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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Gay Nineties Pizza Company: P-town history, abundantly!

Lunch date #12: April 20, 2012

We'd been hot on the trail of diversity, having tried a variety of "ethnic" foods such as Indian, Afghan, Greek, Vietnamese, and Japanese. Now it was time to settle into some good old American comfort food. What could be more cliché American than pizza and salad? Mom was interested in Gay 90's since we had passed by it so often and it looks inviting. (Gay Nineties Pizza Company, 288 Main Street, www.gayninetiespizza.com) She also knew that I had been a "ghost-host" for the Museum Halloween Ghost Tours, so I had some inside knowledge about the history of the location! Ranging from "Boo" on the mirror, to tales of spirits startling the family dog, and eerie stories about the "lady in blue" haunting the second floor window, this location does have an intriguing past. Also, there is a walled off, but still visible, entrance to the downtown Pleasanton tunnel system in the basement. One of the original downtown buildings, it was built in 1864 as a Wells Fargo Stage Coach Depot….and the upstairs rooms were even used as a brothel!

Location: 5 points…still downtown, so there you go. Enough said.

Can Can dancers overlook the patio
Old time pizza parlor interior
Ambiance: 4 points. We hit a beautiful warm afternoon. I had just finished playing tennis and was ready to relax in the shade. The patio area behind the restaurant is very cute: a mural of can-can dancing girls on one wall carries through the décor that begins inside with the tiffany style lamps, soda-fountain style tables and huge bar. We really did not linger inside at all, so can't comment on the interior, but the patio was fine. Plastic tables and chairs, but of course in a casual patio setting, quite acceptable. Thankfully there is a screen overhead that affords relief from the blazing sun on a warm afternoon.

Menu selection: 3.5 points. This is reportedly the first-ever pizza restaurant in the Pleasanton region and they still make their signature home-made sour dough thick crust. The menu is overall pretty simple: usual selection of pizzas-with some "gourmet" choices, salads, a few sandwiches and pasta dishes. Since I'm personally quite done with the usual pepperoni-style pizza, I encouraged the selection of one of their gourmet style pizzas. We chose a small "Lee's Special" pizza to share: chicken with artichokes and feta cheese. We also wanted to try another menu item and since Mom likes a Cobb salad, went with that.

Service: 3.5 points. Really quite good table service. They were quick to bring our iced-tea and even brought out a refill jar of ice and left the pitcher with us for easy refills. We grabbed menus as we walked through the interior, and then our server came by very promptly to take our order. Since we split the salad, and I'm not big on blue cheese, she brought out a bowl of blue cheese on the side for Mom, as well as two different salad dressings so we could each customize our salads to our liking. Biggest problem at Gay 90's: it takes a seriously long time to get your pizza. Perhaps that thick crust takes a while to bake—do they have slow ovens? It was not at all crowded, so I imagine the order could have been processed very quickly. Thank goodness we ordered the salad-which was brought out immediately—or we would have become rather cranky waiting 30+ minutes for the pizza.

 Mega sized Cobb Salad
Food: 3.5 points. The salad was served in a large bowl that appeared to be large enough for 3-4 people. It was good with crisp veggies and lots of avocado, turkey and bacon.  We also had garlic bread that was fair. The pizza was a bit disappointing. The Lee's Special was on the boring side and overall just fair. Don't think I'd order that particular choice again. Love their thick sour dough crust though-great flavor and texture. After that huge salad we were both pretty full…so by the time the pizza finally came, we each only sampled one slice. I took the rest home for the family to share for dinner.

Value: 3.5 points. This is a bit more difficult to critique. The portion size of the salad was considerably large—plenty for two to share and then more to take home. The cost was about $11—so had we only ordered and shared one salad, the value for the meal would have been excellent. The cost of a small pizza was approximately $21. That is pretty high for a 12 inch pizza; however again, had we only ordered that and shared it, the cost to each of us would have been in line with what we usually pay for lunch. Since we ordered both, we had a pretty expensive lunch. On the other hand, the ambiance of sitting on the patio, combined with good service, made for a pleasant dining experience. 

Overall score for Gay 90's Pizza Company: 3.8 points. This downtown Pleasanton icon still serves up a pretty good lunch in a pleasant location. Having been open for business for so many years, while not the trendy downtown "foodie" spot, it still is a good choice for a nice lunch date with your favorite dining companion!  

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Phở Hòa: Kind of blah...

Lunch date #11: April 6, 2012

We knew we were going to have to get there eventually—might as well go for it…it was time for phở! This seems to be an up and coming popular food, with new places springing up all over town. Phở (rhymes with "the"), of course is the style of a Vietnamese broth with noodles, typically served with a choice of cooked meat, and topped with bean sprouts and a bit of green onion. Since we were trying to be true to our goal to sample all of what downtown has to offer, we elected to hit the south end of Main St. and try Phở Hòa (201 Main St, next to Vic's).  As per Google-Translator: Hòa means flower or blossom, and is pronounced "wha". Steph gets phở all of the time. She extols its many benefits: that it is somewhat healthy and usually pretty cheap top the list. As I had reported in our introductory blog, Mom had tried phở with Steph at Saigon Vietnamese Restaurant on the north end of downtown. She didn't remember too much about it, other than that it was just "OK" and that she didn't particularly want to have it again! But this is the "New Mom"…ready to try any and everything…so with her chopstick adapters in hand, we headed to Phở Hòa for an adventure.
Critique #1 location: 4 points. We have realized we are in trouble with our scores in this area. We gave Vic's a 5, even though it is on the far south end of Main Street. Since we aim for reliable consistency in our reviews, we need to be fair. But this place does not face Main St., so we justified a 4. In retrospect, we should have scored Vic's a 4, and then this place a 3. There is a good amount of parking, which is an advantage.

Critique #2 ambiance: 1 point. Wow are we tough or what! I don't know—maybe it was the large plastic palm trees (!), but the place is pretty tacky: acoustic tile ceiling, Formica stained tables, cheap linoleum flooring. Mom's sums it up well: "Reminds me of a cafeteria". You get the idea. When I described it to Steph, she said not to be so critical: "It's like Vietnamese fast-food," she explained. Now, I get the idea!

Critique #3 Menu: 4 points. We have absolutely no idea how to read this menu. There are a lot of items, with (thankfully) pictures. We elected to award 4 points due to variety. You can choose from many types of phở, to rice plates, vermicelli bowls (is that kind of an Italian fusion thing??), and even fruit smoothies. I went with #1—trying to select their signature dish: Phở Tái: noodle soup with thinly sliced beef. Mom, being somewhat "over" phở, chose the Bún Gà Nưóng: A vermicelli bowl of grilled chicken over noodles.
 Phở Tái:

Critique #4 service: 2 points. We definitely had a language barrier issue here. We tried to nicely explain that we were neophytes in the world of phở, but we didn't get much help. The food was brought out amazingly fast (must be all pre-cooked and ready to plate out), but just rather deposited on our table and that was about it for service. Mom ordered coffee—it was a sort of French-press style, but without the press part…guessing that is Vietnamese coffee? We had no clue, and got no help. Mom said that at a place like this, they don't usually have coffee. My reply: "For good reason!" The tea was barely warm and not all that great. Regarding the phở: when the server later cleared the dishes, he told me that I should have added the bean sprouts to the broth right away—so they would soften. Kinda late for that, I thought. Good thing Mom brought her own little chopstick adapters…don't suppose she would have gotten those there.
Vietnamese coffee??

Critique #5 food: 2.5 points. The vermicelli was dry. It was served with a side of broth, that I suppose was to be added, but the broth was cold. Mine was fair: the beef was thin and tender. Not served bite-size…not quite sure how to cut Asian food, since all I had were chopsticks. As we were clueless, we didn't realize that we were supposed to "doctor" up the broth/noodles with the selection of condiments on the table: they have plum sauce, chili sauce and some other things I could not identify. Steph later told us that seasoning the broth to taste makes a big difference! She also later told me that I should have stirred up the noodles right away—or they coalesce into a lump…she was right, they did! Guess I should have gotten the "how to" advice before we went!
The chopstick adapters in use!

Critique #6 value: 3 points. The prices were fine: $8 for the Vermicelli bowl, about $7 for the phở, but since we didn't really care for anything all that much—we regarded the value as medium…inexpensive, but unimpressive. Also, there was nothing to take home. I know they do take-out, but this just wasn't a left over sort of thing…not that we'd really want to eat it again anyway.

Overall score for Phở Hòa: 2.8 points. Certainly not all that great. Not horrible. Perhaps we would do better now that we know what to do…or better yet, take Steph along for on the spot phở eating instructions!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Oasis Grille: For "Foodies", a thrill!

Lunch date #10: March 23, 2012

"I feel like I've come out of a cocoon!" marveled Mom as she reflected back over our ten lunch dates. "I never even knew this sort of food existed, or that I would like it," she admitted. I think her palate has been awoken! We have had many different types of food: Chinese, Italian, Greek, Indian…and now sitting at lunch, eating Afghan food, Mom has had a bit of an epiphany! It is amazing to see the transformation from a diet that existed primarily of cheeseburgers and roast-beef sandwiches, OK…so maybe with the occasional turkey sandwich or taco salad thrown in. But to see her really enjoying the experiment to try so many different types of food—this project, in 10 short dates, is already a huge success. So many different things to try, so many places to go…we are having a blast!

For our 10th date, we headed to Oasis Grille (and Wine Lounge) 780 MainSt. (www.oasisgrille.com). I've always loved the venue, since first built for Coffee Roast Express—and was sad when the owners decided to close that Pleasanton icon. I had tried Oasis several times, for lunch, dinner, appetizers/drinks and always thought it was fair. When I suggested it to Mom, I told her we'd eat Afghani food. She wasn't so sure…but being the sport that she always is (and even more of a "foodie" these days), she was all for it.

Critique #1 location: 5 points. Obviously everything downtown will get the full score. I especially love this building and greatly appreciate the improvement that this interesting architecture added to our downtown landscape.

Critique #2 ambiance: 5 points. The conversion from coffee shop to restaurant/wine lounge is not an easy one. We felt they did an extremely good job to create an inviting atmosphere to dine and relax. We were seated inside, due to inclement weather, but I've enjoyed sitting in the patio ("rose garden") and on the front porch several times; a perfect place for a summer afternoon or evening. When we first walked in, Mom was surprised: "It's nicer than I thought it would be!" We appreciated the décor and white linen table cloths. On the wine-lounge side, there are a few little couches and bar-style tables, and the main bar is beautiful.  I actually like that it still has a bit of the old Coffee Roast Express personality peeking through—like seeing an old friend.

Flame-Grilled Chicken Kabob
Critique #3 Menu Selection: 4 points. Oasis has transformed a bit since originally opening. They have diversified into a Mediterranean fusion of Greek/Italian and still offer some apparently authentic Afghan dishes. Where else can you get Aushak (a leek/cilantro pasta-meat dish) or Mantoo (ground beef/onion dumplings and yogurt sauce), or their amazing signature Pumpkin Borani?  The only criticism of the menu is that they don't have much in the way of specific lunch offerings. As per our server, the only difference between lunch and dinner is the addition of Gyros to the menu of the former. They could use some more economically priced and lighter lunch items, in our opinion.

Critique #4 Service: 4 points. Our server did an excellent job. We let her know that our mission was to try Afghani-style food that day, and she was quite helpful deciphering the menu by giving us good descriptions of the unfamiliar items. She definitely encouraged us to try the Pumpkin Borani. Our only complaint with the table service was that they failed to give us any appetizer plates with which to eat our Borani. We had  little plates for our flatbread, so we used those and dug in!

Phenomenal Pumpkin Borani
Critique #5 Food: 4.5 points. The Pumpkin Borani was out of this world, insanely amazing, heaven on a plate! Absolutely a perfect 10!  I've had it before, but really didn't remember it being this tantalizing. Must have been perfectly sweet sugar pumpkins…or perhaps it was a substitute with acorn squash (so says my friend Janis), but whatever it was…it was truly the very best treat we've had on our lunch dates yet. Just the right texture and blend of spices with the garlic yogurt topping that was absolute perfection.  The rest of the meal was fair to good. My Flame-Grilled Chicken Kabob was described on the menu as juicy, but was in fact a bit dry. The red-pepper chutney was quite tasty, however, and the asparagus grilled nicely. Mom got the Mantoo and liked it OK. The fresh flatbread brought to the table was very good and soft. If not for the Borani, we would have given it a 3.5; if only the Borani—it would have been 5 plus!

Critique #6 value: 4 points. If we had delayed lunch just a bit, we would have been delighted with the price of the Borani later. Between 2-6pm, half priced appetizers and happy hour wine pourings are offered. We started lunch at 1:00, so paid the full $10 for the Borani (quite worth it, by the way…but for $5 would have been the bargain of a lifetime). The entrées were a bit higher than what we had been paying elsewhere. The dinner menu is fairly similar with slightly higher prices…perhaps due to larger portion sizes?

Overall score for Oasis Grille: 4.4 points. We had a wonderful lunch date and enjoyed our experience at Oasis. We will definitely return…especially during happy hour! As per our usual, we ordered too much food—but we wanted to bravely sample some different items. Also as per our usual, we took home the left overs and this time, I think I was the excited one to savor more Pumpkin Borani that evening!