Thursday, June 30, 2011

Chinese Cafe

When my brother and I were kids, he insisted to me that an entire town had once drowned in molasses. This always seemed dubious to me; he had no details beyond that claim, and in the early 90s you couldn't just hop on the computer and look up something like that. (Other than school assignments, I don't remember using a computer for much in the first 16 years of my life besides playing Load Runner or The Black Cauldron.)

In my mind I pictured my hometown of Sierra Madre and its 10,000 residents being drowned under a deluge of molasses coming down from the San Gabriels, a sugary 20th century reenactment of the Johnstown Flood. I teased my brother with absurdist imagery.

Years later I learned that, although his facts were too broad, he wasn't that far off: in 1919, a giant molasses tank exploded in Boston, injuring 150 people and killing 21, some of who were crushed and drowned by the molasses. By this point my brother and I were both in our late teens and, though he realized it was not the apocalyptic scenario he always imagined, I believe he did feel some measure of vindication.

Why do I bring this up, you may ask. Because I was reminded of that childhood anecdote the other day. If a giant wall of syrup came down from the mountains and blanketed the foothills, I imagine the food at all restaurants would taste like what I ate the other day at Chinese Cafe.

I tell you what, we'll come back to that.

When I ate at Fuji Japanese Restaurant at the beginning of the month, I noticed Chinese Cafe in the same parking lot - a strip mall just west of the Target on Colorado Blvd on the east side of town. The other day I had just stopped into Target to look for something and I was quite hungry. I decided to give Chinese Cafe a try.

Like hundreds of similar restaurants scattered throughout the San Gabriel Valley, there is a full menu and a lunch menu. The latter features the usual egg roll and rice. Chinese Cafe does not include soup with their lunches, but rather a soda. That was just fine by me - it was a hot day and a cold soda sounded better than a hot cup of soup.

I asked the woman what the most popular items are. She said the orange chicken and the Mongolian beef. I asked for the chicken and told her I would take it to go. (There was a baseball game on the radio and some bizarre movie on the TV in the restaurant, so I opted to sit the car.)

The total with tax was $5.40 - even cheaper than China Express. (Although you don't get nearly as much food.)

The egg roll was skinny, not very warm, and did not have much inside of it in the way of filling. And it had a sweet glaze to it, as if the wrapper had been rolled with sugar. I've never had a spring roll quite like this before. Fortunately, I had asked for some hot mustard and been given a small container of a spicy, very tasty mustard, one of the better mustards I have ever received from a Chinese take-out joint. It was certainly needed to offset the sweetness of the egg roll.

The fried rice was pretty basic - just a few peas scattered throughout, no egg nor anything else. It wasn't bad by any means (at least it was hot) but it was boring.

The chicken itself was tasty, white meat... but the batter and sauce... wow. I'm not sure I've ever had anything quite like it. The crunchy batter can only be compared to rock candy, so sweet was the sauce covering everything. Each crispy bite made me cringe with the sweetness. Once when I was a teenager my mom dumped a half a cup of sugar into a glass of soda I was drinking as a practical joke. That's the only thing I could compare to this sauce.

I pulled out a few of the pieces and shook them vigorously, trying to free them from the cloying solution that was ruining their taste. It didn't really work. And that's a shame, because the chicken really was quite tasty. It beats anything I've ever had at Panda Express or Pei Wei. But I just could not get past that sweet sauce. Even with mustard and chili sauce added, it was too damn sweet.

I doubt the chicken always tastes this sweet, and if the other proteins on the menu are as high quality as the chicken, there might be some very good dishes at Chinese Cafe. But it's not worth it to me to find out. In addition to the extreme sweetness, twenty minutes after eating I became as thirsty as I have been in years. I imagine there was an overload of sodium in the food, too.

So it comes down to my usual verdict with places like this: in the San Gabriel Valley, with thousands of Asian restaurants to explore, there is just no reason for me to return here ever again.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Buffalo Shrimp Tacos

If I were given the chance, at this point in my life, to go back and repeat any ten meals of my choosing, the list would not surprise you: there would be some things that have appeared on this blog (my steak at Hitching Post II, lobster at the Crab Cooker, etc.); some things that have not appeared as posts but which I've mentioned (fish & chips at Leo Burdock in Dublin, pizza at Totonno's in Manhattan, etc.); and some things that I've never even brought up (my first Gates BBQ turkey sandwich in Kansas City, a lobster roll in Scituate, Massachusetts).

But if I'm being honest, there is probably nothing I have ever enjoyed eating as much as the Buffalo shrimp at Bennigan's in Arcadia when I was a teenager. I haven't had them since I was a teenager - the restaurant closed more than a dozen years ago - and even if I were given the chance, I don't know how much I would care to go back and eat them again. But in my memory... damn they were good: plump, juicy shrimp with a crispy coating and a very spicy sauce. (They were so good that I chased their memory for years, even repeatedly trying the Buffalo shrimp at the Hooters in Old Town, despite the fact that every single time I ate them my stomach hurt.)

I got a strong craving for buffalo shrimp yesterday. Not the kind like I had at Popeyes the other night, with spicy peppers in the breading, but crispy shrimp drenched in Buffalo sauce. Seeing as how I have discovered and fallen in love with the Tabasco Buffalo sauce, I decided to make my own.

I started with a box of Trader Joe's battered shrimp that have been in the freezer for a couple of weeks - I couldn't think of anything to do with them. I've written of these before, they are very good shrimp. They claim to contain 30% less fat than other breaded shrimp.

Of course, pan-frying the shrimp may negate that.

But it's worth it. After three or four minutes you have crispy, juicy, golden-brown shrimp as good as any restaurant in Southern California.

I coated a bowl with the Tabasco Buffalo sauce and tossed the shrimp.

Using Trader Joe's pita bread as the base, I added diced carrots and celery to one taco, topping it with some blue cheese.

To the second, I added TJ's wasabi arugula - a peppery arugula with the added kick of wasabi - and topped it with champagne vinaigrette.

They were both spectacular (although my favorite was the former) - crispy with the heat of the Buffalo sauce and the coolness of the veggies and dressing. The whole dinner for two of us cost just a few dollars - far less than one order of those Bennigan's Buffalo shrimp ever cost. This will not be the last time I ever make these.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Fast Food Review: Popeyes Firecracker Butterfly Shrimp Tackle Box (Well... Sort Of)

A new Popeyes promotion always gets my attention: they are almost always delicious. So when I read yesterday morning about their newest offering - "eight butterflied shrimp marinated in a spicy cayenne pepper seasoning" - I knew what my dinner was going to be. Also grabbing my attention was the description of the firecracker dipping sauce: honey, Crystal hot sauce, and Aleppo pepper flakes.

I headed up to Popeyes, placed my order (I added a drink to make it a $5.99 combo), was told it would be three minutes and sat down to wait. Five minutes later (close enough) I was handed a tray with my order. There was a container of cocktail sauce on it.

"May I have the firecracker sauce, too?" I asked.

"We serve the shrimp with cocktail sauce," I was told.

"But I want to try the firecracker sauce," I said, pointing at the menu that promises the sauce.

"We don't have it," she replied.

I usually get a kick out of this, when a fast food joint pastes posters in the parking lot and signs in the windows for a new promotion and then fails to have one or more elements of the promotion. But on this occasion I was just annoyed: I really wanted to try that sauce. If she had told me they didn't have it when I was ordering, I would have gone to another Popeyes. (Which, of course, is probably why I wasn't told.)

Now that I've gotten that out of the way, I will say this: the shrimp were delicious. Meaty pieces of crustacean and a crunchy, slightly-spicy coating always please me. Like many of Popeyes promotions, these shrimp would not have been out of place at twice the price in a fancier fish restaurant. I could have easily eaten two dozen of these little things.

Of course, the high quality of the shrimp was something of a mixed blessing: while I loved every bite, all I could think was: Wow, these would be even better with the firecracker sauce. Popeyes cocktail sauce is fine - they even keep it refrigerated - but it was not what I wanted.

These aren't as good as the crawfish, but they are better than the red hot popcorn chicken, garlic butter shrimp, and wicked chicken.

I would absolutely try these again, but first I will ask if they have the firecracker sauce, and I recommend you do, too.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Weekend Eats

Elizabeth had a half day on Friday and we had a lot of errands to do, but first we needed some grub. It was a hot day and eating tacos outside sounded good. We went by Los Tacos on Fair Oaks - not the best tacos in town by any means, but traffic was terrible and we were both famished, and Los Tacos is the closest - and returned home. I got three al pastor and Elizabeth got three carnitas. They wrote the contents on each bag, I guess helpfully, if somewhat unnecessarily. 

All three of my tacos had onions and cilantro on them, as I requested. I added some pickled onions, jalapeno, and carrots to one taco - it was fine, but not really any improvement.

Elizabeth loved the carnitas tacos, as usual. 

I sent a text to a friend: "On a hot summer day, I will put three pork tacos and a cold Pacifico up against any restaurant in the world."

Wanting a simple dinner - it was that time of year again for the Angels and Dodgers to play, meaning I got to hear Vin Scully call the Angels - I just steamed two Trader Joe's pork buns. I ate them with a sauce I mixed of ponzu and mustard that, while tasty, was not quite as good as I expected it to be. But it was still a great, simple dinner.

I had two mini sausage biscuits for breakfast on Saturday morning. I added some hot mustard to them. They were completely forgettable in every way, but I'm still including them here.

After a visit to Target in the early afternoon, we turned our attention to lunch. Elizabeth suggested burgers, which is like asking me if I want to go to a bookstore or watch Wild Hogs: the answer is always yes. One of my suggestions was Fatburger and Elizabeth immediately agreed. 

There was a bottle of chipotle Tabasco sauce on the table so I mixed some with ketchup - something I used to do frequently but have not done for years. (As years go by I realize that I much prefer mustards and aiolis with my fries, not ketchup.)

I got my usual turkey burger and I gave Elizabeth a bite. "That's good," she said. "That's really good."

She got the "small" Fatburger - a little 2.5 ounce burger. I could probably eat one of these in one bite. In fact, I may try that next time.

Saturday afternoon, we were hanging out on our patio when Tracie sent a text asking if she and her dad could come by. They had been planning to go to The Boat but hanging out on our patio sounded better to them. I said sure. We had a few beers and decided what to do for dinner. 

I used to make quesadillas a lot. Hardly a week ever went by without me making one. But I rarely do anymore. No reason why, just one of those things. A couple months ago, Tracie mentioned that she missed them, that I should make quesadillas again. So this night I said I would. 

I got a marinated chicken breast at the store, along with three sausages called "French pork garlic." I grilled them and chopped them up.

I added the sausage to tortillas with roasted pepper and goat cheese. The chicken was paired with mozzarella, cilantro, and pickled red onion. I grilled the tortillas for about three minutes on each side.

Some of the wedges broke apart when I sliced them. They certainly were not the prettiest quesadillas I've ever made. I borrowed my line from the other night when my grilled pizza fell apart: "It's rustic!" I'm definitely going to say that from now on whenever I something turns out less attractive than I had planned.

But nobody really cared how they looked, because they were absolutely delicious. The sausage and goat cheese were good...

... but the BBQ chicken was definitely my favorite.

Wait a second... has it really been a year and a half since I've written anything about Porta Via? That can't be right, can it?

Sunday afternoon, we were driving up Fair Oaks on our way to get lunch somewhere. I don't want to say what our destination was. "It's so nice out," Elizabeth said.

"Do you want to eat on the patio at Porta Via?" I asked, although I knew what the answer was going to be.

I had a can of Limonata; Elizabeth had Orangina. 

I tried something I'd never had before: the turkey dip, with turkey, Dijon mustard, caramelized onions and Swiss cheese. It was delicious. Perhaps a little bit smaller than I'd expected, but the turkey tasted so fresh and moist. I could not detect any mustard; so sweet were the caramelized onions, that was the only thing I tasted other than the turkey. I wish I'd had some of the tear-inducing Philippe's mustard, but I don't carry that with me (uh, anymore).

Still, I finished the sandwich and spooned up all the onions that had fallen onto my plate. I would have no problem eating this sandwich again, although I imagine I will ask for extra mustard next time.

Elizabeth ordered what has become her favorite sandwich at Porta Via: the Italian BLT, with crispy pancetta, arugula, tomatoes, and basil aioli. The bacon is always very crisp and the arugula has that nice, peppery flavor of fresh arugula. Elizabeth is always nice enough to give me a couple of bites; on this occasion she gave me an entire quarter of the sandwich.

She also got some pasta with feta cheese and I helped her finish it. It, too, was very tasty.

Hopefully I won't let another 19 months go by before I write about Porta Via again.

We had been invited to a get-together on Sunday evening at which fried chicken was on the menu, and that sounded great. But I was as exhausted on Sunday as I have been in as long as I can remember. So I opted to do nothing but sit on the couch. Still, fried chicken sounded really good, so I decided to do a lazy man's substitute: I went to Vons and got fried chicken to make sandwiches.

I've mentioned this before: sometimes the deli at Vons has some of the best fried chicken tenders you will ever eat. (I've had them fresh out of the fryer before at Vons that might have actually been the single best order of tenders I have ever had.) But not at 7PM on a Sunday night. I had been so exhausted that, although I hate naps and take one less than once per year, I'd actually slept for two hours in the afternoon.

By the time I got to Vons, there were only four pieces of chicken left. I took them, but they were not very good. They were dense and overcooked and probably the worst chicken I have ever had from Vons. It might be unreasonable of me to expect the last chicken of the day on Sunday - while they were busy closing up the deli - to be good, but still, I didn't expect them to be this tough.

I tried to improve them as best I could: I put them on a bun with Bull's Eye's Carolina sauce, a homemade cole slaw that I had made on Friday, and pickles. All things considered, it wasn't too bad. I ate it with mustard potato salad and it was a nice way to wrap up the weekend.