That's the impression you'll get after visiting Totoro on Villa Street in Mountain View. Despite its splashy neon signs in the front window, and picture menus and ads for Korean beer on the walls, once you step inside you see the homey touches: prompt service, handmade signs and mixed crockery. There's also a menu that sticks to the basics, offering hot pot; traditional meat, rice and vegetable dishes; and a selection of Japanese katsu, or breaded meat dishes.
Totoro is named after a popular Japanese anime character, and the hostess is just as friendly when greeting her patrons. Her prompt service and infallible courtesy prompted one fellow diner to tell me that her service alone would make another visit worthwhile.
Tim Robert, the Korean chef and manager, has been a chef for 15 years, and says he is proud of Totoro's repeat customer base. "We are very popular with the local Korean-American and Chinese-American community," he said.
Prices range from $6 to $8 per person for lunch and $8 to $10 for dinner. They're reasonable, especially considering the freshness of the julienned vegetables and the quality of the meat, which was tender and without gristle in all of our dishes.
Portions are generous. Each meal begins with small plates, or banchan. Totoro offers four dishes, whereas other Korean restaurants may offer anywhere between eight and 12 options. But what we sampled was fresh, and fewer dishes may be appropriate considering Totoro's size. Small dishes of peppery glass noodles, as well as bean sprouts with sesame flavor, had a fresh, earthy note; the pickled daikon was sweet and refreshing; and the roughly diced kimchee was redolent with tangy chili.
Before we had even had a chance to dip our chopsticks in all four dishes, our appetizers arrived at the same time as our entrees and rice, and we became overwhelmed with food, which was regrettable. The seafood pancake appetizer ($8.95) was the size of a dinner plate and included egg, bell pepper, onion and shrimp, but the crispy texture we were hoping for was overpowered by too much egg, and was mushy, if not runny, in some areas. The fried potstickers ($4.95) were tasty but unremarkable.
The seafood tofu hot pot ($8.95) comes bubbling in its own mini cauldron-like pot, and my friend had a great time cracking her own egg and stirring it until it cooked in the heat of the broth. The tofu was creamy; the broth had a light garlic flavor; and the vegetables were the perfect texture. It was a nice treat on a rainy evening.
My bul go ki (aka bulgogi, $8.95) was beef, onion, scallion and carrot with accompanying white rice. The vegetables were perfectly julienned, with the carrot al dente and the beef perfectly tender. But, like the hot pot, the dish lacked flavor. There was a subtle flavor of soy and garlic, but overall, the modest flavors that are often presented boldly in Korean cuisine are lacking here.
This was also true of the vegetable bi bim bop (aka bibimbap, $7.95): cold sliced shitake mushrooms, carrots, zucchini, scallion, bok choy and chive, which you mix with your rice (bibimbap literally means "mixed rice"). I spied several patrons applying their hot sauce during our meal to increase the flavor factor. However, there are spicy counterparts on the menu to these dishes that would not require this extra attention.
The hot version of this dish, DolSotBiBimBob ($8.95), which we enjoyed during lunch, allows the rice to get crispy in the stone bowl and also includes a raw egg for cooking. I think these elements make it more satisfying due to the contrasting textures.
The Nam Bi U-Dong ($8.95), an offering from the Japanese side of the menu, features tempura shrimp, chicken, fishcake and such vegetables as broccoli, Japanese pumpkin, potato and seaweed, with a raw egg that cooks in the broth. The noodles were thick; the broth was savory; and the tempura was crisp and light. Only the fishcake detracted, as it brought color but no flavor or texture of note to the party.
Service was friendly and attentive, and on a cold, wet Sunday night, the restaurant was filling up fast by 7 p.m. The lunch service is equally popular, and the employees seem accustomed to moving the lunch crowd through quickly.
Overall, Totoro's lean cuts of beef and pork and carefully selected fresh vegetables, paired with steaming broth and generous portions of rice, make this a reliable stop when shopping downtown. For those unfamiliar with Korean cuisine, Totoro is friendly to the tentative palate.
841 Villa St, Mountain View
Daily house: Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner: 5-10 p.m. (with service ending at 9 p.m. on Sundays).
Credit cards: yes
Outdoor dining: no
Party facilities: no
Noise level: fine
Bathroom cleanliness: poor