Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Yes I am REALLY surprised

Ok, so I am really surprised that there are things that I like, even love, in the food world that I thought I would never like, accept, or do. And some things I’m surprised about in general, that’s here too. So let's roll it.

1. I do not like home fries at breakfast, or ever. The only potato I tend to eat at breakfast is the McDonald’s hash brown. Flavorless, oily home fries on my breakfast egg plate are always ignored. Not the same at The Red Lion in Silver Lake. Their home fries, listed on the menu as German potatoes, are a steaming, glistening pile of flavor: sliced potatoes sautéed in some magic fat with onions and bacon. What you say? Most home fries are sautéed in fat with onions? Pah! You have no idea what you're talking about. The flavor on these is stupendous. I highly recommend, along with a low cholesterol exercise and diet plan after.

And while on the subject of breakfast…

2. I thought arriving at a local cult breakfast spot when the doors opened would guarantee an empty restaurant. Not so at Griddle Café in Hollywood, home of the 10”-larger-than-the-plate-it’s-served-on pancake stack (yes I measured). Getting up early one Saturday and driving to the corner of Sunset & Fairfax by 8:45am still resulted in a PACKED restaurant. Sure I’d heard about weekend waits if you arrive after 9:30-10am, but 8:45am?? These people weren’t partiers who never slept, they had bedhead and sweatshirts on. This was very surprising. And more about those pancakes, they look like they come in a stack of five, sometimes filled with pumpkin pie filling (or butterscotch chip/coconut/oat/pecans filling, or strawberry and frosted flakes filling, or many others) and everyone, including macho men, get their uneaten pancakes to go. If you saw these frisbees you’d get it. Which is probably why my waiter gave ME a hard time for not finishing my delicious only-one-on-the-plate gingerbread waffle. So I didn't cut it like the resident lumberjacks, so what. I prefer sleeping in anyway.

3. I love beer, and have had exquisite brew sensations in various corners of Europe: Munich, Paris, Copenhagen, Belfast, Berlin (see delicious photo of such above). And my favorite beer on local soil is a Blue Moon on tap or the occasional Hitachino Nest White Ale from Japan. Though sometimes, I actually prefer a nice cold pint of Miller Lite. Not because Miller is my last name, and not because I am white trash like some of you judgers are thinkin'! It's because at a recent happy hour at the 901 on Fig they had a decent selection of 2-for-1 pints and for some reason I went with the path of least resistance, the Miller Lite. That’s right, 2 pints for $4 (plus tip, every day, 4-8pm, you heard it here). Drinking it was easygoing, light and refreshing. Yes I love good beer and especially love a swell Belgian white ale or Hef, but sometimes the non-gourmet choice wins. No, not if that beer is say, a non-alcoholic Bitburger that's been sitting in a basement at a Berlin McDonald's for eternity, but yes when you're talking about a good old pint o' swill, which sometimes is a-okay.

Also on the subject of imbibing…

4. For some reason I didn’t realize this til recently… Who knew that cheap wine by the glass at one place can be leaps and bounds better than at another place. It’s true. I had no idea. Let's just say that my Chardonnay at Honda-Ya was drivel (their thing in all fairness is sake and ice cold beer), while the Chardonnay at Golden Gopher consistently pleases. In addition, the recently sampled Chardonnay at the 901 Bar & Grill was even better than at the Gopher. So don't continue on thinking all cheap wine at non-wine-ish restaurants is bad (hmm, maybe you never thought this; maybe it's just me), because seriously, some of it is pretty good.

5. As much as I hate eating peppers, it has been recently discovered that when they are grilled I can and do enjoy them. I still hate them raw, or when still in every frozen entrée item you make Lean Cuisine! But now this “hold the peppers” person is reconsidering that closed-minded habit.

6. If you eat a dish one time at a restaurant and don’t like it at all, if you go there again and try something different you may become a raging fan! This happened to me at Chano’s. The first time there I had some steak thing with cubed meat and it was a straight-up “eh.” (Note: if you didn’t know this about me, my preferred style of Mexican cuisine meat is shredded, never cubed. This also holds true at Chinese restaurants, where I will never order Kung Pao chicken for this very reason, as well as for that dish's inclusion of, uh...peppers.)

Sure it’s possible the cubed meat wasn’t the only issue with my first Chano’s visit. Turns out I was also stone-cold sober. See Chano’s is the place every college town has, that late-night spot where the food becomes more delicious the later it is and the drunker you get. Well a few weeks ago Neil and I went back to Chano’s after I’d had two fat glasses of Chardonnay in me. I quickly declined ordering anything at the drive-thru, while Neil ordered his standard carne asada burrito. It smelled so good in the car and he offered me a taste. I took a bite and was wa-wowed with a capital W-W. Intrigued by this now, I started to peek inside the bitten burrito when Neil exclaimed, "Don't look! Don't look inside!" "Why not?" I asked. He wouldn't say, but later confessed he didn't want me to discover any fat on the meat, a highly probable thing in a Chano's burrito, and a known verboten thing on Planet Marly. It's true, seeing any fat in the burrito would have negated the whole damn experience. So I didn't look, and Neil took his late-night snack back and then for some silly reason (perhaps it’s called trust?) he left me in the car alone with the burrito for a moment and there I was sans witnesses with a miracle of shredded beef strips and cilantro and tomatoes. Yum! (My bites were small enough so he wouldn’t notice how much I ate, and then I sadly gave it back to him.) Was it the wine that changed my Chano’s tune or was it the menu item selected by a true Chano’s patron? Whatever the case, I’ll be going back, and if I get the carne asade burrito I will take Neil’s advice to never look inside it and just eat it.

7. Who doesn’t love brownies! Well I love them too, and making them, especially from scratch. So would you believe that Smart & Final, that mini-Costco marketplace around LA, sells a brownie tray that is very tasty. This shocked me last week, when I had a brownie at a meeting and thought someone in the room made it at home (from a box mix, but still). No, she said, it was from Smart & Final. Well mustn’t I take my brownie ego down a notch now!

8. On a similar note, I feared moving to LA would mean I could no longer eat a respectable Buffalo wing or Philly cheesesteak, due to my personal theory that regional foods taste best when eaten as close to that region as possible. With Buffalo, NY sitting 2540 miles away from Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, PA 2714 miles away, this had me justifiably worried. BUT... it turns out that passionate foodie ex-pats can be anywhere, and there are some great ones in this city. The best just-like-home traditional hot wings I’ve had here are at the Hot Wings Café. The best cheesesteak I’ve had is from either Phil’s at the Farmer’s Market or South Street in Burbank. Now I try not to eat these favorite snacks o' the east too often after Sunday brunches of German potatoes at the Red Lion, though it's still comforting to know they're around whenever I want them.

And speaking of wings, there are even more places out here to get great ones, including a place that is so surprising to me, I've tucked it down here at the end of the list since I still feel a little weird shouting its praises from the rafters...

9. As an egalitarian urban-raised woman, I am now a new shocked fan of...Hooters restaurants. You heard me. For my entire life I – and as I just found out, my Mom too – would not step into a Hooters for fear it was an objectifying place of business. Thing is, I love Buffalo wings right, and friends (Mark) have always insisted I give the place a try. My answer was always "No! Never!" Sure enough, a few months ago I went along with a group decision to go to the Pasadena location. And the wings were good! They weren't great but they were definitely good (specifically the "naked hot wings," in this case naked simply refers to an unbreaded chicken wing, so take your mind out of the gutter!). The Blue Moon on tap was a pleasure of course, and the football games on TV fun to watch, however the service was just ok. So I thought, it's just ok at Hooters, I'm not going to run back because it's just ok.

Then a few Sundays later Neil and I went to watch football in the Burbank location. This time the experience was excellent. The staff was friendly, and the waitresses took away all my preconceived notions by being really friendly and talking as much to me as to Neil. And the added bonus this time was in my trying the boneless hot wings, which were outta this world. I said outta this world! A group of us went again last weekend and there was even more magical food goodness! I can't stop thinking about it -- had to order those boneless hot wings again, and the table ordered a new special treat called Lots-a-Tots, an addictive pile of fresh fried tater tots topped like a baked potato with bacon, cheese, sour cream and chives. In addition the Blue Moon on tap kept on coming, and a newly tried item, the naked cajun wings, turned me into a practical wing werewolf. Those wings weren't what I ordered, so I am very thankful for Neil's wing magnanimity. Now not only do I like Hooters, I'm a fan! This is the biggest surprise of all.

All in all these are a bunch of things, pre-conceived food and drink notions really, that were toppled before my eyes. So I'm thinking the next time I'm about to form a closed-minded foodie opinion, it would be better to sit back and give the thing, the wing, or whatever it is, at least an open-minded try.

Until we eat again,

Thursday, September 25, 2008

"I'd like my burger rarebit, please."

I may never have mentioned this to you but I have been on an unofficial food Quest for a long time. So long that it was forgotten! To bring you up to speed on the specifics, here's an inquiry I wrote to Gourmet Magazine four years ago.

My note to them

To: Gourmet, Feedback
Sent: Friday, September 17, 2004 3:53 PM
Subject: in search of a great cheddar sauce

When I was a teenager, my mother brought me to a local low-down restaurant for dinner one night in town. The town = Cranford, NJ; the place = Dunn's Garage.

I was thrilled to eat their cheddar burger and haven't forgotten it. You would walk up to the bar and order, and the bar man took the bare, juicy burger and ladled on a heap of warm, thick and gritty cheddar cheese sauce.
To this day this is my favorite burger memory. Since Dunn's Garage has been closed for ages, do you at Gourmet know of a recipe for a similar type of pourable, thick real cheddar cheese sauce for topping burgers? I have tried to recreate this at home with no luck.
Regards, Marly

Their initial response was sent an hour later!

From: Gourmet, Feedback
Sent: Friday, September 17, 2004 4:46 PM

I'll send your note around, but I think it's a long shot. I did notice the following listing: Dunn's Garage Automotive (908) 245-0108 601 W Westfield Ave Roselle Park, NJ 07204. It sounds like an actual garage, but perhaps someone there can help you. If I get anything back from anyone on staff I'll let you know.
Best, James

On the following business day they wrote again...

From: Gourmet, Feedback
Sent: Monday, September 20, 2004 5:01pm

I just heard back from one of our food editors:

"I don't see why the Welsh Rabbit sauce wouldn't work. We did it in the Dec. 2003 issue, p. 206*. As for the gritty part, I don’t know exactly what that means, but I'm wondering if it is an indication of overcooked cheddar-- where the cheese has broken down from being heated for too long. If you do the Welsh Rabbit rabbit, you can always increase the amount of cheese to taste."

Hope that helps.
Best, James

(*see recipe from Dec. 2003 issue, p. 206 here)

Well. I was very pleased with their quick response, even though I don’t eat rabbit. (Welsh Rabbit rabbit?) Although I’d heard of rarebit, is that what they meant? Perhaps I heard it first as a child when watching the Bugs Bunny show. There was an episode with a play on words--rabbit vs. rarebit--with reference to when someone wanted to cook Bugs, they told him he would be served with "wish-te-shish-te-shire sauce.”

Anyhow, in later foodie days, I came to know rarebit as some old British Isles recipe where you take a Cheddar cheese sauce and pour it over toast. Sorta a grilled cheese, though with no pan since the cheese is already melted. Imagine this on a burger. Instead of a stiff, separatist slice of cheese that merely half melts, I’m talking about a cloud of oozy cheesiness that dominates the burger and slides down its sides like lava. Yes I believe we understand each other now.

For some reason unknown to me, after the Gourmet letters I dismantled the Quest. Ok really, I just forgot about it. Until two nights ago. I met up with Neil at Tam O’Shanter’s, a delightful old Scottish pub and restaurant near Glendale that's a part of the Lawry’s Prime Rib chain, yet not a chain itself, and it's been operated by the same family since 1922. It is cozy and has a charm all its own--a great place to go!

The unofficial plan then two nights ago was to order a drink and a snack. Neil’s plan was to order a drink and dinner. His plan was better. After almost ordering a French onion soup and salad, an item called the “1922 Tam Burger” jumped off the page at me. This is its menu description:

1922 Tam Burger
Certified Angus chuck served open-faced on toasted sourdough bread with Neuske's smoked bacon and Thousand Island dressing topped with Scotch Rarebit.

Did that say “Scotch Rarebit”?? OMG could it be? Hmm, I also saw they had this appetizer on the menu, which pretty much confirmed it:

Scotch Rarebit
An authentic Scottish recipe of cheddar cheese, beer, cayenne and nutmeg. Served with buttery sourdough toast.

OK. Wow. So there was no question. I ordered the 1922 Tam Burger. It…was…the Quest! A burger on toast (not part of the Quest but who cares), with crispy high-end bacon (which is always a Quest), plus a molten heap of thick Cheddar sauce on top and dripping down the sides. The Quest! It tasted just like the Cheddar burger of my youth. And there were bonuses!... 1) enough cheese sauce to use as a dunk for the crispy fries, and 2) the smokiest bacon ever. I’m talking campfire smokey, lapsang souchong tea smokey. Looove it!

Now that my Quest has been fulfilled, I must start exercising far more (More x Zero = Zero?) in order to eat enough of these 1922 Tam Burgers to make up for the lost years. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Until we eat again,

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Bagels & Some Lox

Writing about bagels & lox was not an immediate idea. I was thinking about salmon really, and have lots to talk about there. Then I remembered how the arrival at the perfect bagel & lox experience is not automatic, nor obvious. I arrived at it only through the guidance of others, though living near great bagel shops and markets helped too.

Even though I come from a secular Jewish household, family gatherings – from my memory at least – did not include the ubiquitous bagel & lox platter. Oh I’m sure there was lots of lox, and white fish, but I suppose as a young person with typical palate limitations I was attracted only to the lox-hidden-in-the-cream-cheese spread. And no complaints there. This bagel preparation was delightful and the end of the road for me at the time. Real lox was just too icky.

Fast forwarding... At some point in my 20’s I worked for 9 months at a small city ad agency run by a father and son. The son was a lovely person, as well as one of Gourmet magazine’s top eligible New York City bachelors at the time. This made going to work fun. Unfortunately the father was a very mean person, a nouveau rich sort who took all his former life persecutions out on the rest of us, or maybe just me.

One day it was near holiday time and, regarding our office celebration, the father wanted to do it right. A bunch of us got in the father’s town car, with the father, to go out and find some food to bring back to the office. Our office was near the U.N. building, around 46th St. & 1st Ave., yet the driver took us all the way across and up to the upper west side. Before we knew it we were pulling up right outside of Zabar’s.

Zabar’s is a famous New York City institution, beloved by Woody Allen (who shot a scene from “Manhattan” there) and many other NY Jews and food afficionadoes for their massive array of bagel accoutrements. I say they specialize in bagel accoutrements, rather than bagels, because less than a half block away is a store called H&H Bagels, the city's most famous bagel shop. (They ship bagels overnight, btw, for about $50). People always go to both stores.

So far this was an unexpectedly adventurous field trip, to a famous gourmet store during work hours with the nice boss’s nasty father. When we got to the lox counter, Lauren Bacall (or Kathleen Turner) was ordering something and that was cool.

Then the father, who’s normal personae had suddenly morphed to that of giggly kitten, put some cash in my hand and said “Go get some lox, for 10 people.” I said, “Ok.” This sounded easy enough, but in the moments that followed the command I sidled up to the lox counter and there was a heck of a lot of lox. My original plan had been to order “lox,” and my new plan was to eavesdrop on Lauren Bacall’s (or Kathleen Turner’s) order, since her loud, specific commands to the lox man seemed pretty good. But then the father called out to me among the bustle “Get the belly lox! Don’t forget! Belly lox!” And when I said that to the lox man, it worked!

Back at the ranch we laid out the spread and I was instantly converted to the belly lox. This type of lox – heretofore unknown to me -- was incredible, soft, creamy, melt-in-your-mouth and didn’t have that fishy thick taste I'd gotten to know a few times from tasting regular lox cuts. To this day I can say that belly lox is the one nice thing that man ever did for me.

Now there were bagels in my life before the days of belly lox. In the early 90’s I was at a NY job that blessed the workers with Friday morning bagels and cream cheese. The bagels were large and fresh and came from a place called Ess-a-Bagel. (These remain my favorite brand, even more so than H&H.) Every Friday I’d take an everything bagel, force on some cold salted butter, then spread on the cream cheese. As years passed I could actually alter my weight via whether or not I partook in bagel day.

Eventually I learned my favorite way to eat a bagel was a toasted everything bagel with scallion cream cheese. I think a lot of people enjoy this combo. You’ve got your bagel with all those savory seasonings baked in – minced garlic and onions, sesame and poppy seeds, paired with the fresh green onions in the cream cheese. It’s perfection.

One morning during rush time, I ordered my favorite in the typical fashion, “Toasted everything with scallion,” at a new deli, and all was well until the counter guy asked me, “You want jelly too?” This stopped me in my non-caffeinated-coma tracks. My mind raced… I’m sorry, what about my order did you not understand. Savory bagel with savory spread. Why the F*** are you asking me about JELLY. I couldn’t have looked more squinty-eyed incredulous when I replied, “No!!” Listen, sweet cheap grape jelly + salty savory perfection isn't a thought that should ever be. Really, it’s like asking if you want grape jelly squirted on your French onion soup, or your strip steak, or...anything! It's wrong. But guess what, he squirted on the jelly when I wasn’t looking. At the office I discovered the treason, walked very pissed off all the way back to the deli for a re-do and never went there again, because the sanctity of a person's bagel preparation should never be tampered with, especially not in New York.

It was also in the mid-90’s that I received the best lesson on how to prepare a bagel, from my friend Matthew. He took such pride in this, he really taught me the glories of the experience in a way I did not know before.

The demonstration began one morning in our apartment, with fresh H&H’s in hand. We had brewed coffee in mugs (a very important go-with ;), and Matthew systematically began the bagel-prepping ritual while explaining it to me, since he was sincerely surprised that another Jew from Jersey didn’t have this knowledge inborn. Note: It’s been a few years and I can’t say Matthew said these exact words, but it is how I remember it. He said:

“First you take the bagel and you cut it in half with a big, serrated knife. Take the bottom half and put on the cream cheese. Not too much! Slice up a big beefsteak tomato. Make sure it’s ripe. The slices should be thick! Place a nice thick tomato slice over the cream cheese. Then take a red onion. Slice that up. Put a big onion ring or two over the tomato, just like that. Sprinkle on some salt, then some pepper. Top that with the other half of the bagel. Mmmmm, now look at that! And THAT’S how you make a BAGEL!”

It was crunchy, perfect deliciousness! I'll always remember that bagel. Hey Matt, maybe you can make me another one of those in December! :)

Until we eat again,

Monday, August 25, 2008

It's Poutine Time

Greetings, oh fans of the potato and all things starchy. It's time to open your mind to new delights of the spud. As a girl from Jersey, you may say I've been inclined to diner out at midnight with some disco fries (french fries with gravy and melted cheese), and maybe that's true! (It is true.) However our neighbors to the north have another way of saying it, and making it, that is near and dear to those who know it, and also appears in a Google search when you type in disco fries (as in, "not to be confused with..."). The name of the dish, seen above, is poutine.

Now I have a habit when traveling of seeking out regional specialties in the most accessible, ie. cheap, places: supermarkets and fast food chains. On my second trip to the lovely city of Montreal, during cold season, I walked underground in that if-you've-been-there-you-know- what-I-mean beneath-the-city mall. So as said, per what I usually do when traveling (never at home ;) I looked into an underground Burger King and noticed they served a potato dish beyond french fries: the poutine! This was very exciting, so I sidled into a line to order a BK poutine, loonies (Canadian $1 coins) in hand, when my elitist Toronto-born boyfriend said “You don’t want to have your first poutine at a Burger King do you?” This was the tone in which he said many things, except this time he kinda made sense. So I skipped it, figuring I'd try poutine another time. Another time never came, and it’s 10 years later.

That is why this Canadian dish-of-affection is always in the back of my mind, and when I was having an e-conversation with a fellow (USC) Trojan from Ottawa, I mentioned the poutine and he wrote back a wonderful overview of it, including where to get it in LA! I asked his permission, then, to feature his story in my blog, and with that I present to you the rest of this post, as written by Planet Marly’s first guest blogger, Theodore.

Theodore's LA Poutine Story

As a Canadian ex-pat living in Los Angeles, every so often I come down with a craving for some Canadian cuisine. Until recently I had been making a bi-monthly pilgrimage to this restaurant in Monrovia called the Canadian Café. Unfortunately, they recently closed shop which I attribute to the fact that they were located somewhat remotely at the intersection of the 210 and 605 freeways and that warmer temperatures in Southern California don't really warrant such high-fat foods such as back bacon sandwiches and poutine.

Having grown up on the border of Ontario and Quebec, however, poutine is something that is dear to my heart and after some extensive internet research I was pleased to discover that there are four other venues in Los Angeles that serve the "delicacy."

Redondo Beach Cafe
1511 S Pacific Coast Hwy
Redondo Beach, CA 90277
(310) 316-1047

3200 W Sunset Blvd
Silver Lake, CA 90026
(323) 906-1018

Soleil Westwood
1386 Westwood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90024
(310) 441-5384

Alibi Room
12236 Washington Blvd
Culver City, CA 90230
(310) 313-1404

In the course of my research I located a few photos as well (click here), from someone else in LA who is apparently as obsessed with poutine as I am. So far I've only been to the Redondo Beach Cafe. They use real curds, a medium-dark gravy, and thick cut fries. Judging from the pictures, the poutine at Soleil looks to be quite authentic as well, albeit with shoestrings, which is more like something you'd find at a ski lodge in Canada.

The poutine at Dusty's also looks tasty, but it is a little spurious as to whether or not they use real curds. I recall reading a review of sorts indicating that they do, but it's not really possible to tell if the curds had melted in the photo or if they had simply used shredded cheese.

The Alibi Room is more of a bar, so I'm thinking one of these evenings I'll make the trip out there for a beer and a poutine.

My only reservation about the poutine I've had here is that the curds are larger and more uniform in size (like a bunch of scallops), which may or may not be a function of their Wisconsonian origin. I like poutine best when the curd size varies from little bits to large chunks; it makes for a more even distribution of cheese and a more varied mouth feel. (See photo here.)

Signed Guest Blogger,

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Proposal: Abolish Continental Breakfast

Hello. So something about me you may not know... I love breakfast. What you may know is I also love travel. Even tiny travel like visiting a nearby town for a conference gets me excited, like a few weeks ago when I went had the chance to visit Stanford.

When you're traveling and want a bright start to an adventurous day in a new place, what do you do? You get yourself a nice breakfast. If you're in a hotel or at a conference, usually the free breakfast is the ubiquitous Continental. And you always begrudgingly eat it because who wants to pay for breakfast when someone is giving it away for free.
Perhaps that is why Continental Breakfasts suck so bad! Because what company wants to pay for quality when they're giving it away for free. And since giving it away for free is the norm I guess they can't stop now. Yes, we're in a vicious cycle here. And we have to do something about it!

Bed & Breakfasts have "breakfast" in their title so are naturally expected to provide a nice complete breakfast for their guests, which they always seem to do. Their breakfasts are called Full Breakfast and these usually include carb-y homemade yummy stuff like pancakes or French toast stuffed with berries and bananas. You can also order such things at fancy hotels via room service however this will cost you your life savings. To accommodate the frugal, fancy hotels do offer room service Continental Breakfast for maybe $17, or for a little more money you can order what you really want: the American Breakfast. This basically translates to some sort of bread basket (straight from the Continental) plus eggs, and bacon if you're lucky.

What I want to know is, have you as a person, with the exception of airport discussions, ever used the word “continental” in a sentence in this century or the last several decades? You would use this word only if you now lived in the proverbial '50s or were Christopher Walken on Saturday Night Live. The joke of The Continental skit on SNL is how dated Mr. Walken's character is, how dated his hotel is too, and how creepy. True, continental used to suggest a sense of luxury, that the person who was continental in nature was some sort of jet-setter, literally jetting around the continent like a star. Now all it means is crappy free breakfast.

Another thought: I'm assuming "continental" in this context may have referred to “items from around the country” back in the day, when Americans were starting to fly and see the country outside of their home town. People started to get more excited about cooking and trying new things. I imagine Continental Breakfast could have referred to regional specialties, or a variety of regional specialties, served at the breakfast table. Now it is, appallingly, drab tasteless pastries, dry untoasted fake-ish bagels, with packets of cream cheese, butter and jam. If you’re lucky and have a generous host, there may be some non-organic high fructose corn syrup-sweetened yogurts also served. And if you’re really lucky you may get a nice cut fruit plate with melon and berries, which everyone loves, though come on who eats that and stays full until lunch?

For another extra fee a host can add on a lox platter to go with the fake-ish untoasted bagels. This helps. Sorta. Same as adding butter to stale movie popcorn and suspending disbelief.

And for another extra fee the host can add on the buffet-style hot stuff,
which on the agenda or menu changes the name of the meal to simply "breakfast." I'm talking about the add-on of scrambled eggs, home fries, bacon and sausage. This would be the free breakfast of choice to most people, who perhaps wouldn't even mind paying a little extra for the hot stuff. But hey, about that, have you ever noticed that these items ALWAYS are served THE SAME WAY everywhere ACROSS AMERICA. Nothing is unique when a hotel or conference center offers these items. THEY SAY WE LIVE IN THE LAND OF THE FREE, BUT WE LIVE IN A LAND OF COPY-CAT BREAKFAST BLANDNESS. There is no uniqueness to breakfast in too many places charged with serving it. CONTINENTAL BREAKFAST IS NO LONGER AN ACCEPTABLE OPTION, it is BAD and it is the worst thing about traveling. That is, UNLESS YOU ARE TRAVELING OUTSIDE OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.

* * intermission * *

Let's talk about the free breakfasts provided at hotels in Europe. Let’s especially talk about breakfast in Denmark. My free breakfast in Copenhagen, at the lovely and charming Admiral Hotel, was one of the most satisfying hotel breakfasts ever. Sure, there were no hot stations of scrambled eggs or a chef-manned omelette or waffle station. But I ask you, who cares! In its place were tables full of hearty breads and crackers, organic European yogurts with fun flavors like "forest berry," hard-boiled eggs, smoked ham along with country paté, rows upon rows of fresh Danish cheeses (some beautifully fresh and white as snow, most of which you have never seen on these shores), and Danish pastry. Yes, Danish pastry! The most incredible pastry in the world (and never to be confused with what we here in the U.S. call Danish pastry). All this magic was included in my free hotel breakfast.

In other European hotels I've been happy to experience fresh baquettes, cheeses and meats, and as always a fine selection of European yogurt, and it's good, very good! It's not crap. (Note: one brand of fantastic Swiss yogurt is sold is several high end food stores in the US, and in LA! It's called Emmi, pictured above. I especially recommend the pink grapefruit and the apricot. You can find it at Surfas in Culver City and Bristol Farms).

So America, please hear my plea. If you're going to serve free breakfast, can it please not suck? Can it please be good? Turn to Europe for inspiration, or anywhere else. At least serve some decent yogurt. Now you know where to buy it too, so there's no excuse.

Until we eat again,

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Musings on Bacon

As I pondered posting again on the subject of pork, I considered how much I really, really like bacon. One reason for this relates to something that happened once, so welcome to my flashback...

My Flashback

At the age of 14 I was hospitalized for asthma for the second time. I was sort of sickly then too, on lots of asthma medication, some of which produced a low appetite and subsequent thinness. At the same time it should be noted that my mother kept a healthy house where fattening foods were not the norm.

So you can imagine at the hospital when they left a lunch menu on the nightstand so I could select my own lunch without parental supervision, and that one of the entrées offered was broiled bacon (yes you read that right…BROILED BACON), well I was absolutely thrilled and decided that being hospitalized was actually a pretty cool thing.

Now I shared my hospital room with a painfully shy girl who I recognized as that painfully shy girl from high school. Poor thing. Because of this we didn’t speak, ever.

The good drugs had already kicked in which meant I was starving and couldn’t wait for my bacon, desperately hoping they wouldn’t shove off some bad undercooked bacon to ruin this food-freedom episode of my life. I also worried that the menu might actually be a cruel joke. Or that they’d get the order messed up, or that they would accidentally give my bacon to the shy girl and since we weren’t speaking how would I ever be able to get it back from her. Then it got a little deeper and I wondered if my asthma was so bad, perhaps they decided to offer me bacon as a phenomenal last meal. Or worse, was I already in heaven?

Lunch was finally served and to my delight when the big guy in white scrubs removed the metal cover from the plate there were about eight slices of perfectly crisp, gorgeous-looking bacon. I took a bite and it was transcendent, the most delicious bacon I’d ever eaten. Each bite was savored, and I was so grateful no visitors were allowed at lunch so I didn’t have to apologize for choosing this item or worse, share it!

Then, a distraction. Two nurses walked in and stood between the beds of me and shy girl. They watched my trance-like eating of bacon and looked dumbfounded. What’s your problem, I thought, can’t a person hoard her bacon in a semi-private room semi-privately? Without a word they walked to the other side of the room to the shy girl’s side. She wasn’t eating at all. I looked at her plate, with green beans and jello and whatever else, and there was no bacon there. Surely everything else from the kitchen was presumably awful, but hopefully she'll take notice of how blissful my lunch made me and know better what to order next time.

The nurses asked shy girl why she wasn’t eating her lunch, and surprisingly she was very shy with them too… no words. So the nurses threatened and said if she didn’t eat her lunch she would not be allowed to see her parents, which made shy girl cry. Now I was the one dumbfounded, shouting silently to her “What is your problem? EAT IT!!”

The threatening and crying continued and that’s when I had one of those "ah ha" moments. This girl was anorexic, just like Karen Carpenter from The Carpenters band. How weird to see how that works. And why would they put me in a room with an anorexic? It slowly came together for me. The hospital thought I was anorexic too, because I was so thin. And that error in hospital judgment led me to a sweet place with menus that offered fatten-her-up lunches like broiled bacon. It was also why they were so flabbergasted at my bacon joy. Silly silly people.

Since then I've always dreamed of that bacon. Even called the hospital kitchen once to ask for the recipe. Some guy on the phone dashed my dreams when he simply said “It’s just bacon.” Just bacon. Ha! I’ll never forget it though. It was one of the best meals of my life.

In the last week or so I enjoyed more euphoric bacon...

1) At City Bakery Mom, Norm and I had applewood-smoked bacon as a side dish at breakfast. Afterwards I took a stroll along the salad bar and would you believe they had a gigantic heaving plate of bacon-wrapped dates AT THE SALAD BAR. This is unheard of at City Bakery, at least in all the years I've patronized them I've never seen it (I guess they had to make up for the fact that they no longer serve Maury Rubin's famous tarts at the Brentwood location). I bought three of the bacon-wrapped dates—with some cold spicy fried chicken of course—just to taste them. These were the first of this tapas treat I’d had without an almond inside; I believe there was cheese inside instead. I love the almond, but something about the softness in this bite was better. I think I moaned at the table. A big fat wow.

2) The other recent bacony times were in Little Tokyo at Honda-Ya, where my table and I enjoyed bacon as part of two yakitori skewer selections: a) sausage wrapped in bacon, and b) asparagus wrapped in bacon. Yup, awesome.

3) And more bacon is on the way! In a few days I'll make more of those peanut bacon truffles from an Alabama restaurant’s recipe in Saveur magazine. Such a simple recipe, and so odd, yet they’re great...as long as you don’t eat them with beer (that’s pretty gross, as my friends and I discovered while eating some with a pitcher of Rolling Rock).

That's it for now pork and non-pork lovers! Until we eat again,


Monday, April 21, 2008

LA Burgers & Me, A New Love Story

That’s right, it’s taken me almost 2 YEARS to get on board with the famed LA burger wars. I cannot plead ignorance either, since many years ago Gourmet magazine (to my mouth-watering amazement and east coast envy) had an article about it.

There may have been two articles, because I remember one about the coolest LA burger joints and another about LA burger joints with secret vegetarian ordering methods (yes there are those who order an In-N-Out with just a bun and double cheese!).
What an exciting city, I thought. Really this could be one of the 25 reasons I moved here, even if this knowledge did escape once I started eating LA fish tacos. Forgive me, LA burgers.

Anyway, I digress.
So, how did this new burger love story suddenly start now? Let’s see…

Weeks after I got off the plane in Burbank, I drove to an In-N-Out. It was forgettable (sorry!). And it ended there. Because some time in the 90’s my friend Adam brought me to one of the spots listed in that magazine article, Mo Better Meatty Meat Burger, near where the Lakers used to play. It was juicy spicy AWEsomeness. The In-N-Out, years later, was not. It was “okay.” And because before I moved here Mo Better Meatty Meat
closed its doors, I had no reason to carry on (trying burgers, I mean). The war, in my opinion, was a figment of Angelino imaginations.

Time went by. I ate more fish tacos, Chipotle bowls, buffalo wings, fried chicken, and fried chicken with waffles. (It's true I weigh less now than I ever did back east. Boy LA’s great!) Then a few weeks ago at lunch Neil walked me over to Fatburger, one of a dozen fast fooderies on Figueroa by the University. We shared a Kingburger and Fat Fries. It was thrilling. Three nights after that after saying bye to a visiting friend at midnight, I drove to another Fatburger that's open til 3:00 a.m. Two days later, I was enlightened late night to the Original Tommy’s, and two days after that I stopped at Astroburger. It was burger gluttony and oh it was all sooo good!

Below is a list of burgers recently sampled, including french fry and other comments, for your pleasure. These are in order of favorite, and each place is linked to a website.

The LA Burgers

1. Fatburger (slogan: “The Last Great Hamburger Stand”)
Ordered: Kingburger and Fat Fries, Lemonade
Happy joy! My new favorite burger is so because it tasted like I was at a backyard barbeque, only so much better! And with better conversation! The patty was thick, tasty and made-to-order. The bun fresh. But the winning element here is the RELISH. This from the person who always takes her pickle off her McDonald’s Happy Meal Burger. Other elements on the burger are fairly standard in California: Mustard, Mayo, Lettuce, Tomato, Onions. However the relish really took the flavor to the hilt. Plus the service is damn friendly.

2. Original Tommy’s (slogan: "World Famous Burgers")
Ordered: Burger (Easy Chili, No Onions) and Fries, Orange Soda

I never went here before because there are too many knockoffs so I didn’t want to risk going to the wrong one. This one is very close to my home! which means its close to USC too and has a following there. Now I am not into restaurant chili or chili dogs etc., though Neil insisted I at least try it, just say “easy chili.” I did, and it was AWESOME. The fries were like those crunchy greasy diner fries and ROCKED. The best! The cooler where you get to grab a can of soda was FUN. And my stomach, although warned, made it through the night UNSCATHED. Oh yes I heart you Tommy.

3. In-N-Out (slogan: “Quality you can taste”)
Ordered: Hamburger and Fresh Cut Fries, Diet Coke
Sure the burger and accoutrements (including a thousand-islandy-style dressing) tasted fresh and good, with that cute white wax paper wrap around the burger welcoming me to California burgerdom, though there was no hit-me-over-the-head flavor. Surprisingly the fries, even though freshly cut from whole potatoes right there on the counter, lacked flavor too, and you’re talking to a person who eats fries without ketchup! I want to taste the potato, so I wonder why the freshest-of-all-fries didn’t deliver there. Maybe it's a simple matter of under-seasoning? (I've heard I'm not alone here.)
ps: if you’re curious about the legendary “not so secret menu,”
just click here.

3. Astroburger (tied with above)
Ordered: Hamburger and Fries
Now I was on a roll. I pass this place whenever I’m on Santa Monica Blvd. It’s directly across the street from a Fatburger, so I figured it must be worthy of the competition. I’d say it sorta is, but more so because Johnathon Schaech the actor (from "That Thing You Do") ordered right before me and I thought that was very cool. Otherwise, this place is like a diner, with way more offerings than burgers. Cute kitsch includes mini juke boxes with oldies at every booth, and an outdoor picnic area that looks 50’s quaint. The burger itself was sorta In-N-Outish but thicker and from the other side of the tracks, if that makes sense. The onion rings one table over looked good too and I really wanted to ask the patrons to try one in the name of the blog, but figured that’d be pushing my luck.

Gourmet LA Burgers Worth Mentioning

These two “build your own burger” places are swank and fabulous. Each has a bar and a cool vibe, whether beach modern or retro clubby. I won’t go into special detail on each, just summarize by saying I highly enjoyed each experience. And it’s hard not to, since you make your own burger! Although at 25 Degrees, Robert and I each ordered a pre-decided “favorite” version (see below… what is “crescenza” anyway?). Still real good, but I know I could have had better. Another 25 Degrees note: They serve the fries and onion rings as an appetizer for some reason, so we filled up on that first and that kinda muted our burger delight. Silly place.

Ordered: My creation of a 1/3 lb. Beef Burger on English Muffin with Mixed Baby Greens, Herbed Goat Cheese Spread, Pepperoncinis and Caramelized Onion Marmalade, and Sweet Potato Fries
Special Pro: fancy milkshake specials (ie. s’mores, banana split, date)
Special Con: major wait time

25 Degrees
Ordered: The Number One with Fries (Prelibato Gorgonzola, Crescenza, Bacon, Caramelized Onion, Arugula, Thousand Island) AND The Number Two with Onion Rings (Burrata Cheese, Crispy Proscuitto, Roasted Tomatoes, Pesto).
Special Pro: those freakin’ onion rings!! + same owners as Red Pearl Kitchen
Special Con: it’s in the center of Hollywood, and who wants to go there?

Not Really Worth Mentioning But I Will
Jack in the Box
Ordered: don’t remember
I’ve had this but there is no recollection of “special.” It’s a chain like the east coast ones, so only on the list because it was a new experience for me. When I go I usually order a chicken sandwich or a shake (because those truly rock), plus they have an added bonus of offering spicy curly fries and 24 hour service.

Until we eat again (to carnivores especially),

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Starbucks What’s What


If you are reading this post today expecting that doing so will result in some savvy new information about the corporate policy changes or stock prices at Starbucks, you are barking up the wrong blog :) What I'm writing about are opinions, based on new experiences, and old! that I would like to share with you as a sometimes consumer of this maniacal coffee chain.

So, here's what's what. After what seemed to be a recent complication of practices--folks in line asked to pre-order, baristas filling out tiny cheat sheets with the pre-orders, baristas wearing head mics, new honey lattés (?)--it's as if the great flood arrived and wiped the slate clean. Starbucks is turning back to its roots!

Remember when they added the brewing of the breakfast blend way back, for people who wanted a milder coffee taste in the morning? You know, for those of us who don't want their daily addiction to sizzle their taste-buds off? The stores also change the non-breakfast blend daily so you get to "mix it up" and taste new flavors each day. You'd read the "Today we are brewing..." sign and order by flavor name, Gold Coast or Café Verona or Café Estima. But let's be honest. No one ever tastes the difference, with the exception of Sumatra being the most brewed-from-middle-earth-like than the others.

Well guess what, if you haven't heard, Starbucks has now eliminated that and added instead the “Pike Place Roast” blend. I met this nostalgic attempt at remembering the early coffee days in Seattle with a private tip to their marketing hats along with an indifferent “whatever.” But sure, of course I’ll try it one time…that is my job as an active consumer, right? Not that I really had a choice. Even though the sign said "We will be grinding and brewing Pike’s Place Roast every 30 minutes. Other coffees will also be offered throughout the day," other coffees had not been brewed, so we drip buyers really had no choice.

I got my typical “tall in a grande cup.” This because I always add a lot of whole milk and half-n-half to my Starbucks to combat this equivalent to a coffee sludgehammer. And funny enough, after the whole milk was poured into my Pike Place Roast, would you believe my targeted coffee color* needs were prematurely met, beFORE pouring in the half-n-half? (*This color can be referred to in CMYK as either dark wheat, sand, bread, or the formula magenta 20, yellow 40.) So I thought this was already pretty interesting.

(By the way, if I don’t love Starbucks why do I go through this? Because it’s the only coffee shop near USC campus that takes credit cards. Simple as that. Drink this or deal with the office’s “Alta Office Services” machine that was made in like 1962.)

As I walked the short distance to campus I took a sip of the PPR and oh my gosh, my lips uttered an unexpectantly cocky “Well well well,” you know with the same inflection the producer gave to Dustin Hoffman when he stood up to Dabney Coleman for the first time in “Tootsie.” It's like saying "You’ve got balls, Starbucks, but you did it, good for you (damn it)."

The pleasure mounted more so when that first sip kinda reminded me of my first latté. Yes, I was one of the lucky ones in this matter. While some people have a transcendent first kiss, I had a transcendent first latté...

It was on a business trip to Seattle in the late 90's. We flew out to do a focus group on coffee and the up-and-coming chai tea. I’d already visited the first ever Starbucks and had a regular cup of coffee there. It was nothing better than I’d had at any other one really. However the next morning I walked over to Post Alley, and wandered into a place I’d never heard of, Seattle’s Best Coffee. It was there that I decided to be a little more coffee-daring, as I was in the coffee capital of the country. I ordered the latté so plainly though, without the de rigueur customization demands, that the barista probably thought I was mentally challenged.

My first latté was the most beautiful cup of coffee & foam I’d ever seen. I gingerly carried it outside to the alley--which overlooked Pike’s Place Market and Elliott Bay--and while the salty, rising fog tickled my nose I sipped and was brought to coffee hallelujah glory. *sigh*

Nah you’re right, that experience was not repeated two days ago when I had my first sip of Pike Place Roast at the Starbucks on Hoover St. near USC. But you know, I was reminded of that, oh because this new coffee blend was so smooth, and it tasted great! without that Starbucksey burned, heaviness that people-sheep think equals good coffee. And when I repeated the experiment this morning, it confirmed there was no flaw. My morning pleasure--and no need for half-n-half--occurred again. Damn you Starbucks! Now I can only pick on your food!

Let's talk about the food.

A Starbucks employee in Northridge, CA recently told me that their breakfast egg sandwiches that remind me of happy Korean deli mornings in NY would be gone by the end of the year. No! Well if I have anything to say about it, the lack of success on this project is not because these sandwiches aren’t 1) tasty, or 2) necessary as a counterpoint to their other food offerings which are probably made with 90% white sugar.

The problem is that some corporate wonder is having the stores sell fairly identical sandwiches; they eliminated the one unique sandwich from the menu altogether. I’m talking about all the egg sandwiches being made of English muffin, egg, aged cheddar cheese, plus something from a pig (sausage, Black Forest ham, or peppered bacon). That's right, each one has the same cheese. Oh sure there’s one egg white version with turkey bacon and some reduced fat cheese, but it's still cheddar cheese! So why the fabulous Spinach Florentine sandwich (English muffin, egg, Havarti cheese, spinach, herb spread) was deleted early on, I’ll never know.

Hmm, also the scones at the east coast Starbucks were great, especially the cinnamon chip (I miss you), but out west they're all bad, all covered in some version of white sugar muck, or in the case of the blueberry scone, actual white sugar. Even the always-reliable marble pound cake has been modified in some way, as if they removed the butter in the recipe altogether. I can’t eat that! But I can, and will probably now more than ever, drink the coffee.

Until we eat again,

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Two Fab Asian Dining Experiences in LA

여보세요, 안녕하세요

According to Babelfish, the above characters mean “Hello, how are you?” in Korean. I say this half kidding but I think we should all start learning some basic Korean if we want to continue going out for a meal in Koreatown. Especially deep in the soul of Koreatown...

Asian Place #1

…like when visiting a place called B.C.D. Tofu House.

There was a little bit of a language barrier when this pop tofu temple on Wilshire was recently visited after a USC Basketball game (Go Trojans!). Neil and I were hungry and he suggested going out to find hot soup, but what decent local place was still open at 10:30 p.m.?

Many times I’d driven past the brightly lit mecca “TOFU HOUSE” and remembered the sign "open 24 hours." So we ventured into the rainy night in search of soup, hoping this place would be okay.

Oh it was packed! A school bus or two worth of teenagers was just exiting the premises. While waiting, we viewed a framed articled on the wall from when this spot was included in Saveur's LA Koreatown issue (#46, Nov. '00). We learned there are branches of B.C.D. Tofu House in other parts of the world too, including Tokyo! And I will tell you now that I felt like I was in Tokyo or Korea while dining here because to me the place was real crazy different.

The menus were in Korean, with sparse English translations. We ordered #13 and #14: BBQ short rib & premium tofu combo + Beef bulgogi (sautéed beef) & premium tofu combo, about $17 or $18 per combo. (Note: #15 pork and #16 chicken sounded really good too.)

The waitress asked "How spicy?", and I confidently answered "Medium" (my standard buffalo wing response), and then quickly, “Is medium spicy here really medium, or is it hot?” and the lady said “Medium is medium.” Okey doke.

She walked away with our order and immediately came back with the myriad little dishes typical of a Korean restaurant, which covered our tiny table with scant room to spare. The dishes included kimchi, cold marinated tofu slices, two hard-boiled eggs, seasoned pickle, etc., and just when we thought that was it, they squeezed in two whole fried mackerel (each on its own plate).

In the next wave came the tofu soup. It was bright gorgeous red! It was filled with soft tofu and fresh seafood and maybe even some pork sausage. Our soup bowls were placed before us in full rolling boil. If I may admit, this shocked the hell out of me. I felt like I was in an Indiana Jones movie, probably the 2nd one. "How is the soup boiling??" I exclaimed to Neil, "What’s in there??" He'd already figured out that there was a hot plate under the soup, so in the end, alas, it was not crazy magic soup! We quickly learned too that the spice request was not for the main dishes, it was for the soup. And it was not medium hot... Nay, it was what I like to call “ow ow ow ow ow” hot soup. Don’t say you weren’t warned...

Along with the tofu soup came two metal crocks of white rice. The waitress scooped each of our rice crocks out and into small bowls, leaving some rice caked in the bottom of the crocks. Then she swiftly poured water into the rice crocks. Okay. Maybe because they're busy they do some pre-dish-soaking Korean thingy, but nope, they left the water in the rice crocks on our very crowded table and walked away. And then... a few moments later... the water started boiling! Ah, more magic! Oh oh, see there's a hot plate under that crock too. Damn this is a crazy place. (Or maybe it's just me being crazy, getting all riled up over boiling things.)

Finally (after oh 7 minutes?) our entrées arrived. They looked and tasted delicious. Happily we ate and chatted, and it seemed like a good time to douse my rice with some spicy tofu soup, then chopstick up some of that with sautéed beef for a sumptuous, tasty bite. That’s when my taste buds wanted more fabulousness, so I figured some hard-boiled egg would be a nice addition. I grabbed one of the eggs and cracked it over my plate of beef and immediately discovered the egg was raw. Yes, it was unarguably raw. That's also when I discovered that the boiling water in that metal empty rice crock was there to boil my egg. Ah. I get it now.

At the time, though, I thought this was all delightfully silly! Until my raw egg in the water didn’t really cook because I’d waited way too long for this stage of the game… you’re supposed to drop the egg in pretty much right away. Ten minutes later I had a somewhat cooked egg, and was able to scoop the yolk out and half throw/half flump it over the beef dish. It was worth it. And for a total of like $40 all in, we had a crazy, tasty, adventurous feast that I do recommend for everyone, even if you don’t love tofu.

Asian place #2

Hello, how are you?

According to Babelfish, the above characters mean “Hello, how are you?” in English. Oh I see you already got that. The words are in English this time because even though the next place is an Asian-fusion restaurant, it's quite American, so learning another language will not behoove an easier dining experience. Yes it is quite easy to dine at Red Pearl Kitchen, if not damn enjoyable.

My-Lien and I met there to have a bite to eat, shared some appetizers, and sure maybe I had a tad bit of non-entrée-ordering guilt. Turns out at Red Pearl Kitchen, with its red and black lacquered walls and non-deafening sound system, everyone comes in to chat over shared small plates, or even one large one.

We had:
- chicken & garlic roll $8
- crispy Japanese eggplant with shrimp $9
- miso salmon satay $11
- chicken pine nut, iceberg lettuce wraps $9


We smelled heaven when other people were served:
- caramel chicken, cashews
- fillet mignon, ginger, scallion
- Peking duck with pancakes (offered as a weekend special)
- s&p shishito peppers

Lucky for us the nice table next to us noticed our craning necks and offered a taste of their s&p shishito peppers. They were great! I later realized these ladies were TV character actresses (one from Everybody Loves Raymond), and what an actress she is because her TV characters are usually harsh and in real life this actress was friendly, generous and quite delightful.

One more thing to mention: Beyond the scenic ambiance of Red Pearl Kitchen, they have a pretty unique and refreshing wine & beer list, serving one of my favorite imported beers that a few years ago became ubiquitous on the NYC dining scene: Hitachino Nest White Ale from Japan. Oh it’s good… sorta like a non-sweet dessert beer, featuring a thick, apricot-y bouquet.

I will be going back to these places and soon. They're too enjoyable to ignore.

Until we eat again (and yes probably in Ktown),

Monday, February 25, 2008

Why Long Weekends In California Rock

Hello, nice to see you again :)

So let's see, at this point I've lived in California for over a year and a half. And in this native east-coaster’s humble opinion, the beauty of long weekends in California (besides...all that sun) is there are always fun and myriad options of where to go and what to do just a short road trip away. Here are some basic examples of what I'm talking about:

1) If you’re in the north, go south to LA or north to Oregon

2) If you’re in the south,
a) go south to San Diego & Mexico or b) go north to San Fran & wine country

That’s what I did this past President’s Day weekend (#2b). What a great trip! I was graciously introduced to the bounty of the California breadbasket, where much of our country’s produce is grown. Here are some special things I was able to experience just over a week ago:
  • A drive through Castroville, home of artichokes, the giant artichoke (a globular statue) and restaurants that serve artichoke fries and fried artichoke hearts galore
  • Gilroy, home of garlic and the first place I ever tried garlic-stuffed olives
  • Olallieberry Pie (yes, this is a berry!) in Watsonville, along with the juiciest, tastiest strawberries, and the birthplace of Martinelli’s Sparkling Cider
  • Yummy Marini’s salt water taffy and the Giant Dipper (a fantabulous rollercoaster, not an ice cream cone like I first thought) at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk
  • Humble wild salmon (for the menu did not list this as wild) and the freshest steamed artichoke at the Jay Leno-touted The Whole Enchilada restaurant in Moss Landing
Truly a foodie’s dream, this part of the world. Thanks, host Neil!

On another day we (Neil, Nick & Rachael) drove up to San Francisco and stopped in at… don’t be surprised when I tell you… The Ferry Building!... after which back in the car we sampled Recchiuti rose caramels, fleur de sel caramels, sesame nougat and the new, seasonal Champagne truffle made with 2001 Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs. SO GOOD.

If that wasn't enough to blow my foodie mind, we then drove north to beautiful Sonoma in search of a great meal, and it was certainly found!

But first...en route to Sonoma we stopped at Viansa Winery and Italian Marketplace. Wow. Not only are the grounds exceptionally regal in the “oh yeah we’re in wine country now” way (see photo above); inside there are endless jars of pestos, jams, marinades, etc. and each is open for tasting (and imminent purchasing, you know because it isn’t every day you come across cilantro pumpkin seed pesto). This was a good thing.

So, we arrived in lovely downtown Sonoma. It reminded me of Santa Fe a little, with the big town square. And off of the town square and down a quaint little pedestrian lane was LaSalette, our dinner destination. This is a family-owned and operated restaurant specializing in Cozinha Nova Portuguesa, a.k.a. “contemporary, inventive Portuguese cuisine.” It was my first official foray into this cuisine, and I will tell you I can’t wait to get back to Sonoma and LaSalette. The restaurant is warm and charming, with great service and authentic, exciting food preparations that were all over-the-top delicious.

Here is what we ordered:

Portuguese White Wine Flight - (3 oz. pour of each) Muralhas Vinho Verde, Quinta Do Casal Branco, & Campolargo (the Campolargo was our fave so we ordered a bottle with dinner)

As a starter we shared:

Fresh Portuguese rolls and butter (so soft, so good!!)
Portuguese Cheese and Charcuterie Plates, 5 items
1) Queijo do Topo, cows-milk, semi-hard, sharp with house-made quince paste!
2) Queijo Fresco, house-made farmers cheese with house-made tomato jam!
3) Sardine Pate, house-made with onion, garlic and Piri-Piri
4) Linquica, traditional Portuguese home style sausage
5) Chourico, dry Portuguese pork and garlic sausage

For four of us, three entrees were enough:

1) Bacalhau, traditional baked casserole of salt cod, potatoes, onions and olives
2) Cataplana de Marisco, our signature seafood and white bean stew served in a copper bowl
3) Feijoada Completa, Brazilian national dish of stewed beef, pork, smoked sausage and black beans, accompanied by herbed rice, collard greens and traditional condiments

Then for dessert:

Arroz Doce, Lasalette Azevedos special recipe for Portuguese rice pudding garnished with a light caramel sauce with dried figs

Mmm mmm. While it is true that all the dishes were outstanding, the Feijoada was my favorite. It’s also important to note the items (rice, greens, salsa) that came with this dish were not mere sidekicks but bold co-stars with the Feijoada itself.

Saveur magazine did an article in issue #66, April/May 2003 about Feijoada from Brazil, however if I ever attempt this at home I’ll be more likely to try the recipe from Time/Life Foods of the World Cookbook: The Cooking of Spain and Portugal. And when I do that, there should be enough for sharing so I’ll let you know ;)

Until we eat again,

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Food Markets in LA: Ethnic and...Trader Joe's?

Happy Valentine's Day!
So, what do ethnic markets and Trader Joe's have in common you may ask? A lot! Both offer unique food items that taste great and are also affordable. It's that simple.

You should know that before coming to LA, an excursion to Trader Joe's was like a trip to Disneyland for me. I had to travel far to find one, and when I finally got there the lines were very long! It only got worse when Manhattan's 1st Trader Joe's opened in Union Square a few years ago. The line ran down 1.5 city blocks, you know, those long vertical blocks, outside, in the cold and snow?! Damn city living. And the line inside was so long it snaked around the entire circumference of the store. I bought my food in 10 minutes and waited 45 minutes to pay -- add another 45 minutes on 2 subways home and my frozen items were no longer frozen. I stopped shopping at TJ's at that time, and then I moved here (ok so the impetus to move is not entirely related).

These days, in the land of Trader Joe's freedom, I not only have many TJ's to choose from, BUT once you find one there are pretty short lines. And because this is LA--the land of fantastic, authentic ethnic food--there are also a handful of ethnic markets that have so far beguilingly tempted me to visit. Therefore, a handful of ethnic markets I like, and one farmer's market too, are listed below. Below that, my favorite items from Trader Joe's in case you didn't know...

1. SOME ETHNIC MARKETS IN LA (and what I like about them)
a) Grand Central Market - dried chiles, best selection of fresh made moles I've ever seen + many Latin American food stalls
b) Liberio Markets (best location Pico & Alvarado) - fresh Mexican cheeses, fresh & dried peppers, beans, corn meals, sodas
c) Papa Cristos - all things Greek + a restaurant next door
d) Simpang Asia - Indonesian & Malaysian sauce mixes (ie. to make green curry chicken or beef rendang), candies, snacks, spices + a café next door
e) Koreatown Galleria Supermarket (in the basement) - great produce dept with exotic fruits & veg, Korean sauces & spices, seafood, hot prepared foods, cookies, enough kimchi to feed a small city + Koreatown fried chicken café
f) Mitsuwa Marketplace (Centinela & Venice) - great selection of Japanese food items, candies, large Pocky assortment + food stalls
g) Santa Monica Farmer's Market - a great outdoor farmer's market with a view of the Pacific, it runs several days a week

  • Grilled Chicken Salad with Orange Vinaigrette*
  • Spicy Thai Style Peanut Salad with Chicken*
    (*please note, before TJ's I was eating Lean Cuisines daily for lunch and for the discovery of TJ entrée salads at $3.50 a pop I am forever grateful)
  • Unique Beer Selection - ie. Full Sail LTD batch 01 limited edition lager... in fact this listing is a bit of a tease, 'cause they already ran out
  • Charles Shaw Wine - you know, "2 Buck Chuck," not to be confused with lame Dane Cook/Jessica Alba film "Good Luck Chuck"
  • Wisconsin Cheese Curds - including instructions on how to get them to squeak (I'm not kidding)
  • Applewood Bacon - the fancy stuff served in restaurants!
  • Tarte d'Alsace Pizza (in the green box) - I'm telling you it's as good as I had in Alsace
  • Double Creme Brie Cheese - there are about 3 kinds they sell, and one of them is perfection, it's a blue/red label I think? Sorry, I wish they sold only one kind
  • Organic Blue Corn Tortilla Chips - addictive!!
  • Cilantro Roasted Pecan Dip - great paired with the above
  • The new-to-me-and-haunting Artichoke and Parmesan Dip - also fab when paired with the above
  • Salsa Kit - sold in the produce section
  • The new "Tortilla Chips with an Identity Crisis" - made with corn, brown rice and potatoes, odd at first taste but now loving it
  • Spanokopita Triangles
  • Blister Peanuts (salted)
  • Peanut Butter Zbar - a Clif Bar for kids, yes I already wrote to Clif to say they should be made a tad larger and sold for adults because it's not as sweet as other bars and has a nice, soft texture
  • and much much more that I don't know about yet!
Of course there are gripes for Mr. T. Joe's too, like they don't carry good tonic, have limited toiletry items, no maple-flavored yogurt for sale or baking ingredients or roasted chickens in a bag for $5 like at Ralph's, plus their Chinese Chicken Salad that is sold in two varieties (the noodles are different in each?) leaves a lot to be desired. BUT, isn't the Gripe List not what this blog entry is about? Isn't today's entry about food loving? You know, because it's Valentine's Day, and food is love and all that? Yes, it is, so please forget you ever read this paragraph, or just read it tomorrow :)

So, if you know of any other great LA ethnic markets or feel I've lost out on more Trader Joe's food love because I don't know about one particular item or another, please let me know via comment!

Until we eat again,

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Fobloog Gripe List (2008 so far)


So at this exact moment you're probably saying to yourself, it's just barely 2008 Marly, how can you present a Gripe list so soon into 2008?

I admit, these items are not really "of" 2008. They are definitely from before that, and so their time has come. You'll notice the list below has only 4 items on it, 6 fewer than the 2007 list, yet these items have more explanation. The list is in order from least important to most important in my foodie-opinioned head. Here goes...

4. Sparkling, still or tap?

Everyone knows about this one, so why list it at all? Because it annoys restaurant patrons, though admittedly the smarter restaurants have learned not to be as obnoxious about it these days.

This gripe is about when the restaurant server asks, "What kind of water would you like? Sparkling, still or tap?" (Sure sometimes the word “tap” is left off that short list of options and we're left to struggle with having the nerve to say "TAP is FINE.") As a matter of fact, this trend exists solely as a way to up the check average for your table. More profits for the restaurant, bigger tip for the server. If you actually prefer the bottled water, so be it! But be aware that after your bottle runs out, some shiesters will keep opening bottles until you’re finished with the meal. One price-gouged check later, you’re disgruntled and feel like a sap. So watch for that, and don’t buy into this sort of peer water pressure unless you sincerely don’t like tap.

3. New restaurants that are irrelevant
I'm talking about places that open and are a new place and a new space but don’t offer anything unique to the scene or the city. When people open a new restaurant, there needs to be a reason behind it. Not just to fulfill a dream to open a restaurant and then do what everyone else does, especially on the ubiquitous dessert front!

I once worked on a "let's open a fake restaurant" school group project at the French Culinary Institute. One student in my group was a flag-waving resident of Long Island who we'll call Dave. It was Dave's dream to open a seafood restaurant in the seafood-restaurant-laden town of Port Jefferson, Long Island. In truth, he was using the class to help him actually open the restaurant, he'd been to a realtor and everything. Well when it was time to plan the "fake" menu, two of us from the group built a really unique seafood menu that stood out from the crowd. But when Dave saw this, he said "Where's the shrimp cocktail?" I said "Every restaurant in Port Jeff serves shrimp cocktail. I thought the group decided we wanted our 'restaurant' to be different." Dave went on and on, not budging on the shrimp cocktail, asking why isn't cheesecake on the menu, where's the clam chowder, where's the Caesar salad and the fried shrimp plate and the skate with brown butter (apparently the only way skate wing is served on the east coast)... You get my meaning? There's no point to that restaurant existing, because it already exists in that location twenty-times over.

2. Tortilla chips in big bags
Have you ever noticed that tortilla chips aren’t sold in small, snack-size bags? You know, if you go to a convenience store and want a 99¢ bag of Tostitos, all you see is Fritos and Doritos? I called Frito-Lay once with this question...Why can’t I buy Tostitos, my favorite chip, in a snack-size bag? About a week later a very nice lady from Texas left a 5-minute voicemail explaining that in the eyes of Frito-Lay, Tostitos are a party food. They’re not thought of as a snack that any one person would want to eat on their own without salsa. It's something that is eaten in the company of others. (I responded to myself, "Not in New York! Our homes are too small for company!" :) She also mentioned that some states do sell snack-size bags of Tostitos in vending machines, but this is only in the Midwest, and alas, I lived on the east coast, dang it.

1. French is for toast, not fries
I will spare you the very long story about why I care whether or not the world understands that “french fries” is an all-lowercase phrase. I will, however, tell you that most publications that write about food are incorrect when they spell it “French fries.” This includes the paper of record, The New York Times (and no they never printed my complaint letter on the subject). Many restaurant menus are incorrect as well. And I laugh at them all, ha! and not in French.

So now you know, the phrase “french” in the case of french fries is a verb, “to french,” and here is the definition according to the THE FOOD LOVER'S COMPANION, 2nd edition, by Sharon Tyler Herbst:

> french fries
Potatoes that have been cut into thick to thin strips, soaked in cold water, blotted dry, then DEEP-FRIED until crisp and golden brown. They are called pommes frites in France and chips in Britain. The name does not come from the fact that their origin is French, but because the potatoes are "frenched" — cut into lengthwise strips. Other versions of french-fried potatoes are shoestring potatoes (matchstick-wide) and steak fries (very thick strips).

That concludes this early edition of the Fobloog Gripe List 2008. I know this was a short list but hopefully some gripe recognitions were sweet (ok for me, yes, it was ;) Feel free to send along your nominations for future lists any time!

Until we eat again,
:) Marly