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Publication Date: Friday, October 03, 2003

Small, fresh and inviting Small, fresh and inviting (October 03, 2003)

Tucked away in a downtown nook, Totoro defies appearances by serving well-prepared Korean meals

By Robert Rich

Appearances can deceive the casual passerby, who might think Totoro is a fast-food franchise from Korea or Japan. Laminated color pictures of food in the front window and on the menu help convey this impression. Brightly colored modern furniture and Korean drink posters further suggest an informal fast-food atmosphere.

In fact, this pocket-sized Korean restaurant on Villa Street is privately owned and unique to Mountain View, serving value-priced platters of sweet and spicy barbeque, wholesome hot pots and noodle soups, skewered appetizers and more.

Large portions, fresh flavors and friendly service make Totoro a great choice for lunch or a low-key dinner.

Owner Jung Ja Kim opened Totoro in December 2002. The name comes from a Japanese animé film "My Neighbor Totoro" about cute forest spirits that befriend neighboring children. (I recently learned that one can buy Totoro toys in Japan. Who would have guessed?)

Jung Ja Kim greets her patrons with an infectious smile, and she cheerfully helps newcomers with questions about the food. Although mild language barriers sometimes intrude, the picture menus do help solve some uncertainties.

Adjusting to American tastes

Chef Brigitte Kim brings an artist's touch to each generous dish. She comes from a restaurant family, with parents and siblings still running establishments in Seoul. The 33-year-old Kim was a sushi chef for 12 years at Michi and Niko restaurants in Campbell.

Kim explained that she has adjusted her ingredients to appeal more to an American palate. Personally, I love the intensely spiced, garlic infused, fermented flavors of Korean cuisine. However, I know not everyone shares my xenophile tastes, and Totoro succeeds with a good compromise between tradition and accessibility.

Since they make each dish to order, you can always ask for an extra dose of heat if you're feeling adventurous; the kitchen will happily add more of their special Korean pepper paste.

Housemade kimchi

One of my favorite features of a Korean meal is the multitude of tiny plates that cover a table, an ornamental range of condiments including the ubiquitous kimchi. Totori doesn't get fancy, but they do bring an attractive ceramic plate to every table with kimchi, marinated bean sprouts, and pickled daikon.

Kimchi may not appeal to everyone, but I love its tart, spicy intensity. Totoro's traditional blend of fermented napa cabbage uses less garlic and hot pepper than some, hopefully appealing to a wider range of palates.

The bean sprouts taste light and refreshing, dressed with sesame seeds, green onion, salt, pepper and sesame oil. The crunchy pickled daikon (a mild long white radish) has just the right mix of sweet and sour to get my mouth watering.

Escaping the office

Totoro seems busiest at lunch, with many of its 11 tables filled by local techies chatting over steaming bowls of noodle soup or beef stew.

Lunch and dinner plates resemble each other except that lunches run a dollar less. Lunch entrees cost $6 to $10, dinners $7 to $11. Lunch platters come as individual servings with rice on the plate, kim chi alongside. Dinners come in slightly larger portions, with separate bowls of rice.

On my first lunch visit I ordered the pork marinated with house spicy sauce ($7.95), which arrived scant minutes after I placed my order. The meat came on a bed of sliced fresh cabbage with a dome of firm white rice and an orange wedge.

Thin ribbons of tender pork were bathed in a sweet, spicy house barbeque sauce with julienned onions, carrots, scallions and sesame seeds. This has proven to be my favorite dish so far at Totoro, and I look forward to trying their barbeque beef and chicken.

The lunch portion was so large that the half I took home sufficed for dinner. Totoro's larger dinner portions can easily be shared family style.

Casual dinner

Something about Totoro's hidden location and bright decor might deflect people at dinner time, which is a shame. Considering its friendly, informal atmosphere, I think Totoro could prove a good place to dine with children.

An appetizer of skewered beef with vegetables ($4.95) would serve well as a child's main course. Six large, thin slices of marinated brisket are folded into accordion cubes and wedged between bell peppers, onions and scallions, grilled with a light char and doused in caramelized soy dressing. Flavors are sweet and comforting.

Other kid-friendly side dishes include skewered shrimp or chicken ($5.95, $4.95), deep fried pot stickers ($4.95) and marinated deep fried chicken ($9.95). Simple meat entrees like don katsu (pork cutlet, $8.95) and chicken katsu ($6.95) might also please a finicky eater.

The (not-so-kid-friendly) sautéed squid in spicy sauce ($7.95) arrived in heaping portions, filling its platter with long slices of slightly rubbery calimari, fish cake, carrots, onions and zucchini in a red, peppery sweet soy-sesame sauce. The tentacles (usually my favorite part) felt a bit tough to the teeth, but tasted fresh, spicy and sweet.

The seafood tofu hot pot ($8.95) came in a bright and spicy broth blending housemade beef and fish stock. Shelled clams and medium whole shrimp (with heads) joined soft tofu and green onions, with a raw egg cracked at our table to cook lightly in the pot.

Unable to dissect the whole shrimp with chopsticks and spoon, I used my fingers. Despite the inconvenience, I prefer the sweeter and more buttery flavors of whole shrimp to cleaned shrimp in such dishes.

Numerous other hot pots include beef, mushroom and tofu, spicy beef stew and noodle bowls with beef, vegetables, chicken or tempura ($6.95-$8.95).

Only a few of Totoro's offerings would suit a strict vegetarian. These include chap chae, sauteed clear noodles with vegetables ($8.95) and kim bob ($7.95), hand-rolled "sushi" with seaweed, rice, vegetables and egg. Chef Kim makes the kim bob to order, and she can adjust the ingredients to fit special requests.

Korean cocktails

Totoro offers soft drinks, iced or hot tea, a small selection of Japanese and Korean beer and sake, and an intriguing list of Soju Yogurt Cocktails ($10.95). These blend strawberry, peach, lemon or pineapple with yogurt and a clear alcohol made from fermented rice and barley.

Curious to try soju on its own, I ordered a chilled bottle of Jin Ro So Ju ($9.95). I found it to be smooth and mild, slightly malty, like a low-octane cross between vodka and sake.

Dubious at first about Totoro's modernized appearance, I have become fond of this humble nook, with its fresh kimchi and savory meats, its portions so large I have yet to leave without leftovers.

If you like barbecue, try Totoro for lunch and order a plate of bul go ki, one of the spicy marinated meats. It might become addictive.

INFO

Totoro
841 Villa St.
Mountain View, CA 94041
691-0796
Lunch Mon-Sat 11:30-2:30
Dinner Mon-Sat 5:00-9:30
Catering, Take out


 

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