December 4, 2022

AmericanHummus

Food & Travel Enthusiast

The Peninsula has a splashy new food hall. Frankly, it’s boring and basic

The first time I went to the new State Street Market in Los Altos, I debated the definition of a food hall while picking over a waterlogged crab sandwich. Was State Street Market — a collection of mostly mediocre kiosks in a rehabbed grocery store — a true food hall?

With the ubiquity of food halls around the Bay Area and the country at large, years past their supposed boom in 2019, was it even worthwhile to hold food halls to a different standard than the mall food courts of yore? Beyond the stripped-down function of selling meals, what is a food hall for, anyway?

It seems like everywhere you go, there’s some kind of food hall aimed at giving you a regional, not-so-corporate experience. Los Angeles’ Grand Central Market offers gorditas and hyped-up artisanal breakfast sandwiches, while Baltimore’s Lexington Market promises glimpses of the port city’s culture via stout crab cakes and fried chicken.

In San Francisco, a lending library and low-cost meals make the La Cocina Municipal Marketplace a true community attraction, and esteemed local vendors bring throngs of tourists to the Ferry Building.

If food is a mirror of culture, food halls get butts in seats with the promise of being a gastronomic portrait of a place — more so than food courts with the same national concepts and stamped-out menus, at least.

The salads and bar at Grains & Greens in the State Street Market.

Paul Kuroda/Special to The Chronicle

The food hall provides diners with the convenience of a typical food court — something for everyone! — without that gauche eating-at-a-chain-restaurant feeling. Like food-truck parks, they can provide communities with spaces to hang out in and lots of interesting foodstuffs to take photos of, but with better seating. And like architectural hermit crabs, food halls fit well into liminal, semi-abandoned spaces, like former transportation hubs and warehouses.

In short, inasmuch as I, Soleil Ho, am allowed to say anything is cool, the food hall is largely seen by diners and real estate developers as the “cool” alternative to the food court.

State Street Market in Los Altos hits all of those beats, but the result feels uncannily synthetic.

The lunchtime crowd at the State Street Market in Los Altos.

The lunchtime crowd at the State Street Market in Los Altos.

Paul Kuroda/Special to The Chronicle

With its soaring ceilings and 20,000-square-foot plot designed by tech office and stadium designer Gensler, the Los Altos food hall is a picture of ambition. The project by Los Altos Community Investments concluded its years-long development last fall, beginning a gradual rollout of the concepts within: fast-casual concepts conceived by Michelin-lauded chefs Meichih Kim and Michael Kim (Maum) and Srijith Gopinathan (Ettan); a Mexican-Californian destination restaurant by chefs Traci Des Jardins and Robert Hurtado; and a slate of stalls from Bon Appetit Management Co. (You might know the latter from its fare at Oracle Park and Chase Center.)

There’s a modular, interchangeable feel to everything here. In the main part of the hall, separated from El Alto by an open-air paseo, diners can order in person or use tabletop QR codes to order a melange of dishes from each of the stalls. The digital mode is preferable here, since the staff at each stall generally refuse to answer questions or guide your ordering. You might as well pretend they’re not even there, since that’s how they treat you.

Electronic kiosk for ordering at State Street Market in Los Altos.

Electronic kiosk for ordering at State Street Market in Los Altos.

Paul Kuroda/Special to The Chronicle

Each kiosk has a small amount of customization to it: Little Blue Door, Gopinathan’s Cal-Indian stall, is lined with blue tiles that evoke the decor at Palo Alto’s Ettan, for instance. Most of the food, from Impossible chicken nugget meals to rockfish ceviche, is served on aluminum trays.

At State Street, there seems to be a lot to choose from, but I was struck by the sheer redundancy of the menus. You could get a roasted chicken from Little Blue Door and Banks & Braes, a kiosk that does American food. Banks & Braes also serves fried Brussels sprouts, which is something it has in common with Murdoch’s, the bar in the center of the hall that also does American food. You can get a gluten-free tofu bowl from both seafood stall Ostro and salad bar Grains & Greens.

The overall structure of this food hall, with its majority of stalls centrally operated by Bon Appétit and owned by the investment company, is different from more traditional examples like Grand Central Market and Public Market Emeryville. In those, each stall is usually operated semi-independently by individual vendors. That traditional structure contributes to the more down-home, farmers’ market-like reputation of a food hall, which attracts diners who crave diverse and personalized interactions with their salads.

State Street Market’s approach to its food is novel for food halls, but the unremarkable food is a strike against the merits of centralized ownership. The “Roman-style pizza” ($12 for 1/4 pan) at Banks & Braes — really, sheets of dry focaccia loaded with ingredients like pepperoni and Calabrian chiles — was a La Croix-strength rendition of both pizza and flatbread. Better could be found at State of Mind Public House, the pizzeria next door.

Pizzas at the Banks & Braes in the State Street Market.

Pizzas at the Banks & Braes in the State Street Market.

Paul Kuroda/Special to The Chronicle

Ostro was the source of that perplexing crab sandwich ($22.95). The mixture of Dungeness and Jonah crabmeat was unseasoned and seemed scant compared to the engorged sourdough loaf the mixture was swiped onto. We grimaced at the taste of the rockfish ceviche ($14.95), which bulldozed over the fish with strong Tabasco notes and not much else.

The more “cheffy” concepts didn’t fare much better.

At Little Blue Door, the display of whole, spice-rubbed chickens spinning on an attractive rotisserie caught my eye, but when I received my little tray of chicken ($22), coconut rice and Malabar curry, the bird was cold. A side of warm masala egg puff ($9) was chalky, its puff pastry exterior tough and overworked.

Bao Bei, a Korean-Taiwanese concept by the Kims, is unique, but here I found the ideas hampered by bad technique. A fried shrimp bao ($9.50) evoked shrimp toast — a fun idea! — but the heat of the fried bao and fried shrimp croquette turned the packed-in cabbage slaw into a wilty, soggy mess. The Kims’ take on dan dan mian ($15) advertises custom-made wheat noodles, but the effort of the noodlemaker was stymied by cooking technique that left the strands a claggy mass.

Roasting cauliflower at Little Blue Door in the State Street Market in Los Altos.

Roasting cauliflower at Little Blue Door in the State Street Market in Los Altos.

Paul Kuroda/Special to The Chronicle

These two kiosks were “curated” by these acclaimed local chefs. According to a representative of the market, they are partners who own the concepts and develop the menu, though they rely on Bon Appétit’s staff to not put shame on their names during day-to-day operations. It’s all the more disappointing when I know that these chefs are capable of stupendous work.