The New York Times declared earlier this month that "understaffed 'fast-casual' restaurants -- frozen yogurt, cupcake and tea shops; poke bars; and salad stations where customers order from the counter" are increasingly replacing mom-and-pop restaurants in Silicon Valley.
Mountain View's Srasa Kitchen would seemingly fall into that category. Customers order at a counter from menus displayed on flat-screen TVs and watch employees compile their customizable pan-Asian bowls from an assembly line of ingredients. They're left to their own devices when it comes to service -- get your own plastic silverware, chopsticks, Sriracha sauce or water. Yelpers compare Srasa to another local Asian-fusion fast-casual chain, Asian Box, and to Mexican food chain Chipotle.
Yet Srasa Kitchen is family-owned and arguably still a mom-and-pop restaurant, just wearing different clothes.
The Poon family operated Express 7, a fast-food Chinese restaurant, for 17 years at an aging Middlefield Road shopping center before closing to open a new concept, Srasa Kitchen. At Srasa, diners can choose from pre-set combinations or build their own Asian-fusion bowls by drawing on an array of fresh Cambodian, Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese ingredients. (Srasa means "fresh" in the Cambodian language Khmer.) The curry sauces are made from scratch, the lemongrass and garlic are ground in-house. It's the kind of stuff Brandon Poon's mother, a native of Cambodia who opened Express 7 with her Hong Kong-native husband, used to cook for him at home, he said in an interview.
The ingredients are all locally sourced, the is menu friendly to vegans and gluten-free diners, and the prices are affordable, Poon said.
This combination has clearly paid off. About a year in, there's a line out the door at lunchtime on weekdays at the Middlefield Road location, and the family opened a second outpost on restaurant-heavy Castro Street this summer.
The original location still manages an authentic feel, despite the TV-screen menus, wood paneling and diners holding chopsticks in one hand and iPhone in the other. It must be due to the food, which has a higher-quality and more authentic taste than other fast-casual chains.
A D.I.Y. bowl with half brown rice, half "fresh salad mix" (an undressed cabbage mixture) topped with grilled lemongrass chicken, charred corn, zucchini, sauteed kale, cilantro, pickled daikon and carrots, slices of fresh cucumber, bean sprouts, a lime wedge and homemade kimchi (an extra 50 cents) was extremely satisfying. The restaurant's name is an apt descriptor. The strips of chicken were tender with a nice char and complemented, but not overwhelmed, by the many toppings. The pickled daikon and carrot stood out in freshness and flavor; I wouldn't order any bowl without them.
For sauce, I went with soy ginger, served on the side, which was good but got somewhat lost in the crowd of of other ingredients.
Build-your-own bowls start at $8.95, with some proteins and toppings costing extra. Customers start by choosing from several bases (cold vermicelli noodles, white jasmine or brown rice and the cabbage salad mix; you can also go half and half on two options), then move to the proteins. There's the grilled chicken as well as pork and chicken meatballs, eight-hour roasted pork belly, grilled beef short ribs and tofu. Then you go wild with toppings and sauces.
One of Srasa's suggested "inspired bowls," the "Cali" ($9) comes with the mixed cabbage base, tofu, charred corn, sauteed kale, zucchini, seasonal vegetables (which last week was cauliflower), cilantro, cucumbers, pickled daikon and carrots, all topped with a tamarind sauce. At the new Castro Street location on a recent evening, what's advertised as "crispy" tofu was nowhere near that. It was limp and bland, like it had been sitting around for too long. Good thing the fresh ingredients dressed it up.
The roasted pork belly in the "Cambo" bowl ($12.25, with vermicelli noodles, seasonal vegetables, papaya salad, cilantro, bean sprouts, cucumbers, crispy onions, Thai chiles, hard-boiled egg and a lime, topped with a green curry sauce) is served as flavorful cubes, crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. They paired well with the green curry, the most spicy of three curry sauces.
Drinks include home-brewed teas, lemonade, horchata, sodas, local beers and ciders.
Service is minimal, given the setup, but it was friendly and efficient on all visits. Despite the lunchtime rush at the Middlefield Road location, the line moves quickly -- a perk of the assembly-line model.
Poon said The New York Times got it right: It's incredibly difficult to operate a restaurant in Silicon Valley, and the Midpeninsula's restaurant rows -- namely Castro Street and University Avenue in Palo Alto are increasingly populated by chains. He said his family decided to close the burgers-and-baos focused restaurant, Buffalo, and replace it with another Srasa in part because a large burger chain, Eureka!, was set to open down the block.
"Changing to Srasa was kind of our way to at least still provide a mom-and-pop, local business -- just to stay competitive," he said. "It was worth the change."
225 E. Middlefield Road #2 and 292 Castro St., Mountain View
Hours: Both locations, Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Castro Street only open Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: Lot (Middlefield Road) and street (Castro Street)
Outdoor seating: yes
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: variable
Bathroom cleanliness: good