Friday, October 31, 2008

South Pasadena Pizza, Volume 2: Mamma's Brick Oven

The options for eating in Southern California are about as good as you can get anywhere in the world. From In-N-Out hamburgers to Pad Thai in Thai Town, from al pastor tacos at a taco truck at 2 in the morning to farmers market sweet corn that was picked only a few hours earlier, it's fantastic. I won't even go into dim sum.

But it's almost impossible to get great pizza. Even pizza places that people swear by, in my opinion, are only adequate. (It's also impossible to get bad pizza, not counting a slice I had at the L.A. Farmers Market that was comical in its appearance, texture, and taste.) Casa Bianca is very, very good... but I prefer just about any hole-in-the-wall pizza joint in Manhattan to Casa Bianca. Zelo in Arcadia is good, but it never feels like I'm eating pizza, it feels more like I am eating a great meal that just happens to have crust on the bottom. Truthfully, I haven't loved a pizza place since King Arthur's closed down more than a decade ago. La Fornaretta in Old Pasadena may be the closest I have come since then, but it is long gone now.

Mamma's in South Pasadena is my favorite place at the moment. Their crust is thin but not crispy, their slices are large, and their prices are good. Their margherita pizza is the best I have ever had in California: topped with basil, olive oil, and their "margherita sauce," a sweet and zesty sauce that I would gladly make the only pizza sauce I ever eat for the rest of my life.

My friend, who moved out here from New York City this year, lives close to Mamma's, and she agrees with me that this is the closest pizza in town to what she used to eat in New York. (She was also with me when I got the aforementioned slice at the Farmers Market and the look on her face was priceless; I imagine it was similar to the look I got once in Colorado when I went to a Chinese restaurant and was served chicken fingers with terriyaki sauce.) She is a huge fan of their garlic knots. I merely enjoy them. The toasted cheese ravioli is good (as if fried pieces of cheese would not be good) but nothing spectacular.

Mamma's is also the only place around that passes the test which no other pizza place has done since King Arthur's: it is even better cold the next day.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Philippe The Original

Philippe's is probably my favorite place in all of Los Angeles. If I could choose my last day on Earth, it would be something like this: A Saturday in summer, the Victory Park farmer's market when it opens and oatmeal raisin cookies for breakfast. A walk around the Rose Bowl. Lunch at Philippe's: two turkey sandwiches, cole slaw and two iced teas. I would smuggle in a glass pot so I could fill it with mustard and put it on the table to share with my fellow diners; we would not have to use those idiotic, nanny-state enforced squeeze bottles they have now. And I would go heavy on the mustard. A day game at Dodger Stadium, Dodgers vs. Angels. And a stop at Porta Via after the game to pick up food for the Arboretum to watch the California Philharmonic, where I would share a Georges de Latour Cab with some friends.
Philippe's just celebrated their 100th birthday. As I explained to a friend of mine who moved here from New York this year, that is like 400 years on the East Coast. My friends and I used to eat there in high school before Dodgers games. When my dad was a kid and the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn, my grandfather, an L.A. County Sheriff's deputy who sometimes worked at the Hall of Justice, would take him to Philippe's. I once did two weeks of jury duty downtown and I ate at Philippe's every single day. It is still my first stop whenever I get a craving for a sandwich.
This has been my standard order as long as I can remember: a turkey sandwich, double dipped, with slaw and iced tea. Sometimes I may get two, sometimes I may get a turkey and a lamb. I have never had a bad one. If I'm having dinner before a game at Staples Center or the Galen Center, I may have a beer, but more likely than not it will be iced tea. I have a particular fondness for their tea, served in small glasses that I order two at a time, like the pints of ale at the legendary McSorley's Old Ale House in Manhattan.
I'm not going to get into the whole Philippe The Original vs. Cole's P.E. Buffet debate. They both make great sandwiches. (Of course, Cole's has been closed for remodeling for almost two years, which would not happen at Philippe's.) Many people are passionate about Cole's being better, and they may even be right, but I don't care. I will always choose the sawdust of Phillipe's, the big open room and painfully slow lunchtime lines (any review or news story that claims the lines move fast is a complete lie, most likely written by someone who has never actually waited in one of the lines,) over the darkness of Cole's. I once brought a friend of mine here, a Geordie with the most impressive appetite I have ever seen, and after his second sandwich and beer he wondered aloud whether he should go for round three. In the end he decided not to, but still pronounced Philippe's his new favorite restaurant.
I had not been there in a couple months, but I got a craving recently with all the hullabaloo surrounding their 100 year-anniversary. They sold sandwiches for 10 cents at the celebration and the line stretched thousands of people long. Mayor Villaraigosa worked the counter. Huell Howser emceed the event. Even "Roger the Peanut Man" was there. (When I was a kid Roger came to my school and tossed a bag of peanuts to every student; never in any baseball game, organized or playground, was I more afraid of dropping a baseball than I was of dropping the bag of peanuts he threw to me. I caught it, although he tried to trip me up with a double-fake, behind-the-back toss.)
So when my brother called me today and told me he was going downtown to pick up a "green screen" for something he is producing, and asked if I would ride along, I said "Sure, as long as we can go to Philippe's," even though I had already had lunch. He, of course, agreed. I had a turkey sandwich, cole slaw, and custard. He had a ham sandwich and a lamb sandwich, both with Swiss cheese. He loved the lamb but said the ham, which he had never had before, was cold and was the worst sandwich he has had there. I tried it and I agree. We still took at least half of it with us, though, because I know we will find someone who wants it.
I could eat here every day for the rest of my life and I would not get tired of it.

Chicken Parmesan

My friend cooked dinner for me last night so that I could watch the World Series, or rather the deluge that was supposed to be the World Series. I helped a little bit, but pretty much did next to nothing (just like Evan Longoria.)

My friend breaded the chicken and quickly fried it, then baked it in the oven with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. She apologized for using tomato sauce from a jar, because she is Italian and her family often makes the sauce from scratch. It tasted good to me, though. (Although she could have told me she made the sauce with tomatoes flown in that morning from Campania and I would not have been able to tell the difference.)

We had a salad and a baguette with garlic and butter, which is always good. The chicken parmesan was fantastic, although I wish we had some fresh basil to put on it (the basil I had in the fridge was wilted.) Every time I go to Trader Joe's and see their basil plants outside - I think they're $3.99 or something ridiculously low like that - I think 'Maybe I should get one of those... nah, I'll just buy a package of basil.' Then the basil goes bad before I use it all and I think 'Next time I go to Trader Joe's I will buy a basil plant,' and the cycle repeats itself. Basically what I am saying is I am a moron.

Monday, October 27, 2008

South Pasadena Pizza, Volume 1: Bristol Farms

When I was young, Saturday trips to Bristol Farms were frequent. Whether it was to pick up cold cuts for a pre-UCLA game picnic at the Rose Bowl, or because my parents were having people over to their house and wanted higher quality stuff (this was before there was a Whole Foods in Pasadena,) Bristol Farms was always the go-to place when we were buying something we could not get at the local grocery store.

One of the things I liked there was their barbecue chicken pizza. There were a couple years in my teens when that was my favorite food in the world. I was never a big fan of the one at California Pizza Kitchen, although Crocodile Cafe and Avanti were (and still are) two of my favorites. The first food I remember cooking myself was a barbecue chicken pizza, when I was about 14. (I shudder when I remember how I made it: I used Pillsbury pizza dough, and cooked the chicken in the oven for 45 minutes in a pan full of Kraft barbecue sauce.)

It had been several years since I had eaten one of Bristol Farms pizzas, though. Possibly more than a decade, so I decided to give it another shot. When I unwrapped it I was not impressed: it seemed to have a lot less toppings than I remember. Now, it's entirely possible that this is yet another of those things that I remember as being more substantial than it was. (Other things I returned to recently for the first time since I was a teen and found to be much smaller than I remembered are the burger at Pie 'n Burger, the Harbor House Cafe in Sunset Beach, and the Los Angeles County Arboretum. I'm sure we all have our lists; what's yours?)

Luckily, I had some things in the fridge. I added more barbecue sauce, lots of chopped cilantro, and some pepper jack cheese. I was quite pleased with the final results.

My Wiener Panini

Picasso created Guernica, the Beatles had "Hey Jude," and Clint Eastwood starred in not one but two movies with an orangutan. Now, I too have created my masterpiece.

I had been looking forward to eating the remaining hot dogs from last week. Anyone who has ever bought hot dogs at the grocery store can see the punchline coming: I had bought a package of 10 hot dogs but only 8 buns. So I had two dogs left. Undeterred, I decided to cook the wieners and just eat them on white bread. Then I thought 'why not put some cheese on it and put it on the panini press?'

After grilling the hot dogs, I added pickles, fried onion pieces, Guinness Bulls Eye, and pepper jack cheese, then grilled the whole thing. It was fantastic. I may never go back to making hot dogs the traditional way again.

Friday, October 24, 2008


For Game 2 of the World Series I made dinner for myself and two friends. For some reason I was craving sliders and garlic fries. I cooked some red onions in balsamic vinegar for one set of the sliders. For the other set I kept it simple - Guinness flavored Bull's Eye barbecue sauce and fried onion pieces. For the garlic fries I chopped some garlic with parsley and tossed it with parmesan cheese.

I cooked the beef paties on the indoor grill so I could watch the game. The sliders with the red onions got some aioli, the sliders with the barbecue sauce and onions got pickles. The former were definitely the better of the two. Everything was good, although not as good as the barbecue chicken egg rolls I made for Game 1.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Barbecue Chicken Egg Rolls

Inspired by yesterday's picture of the Jazz Kitchen pulled pork egg rolls, and wanting something simple to make during the World Series, I decided to make some egg rolls. I was thinking about buying some pre-made pulled pork at the store (I wanted this meal to be something that could be made entirely in view of the television) but all they had was Lloyd's, and I'm not a big fan of that. But they did have some "Jack Daniel's Pulled Chicken." I've never been crazy about Jack Daniel's barbecue sauces, but I figured it would be better than Lloyd's, so I decided to give it a try.

I cooked the chicken in the microwave and grilled a piece of corn on the stove (I really wanted to watch the game) and mixed those together with some cilantro. I took a taste before I started rolling the egg rolls just in case it was really bad and I had to order a pizza, but it was surprisingly good. It wasn't exactly great barbecue, but for chicken cooked in a bag in the microwave, it was definitely a surprise.

The egg rolls fried up in about three minutes and my friend and I devoured them. There are still three small pieces left that I plan to eat as an appetizer tonight before game 2.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Downtown Disney

Several years ago one of my best friends worked for the Anaheim Ducks (they were the Mighty Ducks then) and I used to go down there several times a year to see games. I'm not a hockey fan at all, but I freely admit that watching hockey live is spectacular. There is no sport with a bigger discrepancy between watching it live and watching it on television. You can follow the puck, see the plays develop, and get a sense of just how good the players are. (On television it always seems like maybe I can skate as fast as the players. In person it becomes obvious I would drop dead within 45 seconds of trying to keep up with an NHL team.) And it didn't hurt that the tickets were always free, including one game where my seats were against the glass, one of the best seats I have ever had for any sporting event.

After the games we would go across the street to JT Schmid's and have a couple beers, or head up to Downtown Disney and play a few games at the ESPN Zone. On one such trip I met one of my friend's co-workers, who would become his girlfriend, and eventually his wife. To celebrate her most recent birthday he invited a big group down to the ESPN Zone to relive old times.

The table I was at had a big plate of "Zone Queso Chips" - basically just nachos with chicken. It was one of those dishes about which there is nothing special, but seems much more enjoyable when shared at a table of friends with a few beers, reminiscing about old times. After eating those we went upstairs to the game room. I played a pitching simulator. Garret Anderson got a hit off of me but I struck out ARod on 4 pitches. It must have been a pressure situation for him.

After a few hours at the ESPN Zone, a friend and I went for a walk around Downtown Disney. There was some good music coming from Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen, and we both wanted a little something more to eat, so we took a seat on their patio. It was a warm night and I had a bottle of Turbodog. We also had some "Abita Beer Battered Onion Rings," which were good, and some barbecue pork spring rolls. (I apologize for the terrible quality of the picture of those.) They were made of pulled pork and sauce, and served with cole slaw and a "pomegranate raspberry glaze" that was nowhere near as sweet as I feared it was going to be.

This was my first time at Downtown Disney in several years, and it will probably be a few more years before I go back, but it was still a fun evening. None of the food was anything special, but it was great seeing old friends, and it's always nice to strike out a guy who has made 197 million dollars in his baseball career and yet never played in a World Series.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Fast Food Review: Wendy's Flavor-Dipped Chicken Sandwich

After the abomination that was the Wendy's Spicy Chicken Go Wrap, I did not have very high expectations for Wendy's new sandwiches. But they offer them dipped in buffalo or barbecue sauce, and I am always a sucker for any kind boneless chicken with buffalo sauce. So, on an errand to pick up some cat food, I figured I might as well swing by Wendy's and try one.

It was fantastic. The chicken was crispy outside and tender inside, and it was swimming in the buffalo sauce. It is the only sandwich I have had that comes close to the pinnacle of buffalo chicken sandwiches: the Atomic Chicken Sandwich at the Dark Horse Bar in Boulder, Colorado (which was awesome even when it wasn't accompanied with an appetizer of bull testicles.)

It's a "limited time only" menu item, so I will probably go back and try the barbecue sauce version, although I can't imagine it is as good as this.

Hot Dogs

During Game 7 of the Red Sox-Rays series, I wanted something very simple for dinner. I really didn't even want to eat; I was extremely nervous that yet another team was going to roll over for the Red Sox, like the Angels did this year, the Indians did last year, and the Yankees did back in '04. But I figured if I at least made something fun for dinner it would distract me for a few minutes.
I was watching the game with a friend of mine from New York who is partial to Nathan's hot dogs. I also like them, although my favorite are Farmer John, of course, since that's what I grew up eating. (During Dodgers games when Vin Scully would do the commercials and say that Farmer John hot dogs are "fresh dressed locally," my dad would always be sure to point out to me that just means they slaughter the pigs in California. Eventually I will make him reimburse me for my therapy bills.) I've never been to the original Nathan's in Coney Island; I only ate at the Nathan's at the "Vince Lombardi Service Area" on the New Jersey turnpike, which is a little like saying I love Australian cuisine because the "Aussie Cheese Fries" are so good at Outback Steakhouse. But, whatever, I bought a package of Nathan's hot dogs.
My friend went with some cole slaw and chopped pickles on her hot dog, but mine, pictured above, are a little more loaded. To one I added a slice of American cheese, chili (a can of Albertson's chili that I bought because it was on sale for 99 cents; perhaps the worst chili I have ever tasted, by the way,) chopped pickles, and mustard.
On the other dog I added A.1. Thick & Hearty steak sauce, cole slaw, and cheddar jalapeno Fritos. The second dog was much better, although I'm not sure if that's just because the chili was so bad. Neither of them could compete with the best hot dog I ever made, however, which was topped with A.1., Trader Joe's fried onion pieces, and Zankou garlic sauce.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Crab Cakes

I'm not a fan of the show "Throwdown with Bobby Flay" on Food Network. The show is emblematic of what has happened to the network in general. Years ago you used to be able to watch it and actually learn things from chefs like Ming Tsai, Mario Batali, and even (sometimes) Emeril. My whole interest in cooking, believe it or not, started 9 years ago when I saw Emeril make some beer battered onion rings and I thought 'hell, even I can do that...'

Then, somewhere along the way, things changed. Rachel Ray started showing how to eat in certain locations for $40 per day (apparently it involves stiffing servers on the tip, which is especially funny in episodes in the Hamptons or Telluride where she goes shopping for hundreds - if not thousands - of dollars worth of stuff.) Several shows sprouted up demonstrating how to do things cheaply, even if it meant using sub-par ingredients. Now it seems like almost every show is either a travel show, reality show, or a show that, instead of trying to expand the home cook's skills, strives to limit them.

"Throwdown" is a classic example. You do not learn anything from the show, which is a shame, because in every episode Bobby challenges someone who has mastered a particular food or drink. Presumably there is a lot that we could learn. But we don't. So I never watch the show. But I was turning around the other night after a baseball game and saw that they were making crab cakes.

My friend, with whom I was watching tv, remarked that she loves crab cakes, as do I. So I decided to cook some for dinner the next night. I bought some "Chinese coleslaw" (I'm not quite sure why it's called that) from Bristol Farms and cooked some tater tots that were in the freezer (I was watching the baseball game and that seemed easier than making homemade fries.) The crab cakes can't compare to ones I have had on the East Coast, but they were pretty good. The white wine we had with dinner was not so good, though. I guess crab cakes and tater tots should have been served with beer. (Not that that is an expert opinion; I often think my morning Flintstones vitamins should be served with beer.) Still, it was an absolutely gorgeous evening and it's always fun to cook something different.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Murray's Cheese Shop (New York City)

I love cheese. There is no occasion that isn't made a little bit better by a plate of cheese and some bread. Whether it's a pre-UCLA football game picnic in the Arroyo Seco, or wine tasting on the central coast, or even a relaxing evening in front of the television watching baseball, cheese is always good.

There are some great places in the Pasadena area to buy cheese, like the Whole Foods on Arroyo Pkwy, Bristol Farms, or Nicole's Gourmet Foods in South Pas... but nothing that compares to Murray's Cheese Shop in Greenwich Village. They have hundreds of varieties of cheese, from American cheddar to semi-soft cheeses from the Beira region in the middle of Portugal.

I visited Murray's for the first time on my most recent trip to New York. After lunch at John's of Bleecker Street (I was told it was the best pizza in New York; it was not, but it was better than any I have had in California) I walked down the street to Murray's with the idea of picking up some cheese to eat with dinner. Within two minutes of being inside and looking at the long counter, I decided that cheese would not be an accompaniment to dinner, it would be the main course.

I picked up some Le Châtelain (a Camembert from Normandy,) a Danish blue cheese, some Humboldt Fog (a California goat cheese and my favorite cheese made in America,) and another soft cheese, the name of which I cannot remember.

I made a salad and ate the cheese with a sliced baguette. I purchased a bottle of Justin Cabernet; something about drinking a California Cab in New York seemed fun.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Fast Food Tasting

A day after wine tasting in Temecula, three friends and I decided to do a fast food tasting, either new promotions or items we had not tried before. My friend Zach asked me what time I thought Dairy Queen started serving lunch. "I don't know," I said jokingly, "why don't you call them?" So he did. I didn't even know Dairy Queens have phones. Do they get to-go orders? Do they take reservations?
"You know how, when you go wine tasting, you see some of the same people at different wineries throughout the day?" my friend Tyler asked. "I'm going to feel very pathetic if we see the same people at different fast food restaurants." (I saw his point, but I suddenly wanted very badly for this to happen.)
We drove down the the DQ in Oceanside, right by the beach, and ordered their new chicken strips basket and the Flamethrower burger. The chicken strips were actually pretty good: big pieces of crispy chicken. The gravy they came with, however, sucked. The flamethrower burger was one of the worst burgers I have ever tried. It tasted of freezer burn and hot sauce. Not a single one of us thought it had any redeeming qualities.

We had wanted to get a fish taco at a Mexican joint next door, but we waited in a line that did not move for several minutes and decided to leave. Besides, their fish taco was grilled, not fried, and that seemed too healthy for our adventure. The bucket of Tecate was tempting, but not strictly necessary at 11 in the morning.
Next up we went to Arby's and tried their "Mac & Cheezers" and popcorn chicken shaker. The mac & cheese was decent, although I have never liked this trend of breading and frying mac & cheese. I ate one and that was enough. The popcorn chicken was quite good, shaken in their buffalo sauce. We got a free order of mozzarella sticks with the mac & cheese, but they were pretty bad and I only ate half of one. (Zach also got an Arby-Q sandwich, because apparently we weren't eating enough. And somehow we ended up with two orders of curly fries, which none of us could explain.)
Next we stopped at Jack in the Box to try their pita sandwiches. I was pretty excited about this. When I was in high school I loved Jack and would frequently stop there after basketball practice and get a Jack's Spicy Chicken (back then it was called a "Spicy Crispy Chicken Sandwich," which apparently was too time-consuming for some people to say) and toasted raviolis. They got rid of the raviolis a long time ago, which I never understood, as they were one of the best fast food items ever. I love pita sandwiches, so I had high hopes. We got the steak, crispy chicken, and fish, as well as an order of their fried mac & cheese, to compare it to Arby's.
All three of the pitas were horrible. Just disgusting. My friend Tyler took one bite of the fish and made a gruesome face (and this is a guy who, at Arby's, found something fried on the tray that looked like a clump of hair and ate it anyway.) I followed and immediately spit it out in the trash. It tasted like a stale fish stick. (Zach and Elizabeth refused to try it, as they are much smarter than we are.) The steak was tough and flavorless and the chicken was thin and strange tasting. And their mac & cheese was over-fried on the outside and chewy and stale on the inside. Overall, it was just a bad decision to go to Jack in the Box.
But I knew we could count on Popeyes to come through. I love Popeyes. Years ago some friends and I were at Jazz Fest in New Orleans, in the "Popeyes Blues Tent," waiting for Chris Smither to come onstage. It just so happened we ended up sitting next a huge man, probably 400 pounds. He was a friendly guy, although a bit deranged, and when we told him we were from Southern California he launched into a hour-long diatribe about KFC vs. Popeyes, running down every item on both menus - with which he was intimately familiar - and explaining why Popeyes items were superior to their KFC counterparts. My friend Kevin kept going out of the tent to get beer for us, and laughing when he returned to find our friend still discoursing about fried chicken. It was one of the top ten moments of my life.
We ordered a "Delta mini," a "chicken biscuit," and "Louisiana nuggets." It was all delicious. The mini sandwich and the nuggets came with their "Delta sauce," a spicy sauce that may well be the best fast food condiment I have tasted. These Louisiana nuggets are the best thing I have ever tasted at Popeyes.

After Popeyes we debated whether we should squeeze in one more place, but ultimately decided against it. Perhaps next time.