must be mentioned that the coconut rice ($4.50, not shown on Google menu) is an out-of-this-world treat, a sweet, sticky, addicting dish that’s almost impossible to finish once you start. It’s especially great as a vehicle for curry.

Lotus Thai is a great low-key restaurant that serves classic dishes for a range of customers. The large portions are great for sharing, taking home, or enjoying on your own if you’re very hungry. They also deliver (through and other sites), so if you’re hosting a party nearby and want to order something other than pizza, give Lotus Thai a chance!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Cafeteria 15L

15L photo

Location: Sacramento

Food: American

Nearby: Sacramento Theatre Company, Capital Stage Company

Cafeteria 15L, located close to the State Capitol and the Sacramento Convention Center, deserves praise for a number of reasons: Friendly staff, a beautiful interior, and a varied drink menu. However, this modern American eatery stands out most for its across-the-board quality of its food.

When I recommend a restaurant, I usually point out a particular dish that excels from among the restaurant’s menu. Doing so with Cafeteria 15L’s offerings would be almost unfair – in fact, it offers so many good choices I would suggest you go there at least twice during a trip to Sacramento. There is no way to experience all this restaurant has to offer in just one visit.

One can judge an American restaurant by the quality of its burgers, and Cafeteria 15L’s do not disappoint. These thick and juicy burgers (starting at $10.95) are cooked perfectly, and come with several topping options that include the always-welcome choice of goat cheese. Also available is a grilled ham and cheese sandwich ($11.95), which makes excellent decisions as to its bread and cheese, though it may be too buttery for some people. The tomato soup served alongside the sandwich is tangy and comforting without being too rich.

Like many modern diners, you have the option of ordering your burger or sandwich with mixed greens instead of fries – don’t take this for granted! The greens are paired with a tart champagne vinaigrette that enhances, but doesn’t overpower, their crisp sweetness. If you’re heart-set on fries, you can also order the greens as an appetizer salad, along with medjool dates, goat cheese, and candied pecans ($6.95). Also on the salad menu is the beet and pear salad ($8.95), which uses two varieties soft, brightly-colored beets for visual excellence as much as they are used for their delicious flavor.

Keeping in line with the Cafeteria's comfort food theme, entrees include a meatloaf ($16.95) and spaghetti and meatball ($15.95, dinner only, not a typo, it’s a huge meatball). The meatloaf doesn’t do anything astonishing with the format, but it falls apart to the fork, the generous helping of sweet and tangy sauce combining marvelously with the taste of the meat. The meatball is well-seasoned and not incredibly dense, working well with the tomato sauce and spaghetti.

The dessert menu puts simultaneously comforting and innovative spins on classic dishes. Cafeteria 15L’s crowning achievement is the Skillet S’mores ($6.95), which takes the uniquely American campfire dessert and spins it. Marshmallows, the basis of any good S’more, are layered over a chocolate brownie in a hot skillet and studded with chocolate and graham crackers. The result is a dessert that is light, rich, and satisfying, though it could have used a few more chocolate squares.

Cafeteria 15L is an excellent choice for people on an extended trip in Sacramento because of its across-the-board quality. If you’re staying at one of the nearby hotels, you can be assured that no matter what you order off the menu, you’re going to have an excellent meal.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Tequila Museo Mayahuel

Photo Oct 27, 21 00 03

Location: Sacramento, CA

Food: Upscale Mexican/Tequila Bar

Nearby: Sacramento Theatre Company, Capital Stage Company

When Ernesto Delgado created Tequila Museo Mayahuel several years ago, he intended to recapture the classic Mexican recipes he had eaten as a child. This dedication is apparent in the authenticity of the food and the quality to which it is prepared. Boasting a thoughtful cocktail menu that makes use of over 150 varieties of tequila, Tequila Museo Mayahuel is an excellent choice for upscale Mexican dining in Sacramento.

For social drinkers, or cocktail enthusiasts new to the available varieties of tequila, the drink menu suggests an affordable tequila for each option. However, substitutions are encouraged, and the knowledgeable bar staff will help you determine what to try. The Maya Margarita ($8) is beautiful in its simplicity: Only lime juice and agave nectar enhance the subtleties of the tequila. For more complex cocktails, the Mayahuel Fresca ($9) uses cucumber and grapefruit juice to create a more bitter flavor profile, making it better to order as an aperitif.

Many Mexican restaurants serve chips at the start of the meal; Mayahuel replaces this with a bowl of soup, themed to the season and changed every week. During my visits, I had lentil soup, which was warm, comforting, and just the right portion. Chips are available for $3, with guacamole for $8.50; the guacamole was good and the chips were crunchy and satisfying, but if you aren’t a big fan of chips you may want to save room for the rest of your meal.

One of the most outstanding entrees was the Mole Poblano con Pollo ($18), chicken in a chocolate mole sauce. I have a high standard for poultry, but Mayahuel exceeded it: The chicken was moist and flavorful, the mild white meat contrasting with the rich and warm mole. Also excellent were the Trocitos de Puerco en Salsa Verde ($15), pork in a tangy green tomatillo sauce that makes me hungry just thinking about it.

For vegans or those who like their food wrapped, the Enchiladas Yashu de Zapoteca ($13) feature blue corn tortillas stuffed with guacamole and served with seasonal vegetables and a chili sauce. These enchiladas are as colorful as they are delicious, the guacamole adding heft to the dish without overpowering the sauce.

Tequila Museo Mayahuel is, in effect, an authentic Mexican dining experience that can meet a wide range of expectations. Whether you’re looking for dinner a little out of the ordinary, the perfect cocktail to round out your evening, or even a breakfast burrito before a conference (Mayahuel offers a breakfast menu as well), you’ll find what you’re looking for here.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2014: The Tempest

Kate Hurster (left) and Denis Arndt (right).
 Kate Hurster (left) and Denis Arndt (right). Photo courtesy Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s most famous comedies, and for good reason: The heavy use of magic, engrossing romance, and hilarious antics of the several intercrossing plotlines make it an appealing play even for those not very familiar with Shakespeare’s work. OSF’s most recent adaptation looks at the play in terms of Prospero’s “ritual of goodbyes," using ritual Japanese dance among other media to bring to light the play’s philosophical questions about forgiveness and endings.

Combining “traditional” Shakespearean settings with more outlandish choices is common to the modern OSF, which combined a 20th century boarding school theme with traditional Elizabethan dress for last year’s production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. Prospero, Ariel, and Caliban are clothed in Japanese minimalism: For example, Prospero’s magic is indicated by four budo dancers (invisible to the other characters). Budo is a dance form indicated by stillness and economy of movement, and the dancers’ hypnotic motions help bring a sense of magic to the stage, as well as refining the nature of the piece. Prospero himself, played by Denis Arndt, shows remarkable development from intimidating king of the island to repentant brother who seeks a modest conclusion to his life.

Despite the unusual influences on the island dwellers, many of the other characters are approached more traditionally. Festival veteran Richard Elmore teams up with Barzin Akhavan as a raucous Stephano-Trinculo duo – Elmore’s natural gift at making people laugh compliments Akhavan’s more physical approach to comedy, defying the usual joker-foil relationship. The stranded nobles attempt a Shakespearean history while clearly out of their element: Possibly an in-joke referring to the Elizabethan Stage production of Richard III, also running this year.

The set is mostly flat and featureless, allowing the actors to express the scenario through their movements. However, the play frequently toys with light and color, and the sea of red carpet can suddenly change into a confined dark space or a magical evening. The design was not lacking–more to the point, it was devoid of the excess that often occurs in high-budget theaters.

OSF’s new Tempest takes a clear look at Shakespeare’s last play through the introduction of Japanese performance philosophies. The unfamiliar elements force the audience to develop a greater understanding of Prospero’s mission, and in so doing shake the complacency of just sitting through the play. Shakespeare veterans and newcomers alike will find something to appreciate in this play.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2014: A Wrinkle in Time

Ensemble. Photo courtesy Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Ensemble. Photo courtesy Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

One of the advantages theatre has over film is its power to convince the audience of visual metaphor. If a special effect looks cheesy in a movie, it is noticeable, but in a play using ribbons for water or dancers for wind is not only acceptable but elegant. OSF’s adaptation of the Madame L’Engle children’s novel deftly translates the “magical science” to the stage in beautiful way that could only work on stage.

A multitude of performance arts are used in the adaptation, including stage magic, ventriloquism, and dance, and unusual props (such as a meteor-shaped disco ball) are combined with A/V special effects to create an experience that doesn’t betray the sense of wonder conveyed by the text. A lot of theatre, especially high budget theatre, is too reliant on stage gimmicks; however, because this is an adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time, the effects only serve as a more faithful adaptation. After all, what could be more faithful than sparking an interest in sets and stage mechanics?

The main trio of Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin were played by Alejandra Escalante (Juliet from 2012’s Romeo and Juliet), Sara Bruner, and Joe Wegner respectively; their performances cut to the core of their characters as children who have outgrown their numerical age. The Murry children especially possess the emotional maturity to be expected from their age (including Charles Wallace’s posing at a greater level of maturity) but never lose their intellectual talent and curiosity. My favorite supporting actor was the graceful Dan Donohue as the archetypal physicist dad Mr. Murry.

A Wrinkle In Time is designed for children and children-at-heart; it often relies more on visual wonder than metaphorical complexity. However, this is the kind of theatre keeps art alive by igniting a love of theatre in a new generation, and I am proud of OSF for creating it.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2014: Richard III

Dan Donohue. (Photos courtesy Oregon Shakespeare Festival)
Dan Donohue as Richard III. Photo courtesy Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

When last we saw Dan Donohue, it was as an extraordinarily deep and well-developed Prince of Denmark in OSF’s 2010 production of Hamlet. Four years later, he has returned to headline this year’s headline play: A complex, modern interpretation of Richard III, Shakespeare’s last and most famous History.

          Richard III was originally created to discredit the titular ruler to a queen who despised him. Because of this, many productions have cast Richard III as a hunchbacked villain, closer to Iago than Brutus. However, OSF’s current production takes cues from modern historical dramas, which are often bloody and morally ambiguous. Richard is no longer seen as someone driven to do evil because he is evil, but an ambitious person who lets his drive get the best of him. (Incidentally, this influence can also be seen in the sets and costumes–lots of angles and dark colors contrasted with bright reds and golds.)

Donohue’s interpretation of Richard III, if not sympathetic, is certainly understandable. Up until he orders the assassination of children, it seems like all of his actions are calculated to win him the English throne. His actions are not committed with greater malice than can be expected from a relatively ambitious man in his position. This interpretation makes his subsequent descent into madness and death vivid and more intriguing to the audience.

Audiences who are familiar with the cackling force of evil from other versions of Richard III will find the OSF version a breath of fresh air, though there is something for audiences at all levels of Shakespearean experience. By employing modern sensibilities in a realistic interpretation of Shakespeare, OSF seeks to capture a greater audience while staying true to its theatrical goals.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2014: The Cocoanuts

Brent Hinkley, John Tufts, and Mark Bedard (top to bottom).
Brent Hinkley, John Tufts, and Mark Bedard (top to bottom). Photo courtesy Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

When Mark Bedard was performing the role of Groucho Marx in OSF’s 2012 rendition of Animal Crackers, he was also busy writing his own adaptation of the first Marx Brothers movie, The Cocoanuts. This year, the adaptation has been brought to the Ashland stage. Though it features the Marx Brothers zaniness one would hope for, it’s different enough from its OSF predecessor that it’s definitely worth attending.

At its heart, The Cocoanuts is about two things: The Marx Brothers being funny and elaborate musical numbers. The former of these did not disappoint. Brent Hinkley and John Tufts reprised their roles as Harpo and Chico Marx, respectively; these roles, requiring spectacular choreography and the ability to work as a single comedic unit, were executed as effortlessly as the original Marx Brothers. Special note must go to Hinkley’s facial expressions–he manages to convey subtlety even in Harpo’s constant manic grin.

The musical segments are as lavish and funny as they were in Animal Crackers, but are more tied into the plot of the musical instead of appearing as vaudevillian interludes. Key to these is Eduardo Placer as the hapless Zeppo (the only Marx Brother role to be played by a different actor); his nervous energy and impeccable choreography brings the songs together. The musical definitely feels like it was written by a playwright with modern sensibilities–Bedard moves away from the Marx Brothers’ vaudeville roots, turning the play from a variety show into a farce.

Rounding out the play is the hilarious ensemble cast. K. T. Vogt’s Mrs. Jamison was my personal favorite–Vogt is a very good character actor (catch her in Two Gentlemen of Verona as well!) and plays a role as the stuck-up rich lady common to the subversive wackiness of the Marx Brothers. A stone-faced David Kelley plays the unfortunate Detective Hennessey (who gets probably the best song in the show), and Robert Vincent Frank and Kate Mulligan play a pair of devious thieves.

If you are seeking exactly the kind of comedy you got with Animal Crackers, you will get mostly what you want. Though the structure of the plot is different, and even the gags have changed a little, for the most part The Cocoanuts is the wacky Marx Brothers antics you have come to expect.


Back-A-YardLocation: San Jose and Menlo Park (Note: I have only gone to the San Jose location; this recommendation is about that location.)

Food: Jamaican/Pan-Caribbean

Close to: City Lights Theatre Company, Tabard Theatre, Santa Clara University, San Jose State

There are many things to say about Back-A-Yard, all of them glowing. The atmosphere is warm, friendly, and interesting; the restaurant is located directly across the street from a validated parking garage; several San Jose theaters and entertainment spots are located within walking distance. However, most importantly, Back-A-Yard features a selection of incomparable Jamaican barbecue dishes and sides, making it one of the best restaurants in San Jose.

The menu has a decent selection, most of the entrees falling into one of several large categories. The first is various protein selections (including tofu for vegetarians) covered in Back-A-Yard’s signature jerk sauce. The sauce is spicy, but not so hot that it drowns out the complexities of the flavor. The jerk chicken ($9.75 with rice, salad, and fried plantains, or $7.95 a la carte with bread) is the more traditional option, and certainly worth ordering. There are also several meat options that use a thick, sweet house barbecue sauce, including fall-off-the-bone spareribs ($12.45 for five pieces). Additionally, there are sandwiches, a selection of fried fish, and a rotating menu of more obscure Jamaican dishes like curried goat and beef oxtails ($13.25 to $16.25, check website for availability).

It is important not to ignore Back-A-Yard’s selection of sides. If you are ordering one of the jerk dishes, it comes with some fried plantains; if not, I highly recommend ordering them separately ($2.75). The plantains are firm, rich, and slightly sweet, and once you start eating them it’s hard to go back to the rest of your meal. Also worth considering is the delicious rice and beans ($2.75), dashed with coconut milk to give it a pleasant aroma and mouthwatering sweetness. Some of my fellow diners at Back-A-Yard have made entire meals out of side dishes. Save room for dessert, too, especially the incredibly satisfying sweet potato pudding ($3.45).

Back-A-Yard is the personal project of Robert Simpson, a formally educated chef who previously worked in executive positions in hotels across the world. By establishing his own restaurant, Simpson was able to bring the flavors of his native Jamaica to several locations in California. After eating at Back-A-Yard, you will find yourself thankful that he made this decision.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2014: Into The Woods

into the woods
Miles Fletcher (left) and Robin Goodrin Nordli (right). Photo courtesy Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Much has been written about Into The Woods, considered alongside such work as Company and Sweeney Todd as one of Steven Sondheim’s greatest musicals. Despite subverting the popular endings to the fairy tales much of us heard as children, Sondheim and James Lapine managed to maintain the fantastical tone of the stories. We can still distinguish the original fairy tales, but the parts add up to a greater whole. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s outdoor production captures this spirit, with quality actors, direction that is faithful but not adherent, and outstanding technical design.

Though it could be argued that the baker and his wife are the main characters of the piece, Into The Woods is really an ensemble performance, and each actor stood out in their own way without jostling for attention. My personal favorite performance was Miles Fletcher as Jack: Though he continues to add more emotional guard as his character develops, he doesn't lose the goofiness and naïvete required of his character. Jack is stupid, but all of his actions are justifiable, and in this way he is both understandable and lovable. Other standout performances include Catherine E. Coulson playing three separate onstage roles (Red Riding Hood’s granny, Cinderella’s evil stepmother, and Jack’s prize cow) in what could be called a true feat of theatre, and Kjerstine Rose Anderson’s rendition of Red Riding Hood, which is understated when needed but not afraid to go over-the-top.

That description could easily apply to the direction of the work as a whole. Amanda Dehnert’s treatment of Into The Woods is different from OSF’s other musicals: Whereas previous shows like The Music Man and My Fair Lady attempted to subvert what we knew, Into The Woods instead rephrases it. There is no elaborate forest set or classic fairy-tale costumes. However, through a multimedia circus with rapid costume changes, projections, acrobatics, and even a little stage magic, we find ourselves in the same woods that Lapine imagined in his original production.

Despite the minimal set, the costumes are decadent in a way that only the astoundingly talented can pull off. Many of the costumes (such as the baking couple and Cinderella’s stepsisters) are obvious patchworks, allowing us to recognize the common in an alien form. Many of the others use gradient dyeing, making the costuming impressive on both a conceptual and technical level. For those of you studying costumes for stage or screen, this production of Into The Woods is not to be missed.

Because it is an Elizabethan Theater production, Into The Woods will last only through the end of summer. If you have the time to make it up to Ashland, please try to get a ticket to this show. Even if you think you are familiar with the work, this particular performance is so outstanding that it will ignite the emotions that remind you why you see theatre in the first place.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Vive Sol


Locations: Palo Alto and Mountain View, CA

Food: Mexican/Comida Poblana

Close to: Lucie Stern Theatre (Palo Alto), Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts (Mountain View)

South Bay mainstay Vive Sol has been bringing delicious, authentic Mexican food to California for several decades now. The restaurant departs from the apparent binary of either takeout or experimental nouveau cuisine to serve upscale, old-fashioned meals that delight and satisfy.

Vive Sol’s menu is specifically Comida Poblana, food from a south-central region in Mexico known as Puebla, a stop for traders from both Asia and Europe. This gave the area a fascinating and varied set of traditional dishes. Visitors to Vive Sol will find that many of the items on the menu are substantially different from the Mexican-American blend offered by many other restaurants, offering their own flavor experience.

The restaurant’s specialty is the enchilada, and there is a great variety of enchiladas to choose from. The most popular item is the Enchiladas Al Sol ($13.95), a combination of one enchilada covered in creamy cheese sauce and another in sweet-spicy mole. My personal favorite is the Enchiladas Verdes ($13.95), which employ a tangy green tomatillo sauce. Most of these dishes come with a hearty amount of seasoned rice and beans, and you can choose your own protein, including a vegetarian cheese enchilada.

Vive Sol also offers the “De La Plaza Mayor” plate, a selection of two items from a menu for $13, alongside rice and beans. If you want to try a few items without breaking your stomach or wallet, this is an excellent choice; one of the options is an Enchilada Verde and is highly recommended. The other three depend on your taste: Whether you want a mild quesadilla or a chile relleno is up to you.

There are two locations, “Vive Sol” on El Camino near Mountain View and “Palo Alto Sol” in Palo Alto’s California Avenue shopping district. Each has their benefits and disadvantages: The Mountain View location is harder to access but is beautiful and has lots of seating, while the Palo Alto location is surrounded by parking but may have a large number of small children in the evenings. Which one you choose depends on your circumstances, but both of them offer an unparalleled Comida Poblana dining experience.

Saturday, February 22, 2014



Location: San Jose, CA

Food: Japanese

Close to: City Lights Theatre, Tabard Theatre Company, Santa Clara University, San Jose State

California has a happy excess of Japanese restaurants, all of them putting their own unique spins on a diverse and delicious cuisine. Izaka-Ya, located on San Jose’s First Street and sharing a building with a steakhouse and a dim sum restaurant, crafts excellent sushi combinations alongside Japanese street food favorites that are difficult to find in the States.

The menu is large, and it can be slightly intimidating to a newcomer; fortunately, the small portion sizes allow a diner to make a substantial meal out of a few dishes. For appetizers, consider ordering an onigiri, a rice ball with various fillings. My personal favorite is the ume onigiri ($5.75), filled with tart plum jam. It may be hard to find on the lengthy seafood menu, but don’t overlook the takoyaki ($4.75), crisp octopus dumplings covered in flavorful sauce.

As for the entrée, there are a variety of combination bento boxes available, many of them coming with a selection of fresh sushi rolls. For sashimi enthusiasts, the tuna sashimi bento box ($14.75) provides tuna that is perfectly chewy and bursting with flavor. However, the best entrées at Izaka-ya are the okonomiyaki ($10.75-$13.75). This is a savory pancake made with cabbage and covered with sauce, often described as "Japanese pizza." Izaka-Ya's are creamy, flavorful, and incredibly filling, and a variety of add-ons are available, including pork belly, octopus, and okra. There are only a handful of Bay Area restaurants that serve okonomiyaki, so make sure to try it on at least one occasion.

If you find yourself with room for dessert, the best choice is the rich banana tempura ($3.75), though those seeking lighter fare my be interested in ice cream or even a fresh orange to close out their experience. Izaka-ya also has a decent selection of beer, schochu, and plum wine, as could be expected from a restaurant modeled on urban Japanese drinking establishments.

Izaka-Ya is one of the best Japanese restaurants in the South Bay, with good prices, great menu variety, and a warm and friendly atmosphere. It's also close to the convention center and several theatres