Saturday, June 30, 2007

Cajun 3-way Cafe Boogaloo

Boogaloo Shrimp
Cafe Boogaloo arrived on the scene in Hermosa Beach in 1995, around the same time I moved back to my hometown. It was the perfect place to meet up with old friends or to have a drink with first dates. The decor is upscale down-home and filled with one-of-a-kind folk art, somewhat similar to the House of Blues. Dim lighting, large westerly facing windows and lazily rotating ceiling fans keep the interior cool on warm days and crowded nights. The ambiant music is a good mix, with the likes of Muddy Waters and Professor Longhair. Cafe Boogaloo also has live music at night and a full bar.

Every time I went there in the mid-90s I always ordered the same thing - the very nouvelle Crawfish and Andouille Eggrolls. Fusion cuisine has brought forth some unholy Frankenstein creations, but every once in awhile one worked. I have always respected Cafe Boogaloo for making such a strange creation so cravable.

When I returned to my old haunt last weekend, I was saddened to discover that those egg rolls are no longer on the menu. But the experienced and affable server offered me the best alternative she could - a deep-fried shrimp appetizer which came with a similar dipping sauce. The dipping sauce was loosely based on a jezebel, made with chutney and quite a bit of cayenne. The tender shrimp were deep-fried in a hushpuppy batter that made them kind of like corndog-shrimp. It made me curious about trying them with a creole mustard-based sauce.
I wanted to compare similar menu items as much as possible in this series, so I made sure to order the Cafe's catfish appetizer. The cornmeal crust was tight and perfect, but unlike the fried shrimp, they were slightly greasy. The dipping sauce was a very good remoulade.

Fried Catfish

I noticed they have a debris* sandwich on their menu. In parenthesis, it says "messy-better than Mother's." Better than Mother's? Better than Mother's? The hubris! That's like John Lennon saying the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. Mother's invented debris po'boys. No one in New Orleans would dare take them on. This I have to see. Because if they truly are better than Mother's, I will just move right in and live in Cafe Boogaloo until I get so fat they have to call Dick Gregory, and the paramedics will have to break down a wall to get me out.

Really, it was impossible to make any real comparison to Mother's because it was a completely different sandwich. Comprised of the finest brisket, rather than the muck at the bottom of the pan, the sandwich rested on a dense, ciabatta-like bread, not french bread. Instead of lettuce, there was shredded cabbage. Instead of dill pickles there were bread-and-butter pickles. The pan drippings had soaked the bottom slice of bread, and some drippings were drizzled on the top. The drizzle on top confounded me, because my secret method for eating a debris sandwich is to turn it upside down so it won't disintigrate. With both slices of bread drizzled with pan juices, the sandwich broke in half down he middle. It was a damn fine sandwich that I would be pleased to be served anywhere, but it wasn't Mother's. The garlic french fries that accompanied the brazen sandwich were crispy and spectacular.

Boogaloo Debris Sandwich

Finally, even though we were stuffed, we had to split a slice of key lime pie. I had never liked it before I tried Cafe Boogaloo's key lime pie eight years ago. It was so good that I asked for the recipe and I have been making that pie for New Year's Eve and other special occasions ever since. The pie was heavier than when I make it, and there were flecks of lime rind in the filling. I asked the server if the chef had changed. She told me that they had had a female chef who developed the menu and taught the three line cooks how to make everything. Then the chef moved on, but they still had the same three cooks. The owner oversees the menu himself now. She said he goes to the farmer's markets every week. He just loves food. She asked me if I was a chef and I told her no, I just love food too.

Later, as I was walking along the bar, I caught sight of some okra. I asked, "Is that pickled okra?" The bartender was quick to hand me a garnish pick with a trio of pickled vegetables and I went right for that okra. A guy who looked like a manlier version of Anderson Cooper commented, "You know where it's at." The pickled green bean I was eating was so hot, I choked and had a hard time responding. We started talking about how I pickle okra, and about favorite New Orleans restaurants and chefs. This was a man who loved food. But he seemed so young. I asked him if he was the owner, and sure enough he was. He introduced himself as Stephen. I chided him for taking the egg rolls off the menu and he said, "Funny you should mention that. I was wondering whether or not I should put them back on." I could have ordered a drink and sat there all night chewing the fat with him.

For me, a good menu is one that piques my interest. I can't wait to get back there and try Cafe Boogaloo's smoked duck and shiitake gumbo. Can they keep the shiitakes from getting chewy? Will they put the egg rolls back on the menu? Can their double-cut pork chop rival Emeril's? We will just have to stay tuned.

Cafe Boogaloo 1238 Hermosa Ave. Hermosa Beach, CA 90254 (310) 318-2324
(Closed Mondays)

* When a roast cooks for a very long time, little bits of fat and meat remain in the bottom of the pan with the drippings. That is debris. Mother's in New Orleans is world-famous for their debris. Really, a sandwich that is just debris is pretty fatty and mushy. The thing to do at Mother's is to get a debris and roast beef sandwich, or better yet, a Ferdi, which is ham, roast beef and debris. I personally believe the Ferdi is in the top five of the pantheon of sandwiches.

Key Lime Pie

This is the recipe for a perfect summer pie. Not only is it light and citrusy, but the oven only needs to be on for 20 minutes. For parties, I buy pre-made graham cracker tart crusts to make individual servings. I like to decorate the center of each tart with a single curled strip of lime zest. This recipe makes one pie, or about a dozen tarts. Key lime juice is sold in bottles at gourmet markets and Cost Plus. Refrigerate the bottle after opening, and if the juice starts to darken, toss it. Now might be a good time to invent a refreshing key lime cocktail. Although you occasionally run across fresh key limes in Southern California, they are tiny, and look like they are difficult to juice so I have never tried it. Thanks so much to Stephen at Cafe Boogaloo for giving me this recipe many years ago, and for recently giving me permission to share the magic with all of you.


3 egg yolks

1 (14 oz.) can sweetened condensed milk

1/3 cup key lime juice

1/2 pound cream cheese, softened

Fill a medium-sized pot of water 2/3 of the way up with water. Bring to a to a simmer. Turn off the burner under the pot. Set a heatproof bowl over the larger bowl (like a bain marie). Add egg yolks, sweetened condensed milk and key lime juice to the bowl. Stir often over simmering water for about 15 minutes until mixture is warm.

(At this point I cheat and add chopped pieces of cream cheese to the warm ingredients, using a wire whisk to mix until the cream cheese is melted and incorporated. Boogaloo Cafe recommends the following step...) In a mixing bowl, whip cream cheese. Gradually add the milk mixture, scraping down the sides of the bowl. Incorporate the milk mixture slowly to avoid any lumps.

Pour filling into crust. Refrigerate at least 6 hours, preferably overnight.


1 cup crushed vanilla wafers

1/2 cup crushed macadamia nuts (roasted, unsalted)

1/4 cup butter, softened

Preheat oven to 350 degrees fahrenheit.

Pulse ingredients together in a food processor. Press into a pie pan by hand. Bake for 20 minutes. Let cool.

Friday, June 29, 2007

A Cajun 3-Way: New Orleans

New Orleans in Hermosa Beach

Just a block down from Ragin Cajun, New Orleans occupies a space that used to be a 50s cafe, and you can still see traces of that design. The interior is a long diner counter, with tables lining the wall. The restaurant is extremely dark inside, so it is a little unwelcoming at first. I have been there a few times, but never managed to actually sit down and eat before. My dining companions usually take one look at the menu, and they are out of there. It is sticker shock, pure and simple. A bowl of gumbo costs 25 dollars. As my nephew observed, "What kind of po' boy can afford to pay 17 dollars for a sandwich?" The last time I tried to eat there, I was dragged out so quickly that my mother left behind an ornament she had purchased at the local fair.

This time, my mom and I went back with a mission, ready to pay any price. In a fancy French restaurant, no one would even blink at 25 dollars for an entree. That's the going rate for cioppino, and it was a seafood gumbo after all. We sat by the front window, and a young man took our drink order. My mom asked about the abandoned ornament, and he rushed right back with it. They had kept it safe for her all that time. While we waited for our food, an older gentleman with a formal, vaguely British accent engaged us in conversation. He is from Jamaica, and he owns the restaurant with his wife, Casandra, who is a native New Orleanian. I told him, "I can't wait to try your gumbo. We've heard such great things about it." He looked me in the eye and said, "It is your opinion that matters to me." Swoon.

Gumbo at New Orleans

Besides the usual fare, their menu includes baby-back ribs, steaks and tri-tip. There are a variety of sausages, including the elusive boudin. They offer a low-calorie gumbo and a few vegetarian meals. They also serve fried turkey and display a characteristically New Orleanian tendency to stuff things with other things (e.g. chicken stuffed with crawfish). In addition to desserts, they also have Pralines (pronounced prah-leens, not prey-leens).

At 25 bucks, we decided to split the gumbo. It was the right decision, as the gumbo arrived in a bowl bigger than my head. Our individual serving bowls were also huge. There was enough for us both to have our fill and take home a third bowl for later. So really, a bowl of gumbo actually costs less than 10 dollars when split between three people. Like a fine chateaubriand, it is meant to be shared. The gumbo was generous with andouille, shrimp, crab, chicken and tasso (A Cajun smoked pork). The shrimp was gently cooked to perfection - none of the rubberiness you would expect from something that has been boiling in the pot all day. They keep it tender by waiting and adding the seafood to each order as it comes in. They used to use authentic blue crab, but noticed that the locals left it uneaten, so they replaced it with the more familiar king crab legs. The broth was dark, smoky, and multilayered, with different flavors developing as you savored each bite. One flavor was a slightly fishy element, but I appreciate that other people highly value that flavor. My husband describes it as "rich with the taste of the sea."

Some people at a nearby table were from New Orleans and wanted to speak to the chef, so Casandra came over to chat with them and they all exchanged hugs. I called her over and got my hug too. I was curious about the grilled alligator, because that is one tough hunk of meat. You usually have to deep-fry it or stew the hell out of it. She said she only serves the tail meat, which is more tender. She told me it arrives from Louisiana as a whole tail. I immediately started wondering what I could do to make her let me come and watch her butcher the next one.

Catfish po'boy

As long as we were there, I also ordered a fried catfish po'boy, alligator sausage po'boy (not made in-house, but also flown in), red beans, greens, and an order of peach cobbler to go. I ate the catfish po'boy cold later that night after staying out late. I noticed that even though they had sourdough bread on the table, they had used the traditional French bread for the sandwiches. The coating was thick, like fried chicken, and the fish was so meaty and lacking in any fishiness that I had to double-check to make sure it wasn't actually chicken. The alligator sausage seemed to have the crackle of a natural casing, and was interesting and spicy, but not really better than any other sausage. The red beans and rice tasted exactly like mine, so of course I loved them. I am especially finicky with greens. Just as I am overly-sensitive to fishiness, I am overly-sensitive to bitterness. These greens were a bit spicier than I am used to, but the balance of heat, tanginess and sweetness perfectly mellowed out the bitterness. I think they might possibly win the title of the best greens in Los Angeles. The cobbler was stuffed with caramelized apples and topped with a flaky lattice crust. It was a bit sweet, as soul food desserts tend to be. It was just right.

While we were waiting for the to-go order in the restaurant, I clumsily broke something. I felt like such an idiot. I wandered over to Casandra, put a hand on her shoulder and leaned in to whisper in her ear. Before I could start talking, she turned her head and kissed me on the forehead! She thought I was coming for some love and she was willing to oblige me with a motherly cuddle. I was touched beyond words. I whispered my transgression to her, and she told me not to worry about it. I felt so bad. As I was leaving, I made that helpless teeth-baring grimace that you make when you feel like a buffoon. She waved me away with a dishtowel and reassured me, "I got you." The subtle difference between "I got you" and "I got it" was not lost on me. And she does have me. For life.

Alligator sausage po'boy at New Orleans

New Orleans 140 Pier Ave Hermosa Beach, CA 90254 (310) 372-8970
(Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. You are welcome to bring in the "beverage" of your choice)

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Cajun 3-way Rajin Cajun

Gumbo and an Abita at the Ragin Cajun
Hermosa Beach is one lucky town.

Not only do they have the beautiful beach and the ocean breezes, but they have lucked out in the restaurant department. They are home to not one, but three New Orleans-inspired eateries: Ragin Cajun, New Orleans, and Café Boogaloo are all within two blocks of each other. This week, to gear up for the big Bayou Festival in Long Beach, I am going to cover all three restaurants.

First, let’s start off with Ragin Cajun. It has long been one of our go-to lunch spots. If this place were in New Orleans, I would guess it would be located on Bourbon Street. The riotous décor makes it look like a Mardi Gras float threw up on the walls. But the wooden tables, Mason jar glasses and huge selection of hot sauce on every table make it comfy and homey in spite of the profusion of green, purple and gold everywhere. The cartoonish tourist trap environment actually makes this a perfect place to take kids, large groups and old people. It is a brightly-lit, happy kind of place.

Founder, owner, and chef, Stephen Domingue, is a true Cajun from Lafayette, right in the heart of Cajun country*. He has a number of fans in the on-line foodie forums, and Ragin Cajun is held in high regard.

It's all about the ambiance

The menu, printed on the side of a brown paper grocery store bag, is pretty simple: fried seafood, red beans, jambalaya, gumbo, all the usual suspects. Their one twist is “Gumbolaya” which is basically gumbo served over jambalaya. The straightforward menu is another reason that kids and older people are always happy when I take them there. There are plenty of unchallenging options, like the ham po’boy, for the faint of heart. The main reason I return again and again to the Ragin Cajun is their deftness at real, southern deep-frying. The catfish "fingers" have a traditional cornmeal coating with a nice, tight seal, and not a hit of greasiness. They are the best catfish "fingers" I have had outside of New Orleans. The fried alligator is similar, but naturally tougher. I’ve noticed for some reason kids are afraid of the catfish – even my friend’s son who happily devours the alligator. But once they try it, they are converts. When I finally convinced my 80-year-old uncle who was visiting from Canada to try the strange and exotic catfish, he ended up eating most of my dinner. The remoulade dipping sauce is first-rate as well. Nothing else on the menu matters to me. Really, give me properly-fried catfish and an Abita Amber and I am good to go.

Catfish catfish catfish

Other than the fried seafood, I don’t get very excited about their menu. I’ve never been a big fan of jambalaya or etouffee. I compare everything else on the menu to my own cooking, and the gumbo and red beans just don’t compare. My husband calls their gumbo “sausage soup”, and I find that other than a nice, complex roux, the dominant flavor is hot sauce. Or as Ralph on the Simpsons says, “It tastes like burning.” The red beans are creamy and rich enough, but I find them kind of bland. One of my friends swears by them though, so I guess it is a matter of taste.

The servers are mostly cute, perky college girls. They are very friendly and helpful. The owner, Stephen Domingue is a big, personable guy who can be kind of intense. Once he stopped by my table to coo over my niece, but when I tried talking to him he acted like I was bothering him. On another occasion, he hollered across the restaurant at a waitress, nagging her not to forget some chore. She was taking an order at the time, so she looked over and nodded. He hollered, “Did you HEAR me?” She replied, “Yes, the whole restaurant heard you.” Oh, so HE’S the ragin Cajun.

Combo - red beans, jambalaya, shrimp etouffee

Ragin Cajun 422 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach, CA 90254 (310) 376-7878
(Closed Mondays. Beer and Wine.)

* New Orleans is not really considered part of Cajun country, and most of the citified food developed there is considered “creole”. But there has been much overlap between these two cuisines, especially since Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagassi started “haute-ifying” Cajun food. I understand Cajuns defending their culture and tradition, but any foodie who wants to get into Cajun vs. Creole with you on a particular dish is just spoiling for a fight. The other thing people like to fight over is “blackening”, which was basically invented by Paul Prudhomme. Many people insist it is not “real Cajun”. But most Cajun restaurants are happy to serve it. Food is like language, constantly changing and growing. (How big of a dork am I that I footnoted a blog?)

(Photos by Elise Thompson)

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


After flirting with local hipsters Aroma and Alcove, I thought maybe what I needed was someone older, more distinguished. A real gentleman. Someone who would pay for my valet parking and make sure my glass was never empty. Someone who would ply me with wine and sing to me. I wouldn’t have far to look since Vitello's was right there, waiting across the street for me to wise up.

Yes, I'm talking about THAT Vitello's. Sadly, its name will forever be linked to the murder of Bonnie Lee Bakley. The sensationalism could have felled a lesser restaurant. Look what happened to poor Mezzaluna. But Vitello's rode out the storm. Even a change in ownership two years ago has not affected Vitello's service or quality. Vitello's is all about making the customer feel welcome. The second time I went there they remembered my name, and while I wait for takeout orders they always bring me an iced tea to sip while I wait - on the house.

The ambiance is very central casting Italian with comfy pleather booths. But it's classy - one step up from the checkered tablecloths and chianti bottles. I like to sit in the back, in the piano bar. I especially like the crazy Toulouse-Lautrec-inspired paintings. It's like what he would have been painting if he had somehow been even more wormwood-addled. I also like the entertainment. Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday nights are opera nights, with various regulars coming up to sing opera and show tunes. Thursdays are piano nights with Robert, who sings everything from Phantom of the Opera to Avril Lavigne.

Vitello's food is not the best Italian I have ever had, but it is pretty darn good. The combination of friendly service and nice ambiance make pretty darn good worth going back for. The quality of their appetizers vary. The fried zucchini is a little soggy and greasy. But the appetizer pizzetti - oh my God. All pizzas should strive for this kind of perfection. And I haven't even tried their pizza entrees yet. The house salad is standard, but care has gone into developing the salad entrees. The Chicken Arugala has fresh greens doused in an unusual and refreshing citrus dressing. I found the chicken on the salad to be a little too salty, but the two friends I forced to try it thought it was just fine.

The pastas are swoon-worthy. The first time I went to Vitello's the "Robert Blake" was recommended to me. In spite of the stigma, my friends insisted it was the best dish on the menu. I felt weird ordering it. I silently pleaded, "Please, please, please don’t think I'm a gorehound". I learned that lesson the hard way when I was a teenager. I ended up stuck at Spahn Ranch with a flat tire, peaking just as it was getting dark. The "Blake", as the waiters more tactfully call it, is al dente fusilli doused in a nicely seasoned marinara and mixed with sauteed spinach. (I will NOT say it was to die for. The dark humor is almost irresistible). It was pretty damn good. I wouldn't mind having it named after me.

The basic spaghetti with marinara or meat sauce is also pretty standard but exactly what you want when you are in that kind of mood. The farfalle with pink sauce relies on ricotta rather than cream for its pinkness, but the ricotta is of such a high quality that you don't miss the richness of the cream. Where Vitello's takes it over the top for me is with the cannelloni and manicotti. Homemade crepes (not tubes of pasta as some restaurants will try to fob off on you) are filled, then drowned in red sauce and baked with mozzarella. The manicotti is stuffed with creamy ricotta while the cannelloni is bursting with a ground beef filling that tastes like it was ground in-house from that night's steak trimmings.

Vitello's entrees combine traditional offerings with the more unusual. The Chicken Marsala was moist and gently cooked. But it had a strange citrus tang and was missing the intense wine flavor that you would expect to be predominant from a place like this. It seemed like a cross between Marsala and Picatta. There were mushrooms, but there were no capers. After studying the menu, I think we accidentally ended up with Chicken Arancio, "Mushrooms and garlic sauteed in an orange sauce". The sausage and peppers comes with spicy but not too spicy sausage with a nice snap. The braciola did not quite measure up to the braciola we make out of Rao's cookbook. There were pinenuts and cheese in the stuffing, which are not my thing. I prefer a more traditional breadcrumb stuffing.

I dropped by to pick up a to-go order last week and was sipping my iced tea while playing my favorite game of "How many C-list actors can I identify from their headshots on the wall?" There was Victor French, ooh, and Mr Whipple! Good one! A newish hostess started chatting with me. She almost immediately brought up Robert Blake, and started hunting for his picture. I said, "I don't think it's here". She hollered back to the kitchen, "She wants to know if we took down the picture of Robert Blake!" Oh God. No, no, no, no, no! A guy came out and gave me that "Oh geez, another gorehound" look. Ugh. He shrugged and said, "He never dropped one off for us." I was tempted to say, "Yeah. Maybe he got confused when he heard someone needed a headshot and thought they meant a head shot." But I felt embarassed and stupid and said ingratiatingly, "I really like the fusilli. I'm so glad you didn't take it off the menu." He replied defensively, "It's been on the menu for 15 years." There's just no avoiding it. Once a restaurant has become infamous, it will always be infamous.

When I got home, my husband peeked into the take-out containers. "What's that?"

"The Robert Blake."

"Looks killer."

Vitello's 4349 Tujunga Ave Studio City CA 91604 (818) 769-0905

Sunday, June 10, 2007

And There's the Rub

A rub is simply a mixture of herbs and spices that can be rubbed into the meat before grilling or smoking. The longer the rub is on, the more the flavors will permeate the meat. But it can also be put on at the very last minute. If you are cooking a large cut of meat for a long time, you may also want to baste the meat every hour or so. For a baste, you can use something as simple as apple juice, or a mixture of 3 parts citrus juice, 2 parts oil and 1 part vinegar.

These spice mixes can just be measured into a bowl and stirred, or poured into a jar and shaken to mix. If you prefer to use whole spices for the freshest taste, or if you are making a rub in bulk, it is a good idea to have a coffee grinder, spice grinder, or mini food processor set aside exclusively for this purpose. If you are going to use your regular coffee grinder, clean it out by grinding raw rice in it to try to avoid jalapeno-flavored coffee. Spice rubs should be stored in an airtight container and used within six months for optimal flavor.

It is much cheaper to buy spices in envelopes and store them in cute little jars yourself. Schilling is a rip-off. Cost Plus and ethnic markets sell spices for next-to-nothing in envelopes. Even the Latino foods aisle in the grocery store sells spices cheaper. When buying in bulk, "It's Delish!" brand is a good deal.

(This recipe is many times removed from the original. Good with any cut of pork).

8 Tbsp. light brown sugar, tightly packed
2 Tbsp. kosher salt
1 Tbsp. paprika
1 Tbsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp. dry mustard
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1/2 tsp. onion powder
1/2 tsp. thyme
¼ tsp. allspice


1/4 c. sugar
2 Tbsp. onion salt
2 Tbsp. paprika
1 Tbsp. Lawry’s seasoned salt
1 Tbsp. dried sage
1 Tbsp. garlic salt
1 1/2 tsp. chili powder
1 1/2 tsp. lemon pepper
1/2 tsp. dried basil
1/2 tsp. dried rosemary, crumbled
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper

(Best for steaks)

4 Tbsp. freshly ground black pepper
3 Tbsp. garlic powder
1 Tbsp. garlic salt
2 Tbsp. onion powder
2 tsp. oregano
2 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground Jalapeno powder
1 tsp. Bijol

Special ingredients:

Bijol is just a food coloring called annatto mixed with cornstarch. It comes in cute little tins in the Latino food section. I use it because it mellows the intensity of the stronger spices and adds an attractive orange sparkle to the mix. It has the additional side effect of turning the raw steaks yellow, which has become my jalapeno rub's trademark. It is an optional ingredient. Jalapeno powder can be purchased at hot sauce shops like Light My Fire at the Farmer's Market, or you can substitute other dried chili powders.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

What Have You Been Smoking?

It is officially barbeque season! If you've already mastered grilling, and are ready to move up to the next level, welcome to the world of smoking. Just remember, grilling is like a one-night stand and smoking is like a marriage. You should prep the ribs the night before and start smoking them six hours before serving. It requires a certain level of commitment. But the commitment is only one of time; there is not very much work involved. It is also not a big financial commitment. There is no need to shell out hundreds of dollars for a smoker. Any barbecue can be used to smoke meats. But if you are into shiny new toys, go for the Smoky Mountain.

Larger barbecues are the best ones for smoking, because the grill sits higher, further from the coals, plus you have more grill space to work with. You will only be able to use half of the available grill space when smoking meat using the "indirect method”. If you are currently in the market for a grill, no barbecue works better with this method than an old-fashioned oil drum. Historically, wherever the US military goes, it leaves behind a surplus of empty oil drums. People in the West Indes used them to make Calypso's famous steel drums, but the GIs in Viet Nam turned them sideways, sliced them in half, and added a grill.

You can still find old-fashioned oil drum barbecues in Los Angeles. After years of searching, I found mine at "Sweet Daddy's" on the south side of Century Boulevard, west of the 110 freeway. Just keep an eye out for the barbecues lined up in the front yard, and if you hit the racetrack, you’ve gone too far. Some of the barbecues come with an attached smoker, which is handy if you want to maximize grill space and want to achieve an especially smoky flavor. Just remember that the metal is thin, because this really is just an oil drum which was not meant for this purpose. You need to add about 4 inches of sand to the bottom of the barbecue so that the hot coals don't gradually burn through the bottom. Sand can be purchased at home improvement stores, or stolen from your local playground. The only problem with Sweet Daddy's oil drum barbecues is that they do not have a trap door on the side for shoveling in more coal if the coals die down. With a truly long smoke, the coals will need to be replenished, and you will have to lift the grill right off the barbecue to add more. Commercial barbecues based on the oil drum model are more convenient, even if they lack the nostalgia of the genuine article.

I am going to provide the method I use for smoking pork ribs, which can be used for either baby-back or a full-sized rack. This method will work for just about any meat, but the cooking times will vary. If you have a full rack of ribs, some people hack off the small triangular tip at the small end, but I don’t see any point to that. The ribs are covered with a thin membrane called the "silver skin". If you buy from an actual butcher you may be able to charm him into removing the membrane for you. If not, you will need a very sharp knife and a steady hand. Lightly slice into the membrane on one end, then try to slide your fingers between the skin and meat to separate them as much as possible. Holding the knife blade sideways, gently cut away at the skin. I will not lie to you, this is a big hassle and I usually don't bother.

Now comes your first big decision: rub or marinade. I am a staunch supporter of the rub, whereas my husband goes for the marinade. Some people even use both, marinating the ribs overnight, then rubbing them with spices right before cooking. Whatever you decide, make sure to rub the rack of ribs with spices or put it in the marinade the night before, cover or wrap tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until ready to cook. Bobby Seale says that if you don’t have this kind of time, you can do a “warm marinade” by placing the ribs and marinade in a 200-degree oven for two hours, but I find that idea a little revolutionary. Prepare enough marinade so you have “extra” to use as a baste. Store it in a separate container. You never want anything that touched raw meat to touch cooked meat. If you are using a rub, you will still need to prepare a baste for the next day. I will provide rub and marinade recipes in a separate post, since this one is already turning into a book.

Your second decision is smoking wood. Traditionally, mesquite or hickory is used with pork. I find mesquite's flavor to be too overpowering, so I go with hickory. For beef, oak is a good bet, and for chicken or fish cherry is a nice wood. If you buy chips, soak them in water or marinade for a half-hour before using them. If you are able to get chunks of wood, soaking is not necessary.

Mound a bunch of coals on one side of the barbecue and light them. Some people use newspaper to start them up, some people use a purchased “chimney”, or just soak the hell out of them with lighter fluid. Once the coals get white-hot, use a poker, fireplace shovel, or other tool to spread them evenly on only one side of the barbecue. The success of this method depends upon the coals burning only on half of the barbecue. Sprinkle some of the soaked chips on top of the coals. If you are using a gas grill, only light one side. You probably have a metal pan to fill with water and chips for smoking if you have a gas grill, but that is not my area of expertise. You will have to go ask Hank Hill. The main benefit of a gas grill is temperature regulation. You want to keep the temperature at a steady 225 degrees, or as close to that as you can get. Charcoal users will need to purchase a special barbecue thermometer. Some of the nicer models even come with a separate gauge that you can wear on your belt so you don’t have to keep running back outside to monitor grill temperature.

Remove the ribs from the refrigerator. If you are using a rub, add a little more rub to the ribs. If you are using a marinade, discard the used marinade. You can boil it if you are really thrifty, but better safe than sorry. Place the ribs on the cold side of the grill, opposite the lit coals. The ribs should not be directly above the coals, hence the term, “indirect”. It’s a good idea to throw some hot dogs on the side with the coals - you will get pretty hungry waiting for the ribs to smoke. Turn the hot dogs after about five minutes, then take them off the grill after about eight minutes. Close the barbecue lid, and allow the ribs to cook for two hours. During this time, wash all of the utensils that you have used on the raw meat.

Baste the ribs with the pre-prepared marinade and throw a few more soaked wood chips on the coals. Cook for an additional hour (making a total of three hours so far – good thing you made those hot dogs) and baste again. Take your ribs off of the barbecue and take them into the kitchen. Some people will think that they are done now – but they are not done. This is a marriage. You are in it for the long haul. Don’t wuss out now. Go back out to your barbecue. Stir in more charcoal and wood chips. Now, come back into the kitchen and lay each rack of ribs on a large piece of heavy-duty tin foil. Sprinkle a little bit of brown sugar on them and pour a little marinade on top (with any other meat, add a little more of the rub instead of brown sugar). Wrap the ribs up tightly with foil. Air-tight. Wrap the hell out of them. You want to steam the ribs to make them insanely tender.

Return the ribs to the barbecue, close the lid and leave them alone for 2 ½ hours (For a total of 5 ½ hours cooking time so far. Man, where did I put those hot dogs?). This is the point where grill temperature is crucial, because if it goes above 225 the brown sugar will burn. If you have invited people over, they will be arriving right about now and all of the men will want to mess with your barbecue and poke at the coals. They will think that the fire is too low and they will urge you to add more charcoal. You have invested too much time to let dilettantes screw everything up now. Shoo them away. Take the ribs out of the foil, toss the foil, and slather the ribs with your favorite barbecue sauce. Some people prefer to keep the ribs dry and serve sauce on the side. Return the ribs to the barbecue, and cook, turning once, for another thirty minutes (Add more soaked chips if you like a more pronounced smokiness). After a total of six hours cooking time, you can take the ribs off of the grill and you are finally done. Pat yourself on the back and enjoy the compliments.

Here is a cheat sheet:

Rub or marinate ribs the night before.
Smoke at 225º for 2 hours.
Baste the ribs.
Smoke 1 more hour.
Wrap in foil at the 3 hour mark.
Cook another 2 1/2 hours.
Remove from foil and return to the grill for the last 30 minutes.
At the 6 hour mark you will know barbeque greatness.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Alcove - on the Rebound

While I was deciding whether or not to break things off with Aroma, I thought I might go check out the sister restaurant, Alcove. I mean, it was right there on the way to Wacko. It would almost be rude not to stop. I had my nephew along for the ride too, so it was almost like meeting the would-be in-laws.

Such a beautiful patio! Such a garden! If only my vines would climb like that, if only my trees gnarled with such character. This is the house my grandmother would have lived in. Not my real grandmother, who had a lovely little duplex in Penticton BC, but my imaginary grandmother – the one who could grow orchids and didn’t make blueberry muffins by mixing tap water into some blue-specked powder from a cardboard box. Although I have to admit, my grandmother did dye her hair an insanely bright orange right into her 80s, so I wasn’t exactly gypped in the grandmother department. In fact, her David Lynchian looks and matching orange lipstick might have fit in quite nicely with this neighborhood. But I digress.

The thing about these restaurants is that they are just so beautiful. They make you want to cozy into an old wooden chair under a leafy bough, or sink into a deep velvet end chair inside and start writing that great American novel. It even seems plausible, as long as the steaming cups of tea and little plates of cakes keep coming. I wonder if I could hire them to just come re-do my house and garden for me. I mean, really, look at this flower arrangement. One of their employees actually thought to arrange lisianthus in old jars with antique oil funnels. And it works. It should be in Martha Stewart, for God’s sake.

And then, there’s this:

A good hostess should pay attention to detail. A good hostess should never let anything, even putting lemon and orange wedges in your tea, become a dull experience. I often see things like this in 1960s guides to entertaining. Housewives were often on valium in the 60s. All this magnificence and we haven’t even set foot in the cheese shop yet. I know, that’s all Los Feliz needs is another cheese shop. I will save my rant on unfair distribution of camembert for another day. It’s time to place our order and get on with the food, already.

The menu is almost identical to the menu at Aroma. With one glaring exception – no lobster club. You could have lobster added to a salad, but sadly, unless you wanted to get all “Five Easy Pieces” on them it is probably not doable. But I do like all of the options offered with the salads. The Asian Grilled Scallop Salad beckons, with its enoki mushrooms, fresh herbs, miso dressing and crispy shredded potatoes. But I started this out as a comparison piece on sandwiches, and should try to stick with the format. I had heard people swoon over the egg salad, so I thought I would give it a try, and substituted onion rings for fries. My nephew went for a fried chicken wrap and French fries. We also ordered a giant slice of a white chocolate/chocolate cake. We dutifully collected our silverware, assigned number, drinks and cake, and thus overloaded, carefully maneuvered our way back to our table between rickety, crowded chairs, “Excuse me, pardon me. Excuse me, pardon me.” We arrived safely with only some minor liberties haven been taken by a very friendly dog.

The massive onion rings were sweet, like big onion donuts. My nephew, an experienced New England fry cook, identified it as pancake batter. They were too intense to eat, but they just called out to be played with.

They didn’t have any white or egg bread, so I was stuck with sourdough for the egg salad sandwich. Egg salad is so bland, it really needs a bland bread. The primary flavor was not onion as I had hoped, but mustard seed and lots of it. It’s a pretty good sandwich overall, fresh and all that, so if you like mustard seed this one’s for you. The fried chicken wrap was excellent, with perfectly fried chicken. There was an overabundance of red pepper, but they are easy enough to pick out. My nephew freaked me out by putting Tabasco on his fries, and then eating them with the cake. I think Quebec gave him funny ideas about what actually goes with fries. Chocolate poutaine? I tried a bite, and it wasn’t bad, but I can’t believe someone without PMS would ever eat that.

I stopped in their cheese shop to pick up a picnic dinner. This is where I would spend most evenings if I still lived around the corner. The staff was extremely patient, because selecting cheese can be an arduous process. They also have a section of little pre-packaged snacks and lunches. A half-hour and a hundred dollars later I had two bags overstuffed with cheese, charcuterie, and all kinds of little pickles and peppers. The round red peppers stuffed with goat cheese are highly addictive. This is definitely the place to hit before the Hollywood Bowl.

As I left my new, wonderful, even-better-than-Aroma rebound restaurant, I was taken with a huge flower arrangement that looked like something out of Dr Seuss. Wow, they were good. The gentleman had given me permission to photograph the other flowers. The ladies in the cheese shop had given me permission to photograph the cheese. I was so pleased with my armloads of bags bursting with gourmet delights, I momentarily forgot myself in the happy afterglow and I snapped a picture of the flowers. The guy behind the counter shouted, “Miss, Miss!” I pretended not to hear him as I gathered my purchases. He shouted again, “Miss! Miss! There is no photography inside.” I blurted out from post-traumatic-stress-disorder, “I wasn’t photographing the cakes! I swear! It wasn’t the cake!” He said, “Anywhere outside is fine.” I could not get outside fast enough. So it’s a family thing. This intense paranoia is in their genes. Or maybe I am like a masher. Everything was going great until I just suddenly stuck my tongue down their throat without warning.

1929 Hillhurst Ave. L.A. CA 90027 (323) 644-0100