Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Cracked Crab

It would be hard for me to accurately list the top 5 meals of my life. When I was a kid I ate at Commander's Palace; I do not remember a single thing about it. I once ate at Chez Panisse and found the food to be stunningly boring. Various other fancy restaurants over the years were good, but pale in comparison to the time my brother and I ate lobsters and drank pints of Guinness on a dead-end street on the west coast of Ireland, or my first trip to Arthur Bryant's, where my friend Tom and I ate so many of their lard-cooked fries that we did not eat again for 48 hours.

But my most recent meal at the Cracked Crab would have to make the list. My friend Elizabeth and I had gone up to San Luis Obispo County for the Fall Harvest, and after a day of wine tasting we felt like a seafood feast. We started with a bottle of Justin Cabernet, one of my favorite California reds. They also gave us crayons to draw on the table, which I was happy to do.

Months earlier we had gone to Hearst Castle with some friends and we stopped into the Cracked Crab for a quick lunch on the way back. Elizabeth had the crab bisque and proclaimed it to be the best she had ever had, so on this trip we each ordered a cup. I am not an aficionado of crab bisque, but I can say that this was outstanding.

Next the waiter brought us a trio of sauces to accompany the bucket of seafood we ordered: drawn butter, cocktail sauce, and a triple-mustard sauce. Also we were given a rather ominous looking collection of tools with which to eat our food.

Then the bucket came out and was unceremoniously dumped on the table. In addition to red potatoes, corn cobettes, and Cajun sausage, we got slipper lobster, gulf shrimp, and Jonah crab claws. It was all fantastic, although my personal favorite was the slipper lobster. It was definitely a lot of food, although we did not allow ourselves to let any of it go to waste.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

South Pasadena Pizza, Volume 6: The Infamous Chicken Bacon Pizza

Having already detailed how much I like Mamma's Brick Oven, I wanted to give them a separate review for their chicken bacon pizza. My buddy Phil, who also likes Mamma's, has been telling me for months about a pizza they make with chicken, bacon, and ranch sauce. This did not sound particularly good to me. I love bacon, but I have never had bacon on a pizza that I thought was any good. Usually it's mostly fatty pieces of bacon, or the dreaded "bacon topping." (Once when I was 21 I visited a friend of mine at USC and we ordered a pepperoni and bacon pizza at one in the morning. Even in our inebriated state, we refused to eat the vile, charcoal-looking topping they claimed was bacon.)

And I definitely don't like the creamy, ultra-boring flavor of ranch. But my buddy said he would pay for the pizza if I didn't like it, so I figured one day I would give it a try. Last night my friend Tracie and I were deciding what to do for dinner and she suggested a pizza at The Kitchen in Old Town. I countered with trying the chicken bacon pizza at my place, having some wine and watching Top Gear. So that's what we did.

The pizza was definitely good. It was, without question, the best bacon I have ever tasted on a pizza. The chicken was good, too. My only complaint was the ranch sauce. The pizza just tasted much too dry. It wasn't bad, but it just is nowhere near as good as their Margherita pizza. I will not be asking Phil to reimburse me, though.

By the way, for breakfast this morning I warmed up two leftover pieces in the oven. On one of them I added some chipotle pizza sauce that I had made a few days ago, and the other I smeared with Zankou Chicken garlic sauce. They were both phenomenal, much more flavorful and less dry.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas Day

I spent Christmas Day with my parents and brother. For breakfast I cooked some sausage patties and eggs. I put the eggs on English muffins with rosemary ham and Gouda cheese then grilled them on my mom's new panini press. (She likes mine so much she bought herself one for Christmas.) My brother had his sandwich with sausage and no eggs. He claims he doesn't like eggs anymore after he had one in Cuba a few months ago and got violently ill. I respected that, although part of me just thinks he was saying that to remind me that he got to go to Cuba. (I am very jealous.)

For lunch I made a beer cheese soup. I cooked some mirepoix in a couple bottles of Deschutes Black Butte Porter (I took a picture of the beer in front of a Christmas plate because it looks like Santa just opened the beer,) then strained it. I put the beer in a pot with some green onions and added three different kinds of cheese: Gouda, Jarlsberg, and cheddar. After cooking it for a little bit I put it in bowls with some bacon and croutons. The soup was good although I should have reduced the beer more. (I left half a bowl in the fridge, though, and the next day it was thicker and I spread it on some sourdough bread. It was much better eaten that way than as soup.)

For dinner I made my take on a shepherd's pie. I cooked some New Zealand ground lamb in a pan with carrots and peas. I put that in a serving dish and covered it with mashed potatoes. I cooked that in the oven for about 45 minutes, then added some grated gouda cheese and parsley to the top and cooked it another 15 minutes. After I cut off a piece my brother added a dusting of paprika to the top. This did nothing for the meal, but did make it look more Christmasy (is that a word?)

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Caroling & The Legend of the Beer Wagon

My friend's parents have hosted a Christmas Caroling party for many years. I have been going for about a decade and it's always a great time. This year there was an absolute feast. We started with several different kinds of cheese, although I was partial to the Jarlsberg Swiss.

The picture of the salmon on the table is probably only half of the amount they cooked. It was very good. There was plenty of pulled pork, too. The soup was a chicken and bacon chowder. I'm not a soup fan, but I absolutely loved this. And for dessert there was a giant cookie shaped like Santa, although I did not get around to having any. (There was a keg of Kirin and I just stayed close to that instead of having dessert.)

And then there was the Beer Wagon. For many years, when we went out caroling, we would just stuff our pockets with as many beers as possible. Someone would always have a thermos or a flask that lasted for a while, but we would frequently run out of beers and have to go back to the house to load up again, which would cause you to miss at least a couple songs.

Then 6 years ago my buddy Zach and I were looking at an add for Harbor Freight tools and a wagon was on sale. What if, we reasoned, we carried a wagon full of beer with us during caroling? (This was not particularly inspired on our part, by the way; pretty much every idea we've ever had revolves around beer. Years ago we lived together in a house on a huge lot and there was a speedboat in the yard that had not been used in 30 years. We cut out the engine, cut the boat into pieces, reassembled it next to the pool, and turned it into a bar. We put a wooden bar along the gunnel and stuck a small fridge inside the boat. Perhaps one day I should do an entry about the building of the boat bar.)

That first year we simply dumped a bunch of ice in the wagon and put beers on top. Then the next year a cider dispenser was attached to the back of the wagon and Christmas lights were strung along it. By now my friends Zach and Tyler have turned the wagon into a work of art: they built a platform to carry the cider and some rum, and there is always a few bottles of wine and some beer in the bed of the wagon. It comes with us around the neighborhood and people refill their drinks after each caroling stop.

Actually, maybe it was an inspired idea. Maybe it was the best idea we've ever had.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Spitfire Saloon

For years I watched Delacey's Club 41 spiral from one of my favorite restaurants in California to an absolute dump - the kind of place you see on Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares (the vastly superior BBC version of the show) where Gordon is standing in the kitchen with an incredulous look on his face saying "Is this a F**king joke?"

At the beginning of the decade my friends and I would often end the evening in the bar at Club 41 listening to live music. We were the youngest people by perhaps twenty years but we didn't care: the music was good and the drinks were strong. I went there on many dates; the Caesar salad was not the best I've ever had, but it was my favorite. There was something indisputably cool about having it made tableside and piled high onto your plate. The happy hour was the best in town and two or three drinks and a couple plates of food always cost less than twenty bucks. If you didn't have a reservation on a weekend night you probably weren't getting in.

Then, for years, for whatever reason, the quality went to hell. The happy hour disappeared. There was never live music. (Not that that mattered, as there was never anyone in the bar to hear it.) Most of the menu items I liked were usually "sold out," and they starting chipping away at that perfect salad. First they no longer coddled the egg at the table. Then they stopped grinding up anchovies and instead used a paste. The final time I ate there, in August of 2007, I waited half an hour before asking the server when my salad was coming, at which point she brought out the cart with the lettuce on it and the dressing already completely made.

So it came as absolutely no surprise when Club 41 shut it's doors for good. I viewed it in the same way I viewed my grandmother, who died after years of Alzheimer's: I'll always love what it was, but it hadn't been what it was for many years. The space recently reopened as the Spitfire Saloon, owned by the Smith Brothers. (Parkway Grill, Crocodile Cafe, Arroyo Chop House, etc.) I have been eating at their restaurants for over half my life. I like all of them (although in all honesty I can't say that I love any of them.) My friend and I recently went there for lunch.

We started with an order of sweet onion rings. These were very good: huge pieces of sweet onion in a crispy batter. The "spitfire" barbecue sauce they were served with was atrocious. I have eaten perhaps 500 different barbecue sauces in my life, and this was certainly among the top ten worst. As best as I could tell it was tomato paste and brown sugar. I hoped it was not the same sauce that would be served on my "pulled bbq chicken sandwich."

Unfortunately, it was. My friend had been deciding between this pulled chicken sandwich and the lobster roll, so I suggested we get one of each and share. The chicken was very good and so was the bun. Unfortunately, it was almost impossible to get past the cloyingly tomato-paste sweet sauce. Perhaps it is possible to order this sandwich without the sauce, in which case it might be exceptional.

The sauce was the only downside to the meal, however. As the side accompanying my sandwich, I chose mustard slaw. Years ago I fell in love with the mustard slaw at Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous in Memphis, and I have been chasing a slaw as good as that ever since. I have not found it, but this was as close as I have come in the Pasadena area. I put some on the sandwich and it even muted the taste of the sauce.

The lobster roll was outstanding. The meat was delicious and the aioli on the sandwich did not drown it, a common problem with West Coast lobster rolls. My friend had selected the shoestring potatoes to accompany the sandwich, and I took more than a few. They were great. Amazingly, this sandwich was only $12.95. (Offhand, I cannot think of any place west of I-95 where I have paid less than $20 for a lobster roll.)

I am sure I will return to Spitfire again. I did not love it but it was a good time, and any place that serves me mustard slaw, sweet onion rings, and Coney Island Cream Soda deserves more than one visit.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Fresh & Easy III

I ran into a buddy of mine the other night who said that after my "Fresh & Easy I" post the other day he was expecting more follow-ups. So I am going to oblige. A couple nights ago a friend and I had been out shopping all day. We were tired and went out for a couple drinks to unwind, and time got away from us. By the time we wanted dinner, most of the restaurants we were thinking about were either closed or closing shortly. So we just came home and cooked up some more Fresh & Easy items.

The shrimp shaomai was on sale in their "extra low prices section" - $2.79 for a box of 9. Shaomai have always been a favorite dumpling of mine, whether they contain shrimp, pork, or crab. These were shrimp and fish. I avoid using the microwave whenever possible, but I was in no mood to get out the steamer for these, so I just followed the instructions and microwaved them for a couple minutes.

They were much better than I expected. The soy-ginger sauce they were served with was very good, and the small pieces of carrot in-between the shaomai were tasty. Perhaps another time I will actually steam them and see how they turn out.

I also cooked a box of 10 shrimp in the oven. Five of them were wrapped in a filo dough and five were breaded. These were not as good as the shaomai. The breaded shrimp tasted ok, but there was not much shrimp in them, mostly breading. The filo shrimp were lousy. The wrapping did not crisp up at all; it just got rubbery. The shrimp did not tasted fully cooked, either.

I will probably try the shaomai again if they are on sale, but I won't bother with the breaded shrimp. Cooking shrimp in the oven never seems to work well, and these were no exception.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Fresh & Easy II

My friend Tracie called me the other night to see if I wanted to go out for a beer. I suggested she come by my place and have some wine instead. She was starving and asked if I wanted her to pick up anything from Burger King. I said I would put something in the oven. On my recent trip to Fresh & Easy I had purchased some vegetable samosas. I was not sure they were going to be any good, but I was reasonably sure they would be better than anything from BK.

I love samosas, but I was skeptical about these. When samosas are fried right in front of you, they are as good as anything you can eat anywhere in the world. However, sometimes when they are baked they are not cooked enough inside. And if they sit out more than a few minutes before you eat them, they usually turn into a doughy mess. (And if they have potato inside and it cools down, they taste downright nasty.)

These were great. They were unquestionably the best I have ever had cooked in an oven. I served them with some Thai chili lime sauce that I bought at Fresh & Easy.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Panda Express

Sometimes you have to love karma. Like when, say, a former athlete kills his ex wife and somehow gets away with it, but then gets sent to jail years later for trying to take back his own stuff. Or, perhaps, when a dislikable football team with an obnoxious fan base cheats, gets caught, and then runs up the score on inferior teams all season long (and gets upset monumentally in the Super Bowl and their classless, asshole coach leaves the field early) and in the first game of the next season their star quarterback gets knocked out for the rest of the season. But sometimes good karma can come your way, too.

The other day I was in the Vons parking lot and an older lady was loading groceries into the trunk of her car. She had two 2.5 gallon containers of Arrowhead water in her cart. I asked her if she wanted me to load them into the trunk for her. She seemed very pleased by that and thanked me several times.

I was starving and short on time so I just went across the street to Panda Express. I am not a huge fan of it, but it was close. I went in and started to order and who should end up right next to me in line but that lady. She said to the girl behind the counter "I am going to pay for this young man's lunch." I thanked her and told her that wasn't necessary, but she insisted. (Both my grandmothers are dead now, but I certainly remember when they were alive there was nothing in the world that made them happier than buying me food. So I agreed.)

She told me to make sure I got plenty of food, so I ordered a three item combo of orange chicken (two orders) and Beijing beef, and also an egg roll. The Beijing beef was fresh and I enjoyed that, but the orange chicken tasted like it had been sitting out for a while. The egg roll was just average.

It was an okay meal. I don't think Panda can compare to Pick Up Stix, but, like I said, I was in a hurry and it was close by. Plus I made a new friend. We're going out for drinks next week. (Only kidding.)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Barney's Only Place In Town

There are very few restaurants anywhere I have eaten at more than The Only Place In Town Cafe (I would say only Hutch's and In-N-Out can compete.) When I was a kid I would eat there frequently with my grandmothers. My parents got food to go from there many times. For several years I worked down the street and would eat there a couple times a week. I could always count on seeing between one and ten people I know there.

About three years ago The Only Place In Town was purchased by the owners of Barney's Ltd. in Old Pasadena. I have never been a big fan of Barney's. Some of their appetizers are decent, and it's enjoyable to listen to live music there every once in a while, but the majority of their (huge) menu tastes completely bland to me. (Their chicken gyro, reuben sandwich, and turkey burger all taste pretty much the same, and all are served with lousy fries.) However, they kept many of the old OPIT items on the menu, including my favorite: Maggie Wong's Chinese chicken salad.

Just the other day my friend and I were doing some Christmas shopping in Sierra Madre and we stopped in for lunch. It was cold out but very pretty, and we sat close to the window. We started with an order of fries. They were better than I remembered, but still not very good. Like most restaurants that serve steak fries, many of the pieces were undercooked.

I got my usual salad. It was very good, as always. The main draw for me is the dressing: a ginger and oil dressing that goes perfectly with the chicken and crispy noodles. My friend had the flat iron steak salad. I took a bite and was not impressed, however the next day, after the leftovers had been in the fridge overnight, I had another couple bites and they were much better.

I do wish Barnery's had not bought the place and the old menu was still intact, but at least they didn't try to turn it into a replica of the Old Town location. It's not as nice as it used to be, but it's still decent.