Zand’s is a nice little lunch spot

Zand's combo platter
sampler platter ($10.99)

Zand’s Mediterranean Food & Deli (1401 Solano Ave.) is a cute little eatery on the corner that also carries specialty grocery items, such as rose water, mint syrup vinegar, and roasted eggplant. It’s a casual order-at-the-counter kind of place that has a homey feel to it.

This time there were four of us: our friend Sandy joined Dave, George, and me. So it was lucky that we snagged the only table that seated four people, though I suppose we could have pushed two of the three smaller tables together if we were desperate.

Zand's plate 2
Sandy’s tah-cheen

Dave and I split the sampler platter, which promises “just about everything” on their menu, although it didn’t have the tah-cheen, so I’m glad Sandy ordered it. Tah-cheen (or tah-chin, depending on whether you read it on the takeout menu or the board on the wall) is baked basmati rice with a little chicken, some saffron, and barberries. I really liked it, and Sandy declared it “yummy.” George got a dish called olivieh, which is a Persian potato salad with chicken. George liked it. I thought it was okay, but I was glad that I was splitting a platter with Dave so he could eat the rest of it after I tasted it. The falafel was perfectly cooked—not too crisp and not mushy. I’ve had better spanakopita, but it was perfectly fine. The tabouli was fresh and tasty, and the hummus was flavorful and especially creamy. I never like dolma, so I didn’t even try it. (Again, it was good that I was sharing with Dave, who eats almost anything.) Something I’d never seen before was kookoo sable, which is a veggie soufflé with parsley and leeks. Dave wasn’t a fan (he compared it to a sponge), but I thought it was interesting, in a good way. The baba ghanoush was delish.

Two of us had ordered sour cherry soda, but they were out, so we got a whole bottle of pomegranate juice in place of it, which was quite tasty.

While we were there, the smoke alarm went off in the kitchen. The woman assured us there was no fire, then went behind the counter, pulled out a broom, and waved it repeatedly in front of the smoke detector to get it to shut off. It took several passes, but she finally quieted the alarm. I could relate. Our smoke detector used to go off when someone took a shower and left the door open afterward.

Zand’s doesn’t have a restroom, but the proprietor said the one at CVS across the street was nice. I didn’t have to go anyway. I just wanted to check it out. Some of my best photos for this series of posts have been taken in bathrooms.

I decided to splurge and get baklava, but there were two different kinds. I asked the woman there which she recommended. She said that one of them they bought from somewhere else, but the pistachio one she’d made herself. I got the pistachio one, and I was glad I did. It was actually a pretty big piece, so I quartered it and shared with my table mates. We all liked it.

 

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Maybe I’m just not that into Chilean food?

Valparaiso awningCafé Valparaiso is one of the newer eating spots in Albany. At 1403 Solano Avenue, it’s on the same block and side of the street as Gordo’s Taqueria. There were a few other diners there when Dave and I came in at 12:30, and it was pretty quiet. In fact I was a bit surprised that there was no music playing. (More on that later.)

We got water right away, so it was a good beginning. I asked our young waitress to recommend what she thought was best, which threw her at first. She claimed that it was all good, but she did offer a few recommendations, which we took. The menu features Chilean dishes and has several different kinds of empanadas, and you can choose fried or baked, which was nice, I thought, for people who worried about too much oil in their diets. (Of course I went for fried.) The two of us shared a plain cheese one—it was good and hot.

My iced tea was $3 and was very watery without much taste. She made a point of telling me that refills were free, but she never offered to refill my glass once it was empty, which is just as well, since it was pretty boring. But she didn’t refill my water either. Even though nobody was at the table next to us and there were plenty of others open (were someone to walk in), she spent quite a while clearing it while both my iced tea glass and water glass remained empty. I tried to get her attention before she returned to the kitchen, but she didn’t see me. Eventually a man who was probably the manager made the rounds and brought me water.

Both of us ordered sandwiches that came on what she called “authentic home bread.” The menu mentioned that with the sandwich we got our choice of salad or “fried potatoes.” But she forgot to ask which we wanted. We flagged her down to let her know we wanted one of each, and she seemed vaguely surprised that we cared. It took about 20 minutes to get our sandwiches, which were a bit on the dry side. Mine had green beans on it, which was kind of interesting but they didn’t add a lot of flavor. The bread was fine but made up too much of the sandwich. The “fried potatoes” that I had thought might be some Chilean specialty turned out to be French fries, which were OK .(Better than the salad.)

At some point during our meal, the sound system kicked in, and I heard a pan flute piece, followed by other sorts of world music. I guess they’d just forgotten to turn it on before?

The manager made a point of checking in on us and brought us some hot sauce to try. (Maybe he knew our sandwiches were kind of dry and boring.) He was very nice.

It ended up being rather expensive and, except for the empanada, the food wasn’t that great. And the service was just passable. I doubt that I’ll go back. But, hey, if you try it and have a better experience, let me know!

www.cafevalparaiso.com

Gordo’s has its fans—I’m just not one of them

1423 Solano Ave., Albany, CA

Bring up favorite burrito places in the Bay Area, and you’re sure to get strong opinions. Many are quick to name Gordo’s, as is evident by the long lines there almost any day, sometimes stretching out the door and around the corner. Kylie’s friend Rachel loves Gordo’s, and I’ve heard of people driving in from El Cerrito just to get takeout from there.

The original plan was to visit Kathmandu Restaurant, but it was inexplicably closed again, so we went to the other side of Solano Avenue to Gordo Taqueria and joined the throng of families, business people, and workers in coveralls who were patiently waiting in line to place their orders. Because it’s summer, lots of elementary kids were there with their parents, whereas during the school year, the only kids there on a weekday are students from nearby Albany High. One of the boys behind me in line yelled down the street to his dad for his cell so he could phone in their order because he didn’t want to wait in the long line. I don’t even know if Gordo’s takes phone orders, but his dad ignored his request. Despite the length of the line, it only took ten minutes to reach the spot where the burrito assembly began, and the guys behind the counter were quick and efficient.

Gordo painting
Gordo’s decor

Our group consisted of George, his son Dylan (who just graduated from college and is home for the summer), Dave, and me. (Kylie had not been awake long enough to feel ready for lunch.) When we sat down, I mentioned that I hadn’t been to Gordo’s in over ten years, to which Dylan responded that since he’d been home (five days?), he’d been nowhere else. George admitted that Gordo’s was the favorite of everyone in his family except him.

Gordo George's plate
George’s lunch

George got the chile verde platter, which was a pretty good deal. It was basically everything that would have been a burrito but separate, and two tortillas instead of one. Because the place is chiefly takeout, everything is packaged to go. So George had to eat his meal out of a Styrofoam container even though we snagged one of the two only four-person tables in the tiny dining area.

Gordo DP's super burrito
Dave’s super burrito

Dylan seemed quite happy with his burrito, and Dave had no complaints about his. I, on the other hand, had a few problems. First, every bite resulted in tortilla lining the roof of my mouth, and I spent an inordinate amount of time scraping it off with my tongue as unobtrusively as possible while attempting to participate in the conversation. Dave concluded that my gummy tortilla was the result of being over-steamed. In addition, even though I had opted for salsa and additional hot sauce, the burrito was pretty bland. Certainly edible but disappointing. Sorry, Rachel—that’s the way I feel.

So I don’t really see the need to return to Gordo’s for another ten years, but it doesn’t look like it will hurt their business because the faithful will return, and the lines will continue.

 

 

 

 

Renee’s has high quality (with prices to match)

Renee's veggie potsticker
veggie potsticker with menu in background

It was the least likely day of the year to lunch at Renee’s. Everyone else in America was eating hot dogs, watermelon, and burgers off the grill. After all, one doesn’t really think of celebrating the Fourth of July by going out for Chinese food. We were the only diners there for most of the lunch hour. And I guess because it was a holiday, the lunch menu wasn’t available, so we ordered off the dinner menu, which contributed to it being a rather pricey lunch.

Our waitperson turned out to be Renee herself. She was quite attentive and never let my glass of water get empty, which automatically scored lots of points with me.

Renee's bathroom
Inside Renee’s restroom

The décor at Renee’s is elegant, the mechanical woven fans that put on a little overhead show being the highlight. (I recorded it but couldn’t get it to upload to accompany my post. Sorry!)The covers of the menus were woven as well, and the pages were rice paper. I also did not spot a single typo, which speaks volumes for a Chinese restaurant. Classical choral music played over the sound system, and at one point I heard “Ave Maria,” which was an incongruous piece of music to hear on the Fourth of July, but it’s not like we were standing around the barbecue. The bathroom was done quite tastefully and was clean as well.

chicken Iron Plate

We ordered the veggie potstickers (6 for $11), which were piping hot and pretty good. I ordered the orange beef ($14), which was listed as one of the house specialties and was wonderful. Dave ordered a chicken dish off the “Iron Plates” section of the menu, which came out on a sizzling hot plate ($15.50). It was good but rather plain, though he particularly liked the mushrooms. Kylie declared the string  beans “delicious as always,” ($11.50). Renee’s is Kylie’s favorite Chinese restaurant, and this is the dish she orders most often.

It was a lovely meal, and the service was excellent. But everything was expensive, so lunch—without any dessert or drinks other than hot tea and water—set us back a pretty penny. If you’re on a budget, it may not be the best place to have lunch. But if money is no object, I highly recommend Renee’s.