A fond farewell to Elena Kadvany, who made the case for the Peninsula’s unsung food scene.

A food writer in her element. (Photo by Michelle Le)

Food writing has come a long way in the past 15 years. What was once anchored around an all-powerful restaurant critic — who would traverse a region and cast judgement as if in their own private culinary fiefdom — has evolved into something far more nuanced and worthwhile. Much of this progress can be directly traced back to Jonathan Gold, the Los Angeles Times restaurant critic and the first journalist to win a Pulitzer Prize for food coverage, in 2007. Gold’s work was a sea change in that he explored lesser known eateries, the cultural heritages that they sprung from and the more inclusive food world they offered to a wider range of eaters.

Here at the Six Fifty, we were fortunate to work for many years with Elena Kadvany, our food writer who not only understood (and embodied) this evolution, but clearly had her finger on the pulse of the restaurant scene here on the Peninsula. With Elena’s departure this week to seek out new eating adventures (she’s going to write for the Chronicle), we thought we’d explore some of our favorite articles that she produced in her time with us.

As the editor on most of these stories, I got to see how they developed … and, most enjoyably, was able to occasionally participate in the reporting (read as: I showed up for the eating part). Yet more than just presenting a celebratory sendoff to a great co-worker, I thought it was important to acknowledge the context and significance of these stories, both in terms of the world of food writing and regional coverage in general.

So take a look, join me in saluting Elena on her departure … and find some great local eats in the process.

We would eat bowls of Wonderful’s chewy Hunan cold noodles at any time of the day. (Photo by Elena Kadvany)

What we’re eating now: Enticing, unsung eats in San Bruno and Millbrae

I want to start with this particular story because it was the point at which I realized that the Peninsula had a legitimately diverse and dynamic food scene that was — for better or worse — flying far under the radar of much of the Bay Area.

Elena was putting together her second installation of a quickie series we had just begun, titled (simply enough) What we’re eating now, which took a travel writer’s approach to exploring some of the restaurants within a particular region of the 6–5–0 area code. When she told me San Bruno/Millbrae was next on her list, it did not appear to me that we were about to visit a culinary hot spot. But after a meandering lunch session that went from duck bun bo hue at Pho de Nguyen to roadside tacos dorados at Mariscos El Pariente (both in San Bruno) to a mind-blowing Hunan meal at the aptly named Wonderful in Millbrae, I was converted. In fact, I quickly felt like we were in Jonathan Gold territory (with no one in SF coming off their high horse to even give it a look).

Other installments of this series explored Santa ClaraHalf Moon Bay and Pacifica, all echoing this same idea that these lesser celebrated areas have an awful lot to offer if you just take the time to look.

Siblings Anne, Norma and Gene Takahashi, the third generation of family owners of Takahashi Market, take a quick break from preparing plate lunches, kalua pork, musubi and other Hawaiian staples for the store’s busy lunchtime crowds. (Photo by Veronica Weber)

Exploring the aisles of Takahashi Market, the Peninsula’s emporium for Hawaiian & Japanese goods

Most food coverage gives so much attention to noteworthy new eateries…but what about the best old ones? This article on Takahashi Market in San Mateo was one of many which profiled the great, long-running food institutions in our area. In the case of Takahashi, the store’s legacy dates back to 1906 and has been a regional mainstay ever since for imported goods direct from Japan and Hawaii. More than just nostalgia, this article reminded readers that it’s still a great place to just drop in for a quick meal of musubi, kimchi fried rice or Hawaiian nachos.

Other feature articles explored such 6–5–0 classics as It’s-It in BurlingameZott’s in Portola Valley (you know, the Alpine Inn) and Chef Chu’s in Los Altos. Sadly, this coverage also included the closure of long-established restaurants like The Van’s in Belmont and Clarke’s Charcoal Broiler in Mountain View…proof that if we want these places to endure we need to frequent them rather than merely reminisce.

We asked a wide range of chefs, restaurant owners, food writers and other culinary industry insiders for the one dish that really stands out for them on the Peninsula. The list we got back is long, diverse and delicious. (Photo by Michelle Le)

The chef’s bucket list: 47 Peninsula dishes to eat before you die

This was a great article that introduced many of us to a lot of amazing new meals around the Peninsula. The idea was simple enough — ask the chefs, restaurant owners and other local industry insiders to write a quick blurb about their favorite meal in the area. In the end, Elena spoke with a few dozen in-the-know sources to map out a wide variety of top-notch local eats, ranging from the wood-grilled avocado at Bird Dog to the pork knuckle at Joy Restaurant in Foster City.

If you haven’t encountered this list before, take a look. It’s a great time to explore all it has to offer.

Teresita, who started selling food via Instagram during the shutdown, cooks Filipino bistek and lumpia in her home kitchen in 2020. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

Silicon Valley’s underground food movement is driven by Instagram and COVID economics

There are (obviously) very deep social and economic currents running through the restaurant industry…which is all too easy to forget amid the gloss of celebrity chef shows and influencer posts on Instagram. This article from the summer of 2020 looked at Peninsula residents who were turning to quasi-legal home restaurants as a means of income during trying economic times. This wasn’t a new trend, but definitely one that gained fresh momentum during lockdown — despite being legally dependent upon the local implementation of the Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operations (MEHKO) Act, which had been adopted in some California counties but not San Mateo or Santa Clara.

This investigative view of the industry, beyond the more pleasing just sit-down-and-eat side of food coverage, presents a much fuller picture of what is happening behind the scenes in kitchens and in the lives of the people who work in them. Other stories in this vein included Elena’s profile of the pizza worker collective at A Slice of New York, the logistics of distribution at Second Harvest food bank during the height of the pandemic and the permitting labyrinth required to open a new restaurant in Silicon Valley.

Nhan Huynh and Anthony Le, who opened the original, 12-seat Vung Tau in San Jose in 1985 after fleeing southern Vietnam. They later expanded to the current, larger location. (Photo by Federica Armstrong)

How San Jose became America’s Vietnamese food mecca

Amid the racial tensions and nativist viewpoints of the Trump administration, our local food culture seemed to be a crystal clear case study for the melting pot nature of our country and the day-to-day richness that diversity delivers. We ran a lot of good articles in this vein, but Elena’s three-part series on the vibrant Vietnamese food scene in San Jose really stood out in this regard. These three articles offered readers great launching points for where to begin exploring these restaurants, as well as a profile of Hết Sẩy, a younger generation pop-up that melds traditional and modern Vietnamese cuisine. But most notably, Elena dove into the historical origins of the Vietnamese community in San Jose, the struggles they faced and how the restaurant scene blossomed there over time. This was accomplished by talking to, consulting and eating with members of that community.

Along those same lines, I would also point towards her profile pieces on the immigrant-cuisine focused Tapestry Suppers dining club, the Maharashtrian street food of Puranpoli in Santa Clara and her more recent coverage of the arrival of Asian American baking outfits Pastry Cat and Year of the Snake Foods in Palo Alto.

No sympathy for the Devil’s Chicken. (Original 650 illustration by Kaz Palladino / Awkward Affection)

Ghost peppers and legal waivers: Our search for the spiciest dishes on the Peninsula

This story was just ridiculously fun to put together … until it wasn’t.

Yes, Elena’s search for the spiciest dishes on the Peninsula (d)evolved into a sweaty amalgamation of investigation journalism and the TV show Jackass. As one of the staff members who participated on the feedback front, I remember finally drawing the line with Devil’s Chicken, a blazing hot dish from Red Hot Chilli Pepper in San Carlos (which required signing a waiver before they’d hand over our to-go order), which had left me feeling kinda…awful peyote trip…in Death Valley…in July…sorta bad. But Elena endured to curate a list that included everything from spicy octopus balls to ghost chili chutney, not to mention digging out the details on a habanero burger that once put a guy in a coma (long story, but totally true).

Of course, there were other articles born out of this kind of edible exploration of the Peninsula (which conversely did NOT ruin our stomachs for days) such as when we tracked down the Mister Softee Truck in South San Francisco…or when we quietly slipped out of the office during the Popeye’s Chicken Sandwich craze of 2019 to see firsthand what the mania was all about.

Good memories, great meals, fun journalism.

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Charles Russo

Award-winning writer and photographer with extensive experience across mediums, including videography, investigative reporting, editing, advanced research, and a wide range of photography.

Author of Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America; represented by Levine Greenberg Rostan Agency.

Freelance clients include Google, VICE and Stanford University.

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