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”.