Thursday, December 29, 2011

My Top 20 For 2011

I was going to do a list of my ten favorite things I ate in 2011, like I did a year ago for 2010, but when going through the photos - thousands of them - I decided to expand the list to twenty. The same rules apply as last year: only items that I tried for the first time in 2011 are eligible. So no Crab Cooker lobster, Green Street Tavern angus burger, La Cabanita mole, or anything else that I've been eating for years, even though those are certainly as good as anything else I ate this year. 

Without further ado:

#20: BBQ Turkey Meatballs at Mama Claire's
I may have had better meatballs in my life, but never better turkey meatballs.

#19: Roasted Chiles at Baja Mar Fish Taco
Free roasted chiles with salt and pepper. I could have eaten 50 of these.

#18: Catfish Strips at Pasadena Fish Market
I'd tried the fried shrimp at Pasadena Fish Market many times, but the first time I tried the catfish I realized they were even better.

#17: Steak and Eggs at Green Street Taven
The best steak and eggs of my life, better than any I have ever made myself. The steak was buttery-soft and the jalapeno jam was the perfect complement.

#16 Kathmandu Sekuwa at Tibet Nepal House
Chicken marinated in mint, cilantro, and Himalayan spices. Great at the restaurant, even better the next day. 

#15 Holy Aioli Burger at Dog Haus Biergarten
After many hot dogs and sausages over the last year at Dog Haus - and its newest location, the Biergarten in Old Town - I finally tried one of their burgers: beef, crispy bacon, cheese, caramelized onions and aioli on four connected King's Hawaiian buns. Wow this was good. I thought at the time I may not ever go back to one of their hot dogs. But of course I did on my next trip.

#14 Andouille Sausage Lavash with Irish Porter Cheese
When my buddy Phil - always an ardent supporter of this blog - visited Wisconsin early in the year, he brought me back some andouille sausage. I sliced it up, added it to lavash with Irish cheddar mixed with porter, fresh basil, and olive oil. A few minutes in the oven and it was perhaps the best lavash I have ever had.

#13 Fettunta
At a barbecue over the summer, an Italian acquaintance made fettunta: grilled bread, rubbed with a clove of garlic, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt. I have eaten enough slices of garlic bread in my life to form a loop around the Rose Bowl. This was, without any question whatsoever, the best I have ever had.

#12 Root Beer Pulled Pork Sandwich
For the first time I slow-cooked a pork butt with a bottle of root beer. When it was ready after several hours, I "pulled it" - this is a joke; all I had to do was drop it onto a cutting board from six inches and it fell apart into shreds - and placed it on a soft bun with deli pickle slices, red cabbage slaw and a healthy dose of vinegar sauce.

#11 Al Pastor Quesadilla at El Taquito Mexicano
After many years of eating tacos at El Taquito - to say nothing of their taco truck - I decided to try a quesadilla with al pastor. It was better than I ever could have imagined: tender pork, gooey cheese, and a firm tortilla. When I'm hungry - these quesadillas are huge - this has replaced tacos as my go-to at El Taquito.

#10 Duck Sliders at Kings Row
I never wrote about King's Row. I tried it several times when it opened and I liked a lot of the food, but there were many things about the place that I absolutely hated. I couldn't figure out how to write the review so I put it aside, intending to go back and try the place at a later date and do a proper post on it. But I never did.

Regardless, their duck sliders were frequently delicious, and on this occasion, a happy hour session on the patio with my friend Bryce, the sliders were perfect: ground duck meat, shitake mushrooms, hoisin sauce and spicy mustard.

#9 Chili
Okay, yeah, I've been making chili for years, but this was the first time I ever made two particular modifications: I used Sir Kensington's Gourmet Scooping Kethcup in place of tomato sauce or Heinz ketchup, and I used Grafton 3-year aged cheddar. It was the best chili I have ever made.

#8 Asian Turducken Pizza
My friend Zach and I have been creating culinary adventures for half our lives now, whether it was ordering five-by-fives at In-N-Out, making tacos out of quail that he blasted with a shotgun, or taking everything out of the fridge we shared, mashing it into a ball and frying it. But when we created this pizza for the Carmageddon Pizza Party at Tyler's (Zach's brother) house, we created our magnum opus. We picked up roasted chicken and duck from a Chinese restaurant and cooked Trader Joe's turkey meatballs in a pot of chili paste and Hite lager. We cooked the whole thing on a base of oyster-and-chili sauce. It was the hit of the party.

#7 Turkey and Pastrami Sandwich
I was craving a sandwich so I decided to go all-out. I bought some pastrami and peppered turkey from the deli, as well as Jarlsberg Swiss and cole slaw. I put everything but the slaw on sourdough bread, toasted it in the oven for five minutes, then added the slaw and some Russian dressing. It was the best sandwich I have made in years.

#6 Spicy Southwest Shrimp Taco at Del Taco
I didn't want to put this so high. Really, I didn't. A freaking fast food item was one of the top five things I ate this year? That can't be right. But I assure you, it was. I would rather have another one of these tacos than any of the 14 things you've just read about. The shrimp were crunchy and meaty - I'm not sure there is another restaurant in Pasadena that makes popcorn shrimp as well as Del Taco - the cabbage was crisp and cool, the corn was charred and sweet, and the chipotle sauce is the standard by which all other fast food chipotle sauces should be measured. Del Taco's promotions are almost always good, and this was the best yet.

#5 Crawfish and Caliente Sausage Pizza
A year and a half ago, a reader asked me to try Two Boots Pizza when I was in New York, spefically the "Mr. Pink." So I did. But while there I noticed a slice of pie with crawfish and andouille sausage on it. I don't know why it took me more than a year to make this pizza at home, but it did. When I finally did make it, with crawfish, grilled corn, chives and "Sierra Madre Caliente" sausage from Taylor's Ol' Fashioned Meat Market, it was amazing.

#4 Meatloaf Sliders
Taylor's meatloaf. Mini potato rolls. Sir Kensington's ketchup, goat cheese, fresh arugula, pickled red onions. No explanation needed, right?

#3 Fish Taco at Taco Fiesta
This is kind of a hard one for me to write. Because I have had the fish taco at Taco Fiesta about a half-dozen times now, and each time it has gotten worse. The portions have gotten smaller, the batter has been less crispy, there is no telling what ratio of sauce-to-fish-to-salsa-to-cabbage you will receive on any given day. The last fish taco I had there a couple of weeks ago is not even in the top two hundred things I have eaten this year.

But that first fish taco I had there... it was special. It was one of the best fish tacos I have ever had. The fish was plump and fresh, the batter was golden brown and crispy, the cabbage was fresh and the salsa was tangy. It was two and a half dollars and I would gladly pay four times that amount to have another one this good, but it doesn't seem like it's going to happen again at Taco Fiesta.

#2 Flat Iron Steak with Mustard-Cognac Sauce
Not long after our friend Tim moved in just around the corner from us, he had Elizabeth and me over for dinner one night. We drank a ten year-old Napa cab and ate some cheese, but the real star of the evening was dinner. Tim had picked up a large flat iron steak from Taylor's and he cooked it in a pan, just to the rare side of medium, then whipped up a mustard-cognac sauce. The steak was amazing by itself but the sauce pushed it to another level. I was stuffed by the time I finished my plate but I won't lie: I was going back into the kitchen repeatedly and dipping torn pieces of bread and leftover potato pieces into the pot of sauce drippings. I had this meal in February and even at the time I was pretty sure I was not going to have a better meal in 2011. 

As it turned out, only one thing topped it: 

#1 Wild Boar Meatloaf Sandwich at Green Street Tavern
On the Friday of 4th of July weekend, with the temperature in the high 90s, Elizabeth and I sat down for lunch at our favorite table at Green Street Tavern, shaded from the heat as always by a giant tree, a tree that unfortunately is no longer standing. And I had a wild boar meatloaf sandwich on a telera roll with boar bacon, spinach, spicy honey mustard, pickled relish and Provolone cheese. I cannot describe just how good this sandwich tasted, and I would like to encourage you to go try it yourself, but I can't. Because it too is no longer around. In a move I can't quite understand, it is no longer offered on the menu. There's no way that giant tree will ever return, but hopefully the sandwich will, because it was the best thing I ate all year.

That's all for this year. I hope you have a great New Year's and I'll be back in 2012.

- Justin

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christmas Dinner #1

Elizabeth flies back to New York for Christmas every year on the morning of Christmas Eve. The last three years we have celebrated with my family on the night of the 23rd by going out for dinner. But the last two years - Robin's BBQ and Gale's - were not enjoyable. At both meals we were shoved into the corner of the restaurant and service was not good. (The restaurants were absolutely packed both nights.) So this year when my mom asked if we wanted to go out for dinner I said "No chance. I'll make dinner." 

All of the stockings were hung by the fire. Dad, Mom, Brother, Me, Elizabeth, Joey, Shayla. 

I picked up a tri-tip from Taylor's, already marinated in Burgundy wine and herbs.

While the tri-tip was cooking I turned my attention to making an appetizer. At Ralph's a couple of days earlier, I had noticed this container of frozen shrimp. I love panko-breaded shrimp and these were on sale, so I grabbed it.

The directions called for baking the shrimp in the oven, but come on. In my entire life I can think of exactly ONE frozen, breaded shrimp that cooked well in the oven. (Trader Joe's Tequila-lime jalapeno breaded shrimp, which were awesome and, of course, discontinued.) So I wasn't about to do that. I pan fried them.

They were great, even better than I expected: crispy on the outside, tender and juicy inside. And the sauces were tasty, too, especially the orange sauce. We demolished these.

Not surprisingly, the tri-tip was wonderful as well. 

I had picked up two and a half pounds of crab legs at Ralph's as well and I served them with the beef, along with spinach sauteed with garlic and some crispy onion rings.

I also made the honey mustard sauce that my mom and Elizabeth love. 

Between the start of dinner and the end, my mom's Christmas present from my dad arrived via UPS: a Canon Rebel T3i. Did I beg her to open it so I could take a picture of the funfetti cake with it? You know that I did. 

Monday, December 26, 2011

Five Christmas Traditions

1) It's a warm day and I wear a t shirt and drink a beer:

2) Watch the Lakers lose (since Kobe joined the Lakers, they have a 63% overall winning percentage, yet only 36% [5-9] on Christmas Day):

3) Watch the greatest Christmas movie of them all, Die Hard:

4) Read A Child's Christmas In Wales, my second-favorite book. This is a first edition copy that Elizabeth gave me for Christmas four years ago, one of the best presents I've ever received:

5) Make spring rolls with my brother:

Let's go into this one a little more.

While I cooked some ground pork in a pan, my brother set about making the vegetable mix. Here is an action shot of him grating carrots, for you lovers of the action shot.

He did all the hard work.

I mixed up three sauces: hot mustard, a sweet & sour sauce made with Sir Kensington's Gourmet Scooping Ketchup, red wine vinegar and hot sauce, and a vinegar & sweet chili sauce with pickled ginger.

I fried up the rolls and plated them, with some slivered green onion and pickled ginger, for Christmas colors. They were good. They were very good.

My favorite of the sauces was the sweet chili/ginger sauce. I could have eaten a dozen of these.

Actually, I think I did.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Burger & A Merry Christmas To You

I had to do something to get that Jack in the Box burger out of my mind. So, not surprisingly, I went by Taylor's and got some ground beef, seasoned it with pepper and a touch of garlic salt, and cooked it in a skillet.

I put it on a potato bun with dill pickle slices, Sir Kensington's ketchup, and lettuce. I know the burger looks like it was about six inches high. That's because it was.

And damn was it delicious. 

I hope you all have a fun, safe, happy holiday.