Where I’ve Been Getting Takeout of Late, Part 16
Pausa, San Mateo
Its name in Italian means “pause,” which I’m sure is the button we all wish we could hit for a respite from the previous year. But San Mateo’s Pausa does the next best thing — serving up to-go Italian specialties that are so delicious we can forget the challenging times we’re still in right now, at least for a moment.
Veneto, Italy-born chef Andrea Giuliani and co-owner Steven Ugur imbue the food with true Italian soulfulness. Just consider the pizzas, with crusts made from a special blend of flours imported from Italy, that bake up over almond wood with blistered edges. Even at the restaurant (when dine-in is allowed), the pizzas arrive uncut. Same with takeout. At the restaurant, you get a pair of scissors to portion it out, yourself. At home, just use kitchen shears to do the work.
Like all the pizzas, the sausage one ($22) sports a crisp crust that’s chewy-tender, bready in some parts with a nice little hint of salt. It has the long-developed flavor of an artisan boule. The crumbled, house-made sausage and house-made mozzarella are the perfect complements to the sweet-fruity tomato sauce.
For something unique, try the pizza zucca & lardo ($22) that tastes of autumn with its sweet butternut squash puree, caramelized onions and cabbage, slices of tender delicata squash, fresh rosemary, and of course, long, paper-thin shavings of cured pork fat that fairly melt in your mouth.
Risotto gets mixed with mushrooms and black truffle, then fried for little flavor bombs of arancini that sit in a pool of tomato sauce. Full of earthy notes, they come four for $10 (or eight for $18 or a dozen for $26).
Meatballs (priced similarly) get napped with that same sauce. Moist, fluffy and redolent of herbs, they are great all on their own or saved the next day for your a make-your-own meatball sandwich.
A lot of care and effort goes into something as simple as a Little Gem salad ($13). Not only do the crisp, cold leaves come garnished with caramelized balsamic onions, shaved celery, pickled onions, hard-boiled egg, and crumbles of crisp pancetta, but two dressings — a creamy, rich Gorgonzola, as well as a bright, lemony vinaigrette.
Same goes for the Brussels sprouts ($10), which were charred and smoky tasting, with crunchy almonds and a sweet-sour dressing made with the Italian syrup, saba. Best yet were the tiny, melon-ball-like spheres of Fuyu persimmon that really took this side dish from standard to sublime.
Pastas are all made in-house, too. The tagliatelle ($25) noodles, made with primativa flour, have flavor all on their own, tasting of hearty grain. They get even better tossed with a thick duck ragu with onions and garlic.
The roasted chicken cappellacci ($25) are tortellini-like pasta stuffed with a mix of ground roast chicken, mascarpone and dandelion greens boosted with porcini powder for a real depth. The sauce is more like a thick puree, made with butternut squash with marsala demi-glace, giving this dish a comforting, stick-to-your-ribs quality.
Pro Tip: Pausa is one of a very few restaurants in California that’s actually certified to make charcuterie. Chef Giuliani even studied microbiology to get it all right. Make a point to try some of the house-made salumi, such as the salame del doge ($14), which is dramatically as dark as coal, thanks to the addition of squid ink. The thin slices are sweetly porky, with a subtle briny finish. The salumi portions come with pickled vegetables, grain mustard, and out-of-this-world cunza, a paste of ground lardo seasoned with garlic and rosemary that you just can’t help but spread on thickly because it’s just that good. On the online ordering system, there’s an option for “no bread.” Don’t even think about that. Pausa makes its own bread called tigella. These small, puffy rounds are almost like a more substantial pita, and a joy to eat.
Konjoe Burger Bar, Santa Clara
You have to admire a fast-food burger joint that takes the effort to use pasture-raised meats, artisan-baked buns, organic greens, Italian gelato in its shakes, and even sustainable seafood for its poke bowls (in summer).
Such is the case with home-grown Konjoe Burger Bar, started by Santa Clara University grad Joey Camacho.
With the pandemic limiting restaurant operations, Konjoe’s menu has grown more limited than previously, but you’re sure to find something irresistible.
With the Klassic cheeseburger ($8) with konjoe sauce (sort of a Kewpie-mayo and Thousand Island mash-up), you can really taste the beefy-minerally taste of the meat, as well as the nice char on it.
The Hot Katsu Sando ($9.50) is a sizeable, moist chicken breast that’s battered and fried in a formidable crust that maintains its crunchiness easily in transit, too. It’s garnished with Sonoma Brinery pickles, ranch dressing, and kimchi slaw, for a spicy, peppery heat that builds slowly yet surely, but not so much that it overwhelms.
You can opt to get that chicken katsu in a Caesar salad ($10.50) instead, too. It’s a huge fried chicken breast splayed over fresh lettuces and shaved beets from Spade & Plow farm, with a container of creamy, thick bonito-Parmesan dressing on the side.
The OG fries ($3.25) are dusted with a savory seasoning blend, and are impressive in their crispness that holds up.
The golden, compact truffle hash brown ($2.50) is fun finger-food, seasoned with truffle salt and truffle oil.
Konjoe also makes its own cookies and they are impressive. The Guittard Chocolate Mac Nut ($3.50) is crispy all over and tender in the center, with plenty of dark chocolate morsels and crunchy macadamia nuts.
Pro Tip: Konjoe offers an interesting, curated list of canned beers and wines from California and the Northwest. The Hazy IPA Original Pattern Trackie Dacks ($4.50) by the award-winning Oakland brewery features New Zealand hops brewed with orange juice and fig to create a citrusy, refreshing sip.
Dumpling City, Palo Alto
If you’ve been craving dumplings, and haven’t had the time or inclination to make them, yourself, make a beeline for Dumpling City — pronto.
It’s a true hole-in-the-wall gem that you might otherwise walk right past on El Camino Real in Palo Alto if you didn’t know it was there.
You can order ahead of time online or just show up at the small establishment that’s strictly takeout — pandemic or no pandemic. The dumplings are all uncooked, and most of the offerings come frozen.
Take a couple steps inside to pick up your order and you’ll see the open kitchen with long tables, where workers will be sitting, stuffing and folding all the dumplings with quick precision.
The lamb dumplings with Napa cabbage (20 for $11) are among my faves. At home, just boil them in a pot of water until they float to the surface and get plumper. They cook up so juicy with the sweetness of cabbage.
The pork dumplings with chive (20 for $10) are equally delicious with a nice, mild onion taste.
To cook the pork pot stickers (12 for $11), just place them to a saute pan with a little oil in a single layer. When they start to sizzle, add a half-inch of water to the pan, cover, and allow the pot stickers to steam until most of the water is evaporated and the pot stickers turn pliable. Uncover, and continue cooking until the undersides of the pot stickers turn crisp and golden. You’ll end up with succulent morsels encased in wrappers that are both crisp on one side and supple on the other.
Pro Tip: Dumpling City makes far more, too, everything from won tons to steamed buns to chive pancakes. Keep in mind that frozen dumplings are like gold in your home freezer. They’re so handy for a quick lunch or dinner. So, stock up, if you have the space, as they’ll keep for months in the deep freeze.