Sunday, November 29, 2009


Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite days of the year. There is no pressure to buy presents and attend lots of parties, like at Christmas time. It's just about football and eating and hanging out with people. This year I went to my friends Jim and Rachel's house. It was a gorgeous day as we drove up Marengo. The idea that it can be 82 degrees on Thanksgiving is still a little foreign to Elizabeth, but I am just fine with it. 
There was a platter of cheese laid out for appetizers. We all love cheese and seem to eat it for any occasion. I was outside for at least a couple hours, though, so I couldn't eat very much of it. (When I fry a turkey I am always pretty safety-conscious. I don't leave the oil unattended once the flame is lit and I never leave the turkey once it's submerged in the oil, which means I miss out on some of the football and a lot of the snacks. Oh well. I suffer for my art.)

I had purchased a turkey from Trader Joe's the day before Thanksgiving a let it thaw for quite a while, although there were still some pieces of ice in the bird when I started prepping it. I ran water all over the inside and out to thaw it, then put a rub all over the turkey and let it sit while the oil heated up. 

There was probably still a little ice left in the turkey somewhere, because it immediately stated spitting oil out of the pot. Not a big deal - I had turned off the flame thinking this might be a possibility - so I just made sure the oil wasn't all over the burner and re-ignited it. But there was a fair amount of oil that had spilled onto the patio, so rather than take pictures of the turkey as it was frying, I did a couple things to help clean up the oil.

After about an hour I took the bird out and let it rest for a while. When I fry a turkey I like to take off the entire breast and chop it into thick pieces so that everyone can get a piece of skin. (I'm not a big fan of the skin, but Elizabeth loves it, so I gave her mine.) I sneaked a few pieces of turkey before plating it all; it was great.

There were 6 of us in total at dinner. Our friend Tracie, who was down in San Diego County, did not join us but made us her famous mashed potatoes. They are about as good as any I have ever had. Rachel was very sick and apologized for the dishes she made, although it certainly wasn't necessary. The stuffing was more moist than usual, but I thought it was great. (Rachel wished she'd added more bread.) The green beans were definitely undercooked, but that's how I like them. I much prefer beans with a little snap to them rather than completely mushy. Jim made the cranberry sauce, a recipe with a lot of Jack Daniels in it. I have never liked cranberry sauce but I tried it. It was very good. The booze was definitely noticeable.

We all cleaned our plates. My friend Murph cleaned four or five plates, actually. When everything was laid out on the table before the meal we thought we were going to have enough leftovers to feed twenty people, but we actually ate a lot of food and didn't have as many leftovers as we'd expected. We all took some. Kevin later informed us that he was hungry when he got home so he ate his that night. Jim ate his the next morning for breakfast, with a slice of pie. I put a bunch of leftover turkey on a piece of garlic naan and baked it in the oven for lunch the next day. It was awesome.

Back in April, Jim and Rachel got married at the Koehler Winery in Los Olivos. So we opened up a couple bottles of Koehler wine - the Sauvignon and the Cabernet. 

We had considered making pies - like we have in years gone by - but Rachel's uncle gave her an apple pie earlier in the week and Elizabeth and I decided that rather than buying all the ingredients and possibly making a sub-par pie, we should just buy one from Pie 'n Burger. So I went there the day before Thanksgiving and bought us a pumpkin pie, fresh out of the oven. 

Now, I am not a pie person - not even a dessert person, unless it's cotton candy or homemade ice cream. But both pies were fantastic. My favorite was the apple so that's what I had a slice of, although I took a couple bites of the pumpkin.

After dinner we all watched National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, then Elizabeth and I went home completely full and went to bed early. Another great Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Porta Via

I've written about Porta Via twice before - once about their take-and-bake pizzas, and once when I ate there with Elizabeth's sisters. The other day, a slightly overcast autumn day, Elizabeth and I had lunch on their patio. It was busy - we both agreed it was as busy as we had ever seen it - but it did not take very long to get our food.

Elizabeth ordered the BLT and I had two turkey meatballs, and we split a small container of pasta with broccoli. My meatballs were good, but not as good as their regular meatballs. Obviously, the turkey contains less fat, and consequently they were a little on the dry side. I was asked if I wanted marinara sauce on top, which I did, and that helped, but then the dominant flavor of the bowl was mostly the sauce. I would not complain if I ate these again, but from now on I will stick to the regular meatballs. They are much better. 

The BLT, on the other hand, was phenomenal. "This is the best BLT I have ever had," Elizabeth said. I would not go that far, but it was indeed great. (I had several bites of it.) The pancetta was cooked perfectly. I use that word literally; there is no way it could have been improved. I would have liked some more of the basil aioli on the sandwich, but overall I loved it and I see many more of these in my future on chilly days. (By "chilly," of course, I mean anything colder than 75 degrees.)

The pasta was good but not remarkable. It was just a complement to our food, though, so it was fine. To drink I had a Diet Coke and Elizabeth had an Orangina. It has been years since I have had a sip of that - orange is not one of my favorite flavors - and I tried some of hers. I still do not like it very much.

I do not know why we don't eat at Porta Via more frequently. It is cheaper and the food is better quality than most restaurants around, certainly much better than restaurants of comparable price. Maybe one day we will get around to eating there more often. From what I can tell, they are in no danger of going out of business anytime soon, and that is a very good thing.  

Monday, November 23, 2009

Wingstop Boneless Wings

I wrote about Wingstop back in April. I was impressed with the quality of their chicken and I loved their fries, but the two sauces I sampled  - Cajun and Hawaiian - were horrible. And the meal, which was just a regular fast food-type meal, cost almost $14. (It was no better nor any more food than a $5 combo from KFC.) So I concluded that I probably would never go back. But then two things happened.

First, one of my 11 readers, a woman named Kelli, said that I should have tried the parmesan wings, that they are much better. Garlic Parmesan was one of the flavors I considered getting, but had decided against in favor of the Hawaiian, which I hoped would be flavorful (but was completely bland.) 

Second, Wingstop recently came out with boneless wings. I am a sucker for boneless wings. Whether they are the best boneless wings I have ever had (Wing-It in Boston) or just Wendy's reformed chicken nuggets in the shape of wings, I am never able to pass up boneless wings. So I figured I would give Wingstop another try. 

It was packed when I walked in. At least ten people were standing around waiting for their food. Of course, it didn't help that the woman working the counter was completely lost. She scribbled down my order on a piece of paper that was filled with other scribbles (she then had me repeat my order two more times) then rang it up on a relatively beat-up cash register. I took a seat under a flat screen TV and expected a long wait.

It wasn't too bad, only about ten minutes. I had ordered ten pieces of boneless wings, small fries and a small soda. I requested my boneless wings with two sauces: Garlic Parmesan and Original Hot. (The other sauce options, besides the aforementioned Cajun and Hawaiian, are Atomic, Teriyaki, Mild, Lemon Pepper, and Hickory BBQ.) 

I tried the chicken with parmesan on it first. As before, the chicken was fresh and hot. But all I could taste was the parmesan. And there was a ton of it on there. But no garlic. After I ate a couple, I realized there was a giant puddle of garlic oil at the bottom of the basket, so I dabbed a piece of chicken in the oil and tried it. Wow. It was tasty, but man, was it pungent. (Despite brushing my teeth that afternoon, my breath smelled of garlic for the rest of the day.)

The Orginal Hot sauce was the same buffalo sauce we have all tasted before - not bad but nothing to differentiate it from one thousand other sauces I have eaten in my life. The fries were again great, and plentiful; I couldn't even finish my "small" order. I wish more places went to the trouble to make fries like this - freshly peeled, fried long enough that they aren't a pile of soggy potatoes, and seasoned. (As I wrote in my previous take on Wingstop, these are what In-n-Out's fries could be.)

Barring a new promotion, this was probably my last visit to Wingstop. The Garlic Parmesan sauce was good - the best of the four sauces I have tried (good call, Kelli)  - but it still wasn't anything great. This meal cost a little over ten dollars, which isn't expensive, but it's not a good deal either. Of the three meals I have had here, not once have I left thinking it was anything more than fast food. I might as well go to Wendy's, where I can get two orders of 99 cent chicken nuggets with fries and a soda for four bucks. Or go to Chili's, where the boneless wings are more expensive, but the sauces are much better.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Empress Pavilion

Once every few months, some friends and I ride the Gold Line down to Chinatown for dim sum at Empress Pavilion. Usually it has to be on the weekends, where we inevitably wait at least an hour with what seems like half of Los Angeles, elbowing our way to the bar for beers to make the wait more tolerable, and trying to figure out what the sign means in the window of the shop in the corner of the plaza that reads "Penis Shrink Inside." But every once in a while, when the timing works out, we are able to go on a weekday. It's still crowded, but nowhere near as much as the weekends.  

Recently a couple friends and I were able to make the trip on a gorgeous weekday. For years we'd joked about the fact that the restaurant had a "B" in the window from the health department, but a few months earlier I had gone for dim sum and seen an "A" in the window, which I excitedly reported back to my friends. Now, however, the "B" had returned - or was still there and I simply made up the story about the "A," as my friends claimed

As soon as we sat down, as always happens at Empress, we were besieged by carts. We hadn't even ordered our Tsingtaos yet, and we had plates of pork buns, chicken and spinach dumplings, and fried shrimp and vegetable  dumplings. I have never been a huge fan of the pork buns here, they always seem a little too sweet. Still, of course, I eat at least one or two. I am a big fan of any of the dumplings with spinach in them, and these chicken ones were great. The fried shrimp dumplings are a tad on the bland side as is, but with a drop or two of hot mustard they are tasty.

We learned long ago to order a plate of spring rolls from the waiter who takes our drink order. Every once in a while you get a plate of spring rolls just seconds out of the fryer: the oil is so hot it almost burns your fingers and the crack of the first bite seems so loud you swear it must be audible on the other side of the dining room, even when crowded with hundreds of people. But sometimes they are spring rolls that taste as if they have been sitting out since the previous night's dinner. Unfortunately, this time they were the latter. Oh well. Win some, lose some. ("Win some, dim sum," my friend said, a truly cringe-inducing joke until I realized he is English and they have a different sense of humor. I mean humour.)

Next we had a couple plates of shrimp and pork shaomai. I never seem to remember that the contents of these can be hotter than molten rock. Inevitably I burn my mouth on the first one. And then I wait just a little too long to eat the next one and it's not as hot as I want. But at least they're always tasty.

I was pretty full by this point but the cart came around with the potstickers. I will never, ever pass these up. Have you ever seen Joey Chestnut after he's eaten more than 60 hot dogs in ten minutes and he looks like the slightest movement might make him puke? I could be that full and I still wouldn't pass up these potstickers, stuffed with chicken and vegetables and served with a sauce that I can never quite figure out. 

My friends also got an order of barbecue pork. Everyone with whom I have ever gone to Empress seems to love it, but I have always found their pork too fatty and devoid of flavor. Every once in a while I will try a piece and think it's great, but the next one will again be sub-par. 

We shared 13 plates of food and had two beers each and the total for each person was less than I have paid for a burger at lots of places in Pasadena. (And it's an even better bargain when you consider that I don't need to eat dinner whenever I have dim sum for lunch.)