Sunday, November 30, 2008

Trader Joe's Tempura Chicken

It's hard for me to believe that there was a time when I hated Trader Joe's. I remember going there when I was a kid and thinking it smelled funny. I thought their food was weird. I thought the people who shopped there were weird. And I thought the nautical theme was just plain silly. So when I became an adult I didn't even consider shopping there.

Then when I was about 23 I was over at my buddy Troy's place watching a basketball game and he served an appetizer that was similar to pigs in a blanket, only with sweet & sour chicken. They were great and when I asked where he got them he said Trader Joe's. I filed it in my mind that if I ever went there again I would have to get some. A few months later Troy was at my place and he wanted to go to TJ's, so I said I would join him.

I couldn't believe some of the stuff I found that I could have been eating for years. Egg rolls, potstickers, frozen pizzas as good as most restaurants. I probably picked up a dozen things that day, and, of course, it only cost me about 25 bucks. I have been going to TJ's ever since.

An employee once told me that their Orange Chicken is their top-selling frozen item, if not the top-seller overall. I've had it many times and it can be great, although sometimes it is mostly small pieces of dark meat chicken that don't taste very good. I used to cook the orange chicken about once a week, although now I make it less than once a month.

When I saw the Tempura Chicken I figured I would give it a try. I was pleased with it - there were no tiny pieces of chicken in the bag, and they cooked up pretty crispy in the oven. The sauce is a little too sweet for my tastes, but with a crushed clove of garlic and a couple slugs of hot sauce it was much better.

I also cooked a bag of TJ's sugar snap peas in the microwave for a couple minutes, then finished them in a wok with some sauteed garlic and crushed red pepper. There may be a better way to cook vegetables than sauteing them with garlic, but I have not found it yet.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Brownstone Pizza

I first went to Brownstone almost exactly one year ago, shortly after they had opened, with my friends Bryce and David. We got there exactly at 11:30 - their posted opening time - and then stood around on the street for about 15 minutes while the door was locked. There was a guy inside making pizzas, and occasionally he would glance over at us, but made no effort to let us in. Eventually a woman unlocked the door for us.

We were informed that they did not take credit cards, and they did not have any change in the drawer, so we had to pay the exact amount or not receive any change. (Bryce paid for the meal so I'm not sure what he did.) The interior of the place was sparse: a few tables and blank walls. And they only had three available toppings. So far I was not impressed at all.

But then the pizza came and it was great. There are perhaps hundreds of better pizza joints in New York City, but I was impressed with the quality of the ingredients and the size of the slices. The above picture of the pepperoni pizza is from that trip to Brownstone.

Almost a year later, my friend Elizabeth and I were both hungry, only we didn't know exactly what we felt like. I suggested driving down Colorado Blvd. in Eagle Rock and picking something that looked good. My first thought was Spitz, but there was no parking. Then I thought I should give Brownstone another try, and, since Elizabeth is from New York, I wanted to get her opinion of the place.

They had added some nice touches. There were logos painted on the windows, a couple flat screen TVs on the walls, and several photographs of New York. It was definitely a huge improvement. They've also added many more toppings to the menu, although we went with a plain cheese.

The pizza was still good, although we ordered a smaller size than I had a year earlier, so the pieces weren't big enough to fold. The crust was a little bit crisper than it should have been, but we both enjoyed it. (Elizabeth proclaimed it "good," which is definitely high praise from her when it comes to pizza.) It's not as good as Mama's in South Pas, though, so it may well be another year before I go back.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Portland Through A Shot Glass And A Buffalo Squeeze

I've been to Portland more than any city outside of Southern California. I went there on family vacations as a kid. The summer before my senior year of high school my family and I went there to look at colleges. My brother went to college an hour south of Portland and I would visit him a couple times a year. One of my best friends from high school moved there and I visited him twice. And two of my good friends moved up there three years ago and I try to visit them at least once a year.

Last year, one of my best friends got married to a girl from Oregon and the wedding was in Portland. I used this as an excuse to take a road trip. I talked to him this weekend and his wife is pregnant, so in honor of them I am going to post pictures of the food I ate on my trip for their wedding.

The day before I got to Portland I stopped for lunch in Ashland at the Wild Goose Cafe. I walked in and the place was very dark. The window blinds were closed, there was hardly any light, and there were only two people in the restaurant, both sitting at the bar talking. I saw no employees, either in front or the kitchen. I stood there for perhaps two minutes when finally one of the women got up from her counter seat, turned to me, and said "Hi, one for lunch?" Obviously, it was my kind of place.

I had the fish & chips, which the waitress/hostess/woman-who-sits-at-the-counter-and-gossips told me were great. I doubted her, but they actually were quite good. "Great" would be an overstatement, but I really enjoyed them, and especially the red cabbage slaw. I complimented it to the waitress and the cook overheard from the kitchen window and shouted "Fuck, man, if you like it so much I'll give you another helping on the house!" Seriously, this was my kind of place.
That night I stopped in Salem to watch a minor league baseball game, and I ate at one of my favorite restaurants in Oregon - Jonathan's Oyster Bar. I don't remember what my entree was, but I started with my usual crab cocktail. It was fantastic. (Now that I think about it, it's entirely possible I just had another one for my entree.)
The next day I met up with my friends who live in Portland. We went to a pub right around the corner from their house, a fantastic place with baseball on all the televisions and $2.75 pints of Deschutes beers. They also have great food, including my sandwich, "The Grubber." My friend Toni had told me about this sandwich before I arrived and I was worried it would be a letdown, but it was not. Turkey, ham, lettuce, roasted red peppers, and aioli on three slices of grilled bread.
The next day, two friends and I drove out to the coast. We ate lunch at the Driftwood Inn in Cannon Beach. I started with a crab cocktail that was fantastic, one of the best I have ever had. Unfortunately, the shrimp sandwich I had was lousy. The shrimp were not fresh and had probably been frozen. They were absolutely swimming in butter, on lousy bread with limp fries. This was the worst food of the trip by far.
That night a group of us went to the Bridgeport Ale House, where an old friend from Pasadena was working. We had a few beers - I have never been a big fan of their beers; I much prefer Deschutes - and a couple appetizers. The oven roasted potatoes with garlic aioli were very good. The spinach and artichoke dip with flatbread was not so good.
The next day, after my obligatory trip to Powell's City of Books, my friend and I had lunch at Paragon - a beautiful, glass-walled restaurant in the Pearl District. We started with an order of calamari (I'm not a huge fan but it's always been good in Portland.) I got a burger with caramelized onions, white cheddar and aioli, and my friend got a corned beef sandwich with horseradish aioli and roasted chilis. We cut the sandwiches in half and shared them. They were both great, although I liked the burger more.
That night we had dinner at the Delta Cafe. In addition to the barbecue and PBR, we started with some catfish fingers. They were the best I have ever had outside of the south.
The day of the rehearsal dinner, I went to lunch with my friend at Manzana Rotisserie Grill . We again split an order of calamari and a couple sandwiches. She ordered the rotisserie chicken sandwich and I ordered a southwestern cheeseburger. The food was decent, but nowhere near as good as our lunch the day before at Paragon.
That night after the rehearsal dinner was a big party night. We went to several bars and stayed up much too late. I had quite a hangover the next day. Luckily, my friends introduced me to what they claimed was the best hangover food of all time: the spring rolls at the Portland Saturday Market. And they were right. I had two of them - dripping with oil and dunked in a spicy vinegar sauce - and I felt like a new man. By the time of the wedding I was in good shape.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Philly's Best

I will never have a better cheesesteak than the one I had one night in Philadelphia. It was the middle of summer, just a couple days after my birthday, and a huge rainstorm had cleared the skies that afternoon. A few friends and I sat outside at a bar near Rittenhouse Square. It was the birthday of one of my good friends, who was going to medical school in Philadelphia. Everyone was buying him drinks and when he announced that he had enough and needed to leave, I bought him one more.
He paused for a second and then yelled, quite loudly, "All right, I'll drink it, but if one of my patients dies tomorrow, it's YOUR fault." Every single person on the patio turned and looked at me. (In my memory the music stopped and someone dropped a glass, but I admit that probably didn't really happen.)
So I figured it was time for me to go. I wandered about a block away and had a sandwich that I can only describe as a revelation. It was one of the five best sandwiches I have ever had, and perhaps one of the ten best things I have ever eaten. The steak melted in my mouth, the cheese was equal parts horrifying and delicious, and I did not even notice the bread as I was eating, which is about as good a compliment as bread can get on a sandwich.
For years I refused to eat another cheesesteak, if only because I knew it could not live up to that one. Then a few weeks ago someone bought one for me from Philly's Best, and I loved it. There is a Philly's Best by the Del Mar Gold Line station, and I have several friends who swear by it, including one friend who goes there several times a week.
So I figured I would give it a try. It was a nice day and the idea of eating outside at Del Mar station sounded pleasant. I ordered a cheesesteak with sweet peppers and American cheese. My friend got the same sandwich without peppers. I also ordered some "pizza fries" - fries with pizza sauce and Cheez Wiz.
My sandwich was fantastic. I added hot peppers to it to give it some bite. It was not as good as the one from Philadelphia, but it was damn close, and I certainly will not hesitate to go back to Philly's Best in the future. I will not, however, be ordering the pizza fries. I'm not really a big fan of cheese on fries to begin with, unless maybe it's parmesan with some garlic and parsley. And the pizza sauce added nothing to the experience. I'm glad I tried them, but they do not belong in the same meal with that sandwich.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Fast Food Review: KFC Original Recipe Chicken Strips

Half of the items at KFC I love, the other half I hate. I think their fried chicken is greasy, flavorless, repulsive junk. I think their Snackers are terrible. I don't care that they only cost 99 cents. I would not order them if they cost a nickel. The sandwiches always taste like they have been sitting under a heat lamp for a couple days (which is quite possible.) And I think their chicken strips are pretty lousy, too.
But I like their popcorn chicken. When I was a kid and they first came out with popcorn chicken, it was basically just little pieces of fried chicken skin with very little actual meat. Obviously, they were fantastic and I loved them. Years ago they re-introduced popcorn chicken, only with all-white meat chicken. They aren't quite as good as the old ones, but they're still pretty good, plus they aren't as likely to kill you.
I also have always loved the Chicken Littles. There are still a few KFCs around that serve these, although they are not common. They have not had the chicken nuggets for years, but those were great, too. And every few months they come out with boneless wings, which I always love, especially the sweet & spicy and tangy terriyaki flavors.
Recently they came out with the original recipe strips. I hate their original recipe chicken and I don't think their strips are any good, so why I thought I might actually enjoy these is beyond me. Predictably, they were inedible. They had no flavor, just like "original recipe" chicken. And, while the strips are sometimes good and crispy when they're right out of the fryer, these were soggy and rubbery.
These are probably the worst thing I have ever had from KFC, and that's saying a lot.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Philthy Phil's Sweet Sausage & Guinness Flavored Balls

Last week I got a bottle of Philthy Phil's barbecue sauce at Mo's Smokehouse in Pismo Beach. It's a great sauce - mustard, brown sugar and vinegar - that goes perfectly with pork. Of course, Guinness-flavored Bull's Eye is probably the greatest barbecue sauce ever created. (There are very few things in the world I love more than Guinness: barbecue, baseball, garlic, and maybe a couple relatives.)

So I decided to use them both for lunch. I bought some sweet Italian sausage and beef & pork meatballs at the butcher shop. I grilled the sausage for a few minutes on the grill to get the grill marks, then cooked them in beer in a pan. When the beer had evaported I poured in some of the Philthy Phil's sauce and let it coat the sausage.

I cooked the meatballs in an oven for about 40 minutes, adding the Guinness Bull's Eye with about ten minutes left. This lunch was one of the best things I have ever put in my mouth.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

BLT Fish Shack (New York City)

I first saw Laurent Tourondel on Food Network several years ago, making the greatest lobster roll I have ever seen. I vowed that the next time I was in New York I would seek one out. He has several restaurants in the city, including BLT Fish in the Flatiron district. Downstairs of that is a less formal, (slightly) less expensive restaurant called BLT Fish Shack.

My friend and I stopped there for lunch. The place is half-cute, half silly - the kind of joint you would find at Disneyland should they decide to open a New England-style fish shack, most likely designed by someone who has spent little time in an actual one. (I once ate in an authentic lobster shack in Scituate, Massachusetts, on the last day of the season it was open. BLT Fish Shack reminded me of that place in the way that Kobe Bryant reminds me of Michael Jordan, which is to say, only slightly.)

They served us some homemade garlic bread. It was okay, although I could not get past the appearance. It was an unnatural shade of green on the inside with an oily, bright orange cheese baked on top. I think I took one bite and let the bread sit on the table to see if it would change colors like a berserk science experiment.

I started with an order of buffalo shrimp, perhaps my favorite food item ever. Very few places in California do it well. I once had an order at Hooters that made me sick for two days. (Though in retrospect it probably could have been much worse.) When I was a senior in high school my two best friends and I would go to Bennigan's every night to watch Monday Night Football, and I always ate at least one - often three - orders of buffalo shrimp during the course of the game. I don't think I have ever had better.

Until now. These were perfect. I do not use that word often when describing food. But it is apropos here. There is literally not a thing I can think of that would have made these shrimp better. The batter was light but still crisp, the shrimp were not overcooked, and the sauce was not full of butter, as many buffalo sauces are.

For the main course, I had the lobster roll. It was great. There was a good amount of lobster meat, the buttered roll was nice, and the fries were awesome. Was it worth the $25 price tag? For me, yes. If the restaurant was in Pasadena I would rarely go there, but considering it was New York (and vacation,) and I had been craving this particular meal for months if not years, it was well worth it.

Now, was it as good as that $8 lobster roll on a dock in Scituate? Alas, no.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Fast Food Review: Burger King Loaded Steakhouse Burger

It is no exaggeration to say that during my senior year of high school I ate at Burger King four times a week. It was close to campus so that we could make a quick run there during lunch, it was cheap, and it was better than the other nearby choices (McDonald's, where we would have to run into Juniors, and a liquor store where the old lady was always mean to us after she got busted for selling us non-alcoholic beer.)

But in the years since then I have only had Burger King perhaps once or twice. My freshman year of college there was an In-n-Out a couple blocks from campus so that's all I would eat when I wanted fast food. Then when I got into my 20s I stopped eating fast food frequently. Now, whenever I try Burger King, I find it to be pretty terrible, and I can't believe I ever thought it was good.

(The last time that I can remember having BK was about 3 years ago. A friend and I were in a hotel in Denver, and she had the car keys in her room. It was, after all, her car. It was relatively late and I didn't want to wake her, so I walked to the nearest place, which happened to be a BK. I had an order of their chicken fries, which were one of the 5 most foul things I have ever put in my mouth.)

But I am always a sucker for a fast food item I have not tried before, so I decided to try the Steakhouse Burger. I accidentally ordered the "Loaded" Steakhouse Burger, though, which includes a mashed potato topping in addition to the bacon, A1 steak sauce, fried onions and cheese on the regular version.

I know it looks horrible. It was. It was so absolutely disgusting that I had trouble swallowing the one bite I took. The patty was rubbery and freezer-burned, the onion pieces tasted like hair, and the mashed potato topping (I still cannot get over the fact that some product developer thought 'Hmm, you know what would be good on a burger? Mashed potatoes!') was simply the worst mashed potatoes I have ever tasted.

I cannot emphasize this strongly enough: do not ever order this burger.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

English Muffin Pizzas

I do not remember exactly when I started making English Muffin pizzas. I remember making them with my brother and grandmother when I was a little kid, but I do not remember if she is the first one to teach me how. But I have been making them ever since. They are very cheap, easy, and delicious. In high school I would frequently come home to an empty house and I would make a couple. When I was 21 I would make them for a couple of friends when we would get home from the bars.
My friend and I were hanging out, watching tv on Sunday, and when we got hungry for lunch we had no desire to go out in the heat and smoke. So I cooked up some pizzas. I spread some pizza sauce on the muffins and cut up a prosciutto-mozzarella roll. After they were cooked I added some fresh basil.
I also made one with Guinness-flavored Bulls Eye bbq sauce and parmesan goldfish, because, well, because part of the beauty of making these is the absurd things you can do with them. I have made basic pizzas with cheese only. I have made them with shrimp, vegetables, gummy candy... I'm pretty sure one of the aforementioned guys from when I was 21 wanted to put drugs on a pizza, but that is where I drew the line.
The pizza were delicious, just as they have been my whole life.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Old Edna Deli

There are very few corners of California I have not been to. When I was a kid, family vacations were usually spent driving somewhere in California, whether it was to Mammoth Lakes for a couple weeks, to Carmel for a few days, or all the way up the coast. And as an adult I have traveled quite a bit in California. The only large region I have not been to is the very northeastern part of the state, east of I-5 and north of Lassen Volcanic National Park.

So it's exciting every once in a while to read about a pocket of California that I have not been to. A few months ago I read about the Enda Valley, a small AVA just south of San Luis Obispo, about ten miles inland. Recently, a friend and I went wine tasting there, and before we went to any wineries we stopped for lunch at a deli in the "Old Edna Townsite."

In addition to the deli, the townsite includes an antique store, a bed & breakfast cottage, and several other structures around the property, such as a couple of small shacks with picnic tables, a tree house, and a barn. I am shocked that I have never heard of this place before; it is one of the most charming locations I have seen in California.

For lunch, my friend and I split a pasta salad. I had the "Suprema" sandwich - salami, prosciutto, pepperoncini, basil, provolone, red onion and balsamic vinegar. It was fantastic, although the bread was a bit too cold and too dense. My friend had the "Alma" sandwich - brie, smoked bacon, lettuce, tomato and black pepper mayo on focaccia. This was also great, even better than my sandwich.

The wineries we went to after lunch were pretty disappointing. They were not bad, but I did not like them anywhere near as much as the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail or the Santa Rita Hills. If I ever go to Edna again I might just spend the whole day at the Old Edna Townsite. It's that enjoyable.

Friday, November 14, 2008


I enjoy going out to eat, and I really enjoy cooking something nice (or stupid,) but sometimes I just want something quick and inexpensive. I love empanadas. My favorite item ever at Trader Joe's were the goat cheese empanadas that they stopped carrying a couple years ago. When I see empanadas at a street fair or farmers market I always try one. But it never occured to me to try frozen empanadas. That seems as silly as buying frozen tacos - why the hell would you do that when you can get fresh, cheaper ones on pretty much every block?
But a couple weeks ago at Vons I noticed a box of frozen empanadas on sale for $2.50. I figured it was worth a try. And they were great. I had a craving for them last night so I cooked another box, with a "Fresh Express" bag salad of lettuce, cheese, tortilla strips, and sour cream-salsa dressing.
I wish I had some of the marinara-type sauce that used to come with the TJ's empanadas, but I didn't have anything like that, so I just used some garlic-herb lemonaisse. A little bit of it tastes good with the empanadas, although it is overpowering and too sweet if you use too much.
I also got a box of their "Imperial Rolls" (spicy pork mini egg rolls) that I will probably cook on Sunday while watching football. (And by watching football, of course, I mean the TNT double-header of "What Women Want" and "Something's Gotta Give." )