.Stett Holbrook

A food critic remembers repasts past and bids farewell to his readers

THE MAN IN THE IRON-SKILLET MASK: Longtime food critic Stett Holbrook finally bares all.

For eight years, David Cook was my constant companion as I trolled the highways and back roads of Silicon Valley looking for delicious things to eat and good stories to tell. He was with me at every restaurant I dined at, from the trendiest white-tablecloth places to the sketchiest hole-in-the-wall taquerias.

As long as the restaurants took credit cards, he was there. And for the cash-only places, he was there, too, biding his time.

David Cook, you see, was the name on my Metro credit card and my alter ego. As Metro‘s food editor and restaurant critic I strived for anonymity, and my David Cook alias helped me do that. My dining companions were trained to know me as Stett Holbrook outside of restaurants, but I became Dave once we went inside.

But after eight years of eating for a living and chronicling Silicon Valley’s food culture, I’m leaving to take a new job as senior editor at MAKE, a magazine and website about the maker movement and DIY culture.

If you think about it, getting paid to eat and write about it is kind of ridiculous, particularly given the number of people willing to work for food. Being a food writer was a privilege and thanks to the editorial freedom afforded to me by Metro CEO Dan Pulcrano I was able to take that freedom wherever it led me.

In my case, it was the connection between the food we eat and the impact it has on the planet and the people and creatures that live on it. In my mind, food writing that doesn’t place the food into a larger, ecological context is part of the problem.

The production of Food Forward, a documentary TV series I co-created for PBS, was a direct result of this green food consciousness I was able to discover in me at Metro. But I spent more time eating than engaging in Michael Pollanesque diatribes against the industrial food system.

My highlight reel is long. Some of the standouts include my visits to Manresa (believe the hype—it really is a special place) and Love Apple Farm, the restaurant’s biodynamic farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

I had one of the most otherworldly meals ever at Nami Nami, a Kappo-style Japanese restaurant in Mountain View that doesn’t get near the attention it deserves. I vividly recall my meals at Chez TJ when Christopher Kostow was in the kitchen. He has since gone on to three-Michelin-star stardom at Meadowood in St. Helena.

Some of my favorite meals were at restaurants no longer with us like Menlo Park’s Kaygetsu (the first restaurant I reviewed for Metro) and the humble La Juquilita in San Jose, home of some of the best Oaxacan food I sampled in the South Bay.

Some of my best dining experiences weren’t $400 meals, they were at restaurants I found in the generic minimalls and shopping centers of Silicon Valley where Indian, Vietnamese, Mexican, Korean, Ethiopian, Japanese and Chinese places thrive. These restaurants are Silicon Valley’s true strength.

Year after year, I took great pleasure driving down El Camino Real between Santa Clara and Sunnyvale looking for new Korean or Indian restaurants or anything else that caught my eye. And there was always something new. Udupi Palace, Jang Su Jang, En, Real Ice Cream, Tofu House, Sawa, and Lovely Sweets and Snacks all bring back fond food memories. Milpitas was another food haven. South Legend, Tirupathi Bhimas, ABC Seafood—I’ll miss you.

The long shadow cast by San Francisco’s dining scene over Silicon Valley was a running theme over my years at Metro. In some categories SF beats SJ. But ramen is not one of them. I’ve said once and I’ll say it again: Silicon Valley’s ramen shops rule. I’ll long remember the porky, soupy, slurpable goodness of Kahoo, Ramen Halu, Santouka, Maru Ichi, Orenchi and others. The South Bay has San Francisco beat on Vietnamese food, too. I remember the first time I walked into the all-Vietnamese food court at San Jose’s Grand Century Mall. Nirvana.

After eight years of nonstop eating and drinking in the South Bay, I’d say I know the area’s food scene better than most. Or at least I’d better. Silicon Valley is a great place to eat, if you know where to look. There’s still a gap in the mid-tier, reasonably priced places you can eat at on weekdays, but nice enough for a date or special occasion. There are a few new places—Hay Market, Zona Rosa, the Table—that show what I think is the way forward: small, chef-owned restaurants that cater to their respective neighborhoods.

The future is local—local food, local owners and local restaurants. When you find a good place—localize it. That’s what the late David Cook would do.

Thanks for listening for all these years.

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