Fast Food for the New Millennium

Calafia Cafe on Urbanspoon

Calafia Cafe in Palo Alto proves that “fresh” and “fast” aren’t mutually exclusive

(This review appeared in South Bay Accent in November, 2010)

Google is best known for its prowess in Internet search and other online technologies but the Mountain View advertising giant spawned another innovation that gets less attention. Nothing less than redefining fast food in the new millennium.  You can taste the evidence any day of the week at Palo Alto’s Calafia Cafe: in a toothy, mouth-pleasing barley corn salad, fabulous thin-crust pizza or chile/garlic-glazed hanger steak.  Rather than relying on grease, empty carbs and the freezer, Calafia’s fast food is “slow food served fast,” as defined by owner/chef Charlie Ayers.  This means health-conscious, sustainably sourced ingredients turned into dishes that can usually arrive at your table reasonably quickly.

What’s Google’s relationship to Calafia, you might be wondering.  The backstory is interesting.  Ayers was Google’s first chef and employee number 53, winning his job after a cook-off against other candidates.  As chef, his instructions from founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page were to develop free meals for the 20-something staff that were nourishing yet so delicious that workers would want to spend extra-long hours at their desks and not stray to off-site junk-food joints.  Budget constraints: none. Ayers got his bonus if productivity increased.  Thus items like healthy burritos were big — easily eaten from one hand while coding with the other — along with anything that sounded delicious enough to lure employees to the office.

After six years, Ayers was overseeing a staff of 150 serving 8,000 free meals daily and an invitation to dine at Google was highly coveted by non-employees.   So Ayers took his stock-option proceedings  – rumored at $28.8 million — and after some false starts, turned the ideas he developed at Google into Calafia Cafe, named after the warrior queen of the mythical “Island of California” that first appeared in a Spanish novel written in 1510.  Calafia Cafe includes a handsome sit-down eatery and adjacent take-out market.  Originally honed to please well-educated youngsters from different backgrounds, Ayers’ recipes tend toward big flavors and comfort food rather than trying to compete with pricey white-tablecloth dining rooms.

Owner/chef Charlie Ayers

Although Ayers — a big, friendly, goateed guy usually found wearing a Hawaiian shirt — has a culinary school background, his cuisine at Calafia could best be described as healthy, fresh dishes like what an eager home cook might prepare on a good day. And this approach clearly appeals to the families, young business crowd, high schoolers, nearby Stanford students and other varied clientele flocking to Calafia. One even sees young Googlers dropping in – clearly, they miss “Chef Charlie” enough to be willing to pay for his food.

The fact that the prices aren’t in the stratosphere helps. Calafia serves three meals daily, with an expansive list of categories. For dinner, the list covers appetizers, burgers/tacos/wraps/paninis, noodle and rice bowls, salads, entree plates, sides, kid’s food and desserts. The most expensive item is $18 fall-off-the-bone beef short ribs served with vegetables and horseradish mashed potatoes.  With a few dozen dishes on the menu — including plenty of vegan and vegetarian items — and daily specials added, it would take some effort not to find things to like.

Lovely looks include the most uncomfortable chairs in town

Plates of irresistible  matchstick fries with garlic, parsley and special spices served with homemade catsup kept zipping past our table, while the jalapeno shrimp roll with chile lime sauce has also built up a fan club. On the light side, try colorful, tasty beet carpaccio with arugula, walnuts and goat cheese, or for bigger appetites, the rib-sticking little-neck clams with garlicky tomato sauce, chorizo, green lentils and grilled bread.  None of these top $9.

In the wraps category, the stars include a trio of spicy shredded chicken tacos, an exotic  lamb burger with yogurt sauce and “Angry Pork Torta,” in which the slow-cooked, citrus-braised meat in barbecue sauce comes with cheddar cheese, jicama slaw and black beans.  But the pizzas are a notch better, highlighted by an homage to Wolfgang Puck that sprinkles shredded duck, pumpkin-seed pesto and cheeses on a crackly thin crust.  Another pleasing pizza choice is for vegans and features lemony garbanzo puree, roasted red onions, grilled radicchio and tapenade.

Go to Calafia for the tasty pizzas

The entree plates are copious and typically come with vegetable and starch. Glazed, roasted salmon is tasty when the kitchen gets the timing right, but the grilled hanger steak with sweetish glaze is more consistent. A particular standout is the short ribs, cooked sous vide in a tart/sweet sauce.

The sides are consistently great and cheap; order several for a low-cost meal.  Notable warm sides include earthy roasted brussel sprouts with brown mushrooms; delicious, creamy gingered yams; and a tasty combo of butternut squash, corn, chiles, tomatoes and cheese. The barley corn salad with pickled ginger and roast peppers is excellent, as is the shredded carrot and sliced almond salad.

Perhaps in keeping with a high-volume restaurant serving three meals a day with quick turnaround, the food isn’t solidly consistent at Calafia.  For example, one recent salad special that was supposed to feature apples and blue cheese had so little of both – and so many under-dressed greens — that the overall flavors were a disappointment.  The service can be hit or miss, too, but with more hits than misses, fortunately.

Hanger steak with onion rings is a popular choice

The thrifty prices and big portions might well lure you into consuming a substantial meal. In the off-chance you have an unfilled corner of your stomach left, there are dessert temptations like ginger crème brulée, warm cherry tart, milk chocolate bombe and peach blueberry galette served with ice cream and peach coulis. The bombe, in particular, might tempt you to pig out.

The light, bright interior is clean and modern, with burnished woods and handsome lighting. Underscoring the “slow food fast” concept is lots of counter seating in addition to tables. The highly uncomfortable metal chairs and stools also promote fast exits, alas. But Calafia’s 21st century fast food still resoundingly beats all the other guys with teenage staffs in paper hats, so here’s hoping this concept gains as much traction as…well, Google did.

Chocolate bombe will convince you to save some room

Calafia Cafe, 855 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, Town & Country Village, (650) 322-9200, http://www.calafiapaloalto.com

HOURS: Breakfast, Monday-Friday, 9-11;  lunch, Monday-Friday, 11-4:30; weekend brunch, 9-3; 11:30-2; dinner, Monday-Friday, 4:30 to 9; dinner weekends, 3-9. Reservations not taken for parties of less than eight.

PRICES: Starters, $5-10; burgers/wraps/tacos, $9-12; pizzas, $8-11; entrees, $14-18; desserts, $7.50-8.

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