Friday, April 30, 2010

Cheap Eats

Everyone likes a good deal, right? I'm going to keep this brief today and write about a few good deals I've gotten in the last couple days.

Elizabeth loves the cream cheese wontons at Pick Up Stix. Every time we go there we get an order, sometimes two. I think they're good, although a bit plain. But I still eat some every time. They're not a particularly good value - an order of six is almost $5. (I once made them at home and $8 in groceries yielded about 30 wontons.) But on Wednesdays they are 25 cents each, so every once in a while I pick some up for dinner. Wednesday evening, I got 20 wontons, and we ate them all for dinner.

A few weeks ago I wrote about trying WingStreet on a Wednesday for some of their 50 cents wings. They were nothing special and I concluded that, while I would never pay full price for them, I might go back on a Wednesday and try a different flavor. Thinking that I might want something besides cream cheese wontons for dinner, and craving something spicy, I went by WingStreet after Pick Up Stix and got an order of 8 boneless wings in the hottest flavor, "Burnin' Hot."

I was disappointed in the wings. I did not think they were very spicy. Of course, Elizabeth tried one and she thought it was incredibly spicy. Maybe I have just killed my taste buds with all the spicy food I have eaten over the years and eventually I'll be one of those guys who has to dump half a bottle of hot sauce onto everything just to give it some flavor.

Last night I went to the South Pas farmers market with a few friends. My buddy Murph got himself a funnel cake (I think it was $4) and shared it with all of us. It was very tasty although pretty decadent. There were six of us nibbling on it and we still couldn't finish the thing. Murph said he would just throw the rest away. (Later in the evening I got a text that he couldn't find a trash can on the walk to his car so he had to eat the whole thing and he had a sugar buzz. They broke the mold when they made him.)

And, of course, what could be a better deal than free? Last week I volunteered at a charity event that my mom had a big hand in planning. My dad was there, and to thank me he bought me a bunch of raffle tickets. The one thing I won was basket full of vouchers for a free burger/fries/drink at In-N-Out. After the farmers market, Elizabeth and I and our friends Tracie and Carla headed down to In-N-Out for dinner.
You could select any burger and drink off the menu, so I got myself a Double Double and a vanilla milk shake to go with my fries. It was, not surprisingly, fantastic.
Have a great weekend.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Taco Station

Back in late 2003, over beers one night, my friend Hatcher told me about a taco stand Jonathan Gold had recently praised, comparing it to the legendary La Super-Rica in Santa Barbara. Statements like that are always going to get my attention. The new place was called Las Ruinas and it was down by PCC. Excitedly, I drove by that night and noticed the tiny structure - literally a shack on the corner of Green and Chester. It looked like the kind of place I would love. Unfortunately, I worked six days a week back then and the chances of me trying it were slim; their hours weren't absolute and as I recall they were only open a few hours in the middle of the day, and never on Sundays, which was the only day I had off.
Fortunately, a few months later, I was taking a notary class and exam all day on a Saturday at PCC. During the lunch break I walked the couple blocks to Las Ruinas. With so many expectations it seemed inevitable that the place would fall short. But it did not. It was one of the best meals I have ever had in Pasadena. Alas, by the time my scheduled changed and I had the whole weekend off, Las Ruinas had closed for good.
I thought about it many times over the years, almost always when I drove by the abandoned shack. Then my friend Tim sent me an email this morning with a link, asking if I had tried a new place called Taco Station. I opened the link and the shock of recognition was strong: it is in the former space of Las Ruinas. I decided I needed to try the place. Not someday, not when the weather gets warmer, and not even when Elizabeth got home from work. No, I needed to try it within the hour.
Taco Station is nicer-looking than Las Ruinas was - not that that would have been hard to accomplish - with several low tables, stools, and a few high tables scattered around. The gas pumps are shiny with new paint and the coolers full of soda and dessert are an awesome touch. If I were to open a taco stand - which would be perhaps one of the worst ideas ever - I would want it to look like this.
I ordered a cochinita pibil taco (marinated, roasted pork with pickled vegetables) and a steak quesadilla. The total for both was $8.51. The food was ready in just a few minutes; I'm pretty sure I was only the second customer of the day. I considered sitting at one of the tables but the wind was blowing pretty hard, so I took the food to my car.
I opened the taco first and was hit with the nicest aroma I have experienced in quite a while. I looked at it longingly for a couple minutes. It was almost too nice to eat. But I did, and it was the tastiest thing I have had in a long time. The pork melted in my mouth, the sweetness of it beautifully balanced by the pickled onions. I thought Damn, maybe I should go get three more of these to eat now and save the quesadilla for dinner. But by that time there were a few more people in line and I was really hungry, so I did not.
There was no way the steak quesadilla could live up to the taco, and it did not, but damn if it didn't come close. The steak was tender and there was lots of it. When I ordered it, I was expecting a thin, easy-on-the-meat quesadilla, and I thought $6.25 was a little steep. But it turns out it's actually a bargain. There were five thick wedges of quesadilla. Two light eaters could easily split one of these for lunch. It wasn't until I was halfway done with the quesadilla and I reached into the bag for a napkin that I realized they had included salsa. So I tried some of it on my last piece: it was the best salsa I have had in a long time, both spicy and flavorful. Most salsas achieve one of the two, but rarely both.
I loved Taco Station. They were very friendly, the prices are reasonable, and most importantly, the food was delicious. Unlike Las Ruinas, which was cash only, they take all credit cards. And unlike the hours at Las Ruinas, Taco Station is open 11-9 Monday through Saturday and even open 11-6 on Sundays.
I am already thinking about sitting out on the patio in the summertime, enjoying taco after taco. Undoubtedly the place will be popular and very busy by then, but I don't mind. This is not a chain, it's the longtime dream of the woman who owns the place. It has been years since I've seen a business in this town that I want to succeed as much as I do Taco Station.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Cypress Best Burgers

For years I've driven past Cypress Best Burgers, on the corner of Walnut and Mar Vista, and never thought twice about it. I have no idea when it opened, I have never heard a single friend of mine mention it, and I very well might have never even considered eating there. But then, a couple weeks ago, I ate at Connal's for the first time and really liked it. That got me wondering what other hole-in-the-wall joints I might have been missing out on all these years. I figured I should give Cypress Best a try.

It was almost empty when I walked in, just after noon. This did not seem like a good sign. Connal's, Rick's, and even Lucky Boy are always crowded at lunch. I ordered the #1 combo - they have about a dozen of them - of a hamburger, fries and a drink. The total was $5.70, certainly a reasonable amount as long as the food wasn't terrible.

I took a seat and waited a few minutes. I received my food and it looked exactly like what I was expecting: a generous helping of fries and a not-terribly-fresh looking burger. The fries were disappointing. They are the same fries you get at most burger stands. This can go one of two ways: they can be cooked long enough so that they're hot and crispy and dusted with a touch of salt (Rick's are almost always done well) or they can be undercooked and drowned in salt so that they are limp and not tasty (which is what I have been served at Lucky Boy every time except one.) 

These fries set a new standard for undercooked. Their centers were actually cool. If the place had been packed and they were just trying to crank out orders, I would have understood. Not accepted, but understood. But there were two other people in the whole place. How hard is it to cook frozen fries until they're no longer cool in the center?

The burger was okay. Not particularly good, and it was unnecessarily loaded with lettuce and a Thousand Island-like dressing, both of which squirted out of the burger with each bite, but I ate the whole thing and was content. If you left a Rick's burger in the fridge overnight then microwaved it the next day, I imagine it would taste similar to this. 

When I first noticed all the combos, before I ordered my food, I thought If this is good, I will definitely come back and try the pastrami sandwich and shrimp combos. I do not plan to go back. Their prices are good, but so are many places around town that serve much better food than this. 

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Fast Food Review: Wendy's Spicy Chipotle Boneless Wings

Two weeks ago, when writing about the Del Taco Santa Fe Chicken Taco, I mentioned what a sucker I am for any promotion containing the words chipotle, boneless or whiskey. Sunday, Elizabeth and I were up in Burbank at the Empire shopping center, which will no doubt serve as a model of poor parking lot planning for generations to come. The lack of entrances/exits - combined with the large number of drivers who are too stupid to understand how a four-way stop works - can make parking here a nightmare. 

But we were going to the massive Target Greatland, looking for something specific on sale (a set of sheets, to be precise) so I was willing to deal with the hassle. Driving through the lot I spotted a sign in the window of the Wendy's in the parking lot, advertising "New Spicy Chipotle Chicken Boneless Wings." I would have jammed on the brakes and immediately pulled the car over, but I probably would have been rear-ended by the woman in the SUV behind me, chatting away on her cell phone. So I somewhat cautiously found a space. 

I stood in front of a vacant register for several minutes while no one acknowledged me. That annoyed me. I understand working at a chain fast food joint probably isn't the most exciting job in the world, but how hard is it to crack a smile at a customer or say "I'll be with you soon"? After a few minutes I gave my order. The food was ready is about two minutes - less than half the time it took me to order it. 

I opened the container at the table and was immediately hit with the pungent aroma of the chipotle peppers. It was strong. Far too often, foods that co-opt the word "chipotle" are betrayed by their smell and taste; they taste like standard hot sauce and nothing like chipotle. Anyone who has ever opened a can of chipotles knows the unmistakable scent. And that's what these smelled like.

I took a bite. First, the bad part: the chicken sucked. It was neither crispy nor tender. It was an almost-rubbery chicken that tasted like it had been fried hours earlier and left under a heat lamp. The sauce, however, was surprisingly good. It was much spicier than I expected (again, I have been conditioned to expect that any fast food item describing itself as spicy is most likely not) and the flavor of chipotles was pretty strong. I wish the chicken had been better.

Although I'm not sure if I will ever order these again, they are by far my favorite of the four flavors of boneless wings Wendy's has released in the last year. Now, if they would just get on those whiskey wings.... 

Monday, April 26, 2010

Five Guys Burgers and Fries

I first heard of Five Guys Burgers and Fries a few years back, descriptions ranging from That's a pretty good burger to This burger is the best in the world. My East Coast friends and relatives inevitably described it to me as "The East Coast In-n-Out," a description guaranteed, if nothing else, to grab my attention. I doubted the veracity of it, though: in a dozen trips to the East Coast, not once did someone say to me "I'm taking you to Five Guys." I cannot count the times I have taken people to In-n-Out when they have been visiting me in California.  

With the explosion of food blogging, pictures of Five Guys burgers are ubiquitous on the web. A "Google images" search yields thousands of results. And damn if they don't look pretty delicious. Their fries look much better than In-n-Out's, too. There are two locations in Southern California - Cerritos and Carson - but I never made the trip. It's not so much that I'm lazy, it's more that I only have the time and budget for so many meals. I try to keep things in the Pasadena area as much as possible. 

One day not long ago I came across a story about the Five Guys in Brooklyn, New York. Something about the address - 138 Montague Street - seemed very familiar. I looked at an old email and realized why: it is only a couple numbers off from Elizabeth's address before she moved out here. 

"You lived next to Five Guys?" I asked. 
"Yes," she said. "It's awesome."

That settled it: I needed to try Five Guys soon. On Saturday we had to pick up something downtown and were considering lunch options. Should we take the Gold Line and eat at Philippe's or Spring Street Smokehouse? Should we check out L.A. Live (I still haven't been) and go see the new statue of Chick Hearn outside Staples Center? While debating what to do, I came up with another idea: drive down to Carson, eat at Five Guys, then stop downtown on the way back. This sounded great to Elizabeth. 

Although the shopping center - the South Bay Pavilion - was packed, Five Guys was not very busy. There was not a single person in line. This surprised me. (It got much busier; by the time we left there were more than a dozen people in line.) I had read enough about Five Guys to know that their regular burgers come with two patties, so I ordered one of those. You can choose from fifteen toppings for your burger, all free. I selected grilled onions, lettuce, pickles, and A.1. sauce. Elizabeth ordered a "little cheeseburger" (meaning only one patty) with lettuce, mayonnaise and pickles.  She also reminded me of something I had read but forgotten: their orders of fries are massive and we could easily split one. I ordered a large (I wanted to see how big they are).

The food was ready in a few minutes. They aren't the most attractive burgers, but then again in matters like this there is only one thing I care about: the taste. And this burger was awesome. Life changing? No. But a great burger, much better than almost all fast food burgers. It reminded me of the way Fatburger used to be. The fries - I'd ordered them cajun style - were indeed a huge portion. We did not come close to finishing them. A small order probably would have been enough for the two of us. 

Elizabeth gave me a bite of her burger so I could see how they taste with cheese. I didn't much care for it. While I love cheese, in my opinion a cheap slice of American cheese does nothing to improve a quality burger. Do I mind it on a McDonald's patty? No, not at all. But a grilled patty of fresh ground beef doesn't deserve anything other than great cheese, and if that's not an option, I prefer it plain. I asked Elizabeth if this was as good as the one in Brooklyn; a complaint about Five Guys is that their locations in the West are not as good as the ones back East. She said that the New York location was better. 

Any review of Five Guys inevitably includes an In-n-Out comparison, so I will refrain. A lot of people seem a little too eager to make the comparison, usually not to be informative but to slam one of the two places. It's a different kind of burger than In-n-Out. A more apt comparison would be The Habit - grilled the same way and offering a variety of toppings. If there was a Five Guys in Pasadena I would certainly eat there on occasion. I don't see myself ever driving down to Carson again to eat there, but I am glad I did it Saturday.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Hamburger Hamlet

One winter evening when I was 23, I was watching the NFL playoffs in a house I was renting with my friends Tom and Zach, on the eastern edge of the Mid-Wilshire district. A power line in our backyard blew out, killing our electricity and setting a small fire that we tried to fight with the hose, although when Zach attempted to turn on the water he pulled the whole line out of the ground. We used a bucket and water from the pool. After the firefighters showed up - they basically looked at the smoldering palm fronds and said: "Well, hopefully that'll stay out" and went on their way - we were left hungry and with no television. So we went out in search of a place to eat and watch the game. We settled on the Hamburger Hamlet on Sepulveda, took seats at the bar and ordered some beers.

I remember this night well, not only as the night my friends and I bravely fought a blazing inferno (or a fire so small we couldn't have even toasted marshmallows over it, depending on what level of honesty you want from this blog) but also for the game we watched that night: the "Tuck Rule Game," when the Patriots beat the Raiders in the snow after Tom Brady's apparent fumble was ruled a incomplete pass, based on a two-year-old rule known as the "tuck rule," a rule so arcane not a single one of us in the bar had ever heard of it.

This was my first visit to Hamburger Hamlet as an adult, and possibly my first visit overall. (I may have eaten there when I was a kid, but I have no memory of it.) I had decent fish & chips, two or three beers, and overall I thought it was a nice place to sit at the bar with two friends and watch a game, although nothing particularly good, as evidenced by the fact I never went back, neither to that Los Angeles location nor the one in Pasadena.

Not long ago I went with my mom to a store on south Lake Ave to buy a present, and we decided to go to lunch. After considering a couple places, we settled on Hamburger Hamlet, which was a couple doors down. It was crowded inside, which I considered a good sign, and we took a table in the middle of the dining room. 

My mom ordered a cup of French onion soup and a side salad. I opted for the "Gourmet Baby Burger Sampler," consisting of small versions of four burgers: All American, Hickory Cheddar, Caliente, and Steakhouse Blue. First up was my mom's soup, which she encouraged me to help her with. The cheese was very tasty but the broth was much too salty for me. This was my least favorite French onion soup I have had in a long time. 

When my plate arrived the first thing I noticed was how carelessly it was presented: two of the buns had fallen off their respective burgers and shredded lettuce and fries were scattered around the plate. I certainly don't demand that my food look pretty when it arrives, but it's a little off-putting when it looks like the plate might have been dropped on the ground. 

Two of the mini burgers were great and two were lousy. The Caliente was my favorite: pepper jack cheese, caramelized onion, and a Serrano pepper and cilantro pesto. This was outstanding and I wish I had just ordered the regular version of this burger for my meal. The Steakhouse Blue was also very good, with pepper, blue cheese, horseradish sauce and A.1. sauce. It might have had a few too many flavors going on at once, but I still liked it. The Hickory Cheddar and All American burgers were the opposite: they had almost no flavor, just very bland burgers. I added some A.1. sauce to both to make them more edible. 

As is usually the case with sliders, the meat on all of these was overcooked. I understand it's difficult to cook tiny patties in any way other than well done, so that's usually what you're going to get with sliders. (Even when I cook sliders myself I usually overcook the meat, even when I'm paying attention.) The best sliders are redeemed by their toppings, as the Caliente and Steakhouse Blue were. But when you put rather boring toppings on sliders - the sauces on the All American and Hickory Cheddar were Thousand Island and barbecue - it leaves them lacking. I would not recommend getting the Baby Burger Sampler unless you are okay with a minimal amount of taste to half your sliders.

In the future, if I am with someone who wants to go to Hamburger Hamlet (although I cannot imagine who that would be) I will gladly go. I will get the Caliente burger and an iced tea and be content. But I don't see any way I will make an effort to go there again myself. In a town like Pasadena, where there are at least half a dozen burgers that I love, there is just no reason for me to go to Hamburger Hamlet more than once in my life.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

BJ's Brewhouse

I wrote about BJ's last summer after I had lunch there, which was my first return to a BJ's since the beginning of the decade. While I like the place fine, there is certainly nothing special about it and I did not see any need, after that meal, to ever return. They came out with a pulled pork sandwich a few months ago and my friend Zach tried it and told me he was surprised by it. While I knew it wouldn't be actual barbecue, it sounded good and I made a note that if I ever ate at BJ's again I would try it.

Saturday, Elizabeth and I headed up to Lancaster/Palmdale for the afternoon. We were going to visit the California Poppy Reserve, play some miniature golf, and see a minor league baseball game in the evening. I wasn't sure what our food options were going to be; I don't think I've ever exited the highway in Palmdale.

Not surprisingly for a city that has multiplied in size in the last couple decades, there was the usual collection of shopping centers, all clustered around the same two streets that basically become parking lots on a Saturday afternoon. The same collection of Best Buy/Target/Bed Bath and Beyond/Pet Smart shopping centers that you see in several dozen cities in California these days. We idled at an intersection for a few minutes while people had a difficult time dealing with the whole red-means-stop-green-means-go concept, and from where we sat I could see no fewer than six chain restaurants, none of which I plan to ever eat at again. I was getting hungry, and a couple blocks away we drove by a BJ's, so I suggested we try it. Elizabeth had never been and she agreed. 

Other people had the same idea. It was packed and we had to wait for a table. (Given the other nearby restaurant choices, this did not surprise me.) After being seated it took quite a few minutes - and three different servers - just to get a couple iced teas. But at least the wait gave us time to study the menu. The pulled pork sandwich sounded good to me. Elizabeth decided to get two small plates after I promised to have a couple bites: Santa Fe spring rolls and a tomato and mozzarella salad. 

Compared to how long we had to wait to get our iced teas, it did not take long for the waiter to appear with the salad. He sat it down in front of Elizabeth and asked "Did you want this first or at the same time as the spring rolls?" This seemed to me an example of closing of the barn door after the horse has gotten out and I let out a small laugh, but the server caught himself and said "Sorry, I guess I should have asked first." At any rate, we didn't care and we dug in. Although I did not try any tomatoes, the cheese was nice and soft and the balsamic glaze - which is something I often find too sweet - was very tasty.

The rest of our food arrived a short while later. I first scarfed down a few shoestring fries. These were just as good as the ones I had last summer. I took a spring roll before I tried the sandwich. They were good. They weren't great and after the egg rolls I ate the previous weekend they seemed awfully bland, but the chicken and peppers were a nice combination and the spicy sauce was indeed spicy. 

Zach was right about the sandwich: it was surprisingly good. It is roasted pork, not barbecue by any means, but for what it is, it's good. The cripsy onions are a nice touch and the red cabbage slaw, which was served on the side (although I spooned a lot of it into the sandwich), was tasty. The barbecue sauce was much too sweet for me; I would have preferred something with a vinegar bite to it, but then again it was exactly the kind of sauce I was expecting a place like BJ's to serve, so I was prepared.  

We were both pleased with our meal, although neither of us thought it was anything more than slightly better-than-average. I would not recommend anyone go out of their way to try BJ's, but if you find yourself in a similar situation to us, at a shopping mall somewhere in America where your options are BJ's, Olive Garden, Chili's or Red Lobster, I certainly think you should check out BJ's.