Saturday, December 18, 2010

Taco Sundays

There's something about tacos...
Being raised in a bicoastal family has its perks; 4/5 of my immediate family are California natives, and with the entire extended family smattered across the West Coast annual pilgrimages from Virginia to California were frequent and with them always brought exciting new twists of culinary delight and exploration. Even as a young child I could differentiate between my mother's tacos (strictly Tex-Mex, virtually unrecognizable by any Baja vendor) and the street tacos sizzling on Tijuana corners, piled high with cilantro and onions as their only garnishes. Despite my appreciation for authenticity even now as I live less than 20 miles from the international American/Mexican border, when I trek back to Virginia as a visitor with grand spewings of carne asada and horchata (unknown to all suburbanites east of the Mississippi), part of my gluttonous nostalgia craves the 'authentic' tacos of my childhood. Despite dripping with Costco-bought ingredients, these crisp hot nuggets of my upbringing resonate in me more than any tacos I've ever enjoyed south of the border. I'm convinced that my extremely devout and Republican mother must have made a pact with the devil in return for his provision of a magical 'mom spice' that instantly guarantees any meal prepared by her hand trumps any potential competition.

Taco Sundays
When I picture my mother, the vision always remains the same: wild curls of thin-but-shiny hair spritzed into an immoveable helmet crowning an untanned spectacled face, darting gray eyes with nonexistent lashes and daily drawn-on brows with a slight pumpkin-colored tinge, arms constantly moving in a symphony of conversational expression, meal preparation, or simply tidying the ongoing litter trail left by her husband and children, a voluminous body measuring in at 5'5” radiating maternal love and a disciplinarian attitude when necessary, all covered in her omnipresent threadbare red apron depicting a pattern of Christmas Nutcrackers. The apron is ever-present in my mental recall, with its dilapidated hems and grease-spotted front pockets; it has dominated my mother's bosom and torso for as long as I can reach into my memory. If it had the ability to speak, it would easily claim the title of my mother's biographer with unlimited row-front seats to our family's history in and out of the house of conversations, interactions, and most importantly, meals.

To the modern day on-the-go family, the tradition of eating a meal as a family has almost completely disintegrated, remembrances only depicted on sitcoms and antiquated books. However, growing up in the Demmon household the family meal was never a question, only a certainty that at the end of the day we would regroup, shake the day's dust from our heels, and enjoy the fruits of my mother's labor. Weekends only prolonged the time available for an extended meal open to family and friends alike, and after church on Sundays it was understood that meal time was as holy as the prayers uttered earlier in the day. My mother's culinary magnetism slowly seeped throughout the neighborhood, and once we hit the teen years, she found herself as the second home to many a starved boy requiring the same caloric intake of bull elephants to feed their frenzied growth into manhood. As a California native transplanted in a suburb of Washington, D.C., my mother's table often included Mexican-inspired staples such as salsas, tacos, enchiladas, and other sizzling dishes not often found in the white affluent white neighborhoods of upper middle class Virginia. Her culinary wizardry became available every weekend in what became known as Taco Sundays.

With 3 biological children born within 3 years of one another, my mother's network of additional mouths to feed exploded once my older sister hit her pubescent years, and with a fresh crop of ravenous fans greedily salivating at her table every weekend my mother concentrated her efforts on what we all loved the best- her tacos and salsa. My mother would take a stack of corn tortillas and fry them in oil in a way that no one west of Texas had ever experienced, providing a crisp, hot shell ready to be filled and devoured; each Sunday she would load her sagging table to the breaking point with searing ground beef seasoned with traditional Mexican spices, fresh sour cream, shredded lettuce, mixed cheeses, and always a huge vat of her famous salsa, each time the heat level a surprise depending on the concentration of the peppers used that week. Authentically Mexican it was not, but the concept of family time centered around a meal was as unfortunately alien to many young attendees as was her introduction of pico de gallo to unsuspecting upper crust progeny.

It remains understood within our family that when my mother serves her tacos, it is the only acceptable time when decorum takes a backseat and we are not required to wait to bless the food before stuffing our faces with the glorious shells- God understands that a cold taco makes a sad meal, and as children we silently thanked him and my mother with full mouths and grateful hearts. However, with a rapt audience ready to kowtow to my mother's any whim, she could never pass up the opportunity to act as a mother and spiritual guide to any available ear once she had attained their everlasting loyalty through their stomachs. Many who passed through her home were starving not only for spiced delicacies previously unknown, but for the radiating servitude and motherhood she selflessly served to any willing to seat themselves at her table. Based on the numbers of youngsters lining up each Sunday, it proved to be a successful line straight into the heart of the community, and once welcomed to the Demmon table, few ever left. Despite moving out from my parent's roof over 6 years ago, I still get the occasional call from an old friend regaling me with a recent story of stopping by my parent's house and being held hostage by my mother until they had been properly fed.

Especially during my turbulent teen years, Taco Sundays proved to be the single point during each week where the typical teen angst and parental embarrassment reached a cease-fire, where parents, children, and friends alike could gather in harmonious union over a table overflowing with beans, rice, tacos, and salsa. Food marches on as the universal unifier of all who share a meal; this singular act of eating together has allied countries and preserved families for generations. Lack of culinary connection weakens communication and unglues the very foundations of households every day, and luckily that line was never tread in my home. Stragglers from broken homes and the offspring of working parents could hardly help being bewitched by the welcoming bounty provided unselfishly by my mother every week. I don't think that any smug satisfaction ever burned within my mother due to the social good she provided, only pleasure in fulfilling her God-given appointment to minister to the community through tacos. I, for one, can't think of a better way to show love and motherhood to those in need of both.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Grow your own jolokia!

Remember my article about Bhut Jolokia, aka the Ghost Chile and the hottest in the world? Well, now you can grow your own with this handy plant from Think Geek! For only $5, you can harness the power of the jolokia pepper and amaze friends while proving your insanity for all things hot. Just in time for Christmas!!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

My 1st cheese!

I've taken up cheesemaking! With my ample free time available to silly hobbies, I've started dedicating myself to the art of cheese. I figured Ashton is making beer, Andy was making bread, what's the next best thing? Cheese! For someone as decidedly un-sciencey as myself, cheese is actually a pretty big challenge (what's a mesophilic culture??), but TOTALLY satisfying and REALLY fun. So far I've only got 1 cheese under my belt, but I've assembled a few more supplies and am ready for round 2!

The first cheese I made is probably one of the most basic ones around- a simple lemon basil cheese, made from a half gallon of pasteurized whole milk from a cow + 1/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice, salt to taste, and some freshly picked basil from our pet plant. I slowly brought the milk up to 165 degrees F while stirring to avoid scalding, and once it was removed from the heat I added the lemon juice and let the mixture rest for 15 minutes. After that, I poured it into a cheesecloth lined colander and tied into into a ball and placed it in a large pot to catch the drippings while it sat in the fridge for an hour. Once I took it out, it had clumped into a ricotta-esque spread to which I added the salt and basil and voila! It's one of the few recipes that doesn't call for calcium chloride, rennet, or cultures, so for my first time it was absolutely perfect. In the end I could have used a bit more salt and maybe a tad more lemon juice for some zazz, but overall it was wonderfully spreadable and lent itself beautifully to a breakfast schmear.

Next I'll making paneer (the basic Indian cheese) and I've just gotten my cultures in the mail and some goat's milk chilling in the fridge, so stay tuned!

Jumbo Slice, Adams Morgan

Nothing helps curb a hangover like a big, greasy slice of pizza, and there are no bigger slices around than Washington, D.C.'s Adams Morgan neighborhood
Jumbo Slices! They nightly serve up their humongous 'slices' to hungry crowds of barhoppers desperate for some calories. Each piece is about the size of my entire torso, and to say it's just one is a cruel joke to play on your digestive system. However, two warring establishments lay claim to the best jumbo slice in DC, and having patronized the original recipe Jumbo Slice Pizza after a night of drinking and debauchery I can safely give my stamp of approval to it as the superior jumbo slice available. If you find yourself in the Adams Morgan area with a rumbling stomach, dare to compare and take on one of the mighty slices to declare your own winner. Really, it seems like win-win, doesn't it?

Image taken from

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Island Spice Jamaican Restaurant

Last year as I was preparing to head to Jamaica with my family for an island Christmas extravaganza in lieu of gifts, the owner of my company handed me a business card for Island Spice Restaurant and suggested that I give it a whirl. I tucked it absentmindedly into my pocket and forgot about it, despite working only a few blocks down the same street. After experiencing the claustrophobic joy of a Sandals resort, where all-inclusive food doesn't necessarily represent the local potential or even variety, I have to say I wasn't exactly enthused on the idea of some more mediocre Americanized dry chicken rubbed with pseduo-jerk sauce and cold beans with rice.

However, the idea and hope that Jamaican food might actually have something to get my tastebuds tingling led me to re-evaluate my previous prejudice, and a few of my more adventurous co-workers decided to join me for a meat-filled feast of curried goat, Jamaican BBQ chicken, and jerk chicken, each served with a side of red beans and rice and warmed vegetables. Ordering over the phone was easy, and based on the brief conversation with the harried employee your feelings are not taken into consideration, which leads me to believe that the food had better be damn good for them to stay in business.

Although I was told that each lunch plate came with fried plantains, none were to be found, and at $1 for a side I was disappointed with the lack of them despite our request. However, the meats themselves were surprisingly tender and absolutely wonderful; the BBQ chicken especially had a tender, juicy quality and the sauce packed a wallop that I had trouble not licking from the plate. The jerk chicken was no American falsetto; rather it did the nation proud with just the right amount of rubbed spices and tender meat hanging from the bone. The curried goat could easily be shared, unless one has a soft spot for a gutfull of the wonderfully greasy meat and marrow-filled bones. I was pleased with the amount of delectable marrow I was able to suck from the bones themselves, and while the curry lacked the spicy punch of the two chicken dishes, the meat was a unique and flavorful treat the likes of which I have not experienced within the city limits.

The dark greens and corn were wonderfully prepared and added an exotic, almost African quality to the entire plate. The red beans and rice were mediocre at best- a basic addition that served only to sop up the wonderful juices now running from our chins as we moaned in delight. Happily, my co-workers were more than willing to split all of the lunch meats so we could all have a taste of each dish, and while I think the vegetarians are out of luck in this particular restaurant, I recommend it as an off-the-beaten-path experience for those looking for an adventuresome, meatcentric meal.

Island Spice
2820 Market Street
San Diego, CA 92102-3105
(619) 702-9309

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Lamplighter Roasting Company, Richmond, VA

What gets you mentally and physically going in the morning? For some, it's coffee. For some, it's bikes. If you happen to bike to get coffee, so much the better, and if you happen to bike to get coffee at Lamplighter in Richmond, well then it sounds like your day is off to a good start! The eternally-vacant gas station fell into disrepair long before I breezed through River City, but it's finally gone to great use as Richmond's newest revamped coffee shop/roaster/cafe/hangout of hipsters and hoboes alike. Catering to a quirky and hugely varied clientele, the things that keep people coming back in droves are the coffee and eats. Despite having become a permanent West Coaster pre-opening, I had the opportunity to stop by Lamplighter due to countless word-of-mouth praises and now every time I'm back in Richmond I make it a point to stop by; we've even been able to spread the tall bike coffee love in San Diego, bringing back pounds of various roasts to distribute amongst like-minded coffee aficionados (while keeping a few for ourselves).

One of the especially great things is their policy of giving a free iced coffee if you buy a pound of beans (any roast). I'm not exactly how stringent this policy is (the entire staff seems to be in their early to mid twenties and nary a tattoo-free employee is to be found), but it seems consistent enough to pass along as gospel. Their menu is large without being overwhelming or even too varied; lots of the breakfast basics are covered, along with plenty of animal-free dishes as well. Kitschy touches abound, and DIY details lend a complete air of freedom without becoming sloppy; despite being run by a young group of bike hooligans, professionalism is not compromised with comfort and a cozy repertoire. Feel free to bring your mom along with your dog, and if possible squeeze outside on the covered patio to avoid the slightly claustrophobic dining space (it's a bit too small to even really be called a room). Coffee is a must, and while the food isn't to die for, it's yet to prove to be a disappointment.

Richmond continues to undergo various facelifts in sections of the city, and with Acacia Midtown just around the corner and new condos springing up all along Cary Street, Lamplighter is another welcome addition to the neighborhood. Recommended for ages 1-100, animals welcomed, biking is encouraged.

116 S. Addison Street (corner of Parkwood and Addison)
RVA 23220

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Food Wars- Lobster Rolls

Lobster rolls are to Maine what cheesesteaks are to Philly, and if you haven't had the opportunity to head to the cold netheregions of the Maine coast to enjoy one of the delectable seafood-stuffed sandwiches, I strongly advise you to turn off your computer and hustle there ASAP by any means necessary. Traditionally, lobster rolls contain a generous portion of lobster meat tossed with mayo and served on a hot-dog style bun; however, there are endless variations to the classic, ranging from the slight to unrecognizable. Lobster contains a lot of connotations in the food world representing power, wealth, and huge debates continuously arise around the world about the sustainability and availability of the clawed crustacean. However, with Maine waters teeming with these prized creatures, it remains one of the staple foods of the Northeast and the pride of generations.

While there are thousands of tiny clapboard buildings littered all over the state, each with their own unique spin or traditional homage to the lobster roll, Kennebunkport, Maine lays claim to two powerhouse institutions each boasting the best rolls fresh from the source of the Kennebunk River. I've actually been to the Clam Shack in my ventures to the ever-chilled state, and while there are few foods that San Diego can't reinvent or simply execute better than anyone else anywhere in the world, there's simply no duplicating the lobster roll eaten at the source. When anything is pulled from its home, killed in front of you, and served within moments of its death dressed on its coffin plate with only slight garnishes to enhance the still-living flavor... well, there's just nothing quite like it. Food Wars visited the seaside town to umpire the clash of the crustaceans between the Clam Shack and Alisson's Restaurant, so if your tastebuds are salivating (which they should be at this point), check out the episode's sneak peek below.

My own first lobster roll met its demise a few years ago at the Maine Lobster Festival in Portland, which is a fantastic food festival dedicated to the king of the sea and all his attendants. Let's just say it took a few bottles of suds to get that hat on me.

As convoluted as lobster's history has been and remains to be, it continues to uphold a crowning glory of a long, proud American tradition. I sincerely hope that the seas clear and lobster settles back into its rightful place as ruler of the sea. In the meantime, a hot buttery bun and some fresh lobster meat would do me just fine.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Aspiring to Agony: Finding Bliss in the Burn of Bhut Jolokia

sa·do·mas·och·ism: the derivation of pleasure from the infliction of physical or mental pain either on others or on oneself (Merriam-Webster's Medical Dictionary, © 2007)

'“It's fun,” as one chili pepper expert wrote, “sorta like a night out to watch someone being burned at the stake.” ' (Gorman, 2010).

Only a psychotic few thrill and pain-seekers dare to even approach the legendary bhut jolokia, otherwise known as the 'ghost chile' or naga jolokia, outside its natural home in the Indian and Bangladeshi countrysides; the first taste of the thin pepper whose size reaches no longer than a pencil slowly crawls over your taste receptacles with no warning of the strike to follow; after a moment the floodgates are opened in an orgasmic rush of endorphins as the heat sizzles over your tongue, and depending on the intensity, down your throat clawing its way into your belly. Your brain quickly mixes itself a unique chemical cocktail of anguish and euphoria, and perhaps for just a moment as you consider running face-first into a snowbank to ease the incomparable cauterization on your tastebuds can you see through the haze of sensations to realize that the experience can only be described as a fiery high.

Sounds like it sure feels good to hurt so bad, doesn't it?

Animals other than humans would tend to disagree. Homo sapiens remain the only known creature to knowingly and willingly partake in the consumption of capsaicin- the chemical that, in a simple definition, makes spicy foods taste hot. The most intense varieties of peppers which contain much higher concentrations of capsaicin (namely, strains of jolokia chiles) have been used by the Indian military as painful grenades to combat terrorist and rioters; Indian farmers have been known to smear the searing oils from jolokia plants on fences to discourage elephants from destroying their crops- which means that this dangerous pepper is not just enjoyed as food, but engineered as a weapon!

This dynamite strain of pepper was declared the World's Hottest in 2007 by the Guinness Book of World Records, and depending on climate in which it is grown, ranges from 850,000 to over a million Scoville units. (A Scoville unit is the standard method of measurement for calculating heat ouput in chiles by assessing the amount of capsaicin contained within the fruit). Jolokia chiles shattered the old record previously dominated by the Red Savina Habanero, which weighs in at an impressive 580,000 Scoville units, and to put things into a layman's perspective, in comparison Tabasco sauce taps in at approximately 5,000 Scoville units. One might ask, how can something known to be so utterly absurd, so ridiculous in its capability and certainty to cause pain, be enjoyed, even sought after?

Thankfully, that's easily explained. Studies have shown that humans have participated in benign masochism for centuries, especially when it comes to two things- food and sex. Deriving pleasure by causing or receiving pain (with the understanding that a threshold of human tolerance exists and) remains a widespread psychological normality that has spanned continents and cultures, unifying humankind in these two basic functions of daily life. In reference to the food aspect, a recent University of Pennsylvania study put chili-heads to the test by feeding the subjects peppers, gradually increasing the level of heat, and therefore pain, to the cusp of unbearable agony and then polling them to find which level they preferred. Overwhelmingly, the results showed that the majority of the subjects experienced the greatest amount of pleasure during the bite just before the unendurable. This being noted, perhaps it’s only a matter of time before bhut jolokias become almost a fashionable drug on our dinner tables.

Pain and pleasure remain synonymous only with the proper mental preparation. A slap of surprise instigates a completely different reaction than a slap expected. When one submits themselves to the fate of the following moments, pain and pleasure become blurred and can meld into a complicated dance of unique sensations previously unbeknownst to the subject. Bhut Jolokias, with their unrivaled intensity, have become the next great challenge to be conquered in the thrill-seeking foodie's world.

As jolokias begin to explode in markets all around the world, we continue to discover the human tolerance for spiciness on a sublimely cultural level. These capsaicin-jammed packets have been utilized for centuries in Indian cuisine and Americans (with our typical macho I-can-outdo-you attitude) have only begun to mass-market the item not simply as food that’s not solely meant to be eaten, but vanquished into submission. Seeing as we have centuries to catch up on, Americans are woefully behind in the race to introduce this as a staple dinner item or flavor enhancer, but already hundreds, thousands, even millions have discovered the indisputable power of the jolokias. If there's anything that eons of research have taught us, it's that we as humans are gluttons for punishment: self-inflicted or not! A little bit of pain simply makes the experience that much sweeter.

* Savuer Magazine, October 2010, page 63 “Fire in the Belly” by Suketu Mehta
* The Washington Post, February 2009, “The Pleasure is in the Pain”, by Andreas Viestad
* Gourmet Magazine, August 2008, pages 42-45, 116, “Burning Love”, by Tim Stark
* The New York Times, September 2010, “A Perk of our Evolution: Pleasure in Pain of Chiles”, by James Gorman
* October 2010, “Spiced Chili and Spicy Chili Peppers” by Sarah Kaiser
* Wikipedia: Naga Jolokia
* The Causing of Pain to Enhance Sexual Pleasure, author uncited
* April 2010, “Chili-heads' seek friendly fire from powerful pepper” by Sara Bonisteel

Image from Hot Sauce Island

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Fresh? Sustainable? Farm-raised? Affordable? The worldwide seafood debate rages on and it's never a concrete battle with black-and-white sides drawn as no sea creature has yet proven its value and ability for a clean death without natural disruption or the lack of hormones pumped into its meaty flesh. The James River in Virginia hardly lends itself as an optimal source for fresh, clean, healthy fish, and yet Richmond continuously seems to offer a better stream of fresh AND affordable catches than the ocean-sided San Diego. While overall San Diego dominates in quality, Richmond remains solidly blue-collar in attitude and prices, especially in the notoriously salty Oregon Hill neighborhood, home to some of the grimiest and grittiest restaurants around- all of which have superior cuisine to even haunts of New York and Los Angeles. Mamma Zu remains one of my favorite restaurants of all time, and 821 is still a biking hipster's paradise with solid grub and cold grog.

On our last visit back to Richmond, I had hoped to satiate my omnipresent longing for brisque lack-of service with a bowl of Mamma's noodles, but Ashton's dad assured us that a new restaurant was a contender for our affections and its Latin-infused seafood couldn't be beat. Pescado now resides in the old Hollywood Grill location on China Street, and while the decor is an odd mix of eclectic hippie paintings with bright splashy walls and an upscale-feeling bar, it was packed from wall-to-wall with an equally eclectic mix normally found in O-Hill, from college crowds to bangled socialites. One glance at the menu and it quickly became obvious we were dealing with major contenders in the seafood arena.

Grilled caesars seem to be one of the trends in the late 2000's in hip eateries, and Pescado proved to be no exception; however, I must admit I'm a sucker for the lightly toasted lettuce plate. Hands down, I can attest that the greatest grilled caesar that Richmond had to offer could be found at Dogwood Grill on Main Street in the Fan (along with some of the best fare in Virginia as far as I'm concerned), but when the restaurant closed a few years back it left a gaping hole in the Virginia culinary forum. Pescado stepped up to the plate with their caesar and since their Latin-fusion brought an entirely different view to the plate I can safely say it's one of the best in town. Lightly drizzled with a spiced dressing, freshness exploded in each bite and while the cornbread served with it was slightly dry, the massive flavors wove themselves into a symphony of balance and offered a pleasant take on the old classic. Even the butter had a twist- a cucumber-infused smear lent itself refreshingly to the spices echoed in each dish and I found it to be a unique detail that spoke highly to the attention spent in all aspects of the meal.

It's a certain caliber of restaurant where one can depend on the night's special actually being 'special', straight from the heart and imagination of the chef and not just scrappled leftovers headed for the waste bin at the end of the evening. Pescado instantly struck me as that caliber. Happily, the special happened to be a favorite fish of mine, the ever-present rare seared tuna, with accent bolsters of pureed carrots served with a raisin compote and flash friend arugula and a citrus glaze. The textures were top-notch; crunchy greens the likes of which I have not experienced outside of notebook paper surprisingly blended with the giving flesh of the fish and soft purees to all build each other up in support of an overall wonderful dish.

Ashton got the triggerfish plate, and I can't pretend to know much about the creature; based on the plate he received, I can guarantee I'll be ordering it again. Curry and okra blanketed a starchy corn mountain in a wonderful blend of seafood, Spain, and the South. Maybe not Spain exactly, but I appreciate a good trifecta of alliteration and it's pretty close! Again, fresh was the emphasis and believe me, it spoke volumes.

I often skip dessert, opting for a savory starter in lieu of a sweet ending, but currently hailing from California, home to the freshest avocados the world has to offer, I found myself tempted by the avocado tart just to see if they would throw a wrench in the works of a to-date excellent meal. Rimmed with an appropriate amount of a red-wine sweet drizzle over an almond cup, they maintained a high ranking in my estimation by echoing shades of key lime pie (which I happen to detest) and removing the over-tartness by using a smooth fruit still proving to be freshly picked and prepared. Kudos, Pescado. We'll be back.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Adams Avenue Farmer's Market

When is too much community participation a bad thing? Recently there was a news story about two Los Angeles art walks that are competing for participants as they have both been scheduled at the same time, meaning in the end both will suffer due to conflicting schedules and ultimately hurting the overall cause since neither will back down or combine the two. Many are focused on just getting these sorts of events off the ground, but with communities becoming saturated with farmer's markets, craft fairs, street festivals, and so on, when can one say enough is enough- there's already a plethora of local pride and anything I do would take away from the already established events?

Thankfully, San Diego has struck a wonderful balance of supply and demand with its farmer's markets, offering at least a handful a day spread across the entire county. Geographically spread out, each market has a similar offering of local produce and prepared foods, and as far as I can tell none conflict with a nearby market with a similar demographic. Some only cater to a few vendors (like Coronado and North Park), while some cause traffic jams and thousands flock by bicycle and Birkenstock with reusable bags (Hillcrest and Little Italy). Some have a large variety of vendors offering not just produce, but local jewelry makers, paper artists, or musicians. Some close down entire streets to handle the crowds, while some are tucked away conveniently into parks and parking lots with perhaps only 20 visitors at a time. One can either get some serious shopping done, or peruse leisurely and perhaps pick up a snack before heading home via their Hybrid vehicle. Whatever your bag is, there's most definitely a market for you... as long as your bag includes no plastic and hopefully some sort of snappy "Save the Whales" slogan.

These week, I decided to try out the Adams Avenue Farmer's Market, held at John Adams Elementary School at 4674 35th Street every Wednesday from 3-7 pm. Reviews of this particular market have been overwhelmingly positive, and as one of the newer additions to the scene it seems to have remarkable potential with its vicinity to MANY celebrated local food haunts with sustainability served up daily such as Viva Pops, Mariposa Ice Cream, Blind Lady Ale House, etc. The entire Adams Avenue corridor is packed with attractive draws for exactly the market-going crowd, so I have a feeling this rookie market will only grow as time goes on.

At first glance, this is one of the smaller markets I've visited and I'm immediately approached by a vendor who I'm unfamiliar with selling a variety of candied nuts. He's extremely interested in my camera and is borderline intrusive with his insistence on pouring handfuls upon handfuls of his wares into my hands. Thankfully, I'm not allergic to nuts, because I'm fairly certain that refusing was not an option. Soon, his next-tent neighbor was offering her figs as a compliment to his nuts, and I had to peel myself away, somewhat unwillingly, to be able to actually observe the scope and variety of the crowd.

There was an obvious emphasis on seasonality, perhaps more so in comparison to others due to the limited number of vendors versus the larger markets with a bigger reach, where seasonality is often a bit more flexible.

The number of produce vendors vastly outweighed the number of prepared food vendors- I could count the number of tents with smoke wafting out from their canopies on one hand. However, despite the lack of readily available hot meals and the relatively small number of actual vendors, the variety of available items were well represented across the entire market and everything that one might need for a basic supply of produce was available and local. Too late in the season for citrus and strawberries (both of which in the summer months remain kings of the fruit stands), but plenty of artichokes, squash, peaches, green beans, and peppers, not to mention colorful gourds and decorative pumpkins lined the tables and bins ripe for rifling through.

One of the more spartan tables was the mushroom man- usually a favorite of mine (as I happen to be a fungus fanatic), but as the single mushroom vendor on Adams, there was a single-digit selection of varieties to choose between. Local yes, seasonal to be sure, but with the bulk made up of generic looking white and brown 'shrooms I was left wanting. However, one of the more exciting finds to tantalize my tastebuds was the discovery of an okra farmer! My Southern roots danced in delight as I discovered the delectable veggie available near the piles of brightly colored peppers. I've only managed to spot pickled okra sporadically at the Hillcrest Farmer's Market, but the fresh thing is generally unavailable and unwanted in this region. Gumbo anyone?

All in all, for what the concentrated Adams Market lacks in size it makes up for in variety and genuine friendliness. For someone interested in keeping their fingers on the pulse of What's Happening In San Diego Food Now, I'd recommend staying tuned for what's next on Adams. Not just in the market- the restaurant scene is taking a page straight from the farmer's book and running with it more than any other neighborhood south of Orange County. Big things are in store for Normal Heights and I for one am glad to be a part of it!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Andy's carbonara pizza

Having an enthusiastic and talented chef as a roommate definitely has its perks. For as much as Andy can appreciate and manipulate dishes of magnificent quality, he is equally passionate about some of the lower echelons of culinary exploration, such as the quintessential pizza and beer combination. Truly, if there is a better pairing of food and drink I haven't yet found it.

Having said that, there's certainly nothing wrong with run-of-the-mill pizza pies from any number of chain establishments or your grocery's freezer; there's always a time and a place for some cheap eats. However, if it's something a bit higher class that you yearn for and you don't mind putting a little elbow grease into it, I recommend the herb pizza dough available at Trader Joe's. I find it to crisp up nicely while leaving a gooey trail within the crust. For our particular experiment this night, we gathered up some of the best dry and sharp cheeses, along with some fresh arugula and herbs smattered on top of a thick, creamy, mushroom sauce that smothered the misshapen pie to ultimately be crowned with a halo of fresh eggs (cracked at the very end to ensure maximum runny-ness while avoiding that pesky salmonella). I can't truly explain the details without my mouth suddenly becoming full of saliva in a desperate yearning for a recreation of the glory, so perhaps a visual is necessary.

When confronted with a particularly savory group dish, a quandary often presents itself soon into the meal. Does one A) scarf it down with relish to ensure as much possible goodness is selfishly consumed by oneself, or B) does one maintain a sense of decorum and savor each bite to maximize the pleasure time? Let's just say with two hungry boys standing between me and my fair share of the pizza, the entire concoction was gone within moments. A glorious triumph for pizza lovers everywhere.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Veggie Grill, Hollywood, CA

I've said it once, I'll say it again- I expect to be disappointed when a restaurant caters to an exclusively vegan or vegetarian clientele. Moderation, in my opinion, is held in higher esteem than exclusion. That being said, when my fears prove to be unfounded, it's an extra thrill to experience some great eats sans meat. Veggie Grill in L.A. and Orange Counties is one of many of my friends' favorite haunts, and there's not a month that goes by where at least a carload of people pile into a car and head to the nearest location in Irvine for vegan goodies. I'm told everything on the menu is animal product free, and they assured me that I should have higher than usual expectations for the (strike one) CHAIN, and (strike two) VEGETARIAN ONLY restaurant.

Our latest trip to Hollywood brought us to one of their locations, and the menu surprised me at first glance. Nachos? Thai chicken? Not just the usual veggie burger and salad options, I see... a positive start. As I had ruined my major appetite with a sandwich earlier, I couldn't indulge in an entire meal, but went with an orange theme and got their all-natural carrot cake and side of mac n' cheese.

I have absolutely no idea how they did it, but this carrot cake was one of the best slices of dessert I have ever had. Completely moist and light without being gritty or having that strange off-texture that non-cow milk will sometimes incur, it was fresh and wonderful. A complete surprise.

I was told that if I tried only one thing it would have to be the mac n' cheese. Made with Daiya cheese, it was a first for me, and I found it to be one of the best alternative cheese options I've had to date. Not overly sticky or melty like a plastic crayon, it was the closest thing to actual cheese that I've tried thus far. Not by any means do I consider myself a faux cheese expert, but I've had my fair share and this was definitely in the top tier. The whole wheat noodles were topped with a toasted bread crumble, and the textures paired beautifully.

All in all, I was floored by the quality and variety of offerings and while I may not yet be a total believer in the all-vegan meal's ability to top its animal equivalent, Veggie Grill has taken me one large leap in that direction.

West Hollywood
8000 W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90046
Phone 323.822.7575

Plaza El Segundo
720 Allied Way
El Segundo, CA 90245
Phone 310.535.0025

Irvine – University Center
4213 Campus Drive
Irvine, CA 92612
Phone 949.509.0003

Irvine Spectrum Center
81 Fortune Drive
Irvine, CA 92618
Phone 949.727.9900

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Alchemy, South Park

South Park is a foodie's paradise- a little off the beaten path but easily accessible, small, quaint, but with a ton of variety and filled with local joints from your friendly neighborhood tavern to an upscale dining experience requiring a tie. The former, happily, is much more prevalent, and the majority of restaurants in the area lean more towards a casual atmosphere, with varying levels of cuisine. One of the more interesting places whose menu is a cut above the norm is Alchemy on 30th and Beech. When I find myself on that block, 9 times out of 10 it's because Hamilton's Tavern is a favorite haunt, where the beer list is huge and spills over to the menu itself.

Alchemy in nestled just south of Hamilton's by only a few doors, but the clientele is as different as the menu. Alchemy's dinner menu is broken into sections with appetizers, tapas, entrees, and desserts available with influences ranging from Italian pickled vegetables to Puerto Rican tostones. Although upon entering it appeared that the restaurant was only about half full, the host informed us that we had perfect timing and the very last table available before reservations booked up the entire floor was ready for us. The decor was extremely tasteful and welcoming, despite a noticeable crowd of upper-middle class couples. However, we didn't glaringly stand out with our attire of t-shirts and shorts, and the entire waitstaff was prompt, friendly, and helpful.

Ashton had happened to stop by with Andy the day before on a whim, and what a happy choice that was! We decided to go again for a few tapas choices before Ashton caught a plane to Vermont, so we decided upon the squash blossoms and gazpacho Anduluz for starters, and then a shared entree of the local sea bass and Thai oyster shooters to round off the meal. Unfortunately, despite the tantalizing looking dessert menu, it wasn't in the cards for us that night.

Squash Blossoms (Road Side Stand) – lightly tempura battered and stuffed with herbed ricotta, drizzled with basil oil

Andy and Ashton had tried the squash blossoms the previous occasion and sang its praises; I found it to be very satisfying in some areas and woefully lacking in others. The presentation was magnificent, the cheese was delightful, and the freshness apparent- but the bite taken from the top of the stem released a surprisingly bitter taste that completely dominated that (small) section of the vegetable. However, the majority of the plant proved to be a solid offering and I'd recommend it without hesitation.

Gazpacho Anduluz – charred tomatoes pureed with garlic, olive oil, shallot and cucumber

The gazpacho came next, and I found it to be just slightly heartier than I expected, but by no means do I consider myself a gazpacho connoisseur and it was great nonetheless! The cucumber resonated throughout the bowl, and the temperature was ideal for a summer night's enjoyment. The vibrant orange and yellow blossoms were beautiful against the tomato-red broth, and the Bread & Cie sourdough crust crowning the top was a delight, as usual.

Ashton was hungry for a bit more than tapas, so for his entree he chose the Local Sea Bass – pan roasted and served over caramelized fennel with extra virgin olive oil, grape tomatoes and capers. For some godforsaken reason, despite the fact that San Diego is on AN OCEAN and THERE ARE A BAJILLION FISH TO BE EATEN, reasonable and fresh seafood is hard to come by from what I've found. However, this fish was thick, fresh, wonderfully prepared, and an altogether glorious experience. I found it interesting that even with what seemed to be an overabundance of salty ingredients, this was by no means overly salted, which had a lot to do with the bed of cabbage-like white greens that the fish rested upon. By itself, this cabbage was a bit sweet and on the cusp of being too sour, but with the fish and the jus it was just delicious. The sauce was light and seemed to be simply the natural juices and a little olive oil, but it was perfectly seasoned and brought out the fresh flavor of the wish without being overpowering in itself.

Thai Oyster Shooters – fanny bay oysters, coconut milk, lemon grass, red chili, and cilantro

To wrap up the meal, we ordered the oyster shooters, which was a first for me- I love oysters, but wasn't quite sure how the "shooters" part came into it. The lemongrass was slightly stingy on the back of my throat, but there was a pleasant spice to the creaminess of the dish. Unfortunately, it was only slightly tainted by a bit of shell, and I found the lip of the glass to be a little small to accommodate the swift movement required to properly inhale this. However, I found the flavor to be complex and enjoyable- a recommendation for next time!

Overall, Alchemy seems to be able to balance an international menu without spreading themselves too thin and achieved a higher echelon of flavor balanced with a welcoming atmosphere. Next time Hamilton's is overflowing and you don't mind gussying it up a bit more, head a few doors down and enjoy!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Peking Restaurant/Chop Suey, North Park

It's a tough search to find Chinese food better than a Styrofoam takeout box with greasy noodles without skipping the middle ground and head straight for a place with a dress code and $$$ on the menu. Besides chains like Pei Wei and P.F. Changs, pickins seem pretty slim. However, North Park just happens to house a wonderful gem right on University just West of 30th smack dab in the heart of the neighborhood. Screaming neon lights proclaiming "CHOP SUEY" add a cheesy touch to an otherwise tiredly elegant restaurant with shades of a grandmother's living room, plastic chair covers and all.

Peking Restaurant a.k.a. Chop Suey is the best balance of taste, authenticity, and affordability that I've managed to find in San Diego thus far. While I'm the first to admit that a box of fried chicken smothered in sweet and sour sauce or overly salty beef and broccoli sometimes fills a disgusting niche that is oh-so-tasty and cheap, nothing beats the real deal. Serving up noodles and other authentic fare for over 75 years, this family friendly neighborhood spot seems to be a hot spot for locals in the know, where the hostess is on a first name basis with half the patrons, and dogs are tucked in corners of booths while the waitress doesn't seem to mind.

Carnivores and vegetarians alike have a multitude of options, each one better than the last. I rarely find myself absolutely stumped on what to order, but Peking Cafe's (spelled Pekin over the door, but apparently all names are interchangeable) menu boasts not only the standard Chinese-American fare, but delicacies and other tasty morsels for those seeking an authentic Asian experience. With the huge amount of Thai and Vietnamese restaurants vying for San Diego's top spot, Chop Suey stands alone and proud as the best the city has to offer.

2877 University Ave
(between Granada Ave & Kansas St)
San Diego, CA 92104
Neighborhood: North Park
(619) 295-2610

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Heaven Sent Desserts

North Park, San Diego is a bustling, re-vitalized area of America's Finest City that is now a hub of quaint shops, restaurants, and the arts. The main drag through North Park intersects at University and 30th, and dominating the southeast corner is nestled a seeming neighborhood giant- Heaven Sent Desserts. A towering two-story building that is understated but powerful, I was anxious to give it a try and see what all the fuss was about. With such a gigantic space and a solid position, I was expecting some sugar delicacies the likes of which I'd never seen.

Despite the great, long, late hours and catering available, when it comes down to the desserts themselves, I straight up, no holds-barred, just plain wasn't impressed. Red velvet cake with cream filling, coconut shavings, spongey chocolate? The icing was a plasticky mixture similar to mushy glue, and nothing about the rich delicacy of a well-made red velvet cake was apparent at all in this dish.

Don't even get me started about this pseudo coffee imitation flavored poor excuse for tiramisu.

Hey, maybe we went on a bad night. Maybe the pastry chef just had an off day- it happens! However, despite the location and seeming guarantee of goodness, with plenty of other dessert fish in the sea, my shadow won't be darkening their doorway anytime soon.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Eclipse Chocolate

If I had to pick sweet or savory, 9 times out of 10 I'll pick savory. When dining out, I prefer an appetizer to prep my tastebuds for the entree to come rather than save room for dessert. However, at least once a month (guess when) there occurs an occasion in which if I do not get some chocolate on my tongue ASAP, I'm likely to fly into a homicidal rage. I know that this pains my sweet-tooth fiancee to no end, but to each his own. The chemistry of sugar, chocolate and sweets in general is a mysterious and somewhat unknown realm to me as I most of the time steer clear from it. The preciseness of baking irritates me, but whenever I come across artisan or homemade chocolates I'm likely to give it a whirl, and am often surprised at the subtle nature of the sweet.

Eclipse Chocolate opened last year on El Cajon Boulevard in North Park next to the newest Luigi's location, and any block which contains a great pizzeria and chocolatier is a solid block in my book. Since gourmet chocolate isn't a daily weakness of mine, last night was our first experience at the recommended shop. Even after 9 pm, the tiny location was bustling with yuppies on Macbooks and ladies in heels being "so naughty, I really shouldn't!" By this point in the evening, the cupcakes on display were looking a little worse for wear, but the display of truffles was presented appealingly and beautifully at the counter.

Once we picked one truffle, a few more followed, and the flavors from left to right are: vanilla bean & sassafras, lavender & sea salt, balsamic & pink peppercorn, and goat cheese & tarragon with fennel pollen. All were filled with a luscious chocolate ganache, and varied as much in quality as they did in flavor. These were only a quarter of the varieties offered, and the range of flavors was surprisingly vast and well thought out to appeal to an entire range of flavor enthusiasts. My runaway favorite was the lavender and sea salt, not just in flavor but in quality of the ganache melding with the chocolate shell. It was by far the thinnest truffle with the highest quality filling, with subtle flavors that still made themselves known throughout the bite. I can't say that the flavors married with each other and provided that same complex bite transition as well in any of the other three, but none of them were unpleasant by any means. The balsamic truffle was a close second, but I'd recommend it only if you are an adventurous dessert seeker!

Did I mention that my fiancee is a chocoholic? Let me re-emphasize this. Ashton is insane about chocolate on levels comparable to a hormonally imbalanced woman who just got dumped by her boyfriend and is watching a Lifetime movie while crying about her love handles. If you think that we were going to stop with a few truffles, you've got another thing coming. Beneath the truffle display were the Chocolate Roccos, chunky chocolate logs with a variety of fillings. Did I really sell you on those with that description?

He selected the Citrus Honeycomb, which comes with their homemade vanilla bean marshmallows with 72% dark chocolate rocky road, along with some honeycomb candy, bee pollen, & candied citrus peel. They were kind enough to slightly heat and slice it for us, and besides the end pieces, which proved to be a little tough and lacking in the filling department, it was a decent treat with a solid flavor base. I personally would have gone for the Chili Burnt Caramel with canilla bean marshmallow & 38% milk chocolate rocky road studded with burnt caramel toffee & cayenne candied pecan, but there's always next time.

I feel like I need to mention that we got a salted caramel and rosemary cashew yellow cupcake with chocolate frosting, but their lack of airtight display and the late hour did not prove favorable to the cupcakes. Avoid unless fresh.

Overall, I found it to be an innovative addition to the local scene, and while it might take a little more to impress me with the dessert department, I found the menu to be well thought out, and with a little work on storage to maintain freshness, a pleasant place to spend an evening.

Eclipse Chocolate
2121 El Cajon Boulevard
North Park, San Diego, 92104

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Currant: American Brasserie

One of my regular haunts in Richmond just happened to be the best brasserie in Virginia as far as I'm concerned, and a definite plus was the fact that my best friend just happened to be one of the highest up chefs in the kitchen, which contributed to many a dining experience ending in an engorged belly and a painful toddle back to my apartment. I find the consistency of French cuisine in America comforting, and Can Can was my first true experience which I found to be great during brunch, lunch, happy hour, and dinner on a regular basis. The sentiment was confirmed when I was lucky enough to brunch at Bouchon in Las Vegas, but since moving to San Diego, I hadn't found the same caliber of Franco-cuisine. However, that aforementioned best friend/chef just happened to move here only a few weeks ago and during his job hunt stumbled upon Currant in downtown San Diego. It was a fortuitous discovery and perfect opportunity to put it to the test!

With Andy being jobless in a new town, and I being sadly underpaid, we decided to take advantage of the half-price happy hour menu, which is a solid 3 hours long every day. A happy find! The offerings proved to be pretty standard French-American cuisine, so with our usual selection of mussels (we opted for the French curry option) and fried pickle chips, both at 50% off, we toasted our cocktails (also on special during 4-7) and relished in our success. We had a few minutes until the bartender acknowledged us to take our food order, but they seemed pleasant enough, and with the other half of the small center-room bar being occupied with what seemed to be the male cast of the Jersey Shore dizzy with Cosmos, it was an excusable oversight.

The decor tiptoed the line of lavish and gaudy; many subtle classic touches were easily overlooked with the overabundance of garish additions. The bar itself dominated the already small space (the restaurant is located within the boutique Sofia Hotel on Broadway), and with it crowned on four corners with massive pillars, it almost seemed to be squeezed in as an afterthought. The lounge area adjoining the bar boasted several sage green velvety couches with pouf pillows aplenty- more nightclub than restaurant. Details fought to be recognized, and I felt somewhat claustrophobic nestled next to a giant support pillar on the left, a closely placed bar stool on the right, the section of the bar which no more than three people would fit at comfortably, and the floating cocktail rack above, which was towered over by another decorative screen which wrapped around the bar near the ceiling. Too much.

Our food arrived, and while the mussels were especially tasty with a thicker-than-expected yellow curry sauce, I was disappointed with the ratio of unopened (therefore inedible) mussels to opened. The fries were no contest second place to Can Can's, but certainly not bad by any means, and while the sauce seemed too similar to curry gravy to counter the nature of mussels which I find flourish in a thinner broth, it proved to be a glorious dipping sauce perfect for the frites. The fried pickles did not come breaded as expected, but battered in a light and delicious tempura batter with paired nicely with the house ranch. I personally find dill by itself to be somewhat overwhelming and prefer it as a paired herb, but for $3 I was satisfied with the plate. However, it falls short of the normal lunch/dinner price of $6, which piques my curiosity to the difference between the "cheaper" (i.e. less time taken by a generally less experienced cook) happy hour servings vs. the dinner portion.

Overall, it was a positive experience, and a place that will most certainly draw me to downtown when few places appeal to me enough to fight the traffic and pay for parking. Despite the oppressively small bar space and odd Gaslamp clientele, the happy hour prices are on the money, and the familiarity of brasserie style is one that will keep me coming back, perhaps even for dinner!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

2010 San Diego County Fair at the Del Mar Fairgrounds

Ah, the state fair. An American pastime that really brings out the Midwest in people! Fried foods, overpriced rides, neon lights, and plenty of cankles to be had. I've been to the Virginia State Fair before, so I figured that California was going to be a cakewalk, and with the theme this year being "Taste the Fair", how was I going to miss the festivities?!

We started off strong, and Andy and I enjoyed our first selection of chocolate covered bacon, which was surprisingly delightful! Large portions of thick bacon with sea salt sprinkled over the chunks- we definitely dove in head first with this one. After one piece, enjoyed under the hot sun, I was pretty ready for something a little more savory.

Fried pop tarts, fried butter, fried pickles, fried everything under the sun was displayed proudly, but our second choice of the day was cheese battered in corn dog casing and deep fried, as seen enjoyed by Felicia! Can you really think of any better way to marry the delights of cheese and the overabundance of fried?

At this point, I was ready for an actual dish with some real sustenance, and after scouring the fair for the biggest, spiciest, most loaded italian sausage I could find, I settled on one, smothered it in onions, peppers, and mustard, and scarfed! Andy decided a few greens were in order, and ordered an aptly-named Zucchini Weenie, which was a hot dog stuffed inside a hollow zucchini dipped in corn dog batter and fried. Phallic as it was, it was not depressing in any way.

Avocados are already filling enough as it is, so to have a basket full of the fatty, oily, delicious fruit's nutritional value completely demolished by MORE oil and heat, well, what's not to love?

A new friend.

At this point, I was nearing diabetic-coma status and inviting a heart attack, so I decided to end the day with something light- a deep fried Reeses cup. Nothing like a apertif to help settle the stomache! Ah, only in America.

Saturday, June 26, 2010


Yellow- the color of daffodils, butter, cozy things, happy thoughts, and my personal favorite color-of-choice for most things decor. Arrivederci in Hillcrest appealed to me with their comforting yellow and white striped decor with small, intimate wooden tables and a seemingly inviting atmosphere. With pasta on the mind, Ashton and I took our chances on weekday evening hoping that a later dinner would help us to avoid the crowd that seems to be a permanent fixture at this neighborhood bistro. With only one entrance door and a constant flood of waiters, food runners, hostesses, and patrons, it was a tight squeeze to even reach the hostess stand, which was unmanned and we were ignored for about 5 minutes before a harried hostess rushed up and asked if we had a reservation. Sadly no, but she looked around and dashed off, promising to see what she could do. Not exactly a casual way to begin a meal, but the heavenly aromas pouring off of every table were strong indicators that we should stick it out and see what they had to offer.

After a short wait, we were led to the right side of the restaurant which held a separate wine bar; the entire building seemed to be broken into tiny rooms, seemingly toeing the line of claustrophobic and intimate, but at least we were able to be seated quickly. The menu looked extremely promising, and we had plenty of time to look it over as the waiter did not even glance at our table for a solid 20 minutes. By then, we had decided on wine, appetizers, entrees, and had discussed skipping dessert due to the amount of time we'd already spent without tastebud compensation. Happily, once we were acknowledged it was a steady uphill climb in terms of service and experience.

As a duo of calamari enthusiasts, we decided to begin with the calamari appetizer which featured thin slices shaved over a bed of fresh greens with a citrus vinaigrette. Fresh, light, and plentiful- it was a pleasant way to begin the meal, despite the fact that no where on the menu did it mention that it was a salad and came with anything besides actual calamari. If we had known that, we might not have also ordered the warm duck salad with bacon vinaigrette with pine nuts and golden raisins. However, I'm glad we did because this was absolutely fantastic. Definitely recommended.

By then, we had seen the portions that other tables were being served and opted to split an entree of seafood pasta, which they kindly served in two bowls with some of the best bread I've ever sopped up pasta sauce with. I don't know how or where they get their bread, but it was spectacular. The pasta itself was great- it's always nice to go to a place that puts as much emphasis on the actual pasta as it does the sauce. There was a hearty helping of mussels, clams, shrimp, and scallops, and even with sharing we both left with smiles.

Overall, the service was lacking, the rooms themselves were stuffy, but the food booted it up high enough for me to go back again. Worth a shot- but don't go expecting the white glove treatment. Also, apparently you need reservations for even a Tuesday night, so plan ahead, and don't be surprised if you're met with a hostile wait. It's worth it though!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Fred's Mexican Cafe

Anyone who can tell the difference between a jalapeno and a habanero knows that Fred's Mexican Cafe is nothing more than a gimmicky tourist trap flaunting pseudo-Mexi-American eats that's fun for the whole family! I'd say it's closer to a fancy Taco Bell or at best a Don Pablo's where the waiters are all white and there's not a bowl of pico de gallo in sight. Velvet Elvis leers at you from the bathroom and brightly painted maracas are passed around to the scores of overweight children sipping on neon plastic straws leading into a gallon of soda. Regardless, being the open-minded restauranteur that I am, with a margarita craving the likes of which I have never experienced, we headed over there for some Happy Hour slush drinks that sometimes you just gotta have.

To be honest, despite the scores of pale kids from places like Iowa and Oklahoma on Spring Break with their sunburnt parents flush with the excitement of vacation so obviously showing with their getup of sandals and socks, the atmosphere wasn't bad and the experience was surprisingly casual and yes, perhaps, even fun! It's a giant place in the heart of Old Town with plenty of indoor and outdoor seating. The building really does have a (albeit stereotypical and somewhat cheesy) "old town" feel to it, and while it's not cheap, for a mixed drink that I'd be ashamed to order anywhere else, it wasn't bad at all. Luckily the drinks were stiff and the fajitas sizzling, so although I might not find myself there on a return trip, I was able to sit back, sip on a sugary slush, watch the passerbyers, and enjoy some chips and salsa. It was one of those evenings filled with a guilty sort of pleasure that one shit talks later but enjoys at the moment. Fred's- the best place to hate but secretly love.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

el take it easy gastro-cantina

These days, it's a pretty ballsy move to expand your business, especially in the ever-fickle restaurant world where it could be months, and more often years before you can even begin to see a profit in such a major investment. However, when you've got a good idea, you can't let the economy excuse hold you back from some major potential, which is exactly what chef Max Bonacci from The Linkery has done with partner Jair Téllez with the new North Park venture El Take It Easy gastropub, a unique concept meshing tapas style with casual Mexican atmosphere with a slightly upscale twist. Comfortable enough to be considered a cantina, but with oddities like sweet & sour chicken heads and pork belly & quail egg terrine, it's sure to bring in a food-crazy crowd of a higher level.

El Take It Easy is nestled next to Ranchos, one of my favorite local vegetarian/Mexican joints, and the long-vacant space has been transformed seemingly overnight with a windowless vertical wood board facade with metal accents that both recall Soviet-era coldness mixed with contemporary industrial, yet remains strangely inviting by the warmth of polished wood. Inside, the sweeping room with its worn cement floor can be taken in one glance, despite the dark decor and powerful bar presence on the left hand side. Technically, the gastro-cantina is still in the soft opening stage and has not yet opened to the public beyond reservations made by those in-the-know enough to already be on the Linkery email blast, so when we arrived there were perhaps only two other people in the dining room.

The absence of a crowd proved to be a blessing, and I set aside my usual assumption that an empty restaurant has nothing to offer me. The waiter was straightforward in manner and made no excuses for the fact that they've been open less than a week. It almost was presented as a challenge- of course one that I could not refuse. To get the evening off on the right foot, I decided to finally indulge in a beverage I've waited to try until I felt the opportunity would be sure to end in pleasure- sangria! I've heard far too many horror stories about disgusting sangria, so until I felt confident that the result would be a good one I have avoided the fruity wine. I have to say, it wasn't quite love at first sip, but it certainly wasn't unpleasant by any means. The fruit held the alcohol quite nicely, and while I can't compare it to any other, it seemed to be a refreshing drink and the perfect cocktail to begin the experience.

We started with the grilled beef cheeks, and with all other previous experiences with this particular cut being pretty spectacular, I wasn't expecting to be disappointed. Thankfully, this tender cut atop a salad of baby romaine and drizzled with a slightly sweet, tinge of spice dressing that appeared to be hot sauce but was happily far more complex proved to be a solid dish. You could cut the meat with a fork easily, and with the tiniest veins of fat marbling through the meat, each bite of the tender cheek exploded with its own juices and gave off a full, rich, just-off-the-grill flavor.

The Linkery is known for its meats, so I wasn't completely disappointed with the thin strips of cured bacon atop the salad. What they lacked in explosive flavor they made up in quirkiness as a garnish. The one complaint I had with overall meal is the main focus of almost every dish was a sweet/sour juxtaposition. On the beef cheeks, the sauce was, I felt, well paired to bring out the flavor of the meat, but it got repetitive throughout the meal. Either the dish was savory with a sweet side sauce, or vice versa, and this dish, while not quite as extremely paired as others, was just the first of many.

Since 1/3 of our trio abstains from all things meat, we explored the vegetarian options on the menu. In San Diego, it's almost a requirement, even in a meat-enthusiastic restaurant, to have several vegetarian options. One of the (I felt) most boring items was the grilled asparagus. Certainly a well-executed dish (no good comes from soggy, overcooked greens or charred asparagus) in flavor and presentation, it was enjoyable without being anything more than grilled asparagus. Again with the sweet and savory compliments, the grilled stalks were rubbed with garlic and salt and dressed with an Asian-fusion sweet and sour sauce with flecks of the red chiles you so often find in Thai dishes. Enjoyable to be sure, but nothing out of this world- a safe dish.

Rabbit, for some reason, isn't readily available in many restaurants and almost no stores, so whenever I see it on a menu I usually have to get it, however it's prepared. Cry me a river about how it's like eating an adorable puppy and how sick and sad and twisted it is to munch on a bunny- just save it. Rabbits are adorable AND delicious- where does it say your meal has to be ugly and smelly while alive?

Anyway, when it comes presented in taquito form, there's no way I'm passing that up! (It was also found further down on the menu as rabbit sausages, but upon the waiter's suggestion I went with the rolled tacos). As far as rolled tacos go, I enjoyed everything about these particular ones. As far as the rabbit expressing itself in this dish, that unfortunately just wasn't there. It lacked the gamey flavor that I hope is evident in the sausage dish, but that's a question to be left unanswered until next time.

Their longaniza was described as a smoked chorizo with curry notes over a navy bean and cheese puree, and while I like everything about that dish, this one felt a little flat. The chorizo was well smoked, not too spicy and the mild curry taste really brought out the flavor of the meat, but there simply wasn't enough of it over the puddle of puree. Once the small pieces were gone, it was a mushy, baby food-esque dish with superb flavor but lack of bulk. With a little tweaking, this could be a top notch dish.

The second vegetarian option of the night was the veggie torta, which was served on a flat crisp with grilled produce and topped with a radish garnish on a crown of guacamole. I am extremely enthusiastic about the emphasis that the grill has at El Take It Easy, and hope that they continue down this path. As simple as this dish was, it was one of my favorites. Very clean, and the quality and freshness of the produce was obvious with the first bite. A slighty peppery aftertaste was a pleasant way to end each bite.

At this point, we were reaching the end of our stomach limits, but the special of the night was a goat cazuela, which was a greenish broth in a clay bowl served with tender goat meat and fresh tortillas. This was hands-down the best dish of the evening. If the tortillas weren't made within a few hours of being served I'll eat my hat. I feel sorry for anyone who doesn't realize what a tortilla SHOULD taste like, and highly recommend heading over there to try them out. It was the epitome of tapas to tear apart some tortillas to share with the group and dip them into the highly flavorful broth, wetting your fingers up to the knuckle and digging in. This is what food should be!

The goat itself was beautifully shredded into large chunks, and the broth was thick without being oppressively filling. As much as I love getting down and dirty with a dish to share, it would have been nice to have a spoon with it as well to get the smaller pieces near the end, but no matter. Decorum went out the window and every drop was eventually devoured and enjoyed.

Somehow, we found room for one last dish to cleanse ourselves from the feast. The melon, chile, and lime didn't sound particularly appealing to me, but even a simple dish tiptoeing the line of boring can be spectacular when the ingredients are right. I'm not even particular to melon, but the yellow watermelon absolutely oozed with clarity of flavor. I could literally taste the sun that it basked in before getting sliced and served. The dash of chile powder could have been slightly more aggressive, but overall with the right produce this is definitely a dish to try.

The atmosphere is high end without being pretentious, and the music was an eclectic mix of anything from hardcore rap to mariachi music. With a few paintings or photos on the walls, I think this place is ripe for success, and with a bit of tweaking, the dishes all have the potential to be top notch in every way.

El Take It Easy
3926 30th Street
North Park, San Diego 92104
Open nightly at 6pm, closed Tuesday