Thoughts on these San Mateo area dining options? (split from Kenji Lopez Alt Q&A)

Continuing the discussion from Hungry Onion Drooling Q&A with J. Kenji López-Alt. (Nov 11, 2016 11am PT):

I am not familiar with dining options around that stretch of the Peninsula. Thoughts from the group? I am curious whether there is a difference between the Chef Zhao in Mt View vs San Mateo. I thought the one in Mt View was somewhat subpar re: ingredient quality.

Re: San Mateo. My information is rather dated. In the current tech boom, traffic between my house and San Mateo is terrible, so we generally find ourselves going south.

But maybe here’s a few things to get you started.

Japanese is very strong in San Mateo. There’s the newer omakase place - Yoshizumi - with a michelin star an a two month reservation window, there’s sushi sam’s. There’s a number of Izakaya ( before they were cool ). Mai is the most “down home”, but it’s also a bit more americanized. There’s a ton of ramen places, some with strong reputation, but I’ve visited most of the only once and don’t consider myself a ramen expert. My favorite Japanese is Kokko, which is a hardcore yakitori. Arguably the yakitori is better Ginji, there’s a bit more char, but the atmosphere at Kokko is better.

Regarding chinese, it’s a little hit and miss. I liked a couple of visits to Champaign for Dim Sum, but most people seem to dislike it. I long liked Spicy Empire on 25th, but it has fallen out of favor. Little Shanghai, also near 25th, was doing true Shanghai with no apologies long before regional chinese was hip. I once had an excellent meal at the place in the converted Ihop near dragers, but that was lucky menu choices - the menu is very americanized. Everyday beijing was a longtime favorite but word is the owners moved on. I now see a dozen new places on Yelp, so good luck, look forward to a report.

I did hit a good burmese spot downtown last year, and there’s the upstairs fusion/flippino place that was discussed.

Most of the rest of the places are “hipster” places that simply don’t grab me. It’s the same old great beer, burgers, small bites from the kitchen, exposed beams and bricks, etc. that I can just as easily get closer to home. Places like Vault 164.

Finally, regarding Chef Zhao, his ingrediants are what I would call more chinese-quality. It’s not fine dining, but more like what you’d find in a well regarded neighborhood place in beijing.

The only Chef Zhao I’ve been to is the El Camino location, and I’d recommend it e.g. see CZ thread. My last meal at their sister restaurant, Pop Pot, was lackluster, and apparently so was the meal eaten by a Chowhound member I ran into at another table.

Chennai club has some Chinese Indian dishes (I like their chicken wings), and my sense is that those don’t translate so well to people who didn’t grow up with it. Their bigger strength might be their South Indian dishes and dosa. I’ve had quality issues with their dosa just before closing, and would like to hear how they are at regular hours.

I’ve had some good dinners at Champagne restaurant. I’ve liked the efu (Yee mein) noodles with crabmeat and enoki mushrooms, braised giant surf clam with garlic and silver noodles, and the braised noodles with ginger. They do a good job with vegetables too.

We get over to the Burlingame/SMateo area twice a year (business) and have done so for the last ten years. Haven’t been really impressed with the restaurants there. Good, but few true “destination” places so it’s easier for us to stick to the Alameda/CC Cty areas where we live. We avoid most of the Chinese restaurants there; very value-oriented so cheap but mostly not worth going out of one’s way for.

However, we have liked:

120 W. 25th Avenue, San Mateo, CA

Not a destination restaurant, but a very pleasant place to socialize. Lovely sophisticated décor, nice for lunch but even prettier for dinner. Its food is similar (although not identical) to the deli/restaurant Taste In Mediterranean/SMateo. But the latter is a simple, casual café, whereas Tannourine is, for want of a better word, a more ‘adult’ restaurant.

Taste is where you’d go to stretch your dollar. Tannourine is where you’d take a first date, or with a group that was looking for a mid-priced dinner that was “just a bit special”. If some of your group isn’t sure about liking Mediterranean specialties, Tannourine is a little more accessible in its cooking, and looks more upscale without being expensive.

Skip the sambousek, but the cheese borak and small tender dolma were excellent. Kebbeh is fabulous paired with their house salad which has a magnificent tangy (but not overdone) vinaigrette. Flatbread is outstanding, almost as good as Aziza/SF.

The baba ghannouge is exceptional. One of the best versions we’ve had of the dozens we’ve eaten over the last decade.

Kebabs and kefte (both lamb) were very good. Not huge portions but nicely executed. All mains come with hummus and the baba ghannouge. So don’t order those two as starters unless you want a massive amount of them!

Loved the Arabic coffee, served traditional style with lots of cardamon. Service is professional but can be stretched thin when full.

Taste In Mediterranean Food
1199 Broadway, Burlingame, CA

Deli/café, very busy with big portions at low prices. Most of the food is very good, some dishes (like the veggie/potato latkes) not so much. But overall, excellent value and most of the food is tasty with that homecooked touch.

Soups are excellent across the board. Their cacik, yoghurt dip, with 5-star housemade pita chips is addictive. The babaganoush is excellent, smoky and flavorful.

The lamb chops are preferable to the kebabs, the latter being uniformly overcooked. Even if you’re not vegetarian, get the Mediterranean eggplant stew. This has a lovely depth from the grilled eggplant, which dissolves in the cooking to flavor the tomatoes, well-caramelized onions, and small red beans. With the rice, hummus, delicate housemade slaw, and more of the cacik, even my carnivorous DH said he wouldn’t miss the meat.

Taste In Mediterranean has a marvelous array of desserts. They had eight different kinds of baklava, with your choice of walnut, pistachios, or cashews; with or without rose syrup. There were at least four different nut-topped single-layer cakes, halvah, and two kinds of pudding (rice or halvah). They had knefe, the Lebanese cheesecake with a bottom and top crust of filo shreds, which we rarely see in Oakland.

Mokutanya Yakitori
1155 California Dr., Burlingame, CA
Some very good yakitori and bento boxes at lunch. The octopus starter was refreshing and unusual. Crowded at dinner time. Grilled items can be very good but sometimes execution is erratic. Don’t get tipsy and walk into those glass partitions! Aggressively hip, but the food’s good enough that you won’t hold it against them too much.

New England Lobster Market & Eatery
824 Cowan Rd., Burlingame, CA

If you’re dying for some Dungeness but it’s out of season, come here. They get it from Alaska and their flash-frozen Dungeness has no additives or icky preservatives gunking it up. In fact, if you don’t tell people it’s frozen they’ll probably never know. Heck, I can’t tell it from fresh. It rips me more than you know that there is NO PLACE in the EBay as good as NE Lobster Mkt for frozen Dungeness. This is a long drive from where I live. Yes, and I’m including Monterey Market, Whole Foods and Tokyo Fish Mkt. I warned you; it rips me.

Forget the overrated lobster rolls (honest, why celebrate puffy white bread? Just eat the lobster straight, with butter). The lobster/corn chowder is excellent (and sold frozen too). Get the bowl; the cup won’t be enough. And you won’t want to share it, either.

But smart people come here for oysters. We watched in awe as three Chinese women worked through four dozen raw shucked oysters, then went back for another round!

Lovey’s Tea Shoppe
4430 Coast Hwy (aka Cabrillo Hwy or Rte 1), Pacifica, CA

If you didn’t already know, this is a branch of the esteemed Lovejoy’s Tea Room/SF. Easier parking although not handicap-accessible (bathrooms are outside and down the stairs).

The very best tea in the SFBA is Pardee Museum/Oakland. But pinning them down to a date can be rough; they can only do a few teas per month (all-volunteer cooks). The second best is Angelica’s/Sebastopol which is a French patisserie par excellence, but one can’t always be jaunting off to Hwy 116 spur of the moment. Plus, you always need reservations in advance for ALL these places.

If you’re in the Peninsula, Lovey’s will satisfy you. Their tea selection is excellent and the food is good. It and Lovejoy’s are the best of the lot at the second-tier level.

Three @Draper University (formerly Astaria @Hotel Benjamin)
50 E. Third Ave., San Mateo, CA

We have liked Three (formerly Astaria) for a long time. But although the food is still good, the portions have gotten smaller, the sides especially skimpy, and prices have risen. We have gone for both brunch and weekday lunch/dinner, and been pleased with the food, but it has dropped a half level strictly on value. We’re not particularly price-sensitive but Three just feels a bit overpriced now vs the competition.

They are, however, one of the few restaurants that still carries flaming cheese on the menu as a regular item. When properly executed, it’s a great starter.


Thank you for the very wonderful write-up! This gives me great options if and when I am in the area.

Since I don’t go there much at all, I don’t have first hand experience. But that seems to be, at least in my impression prior to your post, the rep that that part of the Peninsula gets. Decent options, but nothing destination worthy. Hence what usually happens is- just drive the extra 15 miles into the city…

Have you been to Dish Dash in Sunnyvale? I am curious how they compare since we usually end up there (as a consistently solid choice, but not earth shattering) when we want casual Mediterranean/ Lebanese close by. I think I have to make it up there just to try the baba ghanoush. BTW, are the Tannourine/ Taste people Lebanese?

What about the bunch of other izakayas around San Mateo?


I went to look at their Yelp oyster reviews. Looks like they have half price oyster happy hour. I am there.

And if cost is not an issue. 2 rounds of 48 oysters for 3 is not that crazy! Well maybe it is if they have a full meal afterwards.

Anyone tried Rasa?

Sorry, have not tried places further south than SMateo in years. We made a single one-night stay in Palo Alto in 2015 and I was aghast at the traffic on 101/El Camino.

Like I said, we shoot in for the day, take care of business, eat lunch, go grocery shopping at a couple of markets we like, and then get back across the SMateo bridge before the traffic gets to the standstill point.

Sorry, did forget Rasa’s. We went earlier this year, then revisited Juhu soon after. Rasa’s was a first-timer for us, Juhu was a return but had not been there since Mistry first opened.

Liked Juhu on that long-ago first visit. Loathed it on the second. Have no idea what Bourdain sees in the Mongolian Cauliflower, which is a gunked up, oversugared nightmare of deep-fried batter and very little cauliflower. Half our dish was little crunchies of dough encasing…nothing, drowned in sweet syrupy goop.

Juhu’s black dal soup was half-cooked and crunchy, full of harsh vinegar, filled with big slices of half-raw white onion. Duck salad was short on duck, although a few tough shreds sat listlessly in a a heap of extremely bitter greens and no dressing. Short rib curry was chuck, not short rib (many places do this and it ticks me off) in a very dull curry. But the lemon rice was excellent, and DH loves her chai. This 2nd visit was a real comedown from the amazing Goju Chili she originally offered.

On to Rasa: Service is a little on the curt side, but they’re experienced.
Curry Leaf Chicken and Black and White Squid. Chicken is tasty Indian McNuggets but overcooked, as so much chicken is these days due to super-salmonella concerns. Our squid, unlike Bauer’s, was crispy and excellent. My notes read:
“This was a simple but amazing dish - the two curry spicings playing off one another; the crisp texture of deep frying against the soft moistness of sautéed onion; the bright fruity acid from the chutney accenting both.”

Chettinadu Lamb Curry. This is a main dish served with coconut jasmine rice. The lamb cubes were excellent, tender but not stringy or dry as meat gets when really overcooked. The brown gravy was spicy and richly flavored. The rice was excellent, with real coconut flavor. Still, the lamb would be better with plain rice - save the coconut rice for kababs.

Kheema Uttappam (egg pancake with lamb and sweet peppers). Ground lamb and sweet pepper slices are sprinkled on top of the batter and then baked. The pancake is soft and spongy, about the thickness of an Armenian flatbread. The lamb is highly spiced and moderately chile-hot. It’s very tasty, although I wished for more of the sweet yellow pepper slices, which were a great addition.

The two sambals, or chutneys, provided with the uttappam were outstanding. Housemade, simple but no shortcuts. One was a coconut cilantro yoghurt-based dip. The other was a red lentil-tomato dip with black mustard seeds.

However, we did note a negative: Although my uttappam and DH’s curry were good, as were the two starters, what we noticed was that the spices used by Rasa don’t vary much between dish to dish. Also, although we loved the level of chile heat, by the time we were eating the entrées I remarked to him that everything seemed to have the exact same level of heat – no more, no less – and he agreed.

There was an aggressive sameness to the dishes, despite the fact the actual dishes were different from one another. By the time we finished eating, my palate was becoming fatigued.

Still, after so much publicity given to Preeti Mistry these days (Eater has a long, fawning interview with her dated 11/7/2016), we were surprised it was a “no comparison” for us. Rasa’s isn’t perfect, but it’s far superior to what Juhu is doing these days.

Rasa (Indian fusion)
209 Park Rd., Burlingame, CA
Note: very small, only first flr was open at lunchtime, reservations a necessity

Isn’t Juhu targeting street food and Rasa more refined even though they both seem to use better ingredients and make things more from scratch? Or was Juhu skillful enough in your first visit to be even better than Rasa?

Here’s my quick run-down.

Kokko, Mai, Ginji

  • Mai is more like an overall japanese restaurants, with a lot of izakaya dishes and a lot of other stuff. It’s a little americanized in menu, but the owners / chefs are japanese, and there’s some great gems on the menu, in particular I like the grilled whole fish. The place has been threatening to close for a year or so, the owners want to retire.

  • Ginji. The yakitori here is surprisingly good, they do bincho charcoal, and they have a solid sake collection. I find this place a little “middle of the road” compared to a few other places, but it’s very very tolerable even to people who have had a lot of yakitori in tokyo. The atmosphere is a little dark and nightclubbish, the clientel is mixed japanese and american. Good place to drink and eat.

  • Kokko. This is my favorite place. It is 100% japanese. The number of times I’ve seen a non japanese in there - other than myself - I could count on one hand. And, they’re open till 11 or 12. The yakitori is, regrettably, only medium good ( it might even be a small step below Ginji ). They have a small selection of sake, cheap pitchers of Sapporo ( nothing else, no Hitachino or whatever ). A few of their non-meat options, like bacon-wrapped-enoki, are worth a detour. In a recent trip, I think the basic meats ( like thighs ) tasted a bit better than usual, so perhaps it is on the upswing. It is also tiny and people linger, like a real japanese drinking spot. They have a lot of the usual ( unusual ) skewers, and they have both kinds of cartilage. There can often be a wait for a table, especially at 9:30 when the rest of san mateo is shutting down.

Let me put in an extra mention for Kemuri in RWC. Much better sake and drinks selection than the places above listed, and some really fun uses of smoke. Unfortunately high ceilings, doesn’t feel that japanese, but the attention to detail in the food is japanese.

Sorry I haven’t been to Mokutanya and can’t compare.

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Sorry for the delay in answering! I don’t always remember to check previous threads.

I don’t find that much difference between Juhu and Rasa, outside of the pavs at Juhu. In turn, Rasa has its Uthappam and Dosas. DH and I thought the difference was mostly in the marketing, but YMMV.


Do you like Kokko more for the atmosphere?

I need to return to Kemuri to try the small plates. I guess they didn’t label themselves as an izakaya or yakitori. Though yes the atmosphere is pretty essential if they want to be one. They are more like a regular restaurant.

I do have to admit that kokko is great because of the atmosphere, but when comparing top good toyko kayitori, it lacks a little crisp and taste. Kokko would be an average place in tokyo, tasty, not especially worth mentioning, but would keep itself in businesses, at least that is my guess. It is a real deal place in a way few bay area ones are. Maybe that one on los altos that is downstairs is similar in atmosphere and better in food.

Downstairs? Which one? Sumika?

Yeah, I think so. Sumika.

Sushi Maruyama now serves sushi/ sashimi/ omakase in San Mateo. Curious to hear how it stacks up against other omakase joints. Said to use this tamari. Any experience?

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Honghe Hani Rice Terraces, Yuanyang County, Yunnan
Credit: inkelv1122, Flickr