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

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Papalucci's, Long Beach/Belmont Shore

Guilt is a strange feeling associated with eating. It's most often experienced after something unusually decadent or fatty, a brain warning letting you know that what you just enjoyed, while delicious, in copious amounts could kill you. However, I experienced my first guilty meal last night not because I ordered something overly fatty or sugary, but because I found myself in a restaurant 100 miles from home in a city I was only in because my grandmother is in the hospital. Luckily, I don't have a lot of experience with the wishes of the ill and balancing being there for them along with giving them much needed rest, but it was somewhat difficult to enjoy a meal of this magnificent magnitude knowing she hasn't eaten since Tuesday and is lying in agony after gallbladder surgery. I guess you gotta eat though, right?

Regardless of how or why I was there, in between visits my uncle, aunt, and myself traversed to Belmont Shore (also home to Frosted Cupcakery) for some highly-recommended Italian eats. Papalucci's is a family establishment smack dab in the middle of bustling 2nd Street, and while many of the overpriced, overcrowded restaurants around them serve underwhelming food with glitzy decor, Papalucci's is a welcoming understated joint complete with rickety wooden chairs, mismatched silverware, and red checkered tablecloths. The decor is rustic without being tacky, and the smells coming from the open kitchen caused my tastebuds to ululate with desire. As creatures of habit, my relatives knew that the linguine with clams (extra sauce, extra garlic) and the Tutti Mare on linguine (no mussels, extra calamari) would be their dishes of the evening, and with the waters of the Pacific only blocks away how could I order anything but fruit of the sea? Mussels marinara with linguine it was to be!

Of course, when they have an appetizer called Garlic Rolls, how could we resist a dish infused with such a wonderous herb? Dipped in butter, sprinkled with basil, heavily seasoned with fresh crushed garlic and parmesan, there was absolutely nothing about these balls of heaven that were anything less than orgasmic.

Also, as a oil and vinegar based salad dressing enthusiast, the simply dressed green salad, paired with extra tomatoes, onions, garlic, and herbs from the simply named Tomato appetizer, was a light and surprisingly flavorful way to begin our meal. Whether the dressing is homemade or store bought, it doesn't matter. The perfect amount was drizzled across obviously fresh greens, and with a bit of extra black pepper for kick it was a screaming success.

Personally, I don't find clams to be the most mind-blowing sea creature of all time, but the sheer amount of them adorning the crown of pasta with a simple garlic butter sauce was impressive enough. And when I say he asked for extra garlic, I can honestly say I have never been served a plate with that amount of garlic in my life, and in no way was that depressing. However, it was obvious that as this was his regular request, the overwhelmingly powerful flavor that bordered insanity isn't the norm for Papalucci's. Unobtrusive, all of the dishes that were being served placed an authentically delicious emphasis on simple and fresh without depending upon heavy sauces that American crowds tend to favor. The perfect choice for a summer meal!

Unfortunately, this picture doesn't do the Tutti Mare justice. Plump, ripe shrimp were in full force, and the fresh tomato sauce did absolutely nothing to unpleasantly weigh it down. I would say this rivals the infamous Mamma Zu's in Richmond, which I will easily place as the #1 restaurant in the city. Actually, Mamma Zu is probably the reason that I ordered the mussels here- linguine with mussels and marinara is my usual choice, so the opportunity for comparison couldn't be missed!

I'd be hard pressed to say which was my favorite, and I think it would take a few more visits to be able to say for sure. I'm definitely planning on making Papalucci's a regular place for me, and with the scent of pizza wafting from all around, and an entire Internet full of recommendations, it seems as though anything I would be served would be absolutely first rate. Grandma, when you get out, we're going to Papalucci's!


4611 E 2nd St
Long Beach, CA 90803
(562) 434-4454