Monday, January 31, 2011

Claro's Italian Market

It was a hot January Saturday, one of those Southern California days when everyone seems to be outside, driving on the streets, playing ball in the parks, eating at every restaurant with an outdoor patio in the San Gabriel Valley. We had gone by the mall to buy a gift and it was as empty as I remember it ever being on a weekend day. We were hungry and I suggested driving down Rosemead Blvd, eating somewhere we'd never been. I was thinking of something Asian but if we ended up driving all the way to Long Beach I would have been okay with that.

Traffic was pretty heavy so I aborted that idea in San Gabriel and turned down Valley - still thinking of something Asian or perhaps some fried seafood - when we passed Claro's Italian Market. "I could go for a sandwich," I said. There is a Claro's in Arcadia and I know I've been there, but I have no memory of it. It may have been when I was a kid twenty years ago.

It wasn't too crowded inside, there were only three people in line ahead of us, but they were ordering a lot. It took almost twenty minutes to place an order. I overheard two people say they were from out of town and loading up on meats and cheeses for the drive home. The other lady was one of those high-maintenance types, seemingly having a problem and multiple questions with every cut of meat the counterman provided her. (Did you see The Wrestler? Remember the lady who kept saying to Mickey Rourke "A little more... no, a little less.... a little more now." That was this lady. Of course she had to get about twenty different packages of food.)

Finally it was my turn. I ordered a turkey and garlic salami sandwich with Provolone and everything but tomatoes: lettuce, mustard, mayo, pickles, pepperoncini and Italian dressing. Elizabeth ordered a prosciutto sandwich with mozzarella, lettuce, and balsamic vinegar. The sandwiches took a little under ten minutes to make, we paid for them (and a jar of spicy marinara sauce from Angelo's of Mulberry Street, which made my Little Italy-loving Elizabeth extremely happy) and sat outside at one of the small tables across from the parking lot.

My sandwich was fantastic. I don't know how I could possibly choose my favorite sandwich of all time - how I could I ignore pulled pork, or lobster club, or pastrami, or perfectly crispy bacon? - but if I was forced to, I believe turkey and salami would take the top spot. If I had this sandwich to order again, I probably would opt not to get the Italian dressing (the combo of that with the mayo/mustard was unnecessary) but I loved it. I could have eaten the whole thing but I knew I would appreciate having half of it to eat later. Which I did.

Elizabeth's sandwich, of which she was nice enough to give me a bite, was also delicious. The prosciutto was very high quality and the tang of the balsamic vinegar was a wonderful complement. She misses the ability to get a great sandwich on almost every block in New York, so she is very appreciate when she finds a sandwich she loves around here, and she loved this one, which she washed down with a Stewart's soda.

It was a lot of fun visiting Claro's. I've been in many old Italian markets in my life, but not many in the San Gabriel Valley. Later in the week I'm sure we will use the spicy marinara sauce for something. I will take pictures.

Friday, January 28, 2011

My Dim Sum Idea

We have all - if we've been lucky enough - had meals that were planned long in advance and still lived up to the hype. I was lucky enough to take a 7-week trip around the country with my family when I was a kid; my parents planned many meals long in advance. I remember a meal at Commander's Palace in New Orleans - years later I learned Emeril was the head chef at the time - though to be honest I remember less about the food than the artwork and the fact that I had to wear a tie.

Last spring was Elizabeth's 30th birthday and I planned a dinner at The Hitching Post long in advance. In the back of my mind was always a worry that it would be a disappointment, a tourist trap, but in the end it wound up being the best steak I have ever eaten. Years ago my friends and I planned a New Orleans Mardi Gras trip almost a year in advance. At the time of the planning we knew one restaurant we had to eat at. We did and it was magical.

But then there is the flip side; those meals that come together in the spur of the moment and could not possibly be improved upon. That's the good stuff, those times you're sitting with your friends and you think Hey, I've got some carne asada in the fridge, let's grill it. Those summer nights when you're watching a game at Dodger Stadium and you realize it's the top of the 9th and if you leave right then you can make it to El Cholo for one cerveza and a quesadilla before they close. It might be cutting it close but then again it's Dodger Stadium so most of the fans have already left, right? That time when you were a teenager and starving and thinking about microwaving a frozen pizza and your dad called you on his way home from work and said "I was thinking about stopping by Philippe's; want a French dip?"

Yesterday evening my friend Tracie stopped by to drop off a camera; I had lent her our spare camera a while ago and now that our main one is busted, I needed it back. She asked if I had anything to drink but I did not. We ran out and got some wine and returned to sit on the patio. I almost feel guilty, looking at the weather in much of the country, but it was a very nice evening and we relaxed until Elizabeth got home.

We talked for a couple minutes about what to have for dinner. (Actually, they talked about makeup for a long time while I tracked the UCLA-Arizona score on my phone.) I suggested I make dim sum from some of the items we had in the fridge.

"Do you have any oil?" I asked Tracie.

"Yes," she said, "and a shallot and some cilantro that I need to use."


My parents got me a bamboo steamer for Christmas and I used that to steam Trader Joe's pork buns and some chicken and garlic mini dumplings. The other day I had run a couple errands for my mom and stopped by my parents' house in the afternoon. I had not eaten all day and I saw a bag of chicken & garlic mini dumplings in the freezer. I ate half of them... and then the other half. The next day I went by the store and bought yet another bag. These things are delicious but as violently spiced as any dumplings I have ever eaten. Smearing them with Zankou garlic sauce would actually temper the flavor.

I pan fried another favorite of mine, the Trader Joe's vegetable birds nests that have made more than one appearance on the blog over the years. They are always fantastic, as good an appetizer as any restaurant vegetable tempura I have ever had.

Since picking up the four-compartment sauce dish at Cost Plus last month, I have been going a little overboard with making sauces. And this was no exception.

In the upper left corner, I poured some mustard barbecue sauce, rice vinegar, and diced shallots. This was my favorite sauce with the barbecue flavor of the pork buns.

In the upper right corner is the Tabasco Sweet & Spicy sauce that I had Elizabeth pick up in New York last month. I did nothing special to this other than shake it out of the bottle.

The vegetable birds nests come with two packets of a tempura dipping sauce that is decent, but much too sweet for my taste. In the lower left corner of the sauce dish, I added some chopped cilantro and a few dashes of red chili flakes to the sauce, which added just the right amount of spice. This sauce went beautifully with the fried tempura birds nests.

In the lower right corner is the other packet of sauce, mixed with Trader Joe's "garlic aioli mustard sauce." This was definitely delicious although the pairing of it with the chicken & garlic dumplings was powerful; I believe I could have lit a candle by breathing on it.

This was a fantastic, relaxing dinner, made all the better by the fact that it was a last minute decision. From the time we decided to make dim sum to the actual eating of it was less than twenty minutes. It was my favorite dinner yet of 2011.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Meat & Potatoes

A couple days ago, Elizabeth said to me: "You know what I really would like for dinner this week? Steak. A really good steak."

This works out perfectly, I thought to myself. Taco Bell is launching its "Quad Steak Burrito" on Thursday, I could kill two birds with one stone: write about a new fast food product and satisfy Elizabeth's needs for a really good steak.

Then I started to see a flaw in my logic. Several flaws, actually.

I thought about it some more. Just the other day Elizabeth let me watch six straight hours of football and Huell Howser. I guess I could get her a better steak than Taco Bell. So I picked up a USDA Prime ribeye steak. (It was about ten times the cost of a Quad Steak Burrito and approximately one hundred times better tasting.)

While I let the steak sit out to warm up, I sliced a couple potatoes into wedges and roasted them in the oven with some olive oil, salt, pepper, and paprika. I took them out when they were almost ready (40 minutes) and set them aside to cool down.

I let the indoor grill heat up for a long time. I cracked salt and pepper on the ribeye, put a pat of butter on top and placed the meat on the grill. As usual I admired the sound for a minute. The meat cooked for about seven minutes on one side, I flipped it for another seven, removed it, covered it with foil, and let it rest.

I imagine everyone who has cooked steak has heard the advice to let it rest for five minutes after removing it from the heat. With a thick (this was just under two inches), pricey cut of steak, this is even more crucial. In my opinion, nothing ruins a steak more than overcooking it. If I overcook a ground chuck burger topped with cheese, I'm not going to care very much. But a buttery, prime cut from the center of the cow? I definitely don't want to cook the flavor out of that.

(I did not always feel so passionate about this; then I read Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential and learned about the lousy cuts of meat that some chefs cram in the back of the fridge, marked "save for well-done" to serve to the "rube who prefers to eat his meat or fish incinerated into a flavorless, leathery hunk of carbon." I thought back to a steak I ordered well-done in Reading, Pennsylvania when I was 19 and how sick I got that night. I've never ordered anything well-done again.)

The whole time the steak was cooking, I had potato wedges on the grill, getting them warmed up again with barely-visible grill marks and a slight crisp to the exterior. When they were ready I quickly sauteed some spinach with a little olive oil and salt and pepper in the wok. I plated all three and took a few pictures, which showed remarkable restraint on my part - I couldn't wait to eat these.

Everything was delicious: the steak was melt-on-the-tongue good. I put some "garlic aioli mustard sauce" in a dish next to steak sauce. The former was great with the potatoes; the latter was completely unnecessary for the steak. It did not need any condiment.

I haven't had the Taco Bell burrito yet, but I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that it won't be as good as this dinner.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

McDonald's Chipotle BBQ Bacon Angus Third Pounder: Bringing It All Back Home

When I heard a couple weeks ago that McDonald's was "coming out" with a Chipotle Angus Third Pounder, I smiled to myself. I tried the thing more than two and a half years ago - it was the first ever post on this blog. But I don't expect that you've read it; that was back in 2008, long before anyone read this. It was a ghost town here. Tumbleweeds rolled around. D.B. Cooper would stop by and leave comments. I didn't even read what I wrote half of the time; I let my cat walk around on the computer, ran spell check and hit "publish." (I believe this is also how James Patterson has written his last four novels.)

Ah, but how things have changed, and now my empire is nearly complete. I believe I am up to fourteen readers. ("When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer" - Hans Gruber)

So why not try this "new" burger again, two and a half years and 537 posts later? One more time for the sweet souvenir. Maybe I will even make this my last post ever, bookending the blog with two brief bursts on this bbq burger.

The "Angus Third Pounders" are 5.5 oz prior to cooking. I'm not a big fan of McDonald's meat so the last thing I usually want is more of it, but the Angus patties definitely taste better than the other patties McDonald's serves. (I was given a Big Mac the other day and I ate it, my first in almost 15 years, and I hated it.)

The burger comes with a slice of cheese, pickles, bacon, red onion, and a chipotle barbecue sauce. First things first: the bacon was disgusting, inedible junk. One piece of it looked translucent, basically a brittle piece of solidified fat. I used to think it was simply not possible for fast food bacon to be any good, but lately both Arby's and Wendy's have been serving sandwiches with decent bacon, so it is possible. McDonald's chooses not to use quality stuff.

And the red onion was not good, either; it was strings from the outer part of the onion, those moisture-less rings you can't really eat. The pickles were good, thicker than you get on other burgers, and the cheese was the same fake-looking stuff you get on any McDonald's burger: not exactly good, but pretty harmless.

But the two most important things here are the patty and the sauce. At least to me. The patty was average by fast food burger standards - which, as I wrote, is pretty good by McDonald's standards. And I would have to say the same for the sauce. McDonald's barbecue sauce is probably my least favorite of any chain's barbecue sauce, a sickly sweet mix of ketchup and corn syrup that tastes as if a couple packets of sugar are dumped into each container.

So the chipotle barbecue sauce is certainly a little bit better than that, but devoid of much flavor. One only need watch Food Network for, oh, five minutes to learn that a chipotle is a dried, smoked jalapeno. (Actually I should rephrase that: one used to only need watch the Food Network for five minutes to learn that, back when the Food Network actually taught you things, before it became a series of travel shows and reality TV contests.) So a chipotle should have some decent heat to it. But there was not really any heat to this sauce; I imagine only a slight amount of chipotle powder is used in each dollop of sauce.

So, while it's one of the better McDonald's burgers I have ever had, it's nothing very good. It could have been a lot better, with some quality bacon and a spicy sauce, but I don't think quality is one of McDonald's main concerns when making its burgers. And I don't think I will ever order one of these again.

I will continue to stick with McNuggets at McDonald's - both eating them and continuing my futile-yet-noble campaign to bring back the Shanghai McNuggets. I was just kidding earlier when I suggested I might make this my last post. I will not stop until those McNuggets return.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Pinot & Pizza: Saffron at the Walker House

In 1887, the Walker House was completed along the Santa Fe Railroad line. A land boom was envisioned and the building - then known as the San Dimas Hotel - had 33 rooms and 14 fireplaces. But the boom never came and the hotel never had a single paying guest. It was one of the first buildings in San Dimas and the house went through various uses over the decades - home, school, church, social club - but by 1997 it was vacant and rotting.

Then the city purchased the building and renovated it, and the Walker House became home to organizations like the San Dimas Festival of Arts and the San Dimas Historical Society. In 2009, the restaurant Saffron relocated to the building. The Queen Anne-style mansion sits on San Dimas Avenue, just north of the railroad tracks, the last surviving 1880s-era railroad hotel in Southern California.

A few weeks ago my brother - who bought a condo in San Dimas last year - told me about the Thursday "Pizza & Pinot" nights at Saffron, when pizzas, appetizers and Pinots (both Noir and Grigio) are all half price. I love pizza; I love Pinot; I love half price.

I drove out with my parents in the evening to meet my brother and his friend for dinner. Upon walking into the building and informing the hostess that we had reservations, she asked "Are you eating from the regular menu or the Pizza & Pinot menu?" I answered the latter and she gave us all small menus with the selections (and also one of the main menus, which has the wines listed).

[My camera broke and the screen is now completely black. I cannot see or review any pictures I take; I just have to snap away and hope for the best. The menu pictures turned out a bizarre orange tint that hurts my eyes to look at, so I changed them all to black and white photos. I suppose it fits in with the old-time feel of Saffron.]

The server informed us that any of the red wines are half-price during happy hour. I asked which the most popular is; he said it was only his first week working there but it seemed to him like most people were ordering Pinot Noir.

"Well," I said, "it is Pizza & Pinot night, so I will have the Pinot Noir."

We ordered two bottles of it. It turned out to be a 2010 Puerto Viejo, a Chilean Pinot, and it was actually quite tasty. There wasn't a lot to it - I did not expect a 2010 bottle for $9 (the happy hour price) to be spectacular - but it went very well with the food. We did not need two bottles; neither of my parents wanted more than a glass and my brother and Nick aren't big drinkers, so I ended up drinking about a bottle all by myself. Not that I'm complaining. 

Both my mom and brother started with soup, a watercress potato puree. I have never seen a soup that was both as creamy and cheesy. They loved it.

We started with a couple appetizers for the table. The tempura-battered haricot verts were delicious. I love grean beans and I have never been a big fan of frying them - always thinking it to be gilding the lily - but these were great. The tempura batter was light and airy and the flavor of the beans held up.

The fries were even better than the green beans. Tossed with truffle oil, herbs and shredded Parmesan, when they first hit the table they smelled wonderful and were warm and slightly crisp. As they cooled, they lost a bit of their deliciousness, but they were still some of the best fries I have had in a long time. We used the saffron aioli (that accompanied the green beans) liberally with the fries.

My dad, brother and Nick all ordered the tarragon pesto pizza, with salami, caramelized onions, roasted peppers, sun dried tomatoes, Gouda and goat cheese. I took a slice and it was excellent. The pizzas are quite small, served quartered on a rectangular plate. Think of them more as appetizers than entrees. The server had told us they were roughly ten inch pizzas; they were more like six inches. For happy hour ($7) they are certainly worth it, but the regular, fourteen dollar price tag seems exorbitant.

I originally asked what the "Chef's Creation Pizza" was: the server informed me it was ribeye steak, arugula, cheese, and a lemon yogurt sauce. That seemed awfully fancy. I asked if he'd tried it; he said yes and that, honestly, the other two pizzas were better. So I decided to get the tarragon pesto pizza.

Then my dad, brother, and Nick all ordered that. I didn't want us to be that table, where everyone gets the same thing, so I ordered the chef's creation. And I have to admit, it was much better than I expected. The steak was very good and the oil-kissed arugula was a beautiful complement. The lemon yogurt sauce was overwhelming when you got a bite without steak or much arugula ("That's freaking weird," my brother said upon tasting the yogurt) but overall the three flavors worked well together. 
I wasn't going to get dessert but my brother ordered a cappucino (which he loved) and a creme brulee. The latter sounded really good to me. I took the fruit off of it and gave it to my mom. What was left was the best creme brulee I have had in years: full of vanilla flavor, crispy on top and a perfect semi-solid custard underneath. It was a generous size but I still could have eaten another one.

Overall, I really liked the experience at Saffron. It strikes the right balance between casual and fancy. I would love to return in the spring or summer and sit at one of the tables on the veranda. Even with the two bottles of wine and appetizers, dinner worked out to just over twenty dollars per person, a good deal. (But if it hadn't been happy hour, the bill would have been twice as much, and I cannot say that it would have been worth it.)

I am looking forward to returning to Saffron and trying their lunch menu, which, as is often the case, looks better to me than their regular dinner menu. I am particularly interested in trying the "Spicy Lousiana Sausage Link Sandwich." I will let you know how it goes.