Cantonese comfort food

Cooking Papa in Mountain View hits some dim sum, but not all

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.

Cooking Papa

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.

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6 people like this
Posted by Max Hauser
a resident of another community
on Feb 6, 2015 at 1:12 pm

Max Hauser is a registered user.

A good overall write-up on the Mountain View Cooking Papa (I've had half a dozen meals there).

The subtitle threw me off a little though: "Cooking Papa in Mountain View hits some dim sum, but not all" could be read to imply it's fundamentally a dim-sum restaurant, or even that Cantonese food consists just of dim sum -- neither of which is true, certainly (dim sum is a submenu offered part of the week, which the review does make clear).

One thing the review didn't bring out is that much of the Cooking Papa restaurants' local novelty and interest is precisely that they _depart_ from the sort of limited or Americanized Cantonese restaurants many Americans "grew up going to," toward the much wider range of dishes found in the southern China province itself or Hong Kong. In that connection I might wish that the review had dwelt less on Peking duck (acknowledged as non-Cantonese) -- whatever its merits -- and more on things like the lo-mein and rice-noodle-roll dishes (which are briefly mentioned). A novelty at CP (I think it's more novel than tasty but still, everyone should try it) is a (soft, savory) rice-noodle roll enclosing "flour crisp" -- fried cruller slices! Vegan yes; lo-carb, no.

Also, the usual Cantonese word for rice porridge (which CP's English menu just calls "porridge") -- almost a shibboleth for true Cantonese restaurants in the US -- is not congee but jook. "Congee" (the Mandarin term) I've seen more in US Chinese restaurants with non-Cantonese owners, or in parts of the US much farther than us from San Francisco and its 150 years of Canton connections.

5 people like this
Posted by None for me, thanx
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 6, 2015 at 2:36 pm

I have always loved Chinese food, but found Cantonese cuisine too greasy and bland.

I wanted to like the food at Cooking Papa, since I really though the name was clever.

However, the food was pretty traditional Cantonese--greasy, bland, overlooked. All the grease made me nauseous.

I will pass on this one, thanx.

Like this comment
Posted by nac
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 7, 2015 at 1:18 pm

Congee is actually the south Indian term, which came to English via Portugese most likely. In Hong Kong and elsewhere, in English the dish is traditionally called 'congee.' 'Jook' is used a lot in the USA and is the best approximation of the Cantonese name of the dish. In Mandarin, it's 'zhou' which is similar to the Canto pronunciation.

9 people like this
Posted by Chinese Born in CA
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 7, 2015 at 5:29 pm

The one in Santa Clara is better than the Mountain View one: Web Link Both feel like you're in Hong Kong with the tables squished together, TVs in every corner, and the ESL customers. This is hardcore food and atmosphere, not really for those who dine at places like Chef Chu's and Ming's.

4 people like this
Posted by Max Hauser
a resident of another community
on Feb 8, 2015 at 8:43 am

Max Hauser is a registered user.

To naca resident: My point is that here in the Bay Area where the review appeared, the rice gruel is traditionally called "jook" (or its variant romanizations tsuk, zhou, etc) -- the signature _Cantonese_ term, common in Bay-Area Cantonese restaurants and among Cantonese immigrants (I've been encountering it here for 40+ years). SF's expat Cantonese community, traditionally the largest outside China, began soon after San Francisco itself, in the wake of the 1849 Gold Rush. "Congee," by contrast, typically appears in Mandarin-speaking restaurants here, or from US food writers in other regions (Northeast, Midwest). The word "congee" above was the reviewer's; this restaurant's menu just calls it porridge.

To None-for-me: Obviously personal preferences rule. But your characterization of Cooking Papa MV's food differs from my experience in half a dozen visits trying a range of cuisine dishes including rice-noodle-roll, clay-pot, and lo-mein specialties. I don't think any of my dining companions, either, would summarize our experiences as "greasy." Those experiences also included enough high points and unusual offerings that we'd eagerly return. Given that CP has around 200 menu items (of literally thousands, in Cantonese and Hong-Kong cuisines), it would help readers to understand your comment if you specified which particular dishes you mean by "the food."

As the third commenter pointed out, CP is a true "Cantonese" restaurant. Different scene, menu, and customer demographics from restaurants "designed to appeal to American tastes" like the popular Chef Chu's (profiled in depth a few years ago: Web Link ).

Like this comment
Posted by Max Hauser
a resident of another community
on Feb 8, 2015 at 8:50 am

Max Hauser is a registered user.

Correction: I meant fourth commenter above, not third.

4 people like this
Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 8, 2015 at 11:09 pm

@ Chinese Born in CA: Thanks for the comment. I'm looking forward to sampling food at the Mountain View restaurant. I think that we will try the Santa Clara location too.

@ Max Hauser: I appreciated your post! There is usually a great deal of variation within every type specific to a certain nation or culture.

For instance, Mexican food varies quite a bit depending upon where you are in Mexico. Consequently, the Mexican food along the American west coast differs greatly from the Mexican food that you find in places like Texas.

I am from Mexico. I grew up with a peculiar type of cuisine that was "normal" for our family. The food that my parents cooked at home was similar to the food at the restaurants in town. It was similar to the food that we tasted in other cities in our area of Mexico (the northeast) as well as places in Texas. As I grew up, we visited other areas where the food was unique to the region. That food was as foreign to me as the first time I tried French, American or Chinese food.

Even now, I have yet to find a "Mexican restaurant" in California that reminds me of the food where I grew up. Northeastern Mexico cuisine doesn't consist of "burritos." It consists of flour and corn tacos (including breakfast tacos), enchiladas, carne guisada, mole, arroz con pollo, beans (pinto -- especially "refritos" or "refried"), cabrito, menudo, fajitas and brisket, tortas, elote, etc... I really miss this variety of food -- as I knew it -- and haven't had any here in California.

Like this comment
Posted by Jenn Davies
a resident of another community
on May 7, 2015 at 11:01 am

Thanks for the write-up! I love Cantonese food, but I can't find any restaurants in my area. I'll be traveling quite a bit over the next few months, so I'm trying to read up before I go. This way I'll know what restaurants to stop at for some authentic Cantonese cooking. Web Link

4 people like this
Posted by Worse than Expected
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 7, 2015 at 9:18 pm

I love Hunnan and Szechuan dishes, so I guess I set my expectations too high. I expected something jazzed up to fit local tastes, but no, this is just like the real deal from Hong Kong, which is the worst food I have ever had. It was very greasy, soggy, overlooked, and bland--nothing distinctive about it.

2 people like this
Posted by huh?
a resident of Mountain View
on May 8, 2015 at 6:53 pm

"It was very greasy, soggy, overlooked, and bland--nothing distinctive about it."
I love Schezuan and Hunan cuisine, but I doubt your food at Cooking Papa had MORE grease. Schezuan especially has lots of oil, so I wonder what the heck you ordered??

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