Friday, April 27, 2007

Where to Eat at Coachella

Don't even bother trying to slip that contraband jar of peanut butter into your backpack. Outside food and drinks are prohibited at Coachella.
And the options at the cash-only food tents tend to be pretty limited. That doesn’t mean you have to spend three days surviving only on kettle corn and ecstacy. The Coachella Valley is home to some excellent eats. If you do manage to escape the festival, here are some places to go take a breather and regain your strength:



The Wheel Inn in Cabazon has always been easy to find because of Claude Bell’s giant dinosaurs, which are barely visible from the highway these days. There is something slightly surreal about the Wheel Inn. Something even beyond the riotous decor, 1960's glowing orb lights and overwhelming profusion of steer horns. But the hostess and waitresses are welcoming and friendly (even in their new Flintstones-inspired uniforms). The breakfasts and burgers are the best in town. Some of the food, like the turkey dinner, can be a little too cafeteria-ish. But the chicken fried steak and peanut-butter pie will make you change your name to Bubba. Buy a trucker CD in the gift shop next door to listen to for the rest of the drive.

50900 Seminole Drive, Cabazon, CA 92230 (951) 849-7012
Open 24-hours.


Right next door to the Wheel Inn, the big smoking BBQ out back might draw you over. The employees are all perky, wholesome teen girls, which is somehow comforting. The owners may be from New York City, but they can do Texas 'que with the best of them. The brisket is moist and tender, slathered in a sweet BBQ sauce, and the rib-tips fall right off the bone.

50920 Seminole Road, Cabazon, CA 92230 (951) 922-3999
Open 12noon - 9pm. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.


Farmer Boy’s off the Milliken exit in Ontario is just one of a chain of fast-food joints with gigantic, juicy burgers and huge wheels of onion rings. The explosion of country charm is a bit much for me. But I have been a little freaked out by small towns ever since I saw 200 Maniacs.

54 S. Milliken Ave., Ontario, CA 91761 (909) 390-7160



Cuistot feels like a restaurant that was just plucked out of the French countryside and dropped right into the middle of the desert. Service is friendly and the sommelier is the best in town. Ask him if they have anything from the Westley winery in Oregon. Heck, ask him to bring the whole bottle. Start with the foie gras with caramelized apples, then order the short ribs, beef chops, or rabbit, all served in intense wine reductions. Go nuts - it’s on the record company’s dime, right?

73-111 El Paseo, Palm Desert CA 92260 (760) 340-1000
Open for lunch 11:30am - 2:30pm. Open for dinner 6pm - 9:30pm


From the moment you enter their ceiling-high wooden doors, you are transported into a world of old-school charm. The servers are solicitous yet unobtrusive. Sink into a giant, padded booth, order an aged filet and find out why LG’s is in the Top Ten Hall of Fame of Steakhouses.

Palm Springs: 255 South Palm Canyon, Palm Springs 92292 (760) 416-1779
Dinner only. 5pm -9:45pm
La Quinta: 78525 Highway 111, Suite 100 La Quinta, CA 92253 (760) 771-9911
Dinner only 5:30pm - 9:45pm
Palm Desert: 74-225 Highway 111, Palm Desert, CA 92260 (760) 779-9799Dinner only 5:30pm – 9:45pm


This is the ultimate romantic restaurant, with a magical patio filled with twinkling lights. High prices and occasionally snobby waiters make me hesitant to recommend it, but the ambiance and the food may be worth it. Some dishes are a little too experimental. Stick with the roasted meats and crème brulee. Located in a residential area just off the main drag, it can be a little hard to spot. Watch for the twinkling lights on your left.

385 West Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs, CA 92262 (760) 325-7602
Lunch 11:30am – 2:30pm Dinner 5pm – 10pm



Located in the center of the Palm shopping center, the bustling, cheerful buzz of Tyler’s immediately puts you at ease. Cooks flip burgers, customers shout orders, and the milkshake machine whirrs away happily. The burgers are thick and juicy, and you can order them topped with grilled onions. Go for two sliders instead of one burger. They are thicker. And cuter. Try their famous coleslaw instead of the fries. After all that partying, you can probably use the Vitamin C.

149 S. Indian Canyon Dr. Palm Springs, CA 92262 (760) 325-2990
Lunch only. Closed Sundays.


They do Memphis, Texas, and St Louis-style BBQ, among others. The restaurant is one of several owned by the Kaiser family so it's kind of corporate. Crazy Bone’s dining room and patio are spacious and comfortable, teetering between casual and elegant. The catfish fingers and shrimp po’boy are straight out of New Orleans. The St Louis ribs, which are like giant baby backs, blow the rest of the BBQ dishes away.

262 South Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, CA 92262 (760) 325-5200
Dinner only starting at 5pm.


Voted the #1 deli in the Coachella Valley, Sherman’s is known for its breakfasts and old-fashioned Jewish deli food. For breakfast, try one of the omelets, which are served unfolded, pancake-style. For lunch, a sandwich piled high with pastrami or corned beef will give you the protein boost you need to rock out for the rest of the day.

Palm Springs: 401 East Tahquitz Canyon Way Palm Springs, CA 92262 (760) 325-1199
Palm Desert: 73-161 Country Club Dr. Monterrey, CA 92262 (760) 568-1350
Both locations Open 7am – 7pm



Serving a variety of vegan and vegetarian pizzas, rice bowls, snacks, and desserts, Native Foods is appealing as well as environmentally friendly. The "Handhelds" look especially exciting, with whimsical names like "Mad Cowboy", "Rockin' Moroccan", and "Hail Seitan" (OK, I made that last one up).

Palm Springs: Smoke Tree Village 1775 E. Palm Canyon Drive Palm Springs, CA 92264 (760) 416-0070
11am - 9:30pm. Closed Sundays.
Palm Desert: 73-890 El Paseo
Palm Desert, CA 92260 (760) 836-939611am - 9:30pm. Closed Sundays.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Colombian Gold

Sick of sushi? Tired of Thai? Want to impress your friends by turning them on to an exciting new cuisine? Try a little Colombian! La Maria Restaurant on Victory Boulevard in North Hollywood is one of those little holes-in-the-wall that foodies dream about - undiscovered and unspoiled, with reasonable prices and an experienced chef. Chef Antonio Prado worked in such Los Angeles favorites as Hugo’s and Joan’s on Third before opening La Maria. The food is just familiar enough to be comforting, but just unusual enough to keep things exciting. The menu is half Caribbean-influenced Colombian and half “Cuisine of the Americas”, which are Mexican-inspired dishes. The room is small and cozy, with a large mural on one wall. It is designed to feel as if you are in a little town square. There are game boards under the glass on the table, like Colombian Monopoly (You have angered the Medellin cartel. Move back 8 squares, very slowly, then change your name).

We started with the empanadas and tamales de elote. The empanadas were puffy without being greasy. The heavily spiced shredded beef was a nice change from the anticipated ground beef filling. The tamale de elote wasn’t too sweet, as corn tamales can sometimes be. Little threads of saffron ran through the masa.

For main dishes, we ordered the picada and sobrebarriga. The picada is definitely a trip. It is a good thing to order if you are a curious diner, and want to try a little bit of everything. Even the “mini” size is more than one person can eat. Bits of steak, chorizo, blood sausage, new potatoes, deep-fried yucca, fried plaintain chips, chiccharones and arepa are all just tossed together on the plate without any sauce or rice to bind them. The blood sausage was crumbly with bits of rice and reminded me of haggis. Torn bits of arepa, which is similar to a thick corn tortilla, were strewn around the dish. The sobrebarriga is like a Colombian pot roast in a mild sauce, warm and nurturing, like something your mother would serve.

Some of the desserts are a walk on the wild side. Natilla con Arequipe (translated as “Milk Skin with Colombian Sweet”), turned out to be an evaporated milk-based dessert with bits of coconut that reminded me of Indian sweets. The “Columbian sweet” was dulce de leche. It was interesting, but I would probably go with the safer flan or rice pudding next time. Because there will definitely be a next time.

La Maria 10516 Victory Blvd. North Hollywood, CA 91606 (818) 755-8811

Monday, April 23, 2007

I Like Pies

My blog is starting to get listed on other sites, and even getting nominated for an award (Thanks!!!). So I am occasionally being asked to describe what this blog is like. To answer that question, I have devised this handy pie chart:

Saturday, April 21, 2007

La Super Rica - Redux

We woke up Sunday morning to a breakfast of leftover steak and freshly-laid eggs, courtesy of Johnny. Actually, the eggs were courtesy of the hens, Original Recipe and Extra Crispy. After breakfast, Johnny went outside to the BBQ and started cursing, "Oh no! I burnt the goat! I wanted to surprise you!" So, no cabrito for breakfast. I'm game to try goat, but I'm not sure if breakfast is the meal for that.

We hit the San Luis Obispo swap meet, where I bought:

Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver

The Man who Shorted out the Electric Chair

Aretha Franklin: This Girl's in Love with You


Milt Jackson: Bag's Bag

Then we headed down the coast, with plans to meet friends for lunch in Ventura. But as we neared Santa Barbara, the siren song of La Super Rica was calling. The other Roguefooders had mentioned they were stopping there for lunch, but I assumed they would be long gone by then. Still, I could not resist the memory of the Tacos de Hongo. We pulled up to La Super Rica, and this time there was definitely a line. While I waited, Bob went to snag us a table.

I was saddened to discover that Tacos de Hongo are only available on Friday. Curses! Why can't it be Friday every day? I comforted myself with their Sunday special - posole. As I brought the drinks over to Bob, who did I see, but Patti! Jeff! Ed! What timing! We all ended up at the same place. Ed encouraged me to try his chorizo tacos, which really opened my eyes to the wonders of chorizo. I had not been a big fan before, but this was really good. Good enough for me to order next time. Beneath the garnishes in the posole lay huge chunks of pork and hominy in a rich, spicy broth.

Bob had ordered the #4 marinated pork tacos again, and once again they did not disappoint.

I had also ordered another daily special for us to split - shredded beef tacos in a chile cream sauce. They were almost like upscale taquitos. The corn tortillas were lightly fried, and the cream sauce was like a richer version of guacamole.

We stopped off at Taqueria Vallarta in Ventura on the way home as planned to meet up with our friends. But we were too full for anything but their refreshing watermelon drinks. They just fill a blender with perfectly ripe watermelon, a little sugar, and blend away. It is one of the most refreshing drinks in the world. Even though they have a menu full of other fruits, the watermelon is the one that always makes us come back. Unfortunately, we will no longer be back to Taquerita Vallarta for lunch. From now on I will happily drive that extra hour to get to La Super Rica, especially on a Friday.

The Magical Land of Nipomo

Here are a few more pictures from the trip that I really liked:

Friday, April 20, 2007

The First Thing You Learn is You Always Gotta Wait

Jocko's, a Nipomo institution since the 50s, is nestled between a picturesque chapel and a building that looks so much like a little red schoolhouse that I felt like we were wandering around in a model train village. Even with a reservation, the wait for a table averages between an hour to two hours on weekends. The best way to handle this is by hanging out in their historic bar. The building is reputed to have been a saloon in the 1890s. A long, sparkling clean mirror runs the length of the bar, and hunting trophies line the walls. Order appetizers right away and pretend that you have just come to hang out in the bar with your friends. If you think too much about when your name will finally be called, you will drive yourself insane. My brother, Johnny, who is a local, warns that Albert makes extremely strong drinks. It is so common for people to get unexpectedly wasted while waiting for a table, they call it "getting Albertized". Jocko's will also throw you out if you ask for A-1 steak sauce. I asked Johnny if he had andy more tips, and he said, "Yeah. Watch out for Albert."

Albert was not working last Saturday night when we met up with the Roguefood crew for dinner, so we were safe. It didn't occur to me to order appetizers until we had been there for awhile, so everyone was getting a little restless. You have to stand at the ready to grab a table or barstool the minute it is vacated. It can get pretty cut-throat.

Not a moment too soon, our table was ready. We were all charmed by Jocko's mascot which adorned the placemats and stickers - a cow with a naughty little secret. What kind of secret could this cow be hiding? Just as we were settling in, our appetizers arrived. The jalapeno poppers and fried mushrooms were standard bar fare, but the linguisa, barbecued to juicy perfection, was a thing of beauty. There was a nice relish tray on the table. The salads were your basic steakhouse salads. But they were just stalling for time. We were ready for some of the meat we had been eying on that giant grill.

The specialty of the house is the Spencer steak, which is a ribeye. Almost everyone at our table ordered that. Ed ordered the lamb shanks, and Rene, who was still feeling peckish, ordered ravioli from the Italian section of the menu. When the steaks arrived, everyone ooh-ed and aah-ed over their plates. The meats are all cooked over red oak on a Santa Maria BBQ grill, which Jocko's only fires up at dinnertime. Ed's lamb was expertly cooked, and delicious, but definitely had that lamb-y gaminess. All of the steaks are perfectly juicy, and nicely charred with just a hint of smoke. Central California has a number of cattle ranches, so I assume Jocko's must have a good relationship with a one to get such quality meats. My filet mignon was insane - about 4 to 5 inches thick, and one of the most tender filets I have ever had. Landmark 77 in Ventura may have to give up the title of "greatest steak in the world". I'll admit my picture of the filet is a little CSI, but really, look how thick it is.

I had to try Rene's ravioli, and was pleasantly surprised. Amazed even. You would expect something like that to be an afterthought, something thrown on the menu for the vegetarians, kids, and picky eaters. But it was better than in the finest Italian restaurant. The light pillows of cheese were flavorful, not lazily stuffed with plain ricotta, and the sauce was meaty and intensely seasoned. I encouraged everyone at the table to try some. They all reacted the same way, "Are you crazy? I should mess up my tastebuds with ravioli when I am dining on the greatest steak in the entire world?" But I insisted, and they were all amazed and delighted by the fantastic ravioli.

I barely put a dent in my steak, and asked for a doggie bag. I excused myself to powder my nose, and when I returned everyone had a little dish of ice cream in front of them, which came with the meal. I was surprised by the variety...chocolate, pistachio, spumoni...I asked the table, "How many flavors do they have?" To which they replied in unison, "All of them." I picked up my spoon, and everyone asked, "Aren't you going to take a picture?" Come on, it was just a dish of ice cream. But I gave in. OK, somehow photographing the food had become de rigeur and I could not eat anything until it had been properly documented. I had made my bed of crazy, and now I had to lie in it. I snapped a pic, and ate a few half-hearted spoonfuls of the melting chocolate ice cream.

Jocko's 125 North Thompson Avenue, Nipomo CA 93444 (805) 929-3565 Reservations required!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head

Saturday morning I woke up around 6am and went to the Nipomo swap meet with Johnny and Rene. In addition to scoring a set of fantastic 1970s beefcake playing cards and an album of creepy, turn-of-the-century photographs, I was able to check out some really cool installation art.

The swap meet land is owned by a doctor who has made a hobby out of decorating the place with scrap metal art and setting up a giant model train village. Rene wanted to show me the outer space installation that runs Star Wars movies on a little television screen in the wall. As we tripped on the milk crate "stairs" Johnny admitted, "It probably doesn't meet OSHA standards." We had Pastor tacos for breakfast from one of the many vendors. I order mine "con todo", in which "everything" usually means salsa, onions, and copious amounts of cilantro. The swap meet even had a truck selling Filipino food. I was sad that we were going to miss what promised to be a very surreal puppet show beside the Filipino lunch wagon, but we had a group of people waiting for us.

We picked up Bob, and discovered that one of Johnny's egg-laying Rhode Island Reds, Original Recipe, had gotten out. We had to wait for Johnny to catch it before we could meet the crew from, one of the food forums in which I participate. We found Ed, Steve, Patti, and her husband Jeff waiting for us in the lobby of the Santa Maria Inn. I was pleased because I got to say, "Sorry we were late. One of the chickens got out." A friend of the family once told Johnny, "You know how I can tell you're a hillbilly? You have a chicken on the table and it's not dead yet."

Our plan for the day was to cruise along the main street, sampling BBQ from the many vendors that set up in parking lots on the weekends. Santa Maria's local specialty is barbecued tri-tip, cooked over oak. The meat is grilled on huge, specially designed barbecue wagons that are towed behind trucks on trailer hitches. The large grills hang directly over the open flames. The grills can be raised and lowered by cranking a large wheel, which enables you to control the heat.

As we caravaned down the road, we noticed a strange lack of BBQ wagons. It was like a ghost town. Ed was completely baffled. There was no tri-tip anywhere. We thought it might be due to the overcast weather. Or maybe the rapture. So we headed over to the annual IFOPA fundraiser, which was set up in a grocery store parking lot. The case of the missing BBQ wagons was solved. Over thirty local vendors had volunteered their time and barbecue grills to raise money on behalf of a local charity. Hundreds of split chickens smoked and sizzled on dozens of barbecue grills. Plumes of smoke filled the air, making the parking lot look like a battlefield in an old war movie. One grill was dedicated to toasting up French bread, and we drooled as we watched one of the volunteers dunk the halved loaves in melted butter and garlic. Rene and I caught ourselves staring and realized we were watching him like he was a stripper, "Yeah, baby! Dunk it!"

Most of their business was drive-up, and traffic was disrupted around the block as volunteers hurriedly handed chickens through car windows. We sat down at one of the empty picnic tables, and shared lunches since they were so large. Steve went to pick up a drumstick and pulled out only a bone, which had slid right out of the chicken. He said, "You call that meat tender?" The chicken was moist, and smoked right through. There was a nice rub on it with plenty of flavor but no heat. Probably a lot of paprika and garlic salt. The garlic bread was alright, and the pink Santa-Maria style beans were bland, as they are supposed to be.

Since all of the rogue tri-tip experts in town were busy making chicken, we headed over to Johnny's recommendation, Rancho Nipomo. It is conveniently attached to the Santa Maria Brewing Company, our next stop. Recently opened by husband and wife team, Richard and Brenda Cowell, Rancho Nipomo serves both barbecue and Mexican dishes. It advertises its special menu as "A taste of California". It is known amongst locals for its pulled pork sandwiches. So all of us were looking for barbecue. But Richard is extremely proud of his chile dishes, made with his own home-grown chiles. When he started pushing the chile verde, I asked him if he had a combo plate. He said, "No. But I've been thinking about it. I tell you what I'm going to do for you."
He lowered his voice, and we put our heads together conspiratorially.
He started describing his food in whispered detail, using subtle hand gestures like a French waiter, "OK, I'm going to make you a plate of the pork ribs and I recommend you get the small pork sandwich. Then I'm going to make you a little plate of chile colorado and chile verde, with our homemade flour tortillas. Then you know what I'd like to do? I'd like to give you my wife's special potato salad." He ended with a flourish, the spell was broken, and I stepped away from the counter.

Johnny and Bob returned from scouting out the brewery. They suggested we get our food to go and eat it on the patio. Although Rancho Nipomo had beer and a patio as well, it was not the Santa Maria Brewery's home brews. I was perusing the variety of sodas in the drink cooler (They had Mexican coca-cola made with cane sugar!), and goofing around with Patti when I noticed Bob standing at the counter ordering. I called over, "I already ordered for you!" He looked so crestfallen, I just said, "Never mind." So we ended up with a huge plate of ribs and two pulled pork sandwiches.

The owner, Richard, produced the sampler plate and we all gathered around, taking little bites. The pork chile verde was good, the tortilla was excellent, but the beef chile colorado kicked ass! There were layers of flavors, deep and complex, smoky and spicy...pure heaven.

By then, everyone's food was ready and we walked next door to The Santa Maria Brewing Company's patio where we found Ed worrying over Steve, who had just eaten the roasted jalapeno "garnish" on his plate and was in fits. Johnny immediately grabbed another jalapeno off of Steve's plate and chomped on it (See: "boy's pissing contests" in the previous post). Johnny agreed it was the hottest jalapeno he had ever tried, which was pretty impressive because Johnny grows prize-winning jalapenos. He also grows "ornamental" peppers that have almost put Bob in the emergency room.

The ribs were falling-off-the-bone tender and slathered in a sweet "16-spices" BBQ sauce. I was really interested in the pulled pork sandwich, topped with the traditional BBQ sauce and cole slaw. It was huge, and I was barely half-way through it before I remembered I had ordered the "Baby" sandwich. I asked Patti and Jeff about their sandwiches. Their full-sized sandwich filled an entire take-out carton. Instead of a hamburger bun, it was served on "teleta" bread, which is Spanish for "bigger than your head". The moist tri-tip sandwich, which contains a mountain of meat, was also served on the football-sized teleta bread. The potato salad was indeed a special recipe. Large chunks of potato were accompanied by bits of black olive and chunks of real dill pickle. It was damn good.

Just off the junction of the 101 and the166, Rancho Nipomo would be a convenient lunch stop when traveling down the coast. I will definitely be back for that chile colorado, and to try the Baja street-style hot dog ("Grilled all-beef frank wrapped with bacon, garnished with mustard, pickle, and grilled onions") and the tri-tip enchiladas.

The Santa Maria Brewing Company, which is in the same building as Rancho Nipomo, is owned and operated by Dan Hilker, a retired policeman. It is a labor of love. His hours are flexible, depending on his mood. These are the posted hours:
Wednesday and Thursday 4:00 PM till Approx. 9 PM, Friday 3:00 PM till about 10 PM Saturday and Sunday 12 PM - till about 8 PM
All of the beers are brewed by Dan himself. Don't ask for a Budweiser if you don't want to be kicked out on your ass. The decor is early Fred Sanford, a result of Dan trading beer to customers for random interesting items they bring in, 'That's worth about six beers. I'll take it." A bomb my brother brought in hangs from the ceiling. I have never asked Johnny if it is a real bomb, and it's probably better that I don't know. When we arrived with our take-out containers, the room was cool and dark, with just a few guys hanging out on the barstools. The back patio is bright and comfortable, but pretty dusty in the daylight. The only restroom I saw was a port-a-potty, so it may not be somewhere I want to do too much drinking. It's definitely a man's man's place.

I walked back inside to get a beer, and noticed all of the tap handles, which usually advertise the brand, had clay character's heads on them, or just random figures. I asked, "What do you have on draft? Pilot? Baseball player? Girl in a bikini?" Dan looked at me, sizing me up the way cops do when they are trying to decide if you are carrying a loaded weapon or under the influence of angel dust. He asked about my beer preferences, and recommended the India pale ale if I wanted "something like nothing you have ever tried before". I walked out back to the group on the patio with my Pilsner glass. Everyone else had pint glasses. Steve asked, "How come you got the cool glass?" (Because the bartender wanted to remember which one he spit in?)

The ale was interesting, with an undercurrent of indistinguishable spicy flavors. But the overall effect was not overwhelming. There is nothing worse than some weird novelty beer like pumpkin ale that only tastes like cinnamon. The spices were barely there, and the hops were strong enough to dominate. I also wanted to try the hefeweizen, and the blonde, but I had already gone on a political rant about the state of our social services after only one glass of ale, so I thought it was probably best to slow down. The rest of the crew headed off for wine tasting, and we returned to Johnny's to take a nap before dinner.

Rancho Nipomo 108 Cuyama Lane Nipomo CA 93444 (805) 925-3500

Santa Maria Brewing Company 112 Cuyama Lane Nipomo, CA 93444

Annual "Find a Cure" Chicken Fundraiser

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Hey, Poke Way

I don't like sushi. I have always WANTED to like sushi. I have TRIED to like sushi. It is so sexy and glamorous. I feel like such a bumpkin when I have to admit to people that I don't like sushi. I have no aversion to the concept; I love the aesthetic. I've just always been overly sensitive to "fishiness". What other people call "briny" or "the taste of the sea" is overwhelmingly fishy to me. The "California Roll" does not solve my problem either, as I don't like sticky rice or nori. I do not like it in a box. I do not like it with a fox. But I don't mind going to sushi bars - they serve all kinds of other non-fish-related delicacies - tempura, gyoza, chicken, and if I'm lucky, some interesting noodles.

So Saturday night when my brother Johnny, and his wife Rene wanted to take us to their local sushi place in Nipomo, I was fine with it - it would make my husband very happy, and for me it meant tempura. We pulled into a strip mall and parked in front of a very unappealing-looking storefront with block letters simply spelling out SUSHI AND TERIYAKI. All of my bad restaurant warning bells were sounding. But Johnny is a fisherman, and knows fresh fish. My food obsession did not just occur in a vacuum - my entire family takes, shall we say, a "special" interest in food. Upon entering, the familiar interior design of the restaurant reassured me with lots of black wood and sparkling clean glass.

I was a little concerned when Johnny insisted on sitting at the sushi bar. I think it is impolite to sit at the sushi bar when I am not going to eat any sushi. Sure enough, after nibbling on my tempura and short ribs, I started to feel the pressure. Luckily, I have a few fall-back items - I know from experience that I can eat shrimp and unagi. I might not love them, but I will not have to spit them out. This particular restaurant also grated fresh wasabi for you at the table, and after eating a mouthful of that, the fish did not seem so daring. Of course, any time you get boys together around anything that is insanely spicy, high off the ground, or on fire, you are going to get a pissing contest. Here are the results of Bob and Johnny being in the same room with unlimited beer and wasabi:

This restaurant, a satellite of "California Sushi and Teriyaki" in Santa Maria, is known for its modern twists on traditional sushi. There were exciting things happening all around. Rene's order appeared, a gorgeous rattlesnake roll - Krab, avocado and jalapenos wrapped in wontons and deep-fried. It piqued everyone's interest and soon Rene was passing pieces over to complete strangers.

The sushi chef started in on some fantastical new creation, which he finished with a giant mountain of fried noodles. I said, "I don't know what that is, but I want one." I was pleased when he handed it over to Bob, and it turned out to be their "Cajun" something-or-other. By now I was freely, if not enthusiastically, eating bits of everyone's sushi. Curiosity always gets the best of me. The cajun thing was a spicy white fish dish with a delicate texture and a complex variety of flavors. Emboldened, I tried the spicy scallops. I can only describe them as slimy and difficult to swallow. Thank God sushi places have those gigantic beers!

One of the sushi chefs handed us a small plate, a little gift, a "lagniappe" of sorts. It was a tuna poke. He smiled and stood there expectantly. I had to eat it. In spite of just being freaked out by the slithering scallops, I had no other choice. I prepared myself to not make a face. The slices of ahi tuna were marinated in sesame oil, and sprinkled with both black and white sesame seeds. It wasn't bad, in fact it was - good. I liked it. I really liked it. I felt something pop between my teeth and peered into the little bowl - along with some chopped chives was a sprinkling of smelt roe. I hate smelt roe. I thought I hated smelt roe. But these things were great - I fished them out with my chopsticks, pop, pop, pop! I liked the tuna so much I thought maybe the poke was "cooked" with some citrus, like a ceviche.

I asked the chef, "Lemon?"
He said, "You guess WRONG."
Me: "Orange?"
Chef: You guess WRONG."
Me: Yuzu?"
Chef: You guess WRONG."
Me: Really? No yuzu?"
Chef: You guess WRONG."
Johnny: "What the f@%k is Yuzu?"

I noticed that one of the selections on the board was called "FOUND NEMO". I asked the sushi chef if it was clown fish, and he laughed with dark humor. Nipomo is such a small town that Johnny was constantly running into people he knew just about everywhere we went. His boss happened into the restaurant, and as Johnny was making introductions, I noticed our sushi chef surreptitiously squeezing lemons and oranges into a bowl. He passed the bowl off to the other sushi chef and I tried to watch its trip around the kitchen like a game of 3-card Monty. I pretended to listen to Johnny's boss, but I was going to find out whether there was citrus in that poke if it killed me. Kiki Maraschino, scourge of the strip mall sushi bar.

Things were winding down. We paid our bill and handed our sushi chef an extra tip. He motioned for us to stay put, and started twisting little bits of salmon into tiny roses. Johnny said, "He's making your Nemo for you." Another little lagniappe. Johnny whispered a menacing blow-by-blow in my ear, "Ewww, cream cheese...he's slathering it all over...ohh, God, not that gross white sauce... I'm not eating those green things. No way." By the time the chef proudly and generously handed me four perfect little rosettes of salmon with delicate daikon radish sprouts Johnny had managed to creep me out just like we were little kids again. There was no way I was eating that salmon. I had had one good sushi experience and I wasn't going to ruin it now. As the chef watched, I fed one to Bob. I tried to fob one off on Rene. She said, "I'm not having a lot of luck with food right now." I hissed, "He's watching. Eat it. You don't want to lose face." She said, "I'm going to lose my dinner if I eat that." When the chef was momentarily distracted, I leaned over Johnny and shoved another salmon rosette into Bob's mouth. The sushi chef caught me and I guiltily pretended to be snuggling Bob. While leaning across Johnny's lap. Did I mention that the beers there were really big? After much whispering and hissing between me and Johnny, we managed to distract the sushi chef long enough to shove the rest of the salmon into Bob before rushing off guiltily into the night.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Que Rica!

Last weekend Bob and I drove up the coast to spend the weekend in Nipomo, a small town just south of San Luis Obispo. We stopped for lunch at La Super Rica, a much-touted taqueria in Santa Barbara. It was reputedly a favorite of such food greats as Alice Waters and Julia Child. It has been featured in Sunset magazine and the New York Times. Most places would kill for the kind of press that Isador Gonzalez's little family-run taco stand gets.

Just about a mile off of the 101, and a straight shot down Milpas Street from the offramp, La Super Rica is a convenient stop on the way to somewhere else. We missed the little turquoise building on the first pass and had to turn around. There is only a small sign in the window to identify it as La Super Rica. You can usually find it by the line snaking down the block. As we waited, everyone standing in the relatively short line Friday chatted away, recommending their favorites - the #4 seemed to be the most popular recommendation. After studying the menu on the wall, I dutifully ordered the #4 Tacos de Adobado "Strips of marinated pork" as well as the #16 Super-Rica Especial, "Roasted chile pasilla stuffed with cheese". Two specials caught my eye...the Tamale de Verduras, which seems to be a permanent or seasonal special, as well as the Taco de Hongo, which is the special every Friday.

When eating a variety of foods tapas-style, I try to start with the mellowest dish and work my way up in ferocity. the pork was red with seasonings, and the chile special was clearly charred pasillas, so I turned first to the Taco de Hongo. Big mistake. This taco ruined me for all of the food to follow. This taco may have ruined me for all tacos for the rest of my life. Fresh crimini mushrooms were sauteed in a lot of butter, mixed with caramelized onions, and drowned in an epazote cream sauce. There was a faint flavor that I would probably identify as brandy if I had to place a bet. It was unlike any taco I have ever eaten. I could imagine these mushrooms served over pasta in the finest restaurant in town. I ate the mushrooms with a fork until the pile had been winnnowed down enough for me to fold the tiny taco-truck-sized tortillas into a taco. The cream sauce had started to permeate the homemade corn tortilla, and the resultant taco was a bizarre fusion food that confused, yet delighted my palate.

I could have stopped there and been happy, but that would have been unfair to the other little plates jockeying for my attention. Time to check out the tamale de verduras, also doused with a liberal amount of cream sauce. The masa was light and fluffy, probably made with a vegetable shortening. I normally like lots of manteca in my masa, but the lightness was kind of a refreshing change. There could have been a higher filling-to-masa ratio, with bits of chayote squash and corn tumbling out like rare little jewels.

The chile special was just a pasilla chile stuffed with cheese, but it was a perfectly charred chile, stuffed with a soft, ranchero-style cheese. It was not called a "taco", but was served over two corn tortillas, and after eating about half of it, you could fold it into a reasonable facsimile of a taco. The Adobado was somewhat similar to pastor, highly seasoned yet not overwhelming. the chile verde was a good match for the pork without making it spicy enough to be uncomfortable. It was a damn fine taco, as good as any I have had before, yet it was the vegetarian selections that cause me to linger over the sensory memories.

I took advantage of a short lull in the to chat with the cashier. I gushed over the mushroom tacos, and asked, "Is there some region of Mexico I'm not familiar with that makes French cream sauces." He looked around to ensure our privacy, then leaned towards me and shook his head conspiratorially. I asked, "You just felt like making a cream sauce?" He smiled and nodded. By then, a new slew of customers was already queueing up, so I retreated to clear my table and make way for the next wave.

La Super Rica 622 North Milpas Santa Barbara CA 93101 (805) 963-4940 Cash Only

Friday, April 13, 2007

Mmmm Short Ribs

There are few things more comforting on a cold, rainy evening than a big roasting pan of short ribs. Serve over polenta if you are feeling fancy, or over grits for a more homey touch.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
6 pounds individual short ribs
1 large onion, finely chopped
12 garlic cloves, peeled
1 tablespoon Herbes de Provence
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
1 Tablespoon fresh thyme
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups Cabernet1 3/4 cups beef stock
1 (14 1/2-ounce) can diced tomatoes in juice, drained
1 bay leaf

Preheat oven to 300°F.
In a large (at least 6-quart) Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat.
Season the ribs with salt and pepper. Brown the short ribs in batches. Using tongs, transfer the ribs to a platter.
Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat from the pot. Add the onion to the pot and reduce the heat. Cover and cook, stirring often, until the onions are softened, about 5 minutes.
Add the garlic, herbes de Provence, and flour to the pot and stir 1 minute. Stir in the wine and bring to a boil over high heat, deglazing the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon.
Add the broth, tomatoes, and bay leaf. Return the short ribs, and any juices, to the pot. Add cold water as needed to barely reach the top of the ribs and bring to a boil over high heat.
Cover tightly, transfer to the oven, and bake until the meat is falling-off-the-bone tender, about 3 hours.
(Adapted from Gourmet magazine)

Sunday, April 8, 2007

The Teacake Wars

This story begins with the graveyard shift. The Coral Cafe on Magnolia is the only place in Burbank that delivers at 3am. I have eaten their mediocre food on many a desperate occasion. And I always thought it was strange that amongst their boring menu items was one star - an amazing teacake. It isn't like the southern teacakes I bake, which are giant, cake-like cookies. This one is a buttermilk sponge-cake with a glazed sugar icing, which resembles a little petit-four.

Then one day I was in Bob's Big Boy, and hey, they had the exact same teacake. I asked their supplier, and they told me it was Martino's. My friend Lisa had already recommended their location on Verdugo to me. And Lisa knows all of the best bakeries, in spite of being my skinniest friend. Luckily for me, a few months later a flower shop nearby on Victory became the new home to Martino's.

Every once in a while I stop into their shiny, clean bakery for a box of teacakes on my way home. They are much better fresh, so moist and delicious. In addition to the buttermilk, they also have blueberry, cranberry, and bran. The blueberry teacakes have a layer of blueberry filling topped with a crumbly streusel, so they are almost like a little tiny cobbler.

When I started to write this blog, I thought I would do a quick internet search and get a little background info before swooning over the teacakes in annoying detail. Martino's website turned out to be kind of confusing. It talks about how the bakery started in the Martinos' garage back in 1926, then when Campbell's Soup was going to close it down in 1994, the employees started a stock option to take over the company. Then it vaguely states, "Through all of its ups and downs it has been able to keep its recipes in tack (sic)." I'm not even going to start in on the "In tack" thing. It also mentions that Amerio Corradi is part owner.

In an article for the "Senior Bulldog News" (Of which I am sure you are all faithful readers), Herb Vincent trumpets the opening of the Martino's on Victory in 2006. It says Amerio Corradi, an employee and school chum of the Martinos' son, bought the bakery in 1948 with his partner, Vic. The business was sold to Campbells Soup's Pepperidge Farm division in 1980. Then it clearly states, "Vic and Amerio both continued on with Campbell’s as a part of the sales agreement, Vic for one year and Amerio for almost five." So that puts Amerio out the door in 1984.

The article goes on to state that Amerio opened a small bakery on Verdugo near Olive...with no mention of the name of the bakery or the date. The last reference point we have is Campbell's buying the place in 1980 and sending Amerio out the door just under five years later. In an article on the employee buyout from 1998, Amerio is quoted as an outside source. So when could he have gotten involved in the "new" Martinos? The next thing you know, the article is talking about the current location on Victory. And there is a photo of Amerio, smiling and posing out front on opening day.

The two stories were just the bakery's own self-promotion and a local fluff piece, but even they couldn't synch up? So I went over to Chowhound, where people have definite opinions, and certainly know their stuff. This is a direct quote from popular poster, UBERGEEK, "United Bakery on Flower St. in Burbank -- remember Martino's teacakes? Well, Martino's reopened on Victory different ownership and the teacakes at the "new" Martino's are disgusting -- but United Bakery bought the original recipe and they're true copies of the delicious original. Most unlikely place for a bakery in the history of history -- north of Alameda, in a disgusting warehouse section of Burbank."

Well, I don't think the "new" Martino's teacakes are "disgusting", but maybe he uses the term loosely, because the warehouse section wasn't that disgusting either. But he was definitely on to something. Here was the lead I'd been waiting for. So today I decided to head straight to the source. Keeping this blog is sure requiring a lot more investigative journalism than I had anticipated.

United Bakery is definitely in a deserted industrial area just off of the 5 freeway and Alameda, practically under a bridge. It seemed like a good place to dump a body. Other than the signs advertising pumpkin pie and a welcoming OPEN sign, I might have passed the plain building without a second glance.

It was clearly an industrial bakery with just a small front counter for walk-ins. It reminded me of the little back-alley bakeries of Chinatown. There were the infamous tea cakes - buttermilk only, pan dulces (elote conches only), hot cross buns and some pies. Definitely not the same overwhelming array of goods as in the shiny "new Martino's". What struck me the most were the faded old demo cakes lining the top edge of the walls, which took me back to the 70s when my mom used to decorate cakes.

I picked up some hot cross buns for Easter, and the tea cakes. I was marvelling at their striking similarity to the "other" teacakes. A guy passed by carrying a big tray and asked how I was doing. Walk-ins don't seem to be a common sight and he was curious. I said, "I'm confused about the difference between this place and Martinos." His voice grew tense. "Completely different."

"So you both used to work for Martino's and split to open different bakeries?"

"THEY never worked for Martino's"

"I read on the internet that the employees bought Martino's from Campbell's"

"The employees bought it and ran it straight into the ground. Straight into bankruptcy."

"So then you opened this place."

"Yeah. They came to me looking for jobs, and we trained them. We trained them and (he makes a hand gesture that can mean "off they went" but seemed to mean "they just fucked off and betrayed us.)"

"So they never had any connection to Martino's?"

"They just bought the name."

"Wait. You trained them, and taught them your trade secrets, then they left, and bought the name Martino's and opened up as Martino's?"


I had so many more questions, but he was seething by now. I had opened old wounds, freshened I'm sure by the shiny new bakery counter of the Martino's on Victory. It was time to grab my baked goods and beat a hasty exit.

When I got home, I was able to dredge up an article online about the employees bankrupting the original Martino's. But I still don't get the connection with Amerio. Maybe he sold them the name and poses as part of the deal. Maybe he is an original owner and it really is his place and something weird went down with United bakery. I still don't know who the guy is at United bakery. Though he intimated that he worked at the original Martino's, it was never stated explicitly. And as I said, I wore out my welcome before I got to the introductions.

I tend to root for the underdog, and I really wanted United's teacakes to blow Martino's out of the water. But they were just like Martino's, maybe just a little denser, just a little stickier. I'm not sure I have the full story here. I may need to buy some more teacakes. I may need to go deep undercover.

United Bakery 727 South Flower St Burbank CA 91502

Martino's Bakery 335 North Victory Burbank 91502

Friday, April 6, 2007

The Glory That is Burbank: Tony's Bella Vista

Tony's Bella Vista is Burbank's go-to place for birthday parties, baseball teams, and teenage dates. In the same location since 1965, Tony's has only changed hands once, in the 80s, and the original recipes were kept. Plus, the new owners were brothers named Angelo and Giovanni. What more could you want from a pizza place? The interior is a dimly-lit time-warp of red pleather seats, dark wood, and maps of Italy. Thank goodness there are candles on the table or you wouldn't be able to see your plate. Tony's doesn't deliver, but much of their business is in to-go orders. The little waiting area can get pretty dang crowded on a Friday night.

The shrimp in the cocktail and salad are fresh and sweet, and the deep-fried appetizers never disappoint. The rest of the menu is hit and miss. The pasta and gnocchi are not as good as you might hope in such an old-school place. The Salsa Roja, in particular, is not the creamy pink sauce you would expect by the menu description of "cream tomato", but is a bland chunky tomato sauce. The osso bucco and the chicken dishes receive much better treatment.

But the real story here is the pizza. Tony's is famously voted "best pizza in Burbank" every year. To be fair, there is not much competition. The only other non-chain pizza joint in town with a following is Dino's. Although I can't say Tony's is the BEST pizza I have ever had in my whole entire life, they do kick ass. The crust is thicker than New York-style, and thinner than Chicago style. It is very bread-y, but without the annoying sweetness of "California" pizza crust. It is slightly crispy, super chewy, and never greasy. There is a lot of it, and I often leave crusts on my plate in spite of the fact that I am a carb-addicted bread freak.

The toppings are pretty standard. The only notable points are that they use sliced sausage instead of ground sausage, offer the modern touch of sun-dried tomatoes, and the freakish horror of broccoli. Really, the Pizza Bianca is an abomination (Cheese, broccoli, onions and garlic). Was this pizza invented as a punishment for a losing little-league team? I must admit that I personally think broccoli is a sin against God and nature, so take it for what it's worth. On the other end of the spectrum, the end where the "cool" kids hang out, is the "ham, artichoke, sliced tomato and basil" pizza. I had not seen what all the fuss was about with Tony's until I had this pizza. It is an unparalleled topping combination.The room gets really quiet whenever this pizza makes an appearance.

Now, let me tell you the real, real, story of Tony's...the big secret buried amongst the pizza toppings...the reason Tony's will live in my heart forever - the calzone. Yes, the calzone. It is the calzone of the gods. As big as a large pizza, the giant sliced Calzone Imbottito is stuffed with cheese, cold cuts, pepperoni, sausage, and just possibly magic. Or crack.

Tony's Bella Vista 3116 West Magnolia Burbank CA (818) 843-0164