A recently discovered comet, a long lost concert, feral cats, the best Vietnamese food in America….and much more.

Scenes from the 6–5–0 (sans pandemic, wildfires, political chaos and other 2020 insanity).

Ok, look—we could have given you a standard year in review, where we rehash every major storyline of this deranged shit show of a dumpster fire that was the past 12 months. And we got exactly seven seconds into doing that and decided to not give 2020 the satisfaction of that kind of recap (…as if any of us need reminding).

Instead, we’re presenting you with nine engaging, often uplifting articles that caught our attention and…more importantly…actually gave us a moment’s reprieve from the crushing gravity of this past year. Best of all, they reflect on the many facets of how very interesting local life is here in this place where we dwell.

We hope you enjoy…

Bonny Doon Vineyard’s Randall Grahm. (Photo by Sara Remington; Courtesy of Bonny Doon Vineyard)

The “Rhone Ranger” rides on

At the start of the year, we had the opportunity to interview Randall Grahm, the perennial wine world outsider who made his mark over the years with his ever eccentric (but always quality-driven) Bonnie Doon Vineyards. Grahm had made news when he kicked off the year by selling his decades-long wine making operation to a much larger production company. So we caught up with him to inquire about the move and what lay ahead for the Willy Wonka of the wine world. In addition to his perspective on the sale and the many innovative choices he has made over the years in the world of grapes, Grahm’s interview was a reminder that change is constant, new challenges are healthy…and it’s always better to think outside the barrel.

(Clockwise from top left:) Nhan Huynh in the kitchen at Vung Tau in San Jose, which she’s run since 1985.; Thiên Long’s bún chả cá lã vọng, grilled turmeric fish, is an epic, interactive feast; he Phở Hà Nội dining room gets busy at lunch; one of the many (many) meals to be found at the Grand Century Mall food court in San Jose’s Little Saigon (Photos by Federica Armstrong, Elena Kadvany and Michelle Le)

America’s Vietnamese food mecca

In February, we ran a trio of articles that took an in-depth look at the stellar, but often unsung, Vietnamese food scene in San Jose. Like many great cultures in America, it was predicated on specific historical instances of immigration, in this case—the refugee exodus from South Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975. In the face of great odds, many of those fleeing their homeland arrived to San Jose with little means of industry, and turned to making their native cuisine for income. Today (almost a half-century later) an outgrowth of that history is a diverse, dynamic and exceedingly delicious Vietnamese food culture that rivals any other in the nation. And yes, we had an amazing time mapping out (read as: eating our way through) some of the many locations for your dining considerations, as well as introducing readers to Hết Sẩy, a very modern pop-up that reflects how the Vietnamese food scene continues to evolve in San Jose.

Comic Anna May caught mid-joke. (Image by Jim McCambridge)

Silicon Valley stand-up

While major media outlets obsess over the eccentricities of Silicon Valley, we’re always fascinated by how many genuinely cool cultural trends exist here beyond our pigeonholed identity. Case in point: in recent years, the Peninsula (and South Bay) has been a hot spot for an increasingly robust stand-up comedy scene. As we discovered, the increasing abundance of stand-up open mic nights and re-occurring comedy meet-ups is sizable and spans the region: from the Vinyl Room in Burlingame to Woodhams Sports Lounge in Santa Clara (not to mention Hop Dogma out on the coast). Add to that the mainstay venues (like Rooster T. Feathers and the prestigious San Jose Improv) to a lengthy list of dedicated local laugh masters…and comedy here is no joke.

(From left:) The beer that beat The Younger—Ghostwood’s Clearly Dangerous triple IPA; Ghostwood’s brew operation, in Redwood City. (Images via Ghostwood’s Facebook)

How Ghostwood bested Pliny

We’ve been saying it for years now, and we’re happy to say it again—the Peninsula has a world class assortment of breweries. We’ve been drinking with….er…reporting on them for quite a while now—Devil’s CanyonAlpha AcidFreewheelSacrilege…and many more. So we should admit that we were lagging in getting around to cover notable newcomer: Ghostwood Brewing in Redwood City. Of course, Ghostwood wasn’t waiting around for notoriety, they just went and took it (well…brewed it) when they trounced the celebrated sacred cow of the beer world, Pliny the Younger, in the long-running IPA Fest in Hayward. And in catching up with the brew crew at Ghostwood in the aftermath of their win, we found them to be down-to-earth, super local and highly worthy of accolades (again…in contrast to Pliny).

Neowise captured amongst the stars by local photographer Ashok Srinivasan (using astrophotography equipment). Notice the separate ion tail, dust and vapor tail. (Photo by Ashok Srinivasan)

Comet Neowise

Easily one of our favorite events of the year was the unexpected visit from the heavens in the form of Comet Neowise. Maybe it was the opportunity to gaze skyward away from our earthly problems, or perhaps just the chance to get out of the house and engage in a safe summer activity. Whatever the case, we had a great time venturing up to Skyline to get a glimpse of that great ball of ice hurtling through the galaxy. And while our guide for viewing it may not be relevant again for 6700 years, we encourage you to give it a look anyway to scope the awesome imagery that we curated from local photographers who captured Neowise in various locations all around the Bay.

Jazz legend Thelonious Monk (center at the piano) played a rare daytime concert at Paly, in 1968. (Image courtesy Impulse! Records)

A student, a janitor and jazz legend walk into a high school auditorium

It was just one of those stories, where truth is waaay cooler than fiction: in 1968, Paly student Danny Scher reached out to the manager of jazz great Thelonious Monk…and somehow booked a concert for his high school gymnasium. What followed was…well…pretty awesome: Scher hustled around Palo Alto handing out fliers, people showed up on a big way, Monk was great and the entire performance was recorded by the school’s janitor. This year that recording finally manifested into an official album, and despite an 11th-hour injunction to halt it, Monk’s Palo Alto record finally arrived on turntables all these many years later.

Vera George offers OJ, the cat, a bowl of canned cat food at Coyote Point in San Mateo on Oct. 5, 2020. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

The feral cats of Silicon Valley

For over a decade now, Dave and Vera George have been volunteering their time to feed (and fix) local felines. Our story about the couple and their dedication to the cats of Coyote Point in San Mateo was uplifting for a few reasons. Yes, the hard work of these dedicated Peninsula residents is encouraging in itself, but best of all—their efforts are working. The George’s have contributed to a humane AND effective reduction in the feral cat population, and the article we produced on them is a case study of what caring locals can do when they roll up their sleeves and get involved.

Juvenile coho salmon are released into Pescadero Creek in Memorial Park in Loma Mar on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020. (Photo by Adam Pardee /HMB Review)

Coho salmon win an upstream battle

Speaking of local success stories, we picked up this article from our colleagues at the Half Moon Bay Review who covered the return of native Coho salmon to Pescadero Creek. In November, local conservationists literally carried 10,000 tiny young fish on their backs (in water tanks) to re-introduced the struggling species back into the region. Then, within about a week of their release, scientists announced that they had discovered the cause of salmon decline (which they attributed to toxic car tire runoff). Together, the two developments speak to a renewed era of prosperity for the indigenous silver-sided swimmers.

The Queen’s Gambit & The Social Dilemma: two tales of genius and addiction. (Images via Netflix)

The local ties of The Social Dilemma & The Queen’s Gambit

In the year of Tiger King, two other Netflix originals raised the bar for television viewing (beyond a standard of a trashy reality show about con artist weirdos and their giant cats). First, The Social Dilemma took a deep dive in examining where Silicon Valley technology has gotten us to today. The documentary was a sobering view of what the human mind is up against on the other side of our screens…told via the engineers who devised the very tech which now governs our lives. So we caught up with the film’s director, Jeff Orlowski, a Stanford alum who elaborated on the motivation behind his documentary, telling us: “There needs to be enough engineers that say, this is code, we can reprogram it. Let’s do things differently, let’s use a different business model, let’s do things with society’s interest at heart.”

Then, amid our love for unlikely heroine Beth Harmon, we enjoyed exploring how The Queen’s Gambit was authored by a Bay Area native, Walter Tevis, who based the origin story of his female protagonist on his traumatizing experiences at the Stanford Home for Convalescent Children in 1939. It was a local tie that we hadn’t expected to find and left us convinced that Tevis’ life (and all-too-obscure literary career) are highly worthy of further reading for any fans of the chess-obsessed series.

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Sometimes our work is a collaborative effort, hence the "staff" byline. The best of what to eat, see and do on the SF Peninsula.

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