Tomodachi Sushi Bistro

26 02 2010
Atmosphere: 4/5   ♦   Service: 4/5   ♦   Food Quality: 4/5   ♦   Value: 3/5
Times Visited: One  ♦   Will I Return?: Absolutely
___________

When I first had a good look at Tomodachi, located between Sizzler and the random Chinese restaurant on the corner of Middle on Hesperian, I could have sworn it was not there.  I’ve lived in Hayward for many years and have never seen Tomodachi.  My sister, in response to the suggestion of having dinner there, insisted that we were thinking of the Sizzler, just as I did.  I’m not sure why it blends into that long-lived Toys R Us shopping center, but it sort of just gets lost in the mess to me.

Which is why I need to post about it.  This place should not be overlooked.  It should be bursting with business on every night.  In my opinion, Hayward has a deficiency in the way of good Japanese restaurants.  I do not claim to have patronized them all (if you know a good one, tell me!), but the ones I have attended were less than impressive (save Naked Fish, which was decent).  Tomodachi has taken the lead by a mile so far.

Provided the information that my Grandparents used to occasionally dine here, I thought there must be no semblance to the Japanese food that I’m used to eating (they most often prefer “down home American” and do not typically eat any sort of ethnic food – including Mexican and Pizza).  I figured the decor would be “run-down diner”, and that the food would be a disgrace to our Pacific neighbors.  Needless to say I was wrong, wrong, wrong and the place was great.

Interior of Tomodachi in Hayward.

The facility is quite large.  The dining area is open and classy with sturdy tables, dark wood chairs, casual but fun string lights around the windows, and a variety of seating choices.  This is one of the things that’s so fun about Tomodachi.  Like the plain Americans we are, we have the choice to sit in a standard table or booth.  Nice, but no big deal.  If we’re feeling more sassy, we may choose to eat at the sushi counter or in a raised floor area where the table is standard height, but we sit on the raised floor and our feet dangle into a space below the raised floor (it’s almost like the traditional Tatami seating, but far more comfortable).  If we’re feeling particularly traditional (and/or masochistic), we may also sit in one of the Tatami rooms which are individual rooms separated by nifty sliding rice paper doors where shoes are removed and the seats are the tatami floor mats with a low table at which to eat (in my experience, eating here mostly leaves me in a state of constant wonder as to where the heck to put my pesky legs).

Standard seating area at Tomodachi.

My family chose to sit in the more comfortable version of the traditional seating and dangled our shoe-less footsies down into the open well beneath our table.

Complementary appetizer of edamame with non-complementary order of sake.

We then had a gander at the menu which provided many options.  There is a wide range of Japanese fare on offer at Tomodachi, no doubt something for all levels of Japanese-food-eaters.  Hence why my Grandparents could dine here – I have no doubt that they weren’t looking at the sushi menu.  There are appetizers (and you receive the complementary equivalent to chips and salsa – edamame), soups, salads, tempura, grilled meats, sushi, sashimi, donburi, bento boxes, nabemono, and dessert.   Quite a lot to choose from.

Godzilla roll, Super Dynamite roll, and Redwood roll...yum and double yum!!

I had a difficult time deciding, but eventually ordered the Redwood roll: spicy salmon inside with tuna sashimi topping, while the boyfriend ordered two rolls which I believe were Godzilla and Super Dynamite.  We also had orders of grilled chicken, chicken skewers, and a bento box with chicken teriyaki and California rolls.  Aside from looking great, as Japanese restaurants are wont to do, the food got pretty good reviews from our table as well.  All three of the rolls were excellent and the chicken received all thumbs up from across the table.

Clockwise from upper left: bento box, chicken skewers, grilled teriyaki chicken, and shrimp gyoza appetizer.

The service was great.  Apparently the owner is actually Chinese (faithfully detected by Mom’s half Japanese boyfriend), but it certainly doesn’t matter to me who it is making me great food.  The staff was very friendly and polite, nothing took too long or was delivered incorrectly, and I can’t wait to return!  Thank goodness for good Japanese in Hayward!





Banchero’s

19 02 2010
Atmosphere: 2/5   ♦   Service: 3/5   ♦   Food Quality: 3/5   ♦   Value: 3/5
Times Visited:  A million   ♦   Will I Return?: Anything for Family
___________

You know how every town has that restaurant that’s been around since the beginning of time?  Banchero’s is that restaurant in Hayward (one of them, at least).  The painted exterior boasts that this place was established in 1948, and I will not contest them on that.  I’m also fairly certain that the façade, the tables and chairs, along with every fixture and most of the gracious and wise employees are from right around then as well.  And, let’s face it, they’re all hanging in there.

I have to grade Banchero’s on a different scale than other establishments.  This is not a place that I, of my own accord, would probably ever patronize.  It’s a restaurant from a bygone era of leather booths, dim lighting, dingy tile ceilings, and uncreative food.  “Modern” is not in the vocabulary of the Banchero’s crew, and they’re working with that (though, curiously, they do have a pretty nice website).  In my own personal world, this place has about the ambiance of a dentist’s office, but when you enter Banchero’s, you’re no longer in your own world anymore.  You’re whisked away to a bar and restaurant whose heyday was 50 years in the past.

When Banchero’s was built, there was no Cheesecake Factory.  There wasn’t Applebees, or P.F. Chang’s, or even Olive Garden.  Can you imagine?  The very idea of “chain” restaurants may not have even existed yet (along with fire and possibly the wheel), so each local restaurant facility was left to their own devices as far as interior design, menu, and all the standard protocols of a money-making establishment.  And so, you get places like Banchero’s, where they made food that people liked and functioned well enough to make a bit of cash.  The thing is, there just aren’t many from that era that have made it into this century.

But Banchero’s has, which says something about the place in general.  Clearly they have a loyal clientele that spans more than one generation, they offer something that people respect and desire, and they function well enough to keep offering these things without undermining their own intents.  To own and operate a restaurant for sixty-some years, (assumingly) keeping much of the same decor, menu, and general appearance is a feat that few restaurants can claim to have conquered.

The interior of Banchero's restaurant in Hayward.

Now, what do I personally think of the food?  I’m not the hugest fan.  It’s diner style – the thick white porcelain plates with rounded edges, no garnishes, heavy with butter and sauce.  The choices are steak and chicken and (thankfully) pasta and offer nothing particularly vegetarian friendly nor terribly creative.  In short – it’s not my style.  But that’s not to say that flocks of people don’t arrive every night salivating over the ravioli, spaghetti, and rib-eye steaks. There is something about this place that keeps the people coming back week after week, decade after decade.

Chicken Marsala at Banchero's.

One fun thing about Banchero’s (that I can’t fully enjoy as a non-meat-eater) is all the stuff that comes with a dinner entrée.  You think bread sticks and all-you-can-eat salad are good at Olive Garden?  Try this: if you order a main meal that isn’t pasta, you receive salad, barley soup (yummy), hors d’oeuvres (olives, pickles, peppers, cauliflower, salami), spaghetti, and ravioli all on community platters for the table to share.  That’s before your meal – then you get a fillet of sole or chicken liver or whatever you ordered after all that!  And also an after-dinner ice cream included as well – choice of vanilla, orange sherbet, or spumoni.  And, don’t forget that you have to order the garlic bread (half or whole loaf) to help carb-up the whole meal (it’s delicious, can’t mess up garlic bread).  I typically order just soup and salad, as those are the most veggie friendly/healthy options, and since I can’t seem to manage to eat those appetizers and a whole fish meal also.

The interesting thing about Banchero’s is that they are filling a niche that I didn’t really think existed anymore.  There’s a reason that the diners of today don’t have off-white walls with nautical paintings from 19-hundred-and-something and lumpy leather booths.  We do the mood lighting, the color matching, the professionally theme-decorated nick knacks strategically placed around the walls for a reason – it looks nicer.  The art of restaurant decoration has been perfected and you and I are fortunate enough (or unfortunate enough, depending on how you feel about it) to be able to enjoy these seemingly elaborately decorated facilities for the price of a standard dinner.  And though I’m describing chain restaurants here, I’m really just harping on the evolution of ambiance as a key role in a patron’s enjoyment of any setting.  Thoughtful, classy, modern, and creative are the new decors of choice, and we now have the ability to enjoy this in almost any restaurant.

For Banchero’s to hang on to it’s old world style, it’s old fashioned menu (I ask you, where else can you order Sauteed Chicken Livers, Ground Steak, Swiss Chard, or Spumoni Ice Cream?), and the same mid-1900’s decor and still maintain a profitable, competitive business is completely amazing.  Kudos to you, Banchero’s, I wish you many more years of success.

Note: To any of my family members reading this, please be neither surprised nor offended at this review.  I don’t mind going to Banchero’s as it makes me happy to see you happy.  And I don’t care if the food isn’t for me specifically, you probably already knew that anyway (“you’re only having soup and salad?”).  We can still go there and I’ll never say a word of complaint; I just like to hang out with you.  :)

Banchero's Italian Dinners on Urbanspoon





Oliveto (Cafe)

15 02 2010
Atmosphere: 3/5   ♦   Service: 3/5   ♦   Food Quality: 3/5   ♦   Value: 2/5
Times Visited: One  ♦   Will I Return?: Not Likely
___________

Oliveto is a fancy cafe and restaurant in Oakland, just off Highway 24, that has a bit of a reputation.  It’s a bit fancier than I normally shell out for,  but my friends had heard good things so we went to check it out.

The facility is on a corner lot on College Avenue just near a Bart station and it’s signage does not lend itself well to being seen in the daytime.  We arrived in three separate cars and no one saw it on the first try.  It has a larger (though I didn’t see the extent) restaurant on the 2nd floor and a very small cafe on the ground floor with an even smaller amount of outdoor seating.  We had wanted to try the restaurant proper but found that it was not open for lunch on Sundays.  So we settled for the cafe.

Oliveto's downstairs cafe.

I had a gander at the menu on their website before we left and noticed that it was both pricey and fancy shmancy.  The cafe is slightly cheaper than the restaurant, but both offer menu items described with unknown Italian words and a freshly printed menu daily.  Upon arrival (after finding the place), we were seated in their teeny tiny downstairs cafe and ordered our foods of choice.

First, as I mentioned the menu has fancy words on it.  This place is for real foodies or people who like asking dumb questions to their waiter.  Either you know what coppa de testa, biancio invernale, and panforte di siena are, or you get to sit there holding the menu up to the waitress for ten minutes pointing and mispronouncing.  It seems like an odd choice to me, but, again, I’m not used to this kind of class.

Oliveto's lunch menu.

The menu in general is nice – freshly printed for this day only with choices of appetizers, pizzas, paninis, and dessert.  Even though I didn’t know what many of the dishes were, I was looking forward to eating one of them.  There didn’t seem to be a whole lot of veggie choices, and the pizza seemed overpriced, so I ordered a vegetable and cheese panini (which was no doubt described with far more complexity on the menu).  My friends ordered (in layman’s terms): a turkey panini, a sloppy Joe, a tuna sandwich, and a sweet potato appetizer.

The sweet potato appetizers (2 people actually ordered them) were not particularly enjoyed by our table.  Both of my friends had ordered the cauliflower appetizer, but relinquished to the sweet potato when informed that there was no more cauliflower.  Keep in mind that this is a “normal”, unrefined person passing judgment here, but this was really just overcooked sweet potatoes with green raisins in olive oil.  It was something that was more of a one-or-two-bites dish rather than a six-dollar-appetizer plate.

Fried ceci beans with sweet potato appetizer behind.

The other appetizer ordered was fried ceci beans, also ordered by two persons at the table.  They thought it sounded interesting, and, let’s face it, it’s fried so it can’t really be bad.  We soon found that ceci beans are in fact garbanzo beans.  It was quite a let down even though they weren’t bad.  Quote from Friend #1, “Why wouldn’t they just tell me they were garbanzo beans?”.  Indeed, friend, indeed.

Veggie panini (left), tuna sandwich (right), turkey panini (behind), sloppy Joe (back right).

The “main” meals were pretty good, but also very small.  My veggie panini was actually quite good, while boyfriend’s tuna sandwich was a bit boring.  Friend #2’s turkey sandwich was said to be delicious, though I did not have any for obvious reasons.  Same goes for F#2’s Boyfriend’s sloppy Joe.  Even though the portions were small, I was still relatively satisfied afterward.

Bread pudding with orange sauce, oatmeal cookies, and honey ice cream were ordered for dessert and were all relatively good.  The ice cream was salty, but unique, the cookies were good but not terribly special, and the bread pudding converted me immediately.  There was some sort of custard in the pudding that was delicious and creme brulee-esque, and the orange sauce was just basically delicious sugary syrup.  This was my favorite item in the whole meal, for sure.  And I ate half of it even though I ordered the oatmeal cookies…

Oatmeal cookies with bread pudding behind.

Overall, this place wasn’t really my style: too fancy and pretentious and way too expensive for what you get.  The restaurant may be different, but I have a feeling the prices just become outrageous and the food is not a whole lot more impressive.  While good, I’d personally steer clear of Oliveto and go grab some delicious and cheap Indian or Ethiopian in nearby Berkeley or Oakland.





Pyzano’s Pizzeria

11 02 2010
Atmosphere: 3/5   ♦   Service: 3/5   ♦   Food Quality: 4/5   ♦   Value: 3/5
Times Visited: A Few  ♦   Will I Return?: Probably
___________

Pyzano’s has somewhat of a cult following in the Hayward/Castro Valley area, and it always has.  I’m not sure when this place opened up, but it’s not a chain and it’s owned by 9 Time World Pizza Champion Tony Gemignani, who has tossed pizzas with the likes of Jay Leno, Oprah, Emeril, and all over the Food Network.  He’s apparently quite good.

But with all this hype came a bit of a letdown for me.  I haven’t been to Pyzano’s in years and forgot that the atmosphere of the place is just your run of the mill pizza joint.  But the prices aren’t – you’re paying for gourmet here for sure.   I thought (read: was hoping) that with all the fancy pizza twirling, there’d be something more than order-at-the-counter, standard-leather-booths-and-rickety-tables, serve-yourself-soda-machine, and grocery-store-floor-tiling.  Seriously, I thought they might have put some effort into posh, above-and-beyond decor, and maybe even table service.  Apparently that’s not their style – moving on.

Inside Pyzano's Pizza in Castro Valley.

After I reconciled with my idea of what the place looked like, we ordered at the counter like the heathens we are, and sat down at the only remaining booth next to a table of children celebrating one or the other’s birthday.  Nothing adds to a gourmet pizza dining experience like a handful of screaming children.  At least they were screaming in Spanish so I could ignore them easier via not knowing what they’re saying.

The counter from which one orders at Pyzano's.

My spinach salad came first and it was plain but tasty.  Spinach, feta, cherry tomatoes and a simple oil and balsamic vinegar dressing makes for a nice, simple salad.  Our pizza arrived shortly thereafter; we ordered a New York Style “Little Italy” pizza with four cheeses, tomato sauce, and a thin NY crust.  I’ll honestly say that it was pretty dang good.  The crust was thin and tasty (but not crispy) and the four cheeses were delicious.  I can’t recall my feelings on the last pizza that I had there, so I’m only discussing my experience on this particular pizza.

New York Style "Little Italy" pizza at Pyzano's.

In summary, the pizza was good.  I was sub-par to me as far as my expectations based on all the ridiculous pizza awards, but if they hadn’t told me all that I probably would have just thought it was good pizza with no reservations.  Same goes for the atmosphere; I expected something more than they offer, but what is there is just fine.  The cost also seems to be a bit inflated due to all the good press, but, again, it is high-quality pizza and many people do love the heck out of it.  So, close your ears to all the hype and just go enjoy a decent pizza in Castro Valley.

___
Also see this review on Urbanspoon.com
Pyzano's Pizzeria on Urbanspoon





California Gyro and Pizza

6 02 2010
Atmosphere: 3/5   ♦   Service: 4/5   ♦   Food Quality: 3/5   ♦   Value: 4/5
Times Visited: Two  ♦   Will I Return?: Yes…(it’s close to where I work)
___________

This seemingly tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant is just near the corner of Mission and Industrial in Hayward, not 200 feet from the Burger King that’s been on the north-west side of that corner for a very long time.  It used to be a plethora of other restaurants that apparently haven’t made it to 2010 for one reason or another.  I surmise that one reason is likely location – it’s just in a bad place.  There aren’t hardly any businesses around (especially since the cherished Holiday Bowl across the street closed its doors a few years ago), and it’s not really a “take a walk around the block” sort of residential area.  Hence there are few folks in that area looking for food that doesn’t have a drive thru.

That’s my feeling anyway, maybe I’m totally wrong.  The fact remains that California Gyro and Pizza has moved in and is hopefully able to hold down the fort.  From the outside, I thought this place was going to be tiny, with very few tables if any at all.  Upon arrival, I found I was wrong.  The place is rather large and could easily accommodate over 50 people sitting, and far more standing (they do birthday parties for kids, say the advertisements at the tables).

Inside California Gyro and Pizza at Mission & Industrial in Hayward.

It’s an order/pick-up at the counter type deal with the menu posted above the cashier.  The man who has greeted us the two times Dad and I have gone was extremely nice and helpful, offering advice and descriptions of their dishes and being generally kind and courteous.  I swear, a helpful owner/employee makes all the difference in the world in a place like this.

The first time we went, I ordered a vegetarian gyro and Dad got a small beef shawarma.  The veggie gyro consists of some sort of mushroom/veggie mush that looks a heck of a lot like meat, but upon closer inspection did not appear to be (thank goodness, that would not be good).  It comes in a gyro bread wrap (like a pita) with tomatoes, lettuce, and cucumber sauce, and with two tiny plastic ramekins full of hummus and more cucumber sauce.  For about a dollar more than the sandwich alone, you can get fries and a drink included also.

Veggie gyro meal at California Gyro and Pizza.

The shawarmas are similar to gyros except that instead of a thicker pita wrap, it’s more like a tortilla.  The shawarma comes with meat (I assume you could get veggie too, though I’m not sure if it’s on the menu), grilled onions, lettuce, chopped up tomatoes, pickles, and olives.  Dad thought it was pretty good and didn’t even complain about the extra toppings (he’s not usually one for “things” on his food, just give him the meat and the bun/wrap/tortilla!).  And, the size “small” shawarma was pretty dang filling.  Again, the meal includes fries and a drink too, quite a large meal for a good price.

Beef shawarma meal at California Gyro and Pizza.

The second time around I tried the falafel sandwich which was pretty good, but not nearly as good as the falafel I make at home.  But, what are you going to do – it’s like $6 so I can’t ask for too terribly much.  It was good and the sides of sauces made it stand out.  There were a good number of veggie dishes on the menu, which was both nice and surprising.  In addition to the veggie gyro and falafel sandwich there is also a vegetarian pizza and, if you eat seafood, fish sandwich, fish and chips, and shrimp dishes.  There’s also a greek salad, though I’m not sure how big it is.  It’s not fancy, it’s not fine dining, but it’s better for you than fast food (while still indeed being fast) and it’s a nice lunch for a good price in South Hayward.  I recommend giving it a try if you’re in the area.

Additionally, it’s nice that they try to help you out with Greek pronunciations:

Can you say "yee-ros"?





La Piñata

1 02 2010
Atmosphere: 3/5   ♦   Service: 3/5   ♦   Food Quality: 4/5   ♦   Value: 4/5
Times Visited: One   ♦   Will I Return?: Sure
___________

La Piñata opened its first restaurant in Hayward in 1983 and has since expanded to five other Bay Area locations.  Apparently they are doing quite well.  We patronized the original Hayward location the other day, and were a bit surprised by what we found.

This restaurant is tiny.  Like, the size of my mom’s living room tiny.  I counted 14 tables in the whole joint, and that’s with very little walking room in between.  When we arrived it was packed.  Note to readers, 6.30pm on a Friday is actually quite busy for La Piñata.  Tons of people already seemed to have gotten the message and were traipsing in and out procuring take-away.  Good call.  But we were committed to a dine-in dinner, so we stood in wait for a table.

This is how I learned to do the La Piñata shuffle.  There is no semblance of a waiting area, and there really isn’t even a place for a single person to stand and not be in the way of waiters rushing to tables and patrons meandering over to the bathroom.  We stood smack in the middle of the room, eerily looming over adjacent tables not two feet away, and tactfully avoiding wait staff and other customers with a sort of two and fro shuffle every 15 or so seconds.  It was an odd introduction to be sure.

After about six minutes we were approached by the hostess (the waiters paid us no mind) who told us that a table would likely be ready in about ten more minutes.  We proceeded to re-station ourselves by the door where we hovered over the shoulders of different dining customers, scurrying out of the way each time the door opened, and still doing a sort of tango when a waiter rushed by.  The hostess was indeed correct in her time estimate, however; a table in the quietest corner of the place (which is, notably, less than ten feet from the noisiest area) was ready in about ten minutes.

The crowded, tiny interior of La Piñata, Hayward.

We then were able to tend to the reason in which we came – which was not, for the record, to wait awkwardly in too-small aisleways – and had a look at the menu.  To be honest, most Mexican restaurants have approximately the same menu.  It’s not like other types of food that have a standard set of ingredients and like to change things up a bit (Italian, Indian, American).  Most Mexican restaurants seem to have about 90% of the same stuff as the rest of the restaurants.  This always disappoints me a bit as I like a nice surprise.

But, I was prepared for the menu having looked online before going, and selected a mildly pricey shrimp in garlic sauce dish.  It came with the standard rice and beans, corn tortillas (delicious, by the way), and, oddly, a side salad.  We’re all accustomed to the Mexican meal side salad – about ten flakes of lettuce, some grated carrot bits on top, a few cubes of sliced tomato and possibly a splash of dressing if you’re lucky.  This was above and beyond the call of Mexican Salad Duty – half my plate was covered with mixed iceberg, carrots, cucumber, beets and slathered a bit too generously with thousand island (my other option had been ranch).  And all that without a mention of this inclusion on the menu.  Odd? A bit.  Undesired?  Not at all.

Dinner at La Piñata: Shrimp and salad with rice, beans and tortillas, and burrito/enchilada combo meal behind.

Boyfriend went with a veggie burrito/cheese enchilada combo with rice and beans. It was reasonably priced (something around $8) and was quite filling.  He enjoyed the veggie burrito because it had fresh guac, but the ingredients were a bit disproportionately organized throughout the burrito – in engineer-speak, it was neither homogeneous nor isotropic.  I do recognize though that it’s hard to make broad statements since veggie burrito eaters all seem to have different opinions about this particular food item.  Overall he was pleased, so all was well.

I thought my food was pretty good, though it was obviously too much for me to actually eat.  I should have realized beforehand that my garlic shrimp would come drowning in a bowl of butter sauce, but this was nothing that a quick fork-lifesaver couldn’t fix (extracting shrimps from said sauce and proceeding to de-tail and eat to avoid the 1/2 cup of butter that came with my dish).  Rice: good.  Beans: good.  Corn tortillas: really good.  Salsa: a bit too hot for me, but still good.

As for the corn tortillas (which they must make there – there’s no way those are store-bought), Boyfriend noted something rather interesting to me about an alternative way for me to eat this always-awkward side dish.  For some reason when tortillas are provided alongside my meal, I’m never sure what to do with them (excluding fajita meals).  I always have the urge to carefully pack a nice ratio of each of the other food items on the table into a tortilla and eat it that way.  But I don’t like to eat food packed into a tortilla.  It’s difficult and messy and I’d rather apportion each item individually instead of rely on whatever ratio happens to fall into my next tortilla bite.  In Mexico, apparently, you just roll up the tortilla and eat it by itself, alongside the other side dishes.  It worked fabulously and was delicious as a stand-alone side, especially with a bit of shrimp, rice, and beans already waiting in my mouth.  Good idea!

The rest of the meal went smoothly: quick and efficient service, nice waiter, good food, and a bit more breathing room when the place cleared out a little after we’d been there a half hour or so.  I’d certainly try it again, and would check out the other locations as well; apparently they differ quite a bit in ambiance and size.

Chips and salsa at La Pinata.








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