Thanks for all the suggestions! We made use of our car-sitting excursions, and tried as much food as we could outside of san francisco. Two conclusions: clearly the Bay Area's dining scene is happening in the South Bay now, not SF, and the service, in general, is so much nicer outside of the city. Here's a brief, for others who rarely make it out of SF and miss out on these:
1. Udupi Palace, Sunnyvale - excellent South Indian food. This is no secret to chowhounders, and we've had Indian friends insist on udupi. Unlike most SF Indian restaurants, you can actually taste the ingredients, fresh. And SF doesn't have South Indian at all.
2. House of Yurong/Szechwan Home, San Jose - our new favorite for Sichuan cuisine. Dan dan noodles, Chengdu mala fish, tea smoked duck, small plates. There's something instantly addictive about the dan dan noodles' flavour. I was craving more a few hours after later. Very sad that SF doesn't have close to this quality.
3. Banana Leaf, Milpitas - Almost upscale oasis in the McCarthy Ranch strip mall. The roti bread w. curry was exceptional. Lots of good-looking seafood dishes that we didn't get to try. The mango shrimp with ketchup was good but not great. The coconut rice was subtle compared to Singapore Malaysia's (Clement) flavour bomb. Bustling, but friendly service.
4. Malabar (formerly Asian Rose?), Santa Cruz - This is really more California Hippy food than straight Sri Lankan. There are a few Sri Lankan dishes on the menu, but I don't know how authentic they are. Everything was smothered in hoisin sauce. Some of the best Cal-hippy-veggie food we've had, which seems to be a dying art. The Sri Lanka platter with 5 sample dishes was pretty tasty, fresh ingredients and lots of flavour (and hoisin sauce). Nice tempeh bits.
5. Fatima Seafood, San Mateo - Chinese Muslim food. I'm not sure why they call it "seafood restaurant", they have seafood, but it's not a highlight. The sesame bread, the soft homemade noodles and lamb and beef dishes are the main point. Wintery comfort food. Little for atmosphere, and most of the clientele seemed to just go there for their neighborhood Chinese restaurant. No beer or wine.
6. Manila Star, South SF - Nice, colorful interior (love the twinkly-star ceiling, did that cost a fortune?) that obviously morphs into a party spot afterhours. The food was OK, but with limited experience with Filipino food, I have nothing to compare it with. The milkfish was fried crispy, didn't look as juicy as the photo menu. Coconut sauce lacked oomph, and separated quickly on the plate (is that margarine?). I won't go on because i'm unqualified to critique here.
7. Barrio Fiesta, South SF - Wanted to compare Filipino food with Manila Star. Liked this much better. Adobo catfish was yummy, taro leaves with coconut milk was really yummy. Good flavours.
Not a bad chow week. Glad to be so close to all these choices, just wish our public transit was better.