Friday, January 30, 2009

Original Tommy's

Chili is another in the long list of things I foolishly did not like as a kid. I have never liked beans, and chili always seemed to have beans in it. I did not allow for the possibility that chili without beans could actually be any good.

When I was a senior in high school, my buddy David and I would go to Hutch's about once a week for lunch and bring the food back to campus. One day we were eating our burgers, trying to make everyone else jealous (which, of course, we did) when my buddy Dan, who had gone to Tommy's for lunch, offered to trade half his burger for half of mine. "No thanks," I said, "I don't like chili."

"These are awesome," he said.

"I hate beans," I said.

"There are no beans; this is an all-meat chili."

So I took him up on the offer. It was one of those culinary moments when I realized just what I had been missing all along, like the time I finally tried cilantro or an onion ring. (Before that, I used to just pull the onions out and eat the breading.) I started going to the Tommy's in Eagle Rock every couple weeks for the next year.

Eventually I got tired of it. Tommy's chili isn't the best around - I like Wolfe Burger's and Tops' chili much more - and the Eagle Rock location became less convenient. A few years ago they opened a location in Pasadena, but it's just not the same. Instead of being a shack with a small, fast-moving drive-thru (like the best Tommy's,) it looks more like an In-n-Out. And, thanks to some silly rule that an employee told me was a Pasadena regulation, they don't have a speaker box to order at; you have to order at one window and pick up your food at another, which makes the line move much slower.

But still, every once in a while I am craving a chili burger and nothing will do but Tommy's. The other day I was in such a mood. You can get a combo with one, two, or three patties, all drenched in chili, and you can even order chili and cheese on your fries as well. I have certainly done this before, late at night, but I must say it's not advisable for lunch if you're going to run into anyone else for the rest of the day. That's a lot of chili. (As Jonathan Gold put it in so succinctly in his review: "Eating a Tommyburger is an aggressive act.")

So I ordered the combo of a hamburger with chili and regular fries and a drink. I always ask for extra pickles on my burger to give it some additional crunch. (Pickles being another thing I used to hate but are now indispensable on almost every sandwich I eat.) You can also order additional chili on the burger for no charge, but I have never done that. I cannot imagine how messy the burger would become with extra chili. As you can see in the last picture, as long as you hold your burger over the fries when you eat it, you can get plenty of chili on them.

It was an incredibly satisfying meal, and, at $5.70, well worth it.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Shredded Chicken Sandwiches

I considered for a moment putting this on the barbecue blog, since I haven't had barbecue in at least two weeks. But it's not really barbecue. Of course, it probably is closer to barbecue than a lot of the places I have been - Hooters and Buffalo Wild Wings spring to mind - but considering it was a meal I made myself, I couldn't bring myself to call it barbecue.

Trader Joe's has containers of both shredded chicken and pork in their refrigerated sections. Both come pre-cooked in a sauce that, while not great, is better than most other pre-made meals like this. The chicken (all white meat) is my favorite of the two. TJ's also has bags of shredded cabbage that are a good size for one or two people.

I heated the chicken in a small pan on the stove. It is made to be heated in the microwave, but I much prefer the stove. Not only do I try not to use a microwave whenever possible, but it makes it much easier to add a few slugs of hot sauce or pepper to the chicken, both of which it needed.

I mixed the cabbage in a bowl with rice wine vinegar, mayonnaise, lemon juice, and pepper. After putting the chicken in a hot dog bun I put some mustard on top, a few more drops of hot sauce, and piled the slaw right on top. It was messy. It was spicy. It was perfect.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Langostino Lobster Rolls

There are very, very few foods I love more than a lobster roll. The only two I can say for sure are pulled pork sandwiches and boneless buffalo wings. Even a good slice of New York pizza doesn't make my mouth water like a perfect lobster roll. Of course, I have never had a "perfect" lobster roll in California. And I'm not holding my breath.

Years ago, my friend Maya and I had lunch in late July on a deck overlooking the water in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I had a lobster roll with lobster that had probably been in the ocean a few hours earlier. I finished every tiny bit of butter-soaked lobster on my plate. I could have eaten five of those rolls. Any list of the top meals of my life would have to include that one.

In California, there have been precious few lobster rolls that were better than average. I had one at Spitfire Saloon last month that I called "outstanding," although in retrospect I was a little too effusive in my praise. I may have given it too much credit for simply not being bad. (By the same token, however, I may judge California lobster rolls too harshly, since it's unlikely that any will ever live up to the ones I have had overlooking the water on the East Coast.)

Lobster rolls and lobster meat, of course, are much more expensive here than they are back east. I think a pound of quality lobster meat at Bristol Farms costs 55 dollars. That's not in my budget for anything but the most special of occasions. Last Valentine's Day I bought two Australian lobster tails at Fish King that were fantastic, but they were also expensive. (But I was making a nice dinner for me and my dog, so I figured why not?)

At Trader Joe's, however, they have bags of langostino that only cost $8.99. Langostino isn't actually a lobster - it's meat from a "squat lobster," which, in addition to having a fantastic name, is more closely related to a crab - but it tastes very similar. When places like Rubio's advertise "lobster" burritos or tacos, they use langostino meat. (A few years ago there was a class-action lawsuit against them for this; apparently people were surprised that $6 burritos weren't full of actual lobster meat.)

The other night my friend and I were in the mood for lobster rolls, and we decided to make them with TJ's langostino. I defrosted the bag and mixed the meat in a bowl with chopped celery, mayonnaise, and lemon juice, then put it on a hot dog bun with butter lettuce. I fried up some homemade potato chips (the perfect accompaniment to many things, but none more so than lobster rolls.)

Did it come close to any of the lobster rolls I have had back east? Of course not. But it was delicious, and the whole meal for the two of us cost around ten dollars.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Gung Hay Fat Choy

To commemorate Chinese New Year yesterday (it is now the Year of the Ox,) my friend Elizabeth and I decided to have Chinese food last night. But we didn't feel like going out for dinner (I didn't want to miss 24, although, like the first five hours of the season, it turns out I would not have missed a thing. This season should just be called 1, because I have a feeling that's about all the action we're going to get.) So we decided to come as close to making a Chinese meal as we could with what was in the fridge.

This is only the second time I have celebrated this occasion. Years ago, my friend Zach's grandmother took several people out for a Chinese New Year celebration at a Chinese restaurant in Monterey Park. It was a phenomenal meal and as busy as any restaurant I have ever been to. My friend Tom and I were the only white people in the entire restaurant. Ours was the only table with beers on it. (Also, we were the only people who referred to it as "Chinese" New Year; everyone else just called it New Year.)

I had a bag of chicken and cilantro mini dumplings from Whole Foods in the freezer. These are fantastic, and one of the few things that can be considered inexpensive at Whole Foods. For years I held up the "tiny dumplings with hot chili oil" at Yujean Kang's as the ne plus ultra of mini dumplings, but I have to say these are every bit as good. I made up a spicy dipping sauce of soy, sugar, vinegar, garlic, sliced jalapeno, and cilantro to complement the dumplings.

There was also a bag of Green Giant "Steamers" vegetables in an "Asian Style Medley" - broccoli, red peppers, water chestnuts and an orange sesame sauce. The instructions were to cook this in the microwave and it would steam in the bag. There is no other way to say this: it was terrible. The vegetables did not come close to cooking in the instructed time; the water chestnuts were still frozen. I tried cooking it a little longer but I could smell the sauce burning. So I emptied the bag into my wok and tried to finish it there. They ended up a warm-but-not-hot mess of veggies that all tasted the same.

There was also a bowl of microwavable jasmine rice from Fresh & Easy. Unlike the vegetables, this cooked perfectly. I don't remember the last time I had microwaved rice - for some reason I had it in my mind that it wasn't good. But I would gladly eat this again. There was enough in the bowl for both of us to share.

With the exception of the veggies, this was a very good meal. Not as good as the Chinese New Year's meal I had in Monterey Park, of course, but not too shabby considering the stuff was all just lurking in our kitchen. Have a prosperous and good year.

Monday, January 26, 2009


Back when I was in high school, the location where Dish is was a fine dining restaurant called Reflections. I only ate there once, before the homecoming dance one year, and I was not at all impressed. I admit, my appreciation for fine food back then was almost non-existent, but the place seemed pretentious and plain. I much preferred the year I did not have a date for homecoming and ate dinner alone at Hutch's. (Still, it was better than the year my friends and I went to dinner before prom when my broken jar was wired shut and I had to sit and watch everyone else eat dinner.)

But I had heard that Dish was a less formal place than Reflections, with less expensive and better food. It's rare that I go up to La Canada, though, and when I do I usually eat lunch at Zeke's. But the other day my friend and I decided to go up that way to buy cat food at PETCO, so we stopped in to have lunch. It is very attractive inside: high ceilings, fireplaces burning, and plenty of space between tables. We were given a booth by the windows, overlooking the back of Georgee's Pizza. Georgee's was a popular spot when I was in high school. My friends and I would often get a couple slices of pizza and play video games. (My friend Mick worked at JPL at the time and would frequently eat there as well, and although I would not meet him until five or six years after I graduated, he remembers punk kids being loud and playing video games. I was probably one of them.)
My friend ordered the fresh mozarella-tomato salad. It was fantastic. The mozarella was very fresh and the balsamic dressing was as good as any I have ever tasted at a restaurant. They had a pulled pork sandwich on the menu, but I decided to go with the black angus short rib sandwich with gruyere cheese. It was very good. The fries were hand cut potatoes and were decent, although they could have used a few more minutes in the fryer. We both really liked the restaurant and will be going back again. I will try the pulled pork next time.

The next day I still had half my sandwich in the fridge. I added pepperoncinis and baked it in the oven for about fifteen minutes. I put Famous Dave's Devil's Spit barbecue sauce on one half and McDonald's hot mustard sauce on the other. It was even better than the day before.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Wolfe Burgers

Eating at Wolfe Burgers is one of those things I love but don't do anywhere near as much as I should, like walking around the Rose Bowl, reading Shakespeare, or taking a shower. I have been eating there for probably half my life, but sometimes more than a year goes by without a visit. They do not have my favorite burgers in Pasadena (Hutch's is my favorite burger in the world and Pie 'n Burger and Rick's both make better burgers) but there is something about the atmosphere at Wolfe Burgers that I love.

There is a nice patio in back of the restaurant that is perfect for warm days. Unlike a lot of small burger joints, Wolfe Burgers sells beer, and my friends and I have had several summer Saturday lunches over the years on the patio with cold Pacificos. Last night was neither warm nor daytime so my friend and I sat inside and drank Pepsi, but there was a flatscreen tv showing the Lakers game, which was just fine with me.

My standard order is a turkey burger. I love turkey burgers (it has nothing to do with health; turkey is just my favorite protein) and Wolfe Burgers has my favorite turkey burger in Pasadena. My friend had the regular "Wolfe Burger." (You can also get a "Big Bad Wolfe Burger," which has to be close to a pound of beef.) One of the best things about the place (second only to their beer & wine license, of course) is their condiment bar. The burgers come with lettuce and (a not-too-fresh looking) tomato on them, but you can add your choice of at least a dozen condiments. Also, there is usually a bottle of A.1. sauce on the counter, and I love A.1. on burgers.

On my turkey burger I put onions, pickles, thousand island dressing, and A.1. My friend added pickles and thousand island to her burger, which she had ordered with American cheese. We each had a small order of fries. Wolfe Burgers fries are fresh cut potatoes (think a larger, better-cooked version of In-n-Out.) They also have fantastic, beer-battered onion rings that no less an authority than Jonathan Gold called "just about the best in Southern California."

I also got a cup of their spicy chili, which I love. It strikes the perfect balance between thick and thin, and even though the spicy version includes a healthy amount of chili flakes, I like to add a few slices of pepperoncini. Most people order it with cheese and onions (the girl behind the counter wrote "cheese and onions" on my ticket before she asked me if I wanted them; she gave me a confused look when I said I did not, which I found charming) but I like the chili without the accompaniments.

It was a great dinner: filling (I took at least half my chili home with me and my friend took at least half her fries,) tasty, and free. Ok, it was only free for me, since my friend paid for it. Details. The Lakers even played hard. Yes, their opponent was lousy, but when has that ever stopped the Lakers from mailing it in?

While I can't honestly say that Wolfe Burgers makes a great burger, it is a great burger joint.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Trader Joe's Argentinian Red Shrimp

Several years ago I was having a happy hour drink (Bushmills on the rocks) at the bar at Delacey's Club 41, chatting with the bartender. She mentioned a new product at Trader Joe's, a shrimp that she swore tasted like lobster. That very night I went to TJ's and bought a bag. She was right; they were some of the best shrimp I have ever had. They had a dense meat and a buttery flavor very similar to lobster. The bag cost around $8 and contained enough shrimp for at least two meals.

For a few months I was addicted. I would often buy two or three bags at a time, since they were often sold out. I would grill them, fry them, put them in sandwiches or eat them cold in shrimp cocktails. Anyone who has ever fallen in love with a product at Trader Joe's can guess what happened next: they stopped carrying them. For a long time they were gone, then for a couple years they reappeared every few months for a couple weeks - not that it mattered, as all bags were purchased within a few hours of going on sale.

But for the last few months they have been readily available at TJ's. The other night I felt like a light dinner so I decided to grill some. I marinated them for a couple hours in a citrus marinade. This is not necessary, but I had never tried the shrimp this way and I was curious. The non-stick coating on my George Foreman grill is pretty much gone, so I used my panini press. They turned out beautifully, although, as I mentioned, there is no need to add any outside flavor with a marinade, and I don't think I will do that again.

I also had a spring mix salad from Fresh & Easy. I cooked some onions in balsamic vinegar and added some Manchego cheese and cilantro dressing.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Destination: Bangkok

My friend Elizabeth has given me some of the best presents I have ever received (including my own olive tree.) For Christmas this year she bought me something called Destination Dinners. ( For three months I will get a recipe kit from a different location, complete with pre-measured indigenous spices and sauces. My first kit was a dish called "Khao Ob Sapparod "- pineapple chicken - from Bangkok, Thailand.

The other night some friends came over and I cooked this. The kit included jasmine rice, fish sauce, maggi (a seasoned soy sauce,) cashews, raisins and palm sugar. In addition, I needed to buy a pineapple, two chicken breasts, cilantro and coconut milk.

While the rice was cooking I chopped the chicken up and cooked it in my wok. After it was done I added the coconut milk, spices, raisins and cashews. Meanwhile I cut the meat out of the pineapple and pulsed it in the blender. The dish is meant to be served inside the pineapple, which looks like quite an elegant presentation. However, the skin on my pineapple fell apart and I decided to serve the dish in bowls. (This being my first time cooking the dish, I decided to concentrate on following the recipe properly rather than the appearance of the final product.)

When the coconut milk starting foaming in the wok, I combined everything in a baking pan with some chopped cilantro and let it bake in the oven for about 15 minutes. While my friends talked and drank wine on the patio, I snuck a couple tastes just to make sure it wasn't terrible. In fact, it was one of the best things that has ever come out of my kitchen. (I can't take much credit for it, though. Since almost every ingredient is pre-measured and the directions are so simple, I'm pretty sure my dog could have made it.)

I quickly fried up some store-bought crab and shrimp spring rolls. These were not necessary, but just in case the Khao Ob Sapparod was terrible, I wanted to have something to nosh on while waiting for a pizza to be delivered. Everyone loved the dish, though.

According to the pamphlet included in my kit, the traditional Thai beverage of choice is water, so as not to interfere with the enjoyment of the food. However, it added, if you wish to serve alcohol with the meal, a sauvignon blanc is recommended to complement the meal. If you know my friends and I, you know which we chose. I bought a bottle of wine from Trader Joe's with a "Santa Ynez Valley" label (that is where our two guests are getting married in three months.) We all agreed that it went beautifully with the meal.

It was a fantastic meal. After we were finished eating I tried to convince the ladies that there is a certain after-dinner Thai tradition and that's how the capital city got its name. They did not believe me.

Fresh & Easy V: Spicy Italian Pizza

I rarely purchase "take and bake" pizzas - I don't recall ever having one with a decent crust - but I saw a "Spicy Italian" pizza at Fresh & Easy so I figured I would give it a try. The pizza was topped with capicola, pepperoncinis, and arugula. Those are all flavors I love. Unfortunately, as always seems to happen with take and bake pizza, the cheese started to turn brown well before the crust was close to being done.

Also, the toppings were not spicy. The capicola was sparse and too salty, the pepperoncini and arugula provided very little flavor. I added several drops of garlic hot sauce to the pizza to give it some spice. I will not have this pizza again. There are a couple other varities at F&E that look interesting and I may try them in the future.

I also made a small salad with romaine lettuce and some of Fresh & Easy's "creamy cilantro dressing." This dressing was excellent and only cost $1.99. Too often, cilantro salad dressings taste like a tiny bit of cilantro and a large amount of oil: not exactly a terrible taste, but not complementary to a salad. This one was not oily and was bursting with the smell of cilantro. I will certainly eat this dressing again.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Rubio's Crispy Shrimp Tacos

Back in October I wrote about my preference for Rubios over the rest of the fast-casual Mexican restaurants. I find Baja Fresh and Chipotle both incredibly boring (I am in the minority on this with my friends) and the rest overpriced. I don't hate any of them but I will take a taco truck or homemade burritos any day of the week.

But I'm always up for a new Rubio's promotion. Currently their crispy shrimp tacos are back. I had these once a couple years ago and loved them, so I figured I would try them again and take pictures. I got a two taco plate with one of each: original shrimp, with an ancho chili sauce and salsa, and mango shrimp with chipotle sauce and mango salsa.

The shrimp were much smaller than I remembered and there were not as many of them. The last time I tried this promotion (admittedly, that was at the Monrovia location; this one was in Riverside) the shrimp were overflowing out the taco. These tacos just had a few scattered shrimp in them. Perhaps it's a sign of the times.

They were both good, however. There wasn't a whole lot of difference between the two - since there wasn't a lot of filling they mostly took on the flavor of their respective sauces. I would say the original was slightly better, as I liked the ancho chili sauce a lot.

I probably won't have these again during the promotion, but if I do I will try out the Monrovia location to see if they put more shrimp in their tacos than the Riverside location.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Trader Joe's Chicken Drumettes

I've been eating TJ's drumettes for years. They're cheap, tasty, and really easy to make. I felt like having some drumettes today, and then, with the idea of the Shanghai McNuggets still haunting my mind, I decided to see how close I could come to replicating them with stuff from the fridge. Obviously, baking the drumettes instead of frying them isn't going to be as crispy, but I was not in the mood for frying. (Also, the drumettes are white meat chicken; back when McDonald's made the Shanghai McNuggets they used some disgusting mix of white and dark meat.)

I prepared dipping bowls of teriyaki sauce, sweet & sour sauce, and hot mustard (technically this wasn't from the fridge but rather the glove compartment of my car. Oh well.) I also had a container of wasabi mayonassie from TJ's. For a moment I considered not using it because wasabi is more of a Japanese food and thus would violate the spirit of replicating Shanghai McNuggets. Then I realized I was being a pretentious jackass. Obviously, I had to eat the chicken with chopsticks.

The meal was good, although in no way did it alleviate my longing for Shanghai McNuggets.