Where I’ve Been Getting Takeout of Late, Part 17
Straits, San Jose
There was a time when the Chris Yeo Group was the king of San Jose’s Santana Row, operating three restaurants in this retail-restaurant-housing complex.
Only one remains now, though — Straits. It was his first establishment at Santana Row, and the concept that really made a name for him when he first opened the original Straits in San Francisco (which shuttered long ago). These days, with Yeo mostly retired, it’s his son Julian who runs the restaurant operations.
With its lounge-y, nightclub-like vibe and seductively attired female servers — which can be a plus or minus, depending on your predilection — Straits always drew a lively crowd pre-pandemic. Now, with only takeout and delivery service, the atmosphere is obviously more subdued.
While its atmosphere may have overshadowed the food at times, Straits still serves up solid, satisfying Malaysian cuisine.
The braised pork belly buns ($16) come on squishy Hawaiian-bread-like slider rolls, with a succulent thick slice of pork, crisp cucumber, and sweet-tangy pickled onions.
Slender Chinese eggplants ($17) get braised until custardy in a spicy garlic sauce with big batons of green onions.
Chinese-style salt and pepper chicken wings ($14) are just lightly floured before frying yet attain a great crispness. These will wake up the palate not only with the heat of white pepper but of jalapenos strewn all over.
The breaded calamari ($15) might not be as crisp by the time you get it home, but they’re still worth ordering for the tender, meaty squid morsels to dunk in a galangal-infused ketchup-like cocktail sauce plus an aioli intense with fragrant makrut lime leaves.
The chow kway teo ($17) is a comforting dish of fat, toothsome rice noodles tossed with sweet Chinese sausage, shrimp, bean sprouts, egg, and chili. Dark soy sauce and oyster sauce lend a robust savoriness with a tinge of sweetness.
The 5-spiced ribs ($19) are fall-off-the-bone tender. Charred and smoky tasting, they get painted with a sweet glaze redolent of star anise.
I think the first time I ever had Hainan chicken ($17) decades ago, it was from Straits. This is a classic rendition, with the supple chicken served at room temperature accompanied with a bowl of the resulting chicken broth, plus broth-infused rice. Three sauces come with the dish: a sweet hot one, a thick Indonesian-type soy sauce, and a zippy ginger-oil one.
Potong Kari Ayam ($18) is a traditional Singaporean chicken curry studded with potatoes and carrots. It’s a good-sized portion of chicken covered in a golden-orange curry sauce that’s creamy and viscous like gravy with a hit of spiciness.
The lacy, layered roti prata ($10) is always fun to eat. It comes with a container of curry sauce to dip it in. It’s the same sauce as the one for the potong kari ayam, so just know you’ll have extra if you get both.
The coconut rice ($15) will surprise when you open up the container if you’ve never had it at the restaurant before. That’s because it’s pale blue colored — tinged with butterfly pea flower, a Southeast Asian bloom that has the ability to turn food or drinks a blue-violet, depending on how much is used. It’s sure to be a conversation starter or a hit with kids.
Pro Tip: When you pick up your food, your server may ask if you’d like some hot sauce with your order. Do say “yes.” What you’ll get is a small plastic container of Straits’ house-made sambal, an Indonesian-style chili sauce. Crimson in color, it’s fiery and sweet, with a back note of enjoyable fermented depth from dried shrimp. If you get hooked, just order a 6-ounce jar of the sambal at the restaurant next time for $10.
Tay Ho, Santa Clara
With San Jose the city with the largest population of people of Vietnamese heritage outside of Saigon, the South Bay is truly blessed to have so many outstanding Vietnamese restaurants.
Tay Ho in a strip mall off El Camino Real in Santa Clara is one of those true gems.
First, it’s one of the few Vietnamese restaurants that offers banh xeo ($14.95) on a regular basis. This lacy, crisp open-face crepe is piled in its center with shrimp, pork slices, onions, mung beans, and bean sprouts. It gets its golden color not from eggs, but turmeric. It comes with a side of crisp lettuce leaves and fresh herbs such as mint and cilantro. Tear off a portion of the crepe, pile it on a lettuce leaf with some of the herbs, then fold it taco-style to dip into the accompanying sweet-salty, fish sauce-based nuoc cham.
It’s snap, crackle and wow in your mouth, and truly addictive. Tay Ho takes care to package the crepe to-go, too, placing it in a large foil pan, loosely covered with foil so it keeps in the warmth without steaming the crepe so it looses crispness. If you want it crisper when you get home — or if you have leftovers to enjoy the next day — you can place a portion in a saute pan over medium heat for a few minutes, and the underside will regain its crustiness.
Second, Tay Ho is famed for its steamed rice crepes. Think of them as a thinner version of Chinese dim sum rice noodle rolls that are usually filled with shrimp or barbecued pork, then doused with a sweet soy sauce.
You can tell from the get-go that Tay Ho’s rice crepes are freshly made. They’re so supple with a gentle chewiness. The restaurant offers a number of variations of them, all of which come with nuoc cham to dip them in. One of my favorites is the #13, which is filled with shredded pork, bean sprouts, and cilantro, then garnished with fried shallots.
Variously called summer rolls or spring rolls, the goi cuon ($17) are familiar to anyone who loves Vietnamese food. Shrimp, pork slices, and thin rice vermicelli get wrapped up in a dried rice paper that’s been gently rehydrated in warm water. Dip these rolls in a zesty, thick peanut sauce garnished with more chopped peanuts.
The restaurant offers a variety of pho, including ones with chicken broth. What’s more, you can choose a version with only white meat (#P16 for $12.95) or with a mix of both white and dark meat (#P17 for $12.95). The latter is what I opted for. Customize the light, simple broth with garnishes of bean sprouts, jalapeno slices, herbs and lime to your liking.
The #P7 ($12.95) is a classic beef rice noodle soup with thin slices of rare filet mignon and well-done flank steak. It’s a mild tasting beef broth that hits the spot on a cold night.
Tay Ho’s version of Hainan chicken ($12.95) comes with a modest amount of moist chicken slices cut off the bone after cooked, along with broth-cooked rice, pickled carrots, and cooked cabbage chunks. Ther dipping sauce is nuoc cham, once again.
For a more substantial amount of chicken, try the barbecued chicken over rice (#49; $12.95). The accoutrements are the same, with the addition of a little container of hot sauce. With a sweet-smoky taste, this chicken makes for one comforting dish.
Pro Tip: Tay Ho doesn’t have its own web site. So if you want to order for pick-up, you’ll have to navigate the restaurant’s Yelp listing, where you’ll find links for the online menu. Don’t forget to peruse the drink menu, too, where you’ll find everything from Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk to durian smoothies. When the weather’s warm, one of my favorites is the salted plum soda ($4.75). You get a plastic cup filled with ice and salted, preserved plums. You pour in the accompanying can of fizzy soda water, and mash up the plums for a refreshing sweet-salty, slightly fruity sip with a taste of Hawaiian li hing mui.