2023 in review: The top 10 Biz Beat stories
Sam & Curry Manager Ian Aldridge prepares food for a customer. Photo by Robert Eliason.

One of the great pleasures of compiling stories for The Biz Beat is meeting remarkable restaurant owners and soaking up their enthusiasm. Having the chance to stand in a corner of a kitchen and watch them prepare their dishes is a joy and an education.

Their stories are diverse, from those who learned recipes by heart as children while helping mothers or grandmothers, to those who jumped from totally unrelated careers into the restaurant business to fulfill an unrealized passion.

They all have things in common: the search for the freshest and finest ingredients, the care they put into preparation and service, the delight in creating and testing new menu items and the appreciation for their customers as they get back on their feet following the pandemic.

Several of the stories this year were reader recommendations of niche restaurants, personal favorites or places that are a little off-the-radar.

These are the top 10 Biz Beat stories of the year according to reader views:

10. Arepas

Arepas elevates street food into an art without losing its fun and accessibility. When I stopped by the place for the first time to scout it out, a customer who overheard me talking to the manager told me how much she loved the restaurant and, more importantly, that it was the favorite lunch spot of her picky-eater children.

Joanna Torres opened Arepas, a Venezuelan restaurant in Willow Glen, because she wanted people to experience her country’s food. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Owner Joanna Torres tapped her Venezuelan grandmother for tips on keeping the food authentic, and you can taste it in every bite. The arepitas sliders, smaller versions of the traditional cornmeal arepa stuffed sandwiches, are made with braised pork, shredded beef and shredded chicken, are a great introduction. Don’t leave without ordering the mandocas, sweet corn fritters made with plantains, a hard-to-find regional dish that will become an instant favorite.

Filled with unique dishes, Arepas offers a menu worthy of repeated exploration.

9. Vito’s Trattoria

Vito’s Trattoria reminds me of the classic Italian restaurants my parents would take me to in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood more than 50 years ago.

Vito’s Trattoria owner George Nobile with the restaurant’s eggplant parmesan. His mother’s recipe is a restaurant favorite. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Owner George Nobile cultivates a family atmosphere while providing elegant and attentive service—regular customers are greeted with engraved name plaques at their tables.

The food, of course, is the draw, and the recipes reflect Nobile’s Sicilian roots. The flavors are as bountiful as the portions, and even tried and true but somewhat tired recipes like chicken marsala or pasta with meatballs take on new life at Vito’s and become richly memorable dishes.

8. The Breakfast Club at Midtown

You could exhaust yourself trying to decide what to order on your first visit to The Breakfast Club at Midtown. Just selecting from the “sweets” menu is daunting—where lemon ricotta and blueberry pancakes vie for your attention with red velvet pancakes, raspberry cream French toast or a dozen other crafted treats.

Thank goodness owner Spiro Tsaboukos makes it easy with mix-and-match menu options that allow you to sample more than one kind with generous combination plates. Bring your appetite or a hungry friend—the portions are huge and eminently filling.

Veronica Cuebas and Spiro Tsaboukos. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Veronica Cuebas works at The Breakfast Club at Midtown. Owner Spiro Tsaboukos is in the process of opening four more locations in Walnut Creek, Lafayette, Morgan Hill and Castro Valley. Photo by Robert Eliason.

The Breakfast Club is the kind of place where you might want to show up early for breakfast and then linger until you are hungry enough for lunch.

7. The Sandwich Mill

The Sandwich Mill is tucked away in a cluster of non-descript shops. I passed by it twice before I found it.

The sandwiches are killer—so thick and amazing they might take your eye off the rest of the menu, a global smorgasbord that includes huge slabs of lasagna, tender chicken enchiladas, lentils and hummus.

Albert and Ronda Rodriquez, owners of Sandwich Mill in San Jose. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Every dish I saw could easily feed two for lunch and perhaps leave enough room for the eatery’s homemade carrot or chocolate cake.

6. Milohas

I was at a Cienega Valley vineyard’s wine release party, chatting with the mother of the owner about the food and wine articles I’ve done. When I mentioned some of the San Jose locations, she said, “You have to try the empanadas at Milohas.”

That she knew this small shop 55 miles away was a surprise, but her recommendation was spot-on. Hand-made pastry dough, layered with plenty of butter, is stuffed with a wide variety of ingredients and baked, not fried. The results are ideal comfort food, and once you have had them, you’ll want to spread the word, too. Ask for a container or two of aji sauce, a cilantro-based Colombian salsa that adds a brisk touch of heat.

Milohas co-owner Mireya Báez with sausage fingers. Photo by Robert Eliason.

The bakery also offers desserts, like its namesake milohas, decadent puff pastry filled with custard and topped with arequipe, a Colombian caramel.

5. Ristorante da Maria

Ristorante da Maria is another great reader suggestion. Jordanian-born George Keshek makes a bolognese so good that members of the Italian-American Heritage Foundation asked him for a class on cooking the dish.

George Keshek, owner of Ristorante da Maria in San Jose, said the pristine water, East Coast flour and cheeses are among his many ingredients. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Everything from his kitchen sparkles with freshness, from the perfect red sauce to the dough he makes with triple-filtered water—try the garlic knots for a taste of both.

Keshek is also meticulous about the restaurant’s presentation and service, with every pasta dish and pizza coming out of the oven looking like a work of art.

4. Bertucelli’s La Villa Deli

Bertucelli’s makes about 2,000 ravioli a day during the holiday season—and once you have tried them, you will understand the demand.

Chris Bertucelli, co-owner of Bertucelli’s La Villa. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Thankfully, there are refrigerated cases filled with a variety of ravioli and pasta that allow you to skip the long line of people waiting for sandwiches such as the Chris Combo, a favorite post-game meal for the 49ers, or the Death Sandwich, a massive meatball and cheesy bread delight.

Being in that line, however, allows you to peruse the vast selection of fine Italian imports—pasta, vinegar, olive oils, wines and cheeses—while drinking in the aroma coming from the steam table filled with the daily lunch specials. This place is famous for a reason.

3. Greenlee’s Bakery

Greelee’s Bakery, a tradition since 1924, made its reputation on brioche-like cinnamon bread with its spiderweb-like infusion of spice and its rich streusel topping.

Janette Geldner-Robertson, co-owner of Greenlee’s Bakery. Photo by Robert Eliason.

It makes for the best French toast you are ever going to have in your life and is just one of the dozen varieties of fancy breads they make. Don’t get me started on the Cinnamon Sugar Crispie, a flying saucer of flat flaky pastry dough that is an absolute must-try. The wide variety of cakes, cookies and turnovers all have their own flare.

If Santa’s workshop had a bakery, Greenlee’s would be it.

2. Walia Ethiopian Cuisine

There is a communal friendliness to Ethiopian food, and between the staff and customers at Walia you could easily leave the place with a bevy of new friends.

Case in point: after interviewing some customers for this article, they insisted I sit down at their table.

“You are our friend now,” one woman said. “You must join us for lunch.”

Walia Ethiopian Cuisine co-owners Ephrim Yosef and Aster Teklemichael. Photo by Robert Eliason.

The presentation of the food encourages sharing: selections from the menu are piled on a piece of injera bread, similar to a huge crepe, and eaten by hand using sliced injera as a scoop. Africa and India come together in the taste profiles and half the fun of eating is in mixing dishes to create new flavor combinations.

1. Sam & Curry

Reinventing a deserted Chipotle location by using the same serving concept and applying it to Indian food instead of Mexican is pure genius. Sam & Curry swap tortillas for traditional Indian breads to create amazing Indian tacos and burritos.

Creating on-the-go street food from complex dishes that are sit-down restaurant quality, meals are prepared to order, with customers selecting ingredients from a wide variety of items.

Vivek Sharma, co-owner of Sam & Curry Indian Cuisine in San Jose. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Owners Sam Patel and Vivek Sharma are already talking about opening more locations. If the style, substance and heart of the original location is any indication, you will be hearing more about San & Curry in the future.

Contact Robert Eliason at [email protected].

Editor’s Note: The Biz Beat is a series highlighting local small businesses and restaurants in Silicon Valley. Know a business you’d like to see featured? Let us know at [email protected].

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