Review: Stacks Restaurant

Located in the heart of old downtown Campbell, Stacks cheerfully serves up such a delish, reasonably priced breakfast that you’ll easily understand why the small, four-strong chain has been winning Best-Breakfast awards throughout the Bay Area for over a decade.

Enduring the long wait inside for seating is pleasant torture as aromatic dishes float by. Crispy, golden, old-fashioned Belgian waffles, piled high with whipped cream, and topped with fresh fruit or sprinkled with rich and decadent, ground Ghirardelli chocolate, arrive at a nearby table. Mounds of thick, cinnamon-vanilla French toast with ramekins of warm apple, raspberry, or strawberry compote on the side are then delivered to their neighbors.

Photo © GRS Restaurant Group, Inc.

But pancakes are what gives Stacks its moniker, and the restaurant serves up a healthy variety of steaming, syrup-soaking specialties: blueberry, banana, raisin-walnut, and wheat germ. Can’t decide? Order up the Lumberjacks to get a generous portion of everything but the proverbial kitchen sink in a full stack of luscious pancakes.

In addition to the traditional dishes you’d expect from a breakfast restaurant, Stacks dishes up homemade sweet crepes, hot and filling skillet platters, and fresh fruit breakfast smoothies. Of course, you can order from a large selection of meaty half-pound burgers, grilled sandwiches, and gourmet salads, too.

If you’re looking for a fast, in-and-out bite to eat, the worst time to visit Stacks is on Sunday morning; the wait can take up to an hour, and finding a nearby place to park the car can be impossible. But if you are not in a hurry, the best time to visit Stacks and also get the flavor of the little town is on the same Sunday morning — a popular, local farmers’ market manifests weekly a block away from the restaurant. Put your name down on the waiting list when you first arrive, sample some complimentary coffee, then shop to your heart’s content at the market. Stacks has a little-known policy: if they call your party while you are out perusing the town, you will not lose your place in line. Even if you come back two hours later, your party will be seated when next available!

Stacks blends the elegance of mildly over-the-top Parisian-style decor (complete with faux street lamps and an over-abundance of silk flowers) with the earthy practicality and functionality of a ’50s diner. Seating is roomy and comfortable — except at the counter, where leg-room is insufficient. Service, thanks to the friendly waitstaff, is responsive and accommodating. After all, Stacks’ motto is “If we can, we will!”

Review: St. John’s Restaurant

Don’t be fooled by the divine-sounding name and the halo-adorning monk on the streetside signage; St. John’s Restaurant ain’t no frilly salad bar or frou-frou, scone-serving tearoom. Since 1981, the popular bar and grill has been dishing up heart attacks waiting to happen — high-fat, high-salt, high-calorie, grilled foods served in paper-lined plastic baskets and eaten by hand.

Most of St. John’s extensive menu is a celebration of unhealthy (but heavenly) food, revolving around variations of three hearty and satisfying plates: hamburgers, chicken sandwiches, and Philly cheesesteaks. The aptly described “Best Burgers in Town” start at a third of a pound and work their way up to “The Big Daddy”, a massive one-pounder. Lunchtime on weekdays offers daily sandwich specials that range from tender pulled pork to St. John’s famous barbequed tri-tip. A golden-fried, salty side-order of “Just Cut Fries” (larger than shoestrings, but smaller than wedges) has just the right amount of skin and the perfect crispy crunch. Want to risk your health even further? Heaping appetizers such as the artery-clogging, sour-cream-and-chive-topped bacon cheese fries are to die for.

The elderly, the infirm, and others with a weak disposition are warned to stay away from “Beg For Mercy”, a extra topping applicable to burgers, chicken sandwiches, and cheesesteaks. Toasted serrano peppers, chipotle mayonnaise, and pepper jack cheese smother your meat of choice and provide a tangy zip about three times hotter than jalapeño peppers or Tabasco® sauce. A few other pungent options include roasted garlic and bleu cheese (my personal favorite), hot jalapeños, Cajun spice, and hickory barbeque. With all the available aromatic zing, don’t expect to get to first base if you bring a date here, not without a bucket of breath mints — bland food is just not an option. Children have an out, however: the choice of plain cheeseburger, grilled cheese, or cheese quesadilla.

Wash everything down with mai-tais, daiquiris, or piña coladas, or choose from one of thirteen brews on tap available from the saloon bar in the back. The old-West feel of the bar is a bit incongruous with the slightly Alpine-style decor of the rest of the eatery, but it’s a fun and friendly place to hang out. The stained-glass skylights, sporadically located throughout the restaurant and artificially lit with fluorescence, add a nice, warm glow to the dark, wood-covered walls and ceilings. Booths are big and roomy, although the tables for two are a bit small. When the weather is nice, take advantage of the ample picnic-table seating outside in the patio area.

The original St. John’s is located in Cupertino, and the same owners also created the popular Armadillo Willy’s BBQ restaurants. Located off Lawrence Expressway, St. John’s second location (my hang-out of choice) is just south of Highway 101. There is no left-turn lane on southbound Lawrence Expressway at the small drive leading to the restaurant (directly across from Kern Avenue) so you’ll have to make a U-turn at Arques Avenue. The small business park has lots of parking, but it’s often busy — and the longer it takes to find a parking spot, the longer the chuck wagon ordering line is likely to be.

Sinful St. John’s is definitely worth the wait.

Review: House of Chu Chinese Cuisine

At least once a month my wife tells me that if I could eat Asian food every day, I would. I daresay she’s right. I have feasted on all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ in Vienna, Thai curries in London, and most recently Chow Mein in Santo Domingo; I seem drawn to the flavors of the Orient wherever I go. Fortunately, San Jose’s House of Chu is not far from my home turf when I get a hankering for some terrific American Chinese food.

Just shy of a mile south of Highway 85 on the right-hand side of Camden Avenue, the wordy House of Chu Chinese Cuisine and Cocktail Lounge occupies the northern, street-side end of an unattractive office building in an older strip mall, and is easy to miss. Approach from the north if you can, as there is a convenient turn-in right at the front doors of the restaurant, an ideal drop-off point for your passengers. Unfortunately, there is no parking directly in front, so you’ll have to drive the remaining couple dozen yards to the mall’s vast (but sometimes quite full) parking lot.

If my credit card records are accurate, it appears that on average my family and I have made the journey about every two months for the last six years. All that custom has allowed us to narrow down four dishes from their extensive menu that are must-haves across all age groups. To start, do not miss the valley-famous Chinese Chicken Salad, the best there is. It is a perfect blend of fresh lettuce, finely chopped chicken, crispy rice noodles, peanuts, and hot spices. Until recently my mother has been a devout vegetarian, but she has knowingly and eagerly eaten Chu’s chicken salad for many years. It’s that good! You may regret taking home the salad as leftovers or ordering it to go; it’s just not the same as when it is served cold, crisp, and ultra fresh at your table in the restaurant.

The three other necessities include Chu’s Special Beef (very tender slices of beef marinated in a thick, slightly sweet, secret sauce, and served over rice noodles), Walnut Prawns (lightly battered and sautéed, then smothered in a creamy white sauce, and surrounded by candied walnuts), and String Beans with Garlic Sauce (which, in contrast to the Chinese chicken salad, are somehow even better as leftovers). Depending on the size of your party, you may need to double up on one or more of these popular dishes.

The attached lounge is spacious and pleasantly dark, serving a reasonable variety of beers, liquors, spirits, and strong mixed drinks. There are a couple of televisions mounted in the corners, but you wouldn’t visit the lounge solely for the sports viewing, more for a quiet, relaxing place to unwind after work, or a good opportunity to down a couple Tsingtaos while you’re waiting for a take-out order.

Seating is fast, thanks partly to the larger-than-expected capacity, and also because the restaurant does a lot of take-out business and is rarely more than half full. Couples enjoy the intimate, plush booths along the back wall, and groups of up to four sit in the middle of the restaurant at adequately sized square tables. Even larger groups are seated along the side of the restaurant at wide, round tables with lazy Susans. The water-stained, cafeteria-style ceiling tiles are the only detractors in what is otherwise a pleasant, well-decorated setting. Service is always excellent — amiable, attentive, and responsive.

Rub the belly of Buddha on the way in for a healthy serving of joy, luck, and prosperity to go with the healthy portions of excellent American-style Chinese. Rubbing the belly of Kevin, the restaurant owner, will get you nothing…