Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.

I'm not a huge fan of chain restaurants and I usually detest theme restaurants, so you would think I hate Bubba Gump. But I actually like it. I admit there are several things about it that are absurd (particularly the way they ask you trivia questions about the movie, even when you tell them you have been there before) but almost everything I have ever had to eat there has been good. Shrimp is one of my favorite things to eat, if not my favorite, and, not surprisingly, they have many different kinds of shrimp.
I first went to Bubba Gump many years ago when I was in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. After an afternoon river cruise on the Mississippi, we stopped in for lunch because the restaurant had a nice balcony overlooking Decatur Street. I had a giant fruity drink served in a large plastic football with Forrest Gump's number on it (something I still have 9 years later that I put spare change in.) My meal that day was the shrimp po' boy sandwich. My friend Owen had something called the "bucket of boat trash," and he gave me a bite of his fried slipper lobster tail. It was, without question, the best thing I had ever eaten in my life up to that point. I wanted desperately to go back.
For the rest of the time in New Orleans I tried to get my friends to go back there, but they didn't want to eat at the same place twice, they wanted to explore the different restaurants of the city. (They were much smarter than I was.) The exception, being, of course, Lucky Dogs, which we all ate every night around 3 in the morning.
When I got back to Southern California I immediately looked up Bubba Gump on the internet. There were only about 5 restaurants then (now there are about 30, stretching as far as Bali and Malaysia.) The nearest one was the original, in Monterey, but one was scheduled to open in Long Beach by the fall of that year (2000.) This made me very happy and I couldn't wait to try that slipper lobster again.
Then, every few months, the opening date was pushed back. It became "early 2001" then "fall 2001" then "summer 2002," etc. In the middle of 2001 I went up to visit a friend of mine who was working for the California Department of Forestry just north of Monterey, and we visited Bubba Gump. The slipper lobster was every bit as good as I remembered. In the summer of 2002, my friend Tom and I were in New Orleans on my birthday and we went to Bubba Gump.
Finally, in February of 2004, the Long Beach location opened. My friend and I went there for lunch on the day it opened. The wait was extreme; I think we waited 2 and a half hours. But it was worth it. In 2005, my friend Min and I walked around the entire Mall of America in Minneapolis then ate at Bubba Gump. In 2006 I ate at the Santa Monica location on my birthday, and last summer Elizabeth and I ate at the Universal Citywalk location, where Gladstone's used to be.
Over the weekend we both felt like having some of their fried shrimp, and we wanted to be near the ocean, so we drove to Long Beach. It wasn't a particularly nice day, it was pretty overcast, but the restaurant was still very busy. Although at least half of the crowd were people who work there. (Actually, I should say "people who are employed there." Quite a few of them were not working, unless you consider dancing around, singing songs out loud, and openly hitting on each other to be working.)
We started with an order of popcorn shrimp. When I had this in Santa Monica it came served in a movie theater-style popcorn container, which I thought was funny, if a little too cute. These were just served on a plate. I did not care, though, as they were some of the best popcorn shrimp I have ever had. The remoulade they were served with was fantastic.
I ordered the shrimp po' boy. The shrimp in the sandwich were the exact same popcorn shrimp we had gotten for our appetizer. I don't know why I expected any differently. I didn't care. I could eat these shrimp every single day. I ate about half of it as a sandwich, then just took the shrimp out and ate them.
Elizabeth ordered the "Shrimper's Heaven": chilled peel-and -eat shrimp, coconut shrimp, Tempura shrimp and fried shrimp. Last summer at Citywalk she had this and it was great, although neither of us thought the tempura shrimp were anything special. So she ordered extra coconut shrimp in place of the tempura this time. They were all great. I'm not a huge fan of coconut shrimp, but these were some of the best I have ever had. Her shrimp came with fries and a very good cole slaw (and also the soy dipping sauce for the tempura shrimp, which did not go with any of the other shrimp.)
It may be another year or so before I eat at Bubba Gump again, but I'm sure I will. The last picture I posted is of a photograph hanging on the wall in Long Beach: the New Orleans Bubba Gump. It's been a little over 9 years since I first ate there, and almost 5 years since I have been to New Orleans. Hopefully that will be next Bubba Gump I eat at.

Monday, March 30, 2009

A Ploughman's Lunch (For Dinner)

Years ago my friend Erik and I were sitting around on the first weekend of fall without baseball, a mile high in the Rockies, trying to decide what to do. After dismissing several ideas, none of which I remember, he suggested making ourselves a ploughman's lunch and going on a tour of the Coors brewery in Golden, finishing with the two complimentary beers they give you in the hospitality lounge. This sounded like a fantastic idea, although I had to ask the meaning of ploughman's lunch. (With Erik this could have meant anything; it could have been a euphemism for getting drunk and stealing a snowplow.)

"It's just bread and cheese," he said, "like a man working in a field with a plow would pack for himself." Oh.

So we packed up a couple cheeses and a hunk of bread and headed down to Golden. It was a fantastic time. After lunch and our free beers we stopped at the Golden City Brewery, which, as near as I could tell, was a couple guys brewing beer out of their house. Regardless, they filled a growler for us for about 8 bucks and invited us to drink in their front yard. (Their brewery's slogan is "The 2nd Largest Brewery in Golden" - one of the most charming slogans I have seen anywhere in America.)

In the years since, I have frequently ordered a ploughman's lunch. The Horse Brass Pub in Portland, one of my favorite pubs in the West, has a ploughman's and an "English ploughman's" (I think the difference is that the English has more types of cheese.) A few years ago in Minneapolis, after a day of sailing on White Bear Lake with my friends Dave and Min - an August day as perfect as any I have ever had - we ate lunch at O'Donovan's Irish Pub and I ate the single best ploughman's of my life. In addition to the cheeses, it came with pickled sweet onions, homemade brown bread, and all the Colman's mustard I wanted (for no additional charge, unlike some places I could name.)

Tonight, Elizabeth and I had an idea of going to Fresh & Easy to buy groceries and perhaps going by In-n-Out on the way. But she got stuck at the office late so we abandoned that idea. Over the weekend she hosted a wedding shower and there were still plenty of cheeses in the fridge, so I got the idea of putting together a spread before she got home.

I sliced up a couple sweet onions and sauteed them in balsamic vinegar. I ripped off a few pieces of bread and sliced the rest, toasting them lightly in the oven. On top of a few of the pieces I added some goat cheese and others I added burrata with basil. I spread a few slices of Italian dry salami around the platter. Once I saw how pretty it looked I decided to take a picture. It tasted even better than it looks.

Flank Steak Potato Skins

For the first time ever, I did not correctly pick a single Final Four team. My bracket contains more pink than a baby girl's bedroom. It looks like someone smeared cotton candy across my entry. The upside to having such a horrible, embarrassing, turn-in-your-basketball-credibility-card-on-your-way-out-the-door entry, however, is that I can watch the games as a fan without reloading my ESPN bracket every few minutes to check my standing.
The other day I went over to my parents' house to watch some basketball with my dad. Watching basketball with him the last couple years is kind of like having Billy Packer in your living room. Every couple minutes he shouts out "Why isn't that travelling?" or "When I played that would have been a foul." (I do not point out that he when he played in high school, it was almost closer to the days when they used peach baskets for nets than it is to the current age.) It's been years since I've even tried to watch an NBA game with him. I don't know what his reaction would be to seeing Dwight Howard take five steps and change his pivot foot fourteen times on a single play.
With all the potato skins I have had recently at Dullahan's, I thought that would be a nice snack during the game. My favorite potato skins anywhere are the barbecue chicken potato skins at Wood Ranch. But I didn't have any chicken. I did, however, have part of a flank steak leftover from a couple nights earlier when I had made crispy beef, and I cooked that on the grill and sliced it nice and thin. I baked some potatoes in the oven, cut them apart, and scooped out some of the filling.
I placed the flank steak in the potatoes and added the only barbecue sauce appropriate for the occasion: Guinness Bulls Eye. I covered it up with some cheddar and jarlsberg cheese and baked them in the oven for about 15 minutes. They came out hot and crispy and I topped them with some cilantro. These were a great snack for watching basketball.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Los Olivos Grocery & Sunstone Winery

Napa Valley is the most famous wine region in America, probably deservedly so, but I have always preferred the Santa Ynez Valley. I have been going there since long before I drank wine and I have watched the region grow from a few small towns to a tourist destination. My cousins moved to Santa Maria 15 years ago, and the first time I visited them there was basically a gas station and a couple fruit stands off the highway. Now there are big shopping centers and tract houses.

Los Olivos, though, a few miles off 101, has not changed very much. (Although the owner of a winery in town told me that a dozen years ago there were only four wineries and now there are 16.) There is still a flag pole in the center of town, antique stores, and a general pace of life that does not seem to have accelerated in the same way that the larger towns on the coast have.

Recently some friends and I went up to the area to do some wine tasting. My friend Dave and his wife left before we did, and I suggested meeting in Los Olivos so they could walk around and wait for us. He had no idea where that was and I gave him directions. He was astonished by how cute the town is, and the fact that he never would have found it or thought something like that was there without my directions. (He also recognized several locations in town from the movie Sideways.)

Before going to our first winery we stopped by the Los Olivos Grocery. It's a classic country market with a nice collection of local wines, friendly people and a deli counter. The prices are all high but it obviously caters to people going wine tasting. We all got sandwiches and drove a few miles down the highway to Sunstone Winery.

Sunstone is simply one of the most beautiful places in California. The winery is a Provencal-style building and courtyard, with views overlooking the Santa Ynez River and mountains. I first visited Sunstone about two years ago with a group of friends on a wine tasting tour. It was to be our second-to-last stop of the day but we all fell in love with the place and decided to buy a couple extra bottles and drink there until it closed.

The sandwich I had purchased at the store was the "Tuscan Treasure": prosciutto, salami, provolone, lettuce, red onion, tomato, mayo and Italian dressing on a French roll. It was average in every possible way. Of course, eating it in the courtyard with my friends and a glass of red wine, it tasted like the best sandwich I had ever eaten. I was being completely manipulated by the situation. I did not care.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Fast Food Showdown: Jack in the Box Homestyle Ranch Chicken Club vs. McDonald's Southern Style Chicken Sandwich

I always get a kick out of fast food restaurants going the "folksy" route with their promotions. What makes Jack in the Box's chicken sandwich "homestyle?" Not once did my mom fry a chicken breast and put it on a sandwich for me. Is this a common experience that I missed out on?
At least McDonald's "southern style" makes sense: people in the South love fried chicken. My friend Tom and I once stopped at a gas station in Clarksdale, Mississippi at 9:15 in the morning. It was his turn to pay for gas and he went inside while I pumped. He was in there at least 25 minutes. People were coming out every few seconds, but not Tom. I was definitely getting a little apprehensive. Finally, he came out with a big grin.
"They have a breakfast special," he said. "You have to go check it out."
So I went in. $1.49 for a piece of fried chicken and tall can of Budweiser. There was only one line, so whether you were paying for gas or "breakfast," you had to wait. There were at least 40 people in line (most of them with the exact change; this was not their first time here.) And let me repeat: it was 9:15 in the morning. God, I love the South.
I went to Jack in the Box for lunch. There was a time when I loved JITB and would eat it frequently. I remember many post-basketball meals in high school when my dinner was a Jack's Spicy Chicken, large fries, and toasted ravioli bites. But the last few years I have only been there when there has been a new promotion that looks good, which isn't often.
The sandwich seemed substantial when they handed it to me. Of course, upon unwrapping it I realized this is just because there is half a head of lettuce and several slices of tomato piled on top of the chicken. The chicken is not impressive: a flimsy, very thin patty covered with a slice of limp bacon that I threw across the room with the disgust (or roid rage) of Roger Clemens throwing that bat head at Mike Piazza.
And the whole thing is just drowned in sauce. I don't particularly like ranch, I think it's a very boring flavor, and it was everywhere on this sandwich. Even though I was very hungry, I did not finish it. It was not good.
I did not have very high hopes for McDonald's. I have never been a huge fan of McDonald's, although I certainly have probably eaten there hundreds of times in my life. And I do admit their McNuggets are really good since they switched to all-white meat about 5 years ago and you no longer have to worry about biting into a piece of dark meat that Jaws (from The Spy Who Loved Me) would be unable to chew through.
The sandwich looks great when I open it - a much larger breast, a breading that actually is crisy, and served on a soft, buttered bun. And, most importantly, it is adorned with only two pickles. It isn't drowned in a boring sauce that adds nothing to the sandwich. I added some of McDonald's hot mustard - perhaps my favorite fast food condiment - and it tasted great.
The McDonald's sandwich was much better than Jack in the Box, but you know what? It's been years since I've had Chick fil-A, and I remember their chicken sandwich being better than either of these. Maybe that will be lunch tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

George & Sons Gourmet Deli (New York City)

Whenever the movie Groundhog Day comes on TV, I am sucked in for at least a few minutes. It doesn't matter if I'm running late for an appointment or the Lakers game is in overtime. I have no choice but to watch for a little bit. Other movies that compel me in the way are The Shawshank Redemption, L.A. Confidential, The Usual Suspects, Goodfellas, and The World's Fastest Indian. (Note: Die Hard does not fall into this category, as I always end up watching the whole movie when I come across that.)

And I wonder when watching Groundhog Day what day of my life I would most like to repeat. Several come to mind: a day I briefly mentioned recently where my brother and I started the day in Bushmills and ended it in Belfast. Or the first time I saw Florence when I was 17. Or a wine tasting trip on the central coast a couple summers ago where the daylight seemed to last 20 hours.

Any list of the top days of my life would include a day I had in New York the last time I was there. The previous night I had watched my beloved Angels beat the Yankees during my first ever trip to Yankee Stadium, and then eaten the single best slice of pizza I have ever had for dinner. The next morning I woke up and got bagels and Dunkin Donuts coffee. Dunkin Donuts coffee being one of those things in life that you hear so many people rave about, like the Grand Canyon, you assume it must be overrated. But then, like the Grand Canyon, you experience it and realize it is one of those rare things in life that truly lives up to the hype.

I decided to go sailing with my friend and her parents. We considered options for lunch and someone suggesting getting sandwiches from the deli around the corner and eating them on the boat. This sounded great and I volunteered to pick them up. The deli was fantastic. It was certainly my first time there but it was very familiar, the kind of place I've always hoped to walk into in Los Angeles but know that I probably won't. I bought sandwiches for everyone and a couple six-packs of Sierra Nevada Summerfest. I was pleased to see such a fine California beer for sale in a New York deli.

There had been a massive storm a couple days earlier and the sky was perfectly clear. The water was as calm as I have ever seen the Atlantic. We sailed around for hours and my friend's dad pointed out various landmarks and houses. A Fox blimp in the distance hovered over Yankee Stadium, covering the Saturday afternoon game for a national audience, a game the Angels would also win.

My sandwich was called the "Brooklyn Bridge": cracked pepper turkey, gouda cheese, romaine lettuce and Russian dressing. It was fantastic, like pretty much every sandwich I've had in New York. And Summerfest was the perfect beer to accompany it.
I wonder if I will ever go sailing again in New York. If I do, I will have this same meal.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Money Pot Shabu Shabu

It was my brother's birthday over the weekend, which meant we would be going out to eat at a restaurant not of our ethnicity. Over the years we have eaten at teppan steakhouses, Thai restaurants, Chinese, and even a Nepalese restaurant. (He just turned 29; on my 29th birthday a year and a half ago we had lunch at Chili's. True story.)

He selected the Money Pot in Arcadia, a shabu-shabu restaurant. I love Japanese cuisine, but mostly sushi and teppanyaki. I have never been a big fan of shabu-shabu. It always seems to cost a fortune, and I'm usually still hungry when the meal is done. (Although making it at home is always fun, if only because it means I get to shop at Mitsuwa Marketplace in San Gabriel, perhaps my second favorite market in California, behind Nielsen Bros. in Carmel.)

I had been to Money Pot once years ago but I did not remember anything about it, other than the fact that it was cheaper than the Boiling Pot on Lake Avenue, perhaps the most overpriced restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley. (My one trip there reminded me of the scene in L.A. Story when Steve Martin is forced to have his financial statement reviewed by the bank in order to make reservations at the newest trendy restaurant in town, where the portions turned out to be minuscule: "I'm done already and I don't remember eating".)

Since there were five of us, we sat at the bar. This seems nonsensical, but the tables only seat four - with only two burners to share - so the bar seemed our only option. The first thing we got was a salad (even though the first thing I ordered was a Coke; that curiously did not come out until after they'd brought lots of food.) The salad was lettuce, fried wontons strips, a couple raisins, and a dressing that I suppose is a standard Japanese miso dressing but really tasted like Thousand Island. In other words, the salad was great, if a bit simple.

I started with some fried dumplings. I asked the waitress if the fried dumplings were gyoza and she gave me a blank look. It turned out they were, although there was nothing remarkable about them at all (they were the exact same dumplings as Dullahan's,) save for the sauce, which was very good. (My brother requested a small dish of some chili paste, a dollop of which I added to the sauce for some extra kick.)

They have three variations of broth available: house, spicy, and flowered. As best I could tell, the house broth was water, the spicy has chili oil added, and the flowered has flowers in it. My parents and my brother all ordered the house, Elizabeth ordered the mild spicy, and I ordered the medium spicy. Accompanying the broths were the traditional ramekans of soy sauce (with scallions and citrus,) and a sesame sauce. I took one tiny taste of the sesame sauce and rejected it. I'm not crazy about the taste of sesame but I do like it as a component. This tasted like pure sesame paste.

Each person received a generous plate of vegetables for the broth: cabbage, enoki mushrooms, carrots, broccoli, fish cakes, and a couple kinds of noodles. I have had shabu-shabu before where maybe two pieces of cabbage are included. I ordered the prime rib. It was $19.95. My parents urged me to get the house beef, which was 6 dollars more, because they said it was much better quality. I stuck with the prime rib, and Elizabeth ordered the house beef so we could see if there was a difference.

The first picture of meat is Elizabeth's, the second is mine. There was definitely more fat on hers and it looked like a higher-quality meat, but after doing a comparison tasting, there was no difference. I suppose if I ate them raw or if they were thicker, it would be noticeable, but after cooking them briefly in a spicy sauce, I couldn't tell. It certainly is not worth an extra 6 dollars for a higher-quality meat.

My pot was very spicy, and I loved it. At one point I took a piece of my beef and cooked it in Elizabeth's broth to taste the difference in spice ("Keep your meat out of my money pot," she said, one of the five funniest things I have ever been told.) Her broth was definitely less spicy than mine, and tasted better with the vegetables than my broth did. But I liked my spicy broth more with the meat.

This was a very good meal, and the first time at a shabu-shabu restaurant that I have ever been full. My dad picked up the tab so I did not see how much it was, but I am sure it was much more than the meal was worth. I do not think I would ever come here for anything other than a special occasion. Still, this was more memorable than my 29th birthday lunch at Chili's.

Friday, March 20, 2009


Almost a decade ago I eagerly anticipated turning 21 so that I could go to all the bars in Old Pasadena that I had heard about for years. At the top of that list, I hate to say now, was McMurphy's. I'd heard countless stories from older friends about reunions at McMurphy's; It sounded like the fin-de-siecle Moulin Rouge.
The first time I ever went there, shortly after I turned 21, was one of the great letdowns of my life. They charged a cover to get in, the beer was served in plastic cups, and the crowd was a bizarre mashup of frat boys and thugs. I hated the place passionately, although I admit I still went from time to time at the insistance of my female friends, who curiously always wanted to go there, while at the same time referring to it as "McRoofies."
The last time I remember being there late was the night the Lakers had won the 2001 championship. I witnessed a fight on the patio that would have made Josey Wales dive for cover. I sat off to the side at a table next to a creepy old guy with several cameras around his neck who kept asking me if the Mike's Hard Lemonade girls were there yet because he was "going to make them famous." This was not the Moulin Rouge.
Other than a couple afternoons on an annual Labor Day Weekend pub crawl, I never returned to McMuphy's. A couple months ago my brother told me about some of his friends who were working at a new place where McMurphy's used to be. The first time I walked in I could tell it was much better: flatscreen TVs everywhere, it didn't smell like puke, and the people working there were actually friendly.
Dullahan's has one of the best happy hours around; half-price pints and half-price appetizers (excluding seafood.) I've already written about my four favorite days of the year (Thanksgiving, 4th of July, my birthday, Super Bowl Sunday.) Yesterday was my 5th: the first day of March Madness. In my opinion there is nothing more exciting in all of sports. Not the Super Bowl, World Cup, or New Year's Day bowl games (or what's left of them.) So I watched plenty of basketball at Dullahan's with friends and had plenty of food. In fact, I just got an email from my buddy Patrick asking if anyone was going out this afternoon to watch the USC-Boston College game. I hadn't planned to, but looking at the food again....
The egg rolls might be my favorite appetizer there - filled with chicken, pork, shrimp and vegetables. $4 at happy hour, although I would still pay full price for these.
My friend Murph usually gets an order of chicken tenders, and I always take at least one. Years ago I lived in Boulder, Colorado, and would spend a couple nights a week in the Pearl Street Pub. Downstairs they had a fry kitchen and made the best chicken tenders I have ever tasted. These come pretty damn close. I believe they are $3.50 at happy hour. Another item that is worth full price.
My friend Les got the chicken taquitos once. These are the only item I have had at Dullahan's that I did not like. There isn't much inside them.
The gyoza dumplings are good but not great. The menu claims they are steamed, but these were obviously fried. The sauce they are served with is very good, but the dumplings are no different than Trader Joe's sells. That's not a bad thing, it's just not anything special.
The mini cheeseburgers are always a good call. The beef is usually overcooked, but everything else is fresh. Besides, they're sliders, they're not supposed to be a Double-Double.
My friend Mick's standard order is potato skins. I always take one, although he tries to get me to take more than that so he doesn't feel guilty about eating all of them. These may not be quite as good as the barbecue chicken potato skins at Wood Ranch, but they are definitely the best bar potato skins I have ever had.
My friend Jeff had an order of buffalo wings but I did not taste any. I'm not a fan of wings. (Food served with bones creeps me out.) They did smell great, though.
This was my friend Tracie's order of nachos. Very impressive, and I believe $3 at happy hour. I would like to try these with chicken sometime.

Dullahan's probably isn't a place I am going to hang out at late in the evening, but for happy hour, or watching March Madness on one of their big TVs, it is fantastic.