China Stix, Santa Clara
With Lunar New Year starting on Friday, all eyes — and stomachs — turn to procuring some super satisfying Chinese takeout food.
At least, that’s the case this year, when the lingering pandemic makes it impossible to celebrate as usual with friends and family at restaurants, sitting elbow to elbow at big round tables with a lazy Susan in the center, brimming with dim sum morsels or banquet-style dishes.
For my fix, I looked no further than China Stix in the Santa Clara Town Centre. It’s the type of family-owned Chinese restaurant that every neighborhood needs, cooking up rock-solid food in generous portions that provides a taste of pure comfort.
It’s the kind of place that has egg foo young on the menu, and will throw in a big handful of fortune cookies with each order. And if the kabocha squash in the dish you ordered happens to be smaller than usual at this time of season, will throw in a second order at no extra charge.
Speaking of which, those spicy pork spareribs cooked inside a whole kabocha squash ($38) are highly recommended, even if it may take 45 minutes to 1 hour extra to prepare.
It’s not a dish you see often — if ever. It reminds me of Chinatown banquet meals that began with a steamy halved winter melon carried to the table by a server who then ladled out the brothy soup inside loaded with chunks of the sweet, quenching melon.
The bite-size spareribs (yes, there are bones) aren’t what I’d call spicy. But they are tender and flavorful. The orange-hued flesh of the squash takes on all that lovey porky flavor, too. You can eat the green rind of the squash, so feel free to tear off chunks of the squash to enjoy with all those pork juices over rice.
For me, takeout Chinese food just isn’t complete without noodles and pot stickers. The pork pot stickers (chicken and vegetable options are available, too) come six to an order ($10.25). They are sizeable with a plentiful, dense, meaty filling. A little tub of hot mustard, as well as chili oil packets come with so you can mix up your own dipping sauce.
Barbecue pork chow mein ($13) is a simple yet satisfying mix of toothsome noodles with slivers of char siu and onions. Combination chow fun ($14.45) features my favorite fat, chewy rice noodles with a heap of shrimp, chicken, green onions and bean sprouts.
For a rustic, country-style dish, there’s China Stix tofu ($13.95), a jumble of custardy cubes of soft tofu, pork slivers, and chilies in a black bean sauce. Again, it’s not super spicy, so even those who can’t take much heat will be just fine. Spoon over a heap of steamed rice, and it’s like an Asian grandma offering up a hug.
Garlic fish fillet ($16.95) contains a wealth of supple morsels of fish in a mild, savory garlic sauce, along with al dente broccoli florets.
The spiciest dish we had — and it’s still fairly mild compared to most Sichuan-focused restaurants in the South Bay — was the Szechuan beef ($17.95). The thin slices of beef are ever so melt-in-your-mouth tender, probably from a little judicious use of baking soda, and quite peppery tasting. Red and green pepper chunks, along with onion, added a subtle sweetness.
Eggplant with fresh basil ($14.50) is a saucy affair with lengths of slender eggplant cooked until supremely tender with sweet basil leaves.
Pro Tip: Order $55 or more, and the restaurant will throw in a free dish: egg rolls, chow mein, fried rice or our pick, Chinese chicken salad. China Stix’s version is barely dressed. But that’s a fine thing when you’re doing takeout. It means the iceberg lettuce won’t sog out by the time you get it home. Instead, this salad remains plenty crisp (even the next day if you have leftovers), with a load of chicken breast pieces in it. The flavor comes mostly from the chopped peanuts and sesame seeds. It’s a mild and subtle dish overall, but a nice reprieve for the taste buds.
Aurum, Los Altos
One of the crushing casualties of shelter-in-place and shut-down orders was the loss of restaurants such as August 1 Five in San Francisco. The splashy, stylish restaurant served up memorable, modern Indian fare.
If there was any upside to that situation, it’s that its former executive chef Manish Tyagi has now decamped to the Peninsula, where he opened Aurum in downtown Los Altos late last year.
Of course, times being what they are, it’s been a strictly takeout affair. But it’s done up in style, with all the usual takeout containers packed neatly inside a large, heavy-duty covered box, like the kind you’d get at a fancy department store. There’s even a sheet inside with instructions on the best way to warm up everything once you get it home.
Tyagi has partnered with Anupam Bhatia, owner of Broadway Masala in Redwood City. At Aurum, Tyagi lets loose, creating an exceedingly playful and creative roster of dishes, as I found when I was invited by the restaurant to try some of the menu offerings on the house.
Aurum means ”gold” in Latin. And the dishes definitely shine. Consider the amusing Mr. Potato dish ($11.95). It takes the spiraled fried potato on a stick of Asian night markets and reimagines it as chaat with garnishes of pomegranate arils, cilantro, and a drizzle of yogurt. It sits lengthwise on a chunky mash of chickpeas given a punch with tamarind and roasted cumin. The potato won’t necessarily be at its crispiest by the time you get it home, but this is such a fun and delicious dish, it won’t dissuade you from devouring every bite.
The bihari pitti packets ($16.95) take the traditional half-moon-shaped Indian rice flour dumplings and gives them an Italian spin by fashioning them into ravioli napped with a sauce of dal. It’s genius. The supple pasta-like dumplings work seamlessly with the saucy split lentils. So much so that you wonder why nobody thought to put them together like this before.
There are even pulled pork tacos on the menu. Nicknamed “The Spoiled Generation” ($15.95), the tacos make use not of corn tortillas but of small Indian flatbreads made with whole wheat and chickpea flours. A little thicker than tortillas, they get stuffed to the gills with tender pulled pork garnished with pickled onions and sour cream. It’s a riot of sweet, smoky barbecue flavors, and it’s on par, if not better, than some pulled pork sandwiches I’ve had at actual barbecue joints.
The spinach and goat cheese kulcha ($4.95) is out of this world. As an avowed carb lover, I can never get enough of Indian flatbreads. Charred and soft, this one gets added creaminess and salinity from soft goat cheese stuffed inside. I could happily eat this every week with a bowl of soup.
Another dish that’s already received a lot of attention is the Junglee or tribal lamb stew ($21.95). A hunter’s stew from northeast-central India that dates back centuries, the lamb is marinated in a closed earthenware vessel in its own juices along with oils and spices. It cooks up moist, tender, and heady with cumin, coriander, ginger and mustard oil.
Old-fashioned chicken curry ($19.95) is less rich and heavy than butter chicken (which is also on the menu). With plenty of caramelized onions in the mix, this chicken stew entices with a sweet, minty, camphor note of black cardamom.
The Coastal Connection or Malvani fish curry ($22.95) is a fish steak in a plentiful creamy, tangy, velvety sauce of tamarind, coconut milk, and turmeric. The fish is cooked all the way through, leaving it a little denser in texture. But with all the sauce, it never suffers from dryness.
I’m sure the eggplant crescents ($16.95) are much more prettily plated when the restaurant actually serves it than what I managed to do with my limited plating skills at home. The long, slender eggplant halves can be curved around its pool of gravy-like sauce. It gets a lot of body and richness from coconut milk, and a shot of earthiness from curry leaves. There’s a sharp heat from mustard seeds to tickle the throat. In fact, this was probably the spiciest dish of the night.
Don’t pass on dessert. The “Heaven Can Wait — Toffee Pudding” is a beauty, adorned with fresh blackberries and a deep purple nasturtium. It’s a super moist cake with an irresistible sticky toffee sauce that tastes toasty and deeply caramelized.
For a final thoughtful touch, Aurum includes a little plastic container of colorful mukhwas or mouth freshener. Also considered a digestive aid, it’s a mix of anise, fennel and coriander seeds, some of them sugar-coated for added sweetness. It does the trick handily as a palate cleanser.
Pro Tip: Tyagi loves taking classics out for a new spin. He continues to add to and refine the menu. For instance, the bihari pitti packets started out as tortellini-shaped before morphing into raviolis. You never know what his whimsical tinkering will result in. So, it pays to check the menu regularly for new additions sure to intrigue.