Sunday, August 30, 2015

Children of the Corn (New Jersey)

I spent a good amount of my summer childhood in Jersey shucking corn. All year long we waited for our famous, “Jersey sweet corn” to arrive, so almost every night, my mom would hand me a paper bag to take outside and shuck however many ears we needed.

The problem was, in the Jersey humidity, that corn silk would stick to every inch of you. It was like being covered in a head of fine hair that would inevitably get in the mouth, all over the legs, and usually a good amount would still be on the corn.

But I just recently found out the most amazing trick EVER!!!

1) Take the corn, still in its husk, and put it in the microwave - four minutes an ear.

2) Remove from the microwave and cut about an inch off the fat end with a sharp knife.

3) Squeeze from the skinny end and the ear shoots out without any hair on it!!

The heat must bring the fibers together, creating some type of slippery, silky net that allows the corn to slide out completely bald! I can’t imagine how many hours this could have saved me as a kid.

But then again…

There was something about having to help out with the meal and work a little for your food that was character building. Those times where I sat covered in corn weave were also peaceful, thoughtful moments; calming and methodical; comforting in the sounds that went along with the job - the freeing pop when pulling the husk away from the cob, the white noise of traffic; the blinking, neon flashes of the evening's first lightening bugs. I wouldn’t take that away from them….every kid should give a shuck.

But as for us adults – use the microwave! It’s a lifesaver.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Tostadas: Fresh Fruit & Seafood Bar (San Diego)

Sibling Rivalry: City Tacos’ Little Sister 

City Tacos has a sister!!

The proud papa and owner, Gerry Torres, was present as usual, cleaning and working as hard as everyone else, in his (and chef/ partner Eduardo Baeza's) newly opened ceviche bar, Tostadas.

Walking inside felt like crossing the threshold into vacation and evoked the sense of a savory, ice cream parlor - gleaming white with swirls of green and pink; the signature, seahorse symbol scattered here and there. Sunlight streamed from floor to ceiling windows, bouncing up to the rafter’s exposed, raw beams before drawing the eye to succulents sprouting from wooden pallets hanging as living art just a few inches below.  A communal table's log-like structure was planted in the center of the dining room and a few four-tops were scattered along the side (also some sidewalk seating).

Shelves of produce were set up behind the counter like a miniature market, reminding me of grade school where you could make believe you were visiting the post office or grocery store while still in the classroom.  Not only was it playful and clever, but fresh and functional in the best possible way.


Auqachile: large Mexican shrimp, lemon juice, red onion, chile serrano, cilantro, cucumber, garlic ($6)

The tostada’s shell strained like a professional weightlifter under the massive shrimp that lay on top in abundance.  So much shrimp! The nearly raw, butterflied shellfish was woven between noodles of cucumber, the subtle heat of chile serrano, and chopped leaves of cilantro. This summed up summer in one, crisp bite – so fresh and so clean.

La de Pato: duck meat, red onions, carrots, pear, green olives, habanero chile strawberry sauce ($5)

"La de Pato" pictured without the strawberry/habanero sauce
I was a little worried when ordering the duck in a fish place, but I couldn’t resist the combination of flavors! And it didn’t disappoint. First of all, there were about six slices of perfectly cooked duck breast on my crispy, corn wheel (aka, the wheel of fortune). Pear punched crunchy and sweet, as did the carrot, so I was a little worried that the strawberry sauce would be too much, but the berry was balanced so well with the spice of habanero, in what looked like a vinaigrette, that I ended up asking for extra. They originally forgot to add the sauce and I realized later that they forgot the olives too, but I didn’t mind. I knew they were still working out a few kinks and I would order this again in a heartbeat.

Caramon: shrimp, olive oil, sesame seeds, red onion, parsley, tomato, clam, orange and lemon juices, cilantro mayo ($6)

This would be skipped on my next visit. Besides seeming somewhat run of the mill with its pico de gallo-like flare, it had a strong bitterness that lingered. I’m not sure if it was the sesame and orange combo, but either way it wasn’t my favorite. 

"To Do" Tostadas

Plus, I’d spotted two other tostadas I was dying to try -

1) Sandia: ahi tuna, watermelon, red onion, jimaca, apples, cucumber, mango, peanuts, soy, lemon juice, orange chipotle mayonnaise ($6) 

2) Snapper: Red snapper fish, cucumber, tomato, red onion, parsley, serrano chile & clamato ($3.50)

The best part was that you could pick a few items to sample and it still only cost around $20. 

Tugos (16 oz) $3.95

Tugos were fresh fruit and veggie smoothies made to order. We went for Tropical Rainbow (pineapple, papaya, peaches, strawberry, raspberry, mango, yogurt, and honey) and the Clockwork Orange (pineapple and papaya). They were still frothy from the juicer; velvety, pink and orange waves of euphoria. I couldn’t think of a better pairing for summer, seafood, or the ninety degree heat.

Just the Tip of the Tostada

They were working on getting an alcohol permit, as well as planning a fresh fish/ceviche market for to-go items. Tostadas more than measured up to its sibling, City Tacos, in every way – quality, price, cleanliness and creativity. The real triumph of both restaurants was the number of ingredients on each dish - usually around eight to ten components.

The plethora of toppings almost seemed nonsensical at first, like some wild crap shoot, as if the chef was some twisted, ingredient hoarder and the kitchen sink was about to be thrown in next, but then you took a bite and it all made sense. Everything was there for a reason; a well thought out plan of genius amongst the chaos.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Flying None (Coast to Coast)

Snacks on a Plane

It’s kind of like the Magnificent Seven or the Fantastic Four, but not really. I’m the Flying None. Namely, because I give zero fucks and take no shit when it comes to transporting my favorite East Coast snacks across the country. 

What I mean is, I’m often stopped at airport security for the five pound log of pork roll in my purse. Or for my coat containing eight, back to back slices of Vic’s pizza, triple-wrapped in plastic - its neon, orange, grease often thought to be some type of radioactive liquid. My bags are scoured by security guards who look up with questioning stares when unearthing tubes of Hartmann’s liverwurst or getting caught in a poppy seed rainstorm after upending a satchel of hard rolls.  Homemade lamb barley soup balks in frozen form, and will be called a casserole if anyone asks – “no liquids”, no problem.

And it goes both ways. I humped a backpack of homemade tamales from Cali to Jersey last Christmas. I’ve smuggled salamis, stowed sandwiches, hidden hummus…there’s no boundaries when it comes to having a piece of home in your pocket (or in the overhead compartment, which doubles as an amazing mini-frig for the six hour flight!). It’s all about commitment to the cause.

Take the pork roll. Stuff your pockets with pizza. Leave your pride at home. You have none.

You are, The Flying None.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Just a Victim of Circa’s Stance (San Diego)

Sold on California Soul Food

The dude with white hair down past his shoulders motioned to us from behind the bar, asking if we had a reservation since the place was packed on Friday at 8:30pm. Even though we shook our heads, he gave us a friendly nod and worked his way through the crowded dining room, proudly waving us towards the only remaining table.

Circa looked like a working, shoebox diorama of a restaurant. Seating was almost too close for comfort, eking by with only an inch of elbow room in between tables. But this community of close eaters was about to teach me an important lesson: how to love thy neighbor’s dinner.

Circa's Stance
Circa claimed to have “California soul food”, conjuring images of fat-free chicken and gluten-free waffles or whole wheat “faux” mac-n-cheese or something equally gag-worthy. But instead, Circa delivered a magical mash-up that blended farm-to-table freshness and comfort food favorites (i.e. Green Bean Casserole: organic brown beech mushrooms, goat cheese cream, fresh oregano, crisp onions - $8).

Cast Iron Fried Jidori Chicken: duck fat roasted fingerling potatoes, bacon braised collard greens, blonde ale gravy ($17)

My decision was easy enough since the woman at the table to my left ordered the cast iron fried chicken and I thought, “I want that.” It came wrapped up in a neat package with lots of moving parts, all fitted together in a well thought out plan of edible engineering. Every element was more than I’d hoped for: golden coins of potatoes were fork tender, yet still firm, crisped with duck fat. The bacon waved in identifiable slices amid a pile of rich, collard greens, stewed and lush, but not mushy. The chicken’s skin came off in crispy pulls to expose the tender flesh, ripe with natural juices, and bright notes from the blonde ale gravy brought a bouncy bite to a potentially heavy dish. The portion was on the small side, but enough to sooth the beast (= my appetite) and I truly enjoyed every bite.

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor. Won’t you be mine? Won’t you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor?”

I felt like Mr. Rogers as my gaze gallivanted around neighboring tables, winking hello and studying every dish that put down roots in my area. I longed to make friends with them all. And I went for awkwardly gawking at the couple on my right while they plunged into their desserts, and I nodded admiringly, knowing I would soon follow suit by ordering the same.

Cast Iron Skillet Apple Pie: spiced date vanilla bean ice cream, caramel ($10)
I felt like Laura Ingalls celebrating some special occasion where Ma busted out the cast iron skillet for a personal-pan-style apple pie, and its novel presentation and flaky top crust were praiseworthy.

Berries & Cream: fresh berries, lemon lavender anglaise, pistachio ice cream ($7)  
The lemon, lavender anglaise daintily fluffed itself beneath a skirt of fresh berries, leaving behind a perfumed trace of lavender and the clean cut of citrus = a palate’s happy ending.

Coming Full Circa
Bratwursts, pork belly, lamb shanks, pork and beans, burgers – Circa had comfort food covered. Their beer menu had a bounty of microbrews and desserts were given the same attention to detail as dinner. I was also interested in checking out their brunch menu for the Chilaquiles Skillet: corn tortilla chips, pork chorizo, stewed white beans, poached eggs, red chile sauce, cilantro, pickled radish, farmer’s cheese ($12.50) and BBQ Benny: slow-cooked bbq pork butt, poblano cornbread, cilantro, poached eggs, hollandaise, homefries ($13), along with the $5 Happy Hour menu during the week.

Although I hated the idea of trendy, niche markets, I had to admit that Circa pulled off their concept of “California Soul Food”. Their sunny disposition worked like enchanted chlorophyll nourishing the food, the staff, and the even the stifled surroundings. In fact, their cramped quarters only added to the experience and made me realize that the world would be a much friendlier place if everyone was Circa-sized.