Recently, I had lunch with Tony at Lunch with Tony’s.
Uh, got that?
That would be Chef-Proprietor Tony Santos and his new breakfast-lunch cafe, named — you got it — Lunch with Tony’s. It’s located in Alviso. And if you don’t know where that is — and I’m sure many of you don’t even if you live in the Bay Area — it’s a bayside community that was once autonomous, but was annexed into San Jose in 1968.
Santos knows Alviso well. After all, he grew up just three blocks from what’s now his cafe. The building that houses Lunch with Tony’s used to be his grandfather’s bar in the 1940s. His grandfather was the elder statesman of Alviso, having been both its mayor and police chief in the 1950s. As you drive to Lunch with Tony’s, you’re bound to pass Tony P. Santos Street, which is named after Santos’ grandfather.
Over the years, the old bar morphed into a couple of different restaurants, then fell into decline.
As Santos puts it bluntly, “It was condemnable when we took it over.”
Indeed, it took a year and a half of clean up and construction to get the family-owned building to what it is now — a cozy, casual cafe with cheerful orange walls and green columns. A corner outfitted with easy chairs and a coffee table, made of old planks from the building, invites patrons to take a load off. During construction, Santos even found the original “Tony’s” sign that graced his grandfather’s establishment. He plans on hanging it in the patio area.
Ever since the 31-year-old Santos opened up his cafe on Sept. 9 (his birthday), the place has been packed. Workers from nearby Cisco Systems, Yahoo! and Sun Microsystems come in to get their fill, as does a steady stream of Santos’ cousins and old friends who still live in the neighborhood.
It’s the “Cheers” bar in sandwich joint-form.
Even the bathrooms get a cutesy touch — framed photos of famous “Tonys” grace the walls. See how many you can name.
Everything is made from scratch by his staff of five employees except for the breads and turkey breast.
Whatever you do, don’t miss the “Beef & Muenster Press” ($7.50). Its simple name belies just how extraordinary it is. Think short ribs braised for three and a half hours with Dijon and tomato paste. The tender, succulent meat is taken off the bone, then seared on a flat-top till it gets a crisp exterior. Then, it’s piled onto sliced, crisped, buttered sourdough with Muenster cheese and sweet, caramelized onions. You’ve never had a beef sandwich with so much punch and pizazz.
The “Exotic Chicken Salad” sandwich ($6) is also a winner. It’s creamy with a hint of curry. Diced apples give it crunch and a subtle sweetness. And diced green beans, of all things, give it a whole new character with their squeaky, snappy texture.
“Southwest Chowder” ($6.50) with roast chicken in a creamy corn soup is always on the menu. Good thing, too, because it often sells out. For vegans, there’s “Curried Lentil” soup ($6) offered daily, as well, with chunks of carrots and onions swimming in it.
Salads include the “Classic Caesar” ($5.75) and the “Bleu Cranberry” ($6.75) with bleu cheese, dried cranberries, candied walnuts and mixed greens, all tossed with shallot-pomegranate vinaigrette.
All the cookies, granola, muffins, scones and trail-mix are made in-house.
Santos and I first met when he was the public relations person for The Tech Museum in San Jose, and I was a food writer at the San Jose Mercury News. We were brought together by a gingerbread house contest, which we both helped to judge.
Just before layoffs were to occur at The Tech, Santos had an epiphany. Even though he had graduated from Santa Clara University with a business degree, he decided to change course and enroll in culinary school.
The switch wasn’t so far-fetched. Not when you consider that he grew up cooking at a young age and surrounded by family who could turn out one mean meal. His late-Mom was Italian, and his father is of Portuguese heritage.
Santos had been a vegetarian for nine years. But he emerged a carnivore after graduating from the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, he says with a laugh.
He worked as a cook at the Hotel Nikko in San Francisco, then as a private chef to a family, before deciding Alviso would be the spot for his downhome, order-at-the-counter cafe.
“I just really like sandwiches. That’s why I wanted to feature them,” Santos says. “I wanted to take all the things I learned in culinary school and apply it to a sandwich so that it’s not just a sandwich, but a really good sandwich.”
Although Santos’ father, who does residential construction, thought his son was crazy when he enrolled in cooking school, he pops in most days for a cup of coffee and a bite to eat, proud as can be.
As for Santos’ famous grandfather?
“I think my Grandpa would be blown away by this,” Santos says. “And my Mom would be over the moon.”
Santos may live in downtown San Jose now with his wife, but it’s clear where this home boy’s heart lies. As he admits, you can’t take Alviso out of the man or the man out of Alviso. Not really. His customers couldn’t be happier about that, either.