Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Random Dinner

The other day, at the Smith & Hawken going-out-of-business sale, Elizabeth and I picked up a cool little table-top fire pot. It was on sale for about 40% off, and we both love anything that catches on fire, so we bought it. We lit it in the evening and were drawn to it like moths; we didn't want to leave it.
The day earlier I had been at my parents' house and my mom told me she had bought a pound of shrimp at Whole Foods the day before, but she and my dad hadn't eaten it and they were going out to dinner the next two nights, so she asked me if I would like it. "Yes," I said, "I would like a free pound of shrimp from Whole Foods." So Elizabeth and I texted our friend Tracie to come over and join us for happy hour on our patio.
A family friend, Laura, had given me and Elizabeth a beautiful set of plates, and I poured the shrimp onto one of the plates with a couple sides of cocktail sauce. (I added a fair amount of horseradish to one of them to make it spicier.) Laura's mom, Margie, had been in Arizona recently, and picked me up a case of New Belgium Sunshine Wheat, one of my favorite beers in America, something that is not available around here. It's a wheat beer, obviously, with touches of coriander and orange peel, and is an absolutely perfect beer for a summer evening. We drank several of them.
Our friend Murph sent a text that he was going by Philly's Best and was planning to swing by our place to eat his sandwich, and asking if we wanted anything. The three of us figured we could split a sandwich, so we got a regular cheesesteak. It was outstanding, as always.
It would be nice if we got a free pound of shrimp and a sandwich delivered every night of the week. And beer imported from Arizona for me at least once a month. But that's probably not going to happen. At any rate, it was fun for one night.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

BJ's Restaurant & Brewhouse

I have had some of the best times of my life in this building, although not always when it was BJ's. When I was young this was a Bennigans, and I always loved going there and eating their buffalo shrimp, one of my favorite foods ever. (Other than a meal at one of Laurent Tourondel's restaurants in New York a couple years ago, Bennigan's buffalo shrimp were the best I've ever had.) My senior year of high school, my friends Jon, Dave and I watched Monday Night Football here every single week, usually eating several orders of shrimp each time.

Bennigan's closed and the location became a BJ's about a decade ago. I had first eaten at a BJ's in Boulder, Colorado, shortly before the Aracdia opening. I liked their deep dish pizza, although I didn't love it. I went to the Arcadia BJ's on occasion, usually for their happy hour, which is a good deal. During the 2001 NBA playoffs, I grabbed the best table in the house several hours before one of the Lakers-Spurs games and waited for my friend Tom to show up. He eventually did, and we watched the Lakers destroy the Spurs by 39 points.

The other day I was trying to figure out where to go for lunch with an acquaintance. She was in the mood for a Cobb salad and I suggested BJ's, having not been there in years but remembering that they had a good selection on salads on their menu. Even though we got there early, about 11:15, the place already had lots of people there. We took a booth on the side of the restaurant. (The same booth I sat in when I was 15 and the first of my friends got his drivers license; we immediately came to Bennigan's to eat.)

There was a lunch special on the menu: a one-topping mini pizza and small salad for $7.95. That sounded like a good deal to me, so I ordered a meatball pizza and a wedge salad with a garlic-buttermilk dressing. Mindful of a few days earlier, when I had ordered a lunch special at Red Lobster and only received 6 small shrimp, I also ordered some shoestring fries as an appetizer. My dining companion got her Cobb salad.

It was when the fries and my wedge salad arrived that I realized there was going to be more food than I needed. They were a massive pile of fries, perfectly cooked, with a touch of garlic and parsley. The wedge was a good size, too. I loved the garlic dressing and we requested a side of it to eat with the fries. I knew as I was shovelling down the fries that I was going to fill up, but I didn't care. They were awesome. There was a time when I was younger that I would eat any fries that were put in front of me, but as I get older I get more and more snobby about fries, to the point that there are now very few restaurants whose fries I like. So when I get some like this, I make sure I eat them.

I am not sure if I have ever had a regular pizza from BJ's before. The only two I can remember having are the barbecue chicken and buffalo chicken, which are both very good. Of course, neither of those were available as part of the lunch special, understandably. The meatball pizza was good, but it was bland. The meatball was too dry, as if it had been left over from the day before. Still, I ate all of it. If it wasn't part of a special and I had just had it by itself, I would have been disappointed, but for such a good deal it was fine. The Cobb salad was described as "great," but I was too full to try it.

This was my first time at a BJ's in over 7 years. (My friend Taylor and I went to the BJ's in Westwood on his birthday and had a few beers for lunch that time; he went back to a law school class slightly buzzed.) And it wouldn't surprise me if it takes another 6 years to go back, if not longer. I like the place, but I don't really go out for happy hour anymore like I did when I was younger, and there is much better pizza around. And I liked Bennigan's much more. It was a nice lunch, though, and a great deal for the pizza and salad.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Crocodile Cafe

I have been eating at Crocodile Cafe for about twenty years. It was always a favorite of my family's when I was young. We would often go there with friends, or with my grandmothers, or just for a Friday night dinner. My brother and I would devour a plate of fries every time; my standard order was the "three-section pizza," until I decided that the barbecue chicken was much better than the other two sections (cheese and sausage) and I started ordering that.-
There used to be several more Crocodile Cafes. The Glendale location, which had been called the Crocodile Cantina (it had more of an emphasis on Mexican food) became a Crocodile Cafe for a few years. There was one in Old Pasadena on Colorado Blvd. and one in Santa Monica. Years ago I lived in Boulder, Colorado, and there was a Crocodile Cafe in Denver that I went to a couple times. They, along with a couple others, are all closed now, I believe.
But the Lake Ave location is still going strong, and I enjoy going there and sitting on the patio. For years my friend Clare worked right across the street and we would meet for lunch at Crocodile Cafe about once a month. Then she had a baby last fall and ruined my lunches at the Croc. Some people are so selfish.
So it had been months since I had been there. Saturday, Elizabeth and I went to the Smith & Hawken going-out-of-business sale on Lake Ave. It was hot but not unbearable, so I suggested we eat outside at the Croc. It wasn't terribly busy and we scored a nice table in the corner of the patio. The menus used to be several colorful pages in vinyls sleeves. Now it is one single-sided, oversized piece of paper with the items listed in black. Much more simple, but, I have to say, more attractive.
There was no doubt I would be starting with an order of fries, which are some of my favorite in town - curly fries dusted with a significant amount of seasoning salt. These are the only fries in the world that I prefer to eat with ketchup rather than aioli, mustard, or mayonaisse. I can't explain why. (My dad used to request a side of their lime-cilantro sauce to eat with the fries; it was a good sauce but I never felt it complemented the fries well.)
Elizabeth wasn't starving and she mentioned that the crab cake appetizer looked good. I suggested she get that and we split the fries, which are always a large portion. And I ordered my usual barbecue chicken pizza. When the fries came, they were hot and crispy as usual, but there wasn't enough seasoning on them. I added some salt - something I almost never do - and they were better.
Elizabeth's crab cake was delicious, certainly one of the better ones I have had in Southern California. The pepper relish on top was a nice touch. They creamy sauce was extremely rich but it went well with the crab. My pizza was great, as always. There are two things that make a barbecue chicken pizza, in my opinion: the sauce and the red onion. The sauce has to be a bit on the spicy side, and there has to be a little bit more of it than necessary. And there has to be a nice amount of red onion, some slivers and pieces of it, not just finely diced bits. Crocodile Cafe nails both these things, much more than California Pizza Kitchen, who claim to make "the original barbecue chicken pizza."
After I ate all that I was still hungry, so I ate a Kobe burger as well. I'm only kidding. That picture of the burger is from a trip to the Croc last summer. But I wanted to include it, because it was one of the best "gourmet" burgers I have had. The Kobe beef is topped with prosciutto, smoked gouda, and arugula. It is a pricey burger ($14.50), but there are other restaurants in town charging more for inferior Kobe burgers. Does it compare favorably to the $7 hamburger and fries at Hutch's? Nope, not at all. Hell, I probably like the $3 animal style double-double more. But it was a good burger and worth the high price.
As long as the patio at Crocodile Cafe exists, I will continue to go there. The acoustics inside - like Smitty's a couple doors down - are absolutely terrible and when it's crowded you have to yell at the person next to you just to be heard, especially if you're near the open kitchen. But the patio, sunken a couple feet below street level, is one of my favorite places to eat in Pasadena.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Fast Food Review: Arby's BBQ Bacon Cheddar Roastburger

I can only remember eating at Arby's once in the first 28 years of my life. I may have eaten there more than that, but I do not remember more than that one occasion in Barstow. I was with my friends Troy and Ali; we had driven to Colorado to see the USC-Colorado football game and we were on our way back. We had eaten McDonald's for breakfast and Burger King for lunch so we finished off the day with Arby's for dinner.
But in the last couple years I have eaten at Arby's many times. A few months ago I tried one of their Roastburgers, and it was really good. I also tried their chicken roast club sandwich, and it was excelllent. So when I got a coupon for the new BBQ bacon cheddar Roastburger I was happy to try it.
This was very good, too. The sauce is tangy and the bacon, as usual at Arby's, was good. I cannot think of another fast food restaurant at which I would even consider eating their bacon. McDonald's, Carls' Jr., Burger King, Wendy's... I have had bacon sandwiches or burgers at all of these places and I have always removed the greasy, limp, fatty pieces of bacon. But Arby's has consistently had quality bacon. The onion rings on the sandwich were also very good.
I don't think this was as good as the chicken roast club sandwich, but it was another winning promotion from Arby's.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Last night I made pizzas for myself, Elizabeth and Tracie, and these are basically the same pizzas I have made many times before, so I will keep this short. But I made slight variations to each so I wanted to share.
The pizza I came up with a couple months ago and have made several times is one with Sicilian chili oil, goat cheese, caramelized onions, and chives. I tweaked that a little. Instead of a quick caramelizing of onions in my stir fry pan, I cooked them in our new slow-cooker for several hours, with some olive oil and balsamic vinegar. These were the sweetest onions I have ever tasted. And instead of adding chopped chives to the pizza, I sliced a poblano peppers and added it. This was good, but not hot enough. I wanted to start with a mild pepper, which this certainly was. Next time I will go for something a little spicier.
For my usual fresh mozzarella and basil pizza, Tracie brought over a large amount of basil from a plant at her house that has been doing great (much, much better than our basil plant.) So I carpet-bombed this pizza with it. This was fantastic. Fresh basil is one of the greatest flavors in the world.
I may have to take a break from making pizzas for a while. For one, it's already hot enough in our kitchen without cranking up the oven all the way. Last night, with the oven on, it was probably 120 degrees in there. And second, after the party last month where my friends Tyler and Zach made pizzas in the wood-burning oven, the pizzas I have been making, while great, have been falling a little short. It's like trying to get all excited about the Lakers winning this year with Kobe, Pau, and Lamar. I mean, yeah, I'm happy they won, but I grew up watching Magic, Kareem and Worthy. How much can I be expected to love this year's team? Years ago I bought a bootleg of the Rolling Stones in Paris in the middle '60s; all they played was American R&B. It's impossible for me to see the Stones now without comparing it to that bootleg, and they always come up short.
(And yes, I just compared that pizza party to the Showtime Lakers and 1965 Rolling Stones. It was that good.)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Matt Denny's Ale House

It occurred to me on my weekend visit to Matt Denny's that I have now been eating there for over a decade. It is that rare place that is good for almost any occasion. When my grandmothers were alive I would eat there with them; they loved the place. I have been there many times with my parents. I once took a date there on Cinco de Mayo to drink margaritas and listen to mariachis. My friends and I have had many dinners there to watch Lakers games.
If I owned a restaurant, I would want it to be like Matt Denny's. It has the six key elements that I love:
1) barbecue sandwiches on the menu
2) lots of televisions always showing sports
3) comfortable, over-sized booths
4) a large outdoor patio
5) an impressive selection of beers on tap
6) a moose head hanging on the wall
I have been on their mailing list for several years. I get newsletters about once a month, detailing what is going on in the restaurant. Also, every July, I get a coupon for a free birthday meal. Sunday afternoon, Elizabeth and I decided to take advantage of my coupon.
It was about 100 degrees out, but we still sat on the patio. We were the only ones. The air conditioning was cranked up inside and it certainly felt good, but, although it was very hot out, it wasn't unbearable in the shade. I eschewed my usual pint of Sierra Nevada Summerfest and had a few glasses of iced tea instead.
I almost always start with an order of their halibut bites - small, battered and fried pieces of halibut that are one of my favorite appetizers anywhere and would not be out of place in a New England fish shack - but I didn't feel like gorging myself in the hot afternoon. ("Why not? Elizabeth asked.) So I skipped an appetizer.
My standard order is always their barbecue turkey sandwich. I absolutely love that sandwich and I've written about it on the barbecue blog. But today I decided to get a pastrami sandwich on sourdough. It was good. Not as good as the turkey sandwich, but the pastrami had very little fat and the mustard and cole slaw were outstanding. Even if this sandwich hadn't been free I would have been very happy with it.
Elizabeth ordered the crispy chicken salad. I have had Matt Denny's chicken tenders before and I really like them. This salad was topped with cut up pieces of the tenders. I took a couple bites and really enjoyed it. Not enough salads utilize corn and red onion, in my opinion, but this salad had a good amount of both. We took some leftover salad home with us and picked at it for the rest of the day.
This was another fun meal at Matt Denny's, the kind I have been having for the last decade.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Pasadena Chili Cheese Fries

For some reason I got it into my head that it would be a good idea to do a massive post on chili cheese fries in the Pasadena area. A couple of these are from a while ago, but most I have eaten in the last couple days. This may be a disgusting post. I don't care. Today is my birthday so I'm doing what I want.

On another birthday (7 years ago today, in fact) in New Orleans my friend Tom and I were out very late, drinking Hurricanes and Hand Grenades and all kinds of fruity-yet-delicious drinks. We were staying on Bourbon Street and before going back to the room we each grabbed a couple Lucky Dogs. If you have had one, you know how delicious those are after a night of boozing on Bourbon Street. If not, I hope you do some day. Your life will be better for it.

We got on the elevator, each carrying two hot dogs slathered in all manner of condiments. There was a gorgeous girl in the elevator, probably 21 years old, and a guy in his 50s or so. He thought it would make him look cool in the eyes of the girl to start making fun of us. We did not care. We may have been drunk idiots, but at least we weren't pathetic 50 year old dudes trying to hit on a girl 30 years younger than we were.

As we got off the elevator, the guy said to us: "Enjoy those, I hope they don't make you fat." Tom turned around and said "We don't care if these make us fat, because we're already fat." At the time I thought this was the wittiest comeback ever. Now, not so much. But the point is still relevant. I do not care if these chili fries make me fat. It was worth it.

Wolfe Burgers
Wolfe Burgers is one of my favorite places in Pasadena - they are delicious, inexpensive, they have a great patio, and they sell beer - and I love their chili, but I have never actually had their chili fries until this week. The chili was good, as always, but it didn't go well with the the fries. The chili is better by itself. I like Wolfe Burgers' freshly cut fries, but they don't get crispy enough to hold up to the thick chili. These were delicious, don't get me wrong, but the whole was definitely less than the sum of its parts.

Wienerschnitzel While not technically Pasadena, I bought these in Alhambra and ate them in Pasadena, so it's close enough. These were probably my least favorite of the bunch. The fries were very good - Wienerschnitzel makes very good fast food fries - but the chili was not. It was a runny sauce that tasted like the insides of Chef Boyardee's "99% fat free beef raviolis." And that is not a good thing.

Carl's Jr.

I have never had the chili cheese fries at Carl's Jr. This isn't terribly surprising; I don't think very much of the place. I went to the Carl's Jr. in Hastings Ranch. I hadn't been there in a year. Last summer Elizabeth and I had gone to a nice restaurant in Old Town, and, after having sat at our table for 25 minutes and been ignored by every employee - they didn't even give us menus, but they sat people next to us after we had been there 15 minutes, and taken their drink orders - we decided just to get some fast food and watch a movie at my parents' house (my parents were on vacation and we were staying at their house to watch their dog.)

We went by Carl's Jr., and as we pulled away from the drive-through window, a little girl ran out in front of our car. I jammed on the brakes, and, despite nearly giving us both a heart attack, everything was fine. Her parents were eating burgers on the sidewalk 20 feet away and they thought it was acceptable to let the two little girls run around the driveway playing tag at 11:30 PM on a Saturday night. They didn't even seem to care that the girl had jumped in front of my car. Sometimes I really hate people.

So this time, I didn't go through the drive-through, I sat inside. I was not terribly impressed when the fries arrived. They were covered with inexpensive cheese and not very good. I didn't really have high expectations for $3 fries at Carl's Jr., though, so I'm not complaining. Especially because they were actually pretty good. Not great, but better than Wienerschnitzel or Hi Life. Eventually the cheese melted, and the chili was decent, certainly better than a watery chili sauce, which is what I had been expecting. I am sure I will never eat these again, but for what they were, they were okay.

Original Tops

I've written about Tops chili cheese fries before. I do not like Tops fries at all, but I like their chil cheese fries. The fries by themselves taste like every other fried thing on their menu, a weird, cardboard-like taste. But the chili fries, drowning under a semi-solid pool of cheese, are delicious. I've never tried their chili by itself, but I should, because I really like it.

Del Taco

I went to the Del Taco on Lake to get some of their chili cheese fries. Wow. That was an experience. A lady sitting in front of the joint, wearing a faded Lakers t shirt, kept yelling out loud, repeating the phrase "Kobe is coming! Mmm hmm. You'll see." Inside, a woman who did not speak English very well was screaming at the manager because she thought an employee was giving her tacos to someone else. It didn't occur to her that there were about a dozen people waiting for food ahead of her and perhaps one of them had ordered tacos as well.

I took my chili fries to my car, made sure I hadn't been followed by anyone thinking I had taken their food or wanting to talk about the impending reduction in the NBA salary cap, and started eating. I have always liked Del Taco's fries but the thin chili sauce doesn't add anything to them. It's not terrible but all I could think as I was eating these was 'man, I wish I'd just gotten regular fries.'

Hi Life Hamburgers

I did not go to Lucky Boy because I think their fries are almost always undercooked and their chili is incredibly bland. So I went to Hi Life and got undercooked fries and bland chili. I know Hi Life has a devoted following but I imagine it has more to do with them having grown up on Hi Life than the actually quality of the food. These were not impressive at all.

Johnny Rockets
Johnny Rockets definitely has some of the above-average chili fries in Pasadena. The potatoes aren't the best but they are fried until they are perfectly cooked and piping hot. The chili is very high quality. I love the fact that the cheese is shredded right onto the chili before it's served and then it's allowed to melt as you eat the fries. I threw some chopped raw onion on a couple bites of fries but that didn't add anything.

Original Tommy's
I have to say Tommy's were my favorite fries I had this week. (I did not go to The Hat. Well, I went to The Hat but there was a line of about 20 not-too-bright people ahead of me. After standing in line for about ten minutes, during which one person was able to order, I walked out.) It's been many years since I have had Tommy's chili cheese fries. Usually my M.O. is to order a chili burger and regular fries and just hold the burger over the fries as I eat. There is such a generous amount of chili on each burger that I am able to get chili over most of the fries.

Tommy's fries, although thick cut, which I don't usually like, are almost always fried perfectly. They hold up very well against the chili. The fries only cost $3 and there is a ton of chili and cheese - two layers that melt together into a brick that gives you heartburn after 2.5 bites. But totally worth it.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Red Lobster

Ah, Red Lobster. I was over at my parents' house yesterday and trying to decide where to go to lunch with my mom. She wanted Din Tai Fung and I did not. I wanted barbecue and she did not. A commercial for Red Lobster came on the TV so I suggested that, which she agreed to with a "well, OK, since I can't think of anything better" kind of look.

There was a time, about a decade ago, when I went to Red Lobster frequently with my grandmother. Not surprisingly, she loved it. All old people love Red Lobster. But she passed away 7 years ago and, other than a couple of compulsory work dinners at Red Lobster, I have not been back. I don't think my life has been any poorer for that. (Once, I absolutely loved mahi mahi, it was my favorite fish. In my early 20s, my dad and I ate at a Red Lobster in Santa Maria and I had a mahi mahi so terrible that I have never been able to eat it again.)

We took a booth underneath a giant wooden lobster. Elizabeth worked at Red Lobster in the summers when she was in college, so I emailed her a picture of the lobster, asking "Can you guess where we are?" (She immediately replied "Yes. I can.") We were given the usual complimentary basket of cheddar biscuits. I have never liked these. Ever. But these were damn good, fresh out of the oven and not at all greasy, like every one I have ever had before.

"I usually don't like these at all," my mom said, "but these are really good." Hmm. It's like we're related or something.

She had the soup (clam chowder) and salad. She did not care for either. I tried some of the salad. It was decent, although the shrimp on it were lousy. I did not try the chowder.

I ordered the "beer battered shrimp & chips" off the lunch specials menu. It was only $6.99, so I knew it wouldn't be a huge portion, but I wasn't starving so I figured that would be OK. Curiously, the shrimp came with fries instead of chips. (And no, this was not a English-style shrimp & chips. It was supposed to come with homemade potato chips. Whatever.) The shrimp were very good, but there were only six of them. As I said, I wasn't expecting a massive portion, but I could have gone to the Popeye's a few blocks away and gotten a heaping plate of the exact same shrimp for the same price. (The lesson, as always: you can't beat Popeye's.) I was still a little hungry after I finished my plate, so I had another biscuit and some of my mom's garlic bread.

It wasn't a bad meal, and it was certainly affordable. But it wasn't good. I remembered that the reason I used to come here frequently was because my grandmother loved it, not because I enjoyed it. (The other place we used to go frequently was Sizzler.) So I don't know if I will ever eat at Red Lobster again. If I do, I will just stick with getting a whole lobster.