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Monday, October 31, 2011

October Food Excursion: Willow Glen Neighborhood of San Jose

This month we decided to stay close to home and explore one of my favorite old neighborhoods in the middle section of San Jose called Willow Glen. I was born within a mile of here and have many fond childhood memories of this cozy community. Willow Glen has done a great job of redeveloping, keeping current and not forgetting its heritage. Like so many classic downtown communities most everything centers on a main street which here is called Lincoln Avenue. We were able to park and walk to every one of our destinations.

Our first stop was a new and quite unique spot called Hay Market Willow Glen. The buzz on this restaurant is steady and once you try it you will be talking too. Hay bales greet you right at the front door which is your clue that casual is the operative word for the experience you are about to have inside.

Hay Market Willow Glen at 1185 Lincoln Avenue

But don't let the casual atmosphere fool you because Chef/Owner, Joe Cirone, is delivering some seriously good food with complex flavors. Joe explained to us that his vision is provide a gathering place with communal seating and serve whatever is fresh, local and sustainable today. There are no freezers or even gas in the kitchen. All proteins are prepared using the French "sous vide" technique using airtight plastic bags in a water bath. Joe's menus are based only on what his suppliers can deliver and it changes everyday. Forget white tablecloths and reservations. Remember great food.

Communal seating at Hay Market Willow Glen

We tried the cheese plate for $9.00 which included Manchengo, Fourme D'Ambert, Petit Basque (Sheep's Milk), Joe's handmade salami cured in red wine, sliced plums, honey butter, hearty bread slices arugula and a special blend of nuts called Chow Chow Jam.

Cheese Plate at Hay Market Willow Glen

Any of these individual ingredients could be enjoyed on their own but the real fun began when we combined them into bites. All of the savory and salty cheeses really snapped when mixed with the sweetness of the plums, honey butter and Chow Chow Jam.
Chef Joe explained the Chow Chow Jam is made right here in the Santa Cruz mountains by a Los Gatos company called Friend In Cheeses. This little green motivated company's motto is "Dare to Pair 'cause it Pays To Play. They obviously have a sense of humor as well as taste. Our mission on these food tours is to seek the unique and BINGO! we hit it on our very first stop this time. Chow Chow Jam is an eclectic meeting of honey, dried cranberries, sultans, almonds, pinion nuts, soy beans, vanilla bean, bourbon and sea salt. I won't even attempt to describe how well it went with cheese but all I can say is "Just do it."

A jar of Chow Chow Jam to-go was a must for me at $8.00

What better way to follow our cheese journey than with a Plum and Nectarine Clafoutis with organic roasted black plums and nectarines and Mom's orange butter. This northern French dessert was served chilled and just melted in my mouth. I was expecting like a bread pudding but it was way lighter and super refreshing. Joe completely nails this dessert and makes it different everyday based on which fresh fruits are available.

Plum and Nectarine Clafoutis at Hay Market Willow Glen – $6.00

Almost right next door to Hay Market we found the Top Nosh Cafe who specialize in making great artisan savory pies.

Top Nosh Cafe uses only natural ingredients, hand made in small batches, wrapped in pastry crust and quick frozen until ready to serve. Just reading their Top Ten list of varieties makes my mouth water:

Grecian Spinach with Feta Cheese - ricotta, green onions and dill

Spicy Beef - cilantro, mint, jalapeno, halal beef and piquant flavors of the East

Country Ratatouille - eggplant, zucchini, red bell pepper, tomato and Herbes de Provence

Southwest Hot Potato - Yukon gold potatoes, creamy cheeses, corn and roasted poblanos

Chicken with Almonds and Yogurt - free range chicken with cardamom and saffron

Chicken with Apple and Cheddar - with a touch of curry and savory flair

Chicken with Tomatoes - cashews and spices from India

Chicken and Yam with Coconut Curry - Thai flavors include lemon grass, galangal and kaffir lime

Wild Mushroom with Gruyere - Shiitake and Porcini mushrooms with fire roasted red bell peppers

Roasted Butternut Squash - Fontina and goat cheeses with caramelized onions

We opted for the Southwest Hot Potato and it came with a nice side serving of cole slaw which makes for a quick and hearty lunch.

Top Nosh Cafe Southwest Potato Pie with cole slaw - $5.75

I was instantly sold on this place and wished there was one closer to where I live. The good news is their pies are available in in many gourmet markets all over the Bay Area including seven of them right in my hometown of Santa Cruz. They call them "Farmer's Market Pies" and with good reason. Look for them in the frozen food section of your better grocery outlets.

Close up goodness inside the Southwest Potato Pie from Top Nosh

A short walk down the street is one of my all-time favorite Chinese food restaurants called Taiwan. Since 1982 Taiwan has a strong reputation and many loyal locals who are quick to offer their praises.

A landmark on Lincoln Avenue since 1982

We both love honey walnut sauce but my foodie friend, Stacie, is allergic to shrimp which is the most popular protein served with it so she orders Honey Walnut Tofu. I had never tried it so it was a perfect first for me. It had all of the texture, sweet and savory joy of any honey walnut dish I've ever had. Thanks to Stacie for thinking of a great vegetarian option for anyone who loves this unique combination of flavors.

Honey Walnut Tofu at Taiwan in Willow Glen - $9.95

Speaking of legendary local spots there is none on the Lincoln strip that has more history than Bertucelli's La Villa Deli. For over fifty years they have been a mainstay for the Willow Glen community for both their scratch made Italian recipes and wide selection of imported delicacies. It was my turn to pick and I went quickly for their vegetable lasagna, stuffed artichoke and macaroni salad.

The artichoke was amply stuffed with a tasty bread crumb that turned it into a meal in itself. I had not had them before but was sold the instant a lady came in to pick up her order of six and just stood there raving about them. She proudly held up her order and claimed it was like a party in a box. And the perfectly seasoned stuffing had me a believer as well.

Stuffed Artichoke at La Villa Deli - $5.50

My expectations of the lasagna were high but only because I have enjoyed all of their pastas and marinara sauces so many times before. Stacie claimed it was the best lasagna she's ever had in a restaurant and I have to agree. It is a perfect blend of cheeses, broccoli, tomatoes and spices.
La Villa Vegetable Lasagna - $6.99

Lunch time is huge at La Villa on Lincoln with so many people running in to grab fresh made sandwiches and their scratch made salads. I am a self-proclaimed macaroni salad junkie so trying their version was a must. They use a favorite pasta of mine called Ditalini or "Little Thimbles" which is a perfect shape to hold just enough of the dressing and also hang well on your fork. I was not all surprised to enjoy the La Villa version.

Macaroni Salad at La Villa Deli - $2.19 for a half pint

Stacie is the one who normally tries one new beverage on our excursions but this time an Italian White Peach Soda caught my eye in the cooler. It was lightly carbonated very sweet but bursting with the distinctive flavor of white peach that I love so much.

Romano's White Peach Soda at La Villa Deli - $1.99

We came to taste but ended up doing lots of grocery shopping at La Villa because the selection of cool and unique imported foods in completely irresistible. We displayed them all together on their outside dining tables.

Pastas, cheeses, sauces, tapenades, vinegars and oils available at La Villa Deli

I stood guard at the door while Stacie grabbed this quick rare shot of the interior with no customers in sight. The constant parade of customers to La Villa is true testimony of their greatness. Even after the lunch hour was over the traffic was non-stop for people coming to pick up dinner items to go.

 Inside La Villa Deli is jammed with prepared and package delights from Italy

Our final stop was a quest for some dessert and to try frozen custard. Another popular hangout on Lincoln Avenue is simply called Willow Glen Frozen Yogurt and Ice Cream Company. As their tenth anniversary approaches they have been a favorite on the corner of Lincoln and Willow in the heart of this community. Stacie had been wanting to try frozen custard and by many accounts this little shop is famous for it.

The custard was as delicious as you'd expect from a frozen dessert. It is made with cream and sugar like ice cream but also contains egg yolk solids which really kick it up in the richness department. We enjoyed vanilla with some fresh raspberries.

Small Frozen Custard - $3.00 plus $1.25 Raspberry Topping

My parting shot is of some little people's chairs on the patio at the Willow Glen Frozen Yogurt and Ice Cream Company shop. They are indicative of the small town spirit that makes Willow Glen one of the friendliest sections of San Jose. Just park once and you will be able to walk to great food and shopping. Their slogan is "Personal Friendly Different" and I am proud to have witnessed this legacy first hand for over fifty years.

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