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Memorable Ginger Cafe

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.

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.

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.

“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.

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.

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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