Went to Happy Cafe earlier tonight for the first time in downtown San Mateo, without realising that Wednesday night was the only time they were open for dinner. There were two couples ahead of us, and the missus chatted with a woman who arrived and asked if we were two (as if she were the owner). Turns out she was a restaurant owner, not Happy Cafe.... but Ming's of Palo Alto! When another restaurant owner comes all the way up to eat somewhere else, it has got to be pretty good. We learned that her favorite dish was the stewed pork with marinated egg, which we did not get.
There were no more than 8 tables, so yes your typical small very hole in the wall homey kind of place. The white board special (I love those) had the daily specialties, all 5 or 6 of them, and written only in Chinese. After scanning through the menus we selected a few dishes. My gripe is that while it is truly authentic "small eats", the portions were really small. Of course when one is hungry one orders more, and it all adds up :-/
Marinated bamboo shoot - This was a white board special, and I suppose it was stir fried with a lot of oil, but it was the best dish of the evening. The bamboo had an interesting soy based sauce marination to it, and was juicy and semi crunchy to the taste.
Chinese celery stir fried with pork shreds and tofu gan - another white board special, and apparently a VERY homey food which the missus said reminded her of mom's Hakkanese cooking! I am not a fan of American celery, but did enjoy the much thinner and tastier Chinese counterpart. This was more of a clear stir fried dish, with minimal seasoning. Tasted even better with a splash of Chinese pepper (add your own). Another highlight, though I liked the bamboo more.
While we were waiting for the other items, the waitress brought out a nice cold tofu with soy sauce and green onion sprinkled on top. Everyone else got the same freebie dish, it was a nice side dish/appetizer.
Unfortunately the rest of the items we ordered were off the regular menu and weren't as spectacular.
Xiao Long Bao - Not bad but not great. The moment these little guys arrived, I noticed that the outside skin wrapping seemed a bit more expanded than at other places, likely indicating that the contents were not quite held together during steaming. Sadly this proved true when I took a bite. Before that I took a dip of the xlb into vinegar and I wasn't quite sure how much juice came out when I bit into the skin. The meat contents seemed to have fallen apart rather easily, and the outer wrap seemed less delicate in appearance. I would say Shanghai Restaurant on 25th Ave does a much better version, although slightly smaller. Perhaps I'm being too harsh, because I am still a huge fan of Ding Tai Fung (LA, Taipei) and think those to be the definitive XLB. I just don't have faith in XLBs in the Bay Area in general.
Shanghai style fried egg rolls - I know I know....I shouldn't have gone for the Americanized delicacy, but I had a craving for the crunchies. Crunchy they were and very well done on the outside, but very plain in flavor and a bit stingy with the materials on the inside. I won't be ordering this again.
Shanghai style Fried Noodle - The owner of Ming's teased this homeboy to the missus that we ordered that (coz HK ppl just can't do w/o this dish at any Shanghai-nese restaurant). I personally wanted to see how Happy's interpretation of this dish was, compared to the versions I've had in Hong Kong and Toronto. I must say that they were very generous on the veggies and mushrooms (a rarely seen ingredient from the versions I've had). The upside and downside to this dish is that it was not greasy. While it tasted great, the grease would have enhanced the flavors more. I know....I should pick health over taste!
We decided to try one more item after that, the pork won ton soup. Sadly this was the worst dish of the evening. The won tons were dry, small, and the amount of filling was practically the area of one's pinky fingertip, if not fingernail. It just didn't taste right. It was served with the shanghainese style light green veg (qing gan cai) and even that tasted better than the wonton.
I think this place is pretty special, but not everything is good. I think the white board specials are likely the more authentic items to order, and you can probably get by without ordering the main menu items, and still walk out happy. Other white boards they had tonight were the Shanghainese style "lion head" meatballs, Stewed eggplant, and another item I couldn't quite make out or remember.
Cash only, another gripe tonight, but at least the specials were sooooo good we will overlook this ;-)