La Casita Chilanga, Redwood City
Look beyond the tortilla and embrace full-on bread with a Mexican torta. Each torta at this shoebox-sized specialist could easily feed two hungry adults and comes on a round baguette style bread called a bolillo. Tortas come with avocado, tomatoes, onion, queso fresco, jalapenos, and a spicy aioli. The messy Cubana Torta ($10.36) involves ham, pork leg, sausage, breaded steak, and melted cheese. Still hungry? Since the cafe is focused on cuisine from Mexico City, also take the time to sample the huarache—a griddled masa cake reminiscent of a miniature sandal that serves as the platform for various toppings.
Cafe Borrone, Menlo Park
Café Borrone is the closest equivalent Silicon Valley has to the great cafés of the world—an important community gathering spot with excellent food and drink any time of day or night. The constantly changing Paninis at lunch are a highlight, thanks in no small part to the moist, homemade focaccia studded with rosemary.
My guilty pleasure is the signature Café Borrone ($3.70), essentially a chocolate heavy mocha crowned with housemade whipped cream. Forget your pre-conceived pale Reddi-Whip ideas of whipped cream—this is thick pastry cream the consistency of cake frosting, full of strong vanilla notes and just slightly sweet. The cream is elegantly piped from a pastry bag atop the drink, then finished with freshly grated cinnamon and toasted almonds. Enjoy it outside on Borrone's sprawling patio.
Orenchi Ramen, Santa Clara
The specialty at this four year-old Santa Clara shop is Tonkotsu Ramen ($9), as vivid and intense as the juiciest pork chop you’ve ever had, but with levity from the addition of chicken stock, and intrigue from what almost tastes like a touch of curry. The Tsukemen, though (plain noodles with a vinegar-pork dipping sauce), is the real show-stopper. The dipping sauce itself is even porkier than the tonkotsu and has just the right amount of soy sauce to be pleasantly sweet and not overly salty. It's a great pairing with the chewier chilled noodles. This is my pick for the premier bowl amidst stiff competition. You’ll find Orenchi in the rear of a desolate mini mall’s parking lot with dozens of people waiting outside ready to slurp.
Madras Cafe, Sunnyvale
The dosa artistry at this no-frills South Indian vegetarian restaurant is quite spectacular. There are thick cones filled with cilantro and curried potatoes, or two-foot long crispy paper dosas ($6.50) as brittle as the thinnest of crackers. Dosas (essentially rice and lentil crêpes) in myriad forms and uthappams (thicker rice pancakes) are the specialties. Dip away in the accompanying sauces and chutneys for a mini Indian smorgasbord lunch (my favorite pairing is the tomato and vegetable dosa with the spicy coconut chutney). For Northern Indian favorites, Amber India nearby in Mountain View is the gold standard.
Tamarine, Palo Alto
Walking inside this decade-old dining room feels as if you entered the heart of a Manhattan power dining scene. For its unique take on contemporary Vietnamese cuisine, Tamarine deserves just as much attention as the famous Slanted Door in San Francisco. The dish to get is the Lemongrass Sea Bass ($28), coated in a pungent garlic and lemongrass mix and paired with a refreshing cold mango and cilantro glass noodle salad. Alternate bites of the moist fish with the sweet mango for a striking sweet-sour combo. I'm also a fan of the seemingly simple recent addition of greaseless Rock Shrimp Tempura ($14) on a wakame, avocado, and puffed rice noodle salad. The tamari-sesame dressing is what's really worth noting here, tying the various elements together with a rustic, slightly spicy flavor that calls to mind a decades-aged balsamic vinegar.
La Bodeguita del Medio, Palo Alto
Named for the Hemingway-frequented Havana institution that claims to have invented the Mojito, La Bodeguita's extensive rum selection is their claim to fame, though the Cuban and Latin food doesn't play second fiddle. Shrimp Con Majo Toasts with piquillo and habañero peppers ($12) have a pleasant heat, and the turmeric and coconut milk-fortified Seafood Curry ($22) is rich and filling. Hemingway himself would almost certainly enjoy the backyard cigar lounge with a Zacapa 23-year aged rum and some shredded pork empanadas ($11).
Special Occasion Dining
When it comes time for special occasion dining, David Kinch’s Manresa in Los Gatos is the region’s unanimous winner, drawing gastro-tourists from all corners of the globe to this quaint foothills town. All of Manresa's produce is sourced from nearby Love Apple Farms, providing inspiration for Kinch's hyper-seasonal tasting menu dishes, such as the signature "Into the Vegetable Garden," with upwards of 40 different vegetable elements in one composed salad.
Further north in Menlo Park, Madera at the Rosewood Sand Hill is an excellent destination for breathtaking views of the Pacific Range, coupled with a top notch wine list and Peter Rudolph's spin on seasonal California cuisine. Their new dessert program from pastry chef Melissa Root is impressive, too.