Monday, November 19, 2012

Key Best: El Meson de Pepe, Sunset Pier (Key West)

The fact that my bathing suit bottoms were still attached to my body was reason enough for celebration, since for the last two hours I’d been white-knuckling it from the back of Bubba’s jet ski as he channeled some type of Merman(iac)/Hell’s Angel hybrid, leaving my nerves a bit frayed.

El Meson de Pepe (Mallory Square)
I needed a strong drink to coddle my still quivering sea-legs, so when we sidled up to an outside bar on the edge of Mallory Square, I was ready for a little peace and quiet...instead I got a little piece of Cuba. Mojitos were flowing with enough rum for a barrel of yo-ho-ho’s and provided exactly the herb-y elixir I needed to get my head back to sea level. But all that holding on for dear life had made me hungry too – time to eat.

Mollete a la Pancho: Cuban bread stuffed with picadillo
This was like a messy mix between a calzone and taco, but besides being stuffed with the picadillo, a blend of spiced, ground beef, olives and peas, it was breaded and fried – fork and knife required. But the plantain chips scattered as a garnish were the real attraction. I could have eaten a bowl, or hell, a whole bag…I’ll give you the new Lay’s potato chip flavor – plantain chips. And these really were like a thin potato chip - crispy, delicate and light - unlike the thick, tostone version that's more often the norm.

Frituras de Cobo: cornmeal fritters with cracked conch
Talk about some phenomenal fritters! Hands-down, these won the conch-quest contest that we’d been conducting throughout the Keys. Crispy, browned and hot, the doughy center remained fluffy like a beignet while the conch brought just enough salt and texture to take home the gold.


Sunset Pier: Ocean Key Resort (Duval St)
Led like the children in The Pied Piper, we followed wavering notes of music clipped by the wind and carried along the water’s edge until we reached Sunset Pier, whose long boards provided the optimal, ocean overhang, dotted with wooden picnic tables painted in varying, vibrant shades.

A small, canopied stage housed the music which led us here, a young teenage group with two sisters, around 13 and 15, belting out classics, as a couple of boys provided the melody with guitar, keyboard and drums. Their set list of older selections like Frank Sinatra was sung with a soft innocence that made the “Summer Wind” all the sweeter when it came blowing in.

A special on mojitos made with Ciroc vodka ($2 extra) meant we received a chip for a pork plate = sliced, whole roasted pig, rice and plantain chips. I had my eye on Porky since I saw him at the entrance and knew I would somehow partake in his piggy goodness, I just didn’t know it’d be as easy as giving $2 to support P. Diddy’s vodka.

The meat was sliced to order, topped with a drizzle of mojo sauce for a bright, citrus finish that heightened the pig's natural sweetness before the salty punch and crunch of pigskin cracklings assaulted the palate, but in the very best way. Every time we ordered another drink, we got another “pork-er chip” Diddy always said, "Mo’ pours, Mo’ pork!"

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Summer Fling with a Brooklyn Girl - San Diego

I’d tried to keep my frequent, summer trysts with Brooklyn Girl (BG) hush-hush because the truth was I wanted her all to myself. This San Diego sweetie’s East Coast style was still somewhat under wraps, excluding Mission Hills residents, who were filling every seat, every night – possibly because BG’s owners, Michael and Victoria McGeath, had the foresight to bring people of the community in as shareholders.

And they couldn’t have been holding a better hand because this was the type of place that felt like it should have always been there. The industrial aura set a clean slate of high ceilings and neatly, exposed duct work, forcing my neck to perform back-bends while admiring it all (talk about having your ducts in a row). The acoustics made it a bit noisy, but communal tables near the bar and a neighborhood presence encouraged this buzz of conversation as BG's own brand of dinner music.

Oversized, black metal birdcages housed chandeliers in artistic whimsy backed by a canvas of Anna Wintour’s head, her neck bound by a Shakespearian-accordian collar, lording over the far wall like the Great Oz, as if to make sure BG kept it fashionable, including female servers whose classic pearls provided a Manhattan-esque mismatch with their strictly-business, brown canvas aprons. It was all in the details and BG didn’t miss a beat…like being greeted by a cone of spicy popcorn to nosh on while we overlooked the menu (a little burnt, but still a nice touch).

This was undeniably one of San Diego's most playful and inventive cocktail menus (especially now that BG added a slew of Fall options with ingredients like homemade cider and pumpkin puree).

Tequilla, Grapefruit, Lime, Prosecco, Habanero Salt
Bubbling citrus, mouth tingling heat, squintingly sour (my favorite).

BLT: Comb Vodka, Basil, Lime, Thyme, and House Made Lavender Basil Syrup
Crisp, refreshing, clean.

BG was also holding an ace when it came to cuisine, hiring Executive Chef, Tyler Thrasher (formerly of Oceanaire) to head their kitchen.

Salad and Apps

DUCK AND DATE - Frisee, Spinach, Marcona Almonds, Banyals Vinaigrette ($11)
I assumed this would be a sliced, duck breast over greens, but I was soon overwhelmed with the same unreserved gushing of a kid on Christmas who's expecting socks, but gets a bike instead. I unwrapped the most crispy-skinned, juicy leg of duck I might have ever encountered (insert Homer Simpson drooling noises here). The super, salty duck skin and super, sweet dates made for a salty-sweet superhero, whose flying colors were only heightened with a (fairy) dusting of Marcona almonds.

SHRIMP AND CHORIZO - Tomatoes, Queso Fresco, Creamy Grits ($12)
First of all, the homemade chorizo came in patties! No casing, just little circles of meaty love that made my heart go pitter patter (that might have been its fat content clogging my arteries, but still). The grits held themselves with a relaxed and creamy stiffness, acting as the sinking, Venetian foundation, where queso fresco dissolved beneath the surface and tomatoes bobbed like buoys between shellfish and sausage.

Wood fire wonders
BG’s wood fire oven was turning out roasts like whole ducks with honey and ginger, lamb saddle and porchetta = pork loin wrapped in pork belly (all served 2-4 people). But they were also firing up some pizza and for this Jersey girl, BG had a lot to prove.

NEW YORK LITTLENECKS - Littleneck Clams, Apple Wood Bacon, Taleggio, Fingerling Potatoes, Brussels Sprouts ($14)
This seemed so simple, but it was like eating Sunday dinner all in one bite. I felt like Violet Beauregard as she chewed Wonka's gum and experienced an entire meal all at once (before she got to dessert and turned into a blueberry, of course). The crust could have used a little more time in the oven, but for this selection it worked like a having a soft roll with supper used to sop the plate clean.

MICHAEL’S CHOICE - Spicy Italian Sausage, Pepperoni, Chili flake, Pepperoncini, Sweet Onions, Mozzarella ($14)
Bubba couldn't have found a pizza more fitting to his personal specifications than if he'd designed it himself, but again the dough was a little floppy and I wished they'd given it a few more minutes (next time we'd ask for it well-done). This wasn't the mind melting epiphany I had with the NY Littlenecks pizza, but still smart enough to be food for thought.

Entrees and Specials

GNOCCHI & SHORT RIB - Yukon Potato, Oven Dried Tomatoes, Forest Mushrooms, Chianti Au Jus, Pecorino Romano ($17)
The short rib went on for days and I couldn't have been more appreciative for this hunk of fork-tender meat before me, but I longed for more gnocchi. It was like a famous duo fighting over whose name appeared first on the billing and it was clear that the short rib was trying to carry the act as the front man. Most would be pleased with more protein than pasta, but my carb-a-rater was running low and it was hard to see this knockout gnocchi (featherweight class: light, yet solid) get the short end of the rib.

Now that's what I call surf and turf with some game! This special was just another one of BG's bewitching tweaks on a perceived norm, but make sure to ask about their nightly features because sometimes the servers don't offer up the information voluntarily.


KEY LIME PIE - Served In A Mason Jar
This reminded me more of lime meringue pie with its gelatinous filling and toasted top, but it was so good you could have called it anything. Graham cracker crust separated layers of tart filling and finished with the cool whip of cream. Again, the details made the difference and the mini-mason jar created the illusion of a pie sundae with a lime wedge on top...who needed a cherry?!

Their coffee cups were the last decorative detail to perform their magic act on my mind, appearing like a paper cup from a classic, Greek diner, but when lifted, the obvious weigh let me know it was ceramic. Their cappuccino was enough to keep me up all night to mull over further culinary exploits with San Diego's new, hot chick and I was smitten enough to know that until my next visit, there'd be no sleep til Brooklyn Girl.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Key Best: Keys Fisheries (Marathon Key)

If we were planning on catching our own lobsters, then we were going to need licenses and apparently Marathon Key was the closest place to buy these. So it only made sense to stop at Keys Fisheries for lunch, since their billboard informed us that it was just minutes off the main road and touted an intriguing headliner, the lobster Reuben.

Able to be entered by land or sea, this waterfront fishermen’s shack permeated a salty sea air - both literally and figuratively. I don’t know if the lobster Reuben was worth $14.95 - actually I do and it wasn’t - but deep breaths from the surrounding ocean on an overcast day made me thankful for its crispy, grilled bread warming me from the inside out.

Old school, rocket-shaped buoys roped off the dining area and rigged an informal perimeter as to where the floor ended and water began. A wooden menu hung like a Broadway placard detailing show times with a set of blinking, purple and copper-shadowed eyes behind a sliding glass window awaiting our order.

“Song?” asked “The Shadow” in a Janis Joplin, smoker’s voice that solidified all of her fun-loving, sixty-something years. My brows knitted before realizing that she was asking us to pick a song to identify our order, instead of giving a name. How fun! But pick wisely because when, “Happy Birthday” got called over the microphone, I felt embarrassed for the lame-o lady going to retrieve her order.

Maybe lame-o would have been a little more creative if she took advantage of the frozen drinks, whose washing machine sloshes swirled in hypnotizing circles of Jolly Rancher reds and greens, behind the full bar adjacent to a crude gift shop showcasing lobster trap artwork and the condiment station with enough squeeze bottle-bouquets of tartar and cocktail sauce for the Royal Wedding.

Lobster Reuben: Nothing to stand up and shout about, but an idea that’s smart enough to lure everyone in at least once, and I had no regrets. Clearly we weren’t the only ones, since the answer to their contest of guessing how many lobster Ruebens sold in the prior month (win a free sandwich and Keys Fisheries t-shirt) ranked around 3,000.

Conch fritters: Since my favorable experience with conch chowder the day before, I had forgotten my former, grit-filled gripes against conch and happily wrapped my mouth around their briny chew. Hidden in a pillow of dough, my lips still found no grit to kiss and I was actually becoming quite fond of this local delicacy, though it was probably time for them to change the fryer oil.

Before we cut out, we posed in cut-outs! Keys Fisheries was nothing short of a good time – photo ops, novelty sandwiches, local delicacies, art, games, fabulously, eye-shadowed employees. They were comfortable in their worn, sea shanty skin and made for a laid-back lunch that was worth a drop of the anchor.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Key Best: The Wharf (Summerland Key)

There was no way Bubba and I were turning down a week in the Keys with Keri and Chris. We’d already followed them to Spain a few years before, so as soon as Bubba’s sis and her hubby dangled the carrot of their rental on Big Pine Key in front of us, we were in.

A forty-five minute drive from Key West brought us to a house that looked like a carnival attraction – the tall man – up on stilts to avoid flooding since the house sat directly on a canal leading to the ocean, which meant sea kayaking in the morning...

...and back in time to feed the wild deer dominating this Key by lunch. But Keri and Chris were also busy dominating the area, scouting out several weather(off the)beaten(path) dives and hitting high notes in every Key.

The Wharf (Summerland Key)
This place looked like it’d been hit by a hurricane – probably because it had, probably many. Weather-filled fists constantly beat the hell out of structures down here and The Wharf looked like a fort thrown together by a band of drunken monkeys. That’s why reading a Key’s book by its cover was a dangerous business because any shit shack could be a potential love shack.

Love shack, baby: Lapping water clomped against worn, wooden boards, paving the way to picnic tables, inches from the canal where mangrove trees dangled overhead from the opposite shore. The interior separated itself with a pristine air, cooled into a refrigerated haven where locals ringed around the bar and fresh fish shined like jewels beneath an iced, glass case.

Drinks, me thinks
Margaritaville: Dear Mr. Buffet, I finally understand your alcohol-soaked serenade…these margaritas were clearly deserving of their own zip code. No pre-bottled sour mix here, only nature’s version = fresh lime juice. Face-puckeringly tart and the best in my mouth’s history, they upped the ante with choices of mango, pineapple, pomegranate, strawberry, coconut, etc. All were built off the lime based original, but instead of some syrupy sweet canned nectar, it was all fresh fruit puree = healthy margaritas! The fact they were served in pint glasses didn't hurt either.

Prince Edward Island Malpeque oysters: This is the one time where we didn't go with local seafood, but these rare specimens needed to be taken advantage of – petite; buttery; rich - even Keri, a non-oyster lover, fell hard and fast.

White clam chowder : Chowder is always a gamble, even when there’s fresh seafood involved. It’s all about consistency - both definitions:
1) Uniformity: Diced veg precisely matching the clam size.
2) Viscosity: enough to coat the spoon, but not enough for the spoon to stand.

The Wharf provided #1, #2 and most importantly #3, tender dime-sized clams that were worthy of a 10.

Red conch chowder: My past, grit-filled memories deterred me, but being that we were in the Conch Republic, I had to take a slurp from Bubba’s cup. There was no sand to be found, but instead a subtle taste of the sea that had me converted to conch and a beach broth believer.

Rough(age) housing: Usually I wouldn’t even mention a house salad and this time I didn’t even order one (asked for Caesar), but their quality of vegetables (all organic) was like a garden's tasting menu of what produce was actually supposed to taste like - lettuce crunched with a hydrated crispness that played off the peppery, purple cabbage and finished with feta’s creamy tang. The homemade roasted tomato vinaigrette made me want to order a shot as a sidecar to my margarita.

Blackened shrimp salad: Having the same lush ingredients of the house salad as the base to this entree was a great start, along with exquisite local shrimp, but there was way too much shake, shake, shake of overwhelming, blackening spices that tasted like the generic, canned mix from the grocery store.

Blackened grouper : It was even sadder to see the grouper desecrated by this heavy-handed spice blend. Besides grieving the lost meal, I grieved the loss of this gorgeous piece of grouper so unnecessarily covered up. You may need lipstick for a pig, but this fish was a fresh-faced beauty that could have pulled it off with nothing but a pair of lemon wedges.

Grilled Snapper: The day's catch was black snapper, so I had it grilled with garlic/cilantro butter. **cue carnival barker voice* -"We have a winner!!" Forkfuls of flaky meat fluffed on my tines and I believe there was a little food envy going on at the table when others saw my plate - my side of mashed potatoes only intensified those feelings. But the best part about traveling with family is that you can share, so I handed over my plate before tipping my hat.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

How Lebanon gets it on - Mama’s Bakery (San Diego)

Chef Luz called me up for a quiet lunch, so that meant Mama’s Bakery for the perfect, midday hideaway with its unassuming structure camouflaged by shaggy brush and a summer coat of green paint, hidden just a few doors down from Live Wire’s dive-bar antics.

Mama’s size helped protect her incognito, mosquito net of isolation. It was as if someone had started building a Craftsman cottage and decided to stop halfway through, leaving this postage stamp sized space that only read of the dining room's snug, dollhouse fit, a tiny kitchen and a few tables out front.

Maybe the builders went on a lunch break and never came back…I could understand why - more Lebanese, please! I wasn’t all that familiar with Lebanese food before our visit and even though Mama’s menu raised some questions, Mama didn’t raise no fools. Happy to educate about the cuisine, full descriptions were listed below each menu item and effortless explanations from the staff were recited like beloved bedtime stories.

The kitchen was rolled up as efficiently as their sandwiches. The Sajj (ancient oven dating back to BC used to cook flatbread) steamed like a fog machine’s special effects and revealed a smiling, middle-aged woman behind a glass counter ready to take our order. Leaning against the glass that separated us, I looked down to see the bottom shelf lined in baklawa (spelled differently than the Greek baklava, but basically the same) and other Lebanese pastries, which time-tripped me back to the candy counters of my Jersey youth, where each shelf had a value - the bottom one being the most precious (Fun-Dip for 50 cents was always the top prize) – I guess the same rules applied here…bottom shelf = top drawer.

But maybe my nostalgic mooning was brought on by the close quarters, similar to a relative’s kitchen, where you happened to stop by and they insisted you stay for lunch. The kafta sandwich was worthy of a schedule change. Countless, bite-sized meatballs of ground beef, onions and parsley fit into a clown-car of flatbread – it was like guessing at a jar of jelly beans. I couldn’t approximate how many meatballs were in there, but they kept coming like non-stop pitches at a batting cage.

Pickle crunched in a satisfying, “CRACK!” like a bat connecting with the ball. Hummus brought its creamy, tahini tang with a body bigger than the Babe and became more than just another condiment – this was a game changer.

But the homemade flatbread, hot off the Sajj, was the crowning achievement: crispy, browned outside; doughy, fluffy inside. For me, bread has always been the true test of a sandwich's sanctity and Mama’s bread breathed a mote of Mediterranean into the air - just enough to add a touch of foreign to the familiar - and linked its loving arm of Lebanon around me.

Things to try next time:
Drinks: Yogurt drinks? Chai cola? I’m in!…and extremely curious.
Food: Schawarma – similar to a gyro with shaved meat on flatbread;
hot pies; baba ghanouj; feta and olives

Things Mama raises:
1) No fools
2) The roof (the builders might have stopped halfway, but Mama didn’t)
3) San Diego’s sandwich standard (hummus is the new mayo!)

Mama also caters!!
Mama's Bakery
4237 Alabama St
San Diego, Ca 92104
(619) 688-0717

Friday, July 6, 2012

Dumpling Inn - Kearny Mesa (San Diego)

Inn Good Company

“What do you mean there isn’t any good Chinese Food in San Diego?” Chef Luz shot me one of her sideways stares that could slice a man in two and then softened just as quickly, blinking her eyes in a kitty-like slant and motioned, “Let’s go.”

I could always trust my cake-baking, potaco-making pal for food advice and this time it landed us at a non-descript strip mall in Kearny Mesa at the Dumpling Inn.

Patrons were lined up outside like on-deck batters, peering into this sardine can of a space, just waiting for their turn at the plate as we snagged the last of only about 10 tables, inches from the swinging double doors of the kitchen, where our salty, seasoned waitress crashed through looking like she was about to spit nails.

“Drinks?” she seethed, daring us to be thirsty. The answer of water and tea made her bristle all the more, but her visible annoyance only endeared me to her and brought back memories of the cranky diner waitresses from my Jersey youth, whose curmudgeonly antics were all part of the charm. But she wasn’t the only salty and sour presence greeting us. The table spun a basket of vinegar, soy sauce and chili paste for personalized dipping preferences.

Pot stickers: This is usually what you think of when you hear “dumplings”, also known as gyoza (oh boyza!), fried up crispy, browned and glistening like a bronzed God stuffed to porky perfection.

Xiao Long Bao: Just as I was about to take a bite of the Xiao Long Bao, my chopsticks got swatted back as Chef Luz handed me a spoon to hold beneath, explaining that these were soup dumplings. Meaning = broth is added as part of the filling in a gelatinous state during preparation and liquefies inside when heated - genius! This meat-filled, bite-sized bowl of soup was worthy of applause and complete with finely sliced ginger streamers to top it all off.

I couldn’t help eyeballing neighboring tables that flaunted other “Inn wins” like the mammoth bowls of broth steaming and full to the brim with riptides of churning meats and veggies. I’d heard murmurings about the sea bass with black bean sauce and side orders of jellyfish, but Chef Luz finished by picking the dan-dan noodles, which immediately caused our waitress (now known as the Soup Dumpling Nazi) to stop writing. She exasperatedly asked, “Have you tried it before?”, and sighed at Luz’s nod before begrudgingly bringing a bowl of noodles that probably weighed as much as her.

Dan Dan Noodles: Dense noodles were made heavier by a sesame paste coating every piece with a consistency similar to peanut butter. I understood the Soup Dumpling Nazi’s questioning once we got it because this wasn’t for the faint of heart. Within the layer of potent paste came a charge of chili for an underlying spice that made the taste-buds sweat before the crunchy cool down of sliced cucumber.

Its hearty, stick-to-your-rib goodness stayed with you like Mom's Sunday dinner for a lump in the stomach worthy of a lump in the throat. If you’re on the hunt for spicy sesame, this is how you get to sesame street…and I’m sure the waitress would be more than happy to teach you the letter “F”.

As for Dumpling Inn, they easily earned 1-2-3-4…4 stars! But the real teacher here was Chef Luz, who had schooled me yet again in another local lesson…and let me live another day (Soup Dumpling Nazi’s got nothing on that one).

Friday, May 25, 2012

Wine Vault: Cinco de Mayo - San Diego

Cinco stars for Wine Vault’s 10-course menu
Let’s be real. Cinco de Mayo is usually just an excuse to get bombed during the week while wearing a false mustache. But Wine Vault and Bistro (WVB) becomes Cinco’s beard for the evening, dropping their usual wine-soaked identity and switching over to “team tequila” for just one night. And somewhere in this holiday based on boozy bullshit, WVB finds a way to legitimize Cinco de Mayo by celebrating Mexican culture and breathing new life into traditional recipes.

Cinco de Plate-o (five plates: two courses each plate; paired with drinks) - $42.50

1. Yellow pepper gazpacho | cilantro
Peter Piper would have picked this pool of liquid peppers himself, the color of daffodils and washing over my tongue with the same thick, velvety quality of Adele’s voice. A lucky coin of goat cheese nestles behind the cup’s ear and strikes a necessary tart chord in this soupy, sweet serenade.

2. Prawn tostada |avocado | smoky tomato "cocktail" sauce | jicama
This sets off all the memory sensors that shrimp cocktail evokes, but adds a certain unfamiliarity with its lightly pickled cucumbers, jimaca and avocado all resting on a corn tostada. My mouth hints at the old cliche, “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” before realizing I’ve just been introduced to shrimp cocktail’s edgier, elusive brother - the prawn star.

Served with: Puente Grande Añejo Tequila (1 oz. pour)

3. Marinated fish taco | pico de gallo | crème fraîche
The mahi is masterfully cooked, but with no bells and whistles, no clang, clang, clanging of trolleys. Not that everything needs to be dressed-to-the-nines or make me burst into some grandiose Garland number, but its presence is greatly overshadowed by the other offerings and takes an obvious backseat like its name is Liza.

4. Bay scallop "ceviche" | lime aïoli
Scallops are like a hot guy that I just can’t stand. I always find myself attracted to their preparation, but never like it when we get intimate. I think it’s a textural thing. Especially bay scallops, but these have a clean bite, accentuated with the citrus pop of lime aioli. And I have to admit, I was in love. Not with the scallops, but with WVB. They always give a second chance to retry ill-thought-of ingredients and even though scallops and I still weren’t a match, I was happy to say I made the effort.

Served with: Stone "Levitation" Pale Ale (4 oz. pour)

5. Chili Relleno | Pulled Pork Stuffing | Sweet Onion Fondue
Tugging at my heart strings and arteries, I could see this perfectly composed bite at every Super Bowl party – the pork popper. A cocoon of delicately fried batter envelopes the mild, green chili and mummifies its pulled pork innards for one masterfully, stuffed sarcophagus. The sweet onion fondue becomes an instant soul-mate, and I the needy lover. Its miniscule amounts of affection dotting the plate left me wanting.

6. Albondigas | Spicy Corn Grits | Grilled Scallions
Lamb albondigas (= Mexican meatballs) get comfy on a cushion of corn grits like a wide-bottomed uncle settling in for a Law and Order marathon. The lamb plays well with the acid of tomato sauce and works some game on these grits that even Flo would gladly kiss.

Served with: Yucatan Tropical Fruit Margarita

7. Mole Braised Short Ribs | Mexican Rice | Crema Oaxaca
The ribs are fork tender, though the mole is somewhat timid, as hints of chili, cumin and I’m guessing a bit of Mexican chocolate peak out. But the real distraction here is the rice. Drier than Zelda Fitzgerald’s martini and with a similar drunken disconnect, the rice remains awkwardly detached from the rest of the dish and even attempts from a gooey, liquid crema can’t keep it balanced enough to interact properly with the other composed players.

8. Tamarind Glazed Tri-Tip | Bacon Braised Beans | Salsa Verde
Like most root veggies, tamarind is sharp and earthy with a hint of loam, but this has the dual identity of Jekyll and Hyde, playing both the sour and sweet sides of the coin. Tamarind’s down and dirty glaze on the tender tri-tip is counterbalanced by an herbaceous salsa verde that strikes me more as a chimichurri with its pesto-like thickness and hue. Whatever you call it, it’s amazing. The bacon beans make me think of the “Mexican Radio” video from the 80's, where the guy’s head emerges from a pot of beans. I think I would have stayed in there for a while if they were anything like this – hunks of bacon and black beans braised in bacon fat – yes please!! Magical fruit indeed.

Served with: Cadillac Margarita on the rocks (salt on the side)
*cue music* “We’re going riding on the freeway, of love, in my pink Cadillac (margarita)!”…um, I don’t think either of us would be driving after this. Whew! They aren’t skimping with the tequila and even Bubba was looking a little whoozy. I felt like Marion in Raiders of the Lost Ark when she out-drinks the men in the Siberian lodge, but I was about to fall over - time for a pot of coffee…but first, pots de crème.

9. Churros | Gianduja Pots de Crème
I imagined something similar to a Nutella crème brulee (gianduja = chocolate with hazelnut paste), but this pots de crème comes across more like a potent, hazelnut butter. It’s as if the nuts were roasted too long - not that it tastes burnt, just overwhelmingly nutty and canceling out any chocolate essence. But the churro saves the day with its cinnamon-sugar shield over taunt and tanned, fried dough.

10. Dulce de Leche Cake | Sweet Potato + White Chocolate Mousse
I’m not a huge fan on my cakes soaked (unless its tiramisu) and I saw the duo of sauces as overkill (the white chocolate wasn’t very stiff and more like a sauce than a mousse), but I appreciate their idea of subduing white chocolate’s cloying profile with the more subtle sweet potato.

Served with: WV&B's Legendary Mexican Coffee (3 oz. demitasse)
Time to straighten up with a cup of Joe, but it was a cup of Jose who met us instead, which meant more tequila, and Kahlua…and coffee? I guess there was coffee in there. Either way, its good to the last drop.

I can’t think of a better reason to celebrate a fake holiday than 10-courses of creativity. There’s no question that WVB serves up San Diego’s best style of Cinco…with an extra side of Mayo *hiccup*.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Colima's Mexican vs. Riki Sushi - San Diego

The Take-out Toss Up: Heads or Tails
Every weekend it comes down to a coin toss. Not a super, freaky coin toss like in, No Country for Old Men where someone’s life’s on the line, but one that still makes my stomach churn knowing what’s up for grabs. Friday night’s all about take-out, and lately we’ve ditched our weekly pizza practice and landed on two equally crave-able sides of the coin.

Colima a little closer – Colima’s Mexican Food
You’ve probably driven past Colima’s squatty, worn exterior multiple times while flying down University Ave because it’s not exactly the type of place that seems like a fixed destination. But that’s when you have to envision what Walt Disney glimpsed in those miles of Florida swampland or what the architects of Vegas imagined in the open desert - possibility. And at Colima’s, they deliver that same type of unexpected possibility by blowing away the competition when it comes to one particular item.

Roast pork burrito: There’s a pedestal in my mind where this resides. I always hold my breath in anticipation worried I’ll be disappointed, that somehow it won’t be as amazing as I remembered like a child finding out their parent isn’t the hero they thought. But this has the consistency of Ward Cleaver and secures the certainty of knowing it will always be there, especially when I need it most (even a little bleary-eyed at 12am).

Moist clumps of rice flecked with corn and peas hide the tender, squares of carnitas and force my teeth to unearth hunks of pork like a spoon digging for candy treasure in a Ben and Jerry’s pint. The tortilla is enormous, buttery and surrounds this precious, pork-filled package like a newborn’s security blanket - and believe me, I was one proud mama. Damn, with the way I was going through these, soon to be one proud Mama Cass.

They provide enough salsa to stock an Apocalyptic prepper’s fallout shelter and enough satisfaction to make Mick rethink his lyrics. They’re quick, affordable and spot-on every time. The carne asada burrito also holds up, but the roast pork version is the reason to visit - standing “heads” and shoulders above the rest.

Riki don’t lose that number – Riki Sushi
Sub-par sushi joints have hit North Park like a plague in the last five years, so when Riki rolled into town, it was no surprise they started raking it in – fresh fish and clever rolls that didn’t blow the bankroll – this was the cure we’d been looking for. Riki began offering $6, $8 or $9 specialty rolls when they first opened, but now they’ve raised it to $8, $9 and $10 – I don’t blame them. They know the demand is there. They still offer rolls starting at $3 and increase in dollar increments, where every dollar amount has its own choices (i.e. $4: hamachi maki, $5: spicy scallop roll, $6: caterpillar roll, etc).

As for my two favorite rolls here, I couldn’t have designed them better than if I picked out the pattern myself. They encompass all I love about sushi. Granted, I’m not the most, well-versed sushi student and I usually choose relatively tame options, but the number of choices configured in every price range make it easy to mix and match new styles without worrying too much about the bill. But these are my go-to choices:

Yellowtail special roll ($8) – Inside: spicy tuna, cucumber. Outside: sliced yellowtail, raw jalapeno
With its almost spread-able lusciousness, the spicy tuna’s smooth texture provides great contrast to the fat slab of yellowtail propped on top. Cucumber acts as the crunchy cool down from jalapenos’ heat, and both act as buffers between the two types of fish, allowing them to retain their own identity.

Tijuana roll (TJ roll - $10) – Inside: soft-shell crab tempura, spicy tuna. Outside: eel, avocado
I’m a total softy when it comes to soft-shell crab. It brings me back to my Jersey youth and eating at the Circus Drive-In, an age-old landmark in my neighborhood that only opens for a few, summer months and has the best soft-shell crab sandwiches around. Reconfigured here, the soft-shell still crunches with the same memorable taste of the sea mixed with the supple swell of spicy tuna. The sweetness of the eel and natural creaminess of the avocado complete the package into more than a mouthful, but a bite that’s worthy of unhinging your jaw.

Condiment compliments: I know some of the sauces aren’t authentic, but damn if I don’t love to dip. I’m addicted to spicy mayo (yes, ugly American, party of one), but the thinner Japenese mayo (made with rice vinegar) mixed with Sriracha brightens every bite – at no extra charge. Then there’s the molasses-y, eel sauce that has the viscosity of turpentine, but my new favorite is Riki’s inclusion of a thin, peanut/chili sauce with a spice that’ll slap the sass out your mouth with its violent, but loveable heat – giving a new meaning to the term “lip-smacking”.

Roll with it: They don’t have a website and their paper take-out menu is useless because it only lists the names of rolls with no description. They have some hard-to-see photos on their facebook page, but you might want to venture inside the first time, though the usual standard for take-out requires a getaway car equipped with driver. That way the pick-up happens smoothly without the hassle of fighting to park on 30th St on a Friday night.

They offer a "large beer and hot sake" for $5.25 all day, everyday, which is fitting since the rest of the menu is so reasonably priced. Affordable, clean, fresh, inventive and generous – Riki proves that success is all in the de-“tails”.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Olympic Cafe - North Park (SD)

Greek God
The familial embrace surrounding Olympic Cafe is stronger than an uncle's playful headlock. Waitresses come forth like a colony of aunts, as if to say “eat up” with their encouraging smiles, and in classic diner fashion, deliver chocolate milk unstirred - the inch of Hershey’s syrup and my spoon clanking against the glass sent me directly back to my childhood in Jersey. Olympic definitely captures an east coast vibe that could contend with the Garden State's traditional, Greek diners and has become my go-to while living in San Diego.

Greek diners = gyros. Whether it’s breakfast (gyro omelet anyone?), lunch or dinner, Olympic shaves thin strips off a rotating carousel of mixed meat (none of those frozen, nitrate nightsticks seen here). Warm pitas overflow with this lamb/beef hybrid, fully loaded with lettuce, tomato and onion. But these additions pale in comparison to the homemade tzatziki sauce - the best I’ve ever had. Why? Olympic's version is thinner and a bit more tangy, similar to a vinaigrette vs. the lumpy, thick condiment that's the usual suspect.

And I’d been hitting the (tzatziki) sauce pretty hard. I even started ordering it as a side with extra pitas for superfluous dipping, but my addictions didn’t end there. Olympic’s mashed potatoes were worthy of recreating the scene from Scarface where Al Pacino sticks his nose in a pile of coke and looks up with his face covered. Switch me with Al and the cocaine with potatoes, and this is my habitual experience here (lemony, chicken gravy makes it all the messier). When I started ordering two helpings, I knew I had a problem.

That’s why I thought I’d detox with their signature Olympic salad because eating these greens doesn’t even feel like a sacrifice. Playing-card-size slabs of feta, pulled from a briny bath, set the stage for some acidic anarchy with kalamata olives, pepperoncinis, and of course, a generous helping of gyro meat on top is better than any crouton. The option for take-out and the addition of homemade baklava give Olympic the edge, and their attention to authentic, irreplaceable details prove it's all Greek to me.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Carnitas Snack Shack - North Park (SD)

Love Shack

Carnitas Snack Shack (CSS) opened in early December and was apparently on everyone’s Christmas list because I haven't seen a shack attack this hyped since O'Neil's signature NBA stylings. A single-file assault streamed from CSS's ordering window, until the back of the shack became a waiting room of expectant parents, vigilantly searching for an order resembling their own to emerge. This informal dining room corralled its customers in a three-sided, open-air space with flaxen planks covering the walls and ceiling, as if the prize student in woodshop went all out for extra-credit on his final project.

Triple Pork Sandwich - breaded pork loin, bacon, pulled pork(pepperoncini/ pickle relish)

Get ready for three, count ‘em, three varieties of pork stuck between one bun. This might seem like a bit too much pig, but think again because this talented trio manages itself effortlessly - the Judy Garland of sandwiches...a star is born. The compact disc of schitzel-ed pork still sang sounds from the deep-fryer beneath a bed of shredded carnitas and closed with three bars of bacon. These hogs knew how to harmonize and the intermingling of juices brought a depth that gave this sandwich soul. And if swine was the soul, then bread was the heart.

These buns were the closest I’ve seen to “hard rolls” from back east, similar to Kaiser rolls, but with a little extra chew. Finishing it all off was a condiment more pickled than Judy herself - the pickle/pepperoncini relish (try saying that three times fast) had enough pucker to stand on its own two, vinegary feet, delivering crunch and acid all at once.

Carnitas tacos
Carnitas were pouring out of their corn tortillas like a voluptuous woman stuffed in a dress a size too small. I couldn’t pry my eyes away from that meaty cleavage - aah-ooo-ga!! This shredded-pork-peep-show promised an eyeful and a mouthful, arriving barely dressed with a wedge of lime, pico de gallo and fresh guacamole. It was the pig at its prettiest – au natural. No lipstick needed.

Side(s) notes:

Forgo the fries: Fries deceived with their seemingly well-seasoned coat of paprika and other spices, but lacked the most basic one – salt! Though I loved their old-school, presentation in a grease-spotted, brown, paper bag, I couldn’t get over them acting like such a carb-tease – arriving glistening and taunt, then becoming a bland, starch stick at the last minute. What a disappointment - I wish I had some salt to put in this wound (clumpy, weird-tasting ketchup didn’t help their cause).

Corn-a-copia: Every order comes with an unexpected surprise that isn’t your run-of-the-mill extra. A very simple combination of corn, jimaca, red pepper and mayo with a bit of acid works like a palate cleanser after all this pork.

Drinks: I believe they’re trying to get a liquor license, but for now, throwing back a bottle of black cherry soda or a Mexican Coke doesn’t seem too shabby.

The Whole Hog: North Park’s been needing a place like this, clearly - the line will tell you that. I don't think they expected such volume, but even when there's only a few people in line, somehow it still becomes like the DMV's unexplained time drain. If you're on a date, you better love the one your with because the wait can be brutal (though they do take call-in orders for pick-up and delivery). But choices like panzanella salad with bacon brioche, pork belly and even the occasional shank thrown on the menu for a Friday special make up for it. Their beef is banging too and the sliced, steak sandwich is quickly overshadowing some of its pork counterparts. Carnitas Snack Shack may have more kinks to work out than a pig’s tail, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t make a habit of hanging around this little piece of hog heaven.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Bazaar (SLS Hotel) - Los Angeles

Scrumptious Little Snacks

I first heard of Chef José Andrés, known for turning traditional tapas on their ear, when he appeared as a guest judge on Top Chef a few years back. After that, I started seeing him everywhere - most recently on an episode of No Reservations where he shoved Bourdain’s head into a basket of peaches so he could smell their ripeness. I loved Andrés' unbridled enthusiasm towards food, so when we found out Bazaar was in LA, Eddie and I got ready to cruise.

The SLS Hotel brought George Clinton funk to the swank standards of Beverly Hills' restaurant row and Bazaar fit right in, encompassing a collection of eateries - the Patisserie, Bar Cento, SAAM and our restaurant for the evening, Rojo Y Blanca. Secret messages mentioning SLS were everywhere. From cocktail napkins that advised, “sip liquor slowly” to the pen accompanying our check inscribed with, “scribble little secrets”. It was like an Easter egg hunt of acronyms.

How very bizarre. Even though this was spelled like the Middle-eastern market or Harper’s handheld guide to fashion, Bazaar seemed to represent more of the “strange, out of the ordinary, odd” definition. Stepping inside was like vacationing with the travel agent of acid trips. It was equal parts art exhibit, 70’s bachelor pad, Disney’s Haunted Mansion and high society. We weaved between a gallery of glass cases, including spray-painted hand grenades, a golden 10-speed bike and the oil painting of a half-woman/half-zebra, before reaching the bar.

Then the tilt-a-whirl twisted again, revealing a cocktail kingdom, black and shiny like patent leather, backlit with the color of the setting sun before turning us around to face leather sofas and exquisitely, upholstered chairs that seemed reminiscent of sitting in William Hearst’s study. A hint of Dr. Moreau lingered in the low lighting and a moving portrait that slowly morphed a man into a monkey.

But they didn’t monkey around when it came to drinks and their magic mojito was no joke – though it did bring a smile to my face. Here they replaced the usual sweetness (sugar and Sprite) found in mojitos with a tuft of cotton candy that dissolved under an alcohol waterfall of rum, lime, fresh mint and club soda.

They should serve their "salt air" margarita to a blind person because then they would know what the beach looked like. Instead of salting the glass, they topped it with a salt air that looked similar to the frothy foam of bubble bath, so every sip got a swish of this briny brilliance.

Passion Fruit Up! was like a tangy Orange Julius, but only better because it was full of orange rum. Passion fruit and ginger-laurel syrup made for a citrusy-sweet sip that was finished with passion fruit foam and rivaled my favorite cocktail on the planet - the passion fruit martini at Manhattan's Blue Water Grill. Game on!

And then they broke out the liquid nitrogen. The LN2 Caipirinha was like a boozy slurpee with Brazilian cachaça (similar to rum), fresh lime and sugar frozen by liquid nitrogen. Since this was presented tableside, the one-man-show wheeled his cart around the dining room, stopping here and there to swirl his concoctions in a magic act of sorts, including puffs of smoke and a "ta-da" finish that was far more exciting than pulling a quarter from your ear.

Eggplant tempura with honey air - As an east coast Italian, I’ve had more deep-fried eggplant than Tony Soprano, but we weren’t in Jersey anymore, Toto, and the dish was as complex as the mobster himself. Puffed up like a tough guy, the soft flesh of the veggie brought delicacy to the tempura crunch while retaining its sturdy structure. The honey air was the exact opposite of the salt version seen in the margarita, though just as complimentary, and added a touch of sweetness to round out this modern-day moulignon.

Piquillo peppers stuffed with Capriola Farm goat cheese – These reminded me of the Rolling Stones' signature trademark tongue and my mouth was ready for a makeout session. Just like any good rock and roll song, these classic, simple elements were some of the ones that resonated the loudest.

Lemon artichokes, olive tapenade and dandelion – The only caper I'm a fan of is "The Great Muppet" one and that's why I was surprised to find these sodium-filled flowerbuds on the plate, especially since the olive tapenade seemed to summon the salt levels of the Dead Sea and even the bitter dandelion wasn't enough to kill the excessive brininess. But Eddie proclaimed this one of her favorites for its powerful bursts of flavor and refreshing cleanse of the lemon artichoke.

Braised Waygu beef cheeks – I couldn't turn the other cheek when it came to the texture of this spongy beef, but I felt like it was a correctable mistake. They could have saved (cow) face if they just cooked it a bit longer and rendered out some more of that chewy, cheek fascia.

Philly cheesesteak – Air bread was the best invention since…sliced bread! This hollow, pita-like, 3D, mini-football arrived with rare sliced Waygu beef on top. I was already enamored, but since this was a cheesesteak, where was the cheese and onions? “If you bite it, they will come.” *crunch* One bite of air bread and the treasure flowed from its hollow center like a savory piniata, raining melted cheddar and caramelized onions all over my tastebuds.

And we'd just scratched the surface. We didn't even get a chance to try the duck liver wrapped in cotton candy or the shrimp cocktail stuck with syringes of cocktail sauce. And what about the endless varieties of jamon and Spanish cheeses?!

Since we were stuffed, we also declined a seat in the Patesserie, which was where they served dessert and I haven't been able to forgive myself for not getting a couple of Earl Grey bonbons or homemade passion fruit marshmallows to-go in one of their signature, pink boxes. Or something a little more out of the ordinary like black olive lollipops, saffron with edible paper and the one I still coveted...chocolate covered Pop Rocks. They would be mine and we would be back, whenever we were in the mood to Supper Like Superheroes.