You can never go home again, the old adage warns. But it turns out you can -- if you grew up going to Cantonese restaurants in the United States or if home is Hong Kong. Cooking Papa is here to help.
In mid-May, Mountain View welcomed the youngest Cooking Papa location, with the owners reclaiming a Sizzler on El Camino Real. Fans of the Foster City and Santa Clara Cooking Papas got excited, then disappointed when it closed for remodeling until early January. Although driving up to the building you might still think "Sizzler," the renewed dining room offers fish tanks, colorfully tiled walls, views into the glassed-in kitchen and two giant TV sets running a continuous loop of Cooking Papa cooking videos.
Food quality has been erratic. With close to 200 menu items, Cooking Papa (more on the name later) has something for everybody -- unless that somebody is on a low-carb diet. The menu's four pillars are rice, rice noodles, egg noodles and congee (rice porridge).
For fans, Cooking Papa conjures the pace and Cantonese comfort foods of busy restaurants in Hong Kong. "Save yourself a 15-hour flight and eat here!" one said.
Another attraction is that the restaurant serves dim sum at lunch on weekdays (except Tuesdays when they are closed). Instead of servers coming around with carts, you get a golf pencil to mark a sheet listing a wide variety of dumplings, shrimp balls and steamed buns. Dishes are served hot from the kitchen in bamboo baskets.
For the go-to dim sum dish, har gow ($4.50), Cooking Papa serves up four fat dumplings, chunks of shrimp and bamboo shoots stuffed into pleated, translucent wrappers. They are good though not cheap, as are the upward-facing dumplings called shumai ($4.50), which had a touch more seasoning and a lot of chopped pork.
The best dim sum dish was one we'd seen them make on the restaurant TVs. Sweet and flaky, the barbecued pork puff ($3.50) is baked till the sesame seeds pop on top. One order gets you one sweet pastry divided into three squares.
Also available at dinner, the wide flaps of steamed rice noodle rolls come with a variety of meats and vegetables and seasoned soy sauce poured over the dish. The chicken with bitter melon roll ($5.80) contained tender strips of meat and the appropriately named vegetable. Chow fun with beef and soy sauce ($8.75) was redolent of star anise.
Of all the carb variations, most exciting was the signature dessert, three giant Hong Kong-style fried egg puffs ($4.25), dusted in powdered sugar and too hot to eat right away.
We had poor luck with soup. Braised beef brisket noodle soup ($8.50) was paltry for the price and lukewarm. Another day, from the page of signature dishes, we chose shrimp wonton noodle soup ($6.95), which was also tepid and garnished with two spears of Chinese broccoli.
The 20-page menu's organization plan is a little confusing. Vegetarians have it easy: All their dishes are helpfully colored green.
Peking duck ($11.95 for half) is on the signature page, and you may notice the ducks glistening in the kitchen window. Don't fall for their allure. As a friend reminded me later, this is not a Cantonese dish.
One other signature dish was disappointing. The special egg tofu with assorted vegetables ($12.50) was bland and stingy.
Keep in mind that Cantonese food is not Szechuan food. You may want to use the chili sauce, vinegar and soy sauce provided. And although Cooking Papa in Mountain View serves seafood, this is not a seafood restaurant. The specialness about Cooking Papa's brand of Cantonese comfort food is in its reach: from pork intestines to plain porridge. Drinks range from Coke to iced milk tea with black grass jelly. You can pre-order private banquet dishes from a separate menu, share the seven-course business lunch ($65 for four to six people) or drown your sorrows in a bowl of congee.
The ambiance of Cooking Papa falls somewhere between Panda Express and Fu Lam Mum on Castro Street downtown. Servers are easy to spot in their Cooking Papa shirts. A very nice feature is to have all the larger, banquet-size tables with Lazy Susans in a separate section. The rest of the room is a sea of dark square tables that can be expanded into circles.
The name, Cooking Papa, seems to be drawn from Cooking Mama, a series of smartphone games featuring a Hello Kitty-type cartoon girl ("Cooking Mama: Shop and Chop," "Cooking Mama: Dinner With Friends"). The face of Cooking Papa is a happy, well-fed cartoon chef, heavily mustachioed and sporting a red bandana. He looks like a nice guy.
1962 W. El Camino Real, Mountain View
Hours: Monday-Friday: 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-9:45 p.m.
Saturday-Sunday:10:30 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-9:45 p.m. Closed Tuesday.