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.