Saturday, September 11, 2010

New Mexico marvels

Just returned from a lovely few days in New Mexico. Saw old friends in remote Carrazozo and then met up with Sheila in Albuquerque and on to Santa Fe and Taos. Sheila was there for the Asso. of Food Journalists annual conference. It's green chile season so had to partake as often as I could. An amazing sight is in front of grocery stores where people stand in line with bags of chiles waiting to have them roasted in a rotating drum. Then I guess they rush them home, chop em up and freeze them for using during the year.

The real highlight of the food conference is the taste of the host city. 8-10 chefs from the best restaurants make one of their signature dishes and one table hops trying them all. Last year in New Orleans was incredible but Santa Fe was pretty damn good. Highlights were sopapillas with ether pork, chicken, or chile/cheese from Atrisco Cafe and Bar, roasted baby pig over fresh market pickled salad from Boca, hamachi-wrapped tuna from Restaurant Martin, and quesadillas from Zia Diner. The dessert from Terra at Encantado resort in Tusuque was sublime, a cherry compote on meringue. The night before we had dinner at Terra, a really beautiful restaurant in a beautiful resort, which ended with a cherry tart that blew my socks off. A top ten all-time dessert--wonderful crust with marinated cherries bursting with deep, rich flavor-- simple yet sublime. Sheila's scallops with pork belly was also terrific as were the fresh-made biscuits.
We had excellent breakfasts at Zia Diner and Tia Sophia and can recommend any dish with green chiles. I also returned to a breakfast favorite, Tecolate Cafe, while Sheila was at the conference. Huevos rancheros were great, altho the potatoes could have been crisper. They serve fresh made muffins including an excellent corn one. I also returned for the incredible green chile cheese burger at Bobcat Bites, my 3rd visit. What a great burger, 9 oz. of cooked to order freshly ground chuck! It's 10 miles south of town in a seemingly desolate spot, but once you taste the burger, you find yourself in burger heaven. It's very small so go at off hours. When I was driving from Southern NM up to Albuquerque I had a chile cheeseburger at Manny's Buckhorn Tavern in San Antonio, voted the 7th best burger in the US and winner of a throw down with Bobby Flay. Good it was but Bobcate Bites eats it alive.
Our favorite dinner was at Boca, a tapas place in Santa Fe, where we celebrated our anniversary. A daily special was grilled peaches wrapped in serrano ham with melted Mahon cheese, which was divine. Anchovies, superb fingerling potatoes, and skewered pork were also special. The chef gets his padrone peppers from Happy Quail Farms right here in East Palo Alto!
Other restaurant highlights were Orlando's in Taos, a low-key family-run enchilada palace north of town and the classic El Paragua in Espanola, another family-run excellent restaurant with a fantastic Enchilada Suprema, a giant chicken enchilada with red and green chile sauce, lots of cheese and sour cream and lovely sopapillas. And I could not leave Santa Fe without buying some red chile sauce from The Shed and bringing some healing dirt from Chimayo.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Feeling the bread between my teeth

I would have to say I'm not a major sandwich person. Generally I can take 'em or leave 'em, but here are some examples of recent Bay Area sandwich explorations that are worth knowing about and taking. Ike's Place, the new and controversial extraordinarily popular SF sandwich place now has an outpost in Redwood Shores and soon at Stanford. Each sandwich is made to order so the lines are often due to people waiting for the sandwich they ordered to be ready. They come out warm on a just rightly crisp roll (your choice, but most prefer the Dutch crunch). I had the justifiably famous Menage-a-trois ($8.98), with Halal chicken breast, honey, honey mustard, BBQ, pepper Jack ( substituted regular jack), Swiss, Smoked Gouda. Great texture, flavors blending into a semi-messy whole. Sheila had the pizzle, chicken with bacon and cheddar, also terrific ($6.96). There's no place to sit right at Ike's located in a non-descript office building, but right outside is a pristine Shores park, perfect for a nice day picnic.

When I worked in San Francisco, a reliable treat was the roast chicken banh mi from Saigon Sandwiches on Larkin. Nine years later and it's still true. $3.50 buys a perfectly crispy French roll filled with nice chunks of flavorful chicken pieces, shredded carrots, cilantro, peppers if desired, and caressed with fish sauce. The roast pork and pate are also good. Often a line.

The Mexican torta is one great sandwich and two of the best are: La Casita Chilanga in Redwood City and Mexico Bakery in San Jose. Chilanga has a few more choices and other Mexico City specialties besides tortas. I had the tesorito ($6.25), smoked pork leg, which is like a combination of bacon and prosciutto, with lettuce, avocado, and other fixins, large and filling. Fresh thin chips and salsa are free. At Mexico Bakery, which also offers a very decent Oaxaca tamale and a great pound cake with chocloate frosting, I had the milanesa torta, thin slices of pan-fried beef with avocado, tomato, lettuce, chilies, and mayo. Freshly made and delicious. The chicken torta is similarly thin sliced and pan-fried.
A new place in Sunnyvale that looks like it's aiming to become a chain is Adamson's French Dip, that brings new appreciation to an old classic. The Prime Rib dip at $8.95 is nice-sized and filled with medium rare slices of real prime rib. It was better than the BBQ tri-tip at $6.95. A root beer float was the perfect accompaniment. It's a small menu, but everything is cooked with attention.
Lack of time kept me from retrying two all-time favorite sandwiches but I'll still mention them: The Italian meatball at Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store in Washington Square and the Godfather at Redwood City's Woodside Deli.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Oaxaca wonders and Portland ports in the storm

Oh my, I found this is my half-written posts so finished up to post.
Portland, Oregon is a lovely city that seems to get better each time I go. I love the public transportation and the walkability. Where else can you get right from the airport door to the middle of downtown for $2.30? The food there is always improving too. I just was there for the Public Library Association conference and did not have all that much time to discover dining pleasures but I did manage to have a few good meals and treats.

Small treats: after a 35 minute wait I had the famous bacon and maple bar from Voodoo Donuts, the current must eat in Portland. I was not too impressed. Good, not great. A cinnamon crown from Pearl Bakery was a great way to start the day. I got there soon after they opened so smells and treats were fresh. I also had an excellent blueberry muffin from Great Harvest Bread Company.

Meals: An excellent lunch was had at Southpark Seafood Grill and Wine Bar. One of the fresh fishes of the day was sturgeon, beautifully grilled and served over a terrific bean puree with very fresh veggies ($16.50)The bread was great and excellent wines are to be had by the glass. I had a Loire white for $8.50 that was dry, loaded with flavor. As always, I had a terrific breakfast at Bijou Cafe, the oyster omelette, not cheap at $13.50 but superbly unusual. Potatoes were perfect and an apple cinnomon muffin was nice. Another homey star was Mother's where I indulged in a grilled gruyere and bacon sandwich with fries. Oh so good on the taste meter but maybe not on the cholesterol. Another not great on the cholesterol but nevertheless very enjoyable was a thick-sliced, nicely seasoned pastrami and chopped liver on rye at Kenny and Zuke's Delicatessen ($10.50)-- filling and surprisingly authentic for this pretty whitebread city. Another Portland treat, food for the mind over body is Powell's Bookstore; it's just a pleasure to be there. Kenny and Zuke's is just a block away. An excellent Bay Area kind of meal was dinner at Ping in Old Town, featuring modern takes on Southeast Asian. Starting with large well-filled Thai pork buns and moving on to green beans, salmon, and yam yai salad. The server forgot our fried little fish and grilled octopus skewers, but we left full and satisfied. I really would have loved to try the octopus but my other 3 companions were not, so just as well. Something to add to my list for my Portland visit.

OAXACA: Here are recommendations for the wonderful city and environs of Oaxaca. I went at the end of January so there may be some memory lapses but hopfully the sensory memories are still acccurate. Oaxaca is loaded with great food so every meal was good, but some stood out. Having exit visa problems I had to stay another night but that gave the opportunity to have breakfast at Itanoni in the Colonia Reforma, where I had the best hot chocolate and best chiliquiles of my trip. I'm not sure how you know about this place if a local didn't tell you, so I'm telling you, Go there.

Oaxaca is famous for their moles so I had to try them whenever possible. The best I had was in the weaving center of Teotitlan del Valle at Tlamanalli, which Rick Bayliss swooned over. So dark and rich and bursting with deep chili flavors. They also had the best guacamole. Prices are not cheap for Oaxaca, but worth the trip. We stopped there on the way back from the Sunday market in Tlacolula, a wonderful cornucopia of food, mescal, handicrafts and local people.

Someone gave us a tip to go for lunch at Los Danzantes, a really beautiful outdoor restaurant and considered one of the finest dining experience in Oaxaca city. Had a lovely tomato soup and fish entree at a very reasonable prix-fixe (about $15). Had a delicious dinner with very good drinks at another dining star, Biznaga, where the only menu is a large blackboard. Other highlights were several stops at street food places including incredible empanadas at the Merced Market.

Friday, April 9, 2010

European Ethnic Adventures

When I first moved to the Bay Area in 1973, a reliable type of restaurant to get a large meal for a great price was Basque restaurants. San Francisco had quite a few offering 5 course meals for $5-6. Most have closed but there's still a fascinating example in South San Francisco, the Basque Cultural Center, where I recently had lunch. It's a huge place with banquet rooms and a pelota court and a big restaurant. A woman who looks like she's worked there for 50 years sat us down and gave us menus. The waiter brought fresh sourdough bread with sweet butter in little silver packages. The menu has both lunch and dinner on it and daily specials. We went for the specials. V. had pork loin with the daily soup (broccoli) at $11.95. The pork was lean and tender served with potatoes and veggies. I went for the veal short ribs served on polenta and the house salad. Both the veal and polenta were delicious, the veal tender as can be, balanced well with creamy polenta and a stewed tomato sauce. We both licked our plates clean. Most dinners are around $20 including soup and salad and vegetables and a starch and each night features a family style dinner(the classic Basque experience) with 2 entrees. It's not Piperade but it's a fun and fulfilling eating experience.

Have you ever noticed Russia House driving south on 101 on the hill opposite Candlestick? I've always been fascinated by the chandeliers and odd location and wondered who goes there? Now I know after a multi-course banquet with lots of vodka. Russians go there and they have a good time when there and seem to feel at home, whereas our group felt like we were visiting a foreign country. Which is exactly what I was hoping for. A Russian scholar friend made the reservation for 8 and was told when to come and how much it cost, but nothing more. We entered the huge, chandeliered dining room, past a long empty bar, and were directed to our table, totally covered with appetizer plates. The drooling began: fresh herring, smoked salmon, sturgeon, breaded shrimp, great chopped liver, potatoes, coppa, ham, tongue, eggplant. A nice bottle of Russian Standard vodka, soft drinks, and water. We ended up finishing one bottle of vodka and another was brought. Da, I was drunk but fortunately not the designated driver. Mushroom turnovers came fresh from the oven. We ate the appetizers for over an hour and a two-man modern folk Euro-Russian group played and sang.
People started to dance; we danced. Then a course of fresh pelmeni simply served with butter and dill. More music and dance. Main courses were rack of lamb and chicken with asparagus, roasted potatoes and onions. More music and dancing but much more difficult because we were so full. Fresh pineapple and strawberries for dessert. You have an odd view over 101 that feels like you're in a highrise overlooking a big city. One of the highlights of this Saturday night was when I went into the men's room, somewhat tipsy. There was a guy plastering the wall in the restroom! As I said, it was like being in a foreign country but that really did it. We left after 4 1/2 hours for $92 a person which ain't bad for all we got, besides assuaging my curiosity about the mystical Russia House. How great that we live in an area where this exists.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Indian lunch buffets and a few others

My, the days pass quickly by and the blogging falls by the way side. I had a lovely week in Oaxaca and hope to write about the excellent eating there. But in the interim, here are some food notes on one of the great cultural eating experiences: Indian lunch buffets. I had been hankering for Indian buffets where I can fill up on lunch and not eat a whole dinner. I have notes on a few but will keep trying them so there will be additional posts in the future.

I just had an excellent meal at Turmeric in downtown Sunnyvale where $10.95 gets you great vegetarian and meat (mainly chicken) dishes and a few surprises. The menu says they have dinner buffet on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for $12.95 which is really a great deal, if similar to lunch. The two most outstanding dishes were the pakoras (perfectly crisp) and the mango pudding for dessert (oh so smooth and tasty). Kadi pokadi (little dumplings in a fantastic yogurt sauce), stewed spinach and mustard greens, and chicken makhani were also wonderful, but nothing was bad and everything was plentiful.

Also excellent was Sakoon, one of the new fancy Indian places in downtown Mountain View. Beautiful furnishings and floors. I loved the floors! And a bounteous buffet for $12.95. Among the highlights were samosas, palak paneer, butter chicken, and an exquiste basil chicken. I love to at first try a little of evrything and then come back for the special dishes, but the offerings are so varied here that it's hard to have room to go back. It costs more than most buffets in the area but I thought it was worth it.

The cheapest but not the worst was Taj Palace on Blossom Hill Rd. in San Jose. $5!! No price posted so I was happily surprised to see the almost non-existent bill. They only offer about 8 dishes but a good balance of vegetables and chicken dishes. Nothing was outstanding but everything was decent. Decor is spare but all in all an incredible deal. It ws pretty full so it's no secret to budget-conscious families and others who realize they can have the big meal of the day so cheaply.

Darbar in downtown Palo Alto is reliably fine both for lunch and dinner. Their $9.95 lunch buffet has a good assortment of favorites, varying in spiciness. If the chicken vandaloo is offered, get some. Everything tastes fresh and usually refilled as needed. Janta, on the other hand, was a disappointment, with empty serving dishes and no refilling happening. The host said it had been especially busy and someone didn't show up for work, but I had much higher expectations and left very unsatisfied (full, of course, but unsatisfied) for my $9.95 lunch. The samosa was quite good.

New Saffron in Mountain View across from Lozano's Car Wash is worth a visit. It's been several different Indian restaurants in the past. Their $9.95 buffet is good, not great, but there's enough selection that everyone leaves satisfied. And there are meat as well as chicken dishes. A nothing decor but a good buzz in there. Across the street in the Village Court Center is Spicy Leaves with a $10.95 buffet. They also suffered from depleted serving platters that were slow to be refilled and a mediocre selection. They do offer a couple of Sri Lankan dishes, such as their dal, which makes it worth a try. They seem to not want to take a chance to put out food that won't be eaten but it makes the buffet look too meager for the price. Maybe it's a place better suited to ordering a la carte.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

A month of eating notes

Nothing ultra special since the last blog in early December except for another greal meal at Nopa for my son's birthday. But here are the highlights. Starting south, in San Jose, went to 2 Chinese places for lunch. One, Hong Kong Kitchen, on Monterey Road in the Edenvale Shopping Center, is incredibly cheap. A group of 9 went and each ordered a different lunch. Most were $3.60 with pretty generous portions. Honey Walnut Prawns were $6.50. Timing was not too good so we never got all the dishes but all left filled for $4 a person including tip. Food was really pretty decent. It recently changed hands and apparently was really good before.
Not too far away from there is Fat Wok, Snell and Santa Teresa, where I had the Tuesday lunch special of Honey Walnut Prawns for $6.50. Most lunches are $5.50-$6.25. The special included a wonton of crab ragoon besides egg roll. I really don't understand the attraction of crab ragoon but the prawns were very good. Atmosphere was pleasant and worth trying again. A third Chinese lunch experience took me to Jade Palace on California Avenue in Palo Alto, in a jinxed location near the Caltrain station. Nothing ever lasts there but I thought this had possibilities. They have a large menu and many items are available for lunch for $6.95 served with soup, rice and an appetizer, in my case a decent eggroll. I had the spicy fish filet with tofu and was able to take half of it home. Nicely spicy, delicate and fresh; a nice surprise since I assumed it would be a loser. They say they have dim sum too but didn't try and worry it's not busy enough to be really decent. But I'd go back to try more dishes.

In Campbell, I had a decent slice of pizza from Sal's Pizzeria on E. Campbell. Tasty, slightly crispy crust, good amount of cheese and just enough spinach (not soggy). One slice is 1/4 of a 19" pizza so it's huge and less than $6. It could feed 2 people. It's right by the entrance to Los Gatos Creek trail, so I happily walked and ate.

Finally made it to a couple of San Francisco places I've been wondering about for years. Cinderella Bakery on Balboa is a Russian icon. It's just been remodeled. It used to include a restaurant which isn't there any more. Not sure if it's coming but the remodeled bakery is open. They make Russian breads and pastry both savory and sweet. We tried a couple of sweet ones and I was not swept away. A cherry cheese roll was kind of blah, not enough of either and the pastry tasted a little too shortening-filled. A poppy seed sweet roll was better but nothing to shame the memory I have of my grandmother's baking. Near there on Geary is Brother's Korean BBQ, which is often the top rated BBQ in Zagat. I went for lunch where they do not offer the BBQ your own, but the food was quite tasty. My friend and I shared pork bulgogi and kim chee with beef and tofu, both $9.99 and including the usual Korean small plates. Both were nicely spicy with very different sauces. Simple decor and fast service. I think Santa Clara has better Korean food but worth a stop if you're in the area.

We had a really fine rainy day lunch at Fish in Sauselito. They serve only sustainable fish and organic vegetables. The white clam chowder was superb, one of the best I've had, and a tuna melt was great. They poach albacore from San Diego and serve a generous portion on grilled bread with a huge amount of really good fries. Prices are fairly high but you know the quality is high too. No frills but on a nice day, you would not only get top quality food but be at an amazing location right on the water. Service was friendly and efficient.

And to end with an excellent meal in San Francisco. First Crush on Cyril Magnin and Ellis, around the corner from the Hotel Nikko, home of the Rrazz Room where we saw Andrea Marcovicci, always a treat. A small place with an excellent wine list, offering 3 taste samplers of many interesting selections. Appetizers included very nice asparagus with Serrano ham and a stuffed delicata squash with fall vegetables. My coq au vin had some really terrific baby purple potatoes and cippolini onions. A generous portion of loch duart salmon was covered in a light horseradish sauce and served with chantarelles over potato gratin. Another great dish was the short ribs. It was part of Dine-Around so 3 courses were $35. Normally the appetizers run $9 and entrees $19-29. A great looking burger for $14 passed by. Spice cake and chocolate brownie were 2 really good desserts.