Ramen Roundup Part 2

I realized with my last roundup of ramen joints in the Bay Area that I was only scratching the surface. It seems like ramen is the new obsession around these parts, and noodle lovers have their staunch favorites.

Ramen in the Bay Area may not be the “fast food” item it is in Japan, but it’s certainly not a fussy meal, though extremely customizable. With that rich meaty broth and chewy noodles, and fixings like hardboiled eggs, corn, and dried seaweed (nori), it’s a complete comfort food meal in a bowl. In Japan, ramen noodle houses are as common as pizza joints are in the States. It’s a cheap, filling, and delicious way for them to satisfy their hunger.

So here are four more places on the Peninsula and in the South Bay I visited recently.

Ramen Club Garlic Kimchi Ramen
Ramen Club Garlic Kimchi Ramen with Pork

Ramen Club — Burlingame
This restaurant’s ramen is by no means the best, but it’s a good, fun bowl of noodles. I say fun because the Garlic Kimchi Ramen with Pork is not exactly authentic, but good and tasty. I loved the zesty crunch from the spicy kimchi cabbage and the added kick of the hot sauce on top. The texture of the noodles is good and chewy but not soggy. However, the broth and the pork are lackluster. Still, it’s a good version of ramen.

Ramen Club
Ramen Club & Catering on Urbanspoon

Ramen Parlor Spicy Pork with Soft Shell Crab and Black Garlic
Ramen Parlor Spicy Pork with Soft Shell Crab and Black Garlic

Ramen Parlor — San Mateo
If you’ve been to Santa Ramen or Dojo Ramen in San Mateo, you’ll love this place. Ramen Parlor is owned by the same folks as Santa and Dojo, and is the newest of the three. Though it’s not as popular or as good as Dojo, it is definitely a strong second, and certainly my favorite on this list. Their specialty is infusing spicy seafood elements into their broth like lobster oil, or fried soft shell crab. I ordered the Ramen with Tonkatsu (pork) Broth and Soft Shell Crab, spicy of course. Along with all those fun flavors, it comes with a glistening, buttery, full-fat slice of pork belly, pungent black garlic oil, and a creamy, perfectly cooked hard boiled egg. It is delicious, bold, innovative and every element was cooked to perfection. Heaven.

Ramen Parlor
Ramen Parlor on Urbanspoon

Santouka Spicy Miso Pork Ramen
Santouka Spicy Miso Pork Ramen

Santouka Ramen — San Jose
Santouka is a popular Japanese ramen chain restaurant, and this is their only franchised Bay Area outpost. Located inside the Japanese Mitsuwa Marketplace strip mall as part of a mini-food court, it’s as close to a fast food ramen place as you can get around here. The ramen noodles have that ideal chewy-but-not-soggy texture and the broth has good depth. However, I suspect it was full of MSG since I came away later that day with some serious thirst and a slight headache. And the portion itself was very small. My American palate, unfortunately, is used to a serving double the size of what they gave me.

Santouka
Located in the Mitsuwa Marketplace
Santouka Ramen on Urbanspoon

Ramen House Ryowa Roasted Sesame Ramen with Pork
Ramen House Ryowa Roasted Sesame Ramen with Pork

Ramen House Ryowa — Mountain View
“Ryowa” apparently means sesame, so I’d be remiss not to order the specialty of the house. Out of the four places I went to, this was both the most authentically Japanese in setting (bar seating, very fast food-like atmosphere) and straightforward in terms of the food. The broth and noodles were both reliably good, but nothing to write home about. Although I loved that the ramen is served with a side of gyoza dumplings, which apparently is what they do in Japan. It makes for a nicely rounded meal.

Ramen House Ryowa
Ramen House Ryowa on Urbanspoon

Searching for Okonomiyaki

Ramen Taro Okonomiyaki
Okonomiyaki from Ramen Taro with Beef and Cabbage

Okonomiyaki is a dish that’s described many different ways: a savory pancake, Japanese pizza, or an Asian frittata. Whatever you call it, it can be hard to find around these parts. With the exception of San Francisco and San Jose, all places in between can be an okonomiyaki-free zone.

Okonomiyaki is a classic comfort food dish in Japan. It’s a round, flat, savory dish that’s made from flour, eggs, cabbage, and seafood or meat. It’s got a drier exterior and a soft, moist interior. A good dose of sweet Japanese mayonnaise and sweet, smoky Okonomi brown sauce is drizzled on top, and then the dish is finished with some dried fish flakes (bonito) and dried seaweed. A good version of the dish shouldn’t be to dry or too wet.

Literally translated, okonomiyaki means “grilled as you like,” which explains why you’ll see slightly different versions of the dish everywhere in Japan. Here in the Bay Area, I’d be happy to see it even half as often as I do sushi and chicken teriyaki.

I remember the first time I tried the dish at a restaurant in Japantown. I had ordered it out of sheer curiosity since the photo on the menu made it look, indeed, like a Japanese pizza. The flavors were like nothing I’d ever had before. There was sweetness from the white sauce, smokiness from the brown sauce, and seafood flavor from the bonito flakes on top. Crunch came from the cabbage inside. It was thoroughly satisfying and I couldn’t wait to have it again.

So my recent craving sent me on a search for the dish. I was determined not to look to San Francisco or San Jose, where you can find it more readily since both cities have Japantowns.

There may be tons of Japanese restaurants in the Bay Area, but I realized that most of them don’t serve okonomiyaki. So I was thankful to find these two restaurants that serve good renditions of the dish.

Ramen Taro Okonomiyaki
Okonomiyaki from Ramen Taro with Beef and Cabbage

Ramen Taro — Foster City
This newer Japanese spot may focus on ramen, but its their other dishes on the menu that are both tastier and more interesting. Their okonomiyaki is bold and chock full of ingredients. It’s drenched in more brown sauce and mayo than I’d like, but it has a load of flavor and texture with its abundance of cabbage, pickled ginger, and bonito flakes on top. And it’s not too doughy either, which is a good thing. It’s served pre-sliced so it feels like you’re eating a very exotic pizza.

Bushido Okonomiyaki
Bushido Okonomiyaki with Seafood

Bushido — Mountain View
This trendy Japanese restaurant has some very unusual dishes like a Tuna Poke Burrito and Kimchi Goyza. But surprisingly, their version of okonomiyaki is fairly straightforward, but well-balanced and had a less overwhelming mix of flavors. Their version had shrimp and veggies, giving a nice contrast of textures and tastes. My only complaint was that it was a smaller portion than others I’ve had, which would make it a good shared appetizer for the table.

I know I’m just scratching the surface on my quest to find some good okonomiyaki around these parts. If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them. My search continues…

Ramen Taro
Address: Map
1495 Beach Park Blvd
Foster City, CA 94404
Phone: (650) 212-2883
Hours: Mon-Sun 11am – 9:30p

Bushido on Urbanspoon

*Cross posted @ KQED’s Bay Area Bites.

Japanese Mochi Both Old and New

Azuki and Lima Bean Filled Mochi From Shuei-Do Manju Shop, San Jose

If you’ve ever had mochi (or manju), you’ll know that you can’t eat just one. Its contrast of light yet densely chewy texture and mild sweetness is filled with everything from the traditional red azuki or white lima bean paste, to green tea ice cream.

Japanese mochi is a small ping pong ball-sized dessert made from glutinous rice paste, molded into a round ball or cut into squares, and filled with, most traditionally, red or white bean paste. The exterior is dusted with a bit of rice flour to prevent sticking.

Shuei-Do Manju Shop Goodies

One of the only Bay Area Japanese confectionery shops left in the Bay Area, Shuei-Do Manju Shop in San Jose’s Japantown has been making these treats the old-fashioned way by hand for over 60 years. You can find many traditional versions, along with some fun flavors like raspberry, coconut, and peanut butter (they’re not available everyday, so call to find out what the flavors of the day are). The care and artistry of each piece comes through in every bite. The mochi exterior is soft, chewy, and dense, while the interior red bean filling is thick and sweet.
Shuei-Do Manju Shop is a San Jose treasure and has earned a devoted cult following. It’s an even more popular destination in the summer because of their other specialty: Hawaiian shaved ice.

Mochicream Display Case of Various Mochi Flavors

On the other end of the mochi scale is Mochicream. This popular Japanese chain calls itself a “Japanese Sweets Deli.” They’re doing for mochi what Pinkberry did for frozen yogurt, or Sprinkles for cupcakes.

Their only Northern California outpost is located inside the Japanese mini-mall, Mitsuwa Marketplace in San Jose. Daring mochi flavors like Caramel Macchiato, Cranberry, Blueberry Yogurt and Orange Cheese fill their immaculately arranged refrigerated glass cases.

I was surprised to learn that their sweets are made in Japan and then shipped fresh to the States, weekly. It’s not exactly homemade like Grandma would make.

And mochi, when filled with cream, can easily get soggy because of all the moisture. They’ve combated this problem by surrounding the cream fillings with white bean paste, creating almost a layer of insulation inside each mochi ball. This way, they’re able to freeze these confections and ship them all the way out here without extensive damage to its flavor or texture. And they instruct you to let them “defrost” for about 15 minutes before diving in.

The mochi is soft, light and airy, but a bit of sogginess does indeed plague this international treat. But if you’re into mochi or are looking for something sweet that is a bit out of the ordinary, it’s definitely worth a try. The Apple Pie was my far and away favorite, with bits of apple pie filling and little pie crust crumbles to give it some real depth of flavor and surprising texture. My second favorite was the Darjeeling for its nice subtle yet distinct tea flavor that fortunately, wasn’t too sweet.

Whether you’ve tried mochi before or not, both these places offer up some great examples of this classic sweet Japanese treat.

Shuei-Do Manju Shop
Address: 217 E. Jackson Street, San Jose
Phone: (408) 294-4148
Facebook: Shuei-Do Manju Shop
Prices: Between $1 to $3

Mochicream
(Located inside Mitsuwa Marketplace)
Address: 675 Saratoga Ave., San Jose
Phone: (408) 725-9263
Prices: Between $1 to $3

Curry Up Now Wants You to Join The Dosa Republic

Inside The Dosa Republic

Husband and wife team, Akash and Rana Kapoor have created a name for themselves with their Curry Up Now food trucks, specializing in authentic and boldly flavored Indian street food. Their immense popularity spawned an equally popular brick and mortar joint in San Mateo, which opened last year.

Curry Up Now started as a pipe dream for Rana. She had always loved feeding large groups of friends and family at home, and wanted to bring that feeling of creating and sharing a good home cooked Indian meal to a larger community.

But Akash, who also loves to cook and create special dishes for their restaurant’s menu, had a culinary dream of his own.

“I went to this place in India that specialized in dosas and they had 140 different kinds you could choose from. They took a traditional Indian dish and made it cutting edge. That became the inspiration for this new restaurant.”

Enter The Dosa Republic, which opened this week. The new fast-casual restaurant in San Mateo serves rice bowls, salads, inventive appetizers, and of course, dosas. The Kapoors are taking this traditional Southern Indian staple and giving it a modern twist.

Dosas are thin, crepe-like delicacies made from a rice and lentil batter, making them naturally gluten-free. The dosa crepes are then filled with a variety of ingredients. That’s where the fun comes in for Akash, who created the menu.

Paisano Dosa
Paisano Dosa

They have two dosa menus which include The Dosa Republic’s own innovative creations, like the Paisano, filled with prosciutto, figs and burrata, along with the more traditional ones, like the Bombay, with potatoes, green onions and chili. Many dishes can also be made vegan.

Kale Vada Sambar
Kale Vada Sambar

One of the more notable appetizers include the Kale Vada Sambar, a deliciously fried lentil and kale dumpling served with their lentil and seasonal veggie stew. Many dishes come with the stew or a Sri Lankan Curry to dip. Others are served with a variety of chutneys like young coconut, tomato, and strawberry habenero mint. It’s a lot of flavors to take in, but they certainly make for an extremely interesting and adventurous eating experience.

Tanga Dosa
Tanga Dosa

But one of the most popular dishes seems to be the Tanga Dosa, filled with an unusual combination of ramen noodles, carrots and cabbage for crunch, and Gobi Cauliflower (chili cauliflower), which resembles more of a Chinese sweet and sour dish because of it’s bright orange hue. “Chinese food is actually really popular in India right now, or their version of it,” says Akash. “That’s why the Gobi Chicken and Cauliflower look like something from a Chinese restaurant.” The flavors, thankfully, are more tangy and spicy than sweet and sour.

The Tanga was a wonderfully satisfying dosa, giving you a complete protein, veggie and carb meal all wrapped in one extremely delectable package.

Sinhala Dosa
Sinhala Dosa

Also notable is the Sinhala Dosa, which contains juicy chicken, curry and potato. The boldly flavored spices come through loud and clear without coming on too strong. Everything was cooked perfectly from the meat to the lightly crisp yet soft and tender crepe it’s wrapped in.

The Kapoors have taken this humble yet commonly enjoyed Indian dish and managed to make it fun, tasty, and surprisingly unintimidating to a Bay Area audience that might not be familiar with it. It’s a formula they seem to have down pat with Curry Up Now. Now at The Dosa Republic, they’re betting that formula can work for them again.

Dosa Republic Interior

The Dosa Republic
Address: Map
2299 S El Camino Real, San Mateo, CA 94403
Phone: 650.458.DOSA
Twitter: @thedosarepublic
Facebook: Curry UpNow

The Nom Nom Truck: SoCal Comes to NorCal

It’s amazing what a reality show can do for your food truck.

Second place finishers on the Food Network’s “The Great Food Truck Race” and Los Angeles food truck staple, Nom Nom, have spread their love to the Bay Area.

Co-owners Jennifer Green and Misa Chien met during their time at UCLA. It was also during that time that they realized they could fill a niche in the growing food truck scene.

Nom Nom Truck owners - Jennifer Green and Misa Chien
Nom Nom Truck owners: Jennifer Green and Misa Chien.

“It started in 2009 when we had a lot of Kogi BBQ trucks around the UCLA campus and their popularity grew out of nowhere,” says Jennifer. “I made a lot of Vietnamese food for my friends on a regular basis and I realized the lack of Vietnamese restaurants in the West LA area. Then it clicked.”

Green and Chien chose the classic Vietnamese baguette sandwich, banh mi, as their truck’s specialty not only because there was a lack of places that served it in their area, but because it’s easy to eat.

“It’s portable, it’s fast and has a fresh taste that you can’t get from a burrito or hamburger,” states Jennifer. “The great thing is that we can also put a little bit of our gourmet twist on it too. One of the most traditional banh mi ingredients is grilled pork and I grill it with honey, which is a little different than the traditional. We also have Lemongrass Chicken and Vietnamese tacos, which are like a banh mi in your hand.”

“We also work with Le Boulanger to have our bread baked especially for us from a recipe I worked really hard on.”

Deli Banh Mi sandwich. Photo courtesy of Nom Nom Truck
Deli Banh Mi sandwich.

Indeed, the perfectly crusty on the outside, pillowy on the inside French bread roll is key to a good banh mi, and it was the highlight of the sandwich when I got a chance to sample their Honey Grilled Pork version. The pickled carrots and daikon that topped the sandwich were flavored well and super fresh, but I wish I’d gotten more of them to create more of a textural and taste contrast to the sweet pork. And I missed the lack of fish sauce flavor that brings it all together.

All in all, it seemed like something similar enough to what I could get in a Vietnamese Mom and Pop shop. So what’s the big deal?

First, the size of this sandwich is double the size of one you’d get at a typical brick and mortar. Coming in at 12 inches long, it’s a torpedo of a dish. But more importantly, Nom Nom is obviously trying to appealing to those who have never had a banh mi before.

“It’s exciting to see how many people who have never had one before try it and see their reaction, says Misa. “It’s like an introduction to Vietnamese food for those who have never had it. We’re appealing to the American palate.”

Their popularity has grown steadily, peaking when they started showing up on the Food Network reality show.

“We went into it wanting an adventure and it was a great way to expose our truck to a larger audience. People totally embraced us and it was great to see that feedback,” says Misa. “To see a small town embrace a food dish they’d never tasted like banh mi was a great experience.”

“We were bummed we came in second, but deep down we had to tell each other it was just a reality show. And the great thing was that we won the chance to travel and it was amazing,” says Jennifer.

Nom Nom recently acquired their third food truck and their next move was up north…at least for Misa.

“We decided on San Francisco because it’s a real foodie town and it’s been a dream of mine, personally to live up here,” she says. “We have two trucks in LA and one in San Francisco, now. I’m not complaining that I had to move up here! And the response has been great. People up here come to the truck, whereas in LA, you have to go to the people. They’re a little lazier down there.”

For now, Green and Chien don’t have any other plans to expand. “We have three babies right now and we’re focused on them,” says Jennifer.

For two women fresh out of college, running several food trucks in two major cities can be a challenge, but their goals are clear.

Misa says, “At the end of the day, we want to make people happy through our food. And as employers we want to hire staff that will work together to create an amazing company and work environment. Plus I get to build a great business with my best friend!”

Nom Nom
Twitter: @nomnomtrucksf
Facebook: Nom Nom Truck SF
Various locations throughout the Bay Area (no regular schedule)

Move Over Off the Grid: Moveable Feast Comes to the Peninsula

MoBowl, Babaloo, and House of Siam on Wheels
Three popular trucks at 5:45 = MoBowl, Babaloo, and House of Siam on Wheels

Moveable Feast is to the South Bay and Peninsula, what Off the Grid is to San Francisco. But the vibe is most certainly different.

Held this past Friday on July 1st, Moveable Feast felt way more like a county fair than OtG’s hipster foodie hotspot. The San Mateo Event Center location also had plenty of grassy areas for the suburbanite families in attendance to have a dinnertime picnic. There was also a pricier flat parking fee of $10 per vehicle, though that didn’t seem to deter most people from checking out the inaugural event.

Ryan Sebastian in front of his truck, Treatbot
Moveable Feast Operator, Ryan Sebastian in front of his truck “Treatbot”

Moveable Feast (formerly called “SJ Eats”) is the creation of Ryan Sebastian. This former transportation planner always had plans of creating community spaces, and he knew food was a great catalyst to make that happen.

“My family always had big gatherings growing up in San Jose and I loved it. And my wife has a culinary background, so it happened pretty naturally.”

It started this past April with their first food truck gathering in San Jose. Their first time out was huge, but not exactly a success.

“I own the Treatbot ice cream truck with my wife, so I knew a lot of other trucks in the area. I knew the San Pedro Square Market in San Jose had enough parking space, so we ended up there on a Saturday with about 10 trucks and spread the word through Facebook. The demand was so much higher than we ever expected and it got out of control. There was overcrowding, the wait times for food were ridiculous and we got slaughtered on Yelp, afterwards.”

Three months later, after a lot more planning and organization, the San Jose event goes off in the same place every Saturday, without a hitch.

Their success eventually caught the attention of the folks at the San Mateo Events Center, who actually called Ryan to ask if he’d be interested in doing a similar event for the Peninsula.

“This is the biggest food truck event on the Peninsula, ever. Twenty-five trucks is pretty big. We’re gonna be here the first Friday of every month from here on out.”

The line is about 20 deep @ An The Go @ 5:45
Lines are getting long in front of the “An The Go” truck at 5:45

And attendance was pretty big too. Though the event was supposed to start at 5:30, there were plenty of folks checking out the scene at 5:15. By the time I had left at 6:15, the lines for some of the more popular trucks had gotten about 20 people deep, and I estimated anywhere from 1000-2000 people total with many more streaming in. Add to that some local live music on-site, and you’ve got a huge suburban block party.

3 popular trucks at 5:45 = Mama's Empanadas, Hiyaaa, Curry Up Now
3 popular trucks at 5:45 = Mama’s Empanadas, Hiyaaa, Curry Up Now

The line-up of trucks is intentionally made up of mostly Peninsula and South Bay-based food trucks like Curry Up Now, Mama’s Empanadas, Hiyaaa Naked Chorizo and BBQ Kalbi. That’s the main difference between Moveable Feast and Off the Grid. OtG features trucks from all over the Bay Area.

But Off the Grid organizer, Matt Cohen had talked a few months ago ambitiously about starting an OtG on the Peninsula. Is there room for both of them?

At least 1000-1500 people by 6pm.
I estimated at least 1000-1500 people by 6pm.

“People in the Peninsula know there’s a huge demand for this and that the food coming out of these trucks is fantastic. This is America and there’s room for both of us in a metropolis of seven million people. I have nothing but respect for Matt. OtG is awesome!”

And Ryan has faith that mass food truck events like his are here to stay. “Ultimately, the idea of informal eating is not a new concept and it’s not a fad. When we provide legitimate marketplaces for these entrepreneurs to do business, it helps all of us do better.”

Moveable Feast
San Pedro Square, San Jose, Every Saturday 5-9pm
San Mateo Events Center, First Friday of every month, 5:30-10pm

Facebook:MVBLfeast
Twitter: @MVBLfeast

*Cross posted on Bay Area Bites

Ramen Roundup

Many Americans tend to associate instant ramen with college dorm life, poverty and hangovers. And who hasn’t had a meal of Cup-O-Noodles born out of desperation and lack of resources?

But in Japan, ramen is comfort food. It’s what many consider their national dish. And after the recent Earthquake and Tsunami, ramen served as a sign of normalcy and nourishment. Ramen houses are everywhere in Japan, and it’s one of the most affordable and filling meals you can get there.

These days, especially in the Bay Area, ramen is becoming somewhat of a “trend“. Recently, I’ve also noticed more places serving up different variations of the dish, all of which are fairly common in Japan.

Here are a few ramen houses outside San Francisco that serve three distinctly different versions of these tasty soup noodles.

Shoyu (soy sauce) Ramen w/pork & kimchi from Santa Ramen

Santa Ramen - 1944 S. El Camino Real, San Mateo, 650-344-5918

This place serves up the classic bowl of Japanese ramen with the typical three broths to choose from: miso (soybean paste), shoyu (soy sauce), and pork. It used to be THE place for Japanese natives to get an authentic bowl of ramen, but since moving to their newer location in a strip mall, the quality has declined.

Their broth and pork slices used to both taste like they took hours to make. However, on my most recent visit, the pork was actually cold. The noodles still had their classic chewy texture, but lacked depth and flavor. I was glad I had decided to add a little corn and kimchi for extra texture and kick. It’s still a decent bowl of noodles, but the joint’s lost some of its luster.

Kuro (black garlic) Ramen from Maru Ichi

Maru Ichi368 Castro St, Mountain View, 650-564-9931

I chose this place for two reasons: 1) they make their own noodles in house, 2) they’re known for a specific kind of ramen called “kuro” ramen, or “black” ramen. The black color comes from the browned garlic and was a kind of ramen developed in Japan in the 1960’s, as the menu describes. The black garlic oil sits on top of the pork broth like an oil spill. It looks more like a film of dirt and soot floating on top of the bowl, but thankfully it doesn’t taste that way. The rich garlic flavor is distinct but didn’t completely overwhelm. You do, however, have to be a fan of garlic to enjoy the rich, hearty broth.

Their housemade noodles are thinner than most, but you can taste their freshness. It’s something you don’t usually get at other ramen houses. It’s worth trying just to compare the difference in texture and flavor. Overall, Maru Ichi’s kuro ramen definitely wasn’t your usual bowl of ramen, and it was a nice change from the usual.

Garlic Pork Ramen w/corn from Dojo Ramen

Dojo Ramen - 805 South B St, San Mateo, 650-401-6568

This place is actually in the spot where the old Santa Ramen used to be, and is owned by the same folks. But the differences are vast.

They specialize in something called “sutamina” ramen, which literally means “stamina” ramen. I’d call it “extreme” ramen because of the loads of garlic, spice and heat (which you can request to be even spicier), amount of fixings, and sheer fattiness of the broth. It’s like ramen on steroids. Everything is bolder and richer. And don’t come here if you don’t like spicy food.

The meat that comes with the Garlic Pork broth variation is impressive. There were two big thick slices of pork belly that could serve as an appetizer at a four-star restaurant. I was kicking myself for not ordering extra. It was simply wonderful; fatty and meaty, just like the broth.

And the noodles were the most impressive of any of the other places I visited. Their texture was perfectly chewy without being too firm or too soggy, and had great flavor.

So even without the “sutamina” label, Dojo’s was my favorite bowl of ramen simply based on the strength of its noodles and broth, which is really the sign of a superior bowl of ramen no matter where you are.

*This article is cross-posted on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.

Foodies Have Their Pick of Online Coupon Sites

collage of online coupon websites

Courtesy of Bay Area Bites/Wendy Goodfriend

It’s no secret that online coupons are exploding in popularity, especially for foodies looking to spend less on a great meal. I’ve purchased more than my fair share. And a recent study released by BlogHer even states that 51% of all women online are using coupon sites like Groupon and LivingSocial.

However, a recent New York Times article discussed whether restaurants actually benefit from the online coupon trend. It seems to be a trade-off with some establishments finding them a positive marketing tool while others claiming the discounts do not boost profits.

Let’s breakdown the different types of online coupon sites recently popular with food lovers.

Sites like Scoutmob and Blackboard Eats offer users a discount passcode to various eateries that they can access on their mobile phones and use the next time they frequent that business. There’s no pre-purchasing a certificate or gift card, involved. Blackboard Eats, however, does charge $1 for each passcode you want, or a fee of $20 for unlimited access to their discounts for one year.

Restaurant.com allows you to purchase gift certificates to a large list of pre-determined restaurants affiliated with the site, at a huge discount. Many times, you can find a discount code online for up to 80% off the listed price, which can bring a $25 gift certificate down to $5. There are many restrictions, though, and they differ with each restaurant, so it pays to read the fine print before you confirm your order.

That brings us to sites like DealPulp, TownHog, LivingSocial and Groupon, which require you to pre-pay for a largely discounted deal at a variety of different merchants, including eateries. Deals are usually 50% off or more, and have less restrictions than a certificate from Restaurant.com. Deals change daily, so you have a limited amount of time to purchase it.

There have been horror stories of some merchants being overwhelmed by the popularity of their online coupon or discount, and not being able to handle the response. But the owner of Milkshake Werks, Leslie Widmann in Redwood Shores had a great experience working with one of these sites.

“Groupon helped us set up a structure that would be good for our business. It was a great experience for us. The result was almost instant increased awareness of our business. Even folks who didn’t purchase the offer came by because they didn’t know about us. Now many of them are regulars.”

But success in the world of online coupons for a merchant doesn’t necessarily translate into dollars. It’s more about marketing.

Widmann explains, “You have to look at it in terms of effective advertising and where you’re going to spend your ad and marketing dollars. We’ve done some print ads and the effect was very subtle. The urgency and instant name recognition of a site like Groupon sparks excitement and people feel like they have to take advantage of the deal right away.”

Scoutmob’s social media manager, Nicole Jayne, has a similar theory for why online coupon sites are so successful.

“In the past, for a local small business, the only advertising options they had were billboards, radio, television and print. There was no real way to measure the success of that type of marketing. Online coupon sites allow these businesses to measure the effectiveness of getting their name out there almost instantly and translate that into traffic and revenue.”

There’s also no doubt the popularity of these sites is due in part to the recession and unstable economy. However, couponing is no flash in the pan trend, says Denise Tanton, the senior community manager at BlogHer. She, herself, recently started writing a popular series of blog posts about extreme couponing. “I started noticing couponing blogs more and thought this was a new trend. But after researching, I realized it wasn’t new, it’s just that the media has caught on because of the recession. And now TLC has latched on to it with a new show.”

She says coupons have been popular since the seventies. Even with the slowly improving economy, coupons will never go away, just evolve.

“I think we’re going to see more e-coupons, texted and mobile coupons. As smartphones become more pervasive, we’ll see more companies offering digital and smartphone based coupons. Companies will get more control over their offers that way.”

As for the money-saving food lover like me, there are three rules I live by before I hit “purchase”:

  1. Would I actually go to this eatery, even if I didn’t have this coupon? If I don’t answer yes, I’m out.
  2. Did I read the fine print? Some of these places don’t allow you to use your offer on a Friday or Saturday, have restricted times, or have expiration dates that are sooner than you’d like.
  3. It’s not a deal, unless you actually use it.

Off the Grid is Making Street Food Mainstream

Off the Grid at Fort Mason Center
Off the Grid at Fort Mason Center. Photo courtesy of Off the Grid

Almost every food craving you could ever think of could be satisfied by at least one of the food trucks at any given Off the Grid location in San Francisco. In just a couple of years, OtG in Fort Mason has become the single largest weekly block party for foodies in the Bay Area.

But with almost every food category being represented there, is there fear of street food being a trend that’s reaching oversaturation? Off the Grid’s man-in-charge, Matt Cohen, says absolutely not.

“I think of Asia and how prolific street food is and how it’s a part of people’s lives. Will all of them launching right now stay in business? Probably not. But there’s a long way to go before we hit the saturation point. The rest of the world has experience with street food and we were so far behind here in the Bay Area. People had to think of them not as roach coaches, so we just had to catch up.”

Cohen fell in love with street food while living in Japan as an English teacher. When he returned to the States, he tried to start his own food truck in 2007. His plans got halted after the recession hit, and he decided to turn his experience with getting a mobile food business started, permits, rules and all, into a food truck consultant business in 2008. Eventually, the idea of Off the Grid got off the ground.

“My clients were asking how we could find better locations and how trucks could group together at different locations. There was obviously a need and it was clear that no one truck could handle the task alone. Off the Grid is more of a curation of these food trucks.”

There are now six Off the Grid (OtG) events throughout the week in San Francisco, and possible OtGs in San Mateo, the South Bay and East Bay expected to be announced within the next six weeks. But is all this street food too much?

“What we’ve learned is that the only ‘destination’ OtG is Fort Mason in the city, where people from all over the Bay Area come to visit. Most of the other current locations are driven by locals and their needs in those areas. We like to create and attract community in the places we go, and those spots seem to have a need. And we try to make sure we switch out the trucks so it’s never the same experience every time.”

Cohen says they have 30-40 food trucks on their roster right now, but expect that number to DOUBLE by the end of the season! And there’s no threat of too much culinary overlap, either.

“No one would argue that we don’t need more fusion taco trucks and cupcake trucks. But there are a number of burger, sandwich, soup, pizza and salad food trucks coming soon.”

It’s only been about four years since food carts, trucks and the like hit the Bay Area, but the category has seen a lot of evolution since 2007.

“I think we’re sort of entering a third wave with the food truck scene here. There were guerrilla street food carts for a while with the Magic Curry and Crème Brulee Karts. They brought a lot of attention to the fun and whimsy of eating on the street. Plus, they really knew how to cook.”

“Then the second coming was when those guys, along with formal chefs, saw a demand for it but realized you couldn’t make a living with underground street food. It’s not a long term job, it’s a hobby. And experienced restauranteurs liked the simplicity of the truck.”

“Now, there’s a third wave happening, where people are taking that blueprint of the mobile food truck and going in all sorts of directions, like Rib Whip and Le Truc. There’s a ton of new trucks coming out now.”

Street food may still seem new to us, but there’s no reason why it can’t be here to stay, much like it is in other parts of the world. Of course, Cohen has a business stake in it all, but he’s attracted to this type of culinary experience for personal reasons too.

“I love eating outside! We can all try different foods and sit outside, have a great time, run into friends, and it’s affordable. Your kids can run around, you can bring your dog, and run into people you haven’t seen in a while. It’s a community space.”

As for the food truck he bought in 2007, he’s still got it, and just recently decided to start renting it out.

“We actually just started using the truck I bought back in 2007. We’re not serving food off of it, but it’s great for demos for chefs who are considering starting their own street food business, or for someone who wants to try it out before considering buying one for themselves. And it’s got televisions attached to it so it’s great for broadcasting Giants games.”

Off the Grid
Various locations throughout San Francisco. Check out their website for exact days and locations.
@sfcarts
facebook.com/offthegridsf

Pizza and Pasta Rule at Osteria Coppa

Perfectly acceptable pasta and mediocre slices of pizza are easy to find.  If you haven’t had a decent interpretation of either in a while, you can easily forget what a great version tastes like.

Let’s just say I’ve now been reminded.

Osteria Coppa in San Mateo is owned by the folks who run Sam’s Chowder House in Half Moon Bay; a Peninsula institution.  Executive Chef Chanan Kamen takes pride in his handmade pastas and hand-stretched pizzas, and it shows.  His resume includes Michelin-starred Quince and Jardinere in San Francisco, and Picholine and Tabla in New York City.

Osteria Coppa is a farm-to-table restaurant, meaning they use organic, locally sourced, artisanal ingredients.  They cure their salumi in-house, fire up hand-made pizzas in their stone ovens, and artfully make their own pastas.

I paid two visits to the restaurant and each time focused solely on the pizzas and pastas, the latter of which has been getting some positive mentions in both the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News and The San Francisco Examiner, lately.

Braised Radicchio, Panchetta and Aged Balsamico Pizza

I tried both the house-made sausage, speck and crimini mushroom pizza, as well as the pancetta, braised radicchio and aged balsamico.  Both thin-crust, Neapolitan-style pies were fantastic for this simple reason: the fresh, creative topping combinations worked perfectly on an exceptional crust.

The flavors on both pizzas were well conceived, but I was particularly impressed with the pancetta, braised radicchio and aged balsamico pie.  It was one of the best pizzas I have had in a while.  I fell in love with the wonderfully tangy sweetness of the balsamico.  It made me wonder why I hadn’t tasted balsamic vinegar on a pizza before!  It was the perfect match for the meaty, fatty goodness of the of pancetta bits.  And the radicchio was an edgier stand-in for the typical red onions.

My dining companion at one point declared, “Even the crust is great on this pizza!”  The crust was perfectly crisp and charred on the bottom, pillowy soft and sweet on the inside.  If you order just one pie while you’re there, this is the one.

As far as Osteria Coppa’s pastas go, the San Jose Mercury News has called them “exquisite”, and even named the Tagliatelle Bolognese one of the Top Ten Dishes of 2010.

Tagliatelle Bolognese

There are plenty of places that make their own pastas, but they either make the mistake of overcooking it so that it becomes mushy (fresh pasta should take no longer than a few minutes to cook), or the flavor is way too doughy and floury, without enough focus on fresh, quality ingredients.

There’s no risk of either here.  Preparation, ingredients and technique all have equal importance.  The Fettuccine Marinara with cauliflower and broccoli rabe was perfectly al dente, and the noodles were delicious with a wonderful eggy, almost buttery flavor.  The freshness of the vegetables was obvious and actually made the dish seem light.

But I can confirm that the recent attention on the Tagliatelle Bolognese is well warranted.  The dish was nothing short of fabulous with its smooth, rich pork and deliciously creamy sauce.  And once again, the noodles themselves were the star in both texture and taste.  But for all the richness of this dish, it never seemed overly heavy.

Blood Orange Lemonade

Aside from the pizzas and pastas, the house-made blood orange lemonade is more proof of the inventive items on the menu.  It’s a fun twist on the typical lemonade and it shows how the restaurant takes full advantage of their access to great fruits and vegetables.  They use unconventional ingredients and combine them in a way that makes you feel like every item is fully realized.

Service is casual but expert.  There’s no pretentiousness from the staff, and families are welcome.  In the Bay Area, that’s a welcome change for a restaurant of this caliber.  They’ve done a successful job of creating a warm, sophisticated yet easy vibe here.  Chef Kaman was an expert pasta maker while at Quince, and the peninsula is lucky he’s decided to bring his four-star talents to suburbia.