Memorable Ginger Cafe

Lamb with steamed buns -- a dish I would go back for again and again.

For two years — as long as it’s been in existence — I’ve driven past the Ginger Cafe on El Camino Real in Sunnyvale.

Yes, driven right past from the get-go, not stopping at all to collect a mere whiff or a taste.

Yup, me, a bonafide ginger fiend had never stepped foot inside this pan-Pacific Rim eatery.

Go figure.

Fortunately, when owner Tuyen Chung invited me in for dinner last week, I finally atoned for that faux pas.

Good thing, too, because I’d really been missing out.

Chung, who immigrated to the United States as a teen-ager by way of mainland China and Hong Kong, started cooking with his mother at her restaurant more than 25 years ago. In 2004, he opened his first Ginger Cafe in Gilroy. In 2007, he followed suit with the Sunnyvale locale.

The comfortable, well-lighted restaurant, decorated with Asian art work, serves up a mix of Asian street food and classics — often done up with Chung’s inventive, modern takes. For instance, a spectacular platter of lamb sauteed with caramelized onions gets a dusting of grated Parmesan cheese, and is served with pillowy, steamed, clam shell-shaped buns. And boy, does it all work together perfectly.

Crunchy soft-shell crab with irresistible panko bread crumbs.

Fried Fongsa soft-shell crab is fragrant and tinged yellow from cumin. It gets tossed with crispy, chile-tinged Panko crumbs that are dynamite mixed with plain steamed rice. It’s like a traditional Chinese version of salt-and-pepper fried Dungeness crab. But Chung noticed that many Americans don’t like to get their fingers dirty when eating, so he substituted soft-shell crab instead. Eat the shell and all using chopsticks and there’s no mess whatsoever. Genius.

Dumplings filled with shrimp and bok choy.

Shrimp and calamari atop crisp shrimp chips.

Dim sum is served all day. We tried the shrimp-bok choy dumplings, which were delicate, with plump whole shrimp in them.  An appetizer of shrimp and calamari atop fried shrimp crackers is a two-bite treat heady with green onions and fried shallots that would make a great cocktail party snack.

Spicy coconut soup hid slivers of chicken, shrimp, calamari, straw mushrooms, bamboo shoots and pineapple chunks in a rich, creamy base with a whisper of sweetness and a bit of heat.

A rich, warming bowl of coconut soup.

“Saigon Street Chow Fun” was a tangle of thick rice noodles, seafood, and chicken in a sweet-hot chili sauce. Using broth rather than a ton of oil, the noodles were tender and not at all clumpy.

Saigon Street chow fun.

A version of the classic shaking beef.

Filet mignon Luc Lac is a version of shaking beef. Extremely tender chunks of beef get tossed in a fiery wok with lots of black pepper and onions. Wrapped in lettuce leaves, it’s both refreshing and luxurious tasting.

For dessert, Chung brought out a cream cheese banana turnover that was crisp, but not all that special. Much better were the warm squares of Vietnamese custard made with coconut, cassava and condensed milk. With its toffee-caramel-like syrup over the top, it was almost like a denser, stickier version of flan.

Banana-cream cheese turnover.

Coconut and casava custard.

With prices ranging from $3.50 for egg rolls to $11 for pad thai to $24 for the filet mignon, coupled with very generous portions, Ginger Cafe is a great value.

While ginger is definitely a presence in the dishes, the rhizome is never over-bearing.

Me? Pass up a place with “ginger” in its name again?

Nope, I’ve learned my gingery lesson.

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  • Okay, now that looks good. The food we had at the Ginger Cafe down in Gilroy wasn’t very good at all, IMO. I’m thinking that Fried Fongsa soft-shell crab would be even better with fried curry leaves.

  • Sounds great! I’ll have to check it out! 🙂

  • Sounds yummy! It’s right by us; thanks for the suggestion — we’ll check it out!

  • cool, I’m glad you finally checked it out. Doesn’t seem the place has any ginger in their dishes – oh well. I’ll check it out for myself one day.

  • Thank you!! I have also driven past and wondered. I’ll visit next week.

  • Those dumplings look so delish. Dave and I drove down to see Tony Bennett a while back and drove right past it…we somehow got lost in Sunnyvale. Go figure.

  • I love restaurants that serve dim sum all day! I’ll have to check it out the next time I’m in CA!

  • Will definitely add that to the list of “must try” meet-up places for our regular dinners out with friends. Thanks for the tip!

  • Thanks for yet another excellent, don’t miss tip. I, like you, have driven by frequently giving little thought to what I assumed was another mediocre strip mall fusion wannabe. My loss! since I live less than two miles away. I’m advancing Ginger Cafe to the top of my “eat out” list!

  • You guys all make me feel so much better that I wasn’t the only one who had driven past this restaurant time and time again. 😉

  • Now this is the kind of food that I’ve been dreaming for so long…I’ve been wanting to eat some good Chinese dumplings and steamed buns for so long! Ah! I’ll be in SF soon, but I won’t have the chance to stop by…boo hoo hoo…

  • Lots of delicious specialties here, sounds like a great place!

  • Caroline, we’ve eaten at Ginger Cafe several times, both in Sunnyvale and Gilroy, and have never had a good meal: the food was always greasy and sometimes overly sweet. or over-cooked. I think you got the Elvis treatment. I’ve noticed this trend with a few other restaurants that have invited you to review them. Too bad you can’t go incognito and get the same food that we get.

  • Claudette: Oh no about the bad meals. I take pains to tell people when I’m “invited” into a restaurant because I know I might not be having the exact same experience as others because I’m there as a known food writer. My write-up on my blog isn’t an actual review necessarily. It’s just my experience at one snapshot in time. That’s why I’m grateful when folks like you leave comments to tell me what they thought about a particular place. I think it helps start a conversation that can only illuminate a place even more.

  • Foodgal, we too have driven by that corner innumerable times — never gave it a second glance. I tell ya, folks — this “marketing by food blog” stuff, it definitely works!

    As for “the Elvis effect” (great concept, Claudette — I love that terminology 🙂 I’m sure that’s something you must wonder about every time you get comped an amazing meal, but in this case the majority of Yelp review seem to agree with yours. I’ll report back here when we’ve tried the place (un-famous and unannounced) Fingers crossed!

  • OK, next time I am in the South Bay, this is so on my list to check out. as I scrolled down the page, I kept repeating, I want to try that, and that, and that. Goodness, now I gotta eat!

  • Odd that I have never heard of this place even though I probably drive by all the time. I’ll look out for it next time and give it a try in the near future. Always learning something new from your site!

  • wow..your photos are GREAT – sounds good too..esp since I’m a big dim sum fan!


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