A vegetarian oasis | November 29, 2013 | Mountain View Voice | Mountain View Online |


Mountain View Voice

Eating Out - November 29, 2013

A vegetarian oasis

Yam Leaf transforms El Calderon's Salvadoran classics into healthful, organic, meat-free dishes

by Sheila Himmel

Six blocks southeast of Castro Street, Yam Leaf Bistro is like a time-out. No fighting for parking, no scrum of restaurants vying for your business. Just a pleasant meal of organic, local and vegetarian food, with vegan options. On the ceiling are thoughts such as "Here Gather Family & Friends."

Christina Liu and five friends wanted to find a restaurant they could love. The group, most of them engineers, had studied Buddhism together for nine years, and wanted to promote healthful, environmentally friendly eating. None had restaurant experience. All came from Taiwan, where yam is a popular food that is considered to have detoxing powers.

In June they bought and repurposed El Calderon, which for 44 years had served Salvadoran specialties. They kept the pupusas and several other menu items that could be made vegetarian and organic, and spent a month learning the business. They scrubbed the 35-seat restaurant to a shine, set the tables with white cloths and gray placemats, and opened as Yam Leaf in mid-August.

Start with kale chips ($2.25), crunchy and dry, but not greasy. Kale chips are very persnickety. As anyone knows who has tried this at home, the difference between under-baked and over-baked is about ten seconds.

Vegetable soup ($6.95) changes with the availability of fresh ingredients. Recently it brimmed with cabbage, tomatoes, yams, cauliflower and tangy ginger.

The house salad ($6.95) is a bed of baby greens dotted with strawberries and blue cheese, dressed in raspberry vinaigrette that errs on the side of neither too sweet nor too sour.

The enchilada del rio ($9.95) is stuffed with mushrooms and draped in slightly spicy green sauce and luscious slices of ripe avocado.

Pupusas are a must. In homage to former owner Lita Lopez, they are labeled Lita's Pupusas ($3.95). The Salvadoran national snack can be a hockey puck of cornmeal, cheese and grease, cut by crisp curtido, a fermented or pickled cabbage slaw. Yam Leaf's pupusas dispense with the grease yet are delicious. A combination plate ($11.95) features one pupusa with crisp, tubular yucca fries. There is also a you-pick option, in which you can build your own pupusa with up to three ingredients. Smooth and sweet kabocha squash works very well. (By the way, we just passed National Pupusa Day in Salvador, the second Sunday in November.)

A couple of dishes worked less well. The black bean quesadilla ($6.95 as a lunch special, $9.95 at dinner) is big and boring, despite all the condiments and side dishes: guacamole, spicy pico de gallo salsa, sour cream, refried beans and a small green salad.

In my vegetarian years I occasionally longed for a greasy hamburger or pastrami on rye. Yam Leaf's Reuben sandwich ($6.95) would have helped. It's got the toast, the coleslaw, the cheese, and it almost tastes like pastrami if you close your eyes and banish from your mind that you are eating not ribbons of spicy cured beef but a marble-mouthed hunk of smoked tempeh "bacon." It comes with sweet potato fries, delicious if not crisp.

The sandwich was nicely offset by a refreshing cold drink of "fruit salad" ($2.95) topped with chopped apple.

The menu is small but evolving, soon to include breakfast muesli and coffee and, eventually, a wine list. A young chef is helping the crew test new recipes. Expect to see vegan pasta with eggplant, Chinese-style fried noodles and a Thai-style soup.

Yam Leaf

699 Calderon Ave., Mountain View



Hours: Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; Mon.-Sat. 5-9 p.m.

Reservations: yes

Credit cards: yes

Parking: parking lot in front

Alcohol: beer for now, wine in future

Children: yes

Outdoor dining: yes

Party and banquet facilities: no

Noise level: quiet

Bathroom cleanliness: excellent


Like this comment
Posted by Max Hauser
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Dec 2, 2013 at 11:29 am

Max Hauser is a registered user.

I guess it's been three months now! ;-)

Thanks for reviewing Yam Leaf. Additional details that may be of interest to readers:

El Calderon's proprietor Lita Lopez (who lives nearby anyway) stayed on as consultant to Yam Leaf. And while this review stressed differences from El Calderon, and new dishes are indeed appearing, nevertheless most of Yam Leaf's menu is from El Calderon, a continuity unusual in the restaurant business under a new owner and name, but conspicuous if you compare a menu from El Calderon with the current one.

In a few meals there so far, I've noticed the spruced-up interior, and also that some of the cooking seems even fresher and livelier than under the El Calderon name, with delicate accents of new ingredients and spices. El Calderon's many fans (which included the Milk Pail's founder, as well as the late Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle) have every reason to celebrate this respectful update of a venerable local landmark.

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