Friday, October 29, 2010

BBQ Chicken Egg Rolls

On another of those nights where my desire to make something fancy for dinner was minimal - I mean, the World Series was on - I decided to turn to an old favorite: barbecue chicken egg rolls. I've made many variations of these in the past; this time I decided to use pulled chicken from Trader Joe's. I'd never tried this particular flavor before, with the "smoky bbq sauce."

I picked up a container of cole slaw at Whole Foods. There is always cheese in the fridge and I considered using something on the exotic side, but I knew there would be plenty of flavors to the egg rolls and fancy cheese was not needed, so I just used shredded mozzarella.

I heated the chicken in the microwave for about three minutes, then spooned a bit of it onto each egg roll wrapper, crowning a bed of cheese and slaw. I rolled the wrappers and fried them in hot oil for a couple minutes, just enough to get them a dark golden brown.

Recently I saw a short piece on TV about The Salt Lick barbecue restaurant in Texas. (I do not remember if it was during one of the Yankees-Rangers games or, more likely, the UCLA-Texas game last month.) I have never been to the Salt Lick but I have eaten their bottled barbecue sauce on occasion over the years and always enjoyed it. I had been hoping to get either the original or spicy version but all Whole Foods had was "chipotle" - a variation of the sauce that I had not tried. Between Scotch and nothing, I'll take Scotch. I bought the bottle.

I loved the egg rolls. The Trader Joe's chicken was tender and peppery, the crispy slaw and gooey cheese were a nice complement to each other, and the barbecue sauce was tasty. I need to start making egg rolls more frequently; I always forget how good they are.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Fast Food Review: Popeyes Crawfish Po' Boy

Like the etymology of San Diego, no one really knows where the name "Po' Boy" sandwich comes from. Scholars maintain that the translation was lost hundreds of years ago. The most popular story is that the term originated from the free sandwiches given out to striking New Orleans streetcar workers ("poor boys") in the 1920s.

But everyone seems to agree that the sandwich originated in New Orleans. And indeed that is where I had my first one: Mardi Gras 2000. I was 21 years old and a good friend of mine had booked a room on the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse more than a year in advance. The first morning we were there I headed down to Mike Anderson's Seafood with my friend, her boyfriend and her roommate. I had a fried shrimp po' boy on perfectly crusty bread. Any list of the top 5 sandwiches of my life would have to include that one.

Four years later I was in New Orleans again for Jazz Fest. My friends and I hit the town hard the night we arrived, as one does in the Crescent City. My friend Hatcher and I knew the city well, the other three people we were with did not, and we made it a point to introduce them to all the drinks New Orleans has to offer. The next morning I woke up early. Any list of the top 5 hangovers of my life would have to include that one. I knew the perfect cure. I waited for Mike Anderson's to open and was the first customer. I sat at the bar and ordered a shrimp po' boy. And a Turbodog. Oh to be 25 again.

A couple months ago I got a voicemail on my phone from my best friend from high school, David. I have not seen him in four years, since he joined the Coast Guard. He was in New Orleans and had just eaten a po' boy and it reminded him of me (there are far worse reasons for someone to think of you) since I first introduced him to the po' boy at Bubba Gump in Monterey in late 2000, a few months after my Mardi Gras trip.

Now it's 2010, a decade after my initial encounter with the po' boy, and Popeyes has introduced their "2nd Annual Crawfish Festival." I wrote about their crawfish last year and my futile attempts to eat some before finally finding a Popeyes that carried them. They were fantastic, probably the best thing I have ever eaten from Popeyes, and I've eaten a lot. (On that Jazz Fest trip, while waiting for Chris Smither to start performing in the Popeyes Blues Tent, I listened to a large man describe why each item at Popeyes is better than its comparable item at KFC, a lesson I neither disagreed with nor asked for.)

This year, Popeyes is not only offering the "crawfish tackle box," but three more items: a crawfish po' boy, crawfish etoufee, and crawfish "traveler" - basically a small order of crawfish for those who don't want to eat too many, although I cannot imagine who that would be. (For what it's worth, they will be giving out free samples of crawfish on November 3rd.) It's been far too long since I've had a po' boy and I decided I needed one.

Once again it would be difficult to procure the sandwich. I first tried the Popeyes up on Lake. I walked in and there were at least a dozen people in line, moving at a painfully slow pace. After a few minutes of waiting I left, determined to come back. I did a couple hours later, and this time there was nobody in line. However, although they had the crawfish tackle box on the menu, they did not have anything else.

"Are you doing the crawfish po' boy?" I asked the girl behind the counter.  

"The what?" she shrieked back at me. I was pretty sure at this point I could guess the answer.

"The crawfish po' boy."

"No."

That night Elizabeth and I headed down to the Popeyes in Alhambra. But there was no place to park. Two cars had literally parked behind other cars in the parking lot. I had no desire to do that. And there were lots of people waiting in line inside. We left and got burgers.

The next day (yesterday), I returned to that Popeyes for my fourth attempt at the po' boy. This time there were only a couple people in line, the sandwich was on the menu, and I was able to order within a few minutes. Ten minutes later I got my sandwich and took it out to the car. I unwrapped the thing and stared at it for a minute: it was beautiful.

I am often amazed at the quality of some of the items Popeyes comes out with. No, they're not fine dining, but they are as good as most restaurants, and a lot cheaper. This sandwich was a little over four bucks and it was fantastic. The fried crawfish were crispy on the outside and tender and buttery inside. The bread was very nice - the perfect balance of slightly-crusty exterior and soft interior.

The one thing I didn't like about the sandwich was the sauce. I'd read that it is supposed to be Popeyes "creamy horseradish sauce," which I like, but this tasted more like a sweet buttermilk sauce. Luckily I always carry some hot sauce in my car. (I don't know if that makes me smart or pathetic.) A few shakes of the hot sauce and the sandwich was much better.

I would gladly eat this sandwich again anytime, although I think on my next trip to Popeyes - in other words, this weekend - I will be getting the tackle box and eating the crawfish with different sauces.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Everest Restaurant

In what has become an almost-daily routine, I headed up Lake Ave to see if Fatburger is open yet. It is not. But I was still in a burger mood. I considered turning around and going to Wolfe Burgers. But, as anyone who has driven on Lake in the middle of the day knows, it can be a parking lot. I wasn't in the mood to deal with that. I remembered that there was a burger place way up on Lake, almost as far up as Altadena Drive, so I decided to go there. 

It's called Everest and as soon as I walked in I liked the place. It's nothing fancy at all, just a regular burger joint filled with people eating lunch. It reminded me visually of Fair Oaks Burger and olfactorily of someplace else, something I couldn't quite place. I ordered a burger with everything but onions for a friend and a turkey burger for myself. I turned my attention to the fries, offered in three sizes: regular, large, and "Tops jumbo."

Ah, that's what this place smells like: Tops. Is it owned by the same people? I made a note to check. (I don't think it is, but I have read that it used to be a Tops.) 

There were only two of us sharing the fries and I was reasonably certain a large - hell, from the look of the boxes coming through the pass, probably a regular - would be enough for the two of us. But the jumbo size was only fifty cents more and I kind of wanted to see how big it would be, so that's what I ordered. 

What I assumed were my fries were done in just a couple minutes and left sitting in the window. Then the guy behind the counter put them in a bag and sealed it. I hated this. The fries looked crispy and shiny with oil when sitting there. They were now steaming inside a bag, making certain they would no longer be crisp. If it had only been a brief time that would have been one thing, but it was more than five minutes before the two burgers were placed in the window. And then the cook and the counter guy argued about which burger was which for another couple minutes. 

I took my food and left. When I unwrapped it a few minutes later I was happy that some of the fries remained crispy, and those fries were very good, better than Tops fries ever have been. But far too many of the fries were the limp, soggy fries that Tops is famous for. The box was large, about the size of one of my shoes boxes (and I wear a size 13) so at least there were a fair amount of fries we could eat. We didn't even finish half the order. 

My friend took one bite of her burger and said "This is much better than Tops." I tried my turkey burger. It was good. Not as good as Fatburger's turkey burger, but still decent. Too often turkey burgers are dried-out, but this one was plenty juicy. 

While I liked Everest, I did not love it and it isn't as good as Fair Oaks Burger. Lunch for two people was just over ten bucks, and it certainly would have been under that if I hadn't intentionally ordered the jumbo fries. It's a good deal, which I imagine is the main part of its popularity. If there weren't a plethora of great burger options in this town I would probably return to Everest at some point. But without trying too hard, I can think of at least two dozen burgers in Pasadena that I like more, so I doubt I will ever return.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Fu-Shing Chinese Restaurant

Down Colorado Blvd, across from the former Pasadena Chevrolet dealer (soon to be a lumber yard, it appears), in a shopping center I have only been to once, to pick up a rental car that turned out to be a teal Camaro convertible, is Fu-Shing. I have heard a few good things about the place over the years but never been. Chinese food sounded really good to me yesterday, and I was out running errands in that part of town, so I decided to stop by.

Unlike a lot of Chinese restaurants I could name that give you only a few options for the lunch special - and never the items that you want - Fu-Shing has dozen of options. At another time I would have experimented with something slightly out of my comfort zone, perhaps along the lines of the extra-hot Szechwan beef noodle stew. But I was really hungry. So I went the more prosaic route: sweet and pungent chicken. (Basically one step less boring than ordering orange chicken.) Elizabeth ordered the sliced chicken with fresh mushrooms.

All lunch specials include hot & sour soup, the choice of fried or steamed rice, and the choice of chicken salad or an egg roll.

My drink at a Chinese restaurant is always one of two things: Tsingtao if I'm in the mood for a beer (usually that accompanies dim sum) or tea if I'm not.

When the hostess seated us, tucked away in the corner, we immediately got our pot of tea. But then we didn't see anyone for more than fifteen minutes. We weren't exactly being ignored; I'm not sure anyone saw us, and the place was busy. As I mentioned, I was hungry, and I worried that the service was going to be slow for the whole meal.

That concern was put to rest when the soup hit our table less than ninety seconds after we'd placed our order. I dug in. I really liked the soup. It wasn't the spiciest hot & sour soup I have ever had, but it was above the average and did the trick in clearing my sinuses. Elizabeth only ate half of hers, so I gladly finished that, too.

I have always loved the chicken salad at Yang Chow, bursting with the flavors of sweet dressing, ginger, crisp lettuce and crunchy noodles. This side salad at Fu-Shing was, in my mind, almost a clone of that salad. I had only decided at the last minute to get the salad instead of an egg roll, and I was very happy I did. If nothing else had been good, I would return just for this.

Elizabeth decided to get the egg roll. If you've read this blog before, you may have noticed a common theme: 99% of the time, Elizabeth makes better food choices than I do. This falls into that one percent. I took a bite of the egg roll and did not care for it much; the cabbage was cool and stringy. The whole thing lacked any flavor. 

The fried rice was also a dud. It was overloaded with soy sauce - almost swimming in it - and was not warm. I had the feeling this particular bowl had been sitting around in the kitchen for a while, waiting for the next person to order fried rice so it could be shoved into their hands.

The sliced chicken with mushrooms came out. "Just one minute for the other dish," our server said. Elizabeth asked if it was okay for her to start eating. I said of course. Ten minutes later, when my dish still had not been served, I took a couple pieces of her chicken. I enjoyed them, although by themselves they only had a touch of flavor. I can't get too upset, as I don't like mushrooms so I did not try the chicken as it's intended to be eaten.  

Finally, after a server asked me how I liked my food and I glanced down at the bare table in front of me and replied "I have not received it yet," my food was hustled out to me. I know this is an Americanized Szechwan dish, but I loved it. The chicken was crunchy and the sauce was both sweet and a touch spicy. A decade ago, when I thought Panda Inn was really good, I used to order their sweet & pungent shrimp, an item whose recipe they have now changed, and not for the better. This chicken reminded me very much of the flavors of that dish. Like the slippery shrimp at Yang Chow, it was very hard for me to stop eating these, and I ate several more than were necessary to satisfy my hunger. 

My fortune. "Wow," I said to Elizabeth, "they must know you." Most of the time I find myself funnier than she does, and this was no exception. 

After lunch, one of our errands took us by my parents' house, and their eyes lit up when they saw we had leftovers, which they finished. So four of us got lunch for the pre-tax price of $18.55, which is a very good deal. Although the service was spotty and the food we ate is nothing you can't get at hundreds of Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, I liked the place and realized there may be more to it than we experienced. I will definitely return to Fu-Shing to eat some more of that salad and try other dishes. I will never again sit at the table in the corner of the alcove, however.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Fast Food Review: Carl's Jr. Hand-Breaded Chicken Tenders

I had no choice but to try these. Back in August I wrote about a disappointing meal I had in Manhattan, comparing the order of chicken fingers I ate to Carl's Jr.'s.  But then I realized that I hadn't actually tried Carl's Jr.'s chicken tenders in years and perhaps I wasn't being fair. So I went and tried them again. They were terrible. I summed up the experience by saying I would only eat at Carl's Jr. again when they come out with new promotions.

Carl's Jr. caught wind of all this and decided to change the formula for their chicken tenders. Okay, that's not really true, but allow me a moment of self-delusion. The new ones are "hand-breaded" and "freshly-prepared." I'm not sure how true those things are, but it's always interesting when a fast food joint markets an item based on its quality, not its size or cost or outrageousness.

I stopped into Carl's Jr. on a rainy day. The place was packed. I mean, it was like In-N-Out on a Friday night. I placed my order then stood around and waited for almost fifteen minutes for my three-piece chicken strips. I took the bag out to the car.

(English question: what are the rules for hyphenating a compound adjective containing an adverb, such as "freshly-prepared"? I have read that a hyphen should never be used linking an adverb and adjective, but I have also read that it is acceptable in certain circumstances. Not that I need a to-go bag from Carl's Jr. to be grammatically perfect, but I am just curious. I like this blog to contain useful information every once in a while. Every once in a great while.)

The chicken strips were very hot, still glistening with oil. You are offered a choice of three sauces: honey mustard, buttermilk ranch, or "sweet & bold BBQ." Ordinarily I would opt for the honey mustard, but the words "sweet & bold" grabbed my attention. I was curious what exactly that meant, so that's what I asked for. I was further intrigued when it was given to me in a plastic Dixie container. What, do they mix it up in the back? Does every Carl's Jr. have their own unique recipe?

It turns out it's the exact same barbecue sauce Carl's Jr. has always used. That's not really a bad thing - I appreciate the pepper in the sauce - but it's nothing special. I should have just gotten the honey mustard.

But what I really cared about was the chicken. And it was pretty good. That may seem like damning with faint praise, I know. The chicken was juicy and hot. (Really hot. I only ate one in the car then drove the mile-and-a-half home and ate the other two.) They were not the same much-too-breaded, previously frozen chicken I ate last time. But at no point did I think Wow these are good.  

Are these better than the chicken strips at most fast food places? Yes. But that's like being the valedictorian of summer school or the best quarterback on the UCLA football team: it's not saying much. These are the quality of chicken strips that you would get at a diner. Maybe not the greatest thing in the world, but considering the cost for three was $3.61, they're a good deal. (Although I admit a fondness for the chicken strips in the deli section at Vons, which are better and about the same price.)

The best chicken strips I have ever had were at the Pearl Street Pub in Boulder, Colorado. The worst I have ever had were the previous order I ate at Carl's Jr. last month. These were much closer to the former than the latter. I didn't love them, but I would eat them again, which is more than I can say for almost everything else from Carl's.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Tracie's Happy Box & Potato Pancakes

My friend Tracie recently got back from two weeks in Florence. She sent me a text that she was coming over with her happy box. I wasn't quite sure what she meant. A couple minutes later she arrived with a 3-liter box of red wine from a little Florentine shop. It was very sweet at first, almost too much, but after breathing for a few minutes it was much more tolerable.

It's not something of which I can drink more than a glass or two at a time, but it's the best nine-euros-for-three-liters wine I have ever had.

Later in the evening we realized we needed dinner. I looked in the fridge; there was little. In the freezer was a box of Trader Joe's potato pancakes. They would have to do. I sauteed them in oil until they were golden brown and chopped up some cilantro to sprinkle over them. I mixed up a sauce almost as a joke: a packet of McDonald's hot mustard and some sour cream. But it turns out that was not a bad combination.

"These are really good," Tracie said.

"Well, I had to come up with something as good as your happy box," I said.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Carmine's Italian Restaurant & Bar

I've lived less that half a mile from Carmine's for more than two years, but I'd never gone in. Years ago I hung out at the bar with a friend on a couple of occasions, but I don't remember ever eating. Many years before that, when I was a kid, this location was Tommy Lasorda's restaurant, something about ribs and pasta, the name I don't quite remember. What I do remember is them being shut down for health code violations, including rat urine on plates. Some things you never forget. I'm sure that had something to do with me not ever eating there.

The other night my friend Carla and I were looking for a place to eat dinner. Elizabeth was hungry but had had a long day at work and didn't feel like joining us. I suggested we try Carmine's; Carla and I could eat there and bring home some leftover pizza for Elizabeth. Everyone thought that was a good idea.

Considering it was about 8 o'clock on a Friday night, the place was remarkably empty. There were a handful of people in the bar, but only two or three tables occupied in the dining room. We took a table and ordered a couple beers before opening the menu.

A Fat Tire for me, something lighter for Carla. (I don't remember what she ordered.) 

It was a cool evening and I was very hungry, so we started with some meatballs. There were two of them, each the size of a baseball. The balls themselves were good - not great - and I was happy to eat them, but the sauce was outstanding. Slightly sweet, with a savory bite, I was not expecting anything nearly this good. 

I hadn't thought much of the bread on the table. The place was so empty it would not surprise me if it had been sitting around for quite a while. But there was leftover sauce when we'd finished our meatballs so I used the bread as a vehicle to deliver more sauce into my mouth.

We ordered two medium pizzas. "Why not just get a large?" our waiter asked.

"Well, we are taking some home for someone else," I said,"and we want to make sure we have enough."

When the pizzas came out twenty minutes later we laughed: there was no question there would be enough. These are some generously sized medium pizzas. The first one we got was my standard garlic and basil. It was very good. I'm a much bigger fan of thin crust pizza than thick, but this crust was tasty. It will never replace Mamma's as my favorite pizza in the area, but it's better than most.

Our second pizza was pepperoni and jalapeno. We had wanted to get a pepperoni and green onion pizza as an homage to the Mt. Etna, the single greatest pizza that ever existed in Pasadena at the now-gone La Fornaretta. But they didn't have any green onions on the menu at Carmine's, so we got jalapeno instead. And these jalapenos were quite spicy. This was a good pizza, but I liked the first one better.

This is what we had left by the time we were full: more than a whole pizza. We could have just gotten one medium and been happy. Oh well. I took some home for Elizabeth and she liked it, and I ate the rest of the pizza over the weekend. It was very good reheated in the oven; the crust crisped up and the toppings tasted fresh for at least 48 hours.

I would be glad to go back to Carmine's if I am ever with someone who wants to, but I doubt I'll ever return by myself. It was good, but I like Mamma's, which is two blocks away, much more.