Restaurant Review: Lee’s Sandwiches

Lee’s Sandwiches is a Vietnamese sandwich restaurant locatef on the El Camino Real in Sunnyvale just east of Mary Avenue.  I decided to drop in for lunch today to check it out, as I’ve often been curious about it.  I was in the mood for a deli-style ham and cheese sandwich, so I went in to see what they’ve got.

The restaurant has a few small round tables as well as a bar-like counter along the window overlooking the parking lot and the street.  It has a tile floor, and although it’s small and fairly utilitarian, it has a comfortable feel to it.  They have a large, colorful menu on the wall behind the counter, with each sandwich illustrated on a large square panel.  They have a number of Vietnamese sandwiches as well as a good selection of what their web site refers to as “Euro Sandwiches”.  Chips are located on shelves under the counter, the top of which is covered with various food items on styrofoam trays, mostly the sort of meat-and-rice or meat-and-noodles dishes you’d expect to find at a roach coach.  To the left is a drink refrigerator which mostly contains Asian beverages (both packaged and fresh) which I found unidentifiable.  Fortunately they have a small selection of American drinks for ignorant Americans like me, such as Arizona iced tea, Snapple, and Vitamin Water.

I ordered a ham and cheese sandwich on a baguette (#21) and picked up an Arizona iced tea and a bag of “Dirty” potato chips to go with it.  I paid and then found a seat at a small round table with two wooden chairs, and set up my laptop to do some reading and chatting while I waited for my sandwich.  A few minutes later it arrived in a cardboard tray with a hot pepper and a couple of pickle wedges.  The pickles looked very seedy, so I skipped them in deference to my dietary restrictions.  The sandwich was a pretty basic ham and cheddar with lettuce and tomato on it (I lucked out on one half and got a slice of tomato with no seeds, so I was able to eat it, but the other slice was very seedy, so I removed it).  There were two packets of mustard with it, but I didn’t feel it needed any.  The sandwich was surprisingly moist and flavorful without it.

I enjoyed my meal, but found that when it was gone, I was still hungry.  So I returned to the counter and selected a tray of chow mein and a bottle of Snapple.  The chow mein noodles were thin and there were a lot of bean sprouts and green onions in it, so that it was only about half noodles.  It was well-prepared and tasted good, but it wasn’t to my taste (I prefer thicker noodles and fewer vegetables).

Overall, Lee’s is a decent place to get a sandwich, especially if (like me) you like to have a few different places to go so that you don’t always have sandwiches made the same way.  I get tired of always having Togo’s or always having Subway, so it’s nice that Lee’s is nearby so that I have another choice of sandwich style.  I give it four stars out of five.  Check it out if you’re in the area and looking for a sandwich, but don’t feel like going to the Subway across the street.

Video Game Review: Final Fantasy II

As I mentioned recently in The Greatest Video Game That Never Was, I have long been a fan of the Final Fantasy series of video games. Of course, my dirty little secret about that is that I’ve played fewer than half of them. I played I, IV, and VI as a kid, and VII in my teenage years, but as they’re up to XIII these days, I’d missed far more than I’d played. So last year I set out to rectify that, playing them close to in order and all the way through the series, generally on the oldest versions I could get my hands on. To that end, I’ve recently finished playing a fan translation of the Famicom version of Final Fantasy II.

Unlike other early FF games, FFII has a usage-based advancement system. There are no classes or levels, but your character’s attributes (stats, skills, and even spells) are individually trained through practice. Those you use regularly will steadily advance, while those you neglect will remain untrained. You’ll even occasionally see a stat drop if your actions haven’t been conducive to their improvement. This system has pros and cons — it makes more sense than a class-and-level system because it allows characters to learn new abilities gradually over time in proportion to how much they practice, rather than giving them periodic quantum leaps in all their abilities simultaneously (and totally excluding them from abilities that don’t happen to match their class). On the other hand, I don’t like the fact that having your characters beat on each other in the midst of a supposedly-life-and-death battle with enemies is an effective method of advancement. Improving through sparring with your friends makes sense, but permitting it as part of the combat system (and thereby using lethal damage in your sparring match) is inappropriate. Also, a powerful, skilled spell-caster who learns a new spell late in the game is exactly as bad at it as an unpracticed noob who picks it up at the beginning of the game. Surely the ability to apply related knowledge from casting similar spells should count for SOMETHING, allowing the experienced caster to use it more effectively than the beginner, though not as well as their practiced spells. Neither extreme makes sense here, there should be a happy medium.

Advancement system aside, the story of FFII follows four youths who get caught up in a battle for the fate of the world. One of them disappears early on, and the other three proceed onward, frequently joined by one of various allies who fills the fourth slot in the party until they have reason to part ways. The youths join the rebel alliance, a group opposing the draconian rule of the power-hungry Emperor (sound familiar?). Their quest leads them all over the world as they seek to undermine the Emperor’s plans of world domination and find the artifacts and magic required to overthrow him and restore peace to the world. Not the most original plot, but it suits the game and is well-implemented.

One disappointment for me was the music — having just finished FFI when I began FFII, I noticed a distinctive drop in the quality and complexity of the music in FFII. I’m a big fan of Nobuo Uematsu’s work on the FF series, but I really think he phoned in the soundtrack for this game. On the other hand, he may have had stricter technical limitations placed upon him if the game engine was larger than in the previous game — either way, the music took a step back from FFI.

Gameplay is mostly fun, but the advancement system can lead to some difficulties — FFII seems harder than FFI. I often found that I wasn’t powerful enough to take on boss monsters, and had to grind for skills before I could proceed. There’s a new system for hearing about things and getting information out of people by mentioning keywords that they might know something about, but it seems pretty crude and awkward — of course, given that it was a pretty new idea back then, that makes sense. The world layout is kind of odd, with most of the world appearing as a northwest-to-southeast strip of land that sort of wraps around the world like the thread of a screw, so that if you head south or head east, you’ll wind up in the same place. Interesting, but I prefer the more traditional worldmaps of other games in the series.

Overall, I give FFII two and a half stars out of five. I liked FFI better in many ways. Where FFII shines is in concept, not in execution. I probably won’t re-play the Famicom version, but I may check out the Dawn of Souls remake for the Nintendo DS. Play this version only if you’re a hard-core FF fan and a purist looking to recreate the retro-gaming experience like I am.

Product Review: Gevalia Coffee For Two Coffeemaker

I acquired the Gevalia Coffee For Two coffeemaker a couple of years ago, looking for a way to save a little time and money in the mornings by having my own coffee instead of stopping at Starbucks. I joined the Gevalia Coffee Club, receiving occasional deliveries of various premium coffees throughout the year, and received the Coffee For Two as a free gift. I wound up cancelling the coffee club, but I still have and use the coffeemaker frequently.

As you can see from the link, the Coffee For Two is a pair of-side-by-side drip mechanisms which use separate filters to allow you to brew two different kinds of coffee at once. It comes with two travel cups that it brews directly into, so as soon as it’s done, you can grab your coffee and go. I also use it to make tea and hot chocolate — anything that uses hot water. Operation is simple — load the water in the top (directly from the cup so that you know it’s the right portion), set the selector switch on top to one cup or two, and load the coffee in a #2 cone filter into the filter chamber. At this point I usually go to sleep for the evening. 🙂 When I get up, all I have to do is to press the Start button on my way to the bathroom for my morning routine. When I emerge, a fresh cup of coffee is there waiting for me. And the second chamber means that if I have company, I can make two cups, or tea and coffee, or regular and decaf, or whatever two hot drinks we want simultaneously. And the travel cups are quick and easy to clean. This coffeemaker is a lifesaver in helping me wake up in the morning, and isn’t as much work or trouble as a regular coffee maker.

There aren’t many downsides. I have noticed that it sometimes sputters and spits small amounts of hot water over the edge of the cup while brewing and gets my table wet. Also, in my opinion, the coffee comes out TOO hot — I have to wait rather a long time or put a lot of refrigerated creamer in it before I can drink it. That’s part of the reason I like to start it before my shower — it does need some time to cool off. When I first ordered it, I thought it was programmable, so I was disappointed to learn that it won’t wake me at a pre-set time with coffee — perhaps I’ll find such a device next time I buy a coffeemaker. And one tip for making tea — don’t put the teabag in the brewing chamber unless you like weak tea. Much better to put the teabag in the cup. I was hoping to make the tea-making quicker by not having to deal with the bag until clean-up time later, but the convenience just isn’t worth the watery tea.

Overall, I very much enjoy this coffeemaker. I give it four and a half stars out of five. Try it out if you’re single or a couple and only want one cup of coffee (or one each) in the morning. It’s quick and easy and convenient.

Software Review: Google Chrome

I’ve been using Google Chrome as my primary web browser for several months now.  I switched to it to give it a try when it was still very new because I’ve always been a fan of Google’s products in the past (though they are fast becoming the next evil empire).  It was my hope that they’d bring the same blend of innovation, simplicity, and functionality to the web browser that they’d previously brought to search, email, and pretty much everything else they’ve gotten their hands on.

I’ve been very pleased with it so far, using it almost exclusively — the only times I run Firefox or IE anymore are if I find something on the web that blocks Google Chrome or if I’m working on web design and want to make sure my site works properly in other browsers.  Chrome is built for speed, starting up MUCH faster on my system than Firefox 3.  Tabs can be quickly and easily moved between browser windows, split off into new windows, and merged back into other windows quickly and easily.  Each tab is a separate process independent from the others, so if a web page in one of your tabs causes a crash, only that tab dies — the rest of Chrome is unaffected.  And if a plugin (such as Flash) crashes, it doesn’t kill your browser, and can easily be restarted.  The interface is full of little optimizations and has very few menus — not even a menu bar, just two little buttons to the right of the address bar that drop down menus when you click on them.  But the most noticeable feature of Google Chrome is also the least noticeable.  Without ever realizing it, I became so accustomed to Chrome’s quick, streamlined performance and usability that when I went back to use Firefox 3 for something, it felt amazingly slow and clunky.  The same Firefox that felt so much slicker and cleaner than its predecessor felt like it was obsolete and constantly in my way!  Google Chrome truly has the lead over FF in this user experience.  And for web developers, there’s a good document inspector that lets you see what’s going on under the hood.

All this speed, performance, and usability comes at a cost, however — you may find that you miss some of the more advanced features of your old browser.  If you’re a fan of Firefox extensions, you may be disappointed at having to leave Firebug, Greasemonkey, and your favorite session manager behind.  Rumor has it they’re working on extensibility for a future version, but it’s not quite there yet.  And those of you on Linux will have to wait unless you’re willing to use a development version (and accept the extra work and risks that are inherent in doing so).

Overall, I’m a big fan of Chrome.  I’m very happy with the feature set, speed, usability, and stability.  I expect it to be my browser of choice for a long time to come, although I understand why some FF power-users may not want to give up their browser customizations.  But when extensibility is added to Chrome, I don’t think there will be any reason not to switch.  I give Chrome 4.5 stars out of five.  Check it out and see if you don’t like it better than the browser you’re using today!  🙂

Restaurant Review: GuGu’s Pizza & Pasta

I recently visited GuGu’s Pizza & Pasta to get some lunch before returning to the library.  I had discovered this brand-new Italian café on Yelp, searching for lunch spots within walking distance of my “workplace” — Santa Clara City Library.  It was listed as inexpensive and rated well with the few reviewers who had posted there, so I decided to walk the 15 minutes to Homestead and Scott and check it out.

GuGu’s is a small, colorful space with only eight tables and some bar-style seating.  Its many windows let in plenty of natural light in the daytime, and the decor is cheerful, mostly in vivid red, yellow, green, and blue.  the tables are small, just about right for two diners (or one diner with a laptop computer), though I imagine larger groups could push a few tables together.  The website and the signs on the windows advertised free WiFi, but I had trouble connecting to it and had to resort to my cellular connection.  Oldies were playing loudly on the restaurant’s speaker system, pleasantly drowning out the kitchen sounds coming from behind the bar.  The walls were decorated with Italian-food-themed art, various photographs, bits of Americana, a map of the South Bay, a Hall of Fame for those who’ve endured the restaurant’s touted Habanero Hawaiian pizza, old-fashioned food ads, and entries in the restaurant’s coloring contest for children.  Their web site advertises that they show 

The menu is brief and printed on paper, clearly designed to be a tri-fold mailer, but it has all the core favorites that you’d expect to find in inexpensive Italian fare.  After looking it over very briefly, I decided to order the spaghetti and meatballs and a cherry Italian soda, which came to $10.80.  The salad came out shortly after I had a seat, a large-ish plastic bowl with lettuce, tomato, onion, mushrooms, and fennel.  It was fresh and tasty topped with some red vinegar.  Before I was done, the spaghetti and garlic bread arrived on a small oval paper plate.  I was a bit surprised that the portion size was so small.  The noodles were *almost* as soft as I like them (they were past al dente, but not quite fully cooked), and the marinara sauce was tangy and flavorful.  The garlic-bread was non-descript, but the real downfall of the meal was the meatballs, which were curiously absent.  I will assume that this was an oversight on this occasion, and not that they serve a dish called “spaghetti and meatballs” which contains no meatballs.  Overall the food was good, though the portions were small.  I’ll give them a try another time and see if the lack of meatballs was a fluke.  😀

I stuck around at my table after finishing my meal to type up this review.  It makes for a nice space to work in, though I can see it getting distracting if it gets crowded.  The web site advertises Buster Keaton movies shown daily, and indeed, when I eventually turned around I realized I’d been sitting with my back to a large wall-mounted TV the whole time.  😀

Overall, a nice space serving good food in small portions.  I rate it four stars out of five, with a chance for 4.5 if the meatballs are good.  😀 Check it out if you’re looking for a casual, inexpensive Italian dining experience, or if you’re watching your weight and want some help with portion control.  😉

(Update, 4/2/2009: Today I returned to GuGu’s and ordered the spaghetti and meatballs once again.  This time they arrived as promised, three flavorful medium-sized meatballs.  They were quite good, and tasted like they might have had some cheese mixed in.  The proprieter was also kind enough to offer me a free sample of their cheese ravioli, which I also enjoyed.  Fresh, moist pasta and rich, flavorful cheese in a marinara sauce.  So 4.5 stars it is.  Next time, I’ll try the pizza, and now that I’ve had a sample of the cheese, I’m curious about the meat ravioli, so that will probably be on the agenda for the next visit.)

Product Review: Golden Oreos with Chocolate Filling

I recently discovered the number of varieties of Oreo cookies available at the supermarket.  When I was a kid, it was just Oreos, Oreo Double Stuf, and for a few blessed years, Oreo Big Stuf.  (Tangent: does it bother anyone else that they can’t even bring themselves to call the filling “stuff”, mis-spelling it in the manner of a company that wants to use a term that the product doesn’t legally qualify for?  How bad does your product have to be before you’re no longer legally allowed to call it “stuff”?)  Now there are several more flavors, with peanut butter, mint, and so forth, and this one, a “reverse” Oreo with vanilla cookies and chocolate filling.

I love the filling in regular Oreos, but I’m not a big fan of the cookies.  They’re alright, but too chocolatey, and they can overwhelm the flavor of the filling.  I went into this realizing that there was no traditional Oreo filling involved, but hoping that the vanilla would be a stronger component of the flavor and the chocolate still strong enough to make a difference.  I was pleased to find that’s exactly the case.  The cookies have a robust vanilla flavor and the chocolate filling still makes itself known.  It winds up being a good mix, although as with regular Oreos, I usually eat the filling and the cookies separately.  Fortunately, although the chocolate is creamier than traditional Oreo filling, it still separates from the cookies easily enough to eat it on its own.

I enjoyed the reverse Oreos, and have purchased more since then.  I think they also come in a Double Stuf variety, and I might try that out for a chocolatier experience.  I like the flavor of the chocolate cream better than the chocolate cookies of regular Oreos, so I might just ditch the regular ones altogether, sticking with Double Stuf and Golden Double Stuf with chocolate filling.

I give them four stars out of five (to leave room for the Double Stufs to be better).  😀

Restaurant Review: Cafe Amilia

Cafe Amilia is located at Lawrence and El Camino in Santa Clara, California, in the former location of Flames. I went there tonight with my father, his girlfriend, and one of his co-workers who’s been kind enough to give him a ride to and from work recently in light of his broken leg.

I was surprised upon entering, as I suppose I was expecting an atmosphere similar to that of Flames. The decor was quite a bit nicer than the former restaurant’s, with yellows and golds and browns dominating the color scheme and a surprisingly open and spacious floorplan given its odd shape. The space as you enter is long and narrow, extending to the right and the left. Far to the lefthand side, the space opens out a little into a square bar area with a flatscreen wall-mounted TV. We were seated immediately at a window table about halfway between the entrance and the bar. The atmostphere was quite pleasant — I was easily able to forget that there were customers at other tables, though this may be because there weren’t very MANY of them. The lighting was low but not dim, and the furniture was simple and elegant, leading to a comfortable, uncluttered feel.

The service was pretty good, with the waitress frequently offering refills on drinks and checking to see if we needed anything, though I felt the wait times for food were a bit long.

The food was excellent, if a bit pricy. Pasta dishes ranged from $10 to $15, and entrees were generally between $15 and $25. You get what you pay for here, however — portion sizes were generous, and their dishes are loaded with the good stuff. The three cheese baked macaroni I had, for instance, had plenty of chicken and bacon in it, making it feel like a much heartier meal than you’d expect from mac’n’cheese. My friends in Portland might do well to think of Mother’s macaroni and cheese dishes as a parallel. The chocolate creme brulee I had for dessert wasn’t as good as I’d hoped, although it should be noted that I have a cold right now and my sense of taste isn’t what it usually is.

Overall, this is a pretty good restaurant — great food, good service, a bit pricy, with a nice atmosphere. Good place to take a date on payday. 😀 I give it four and a half stars out of five. Check it out!

Product Review: Altoids Dark Chocolate Dipped Creme de Menthe Mints

I picked these up at Safeway about a week ago. I noticed them while I was in the checkstand, and, always interested to try new flavors of Altoids, I decided to throw them in my basket.

I think it was for these that the phrase “exactly what it says on the tin” was invented. I noticed that they do not bear the “Curiously Strong” trademark that all of my other tins of Altoids do. I put one in my mouth and was pleasantly surprised by the sweetness of the chocolate. Letting that melt in my mouth, eventually I got to the mint inside, which seemed pepperminty, but not as strong as the traditional Altoids peppermints. The texture was the same as a regular Altoid — and therein lies the problem.

The outer shell of soft, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate with a hard Altoid center means that the flavors don’t blend much in your mouth. I was expecting something that tasted like a chocolate mint, but got something rather more like eating a chocolate chip, finishing it, then having an Altoid. They were discrete, separate flavors. Overall, I’d prefer a blend of the flavors, more like what you’d get in a Junior Mint.

Nevertheless, my tin is very nearly empty, whereas I’ve got five tins of regular Altoids close at hand that are around half full and I’ve had them for years. Clearly, I do enjoy these, flavor separation or no. I give them four stars out of five, and may buy them again after I’ve finished some of my other tins, if I’m in the mood for chocolate and Altoids.

Now I want a Junior Mint.

Movie Review: Patch Adams

I am a big fan of Robin Williams, but I’ve missed several of his films over the years. Some of these are in my Netflix queue, and Patch Adams was one of them.

Patch Adams (based on a true story) is the story of Hunter “Patch” Adams, a med student who, a few years earlier, in a mental institution, formed some non-traditional ideas about how to treat patients. As he goes through med school, he takes the saying “laughter is the best medicine” to heart, and develops a philosophy of treating the patient, not the illness. 

There was not much about this movie that I didn’t like. There were a couple of parts where it got slow and I did find myself checking the time once or twice, but I think that had more to do with the fact that it’s a little longer than the average movie. There was one horribly sappy scene that would have been more at home in a decades-old animated Disney feature than in a fairly-recent dramedy based on a true story, but I suppose I can forgive one brief scene of this nature.

On the other hand, there was plenty about Patch Adams that I did like. Robin Williams, as always, gave a thoroughly enjoyable performance, bringing both levity and gravity to the role as appropriate. The writing was clever and the story meaningful. Although it was more serious than is my preference in films, it was enjoyable to watch, and I think any biographical film will be more inclined toward seriousness than average, so it goes with the territory. It’s a bit of a feel-good movie (though it has its darker moments), and it’s nice to see what Patch does for his patients and how his presence in their lives makes their hard times a little easier.

Four stars out of five. I enjoyed Patch Adams and took something away from it, but I probably wouldn’t watch it again. Check it out if you like Robin Williams’s more serious fare, movies based on true stories, or if you want a solid mix of laughter and drama.

Television Review: Dollhouse

Dollhouse, the latest series from Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog), premiered Friday night on Fox. Whedon’s shows have always been fun and funny, even when they are dark (and when they are dark, they are very very dark). I’d been interested to see what his latest project would be like, so I marked my calendar and made an exception to my policy of avoiding watching on television what I can legally watch online. Dollhouse airs on Hulu one day after it airs on Fox, and I decided I didn’t want to wait. 

Dollhouse follows the adventures of Echo (Eliza Dushku), an “active” — an operative whose memory and personality are wiped before each mission and replaced with ones custom-tailored to the challenges she’s about to face. Echo is one of a number (apparently five?) of such operatives, who are overseen in the field by “handlers” — agents who merely observe and are responsible for extracting the active should things go awry. This type of oversight is deemed necessary due to the actives’ inability to remember their true identities. Woven into the tale of Echo’s first mission were snippets of what I assume was her real personality, as well as a sub-plot about a fellow who’s learned about the Dollhouse organization and aims to take it down. For comic relief, we have Topher, the wisecracking programmer who is responsible for wiping Echo’s mind and crafting and loading her custom personalities.

My experience with Whedon’s previous shows led me to believe that he could do no wrong. The first episode of Dollhouse serves as a potent reminder that nobody gets it right all the time. It started out slow, and though it picked up later in the episode, it still was nowhere near as entertaining as the worse episodes of his previous shows. It shows no sign of the wit or whimsy that are hallmarks of his other work (again, even when the subject matter is dark), and doesn’t stand out amongst the other shows on television. It is a decidedly mediocre offering from the man I’ve come to regard as the greatest storyteller of our time.

Additionally, while Whedon’s casts usually feature beautiful actresses in lead roles, Dollhouse seems to rely too heavily on this factor (and at least triply so in its advertising). I agree that Eliza Dushku is hot, but that’s a rather poor premise for a TV show (or at least one that airs on primetime network TV).

On the upside, it’s no worse than a lot of stuff on TV, and in all fairness, it is only the first episode. Perhaps it will improve with time — I would hope that eventually the script would bear some sign that it’s a Joss Whedon project — and come to take its place beside his other shows. I will give it at least one more chance, but if it doesn’t improve significantly and quickly, I don’t think I’m going to be following this one.

Two stars out of five.

Watch this only if you really have nothing better to do (or, like me, you’re desperately hoping it gets better).