Thursday, February 26, 2009

Heights Cafe (Brooklyn)

The last time I was in New York City, the weather was absolutely perfect. It was probably the nicest weather I have ever experienced on the East Coast. I wanted to walk around in Brooklyn, but instead of taking the subway I figured it was a nice day for a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.
When I got to Brooklyn I walked around for a couple hours, taking pictures of the Promenade, the Brownstones, and the pretty, tree-lined streets. On Montague Street I passed the Heights Cafe. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon and the outside patio was completely packed. I decided it would be a good place for lunch.
I ordered the grilled chicken sandwich, served on an onion baguette with roasted peppers, arugula, provolone cheese, and lemon pepper mayo. There were definitely too many customers for the servers to keep up, because the service was very slow. But eventually the sandwich came and it was quite good. I'm sure I could have made something better myself, but it was reasonably priced and the restaurant was a nice place to relax.
Funny enough, about a year later my friend Elizabeth moved to Pasadena and became my best friend, and it turns out she lived only a block away from the Heights Cafe at the time. If she was out walking on that perfect Sunday afternoon, she probably walked right by me.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Fado (Denver)

There is absolutely nothing better than an Irish pub. Not a place with a silly Irish name that serves green beer on St. Patrick's Day, but a pub that tries hard to replicate the kind of pub you find in Ireland, with a fireplace, snugs, and buskers in the corner and properly poured imperial pints of Guinness. I have never understood why there isn't one in Pasadena; I refuse to believe a city this size cannot support one.

Fado is a chain of Irish pubs across the country. I had been to locations in Las Vegas and Philadelphia, and on my most recent trip to Denver, when trying to meet up with my friend Ben and his wife for dinner, I suggested we meet at Fado, right in lower downtown (LoDo) in the shadow of Coors field. It was a gorgeous Rocky Mountain evening and I arrived an hour or so before them and took a few pictures, sat at the bar and had a couple pints.

We started with a couple appetizers: chicken tenders with Coleman's honey mustard and some boxty wedges (boxty is a potato pancake) with an Irish cheddar cheese dip. These were both outstanding. I could have drank the Coleman's sauce like soup.

Ben had a chicken curry. I tried it; it was very good, nice and spicy. I had the Guinness BBQ chicken sandwich. The chicken wasn't anything special, it was a bit overcooked, but the Guinness barbecue sauce was fantastic. I drowned the chicken in it so that it wouldn't taste so dry. I would order this sandwich again as long as it wasn't overcooked.

Next time I go I might just try a couple different appetizers instead of an entree. They have some salmon bites and some "Smithwick's Mini Burgers" that sound really good (Smithwick's is one of the few beers I love almost as much as Guinness.) I'm not sure when I will be in Denver again, though. Of course, if they built a Fado around here it would be much easier...

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Claim Jumper

I have always been in love with the history and mythology of the Old West and the California Gold Rush. Several Halloweens as a child I dressed as the Lone Ranger or Billy the Kid. I've spent countless hours in the museums in Old Sacramento, and the Museum of Westward Expansion in St. Louis is my second favorite museum in America (after the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.) I am in love with the romance of a mythology developing alongside the actual events that transpired, the idea that not long ago a person was actually, as Fitzgerald put it, "face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder." (Only kidding; I really just like the idea that you could shoot a man for cheating at cards and not get in trouble.)
But the restaurants that try to capitalize on that theme are all pretty lame. Clearman's North Woods Inn is okay, I suppose, but that restaurant has a history, at least with me, that is almost the equal of the American West. (Okay, that may be a bit of an exaggeration.) I have been to Tahoe Joe's in Northern California a couple times and thought the food was lousy, although I liked the beer served in a mason jar. I won't even go into the reasons I loathe Cattlemens.
But Claim Jumper is probably my least favorite of the bunch. I do not understand the long lines that are almost always present. I cringe when people are served massive portions of mediocre food but still say "Oh, this is so good" simply because it's a massive portion. (This is the same reason I hate eating at Buca di Beppo.) I have been to Claim Jumper several times - it was a favorite of both my grandmother and my old boss - but I have never had a meal there that I would describe as better than average. I used to like their pizzas, but the pizza always take much longer than any other item (a server once told me they come out of a different kitchen and that's why they take longer) so I stopped ordering them because I don't want to make my companions wait.
The other day, though, Elizabeth and I were helping my mom run some errands and she was going to take us to lunch. She had a $50 gift card to Claim Jumper (she is a school teacher and sometimes receives gift cards from her students for Christmas) and we were close by, so I figured we might as well go.
We just managed to beat the formation of the long line, and we only waited about 5 minutes. They have more selections on their lunch menu than I remember them having before, which is nice to see. (It's been about ten years since I have eaten there for lunch, though, so maybe this isn't a new thing.) We started with an order of fried cheese. This was nothing special but still pretty good; it's hard to mess up fried cheese (although my friend Rebecca and I once split an order at Barney's Beanery that neither of us could eat because it was so terrible.)
My mom had the chopped Cobb salad with a cup of soup. The salad was the best thing any of us ordered. I tried a couple bites and it was decent, although the "blue cheese dressing" was much more oily than cheesy. Elizabeth had the blackened salmon Caesar salad. She thought it was okay, although nowhere near as good as the one she usually gets at Gordon Biersch. I tried this as well and agree with her assessment, although again I thought the dressy was much too oily.
I had the lunch order of sliders. I love sliders and they are usually a reliable standby. These were the worst I have ever had. The buns were hard and the meat had been frozen. Either they buy small patties already frozen or they make them ahead of time and store them in the freezer. Either way, that's extremely lazy. As a result, the meat had no flavor at all. I added mustard, some barbecue sauce (I had to request this; is it my imagination or didn't they used to have a bottle of sauce on every table?) and some chopped pickle. This did not help at all. I only ate one of my sliders.
It was the meal that I was expecting: not bad (other than my sliders) but not good either. We used up all of the gift card and I even had to add a few dollars from my pocket for the tip. (The service was very good, much better than the food.) Unless someone I know gets another gift card, I doubt I will ever return to Claim Jumper.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Twohey's Restaurant

The other rainy night, while driving around trying to decide what to have for dinner, Elizabeth said she felt like mashed potatoes. I started thinking of places we could go. It sounded like she was in the mood for a diner. We drove by Gus's but it was pretty packed, so I suggested Twohey's. I hadn't been there since high school, and I think I only ate there once, but I remembered it as a pretty straightforward place.

After trying to navigate the In-N-Out parking lot - always packed on a Friday night but particularly painful in the rain - we just parked a couple blocks away and walked. As soon as we walked in I was put in a good mood. I don't love diners like Elizabeth does, but there is a definite comfort in the touches a good diner has, and they were all present here: the high school kids in their school football sweatshirts; the old couples who have obviously been coming here for decades and possibly never changed their order; being quoted a "ten minute wait" that really only takes two minutes; the overweight teenager talking in a voice loud enough for half the restaurant to hear (I knew at some point he would start talking about Star Trek, which, of course, he did.) We were in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the entire world but we could have been in the middle of Nebraska and we would have seen an identical scene.

Twohey's was having a "Maine Lobster Special" for $26.95. Ignoring the fact that there was no way the lobster would be as good as the Crab Cooker, there seemed something very wrong about coming to Twohey's to have comfort food and ordering a lobster. Elizabeth ordered the tuna melt and I ordered the pastrami melt. I had a bite of her sandwich; it was probably the first tuna I had tried in 20 years. When I was young I loved it but eventually got sick of it. Her sandwich was pretty good, and I remembered the taste like I had eaten it 20 minutes ago, not 20 years, but I don't think I'm ready to start eating tuna again.

My pastrami melt was just average. It wasn't an expensive sandwich but I still thought it was pretty skimpy on the meat, which was also very dry. I love mustard on a pastrami sandwich, though, so I added more than usual. I had been deciding between this melt and the fried shrimp plate, so I had asked the waitress her opinion. She emphatically recommended the melt, but I certainly wish I had tried the shrimp instead.

The french fries were fantastic. I don't know what kind they used, but probably something bought in huge bags from Restaurant Depot. Elizabeth remarked they were the same fries she had in her high school cafeteria. That was fine by me. When I was in high school, every Friday the cafeteria cooked fries and the junior class cooked burgers on outdoor grills for a Prom fundraiser, and it was always the highlight of the lunch week. (It might even have been the highlight of high school, now that I think about it.)

We both washed our meals down with fountain Cherry Coke. It was a very nice dinner. Not great by any means, but then again if it was, it wouldn't have been the classic diner experience.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Crab Cooker

The Crab Cooker is a restaurant I love so much that if it were the only restaurant I had ever been to, there would still be a reason to have a food blog.

I have been eating there as long as I can remember, starting when I was a little kid and my family used to stay down at the beach for long periods in the summer. Weekend nights usually involved dinner at the Crab Cooker and ice cream on Balboa Island. Back then the only thing I liked on the menu was the shrimp cocktail, but I loved the shrimp cocktail. My dinner would be about three of them and a dozen breadsticks from one of the plastic containers that sit on every table. Eventually I realized how good their lobster is and now that's all I eat there.

On a recent sunny weekend day I went down to Newport Beach with my parents, brother, and my friend Elizabeth. On the trip down, my dad told Elizabeth the story of Richard Nixon, when he was President, wanting to be seated for dinner without waiting in the (often very long) line, and being refused. Elizabeth laughed. I did not; this was approximately the 119th time I had heard this anecdote.

I almost always drink iced tea at the Crab Cooker. (I actually don't think I've ever ordered a beer there.) My dad got his usual bottle of Concannon Sauvignon Blanc. I did not have any with this meal, but I have had it before. I guess it's as good as any white wine I've ever had at a restaurant for the whopping price of $13.95 for the bottle.

For appetizers, we all got our usual orders: smoked albacore for my dad, clam chowder for my mom, and Elizabeth and I both got crab and shrimp cocktails. My brother did not have an appetizer. More on that later.

The smoked fish is fantastic. I've never been a big fan of smoked fish, because often the taste of smoke is so prominent that it ruins a good piece of fish. But that's never the case at the Crab Cooker. The clam chowder is good, although I'm not a fan of clams. (I am also one of the only people I know who prefer Manhattan clam chowder, which they serve here.) The crab and shrimp cocktails were perfect, as always. Sometime I even order another one after I eat my entree, although I did not this time.

My dad had the Alaskan King Crab. I don't think I've ever seen him order anything else. These crab legs are simply awesome looking. I have tried the crab before and it is great. My mom, Elizabeth and I all had lobster. The Crab Cooker takes lobster meat and threads it on a skewer then grills it over charcoal, rubbed with some paprika and basted with butter. It is one of the five best things I have ever eaten. I always get cole slaw for both of my sides, as it is some of my favorite anywhere. (I also usually take a quart home with me to eat throughout the week, although it never lasts me more than a couple days.)

My brother had rice. Only rice. When we arrived at the restaurant and were told it would be a 15 minute wait, he announced he was going across the street to get a slice of pizza. I expressed my astonishment that he couldn't wait 15 minutes to eat, to which he replied "I don't eat seafood anymore." At first I didn't believe him - he has always loved lobster - but while we sat there eating lobster, crab and shrimp, he just ate rice and drank water.

Overall it was a fantastic lunch. I asked my parents how long they had been eating there and they said "Probably since 1969." I hope that I can have 40 years of eating at the Crab Cooker.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Valentine's Day

I have never liked Valentine's Day. I hated the school parties when I was a kid and you had to give a valentine to everyone or no one. I hated when I was 15 and I had a card for a girl and as soon as I found her after school she was just pulling away with a car full of people (she had left school to get her license earlier that afternoon) and I was left standing there like a character in a cheesy 80s movie.
A few years ago the girl I was seeing chose to go to a concert with her friend on Valentine's Day instead of going out with me. That was bad enough, but even worse was the concert she went to: Phish, basically a more one-dimensional version of the Grateful Dead. (Now there's a sentence I never thought I'd write.)
A couple years later my brother and I flew into Dublin on Valentine's Day for a vacation. After a few pints of Guinness with dinner we went to bed early and were awoken around midnight with the sounds of drunken tourists and Irishmen in the pub downstairs serenading every woman who walked by. We were jet-lagged for days.
The next year the girl I was seeing (different from the Phish girl) decided to go to rugby practice instead of going out with me on Valentine's Day. This was annoying but actually turned into the only fun night I've ever had on February 14th, as I watched basketball at a pub with my friends Dave, Scott and Carla.
So the fact that Valentine's Day fell on a Saturday this year meant nothing to me. I had no plans to go out anywhere and deal with crowds or silly prix fixe menus. I ended up going down to Newport Beach and doing a couple errands. It was a gorgeous day and not very crowded anywhere. That afternoon, my brother and I moved some furniture for my friend Elizabeth. To thank me, she took me out for a few beers that evening. We were talking about what to do for dinner and had pretty much decided on leaving and making soup and salad when my buddy Phil bought us a couple more beers. We lingered over those for a while and decided to just get McDonald's.
We took that back to her new place and turned on the TV. One of my favorite movies of all time was on: The Princess Bride. We watched that and ate McDonald's. Easily the best Valentine's Day I have ever had.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Taco Lita

Almost every person I know who grew up in the San Gabriel Valley has some sort of relationship with Taco Lita. They are not the best tacos by any stretch of the imagination - I lived for a year just south of Olympic near Koreatown and without thinking too hard I can come up with a dozen better taco joints that were closer to me than Taco Lita is to the house I grew up in - but there is undeniably something magical about the place.
My friends who grew up here talk about it in the way our parents' generation talk about Sandy Koufax. Whenever I mention that I have eaten Taco Lita that day, my friend Tracie gets a smile on her face and she says "Mmm. The ultimate Mexican food for white people." My buddy Murph's reaction is less subtle but no less honest: he simply says "You bastard."
When I was young my order was always the same - 6 tacos, no lettuce, no tomatoes. When I was 11 my grandparents sold their house up on the hill and moved to a condo two blocks away from Taco Lita. This excited me much more than the jacuzzi or basketball hoop in the complex. In high school sometimes my dad would take me there after basketball practice. I would order between 6 and 9 tacos (again with no tomatoes; I think it wasn't until I was about 25 that I was willing to just pick the tomatoes off myself.)
As long as I can remember they have had a "Friday Special." When I was a kid it was 5 tacos for the price of 4. Tacos were each 95 cents back then. Now tacos are $1.55 each, and the special is 5 tacos for $6.95. It's not quite the same savings but it's a good deal.
Last Friday I stopped by my parents' house to use their computer, which is faster (and more secure) than mine, and they were both home. I went down to Taco Lita to get lunch for all of us. I ordered 15 tacos (my dad eats the leftovers all weekend long) and the only thing my mom has ever ordered there: a jumbo burrito, no beans, extra lettuce, easy meat. I had never really studied the burrito before but I was impressed with its size.
My tacos were the same as they have always been, which is to say delicious. There is nothing remarkable about the meat, although it is not terribly greasy, which is always a plus. The cheese and lettuce are the same as you get at any fast food joint. The thing that pulls it all together is the sauce. It is unquestionably the best hot sauce out of a packet that I have ever had.
It would be impossible for me to accurately state how many times I have eaten Taco Lita tacos, but it is likely that I have eaten there more than anywhere else. Maybe I have been to In-n-Out more, but probably not. And I do not ever see the day coming when I pass up an offer of Taco Lita tacos on a Friday.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Garlic & Basil Pizza

There are some absolutely exquisite flavor combinations: lobster and drawn butter. Milk and cookies. Spaghetti and meatballs. Bratwurst and beer. Baby seal and anything.
But I'm not sure if there is anything as good as roasted garlic and basil on a pizza. As I have quoted my hero T.E.L. above, it is an almost divine combination. (That's not T.E. Lawrence, by the way. A couple people have asked me that.)
I was in the mood for pizza but I wanted to watch the UCLA basketball game. And I won't ever get pizza delivered unless there is a very good reason. (The only reasons that come to mind are if I've had too much to drink or am too sick to go pick up the pizza.) I had a package of pizza dough in the fridge, though. I never used to like making pizza in the oven with fresh dough because it always cooked too unevenly. Even years ago when I had a pizza stone, it never seemed to work.
But a few weeks ago I got an email about an after-Christmas (er, "after-holiday") sale at Macy's. A pizza-cooking pan was marked down from $30 to less than $10. It looked good so I bought it. It is one of the best kitchen gadgets I have ever owned. The dough gets cooked on the bottom but not burnt. I have made two or three pizzas on the pan and they have been great.
I felt like making my standard roasted garlic and basil pizza. I tossed several cloves of garlic with some olive oil (more specifically, the garlic oil that was part of the set my parents gave me for Christmas, which made the whole house smell like roasted garlic - which is not a bad thing) and roasted them in a pan over low heat for about 15 minutes. I rolled out the pizza dough and let it sit on the pan for a few minutes and covered it with pizza sauce, the garlic, some tiny pieces of a sharp New Zealand cheddar, and slices of mozzarella cheese.
The mozzarella I had was from Trader Joe's and was pre-sliced. On the package were the words "Individually sliced for convenience." You know, so you don't have to go through the anguish of slicing a mozzarella log. Christ, we're lazy. (Years ago I was taking a cooking class at a bakery/cafe and the instructor was showing us how to toast spices for a pumpkin pie. She threw a bunch of spices in a dry frying pan and cooked them over a flame for about 30 seconds. A woman immediately asked if she could save time by purchasing pre-toasted spices.)
After cooking the pizza in the oven for about 15 minutes I added lots of very fresh basil. There is nothing better than fresh basil. Basil always smells good, even the dried flakes I've had in a plastic container in my cupboard for 5 years. But fresh basil has that anise scent and peppery, sweet flavor.
This was the best homemade pizza I have ever made.