The Search for the Perfect Burrito

Palo Alto has a lot of burrito options, and we don’t presume to tell you where you can find the absolutely best burrito. However, we will offer you our insights on several burrito options around here, from several popular chains to truly local eateries.

Chipotle

This popular Mexican restaurant chain, with locations throughout the country, offers a decently-portioned burrito basic burrito as well as a fajita burrito (peppers and onions instead of beans) and a burrito bowl (no tortilla).

We found Chipotle’s standard burrito, which comes with rice, beans, meat, salsa, cheese, and lettuce, very satisfying. The chicken, steak, carnitas (braised pork), and barbacoa (shredded beef) options were all flavorful but not overpowering, and the vegetarian option is also full of flavor with guacamole. Depending on the intensity of the salsa you select, the salsa’s role can range from that of a palate-cooling ingredient (in its mild fresh-tomato form) to a crucial spice with a permeating flavor (in its hot tomatillo-chili form). The cilantro-lime rice is light yet surprisingly pleasing, pairing well with the meat and beans without overpowering. The lettuce and cheese or sour cream complete the burrito, so that each bite is a complex blend of flavors which balances health with taste.

For about $10, diners can enjoy a burrito and chips and salsa, a complete meal. Palo Alto’s Chipotle is located on El Camino Real, across the street from the Mayfield soccer fields and next to Olive Garden.

Como Esta

Como Esta is a local specialty, with an artfully-decorated building and comfortable outdoor seating in Midtown. A long-time favorite for Jordan Middle School students on minimum days, Como Esta’s actual building can fill up very quickly with only a few, cramped tables inside, and even the tables outside often are not enough, but on most days, this limited seating suffices.

Como Esta’s regular burritos are decently-portioned and come with chips. The flavors are not particularly strong, but diners have a variety of meat, bean, and salsa options, and for a little extra money, diners can upgrade to the “super” version, which includes sour cream and guacamole. Vegetarians can choose tofu or pay a little less for the vegetarian option. Although we are not particular fans of spicy food, we have heard that Como Esta’s hot salsa is rather mild and lacks the sharp kick that some diners desire.

Como Esta also offers slightly cheaper baby burritos, which are a little smaller and do not come with chips. While we found this smaller version very friendly for a quick snack (Como Esta’s service is speedy) or small meal, we have a minor complaint with the messiness this meal entails. Como Esta’s burritos unfortunately do not hold very well, often spilling their contents.

Una Mas

Una Mas is a California chain with locations in nearby Menlo Park, Mountain View, and Redwood City. Unlike most of the other locations, Una Mas offers a variety of differently-priced burritos, from the basic bean-and-cheese ($4.59)  to the San Lucas fish burrito with grilled fish, shredded cabbage, and chipotle sauce ($5.99) to the ethnic fusion Pineapple Thai with marinated meat, pineapple salsa, sesame seeds, rice, cilantro, and sauce in a tomato tortilla ($6.29 chicken, $7.29 shrimp). Any burrito can be upgraded with extra guacamole ($.75), The Works (guacamole, cheese, and sour cream for $1.25), or Wet Style (mild sauce, guacamole, cheese, and sour cream for $1.75).

Each burrito is decently-sized and unextraordinary, but the large selection of flavors and prices make Una Mas a fairly safe bet for anyone. We also found it nice that the prices really reflect the ingredients you choose to have, as other eateries often charge the standard price even if you only want beans and cheese and regardless of the amount of guacamole you want.

Palo Alto Sol Restaurant

A local favorite locate on California Avenue, Palo Alto Sol differs from many of the other restaurants because of its more intimate, formal setting and its very familiar service. Unlike Una Mas, every burrito is the same price, $9.95, and include rice, beans, and cheese. Palo Alto Sol also offers more traditional flavors, like mole (a dark sauce made of various spices) and Spanish chorizo.

Palo Alto Sol certainly isn’t the place to go for the best bargain, the fastest service, or the largest selection. However, it can’t be beat for its traditional Pueblan flavors and friendly, familiar service.

Rojoz

Once a student favorite at Town and Country Village, Rojoz Gourmet Wraps has now moved to the Charleston Plaza by Piazza’s, but it still offers affordable, delicious burritos (known  as wraps). The prices range from $2.35 for min bean-and-cheese burrito to $7.25 for catfish or terriyaki salmon. Rojoz probably offers the most options out of any burrito place, and every option felt reasonably-priced and fresh. We would like to note,  however, that these wraps lack the full-out flavor that most burritos have, and we would in particular stay clear of the tofu, which offers large hunks of nearly flavorless tofu, quite a mouthful that can be hard to swallow. Nonetheless, Rojoz is the place to go for fast, reliable service, provided that you choose wisely for the wide selection offered.

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Ethnic Cuisine in Downtown Palo Alto

Downtown Palo Alto is an oasis of ethnic cuisine, with numerous Italian, Thai, and Vietnamese restaurants, among others. The choices for Thai cuisine include Bangkok Cuisine on Lytton Avenue, and Krung Siam, Siam Royal, and Thaiphoon, all on University Avenue.

We decided to try out Thaiphoon, which was voted the Best Thai Restaurant by Readers of the Palo Alto Weekly from 2006 to 2009. From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday, diners can stop by for a timely, economic lunch and taste of Thai.

While dinner entrees can cost double digits and require separate orders of rice and soup or salad, the lunch combo includes a reasonably-portioned entree along with a generous scoop of rice, salad with peanut sauce, and a small bowl of soup. Several rice and noodle options are also available at lunch, including the classic Chicken or Veggie Pad Thai.

All the lunch options range in price from $7.75 to $9.50. While this price is not unreasonable, we expected more food, as the casual decor and quick service of the restaurant seemed to suggest a more economic meal. Almost immediately after we ordered, we were served the soup portion of the lunch combo, which consisted of a simple miso soup with tiny pieces of tofu, seaweed, and celery floating inside. The celery was an interesting deviation from traditional miso soup, but we found the soup’s overall flavor rather unpleasantly sour.

Our entrees came soon after, served in a small container next to a scoop of rice and a small bed of salad. Unfortunately, the salad had too little peanut dressing for the amount of lettuce. The entrees were all flavorful, with plenty of leftover sauce to pour over the rice. The pad thai was similarly portioned, a reasonable meal, but below our expectations for the $10 each we spent with tax and tip.

The menu is very friendly to vegetarians, and people who are unable to handle spice can still find a suitable option. From classic broccoli and beef to Chinese eggplant in spicy sauce, all the options boast authentic Asian flavors, from traditional to Thai to Pan-Asian fusion.

Downtown also offers two sushi options, Miyake and Sushi Tomo. Both offer sushi as well as dinner boxes, which include, rice, soup, and a combination of three items: chicken or beef or fish terriyaki, tempura, sashimi, California rolls, etc. The options for each location vary a little but the prices are very similar and the portions are also very similar. The dinner boxes are around $10 at each location, with a slightly cheaper option at lunch.

Both restaurants can get rather crowded on Friday nights and during the weekends, but this is a much more serious problem at Sushi Tomo, which has a smaller downtown location. Miyake also offers a sushi boat option, with trays of sushi rotating around a large table which diners can take. When diners are done eating, servers count up the number of plates taken to calculate the bill.

While the food is not very different, each restaurant has a distinct atmosphere. Sushi Tomo is small and crowded, dominated by conversations among families or groups of friends at closely-packed tables. In contrast, Miyake is more spacious with music playing and lights flashing. It is a better place for large groups, unlike the more intimate setting at Sushi Tomo

Both restaurants also once had two locations, but Miyake recently closed its Cupertino location. Sushi Tomo’s second location is on El Camino Real near Pizza Chicago, and this location is larger with a sushi boat option and generous spacing between tables.

Downtown Palo Alto abounds with ethnic cuisine, and this is only a small sampling of the options available there.

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Steals at T&C

As the year starts to come to a close and we find ourselves with more and more free time, many seniors (including ourselves) have found themselves running low on cash.  We decided to share our knowledge from the past couple of years and list some lunch deals.

$1.00

Oatmeal Wednesdays

Although this may look a little less appetizing than some other lunch options, Jamba Juice’s oatmeal is tasty, filling, and cheap.  There is a large selection: plain oatmeal with brown sugar, fresh banana, blueberry & blackberry, or apple cinnamon. Most importantly, on Wednesdays, it’s priced at an affordable $1.00.

$1.25

Mayfield Demi-Baguette

This is our personal favorite; you can get a delicious, freshly baked, good sized demi and ask for free butter or jam on the side.   Not only is this affordable and filling, but quick. For a full baguette that is not necessarily freshly baked but is an excellent bargain, head over to Trader Joe’s, where the full baguettes range in price from $1.69 to $1.99. These baguettes are hard and cold, but the distinctive taste of baguette never fails to please.

$1-$5

Calafia Salad

Another one of our personal favorites, Calafia has a do-it-yourself salad bar.  Since it’s by weight, this option can be as cheap as you want it to be.  We’ve been able to fill a small box for under 2 dollars and had a good, although somewhat less filling lunch.  Be careful, however: the items at the salad bar vary from day to day. Also, if you get too excited filling your box up with the many salad options, the meal can get rather pricey – we have known people to spend almost $10.

$3-4

Trader Joe’s salad to go

Quick and easy, just grab a salad and head back to school.  The trip can be made in under 5 minutes.  Some good salads are the Mexican barbeque chicken, pesto pasta, and caprese. Lighter salads are cheaper, and the salads can get as simple as lettuce and dressing.

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Two Local Restaurants for Health and Quality

Calafia

Calafia is a true local   destination, with its only outlet at Town and Country Village next to Mayfield’s. Along with   the salad bar and market for meals to-go, Calafia also boasts a restaurant with fresh ingredients in delicious recipes created by Chef Charlie Ayers, the former executive chef at Google.

Since diners are

not served bread while waiting for entrees, we highly recommend starting with one of Calafia’s interesting appetizers. From Papas Con Ajo ($6.50), crispy fries with a variety of seasonings, to Salad Automatic, a simple spinach salad with an added fruity kick from orange segments, Calafia offers a wide selection of appetizers to pique the appetite

For a main course, the Queen Calafia’s Cheese Burger is a sophisticated cheeseburger Cheddar cheese, bacon, lettuce, onion, and pickles. At $11.00, the burger certainly cannot compete with other restaurants for economy, but Calafia’s generously-portioned creation tastes high-quality. For the more health-conscious, Calafia also offers a Turkey Mushroom Burger ($11.00) and a vegan Think Macro Eat Local Burger ($10.00), with a soy-oat-vegetable patty on a whole wheat bun.

Pizzas range in price from $8.00 for a simple cheese to $11.00 for Wolfgang’s Pizza, which features shredded duck leg, pumpkin-hempseed pesto, mozzarella, and goat cheese. Each pizza contains eight thin slices, a decent portion for two people to share with an appetizer. All th

e pizzas are vegetarian save one, and there is even a vegan option, without the usual cheese on top.

If all these healthful options still seem too heavy, Calafia also has exotic salads that range in price from $8.50 to $10.50. From organic baby spinach to organic steamed quinoa, each salad includes high-quality, healthy ingredients.

For more substantial entrees, the rice and noodle bowls are all warm and filling with fresh ingredients and ethnic flairs, from the lamb curry to the Japanese beef curry.

One thing to note is that while Calafia boasts slow food served fast, Calafia’s service is not exactly fast. Expect the typical wait time of any nice restaurant, and enjoy the appetizers while you wait for your entree.

Mayfield

Right next door to Calafia is Mayfield Bakery and Cafe, another local addition to Town and Country which includes a bakery for quick meals and a sit-down cafe for more formal meals.

Mayfield is a bit pricier than Calafia, but meals start off with freshly-baked bread, so that appetizers aren’t completely necessary. However, we would recommend the starters for a sophisticated start to your meal, as all the starters are beautifully prepared and each bite screams high-quality, from the warm olives in olive oil ($5) to the clams and garlic crostini ($13).

The selection of entrees is also much smaller than Calafia, but each one features in-season ingredients from local farms. The best value is probably the Mayfield Burger with onion rings ($13), a reasonably portioned burger that is a safe crowd-pleaser.

One thing to note on the menu is that there are only one or two-digit numbers for prices, without a dollar sign or cents. We’ve noted that this usually signifies an expensive eatery, so keep this in mind when eating at Mayfield.

The seasonal pizza also usually doesn’t put too big of a strain on the pocket. At $16, this thin-crusted, luxurious pizza is usually good for two along with a starter, and it always offers fresh toppings and an interesting cheese (currently goat’s milk cheese).

Most of the other entrees are prices in the $20-$30 range, with adequate servings that certainly are not large, but are enough to satisfy with bread. Besides, we realize that such gourmet meals are not meant to be consumed in huge portions. The smaller portions force diners to savor each bite, as does the long wait time between starters and entrees.

Desserts are also available from the next-door bakery, along with organic coffees and teas.

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Summer’s Coming: Frozen Yogurt

If you love ice cream but don’t love the calorie count, Frozen Yogurt is a new craze that has swept Palo Alto, and literally, changed the Palo Alto landscape. Fraiche pioneered the way with the opening of its first Palo Alto store in June of 2007.  Since then, 5 separate froyo locations have opened in Palo Alto, including a second branch of Fraiche at Stanford. All these options may be confusing, so this week we decided to review all 5 of them so read on to see what’s best for you!

Fraiche

Fraiche offers the fewest options, but in this case,  less is more.  Everything Fraiche offers is natural and delicious.  From hand ground dark chocolate to locally grown fruit, Fraiche lives up to its name (yes, it is actually pronounced fresh). The menu includes both fresh yogurt (with non-fat, 2%, or whole milk) and frozen yogurt (in fat-free natural, 98% fat free valrhona chocolate and 99% fat free, lactose-free soy flavors). Soy, with its perfect texture and sweetness, is truly the best flavor but for those new to the frozen yogurt world may be intimidating. Chocolate is best for those who dislike the tartness of frozen yogurt, as a healthy option that still tastes like dessert.  For a morning or afternoon snack natural frozen yogurt with strawberries or olallaberry jam is a safe bet, but we also enjoy more decadent options for an evening dessert, like chocolate frozen yogurt with brownies and chocolate shavings. The mochi is also amazing, complementing any yogurt flavor.

Red Mango

Red Mango is less of a local specialty, with locations in 20 different states, including nine locations in California. Red Mango only serves non-fat frozen yogurt in four different flavors: Original, Pomegranate, Tangomonium (a citrus-y flavor), and the seasonal flavor, which is currently Madagascar Vanilla. We disliked the tartness of Red Mango’s frozen yogurt, which is evident in all of the flavors. The  toppings include fresh fruit as well as mochi, cereals, and chocolate, but we felt that none of these could compare with those at  Fraiche.

Pinkberry

The newest yogurt addition to Palo Alto at Stanford Shopping Center is also definitely not a local specialty, although its healthy offerings have caught on to our trends. With international locations and four separate Bay Area locations, Pinkberry is the biggest yogurt chain in Palo Alto. Pinkberry boasts a wide selection of yogurt flavors: currently Original, Pomegranate, Chocolate, Mango, Coconut and Green Tea. A big bonus is that unlike Fraiche, here you can pick as many different toppings as will fit into your cup which makes the always difficult decision of strawberries or chocolate a little easier.  Pinkberry also offers a mini for just under three dollars, which is a good way to get your fix of froyo but save some money and lower the calorie count.

L’Amour

Although L’Amour has an interesting take, we feel that it is just not up to par with some of the other options.  L’Amour is literally a frozen yogurt do-it-yourself.  With a selection of 6 flavors and countless fruit, sweets, and miscellaneous toppings, L’Amour makes frozen yogurt fun.  The yogurt itself, however, is not nearly as good as that in the previous three spots, and if customers  choose an unwise combination of toppings (which unfortunately happens quite often),  disaster and disappointment ensues.  We think it’s best to leave it to the professionals.  The price at L’Amour is also a deciding factor – since it is measured by weight, a customer can easily go crazy filling up their cup and experience shock at the ridiculous price.  If looking for a fun dessert after dinner, L’Amour can satisfy, but is not as safe an option as many things can go wrong throughout the process.

Culture

All we can say about Culture, is that unless there is absolutely no way for you to get to any of the other 4 froyo locations, avoid Culture at all costs.  Culture has no unique or different aspects, and the yogurt is way too sour.  The chocolate is bearable, but really not worth the money.

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Summer’s Coming: Tasty Options to Beat the Heat

As summer approaches, we are thinking about visiting some local ice cream, frozen yogurt, or gelato shops. Before we visit some specialty shops, from Rick’s Rather Rich Ice Cream in the Charleston Plaza, to L’Amour Frozen Yogurt Cafe in downtown Palo Alto, we decided to review some chain stores around town. While these locations lack the local flair, they still offer cool treats for reasonable prices.

For a student bargain, a tub of ice cream at a grocery store is the way to go. We like the Trader Joe’s and Longs Drugs at Town and Country when we’re with a group of friends.

At Trader Joe’s, for around $8, one can get a box of ice cream sandwiches and another of mochi to satisfy different tastes. There is also a selection of ice cream pints and quarts, but the flavor selection is limited and these large containers can be hard to pass around in a group. One of our favorites is the cutie ice cream sandwiches, with eight individually-packaged mini-sandwiches that are perfect for a group of friends. With these sweet treats, one can always go for the classic milk-and-cookies option by picking up a jug of milk and several cups from the samples section. However, we have found the sparkling blueberry juice even better. For less than $3, we grab a large bottle and cups and share.

Longs Drugs offers similar products for lower prices, minus the specialty brands. If we want a full tub of ice cream, we go to Longs for the larger selection and lower prices, but we haven’t found any clear favorites there among the generic brands. There are also individually-sized treats like Snicker’s ice cream bars and drumsticks, but it is significantly more expensive to buy ice cream like this Also, the walk from Palo Alto High is a bit longer – we easily make Trader Joe’s trips in under 10 minutes, but Longs is a bit more difficult.

Outside of the realm of grocery-store ice cream, Coldstone’s offers amazing ice cream-and-toppings. This is obviously a pricier option and more difficult for a group of friends, but it allows everyone to pick their own favorite ice cream and toppings, and there are so many more choices. If you’re uncertain which toppings to pair with each ice cream flavor, go with a Coldstone Creation – the store knows which combos work best. From the Coffee Lovers Only, featuring almonds, heath bar, and caramel in coffee ice cream, to the Founder’s Favorite, with pecans, brownie, fudge, and caramel in sweet cream ice cream, we loved them all.

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